(On Cable TV, October 2018) Despite Hollywood’s supposedly left-leaning tendencies, it can be counted upon to deliver, year after year, a reliable stream of pro-war statements wrapped in the American flag, family values and unquestioned imperialism. The latest entry in the subgenre is 12 Strong, which heads back to the woolly post-9/11 days when the United States boldly invaded Afghanistan half a world away. Such initial force projection isn’t easy, and so the first boots on the ground belong to Special Forces, leading the charge that more conventional military troops would later follow. Afghanistan is not an easy country to invade, and much of 12 Strong portrays the adaptations of the American soldiers as the CIA sets up factions against each other. Our protagonists eventually take up horses as the only workable transportation in the country, leading to a somewhat surreal scene featuring a 21st-century cavalry charge. Surprisingly enough, 12 Strong ends with everyone making it back home against overwhelming odds, marking a rather pleasant change of pace given the number of movies focusing on recent American military disasters with few survivors. This is not a particularly deep film—there is practically not introspection here about the wisdom of invading other countries, nor about the looming quagmire that would sweep up American (and Canadian!) troops over there for almost two decades. The dramatic arcs of the film play on familiar threads: family, safety, and bonds between men under combat. Only the cavalry aspect of the film distinguishes it from so many other similar efforts. Still, the film is a decently entertaining watch under Nicolai Fuglsig’s direction. It does help that it features terrific actors: in between Chris Hemsworth, Michael Shannon, Michael Pena and William Fichner, the cast is a bit too good for the limited material, but they do give it a dramatic heft. It’s too long for its own good, and even then doesn’t quite manage to flesh out its characterization. But it does come alive in battle scenes, and documents an underappreciated facet of the Afghan invasion. At times, 12 Strong feels like a throwback to the war-is-an-adventure school of filmmaking, but that’s a nice change of pace from the overly ponderous war movies of late.
(On Cable TV, November 2017) Why does it seem so hard for Hollywood to make an R-rated action comedy these days? I may be selectively misremembering things, but it seems to me that every halfway promising action comedy screws things up by throwing far too much crassness, gore and unfunny material into the mix, until even the good bits are drowned out by the bad ones. The case in point here is CHiPS, another unsuccessful attempt to bring an old TV show to the big screen. To be fair, there are a few things to like in the result. Michael Peña is fantastic in a super-organized horndog role, stealing scenes as he reliably does. Co-star Dax Shepard (who also co-wrote and directed) is far less successful, playing an abrasive screw-up that annoys more than he amuses. While the plot (revolving around uncovering crooked cops) has some heft to it, it often becomes far too violent (witness: graphic suicide-by-throwing-oneself-out-of-a-helicopter, graphic decapitation, graphic amputation of a lead character’s limbs) to remain fun as a comedy. While some mature content is fine, CHiPS often overplays its hand into something repellent in what isn’t supposed to be a gross-out comedy. Fortunately, the stunts and action scenes are generally solid despite being hyperactive—knowing Shepard’s fondness for cars (as seen in Hit and Run), it’s easy to understand why he’d take on CHiPS as an almost-passion project. There are a few known faces (David Koechner, Maya Rudolph and, of course, Kristen Bell as Shepard’s wife) in minor roles. The sunny Los Angeles setting is used effectively, and doesn’t revisit overly familiar places. Alas, the script does feel lazy, especially once it takes up running gags that aren’t funny the first time and then proceed to grow increasingly exasperating through repetition. The result is not particularly good, although it does have some better moments thanks to Peña and the action scenes. Still, especially as compared to not-so-distant examples of the form such as 21 Jump Street, it’s disappointing.
(On Cable TV, August 2017) It’s hard to accurately gauge whether an actor is smart from their screen performances alone. The best ones can play characters completely unlike themselves and we’d never know. But I have a growing suspicion that you can tell a lot about an actor by the roles they choose to play. Now, I won’t make any accusations about Will Smith (whom I still rather like a lot), but looking at a filmography that includes Seven Pounds and After Earth and now Collateral Beauty, I have to ask—is he even reading those scripts? Replace After Earth by the more respectable The Pursuit of Happiness and you would have an instant trilogy of manipulative faux-inspiring dramas that are so melodramatic as to court unintentional hilarity. So it is that Collateral Beauty is so ill-conceived from the start (something about a grieving man writing to Death, Time and Love, and then scheming co-workers hiring actors to play Death, Time and Love) that the first half hour plays as a farce despite itself, ridiculous while insisting otherwise. Things really don’t improve much during the last act of the film, in which two bigger revelations are dropped upon the audience, unfortunately earning nothing more than two big collective shrugs. Collateral Beauty is convinced that it has something profound and poignant to say, but it has forgotten to check whether audiences agree. I suspect that reactions will vary widely—as for myself, I’ve seen too many of those movies to be impressed. Now, I won’t make too much of Smith’s talents for script-picking considering that the cast also includes reliable performers such as Hellen Mirren, Edward Norton, Michael Peña and (to a lesser extent) Kiera Knightley. They may all have gone insane, but then again maybe I’m out to lunch on this particular film. Either way, I can only report that the result feels like a falsely profound tearjerker attempt. The premise seems so flawed that I’m not sure anything could have been done to rescue the result from unintended laughter. The twists won’t matter so much when it’s established early on that the movie stems from an inane place.
(Video on Demand, February 2013) Writer/director David Ayer has basically worked his entire career so far in the “LAPD thriller” genre, but the surprise with End of Watch is how the film seems determined to re-invent the police drama, in presentation if not necessarily in content. Seen from the street-level perspective of two LAPD officers, End of Watch deliberately creates its cinema-vérité atmosphere through the use of enough handheld camera footage as so not to distract when the entire film turns out shot more conventionally. This appeal to realism is reinforced by actions that go against the grain of how movie policemen usually behave, along with dialogue that sounds improvised and a lack of detail regarding the big picture of the film’s plot. The episodic plotting gets ludicrously flashy at times (our heroes get involved with enough drug stashes, imperilled kids, human trafficking rings, car chases and shootouts to qualify for the evening news several times over) but the direction of the film keeps everything grounded. It helps that in-between the action sequences, End of Watch spends time a lot of time with its characters and so ends up focusing on their day-to-day reality. Jake Gyllenhaal isn’t initially convincing as a tough police officer, but he gets more credible as the film advances. Still, it’s Micahel Peña who steals the show in a typically compelling performance. By End of Watch’s conclusion, it becomes clear that this is (unlike much of Ayer’s work-to-date) a film that celebrates the work of ordinary policemen: there are no corrupt cops here, no half-gangbangers, no superheroes: just two guys with badges, trying to do their jobs and make the world safer for their kids.
(In theaters, August 2011) As a criminal comedy, there are a lot of similarities between this and Pineapple Express. Not only does Danny McBride has a prominent role in the two movies, but both are criminal comedies starring underperforming slackers in the lead roles. Here, a pizza delivery guy in his twenties is kidnapped by two other slackers, put in an explosive vest and told he’s got no other choice by go rob a bank. What follows is a quick 80-minutes tale of criminal stupidity and plucky heroes. Forget about social commentary, wholesome family entertainment or mind-expanding revelations: It’s pure comic character work set within a thriller template. Despite the film’s similarities to the Brian Douglas Wells criminal case, 30 Minutes or Less doesn’t claim to be based on a true story, and fortunately doesn’t try to remind aware audiences of the real-life drama. Jesse Eisenberg is a bit more tolerable than you’d expect as the lead, but it’s really Aziz Ansari and Michael Peña who steal the show in enjoyable supporting performance. The script is peppered by high-energy moments –including a car chase that plays with the conventions of the genre and a quick ending that’s over almost before we know it. The humour to too crude to be fully enjoyable, the violence is too gory to be forgettable and the rhythm is inconsistent, but 30 Minutes or Less still manages to score a few hits, and the tone is just controlled enough to avoid the exasperating immaturity of, say, Pineapple Express. While it’s a step down for Zombieland director Ruben Fleisher, it’s nonetheless an acceptable summertime crime comedy.