Despite many isolated moments of grandeur, the overlong 25th James Bond movie and purported final installment of Daniel Craig’s tenure in the role, peaks early and struggles in patches to find its pace. There are several “first act” action sequences so effective in Cary Joji Fukunaga’s No Time To Die (B) that a viewer may wonder if the film will be able to maintain its momentum (the answer is not quite). Front-loaded highlights include an eerie origin story involving a villain and love interest and a spectacular 360 vehicular ballet to buttress against baddies in an Italian piazza. There’s also tremendous possibility in a plot involving a bioweapon full of lethal nanobots coded to an individual’s specific DNA. Plus, a trio of intriguing female characters including Lashana Lynch, Ana de Armas and Léa Seydoux play well opposite Craig’s anguished protagonist. So it’s a bit of a missed opportunity amidst gorgeously photographed and well staged episodes that the enterprise doesn’t pop even more. Partly to blame is a half-baked villain in Rami Malek who, with clipped speech cadence and vague dastardly plans to turn personal trauma into global vengeance, fails to deliver on his creepy promise. And mid-way, there’s a series of bloated plot points which seem perfunctory at best. There’s also scant subtext under the posh proceedings, even though the action generally packs a wallop. For series stalwarts, though, the film pays fan service to nearly all beloved tropes from island lairs to inventive spy-jinks; and in many ways it’s as Bondian as a Bond film can be. Fukunaga leaves a stylish and singular directorial stamp on the franchise just as Craig has made the brooding hero’s role indelibly his own. Overall it’s a sturdy entry into the series and a fitting tribute to the actor who has shaken and stirred the series for the past decade and a half.
This movie crouches with creativity until it starts draggin’. For its first two acts, Destin Daniel Cretton’s Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (B) grabs the brash brass with a swagger worthy of a first-ever Marvel movie; but by the end of the final reel, the labored adventure limps like the 25th Marvel film installment that it is. The film successfully grounds its characters in intriguing emotional arcs, even if some veteran actors are better suited at the drama than the newcomers. Acclaimed Hong Kong movie star Tony Leung skillfully portrays the patriarch of a dysfunctional family and is the catalyst for a story that transports viewers from San Francisco to Macau in a quest for generational redemption and supernatural accessories. Simu Liu is a stunner of a physical actor in the title role, but his emoting in dramatic sequences is hit or miss, as is that of Meng’er Zhang who plays his stoic sister. Faring much better are Awkwafina in true command of her comic relief love interest sidekick role (leading man Liu is far more natural in moments of levity opposite her) and Michelle Yeoh who ups her “aunty” with dramatic and martial arts choreography skills. The film is an origin story in reverse, and the opening U.S. sequences with casual comedy and an outstanding extended fight aboard a runaway bus eclipse some otherwise deft world building to come in the Asian environment of underground fight clubs, shape-shifting bamboo mazes and enchanted villages with a menagerie of CGI beasts. Other than a glorious battle aboard skyscraper scaffolding, the events abroad do not measure up to the story and tone captured stateside. The film is chock full of interesting ideas but ultimately overstuffed in its endless parade of finales. It’s mostly highly entertaining even if the front is more of a kick than the remaining thrust.
You might find yourself with resting glitch face after all the stimulation of Shawn Levy’s video game comedy fantasy Free Guy (B), a film that actually gets better and richer as it progresses and reveals superpowers in some of the most supporting players in society. A bit of a riff or revival of The Truman Show set in an open-world video game, this film places Ryan Reynolds at the center as a “non-player character” who learns he can start making his own choices. There’s interplay among the denizens of the game, plus a plot about a diabolical dudebro executive (a hilarious Taika Waititi) trying to manipulate the gameplay to line his pockets and a duo of developers (Jodie Comer and Joe Keery, both earnest) helping steer the situation to a better resolution. The passiveness of the main character is a problem for the first half of the movie, despite Reynolds’ considerable charms and penchant for physical comedy. But the film gains a bit of soulfulness at the half-way point and proceeds to surprise and delight. If you can bear the clang and clamor, you’ll find Levy and company have something to say about community, about taming toxic masculinity and about choosing your own adventure. It’s a bit better than expected, with funny asides, clever effects and a timely lesson about the power of world building.
This reboot of a cult comic book ensemble film is distinguished by a parade of sensational casting and visual choices. James Gunn’s The Suicide Squad (A-) is a splattery spectacular madcap adventure with rousing action, vivid effects, ribald humor and idiosyncratic characters. Although its violence is not for the faint of heart, Gunn’s film is tonally and thematically one of the most winning DC Comics adaptations yet. The story revolves around the government sending the world’s most dangerous supervillains including Bloodsport (Idris Elba), Peacemaker (John Cena) Ratcatcher (Daniela Melchior) and Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) to a remote, enemy-infused island for a search-and-destroy mission related to a science conspiracy. Interlaced into the propulsive plot is a menagerie of exquisite weaponry, human/animal hybrids, throwaway gags, witty asides and just about any treasures Gunn can bury in the cartoonish carnage. It’s a rollicking ride with Robbie again a delightful standout and Melchior a winning find as a pied piper of both CGI rodents and some surprisingly emotional moments. Add in an anthropomorphic shark, stunning stunts and an epic showdown finale, and many will agree Gunn has assembled one helluva Squad.
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.