(On Cable TV, September 2012) I’m constantly amazed at the number of decent films that fly under my radar. I had years where I saw more than 70 movies in theaters, and will probably see that many even this year when I’m deliberately avoiding theaters to stay at home watching on-demand movies; I keep up with the trade news and have a fairly reliable mental database of whose in what; I like Jason Statham a lot… why is it that I completely missed seeing Chaos when it came out in 2005? I can’t explain it… but I can enjoy it, because even on the small screen, Chaos is a decent middle-of-the-road crime thriller. Featuring Jason Statham, Ryan Philippe and (briefly) Wesley Snipes in one of his last roles before his 2006-2009 eclipse, Chaos has the advantage of a strong opening and a decent middle section before turning repetitive and overlong in its final act. There’s playfulness in the way the opening crams a film’s worth of plot in a credit sequence, and then in the way is plays along with traditional genre elements during its first half. Chaos’ biggest problem is that it doesn’t quite know how to deliver a third act –although, fortunately, it manages a good final scene as a kicker. Statham is as reliable as always in a solid policeman role, whereas Philippe plays a familiar but ill-fitting young-wunderkind protagonist. (Snipes, meanwhile, shown up for a while and disappears except when the film needs a scare or two.) Still, there’s a lot to like about some of the film’s thematic content: As a big fan of James Gleick’s Chaos, I was overjoyed to see the non-fiction science book get a prominent role in a crime thriller. Still, I think that Chaos will work better for viewers who are receptive to crime-thriller genre elements and the ways they can be blended, recombined and subverted. It may not be a film for the ages, but it’s good enough at what it does, and it confirms that few actors can be as effective action heroes as Statham.
(In theatres, May 2010) Incompetent secret agents are fast approaching cliché after Johnny English, Get Smart, OSS-117 and many others, so MacGruber has a few other issues to worry about aside from its thin inspiration from Saturday Night Live sketches. Sadly, what we get is a coarse, violent and generally unpleasant satire on the action-movie genre. It’s not exactly terrible (it certainly earns its share of laughs), but it could have been quite a bit better. MacGruber, played by SNL’s Will Forte, is not just incompetent but blustery, crass and with few redeemable qualities: He’s a full-time annoyance and sadly he’s in pretty much the entire movie. Bland co-star Ryan Philippe does a bit better, although Kristen Wiig is so conventional in her portrayal of the obligatory love interest that I gladly would have seen her switch roles with the always-cute Maya Rudolph. But character flaws aren’t the biggest of MacGruber’s problems, which betrays its SNL origins by padding 30 minutes’ worth of jokes into an hour and a half of lazy pacing, pauses for laughs and diminishing-returns call-backs to gags that weren’t funny in the first place. (“I’ll do anything to get back on the case?” Funny for ten seconds, not forty. Celery? Never funny.) The direction is hampered by a low budget, which the disjoint editing seems to make even worse. Fortunately, there is about one dumb laugh every ten minutes (how dumb? Well, I was unexpectedly amused by subtitles on “You’re loco, man”), which still places MacGruber a cut above many other comedies out there. It’s not a disaster, but the sense of missed opportunities here feels overwhelming.