Who better to deliver both the deliberate and the deadpan than director David Fincher, who finds his match in phenomenal actor Michael Fassbender as the titular assassin of The Killer (B+)? A master of meticulous procedurals, Fincher places his latest antihero at the helm of tidy chapters in successive global cities with a droll voice-over narrating the nuances of what it means to be a hitman. After an intriguing inciting incident, the main man must maneuver through an episodic series of entertaining gauntlets to untangle a violent labyrinth. There’s a consistent tone of the unexpected in both the action and the humor, and although there’s not a lot of straight-up dialogue, there’s a wonderful sequence opposite the splendid Tilda Swinton that crystallizes the film’s themes. The protagonist’s creative techniques are met with marvelous camera work and music. If the noirish film suffers from any fault, it’s a little too cold and consistent (imagine that from Fincher!) but it’s never tedious or boring. In fact this gritty, graceful feature film is as efficient as a bullet in making its mark.
The cure for superhero fatigue? Cut tie-ins to extraneous characters and multiverses of quantum physics straining credulity, focus on an outsider of humble roots, tell an origin story we haven’t seen before and raise the stakes for a showdown involving characters we enjoy. Basically do what Ángel Manuel Soto’s does in Blue Beetle (B+)! Buoyed by Cobra Kai star Xolo Maridueña as the movie’s charismatic protagonist, Soto tells the story of a working class Mexican-American family in the fictional Palmera City facing a supernatural shock to the system that jettisons them into life as DC Universe warriors. The film is consistently engaging with escalating threats and joyful action abounding. The hero’s family customs and worldview are central to the film’s successful audience engagement, with George Lopez and Belissa Escobedo as comic relief highlights in his close-knit Latino family. Only Susan Sarandon misses the mark with an underdeveloped role as a ruthless baddie. The adventure overstays its welcome a bit, but novel and nostalgic flourishes keep the film fairly fresh. Bobby Krlic’s symphonic score sets a manic mood, and the special effects are competent enough to populate a believable world. Families will enjoy seeing a multigenerational group of likable characters rise to the occasion.
A B movie with an A message, Alejandro Monteverde’s Sound of Freedom chronicles an unconventional mission by real-life hero Tim Ballard, a U.S. government agent turned mercenary played by Jim Caviezel, who courageously endeavors to rescue children from sex traffickers in Colombia. The writing and acting could have used substantial polishing as much of the film feels like a prolonged PSA (down to a barcode at the end to pay it forward). But as an eye-opening expose of a major societal issue, it’s insightful and at times riveting. Sometimes this undercover thriller feels like it wants to attain the gravitas of a Donnie Brasco or The Departed but often gets sidelined with the craft of a late-season 21 Jump Street episode. There are genuine pacing issues especially in the final reel, after one of the most ingenious acts of entrapment has already taken place and somewhat bursts the momentum. The kid actors are almost roundly better than the adults as the movie relies a little too heavily on obvious tropes, overly sensationalized sentimentality and a moment or two of Rambo meets Taken ham-fisted histrionics. A pencil-mustached pedophile and a supportive wife character played by Mira Sorvino with fewer than three lines didn’t help add to the nuance. However, the film’s message is both faith-based and universal, that God’s children are not for sale. The power of storytelling is crystallized in a meta message from the lead actor in that much-ballyhooed mid-credits narrative and could have been streamlined throughout with judicious edits. But the cause to celebrate is that this movie is inspiring action to tackle a truly dark topic and promoting a global conversation. The director handles sensitive issues delicately and motivates viewers to action.
There’s a nearly thirty minute series of cutaways in his overlong new stunt spectacular in which Tom Cruise is seen winding through mountains on a motorcycle towards his inevitable jump from a mountain onto a train; if only that level of coordination had been reserved for story and script! Christopher McQuarrie’s Mission Impossible: Dead Reckoning – Part One (B) is a sturdy entry in the cat and mouse action series with exciting sequences and set pieces, the addition of an intriguing new character in the form of actress Hayley Atwell and a timely menace – an artificial intelligence platform. Clunky exposition doesn’t get any better when the dialogue is shared like a hot potato among everyone gathered in a scene, but a viewer would get drunk if imbibing a shot every time the mansplaining by committee motif gets trotted out by the screenwriters. The whole enterprise feels like warmed-over James Bond without many flashes of romantic intrigue or humor, but the practical effects are rendered with grit and grace. It’s the speeding locomotive finale (not just the prolonged jump onto it) that cinches the deal this is a stunt show best seen on a big screen. Simon Pegg is consistently amusing, and Pom Klementieff is an enjoyable physical threat in this packed ensemble. Esai Morales isn’t given much to do as the big bad, but the story’s overall series of threats feel real throughout. This is part one of a two-part story and works admirably as a standalone film as well.
This is the Never Say Never Again of the Indy franchise with a curious sense not everything is up to peak creativity, and perhaps the filmmakers should have heeded the final three words of that creed. James Mangold’s Indiana Jones and the Dial of Destiny (C+), chronicling the raiders of a steampunk timepiece with rumored time travel powers, showcases the famed professor/archaeologist with both a murky de-aged CGI uncanny valley of the kings effect as well as an unflattering portrait of the character’s creaky old age circa 1969. At no point is Harrison Ford’s performance credible: the young version is imbued with an old voice and recycled dead-eyed Polar expressions, and what’s on the senior menu doesn’t look capable of throwing those frequent punches at aging Nazis. The filmmakers are constantly futzing with their own rattly dials, as episodic spurts of action are often punctuated with sequences of insipid boredom, even in exotic ports of call ranging from Morocco to Sicily. Three prominent women are featured in the cast, and as Indy’s greedy goddaughter Phoebe Waller-Bridge is the one of those whose character doesn’t connect much at all; in fact, she makes “Willie Scott” look better and better in retrospect. Mads Mikkelsen doesn’t get to vamp much as the villain either. It takes well into the mid point of the film to establish some of the emotional resonance and playfulness needed to propel any interest. Some final reel wild swings (thankfully not with monkeys this time around) actually worked because at least it felt like something novel was finally happening. Some of the practical effects including chases through twisty African marketplaces and advancing through tomb passageways are better than expected; the cinematography and production design sometimes hit their marks. Mangold does well enough to crack that whip Steven Spielberg brandished for four previous installments in an uphill battle to credibly close the series. It’s far from an embarrassment but doesn’t fully fire on all cylinders, and the elegiac elements involved in themes of recapturing youthful glory feel almost accidental. The humor and high adventure of the series’ first three films is simply not matched here, making it ever so clear it’s time to hang up that hat.
A speed trap of half-baked time travel comedy and junky action sequences surrounding a phantom zone menace, Andrés Muschietti’s The Flash (C) runs around in more circles than a Lazy Susan dishing out a smorgasbord of DC multiverse morsels with limited entertainment value. At the center of this carousel of excess are two performances by Ezra Miller, and a little of this eccentric actor goes a long way. Reversing time to save his mom’s life, the titular sprinting action hero opens up portals of paradox that produce a doubting doppelgänger plus an encounter with an underused original cinematic Batman Michael Keaton, who along with Sasha Calle as Supergirl must battle Michael Shannon’s General Zod, whose character is given virtually nothing to do. Despite some funny opening moments involving slow cooking and an aerial ballet of super saving, the schtick gets old fast, and the retread plot lines give way to a bitter after-haste taste. The visual effects are uniformly second-rate, and the two quipping Barrys’ vaudeville act collapses and careens toward a desperate parade of cameos in the final reel. There are more guest stars and CGI characters than a caravan to The Love Boat by way of The Polar Express could accommodate. Muschietti eschews solemnity for all-out stoner comedy, and perhaps, for some, even a glimmer of fun in the generally grim DC Universe can feel like finding renewed life in the fast lane.
This franchise is officially drifting. More than a dozen prominent movie stars seem to be steering their own disjointed performances within the cluttered contours of a slight plot with a diminishing return of nifty car chases in Louis Letterier’s limping actioner Fast X (C). Vin Diesel has basically devolved into complete caricature as hero Dom, the former criminal and professional street racer, who tries to keep his loved ones safe as a supervillain endeavors to entrap his friends. Luckily that antagonist is played with foppish delight by Jason Mamoa, chewing the scenery in blouses, bell bottoms and chunky jewelry across multiple continents as a psychotic drug lord hell bent on revenge against Dom and his crew. Letterier can’t quite crack the code of new things to do with fast cars and set pieces, and the stunts don’t hold a candle to the likes of the recent John Wick: Chapter 4. We simply get bombs rolling through the streets of Rome like boulders nipping at the heels of Indiana Jones and CGI vehicles dropped from planes and down the slopes of dams somehow continuing to function with nary a flat tire. It’s just as far-fetched as past entries in the series, of course, but it’s just not all that interesting this time around. Many sequences border on parody including Dom’s plaintive glances at photos of people he’s encountered over the years framed on the walls of homes, and they all just look like glossy publicity stills. The dad jokes and macho quips fall rather flat without the stakes being better defined. In addition to a bonkers Mamoa, the only other actors who perform some scenes with relish are the funny John Cena and Alan Ritchson. Actresses Michelle Rodriguez and Charlize Theron are relegated to fight like damsels on Dynasty without benefit of shoulder pads. Most of the movie feels less like a fully fleshed out story than a big budget exercise in passing the time.
Writer/director James Gunn completes his trilogy of space-age strays, agile action, wily wisecracks and nifty needle drops with a wondrous and emotionally resonant finale in Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 (A-). Chris Pratt plumbs deeper emotions fighting the loss of his great romance in this go-round as the ensemble endeavors to save their injured and intubated collaborator Rocket Raccoon by infiltrating a series of treacherous lairs. This leaves a game Dave Bautista, Karen Gillian and Pom Klementieff to carry much of the franchise’s incredible comedy, and they get some wonderful zingers. The film is grimmer and more violent than past outings as it tells Rocket’s onerous origin story and terror at the hands of a truly diabolical villain memorably played by Chukwudi Iwuji. The world building and creature effects are first-rate, and the movie builds to a resonant final act. This epic rescues Marvel from its doldrums, but given its auteur has left to shepherd the DC universe, more greatness lies in store for the latter.
Plumbers mysteriously vanishing into an unknown universe isn’t just the scenario homeowners find themselves in when their toilets are backed up; it’s also the premise dogging video game siblings Mario and Luigi for damn near four decades. Aaron Horvath and Michael Jelenic’s The Super Mario Bros. Movie (B-) animates Brooklyn’s cunning craftsmen with Chris Pratt spryly voicing heroic Mario and Charlie Day endearingly embodying his timid fraternal twin brother Luigi. Partnered with feisty fighter Princess Peach (Anya Taylor-Joy), Mario must save his brother from the clutches of Bowser (Jack Black) who threatens to topple an idyllic Mushroom Kingdom the guys discover in an underground pipe lair. The movie is full bounce off the walls energy with kaleidoscopic colors and clever details dotting every horizon. But the uninspired script often throws a wrench in the good time with lackluster color by number plot points and groaner catch phrases. The highlight is Black’s Bowser chewing the scenery with relish and even tickling the ivories. He’s clearly in on the joke. Ultimately it’s hard not to be swept up in the parkour and pinball wizardry of the action sequences, and it’s largely good clean fun for the family. Despite some rather obvious needle drops on the soundtrack, Brian Tyler composes rousing music inspired by classic game play. The nostalgia factor is strong, and as Donkey Kong barrel battles and kart races on rainbows commence for the film’s mercifully brisk run time, you simply surrender and take the plunge.
Jonás Cuarón’s Chupa (C+) wastes no time jumping right into the action; and while there may not be much here to captivate someone above the age of ten, there’s still plenty of fun to be had with this Netflix original. Cuarón manages to turn a piece of Mexican folklore into a cute creature feature fallowing Alex (Evan Whitten), a kid from the U.S. who visits his grandfather (Demián Bichir) in Mexico for spring break. Alex initially doesn’t show much interest in his familial heritage; but along his journey, through discovering his father and grandfather were luchadores, and by making friends with a cuddly Chupacabra cub, our protagonist is launched into a whimsical adventure. The hero endeavors to dramatically dodge a researcher (Christian Slater) wanting to capture his new friend while also braving personal trials related to connecting with Latino culture. The lead creature is certainly the main attraction, stealing attention from anyone else on screen. Cuarón succeeds in making Chupa believable, leveraging a canine stand-in to allow a natural connection to form between the younger actors and the mythical animal. While this movie might not be on anyone’s re-watch list, its runtime makes it bearable, resulting in an easy film to throw on with the kids.
You’re unlikely to find a more action-packed extravaganza than Chad Stahelski’s epic neo-noir thriller John Wick: Chapter 4 (A-). For fans of opulent martial arts, fetishized weaponry, graceful ultraviolence and grand canvas action storytelling told with fluidity and dexterity, it doesn’t get much better than this. The absurdity of Keanu Reeves’ central character’s indestructibility plays like a fever dream across multiple continents and unfolds amidst gloriously elaborate set pieces as the skilled assassin endeavors to exact revenge against those who have left him for dead. The film’s mythology of a criminal underworld with specific rituals and rules keeps the over-the-top antics strangely grounded, despite some unbelievable survivals from multi-story falls from buildings. The film provides a juicy new villain as part of the High Table, the council governing the criminal underworld, in the form of a diabolical Bill Skarsgård; he’s a complete delight, especially brooding over a city built in miniature where he has plotted out his fiendish finale. Donnie Yen is badass as blind henchman Caine, who utilizes inventive motion detectors to dispatch of his prey in an early sequence. Having shepherded this series throughout its run, Stahelski orchestrates the story and stunts with the cadence of a master; and across NYC, Morocco, Japan, Berlin and Paris, he devises and stages some of the most breathtaking set pieces assembled for detailed hand to hand combat. His signature highly-choreographed, long single action takes are all here in abundance, with extremely memorable stunt sequences in the traffic circle of the Arch De Triomphe, in a fictional nightclub surrounded by waterfall fixtures, in a Japanese art museum where you know none of that glass is going to survive either and most notoriously on the steps up to the Sacré-Cœur basilica, which prove to be their own impenetrable hazard. Hiroyuki Sanada, Ian McShane, Shamier Anderson and Clancy Brown provide strong support in the ensemble. Reeves’ words are mercifully limited, but he says so much with his body and actions; it’s such a wonderfully lived-in character. This is an impeccably made film of its genre and highly recommended for action fans. It takes its flame thrower to nearly all imitators. By all means, see this movie in a theatre.
Sometimes a comic book movie can simply be a fun adventure, and the latest DC Universe installment, David F. Sandberg’s Shazam! Fury of the Gods (B) is just that, a rollicking escape. The funny Zachary Levi leads a Philadelphia posse of scrappy superheroes harboring a collective secret: They are actually teenage foster children who can transform into caped crusaders in a snap. The story doesn’t really plumb the full depth of the family trauma and psychological implications inherent in the premise. but it plunges head-first into a mythological action barnburner with the teens fighting titans. The moviemakers disguise their earnestness with wry, throwaway humor especially via teen actor Jack Dylan Grazer, but they squander some chances to dial up the camp value of Helen Mirren and Lucy Liu as daughters of Atlas. There are long passages with pretty elaborate special effects, evocative of the original Ghostbusters with mixes of laughs and thrills packed into showdowns on expansive streets. Opportunities about to root for the underdogs. The film is largely family friendly and keeps enough plates spinning to nourish viewers for its duration.