The Fast and the Furious films aren’t known for their adherence to physics, but it would be prudent indeed if science could improve the wooden performances of Vin Diesel and John Cena as unlikely rival brothers in the treacly backstory bogging down Justin Lin’s F9 The Fast Saga (C+). A stunt show in search of a through line, this sequel rarely gets lift-off except when foreboding land mines and traffic-jamming electromagnets are involved. It’s never a good sign in an action movie when the arrival of Dame Helen Mirren heralds an “ok, now it’s getting good,” but aside from another sassy bit by Charlize Theron, the ensemble film is severely lacking in character. Thank goodness for the witty trio of Chris “Ludacris” Bridges, Nathalie Emmanuel and Tyrese Gibson who ground even the most Moonraker-esque lunacy with fun-filled quips and quandaries. The final act chase is truly spectacular even if a bit familiar, and the aforementioned magnets are the gimmick that keeps on giving. But aside from very well staged action sequences, this entry into the saga drifts quite resolutely into the mediocre lane.
Fast becoming the king of the Neo-Western, Taylor Sheridan, who wrote high-minded screenplays ranging from Sicario to Hell or High Water, makes his directorial debut with a rather routine but entertaining thriller elevated by the work of its leading lady and a pair of actors playing ruthless villains. Sheridan’s wilderness adventure Those Who Wish Me Dead (B-) introduces two converging storylines, the redemption arch of a brassy Montana smokejumper played by Angelina Jolie recovering from a tragedy and the crime thriller chase film featuring a child (Finn Little) who observes his father’s murder and is stalked Witness-style by two assassins, cunningly played by Nicholas Hoult and Aidan Gillen. The film is a throwback to ’90s action films with its propulsive parade of set pieces and showdowns, even amidst some lackluster forest fire special effects and a plot that doesn’t tread all that much new ground. Jolie is effective as she bonds with the boy and brandishes her acumen and adrenaline in some knockout moments, but it’s Hoult and Gillen who milk the most out of their sequences as the veritable renegade Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of an ensemble that also includes an effective Jon Bernthal and Medina Senghore. It’s a rollicking ride with taut action aplenty.
Have you ever had two friends with pretty dominant character traits manage to wear out their welcome? The culmination of Legendary’s MonsterVerse including Godzilla (2014),Kong: Skull Island(2017) and Godzilla: King of the Monsters(2019), Adam Wingard’s Godzilla vs. Kong (B-) pits a pair of titans in an epic showdown, and the result is less than the sum of its parts. Sure, this serving of Tokusatsu delivers its requisite wallop with spectacular effects and compelling global set pieces, but it runs out of imagination pretty sharply. In this installment, Kong clashes with Godzilla as humans lure the primate into the “Hollow Earth” to retrieve an energy source to stop the fire-breathing lizard monster’s mysterious rampages. Even bringing in “a third,” the robotic doppelgänger Mechagodzilla, fails to spice up this relationship. Brian Tyree Henry and Millie Bobby Brown are some of the few humans in the ensemble who get to display even a hint of nuance, and displays of simian sign language provide some brief moments of up-close connection. The scope, the score and epic battle sequences win here, which may just be enough for this kind of movie. It’s ultimately a kaiju-normous action film that delivers on its premise but is unlikely to provide viewers much more than a momentary ape escape.
Folks, move along; there’s nothing to see here! John Lee Hancock’s extremely average homicide thriller The Little Things (C-) pairs Denzel Washington and Rami Malek as investigators of a string of murders, and a beguiling Jared Leto is getting some inexplicable awards buzz for playing a strange guy who may be connected to the killings. Far from his top-shelf performances, Washington does get to milk some anguish and obsession in some moody moments as he chews up the scenery of the urban atmosphere. Malek is both miscast and underwritten as it’s rather unclear what he brings to the table in the search for the serial killer. Leto limps and uses a strange look and affectation to create a memorable supporting performance, but he’s not really much of a character either. The film overall cribs from much better neo-noirs, and if it gets any comparisons to Se7en, it should subtract a few numerals. After a poorly paced procedural, the payoff isn’t really all that interesting either. These three acclaimed actors deserved a much bigger and better thing.
An alternately frenetic and mellow dharma about the haves and have nots of India, Ramin Bahrani’s The White Tiger (B+) follows a mesmerizing Adarsh Gourav as a clever servant driver in his endeavor to out-caste his lowly station. In his breakthrough lead role, Gourav charismatically carries viewers into a journey through religion, rags to riches and even revenge. Early on in this panoramic genre hopper, the film postulates that the only way out of poverty is via crime or politics; and the subsequent juxtaposition of slum dogs in ascent and lap dogs in downward spiral is a whirling wonder to behold. Rajkummer Rao and Priyanka Chopra Jonas are effective foils as the upper class couple considered the masters over the protagonist’s fate. One fateful bon-pyre of the vanities sparks a veritable Vaidikas of incredible surprises. Bahrani impressively nails the execution in this downright Dickensian literary adaptation filled with both destitute denizens and opulent oppressors. The emotional camerawork and pulsating hip hop score effectively follow the complex story archs through a triumph of tonal shifts. A breakout lead, deeply flawed characters, biting comedy, sharp social commentary and gripping moments of intimacy and action help propel this film into a dark date with destiny.
Talk about a throwback: raiders of a lost artifact are romancing an ancient stone capable of granting its owner worldwide domination, but despite a few footloose flashdances of frivolous fun and a flurry of war games capable of shifting the def con, this comic strip bonanzarama devolves quickly into an aggressively tone-shifting eclectic boogaloo. Patty Jenkins follows up her original solemn Wonder Woman with an off-the-rails sequel, WW84 (C), set in the excess of the eighties, and it’s largely a lasso of lunacy. The DC Universe settles in D.C. as the protagonist quietly works in the museum antiquity business while side hustling with crime fighting on The Mall and at the mall. Despite her gorgeousness and swell stunts, Gal Gadot looks like she has a migraine for most of the movie as her plucky naiveté transforms into full warrior mode. She’s still the best thing about the film and adds pomp, pageantry, grace and grandeur to even the most throwaway lines. Kristen Wiig fares poorly as an underwritten friend turned rival (it’s like her SNL “Penelope” character says, “I can be a CGI character too, and mine is a fierce cat!”). Pedro Pascal is also adrift as a villainous megalomaniac whose intentions vary scene by scene. It’s like you get two villains for the effect of one. Only Chris Pine in an extended cameo retains a bit of dignity. Nearly everything earthbound in the story including a prolonged wish fulfillment conceit is a relative dud; but when characters take flight, including in the famous invisible jet, the film mildly soars. Action sequences, more infrequent than expected, largely deliver on the storyboard. But most of this anticipated blockbuster is a clunky cacophony, and even nifty nostalgia can’t save it.
One flew over the vulture’s nest of scavenged characters, themes and effects in the long shelved X-Men universe spinoff exhumed for theatrical release during uncertain times, Josh Boone’s The New Mutants (C-). In a clinical facility, a quintet of teens are observed by Alice Braga’s one-woman headmaster/clinician and must battle metaphorical and literal demons while coming of age and discovering disturbing superpowers. Some characters get some standout moments with Maisie Williams and Anya-Taylor Joy getting the best showpiece sequences. Protagonist Blu Hunt and the male characters barely register. What feels perfectly perfunctory and average for much of its running time actually gets quite silly for a while before introducing a beastly spiritual cousin to Gozer of Ghostbusters at its denouement. Tonally discordant and thematically jumbled, this film made in 2017 is a self-fulfilling prophecy of its own lack of urgency.
For those who believe “there can be only one” in immortals movies (thanks, Highlander!), a new super-heroic quintet has arrived to demonstrate that long-living mercenaries come in multiples. These world-weary soldiers of particular fortune with powers including regenerative healing abilities get spectacular spotlight in Gina Prince-Bythewood’s The Old Guard (B+), a successful new action/fantasy film chronicling an unlikely revenge mission. Charlize Theron is in glorious badass mode with KiKi Layne in fine form as her paramilitary protégé. The sterling ensemble including Mattias Schoenaerts and Chiwetel Ejiofor is all up for the task. The fight choreography is superb in a series of riveting action sequences. Surprising is how moving the quieter scenes are depicting the deep bonds between these destiny-bound misfits including suffering throughout the ages. The film teaches some tough lessons of faith and fortitude. The graphic novel-inspired storyline and contemporary Dustin O’Halloran/Hauschka score are propulsive. Credit Prince-Bythewood for commandeering an energetic globetrotting enterprise with hope for a new action franchise springing eternal.
Worse than modern Disney flops Tomorrowland, BFG and A Wrinkle in Time combined, Kenneth Branagh’s Ireland-set Artemis Fowl (F) is an unmitigated disaster, a hopeful tentpole blockbuster and young adult franchise starter completely devoid of magic and wonder. Banished to the phantom zone of a Disney+ debut after COVID-19 shuffled the studio’s theatrical releases, this misbegotten fantasy is a moribund and completely incoherent bore. At its center is a listless titular performance of a boy genius by newcomer Ferdia Shaw, who is all dressed up with nowhere to go and presumably was instructed to play the part as a boring adult tax accountant. When the boy’s father (Colin Farrell) goes missing, the tween must battle with a variety of elves, fairies and goblins, grapple with unpleasant performances by the likes of Judi Dench and Josh Gad and parade through undistinguished low stakes landscapes. At an hour and a half running time with exposition in narration form for its duration, the film teases what happened before and after but forgets to furnish much of a coherent plot within. Even while free to Disney+ subscribers, it should be skipped.
Issa Rae and Kumail Nanjiani have such spectacular comic and romantic chemistry as the central couple in Michael Showalter’s The Lovebirds (B-) that they deserve a better movie next time they collaborate. It’s clear even in the cold open introductory credits that this brilliant duo possesses charisma in spades with hilarious banter and priceless reactions. The plot is super obligatory as the twosome is unintentionally embroiled in a murder mystery. As their quest to clear their names takes them from one extreme circumstance to the next, they must figure out how they, and their relationship, can survive the night. Along the way, they crib from diverse sources ranging from Wayne’s World to Eyes Wide Shut with reckless abandon. Each preposterous sequence is improved by Rae and Nanjiani’s daft delivery. It’s a breezy fun time, a comedy/action confection with modest levels of sophistication hiding in the routine madness. This comic couple is definitely one to watch.
Cathy Yan’s bubblegum-hued crime saga Birds of Prey (and the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn) (B-) is another origin story in the DC Extended Universe and follows Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn as she joins forces with Jurnee Smollett-Bell’s Black Canary and several vigilantes to fight Gotham City crime lord Black Mask, played by Ewan McGregor. The film is chock-full of throwaway gags, gallows humor and cartoonish violence with a tinge of sisterhood power, but it’s rarely as sharp as it needs to be. Yan scrambles the enterprise with flashbacks, animation and witty title cards, but often it feels like a magic trick to disguise a threadbare story. Although McGregor is miscast and not menacing enough, the women in the film are marvelous. Robbie is wonderful as the devil-may-care antihero, and Bell is a sonic sensation. The stunts and wall-to-wall action should please fans of the genre; it reaches mightily but doesn’t quite take the flight it promises.
J.J. Abrams returns to the helm for the final entry of the legendary Jedi v Sith sequel cycle, Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker (B), a populist pretzel twisting space and time to conclude a myriad of loose plot points while pouring on salty nostalgia in generous doses. This space opera saga finale works best when its trio of next-generation heroes Rey, Finn and Poe embark on snappy adventures together, less in a murky subplot involving a villainous blast from the past and even less in its introduction of new characters to an overstuffed narrative. Abrams scores a propulsive and often thrilling first hour and gets the humor right with fan-pleasing quips and gags but finds himself a bit tangled when trying to shoehorn the late Carrie Fisher’s unused footage from past movies into cogent current conversations and striving to make sense of some lapses in lineage for its dueling family trees. Visually, the film is splendid, with a few epic tricks up its sleeves including a pretty Bollywood planet and a deft lightsaber battle on the high seas. There are some clever treasure quests, stunning revelations and a few generally poignant moments, sometimes bookended by an occasionally soggy and somewhat schizophrenic salmagundi. In trying to please his fanboy/fangirl constituencies, Abrams is all too likely to replace originality with more origins. The film is indeed haunted by ghosts, some of the high-spirited variety and others fossilized or zombified with creaky bones of a lumbering legacy. It’s a testament to the acting chops of Daisy Ridley as protagonist Rey and Adam Driver as her frenemy Ren that they acquit themselves admirably amidst some mumbo jumbo logic. The over four-decade series has likely outlasted its ability to surprise, but its mirth and myth making factory still thrills. This frenzied film hyperdrives to a generally smooth landing.