Review: ‘Copshop’ (2021), starring Gerard Butler and Frank Grillo

September 8, 2021

by Carla Hay

Frank Grillo (center) in “Copshop” (Photo courtesy of Open Road Films/Briarcliff Entertainment)

“Copshop” (2021)

Directed by Joe Carnahan

Culture Representation: Taking place in the fictional city of Gun Creek, Nevada, the action film “Copshop” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans and Latinos) representing the working-class, middle-class and the criminal underground.

Culture Clash: A con artist, who has landed in jail for assaulting a cop, finds out that more than one person in the jail is out to kill him because of his past alliance with a murdered district attorney.

Culture Audience: “Copshop” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of stars Gerard Butler and Frank Grillo and like seeing a movie with a badly conceived story and a lot of unrealistic violence.

Gerard Butler in “Copshop” (Photo courtesy of Open Road Films/Briarcliff Entertainment)

“Copshop” can’t decide if it wants to be a gritty action flick or a wacky crime comedy. The result is that this creatively bankrupt film is an incoherent mess. The dialogue is awful, the acting is mediocre, and it’s just a time-wasting excuse to be a “shoot ’em up” flick with a nonsensical plot. Directed by Joe Carnahan, who co-wrote the “Copshop” screenplay with Kurt McLeod, “Copshop” is filled with lazy tropes that a lot of audiences dislike about mindless, violent movies.

“Copshop” over-relies on these tiresome clichés: Characters sustain major injuries that would put them in a hospital, but then these same characters miraculously move around less than an hour later as if they’ve got nothing but bruises. People draw guns on each other with the intent to kill, but then they spend a ridiculous amount of time giving dumb speeches or trading insults instead of shooting. And worst of all: “Copshop” constantly plays tricks on viewers about who’s really dead and who’s really alive.

All of that might be excused if the action scenes were imaginative, if the storylines were exciting and/or if the characters’ personalities were appealing. But most of the principal characters in “Cop Shop” are hollow and forgettable. The fight scenes are monotonous and nothing that fans of action flicks haven’t already seen in much better movies.

“Copshop” takes place in the fictional Nevada city of Gun Creek, which is in the middle of a desert. (“Copshop” was actually filmed in New Mexico and Georgia.) Gun Creek is a fairly small city, which is why there are only about six or seven cops on duty at the Gun Creek Police Department’s headquarters, where most of the action takes place when the police department goes under siege one night. You know a movie is bad when guns and bombs are going off in a police department, and yet the cops are too stupid to try to call for help immediately.

Nothing about this police department and its jail looks authentic. Before the chaos breaks out, everything is too neat, too quiet and too clean in the cops’ office space and in the jail. In other words, everything looks like a movie set. This phoniness just lowers the quality of this already lowbrow movie.

And the cinematography went overboard in trying to make the jail look “edgy,” because it’s too dark inside. And yet the jail cells are spotless. Jail cells aren’t supposed to look like a sleek underground nightclub. This movie is such a bad joke.

The gist of the moronic story is that Theodore “Teddy” Morretto (played by Frank Grillo) is a con artist who’s on the run from an assassin. In one part of the movie, Teddy describes himself as some kind of power broker who likes to introduce powerful people to each other and help fix their problems. He doesn’t like to call himself a “fixer” though. He likes to call himself a “manufacturer.”

One of the people whom Teddy had past dealings with was an attorney general named Fenton (played by Dez), who has been murdered. This crime has made big news in the area. Because of information that Teddy knows, he figures that he’s next on the hit list of whoever wanted Fenton dead.

In case it wasn’t clear that someone wants Teddy to be killed, a flashback scene shows that a bomb was set in Teddy’s car, it exploded, and he barely escaped with his life. His clothes caught on fire, but then later in the story, there’s no mention of him having the kind of burn injuries that he would’ve gotten from the types of flames spread on his body. It’s just sloppy screenwriting on display.

Teddy has come up with a plan to hide out for a while. He deliberately gets himself arrested because he thinks he’ll be “safer” in jail. Teddy disrupts a nighttime wedding reception at a casino, where a brawl is happening outdoors. When the police show up, Teddy assaults one of the cops and literally pleads for a cop to use a taser on him.

The cop who obliges his request is rookie Valerie Young (played by Alexis Louder), who is measured and sarcastic in her interactions with people. On the same night that Teddy is hauled into the police station and put in a jail cell, an anonymous drunk man who has no identification is also arrested and put in the jail cell across from Teddy. The other man got arrested because he crashed his car into a highway fence, right in front of two patrol officers who were parked nearby.

It turns out (and this isn’t spoiler information) that this other arrestee is really an assassin named Bob Viddick (played by Gerard Butler), who is somewhat of a legend among the criminals in Nevada. Somehow, Bob found out that Teddy was in the police department’s jail, and he got himself arrested because he’s been assigned to murder Teddy. And just so you know how incompetent this police department is, Bob has smuggled a gun into the jail cell.

The rest of “Copshop” is literally a bunch of shootouts, as the police station goes under siege when another assassin shows up. He’s a lunatic gangster named Anthony Lamb (played by Toby Huss), and he wants to kill Teddy, Bob and everyone else in the building, except for a corrupt cop who has access to a large haul of confiscated drugs that Anthony wants. This criminal cop is named Huber (played by Ryan O’Nan), and he owes Anthony a lot of money.

Huber is one of the cops in charge of the inventory/evidence at the police department. Huber plans to steal several bricks of what looks like cocaine, in order to pay off his debts to Anthony. It’s a dumb plan because this police department is so small that it would be easy to figure out who took the drug stash.

Huber already looks suspicious, because he’s been sweaty and acting nervous all night. Here’s an example of the movie’s terrible dialogue. When a fellow cop notices that Huber has been acting furtive and preoccupied with the inventory room, he asks Huber, “What’s got you so curious?” Huber replies, “Curiosity.”

Rookie cop Valerie is telegraphed early on as the one who will be the movie’s big hero. But she’s not the sharpest tool in the shed. When she looks up Teddy’s criminal record, she’s astonished to see that he’s been arrested 22 times but no charges were ever filed against him. “How does that happen?” she asks a fellow cop in the office. Can you say “confidential informant,” Valerie?

Despite being saddled with a horrible script, Louder’s wisecracking depiction of Valerie is one of the few things that can be considered close to a highlight of “Copshop.” The other is the nutty performance of Huss as mobster Anthony, who is a scene stealer. How unhinged is Anthony? He starts singing in the middle of the mayhem. “Copshop” uses Curtis Mayfield’s 1972 hit “Freddie’s Dead” has a recurring song in more than one scene.

However, there’s nothing about any of the characters in the movie that can be considered outstanding enough for audiences to be clamoring for a sequel. Butler and Grillo are two of the producers of “Copshop,” so they’re partially to blame for how this embarrassing schlock turned out, but Carnahan (also a “Copshop” producer) is the one who’s chiefly responsible. It’s not the first time they’ve done these types of unimpressive B-movies, and it won’t be the last time.

Open Road Films and Briarcliff Entertainment will release “Copshop” in U.S. cinemas on September 17, 2021. The movie had a one-night-only sneak preview in U.S. cinemas on September 8, 2021.

Review: ‘Take Back,’ starring Mickey Rourke, Michael Jai White, James Russo and Gillian White

September 5, 2021

by Carla Hay

Michael Jai White and Gillian White in “Take Back” (Photo courtesy of Shout! Studios)

Take Back”

Directed by Christian Sesma

Culture Representation: Taking place in Coachella Valley, California, the action film “Take Back” features a cast of African American and white characters (with a few Latinos and Asians) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: An attorney’s past comes back to haunt her as she and her husband become involved in vigilante justice for a sex trafficking ring that has kidnapped their daughter. 

Culture Audience: “Take Back” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching low-quality and ridiculous action flicks.

Mickey Rourke in “Take Back” (Photo courtesy of Shout! Studios)

“Take Back” is a good way to describe the “I want a refund” regretful response of viewers if they have the misfortune of buying or renting this atrocious action flick. You have to wonder what this movie’s producers were thinking to waste money on such an obvious junkpile flop that’s embarrassing to everyone involved. “Take Back” is yet another female exploitation film that tries to look nobler than it really us, just because there’s a vigilante mother who’s one of the main characters. There’s absolutely nothing worth admiring about this movie, unless you think it’s admirable to see Mickey Rourke as a gangster who adores his pet Pomeranians. A sleepwalker has more energy than the “I just don’t care anymore” performance that Rourke has in this awful dreck.

Directed by Christian Sesma and written by Zach Zerries, “Take Back” fails on almost every level of filmmaking. The acting is terrible, the plot and dialogue are beyond stupid, and even the action scenes in this movie are pathetic. Everything is sloppily filmed. About the only thing that the movie has going for it is it that has a few cast members with name recognition, such as Rourke and Michael Jai White, who both have been making trashy, low-budget movies for the past several years.

“Take Back” (which takes place in the California’s Coachella Valley) opens with the kidnapping of two drunk women in their 20s who stumble out of a bar, flirt with each other, and then get abducted by men driving by in a van. The men are part of a sex trafficking ring led by a slothful thug named Patrick (played by Rourke), who spends half of his screen time lying on a bed and stroking his Pomeranians. It’s later revealed that Patrick’s real name is Jack, and he has a past connection to one of the movie’s protagonists.

The kidnapped women, one of whom is named Veronica Sanders (played by Emily Unnasch), are taken to a locked and dirty shed in a remote part of the valley, where they are held captive with about five or six other young and pretty women. The goons who are their captors are shown physically harassing and attacking the women in more than one scene. Patrick occasionally checks in on the kidnapping victims, but he lets his henchmen do most of the work in guarding the terrified women. Patrick uses the words “the merchandise” to describe these women.

Meanwhile, married couple Brian (played by Michael Jai White) and Zara (played by Gillian White) are spending their seventh wedding anniversary by boxing each other in a gym for fun. Brian is a martial arts instructor, while Zara is a successful real estate attorney who works for a private law firm. (Michael Jai White and Gillian White are married in real life.)

Zara is Brian’s second wife and the stepmother to Brian’s bright and obedient daughter Audrey (played by Priscilla Walker), who’s about 15 or 16 years old. Audrey’s mother is Brian’s ex-wife, who is not seen in the movie, but there’s a minor subplot where the ex-wife dies of cancer. Michael Jai White is the only cast member in this train wreck movie who seems to make an effort to have believable acting, but it’s still comes out looking corny. As for Gillian White’s acting, let’s just say that “Take Back” is proof that nepotism in getting a movie role can actually make a movie worse.

Now that viewers know that Zara and Brian have fighting skills, Zara is next seen in a small coffee shop, where she puts some of those skills to use when she gets involved in a harrowing incident. A very angry and mentally unstable man has come into the coffee shop, where he begins yelling at the barista (played by Lucia Romero), who seems to be the only employee in the shop. Apparently, the barista was in a relationship with this furious ex, and now he’s threatening her with gun.

And just like that, Zara goes into action by disarming this creep and holding him until he can get arrested. Another customer in the shop has videorecorded the whole incident on his phone. The video soon goes viral and gets more than 1 million views in a short period of time. A woman from Zara’s past has seen this video and is about to pay an unwanted visit to Zara at Zara’s law office.

The woman is named Nancy (played by Jessica Uberuaga), who looks like she’s more comfortable hanging out at a truck stop than at a law firm. She wears garish makeup, a revealing tank top and ripped denim shorts. And she’s often seen vaping. What are the odds that she knows Patrick the pimp?

Nancy also seems to know Zara too. When she shows up at Zara’s office without an appointment, she insists on talking to Zara. Nancy tells Zara that she saw Zara’s viral video and says she knows that Zara’s real name is Kim. Zara insists to Nancy that her name isn’t Kim. Zara also claims that she’s never seen or met Nancy before, but Nancy says that Zara is lying.

Zara tells Nancy to leave the office, by yelling, “Leave me the fuck alone!” But you just know that Zara and Nancy are going to see each other again. This unexpected visit seems to have unnerved Zara, which means that she’s got a big secret that will eventually be revealed. The secret is not surprising at all, considering this movie is as subtle as a bulldozer in a junkyard, which is kind of like how you could describe the abominable acting in this film.

Less than 48 hours after Zara disarmed the crazed gunman in the coffee shop, she goes through another violent experience. While she’s home alone one day, a thug named Cisneros (played by David Will No) breaks into the house with the intent to kill her. Zara is able to fight off her attacker in the living room, and she kills him with a samurai sword that conveniently happens to be in the room. Before this attack, Cisneros was seen talking on a phone to a boss who ordered this home invasion. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out who this boss is.

All this trauma in a short period of time has left Zara with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). The PTSD comes out in an incident where Zara agreed to help Brian with potential new students at a boxing demonstration at a dojo. However, Zara has a flashback freakout and starts pummeling Brian too hard during the demonstration, and then she abruptly runs out of the building.

This PTSD puts a strain on Kara and Brian’s marriage. And then Brian’s ex-wife dies of cancer. And just so more bad things can happen to this family, Brian and Audrey are driving in Brian’s car when they get carjacked. Brian is tasered while Audrey is kidnapped. What are the odds that Audrey was kidnapped by the sex-trafficking ring that’s run by Patrick?

The kidnapping is reported to law enforcement, but Zara and Brian think that the cops won’t be of much help. And so Zara and Brian take the law into their own hands and go on a mission to find and rescue Audrey themselves. You know exactly how this is all going to end.

There are three characters connected to law enforcement who play a role in this predictable story. Anthony DeMarco (played by Nick Vallelonga) is a former detective who knows a lot about Patrick because he was tasked with investigating Patrick years ago. Detective Frank Schmidt (played by James Russo) and his cop partner Detective Perez (played by Jay Montalvo) are investigating the recent kidnappings.

Another supporting character is Jerry Walker (played by Chris Browning), one of Zara’s clients. Jerry owns a vast park called Lake Cahuilla that he inherited from his father. The scenes were actually filmed at Lake Cahuilla Veterans Regional Park, a 71-acre property owned by California’s Riverside County and located near the Santa Rosa Mountains. Jerry’s property ends up being a part of this movie’s very flimsy plot. “Take Back” is time-wasting trash that should be avoided at all costs, unless you’re a masochist who is compelled to see all of Rourke’s horrible movies in the final years of his career.

Shout! Studios released “Take Back” in select U.S. cinemas, digital and VOD on June 18, 2021.

Review: ‘Raging Fire,’ starring Donnie Yen and Nicholas Tse

September 1, 2021

by Carla Hay

Donnie Yen in “Raging Fire” (Photo courtesy of Well Go USA)

“Raging Fire”

Directed by Benny Chan

Cantonese with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Hong Kong, the action flick “Raging Fire” features an all-Asian cast of characters representing the middle-class, wealthy and criminal underground.

Culture Clash: An upstanding cop battles against a former protégé, who leads a gang that works for a corrupt and wealthy businessman. 

Culture Audience: “Raging Fire” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of Donnie Yen, the late filmmaker Benny Chan and Korean action flicks that have predictable plots.

Nicholas Tse in “Raging Fire” (Photo courtesy of Well Go USA)

“Raging Fire” delivers everything you might expect of a formulaic action flick, which means that it delivers nothing surprising or innovative at all. This is strictly a movie for people who just want to see a lot of choreographed violence and don’t care much about having an intriguing story where viewers are challenged to solve mysteries along with the main characters. And that’s a disappointment, considering the protagonist is a police officer who’s been given the task of finding and capturing an elusive, murderous gang and the corrupt businessman who’s hired these thugs.

“Raging Fire” is the last movie directed by Benny Chan, who died of nasopharyngeal cancer in 2020, at the age of 58. It’s not a terrible movie, but it’s certainly not his best. And at 126 minutes, “Raging Fire” is a little too long, considering there’s not much of a plot and the movie has a little too much repetition of similar scenarios. It’s the same old story that dozens of other movies have already had: an ethical cop leader leads a team to take down a group of criminals. And there’s a wealthy person who wants to take over the world—or at least dominate a certain part of the world and get richer by having other people do the dirty work. Yawn.

In “Raging Fire,” which takes place in Hong Kong, the cop in charge is Cheung Sung-bong (played by Donnie Yen), also known as Bong, who works for Hong Kong’s Regional Crime Unit. Bong has a reputation as a fearless leader who can get the job done well. He has an excellent track record of catching major criminals. And therefore, you know exactly how this movie is going to end before it even starts.

Yau Kong-ngo (played by Nicholas Tse), also known as Ngo, is Bong’s former protégé who has gone rogue and formed a gang of criminals. In the beginning of the “Raging Fire,” Bong and his team have raided a warehouse lair of drug dealers. However, Ngo becomes a masked interloper who creates chaos in this raid when he becomes a sniper who kills off some of the people in the building.

Ngo is ruthless and insists on unwavering loyalty from everyone in his gang, which consists primarily of other former cops. Coke Ho (played by Ken Law) and Wong (played by Brian Siswojo) are like the Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum of Ngo’s gang because these two are very close to each other and practically inseparable. There’s also Chiu (played by Henry Mak), who is self-conscious about the burn scar on the right side of his face and is often teased about his scar by other people. Other members of the gang are Mok Yik-chuen (played by Yu Kang) and Chu Yuk-ming (played by German Cheung).

People on Bong’s team include Yuen Ka-po, also known as Beau (played by Patrick Tam), who is Bong’s superior officer. Bong’s Regional Crime Unit subordinates are Chow Chi-chun (played by Deep Ng), token female Turbo Lui (played by Jeana Ho), Kwan Chung-him (played by Bruce Tong) and Cho Ning (played by Angus Yeung). These cops do not have distinct personalities and are just there to literally be backup characters in fight scenes.

A rich bank mogul named Fok Siu-tong (played by Kwok Fung), who owns HK Fortune Banking, is financing Ngo’s gang and is calling the shots in whatever crimes they commit. “Raging Fire” has double crosses, a crystal meth drug bust worth about $48 million, a past kidnapping, a criminal trial and a hostage situation crammed in between the expected fights with fists, guns, knives and bombs.

As is usually the case in action flicks like “Raging Fire,” it’s all about the men, since women are usually reduced to subservient roles. Bong has a pregnant wife named Anna Lam (played by Qin Lan), who’s not much more than the stereotypical “worried wife at home” of the movie’s action hero. Chiu has a mean-spirited girlfriend named Bonnie (played by Leung Ying Ting Rachel), who isn’t in the movie long for the most predictable reason in a movie that doesn’t value women very much.

The fight scenes in “Raging Fire” certainly have a lot of energy but not much imagination. The hostage scene is beyond ridiculous. And as for the movie’s dialogue and acting, let’s just say that this movie is far from award-worthy. “Raging Fire” could be just silly fun for viewers. But considering that these action stars and filmmakers have done much better movies, “Raging Fire” is unfortunately a misfire that will be most-remembered as director Chan’s last film.

Well Go USA released “Raging Fire” in select U.S. cinemas on August 13, 2021.

Review: ‘Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,’ starring Simu Liu, Tony Leung, Awkwafina, Meng’er Zhang, Fala Chen, Michelle Yeoh and Florian Munteanu

August 23, 2021

by Carla Hay

Meng’er Zhang, Simu Liu and Awkwafina in “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” (Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios)

“Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings”

Directed by Destin Daniel Cretton

Some language in Mandarin with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in China and in San Francisco, the superhero action film “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” features a predominantly Asian cast of characters (with some white people) representing heroes, villains and people who are in between.

Culture Clash: A Chinese man who ran away to the U.S. as a teenager, in order to get away from his ruthless overlord father, must confront his past and the power of 10 magical arm rings that are the source of the story’s conflict.

Culture Audience: “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) and are looking for an enjoyable origin story that is not a sequel or a prequel.

Tony Leung and Fala Chen in “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” (Photo courtesy of Marvel Studios)

“Shang-Chi and the Legend of Ten Rings” has plenty of heart and adventurous spirit to satisfy superhero movie fans. It’s too bad that the title character has a personality that’s duller than the average Marvel superhero. Shang-Chi is frequently outshined by his wisecracking female best friend/sidekick. And there’s a long stretch in the middle of the film that drags the pace down considerably.

Directed by Daniel Destin Daniel Cretton, “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Rings” is an origin story that doesn’t dazzle in a spectacular way, but it gets the job done in a crowd-pleasing way that serves the movie’s target audience well. Cretton co-wrote the movie’s screenplay with Dave Callaham and Andrew Lanham. It’s yet another Hollywood studio superhero story about a superhero with “daddy issues.” The big difference this time is that the majority of the cast is Asian, mostly of Chinese heritage.

One of the problems with the movie is that the climactic showdown scene doesn’t offer much that most movie and TV audiences haven’t already seen before. To put it bluntly: This movie needed better villains. In “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” there’s a villain named Razor Fist (played by Florian Munteanu) with a machete as an arm. That pales in comparison to a “Stars Wars: Rise of Skywalker” villainous henchman named Cardo that had a shotgun for an arm.

Battles with dragons? Yawn. It’s very “Game of Thrones” and not much different from any recent big-budget live-action movie where the dragons are the big monsters that have to be defeated. And a hero going in a one-on-one duel fight against his villain father? Ever hear of “The Empire Strikes Back” or “Return of the Jedi”?

“Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” is literally an origin story, since viewers see how, in China, his parents met, fell in love, got married, and had Shang-Chi as their first child. The movie shows Shang-Chi as a baby, as a pre-teen child (played by Jayden Zhang), as a teenager (played by Arnold Sun) and as an adult (played by Simu Liu). Shang Chi’s father Xu Wenwu (played by Tony Leung) was a corrupt overlord who came into possession of 10 magical arm rings (because bracelets must not sound macho enough) that allowed him to have immense power. His heart softened when he met Ying Li (played by Fala Chen), who charmed him after a sword duel that she won against him. It was love at first sight, and they got together soon after that.

Shang-Chi spent his entire life training to be a fighter and to follow in his father’s footsteps. Shang-Chi’s mother Li also gave him a special green pendant that she said he must never lose or give away. But tragedy struck when Shang-Chi was a teenager: His mother died. Wracked with griedfand despair, widower Xu Wenwu went back to his corrupt ways. There’s a part of the movie that reveals that Xu Wenwu also might have lost his mind to insanity.

When Shang-Chi was 14 years old, Xu Wenwu ordered him to complete his first “assignment” assassination. At age 15, Shang-Chi ran away from China to the United States. He ended up settling in San Francisco, where in high school he befriended a smart-alecky girl named Katy, and they’ve been best pals ever since. The movie does not show Shang-Chi’s American life during the time that he was in high school or in his 20s, but he and Katy have a few discussions about their past together.

Now in their early 30s, Shang-Chi (who changed his first name to Shaun) and Katy (played by Awkwafina) work together as parking valets at a ritzy hotel. They’re very educated and over-qualified for the job. He can speak four languages, while she has a master’s degree from the University of California at Berkeley. Katy has a mischievous and rebellious streak, since she’s the type of valet driver who will take a car out on a joy ride instead of parking it. That’s what she does when she gets handed the keys to a red BMW, which she takes to speed through traffic, with Shaun/Shang-Chi along for the ride.

Katy doesn’t know about Shang-Chi’s past until it catches up to him in one of the movie’s best action scenes. It’s when Iron Fist and some other thugs attack Shang-Chi and Katy while they’re on a moving bus. Katy is shocked to find out that her friend Shaun has superhero-level fighting skills. Later, he tells her that his real name is Shang-Chi.

But the “fight on the bus” scene kicks off the movie in a very thrilling way. The martial arts and choreography are top-notch. And there are some heart-pounding moments when Katy has the take the wheel of the bus and navigate through San Francisco’s hilly, narrow and crowded streets. It makes her daredevil joyrides as a valet look like an easygoing holiday in comparison.

Why is Shang-Chi being targeted by these goons, who seemed to come from out of nowhere? As he explains to Katy about his secret past, it means that his father must be looking for him, because the assassins took Shang-Li’s pendant. And you know what that means: Shang-Chi and Katy are going to China—Macau, to be more specific.

If non-talking monsters or aliens aren’t the main villains in a superhero movie, the talking villains better have a memorable personality. Unfortunately, as talented as Leung is as an actor, this type of formulaic, power-hungry overlord has been done in movies and TV so many times already. After watching “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” for the first time, the average viewer will be hard-pressed to remember one line of dialogue that Xu Wenwu said, although Leung certainly gives it his all in depicting a once-loving father who has since gone in an evil direction.

“Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” does have moments of levity, mainly because of Katy’s sarcasm and the MCU re-appearance of Trevor Slattery (played by Ben Kingsley), a flamboyant British actor who was previously seen in 2013’s “Iron Man 3.” It won’t be revealed here what Trevor does in “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” but it’s enough to say that a cute faceless and furry creature that Trevor has with him (about the size of a dog) will be one of the most remembered aspects about “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.”

Dr. Strange sidekick Wong (played by Benedict Wong) is another MCU character who’s in “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings,” although Wong’s screen time is a lot less than Trevor’s. New characters to the MCU include Shang-Chi’s estranged younger sister Xialing (played by Meng’er Zhang, making an impressive feature-film debut) and their aunt Ying Nan (played by Michelle Yeoh), who is the sister of Shang-Chi and Xialing’s late mother.

Before Shang-Chi and Katy go through predictable scenes of training for the big showdown battle that takes place at the end of the movie, there’s another standout fight scene that takes place on a skyscraper. In many ways, the skyscraper scene and the bus scenes are more unique and more thrilling fight than the final battle scene. This movie’s action definitely shines the most when it has martial arts between humans, rather than visual-effect-heavy battles with mythical creatures.

“Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” is a big step forward for Hollywood-made superhero movies that do not have a predominantly white cast. There’s plenty to like about the movie. But as an origin story, it relies a little too much on over-used, basic tropes. Except some of the fight scenes, there wasn’t a lot of originality in how this story was structured. The good news for people unfamiliar with the MCU, “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” is one of the few MCU movies that’s a true stand-alone film that doesn’t have a lot of references to other MCU films that you would have to know about to understand these references.

However, it’s not a good sign when one of those past references from an MCU movie (Trevor) is more entertaining to watch than the main hero and the main villain in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.” Awkwafina might get mixed reactions in her role as Katy, since people seem to love or hate Awkafina’s off-screen personality. Liu is perfectly fine as Shang-Chi, but he doesn’t have the charisma to be in the upper echelon of beloved MCU characters. The rest of the cast is serviceable in their roles. This movie isn’t going to win any prestigious awards for any of the cast members.

“Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” also has disappointing mid-credits and end-credits scenes. People really won’t miss anything if they skip the credits. However, it’s enough to say that the mid-credits scene does show Shang-Chi, Katy, Wong and two other MCU characters. As far as escapist entertainment goes, “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” delivers enough to satisfy people who are fans of superhero movies or martial arts. But people who want more magnetic personalities in action heroes might have to look elsewhere.

Marvel Studios will release “Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings” in U.S. cinemas on September 3, 2021. A one-night-only sneak preview of the movie was screened in select IMAX cinemas in the U.S. and Canada on August 18, 2021.

Review: ‘The Protégé’ (2021), starring Maggie Q, Samuel L. Jackson and Michael Keaton

August 20, 2021

by Carla Hay

Samuel L. Jackson and Maggie Q in “The Protégé” (Photo by Jichici Raul/Lionsgate)

“The Protégé” (2021)

Directed by Martin Campbell

Culture Representation: Taking place in Vietnam, Bucharest and London, the action film “The Protégé” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some Asians and a few African Americans) representing the wealthy, middle-class and people are linked to the criminal underworld.

Culture Clash: A skilled assassin is out for her revenge when she finds out that her mentor has been murdered.

Culture Audience: The Protégé” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching formulaic and derivative action flicks.

Michael Keaton in “The Protégé” (Photo by Simon Varsano/Lionsgate)

“The Protégé” is as unimaginative as its title. What could have been a next-level action showcase for star Maggie Q is instead a boring and idiotic retread of so many other movies about assassins out for revenge. The “mystery” and “intrigue” storyline in this movie is almost non-existent, especially when a completely unbelievable plot twist is revealed.

And that begs the question: Why was this movie even made? It seems like a bunch of men (the producers, writer and director of “The Protégé” are all men) just wanted to throw their money around so that they could see Maggie Q (or whichever actress would end up getting the role) in tight clothing while she’s toting a gun and other weapons. There is no interestng plot; it’s just fight scenes at various locations.

Did any of “The Protégé” filmmakers ever see the 2011 American movie “Hanna” or the 2017 South Korean film “The Villainess”? It sure seems that way, because “The Protégé” borrows heavily from the plots of both assassin action films. “Hanna” is about the title character getting trained as an assassin as an underage child. “The Villainess” (which was inspired by 1990’s “La Femme Nikita”) is about a female assassin who witnessed her father getting murdered when she was hiding in a room as a child. “Hanna” and “The Villainess” are infinitely superior to “The Protégé,” which thinks that a few intricate stunts can make up for a weak and nonsensical plot.

In “The Protégé” (directed by Martin Campbell and written by Richard Wenk), Maggie Q plays Anna, an assassin who is originally from Da Nang, Vietnam. She became orphaned in 1991, when she was 11 years old, when she witnessed her family getting murdered while she hid somewhere in the home. It’s eventually revealed in a flashback that an American soldier named Moody (played by Samuel L. Jackson) found Anna hiding in an armoir in the home, and he decided to raise her without formally adopting her.

Moody’s time in the military ended, and he became an assassin who trained Anna on his killer techniques. He’s described in the film as a “legendary” assassin, yet he makes a lot of dumb mistakes and nonsensical decisions that no so-called “professional” would make. A lot of time is wasted in this movie jumping from location to location, with empty-headed fight scenes that are intended to distract from a plot that barely exists.

An an early sequence in “The Protégé” takes place in the Romanian capital of Bucharest, where a ruthless crime lord named Don Preda (played by Velizar Binev) is infuriated because his adult son Vali (played by George Pistereanu) has been kidnapped. By the way, Don has the nickname Donald the Butcher of Bucharest, as if that’s supposed to make viewers of this movie terrified That nickname just sounds like someone who could be a local butcher at a grocery store.

Anna and Moody are in Bucharest around the time that Vali was kidnapped. Some vicious fighting ensues, and some people get killed. Anna and Moody are then seen in London, where Maggie has a cover identity working as a sales clerk in a boutique bookstore that sells rare publications. It’s supposed to make her look like a smart character, but it’s all for nothing because this is a very dumb movie.

For reasons that are never really explained, Moody owns the bookstore. And he’s given the deed to Anna. It’s a foreshadowing that he thinks he’s going to die soon, but Anna appears too dense to notice this clue. To portray a tender “mentor/protégé” moment, the film has Anna and Moody celebrating his birthday by themselves. Anna gives him a gift that Moody doesn’t expect but is delighted to get: a 1958 Gibson Flying V guitar. The guitar becomes a plot device later in the movie.

One day, a mysterious and wealthy American businessman named Michael Rembrandt (played by Michael Keaton) goes into the bookstore because he says that he’s looking for a rare book. Anna recommends a book of poetry by Edgar Allan Poe. But by the way that Michael looks at Anna, it’s obvious he’s not really interested in any rare books. Sure enough, he asks Anna on a date, and she ends up going to his mansion, where more violent hijinks ensue.

Some other characters come into the mix in this messy and undercooked story. Anna and Moody know an informant named Benny, who works out of the back room of a laundromat. Another underground connection for Anna and Moody is a motorcycle gang leader named Billy Boy (played by Robert Patrick), who doesn’t have a lot of screen time in the movie.

There’s also a deaf, blind and mute man in his early 30s named Lucas Hayes (played by Dimitar Nikolov), whose father Edward Hayes (played by David Rintoul) has been assassinated. The murder of Edward happened after he was indicted for war crimes of illegally selling chemical weapons. There’s a murky subplot of Anna trying to find out what Lucas knows, but the filmmakers seem to make Lucas’ disabilities an absurdly cruel joke on Anna, as if to say: “Good luck finding out witness information from a deaf, blind and mute person.”

At one point in the movie, which can’t make up its mind what storyline it wants to focus on, Anna finds a bloody Moody, lying mutilated in his bathtub. The condition of his body indicates that he was murdered. And that means one thing after that: Anna is out for revenge against whoever killed Moody. Because “The Protégé” filmmakers think that globetrotting will make the movie look better than it really is, Anna ends up in Da Nang again.

There’s something that happens later in the movie which absolutely puts it into garbage filmmaking territory. Without giving away too much information, it’s enough to say that whenever plot twists like this happen, viewers are supposed to believe that medical examiners and coroner reports don’t exist, in order for someone to be declared dead and the cause of death. It’s a very lazy plot twist that makes no logical sense.

Meanwhile, because every cliché movie about a woman who’s an assassin seems to require that she has sex with someone who might or might not be her enemy, you can easily guess what will happen between Anna and Michael. Just like the fight scenes in “The Protégé,” the movie’s sex scene looks too calculated and robotic. This is the movie’s idea of foreplay dialogue, when Michael says to Anna: “Do you want to kill me or fuck me?”

“The Protégé” is the type of awful dreck that has this cringeworthy line that someone utters when pointing a gun at someone and commenting on the gun’s bullets: “I can put two in the back of your head and make a sandwich.” How about you take that sandwich and flush it down the toilet, just like how this movie was made?

All of the well-known actors in the movie (Maggie Q, Jackson, Keaton and Patrick) are just doing bland retreads of characters they’ve played before in better movies. Maggie Q certainly has what it takes to be a major action movie star. And some of the stunts she does in “The Protégé” are impressive.

But you need more than just stunts and action choreography to make a good movie. You need to have dialogue and a story that will make people care about the protagonists and what will happen to them. All the actors are given such dreadful lines that they look like they’re just going through the motions and have no real emotional connections to their character roles. When they’re not in fight scenes, the actors look bored. If “The Protégé” filmmakers didn’t care to make a good movie with such a talented cast, then you shouldn’t care to watch it.

Lionsgate released “The Protégé” in U.S. cinemas on August 20, 2021.

Review: ‘Free Guy,’ starring Ryan Reynolds, Jodie Comer, Lil Rel Howery, Utkarsh Ambudkar, Joe Keery and Taika Waititi

August 5, 2021

by Carla Hay

Jodie Comer and Ryan Reynolds in “Free Guy” (Photo by Alan Markfield/20th Century Studios)

“Free Guy”

Directed by Shawn Levy

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city, the action comedy film “Free Guy” features a predominantly male, mostly white cast of characters (with a few African Americans, Asians and one Māori/indigenous cast member) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A video game’s simulated city becomes the focus of conflict from the game’s characters and the gamers in the real world who want to manipulate actions in this simulated city.

Culture Audience: “Free Guy” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in comedic action movies that revolve around video game culture and put more emphasis on style over substance.

Taika Waititi, Utkarsh Ambudkar and Joe Keery in “Free Guy” (Photo by Alan Markfield/20th Century Studios)

“Free Guy” looks like an outdated idea for a video game movie that would’ve worked better when the SimCity video game was first released in 1989. It’s a dumb action comedy that tries to be clever with convoluted video game scenarios to dress up its very weak plot and cringeworthy jokes. The movie overloads on tech jargon and formulaic action scenes as gimmicks that can’t hide this movie’s lazy banality.

Directed by Shawn Levy and written by Matt Lieberman and Zak Penn, “Free Guy” was obviously made to appeal to video game enthusiasts as a target audience. However, because video games have progressed immensely since the early years of SimCity—especially when it comes to world building, visual effects and multilayered outcomes—much of the video game that’s at the center of “Free Guy” looks simplistic and boring. The only real nod to 21st century gaming that this movie has is that people worldwide have the ability to play the game simultaneously over the Internet.

The video game in “Free Guy” is called Free City, which is about a simulated city called Free City that’s supposed to be a mid-sized American city where chaos and destruction can happen at any moment. (“Free Guy” was actually filmed in Boston.) Players of Free City get more points and can advance to the next level (also known as “leveling up”), based on acts of unprovoked hostility and violence that they can put in the game.

Every day, an armed robbery takes place at Free City Bank. This financial institution is the place of employment for cheerful bank teller Guy (played by Ryan Reynolds) and his wisecracking best friend Buddy (played by Lil Rel Howery), who’s a security guard. It’s a scenario that plays out with such routine predictability that Guy has come to expect it.

Guy, who is the voiceover narrator and protagonist of the movie, explains that in Free City, laws are like “mild suggestions.” The “heroes” in Free City can be identified by wearing special eyeglasses. Later, Guy finds out what happens when someone in Free City puts on these special eyeglasses. But in the beginning of the movie, Guy is just a character that’s supposed to stick to the same routine every day.

Guy is stuck in a rut and doesn’t even know it at first. When he wakes up in the morning, he says and does the same things. When he goes to a local coffee shop before heading to work, he places the same order: coffee with cream and two spoons of sugar. Guy is the type of character who says, “Coffee: It’s like losing my virginity, but in my mouth.”

Almost everyone in Free City has a daily routine. The city is so basic that there are no tourist attractions, and anyone who doesn’t have the special eyeglasses is just supposed to fade into the background. In other words, whoever thought up this video game has terrible world building skills and gave the players very limited options what they could do. In this city, people are either aggressors or potential targets for that aggression.

However, one day, Guy’s life takes an unexpected turn. At the local coffee shop, he orders a cappuccino instead of his usual coffee with cream and sugar. The barista named Missy (played by Britne Oldford), who always serves the same order to Guy, freaks out because she doesn’t know what to do because Guy has ordered cappuccino.

On that same day, when the bank robbery occurs at Guy’s job, instead of handing over money to the robber, Guy gets into a fight with the thief, takes the thief’s gun, and shoots the thief. During the altercation, Guy takes the thief’s special eyeglasses. And that’s when Guy can see and experience Free City in a whole different way. He immediately notices that when he wears the glasses, he has superhuman strength and things appear in his sight that he wouldn’t be able to see without wearing the glasses.

While wearing the glasses, Guy sees a medical bag floating in front of him. And when he takes the bag, the wounds he sustained during the bank robbery fight (such as cuts, bruises and a broken nose) are automatically healed. When Guy goes to an ATM to get money from his bank account, he sees that the money he had in the account (less than $150) has turned into thousands of dollars, because the ATM now acts like a jackpot machine.

Meanwhile, Guy has “infatuation at first sight” when he sees a mysterious woman (played by Jodie Comer) on a motorcycle and armed with a gun on the street. She wears the special eyeglasses. She seems to be independent and fearless. And she’s wearing an outfit (white button-down shirt with black trousers, suspenders and thigh-high boots) that looks like a costume rejected by Charlize Theron’s badass assassin character in 2017’s “Atomic Blonde.”

Guy is convinced that this mystery female on a motorcycle is the woman of his dreams. Guy and this woman eventually meet. She calls herself Molotov Girl, but she’s really a British avatar for an American video game developer named Millie Rusk. Molotov Girl wears her black hair worn in a bob, while Millie has long blonde hair.

In the real world, Millie is embroiled in a messy lawsuit with Soonami Studios, the video game company that released Free City, a game that has become a big hit for Soonami. Millie is suing because she claims that Soonami stole intellectual property that is the basis of Free City. Back in 2015, Millie and her former business partner Walter “Keys” McKeys (played by Joe Keery) were considered hot up-and-coming video game developers of a game called Life Itself.

Soonami’s greedy and corrupt founder/CEO named Antwan (played by Taika Waititi) bought the rights to Life Itself (one of the most boring video game titles in history) for Soonami, and then promptly shelved Life Itself, only to release the game under the name Free City. Why isn’t Keys suing Soonami too? Because he now works for Soonami as a programmer, but he spends much of his work time actually being a customer support representative. Keys’ best friend at the company is a coder with a sarcastic personality named Mouser (played by Utkarsh Ambudkar), who worships Antwan and does pretty much anything Antwan tells Mouser to do.

Why is Millie spending so much time playing Free City using the avatar Molotov Girl? Because she secretly wants to find certain proof that the game has the intellectual property that was stolen from Millie and Keys. Meanwhile, Guy becomes emboldened by his newfound powers due to the special eyeglasses. He starts doing things (many of them heroic) of his own free will, and his character becomes a worldwide sensation. Free City game players around the world have given him the nickname Blue Shirt Guy because of the blue shirt that Guy wears to work every day.

Not everyone is a fan of Blue Shirt Guy, of course. Antwan is furious because he thinks Blue Shirt Guy is a major “bug” (or error) in the game. There’s a kind of a silly sequence of Keys and Mouser disguising themselves with avatars to go into the Free City game and to try find out why Guy, a character a non-player character (also known as an NPC), seems to be acting of his own free will. Keys is dressed as a cop, while Mouser is dressed up in a ridiculous-looking pink rabbit costume. Why is Mouser dressed like he’s at a kids’ costume party? Just because he felt like it.

In fact, much of “Free Guy” consists of half-baked ideas thrown in between the hackneyed action scenes. There’s a stretched-out subplot about getting to a certain person’s stash house. There’s another subplot about how Soonami is about to release a Free City sequel called Free City: Carnage (also known as Free City 2), so there’s a race against time involving the release date.

The budding romance between Guy and Molotov Girl looks kind of icky because he comes across more like her dorky, much-older brother rather than a potential boyfriend. Guy is in his 40s, while Molotov Girl/Millie is in her 20s. It’s yet another Hollywood movie where the male lead actor gets a female love interest who’s at least 15 to 20 years younger.

In an attempt to gloss over this big age difference, there’s monotonous repetition of how Guy and Millie have some superficial things in common. They both love Mariah Carey’s 1995 hit song “Fantasy,” bubblegum ice cream and playing on swings. How old are these people again? Twelve? “Fantasy” is played enough times in the movie that it will get stuck in your head after the movie is over. And that’s not a good thing if you don’t like the song.

“Free Guy” is yet another Hollywood action movie where the cast members who get top billing are several men and only one woman. Comer is the only woman with a significant speaking role in the movie, and her Moltov Girl/Millie character is severely underdeveloped. Moltovgirl/Millie doesn’t have a life outside of anything to do with how the male characters affect her.

The featured male characters in “Free Guy” have friends and/or co-workers, while Millie does not. And the movie tries to make Millie look like some kind of feminist gaming prodigy, but everything she’s shown accomplishing in this movie is because she got help from a man. People who are fans of Comer because of her stellar, Emmy-winning work in “Killing Eve” will be disappointed at how limited her character is in “Free Guy.” The character of Millie, just like Molotov Girl, is just a hollow avatar who was created to be a sidekick for a male character who gets most of the glory.

As for Keys, he is portrayed as a wimpy and shy “nice guy.” But looking at his actions, Keys really has dubious morals and shaky loyalty, because he will go along with anyone who will benefit him in some way. He betrayed Millie by working for their enemy, and he doesn’t support her in her lawsuit to get justice for all the hard work that they did. And to make matters worse, Keys wasn’t even given a lofty position at Soonami. He’s now essentially a low-paid customer service representative at Soonami, where he is treated like dirt by rude and condescending Antwan.

It’s supposed to make viewers feel sorry for Keys, because the company is wasting his talent. But it just makes Keys look like a fool who’s being taken advantage of because his own bad choices. There are other companies he could work for besides the one that screwed over Keys and Millie. But if he worked for another company, there wouldn’t be the predictable “inside man” plot development that you know is part of this movie. There’s a trite character arc for Keys that’s extremely phony and doesn’t feel deserved.

There are fundamental plot holes in “Free Guy,” because it’s obvious that the filmmakers don’t want anyone watching the movie to think too much. For example, if Free City is so popular worldwide, and the point of the game is for players to create as much violent chaos as possible in Free City, then there would be a lot more death and destruction in Free City than what’s presented in this movie. Free City looks too pristine and orderly, as if hardly anyone is playing this game, which contradicts the movie’s premise that Free City is supposed to be a worldwide hit.

Much of the plot is based on Millie’s lawsuit against Soonami, but “Free Guy” purposely keeps things vague. Don’t expect any mention of the fact that it’s very common for corporations to buy the rights to intellectual property from independent creators and then just shelve it. And buying the rights also means buying any patents associated with the intellectual property and the right to release the intellectual property under a new name. In all likelihood in the real world, Millie doesn’t have a legitimate case for her lawsuit.

“Free Guy” also muddles the logic of how Millie needs to be an avatar in a video game in order to find the coding proof that she needs. Any good computer programmer/video game developer would have kept that coding proof, even after the intellectual property had been sold. But this movie isn’t about being realistic or logical. And that’s excusable if the characters and story had been much better than the unimaginative stereotypes and uninspired dialogue in “Free Guy.”

Keery and Ambudkar play the typical video game nerds. Howery plays the typical loyal best friend. Waititi plays the typical over-the-top villain. Waititi, who is naturally funny, tries to do his best with terrible lines of dialogue, but even he can’t overcome how stilted and awkward everyone looks in what are supposed to be hilarious scenes.

Reynolds has done plenty of action films and comedies where his character starts out as an underdog and then becomes a celebrated hero. It’s all so mind-numbingly monotonous, because he doesn’t do anything new as an actor in “Free Guy,” which is far from his best movie. The stale jokes in “Free Guy” seem like they were programmed by a computer from the 1990s.

The movie’s action scenes and visual effects are so basic and forgettable. One of the “Free Guy” trailers revealed that Guy fights a giant He-Man-ripoff version of himself, so this trailer reveal ruins that surprise. There are a few “surprise” celebrity cameos in the movie that don’t have much of an impact. Channing Tatum pops up in a scene, but he wears out his welcome with his one-note character. Chris Evans has a cameo that lasts a few seconds and should get some quick laughs.

“Free Guy” (from 20th Century Studios) is such a soulless and corporate movie that it has shameless plugging of movies from other Disney-owned studios. There’s “Star Wars”-influenced light saber fighting, in a nod to Disney-owned Lucasfilm. And there’s a reference to Captain America, the superhero character that Evans portrayed in several movies from Disney-owned Marvel Studios. No references to Disney princesses though, because the filmmakers of “Free Guy” want men to dominate in this movie.

Movies like 1982’s “Tron” and 2018’s “Ready Player One” have shown how it’s possible to be creative in a movie about people who transport themselves into a video game and end up having real connections with characters in the game. “Free Guy” could have brought a clever comedic spin to this concept, but the movie is just a messy compilation of lousy jokes and garbled plot developments. There are lot of video games that are better than a junkpile movie like “Free Guy.”

20th Century Studios will release “Free Guy” in U.S. cinemas on August 13, 2021.

Review: ‘The Suicide Squad,’ starring Margot Robbie, Idris Elba, John Cena, Joel Kinnaman, David Dastmalchian, Viola Davis and Daniela Melchior

July 30, 2021

by Carla Hay

Pictured in front row, from left to right: Joel Kinnaman, Alice Braga, Daniela Melchior, King Shark, Idris Elba and John Cena in “The Suicide Squad” (Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

“The Suicide Squad”

Directed by James Gunn

Culture Representation: Taking place in Louisiana and a fictional South American country called Corto Maltese, the superhero action flick “The Suicide Squad” features a racially diverse cast of characters (white, black, Latino and Asian) representing government official, superheroes, villains, fantasy creatures and everything in between.

Culture Clash: The Suicide Squad—a ragtag group of prisoners and outlaws with special abilities—is ordered by the U.S. government to go on a secret mission to destroy a nefarious scientific operation that is intended to control the world .

Culture Audience: “The Suicide Squad” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in violent, zany and foul-mouthed superhero movies that skillfully blur the lines between heroes and villains.

Joel Kinnaman, John Cena, Margot Robbie, Peter Capaldi and Idris Elba in “The Suicide Squad” (Photo courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures)

“The Suicide Squad” is the bonkers and bloody action spectacle that fans of iconoclastic superhero movies deserve. It’s a worthy and memorable alternative of writer/director David Ayer’s 2016’s much-maligned “Suicide Squad,” which was a confused and muddled film that ultimately played it too safe for these roguish and rude DC Comics characters. “The Suicide Squad” (written and directed by James Gunn) gives a much-needed adult-oriented resuscitation—not just to the original “Suicide Squad” movie but also to the superhero genre in general, which has a tendency to be formulaic and predictable.

“The Suicide Squad” is the superhero movie equivalent of someone who will kiss you and kick you at the same time. Within the first 15 minutes of the movie, there are surprises that most superhero movies would never dare to have. Several characters initially look like they’re going to be prominently featured in the story, but they actually get killed off early in the film. And there are more unexpected deaths that defy the usual expectations of who lives and who dies in a typical superhero film.

Because of all these unexpected deaths in “The Suicide Squad,” the only way to describe the movie without giving away spoiler information is to say that the Suicide Squad’s mission in this movie is to go to the fictional South American island nation of Corto Maltese and destroy a top-secret scientific operation called Project Starfish. Just like in 2016’s “Suicide Squad” movie and in the DC Comics series that inspired this movie franchise, the Suicide Squad (whose official name is Task Force X) consists of dangerous inmates who are held at a federal prison called Belle Reve in Louisiana. The members of the team have special skills or powers that make the Suicide Squad an above-average combat group.

Belle Reve is a recruiting center for a no-nonsense, tough-talking U.S. government official named Amanda Waller (played by Viola Davis, reprising her role from 2016’s “Suicide Squad”), who is in charge of monitoring the Suicide Squad members when they go on their black operations (in other words, government-classified missions), under orders from the U.S. government. If the Suicide Squad members complete the mission, then they can get a pre-determined number of years shaved off of their prison sentences. In case any of these Suicide Squad members try to escape or defy orders, an explosive device is implanted in each of their heads, and Amanda has the power to detonate this explosive device.

While Amanda keeps tabs on the Suicide Squad in a control room with elaborate high-tech surveillance, her subordinate Colonel Rick Flag (played by Joel Kinnaman, also from 2016’s “Suicide Squad” movie) is the military commander who accompanies the Suicide Squad on their missions. In other words, he does a lot of dirty work that Amanda doesn’t have to do, and his life is more at risk than hers. Colonel Flag is a loyal government employee. He’s gritty but not as cold-blooded and ruthless as Amanda. And in “The Suicide Squad” movie, viewers will see how he handles an important ethical dilemma.

Who are the members of the Suicide Squad in this movie? They are, in alphabetical order:

  • Blackguard (played by Pete Davidson), whose real name is Richard Hertz, an American guy in his 20s who’s an immature and nervous jokester.
  • Bloodsport (played by Idris Elba), whose real name is Robert Dubois, a cynical, grouchy, middle-aged Brit who’s an expert marksman and who is in prison for shooting Superman with a Kryptonite bullet, which landed Superman in a hospital’s intensive care unit.
  • Captain Boomerang (played by Jai Courtney), whose real name is George “Digger” Harkness, a hot-tempered Australian in his 30s who uses a deadly boomerang as his main weapon.
  • Javelin (played by Flula Borg), whose real name is Gunter Braun, a cocky German in his 30s who has a javelin as his main weapon.
  • King Shark (voiced by Sylvester Stallone), a talking mutant shark that has the intelligence of a 3-year-old human child and an appetite for eating humans.
  • Mongal (played by Mayling Ng), an orange alien with superhero strength and agility.
  • Peacemaker (played by John Cena), whose real name is Christopher Smith, an extremely patriotic middle-aged American who is an expert marksman and immediately has a rivalry with Bloodsport.
  • Polka-Dot Man (played by David Dastmalchian), whose real name is Abner Krill, an insecure American guy in his 40s who has “mother issues” and the ability to eject deadly flying polka dots from his body as weapons.
  • Harley Quinn (played by Margot Robbie), a ditsy American maniac whose past heartbreaks (including her former romance with iconic villain The Joker) and personal grudges affect many of her decisions.
  • Ratcatcher 2 (played by Daniela Melchior), whose real name is Cleo Cazo, a compassionate Portuguese orphan in her 20s who has the ability to command rats to do her bidding.
  • Savant (played by Michael Rooker), whose real name is Brian Durlin, a jaded, 61-year-old American who is an expert in weapons and hand-to-hand combat.
  • T.D.K. (played by Nathan Fillion), a stoic American man in his 40s, whose real name is Cory Pitzner and whose T.D.K. nickname initials stand for The Detachable Kid, because he has the power to detach his limbs and use them as weapons.
  • Weasel (played by Sean Gunn), an easygoing, giant weasel that cannot talk.

Harley and Boomerang were in 2016’s “Suicide Squad” movie. The other characters are new to the DC Extended Universe (DCEU) live-action movies. Of these new characters in “The Suicide Squad,” Bloodsport, Polka-Dot Man and Ratcatcher 2 are the ones with the significant backstories that are described in the movie. Amanda tells a reluctant and anti-social Bloodsport that he will be the leader of this revamped Suicide Squad.

Corto Maltese is a country in a lot of political turmoil. For years, the country was ruled by royals called the Herrera Family, but the entire family was murdered by a public hanging during a miltary coup of the government. The leader of this coup is General Silvio Luna (played by Juan Diego Botto), whose right-hand man is Mayor General Mateo Suarez (played by Joaquín Cosio), who’s old enough to be General Luna’s father. General Luna has appointed himself as the military dictator president of Corto Maltese.

Meanwhile, General Luna and his inner circle know all about Project Starfish. The secrets of Project Starfish will give Corto Maltese the ability to become a world superpower. The geneticist in charge of Project Starfish is a Brit named Gaius Grieves (played by Peter Capaldi), who has the nickname the Thinker. He’s the key to getting access to Jotunheim, the name of the scientific research facility that houses Project Starfish in the Corto Maltese city of Valle del Mar. The Thinker is also easy to spot, because he has electrode-like amps, spark plugs and valves portruding from his head, in order to enhance his intelligence.

The only information that the Suicide Squad has about the Thinker is what he looks like and that he often likes to go to a “gentleman’s club” after work. It’s at this point in the movie that you know that the Suicide Squad will be going to a strip club, and there’s going to be a big fight scene there. The way the scene is filmed is not cliché as it sounds. And it has moments of comedy, such as when the Suicide Squad members get drunk and some of them awkwardly start dancing.

In addition to many surprise twists, what makes “The Suicide Squad” different from most other superhero movies is how it manages to be a nihilistic, graphically violent movie with heart and genuine sentiment. It’s a tricky balance that most movies with these intentions would not be able to achieve. The Suicide Squad members might have reputations for being amoral, but the movie shows (in ways that 2016’s “Suicide Squad did not) a certain depth to their emotional damage.

Bloodsport has a rocky relationship with his 16-year-old daughter Tyla (played by Storm Reid), a rebel who has recently gotten into trouble for stealing a StyleWatch, which is described as a device that’s a lot like an Apple Watch. (Tyla’s mother is dead, by the way.) When Tyla comes to visit Bloodsport in prison, she tells him about how she’s gotten in trouble for this theft. Instead of giving the usual parental lecture, Bloodsport chastises Tyla by saying that she should’ve had a thief partner so she wouldn’t get caught.

They yell “fuck you” to each other, because Tyla has a lot of resentment over having an absentee father who has not been there to give her the guidance that she obviously wants. She shouts at Bloodsport that she’s ashamed that he’s her father. And the hurt expression on Bloodsport’s face shows that he’s not so tough after all, at least when it comes to his daughter. Later, after Bloodsport meets Ratcatcher 2, he shows his vulnerable side again when he tells Ratcatcher 2 that she reminds him of his daughter.

Other characters reveal how their family-related traumas have affected them. Polka-Dot Man had a mother (played by Lynne Ashe), who worked at Scientific and Technological Advanced Research Laboratories, also known as S.T.A.R. Labs. According to what Polka-Dot Man tells the other Suicide Squad members, his mother was obsessed with making her children superheroes, so she conducted illegal scientific experiments on them.

Polka-Dot Man’s polka dots on his skin are an interdimensional virus that he got from these experiments. His face can balloon into a bloated disfigurement with polka dots unless he expels them. (This transformation is shown in the movie.) Polka-Dot Man says at one point, “I don’t like to kill people, but if I pretend they’re my mom, it’s easy.” And yes, there are some scenes were the Polka-Dot Man hallucinates seeing his mother.

Ratcatcher 2 is the daughter of Ratcatcher (played by Taika Waititi, in a flashback cameo), who taught her how to summon and control rats. The rats kept them company when she and her father lived on the streets of Portugal. During a bus ride with other Suicide Squad members, Ratcatcher 2 talks about how she moved to the U.S. from Portugal, and she’s an orphan because her father died from his “burdens.” (Ratcatcher 2 never talks about what happened to her mother.)

The flashback shows that Ratcatcher’s main burden was a needle-using drug addiction, and he died of a drug overdose. Ratcatcher 2 also says after she moved to the U.S., she was arrested for armed bank robbery, and she can’t believe that her rats were considered a weapon. Ratcatcher 2’s closest companion is a very intelligent rat named Sebastian, which Colonel Flag jokingly calls Ratatouille.

Meanwhile, there’s a running gag in the movie that macho Bloodsport is very afraid of rats. On that bus ride, he reveals why: His mercenary father, who gave him weapons training, would punish Bloodsport as a child for not doing something correctly. One of those punishments was to lock Bloodsport in a crate for 24 hours with hungry rats. Bloodsport’s rat phobia is used for comic relief as well as a very touching moment in the movie.

Harley does not have her signature baseball bat in this movie, but she has a rocket launcher and a javelin that she puts to good use. How she got this javelin is revealed in the movie. In 2016’s “Suicide Squad,” Harley was depicted as a scantily clad sexpot who was lovesick over the Joker. In “The Suicide Squad,” she’s more of an independent badass, just as she was in the 2020 movie “Birds of Prey,” but not like the two-dimensional caricature that she was in “Birds of Prey.”

In one part of the movie, Corto Maltese president Luna summons Harley to his palace for an elaborate lunch date, in order to seduce her and convince her to become his wife. Luna is very anti-American but he’s attracted to Harley because her hellraising antics seem to be anti-American, and he thinks she’s very sexy. Harley is dressed for the occasion in a frilly red gown that she wears for the rest of the movie and during her biggest action scenes. Wearing the red gown while in combat is a symbolic contrast of how Harley sees herself as both girly and gonzo when it comes to fighting.

“The Suicide Squad” has fun with Harley’s image as the Suicide Squad member who’s most likely to make a fashion statement. Early on the movie, Harley wears a red and black leather suit with a jacket emblazoned with the words “Live Fast, Die Clown” on the back. And later in the movie, when she’s wearing the red gown, it’s shown that she has a back tattoo that reads, “Property of No One” next to a jester head that’s mean to signify the Joker. She also has a chest tattoo that reads “Daddy’s Lil Monster,” in a nod to the T-shirt that she famously wore in 2016’s “Suicide Squad.”

Harley might come across a flaky and erratic in some ways, but “The Suicide Squad” presents her with a fascinating and complex mindset. She has a monologue in the movie that’s very revealing in how she still has some inner conflict over how much she’s willing to let her head, not her heart, rule over any decisions that she makes. This movie is Robbie’s most compelling portrayal of Harley Quinn, because she’s finally given the dialogue that this character should have.

Visually, “The Suicide Squad” is the best so far of any live-action movie featuring Harley Quinn. There are some whimsical qualities, such as plot developments spelled out in giant words that are part of the scenery. (“The Suicide Squad” was filmed in Atlanta, Panama, Puerto Rico and Portugal.)The most gruesome and bloodiest scenes have an almost cartoonish quality, so that things don’t appear to be completely depressing and grim. And some of the action scenes have a poetic beauty to them, particularly one sequence involving Harley Quinn and a cascade of flowers in bloom, which are very metaphorical to the blossoming of her character.

What will affect viewers the most is not the violence but who dies in the movie. These deaths are examples of why people in this ragtag Suicide Squad are reluctant or afraid to get emotionally attached to others. (However, in the end-credits scene, it’s revealed that the one of the “dead” characters actually survived.) Although the violence in “The Suicide Squad” is brutal, it’s not without consequences. Too often, superhero movies make most of the villains die and all of the heroes live. “The Suicide Squad” is a big middle finger to that idea.

The rivalry between Bloodsport and Peacemaker provides a lot of comedy, as well as tension-filled moments. As an example of the insult jokes between these two alpha males, Bloodsport derides Peacemaker for his shiny chrome helmet, which Bloodsport says looks like a toilet seat on Peacemaker’s head. Later in the movie, Peacemaker snaps back, “It’s not a toilet seat! It’s a beacon of freedom!”

The acting in “The Suicide Squad” is not going to be nominated for any prestigious awards, but all of the cast members get the job done well for their characters. Robbie and Elba stand out for bringing some nuance as emotionally wounded troublemakers Harley Quinn and Bloodsport. Melchior and Dastmalchian also have some standout moments as Ratcatcher 2 and the Polka-Dot Man, who are the kindler, gentler members of the Suicide Squad. King Shark is written as very simple-minded, so there’s not much going on with this character except fighting, eating humans, and a standout scene where King Shark is fascinated by the contents of a giant aquarium.

The Suicide Squad members have two outside allies from Corto Maltese in their mission: Sol Soria (played by Alice Braga) is the leader of a resistance movement against the military coup. She has a very negative first impression of the Suicide Squad because of a colossal mistake that directly affects Sol. Milton (played by Julio Cesar Ruiz) is a hired driver who becomes the butt of a joke about how people don’t pay attention to service employees in movies like this or in real life.

It’s an example of some of the offbeat sensibilities that Gunn (who’s also known for directing “The Guardians of the Galaxy” movies) brings to “The Suicide Squad.” Another example is how Louis Prima’s “Just a Gigolo” song is used in one of Harley Quinn’s big action scenes. And in Amanda’s surveillance control room, her subordinates take bets on which Suicide Squad members will live or die during a mission.

One of the ways that “The Suicide Squad” doesn’t play it safe is by having some political themes about American patriotism and how Americans are often perceived by people in other countries. These themes in the movie might get divisive reactions from audience members. But considering that so many superhero movies deliberately avoid politics, “The Suicide Squad” should be commended for going outside the norm and taking some bold risks, even if they might alienate some viewers.

In others words, “The Suicide Squad” is not for the type of superhero movie fan who only wants pleasant, lightweight, family-friendly entertainment. The movie shows the good, bad and ugly sides of humanity in a way that will elicit a wide range of emotions in viewers. But one way that “The Suicide Squad” won’t make most viewers feel is bored.

Warner Bros. Pictures will release “The Suicide Squad” in U.S. cinemas and on HBO Max on August 5, 2021, moved up from the original release date of August 6, 2021. The movie was released in cinemas in select countries, including the United Kingdom, on July 30, 2021.

Review: ‘Die in a Gunfight,’ starring Alexandra Daddario, Diego Boneta, Justin Chatwin, Billy Crudup, Wade Allain-Marcus, Emmanuelle Chriqui and Travis Fimmel

July 29, 2021

by Carla Hay

Diego Boneta and Alexandra Daddario in “Die in a Gunfight” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

“Die in a Gunfight”

Directed by Collin Schiffli

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city, the action film “Die in a Gunfight” features a predominantly white cast of characters (with some Latinos, African Americans and Asians) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A ne’er-do-well heir from a wealthy media family tries to win back the heart of his ex-girlfriend, who comes from a rival media family, while a hit man and her jealous former bodyguard, who wants to marry her, get messily involved in the lives of this would-be couple.

Culture Audience: “Die in a Gunfight” will appeal primarily to people who want to watch a painfully dull and unfunny action comedy inspired by Shakespeare’s “Romeo and Juliet.”

Justin Chatwin in “Die in a Gunfight” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

If William Shakespeare were alive, he would retch at how “Die in a Gunfight” shamelessly steals from “Romeo and Juliet” and rots it down to the tackiest levels. It’s an action comedy that’s boring and witless. And it’s one of those mind-numbingly bad movies that doesn’t have enough of a story to fill a feature-length film, so it just bloats the movie with the cinematic equivalent of hot air.

There are some bad movies that at least should be given credit for trying to be original. However, “Die in a Gunfight”—directed and Collin Schiffli and written by Andrew Barrer and Gabriel Ferrari—has absolutely no originality in any of its ideas. In addition to the “Romeo and Juliet” storyline for the movie’s would-be couple, “Die in a Gunfight” regurgitates plots and tropes that have been seen in too many other movies.

There’s the wacky hitman. There’s the love triangle with a jealous third person who wants to tear the would-be couple apart. There’s the “snitch” who’s been targeted for a murder plot. There’s the forgettable series of gun shootouts, fist fights and chase scenes. And it’s all tangled up in moronic dialogue and substandard acting.

“Die in a Gunfight” takes place in an unnamed big U.S. city (“Die in a Gunfight” was actually filmed in Toronto), where two media mogul families have been feuding for years. Billy Crudup, an Tony-winning and Emmy-winning actor, provides anonymous voiceover narration for “Die in a Gunfight.” He spares himself the embarrassment of not appearing on camera in this messy slop of a movie. Someone must’ve called in a big favor to have an actor of Crudup’s caliber in this movie, because he’s definitely slumming it here.

As the unidentified narrator explains, the Gibbon family and the Rathcart family have been feuding with each other since 1864. That’s the year when patriarch Theodore Gibbon’s newspaper published an unflattering story about patriarch Carlton Rathcart’s shoes. An argument ensued, and Theodore shot Carlton to death. The two families became bitter enemies ever since.

In the present day, each family owns a media empire—Gibbon Telecommunications and Rathcart Corporation—that fiercely competes with each other. Two married couples currently lead these two dynasties: Henry Gibbon (played by Stuart Hughes) and Nancy Gibbon (played by Nicola Correia-Damude) for Gibbon Telecommunications, and William Rathcart (played by John Ralston) and Beatrice Rathcart (played by Michelle Nolden) for Rathcart Coportation.

The husbands are the CEOs of their repsective companies, while their wives don’t seem to work and are socialites. Henry and Nancy Gibbon have a 27-year-old son named Ben (played by Diego Boneta), while William and Beatrice Rathcart have a daughter named Mary (played by Alexandra Daddario), who’s about the same age as Ben. It should be noted that, just like their mothers, Mary and Ben don’t seem to have jobs. It would explain why Ben and Mary have way too much time on their hands to get involved in the stupid shenanigans that this movie has for them.

The jumbled storytelling in “Die in a Gunfight” doesn’t reveal this family information from the beginning. Instead, the opening scene has animation and the narrator explaining that Ben has been in about 32.8 brawls a year since he was 5 years old—and he’s lost every single one of those fights. (You’d never know it though, because Ben is a pretty boy whose face doesn’t look banged up at all.) Ben was living an aimless, detached life until he fell in love with Mary when they were in high school. Needless to say, their parents didn’t approve of their romance.

However, Mary (a privileged rebel who’s been kicked out of every private school she attended) was shipped off to boarding school in Paris. The two teens had made plans to run off together to Mexico when they got old enough to legally do what they want. Ben sent her frequent letters by email, but Mary never answered them. A heartbroken Ben assumed that Mary lost interest in him, and that ignoring his email was her way of breaking up with him. Haven’t these people heard of phones or text messages?

A flashback shows that a depressed Ben, sometime in his mid-20s, ended up going to Mexico by himself. He was about to hang himself from a tree, but there was a mishap and he tumbled down a cliff and right into a guy around his age named Mukul (played by Wade Allain-Marcus), who was being held at gunpoint by a thug who was about to execute Mukul. This random tumble ended up saving Mukul’s life because it also knocked the gun out of the thug’s hand, and Mukul was able to chase him away his would-be killer.

Seven months later, Mukul and Ben became best friends who vowed not to tell anyone the real way that they met. Mukul moved to the U.S. with Ben, where they are seen in the present day crashing a high-society party that’s being held at a mansion. At this party are Mary, Ben’s parents and Mary’s parents. Mary’s parents are predictably annoyed that Ben is there.

Ben hasn’t seen Mary in years, but they look at each other as if they still have have a romantic spark between them. They don’t talk for long, and their conversation is awkward and uncomfortable. Ben and Mukul decide to leave the party, but not before they steal a bunch of fur coats as they exit the mansion.

Ben sees Mary again at a nightclub, where she is trying to avoid someone from her past: Terrence Uberahl (played by Justin Chatwin), who used to be her bodyguard hired by her father. Terrence currently works as a corporate executive/fixer for William Rathcraft. But what Terrence really wants is to marry Mary.

Terrence isn’t afraid to tell Mary that he’s in love with her, but it’s not real love. It’s an obsession. At a private back room in the nightclub, Terrence (whose persona is a mixture of sleazy and dorky) proposes marriage to Mary. He even bought her a diamond engagement ring. Mary is turned off because she’s never been interested in Terrence and never gave him an indication that she wanted to be his romantic partner. Mary immediately says no to this marriage proposal.

Meanwhile, Ben has found himself in another private back room in the nightclub. He’s randomly ended up in the room with a horny married couple named Wayne McCarty (played by Travis Fimmel) and Barbie McCarty (played by Emmanuelle Chriqui), who soon make it known to Ben that they’re swingers. Wayne (who has an unhinged demeanor throughout the movie) encourages Barbie to try to seduce Ben, because apparently Wayne likes to watch Barbie be with other men.

Here’s the awful dialogue that’s in this scene: Wayne tells Ben, “My wife thinks you’re cute—like a rabbit.” Wayne tells Barbie, “Why don’t you go over there and play with your new pet rabbit?” Ben tries to fend off Barbie’s advances, but Wayne gets offended.

Wayne asks Ben how Ben wants to die. Ben replies, “I want to die in a gunfight.” The next thing you know, Wayne gets in a fist fight with Ben. And since the movie’s narrator has already stated that Ben always loses in fights, viewers already know how this brawl is going to end. But before that happens, Wayne kisses Ben on the mouth during the fight.

Not long after this bizarre encounter, Ben and Mary rekindle their romance. It’s about the same time that Mary’s ruthless father is about to possibly experience a scandal that could ruin him financially and send him to prison. A Rathcart Corporation employee named Pamela Corbett-Ragsdale (played by Caroline Raynaud) is about to come forward in a press conference with some bombshell information about the company that directly implicates William Rathcart.

In a private meeting between William and his lackey Terrence, William orders Terrence to hire a hit man to murder Pamela before this whistleblower press conference can happen. Guess which hit man gets hired for the job? Terrence also uses this deadly assignment as an opportunity to ask William for his blessing to marry Mary. William doesn’t seem thrilled with the idea of having Terrence as a son-in-law, but he says he will approve of the marriage if Pamela is murdered.

The rest of the movie is a tedious and irritating dump of bad ideas and even worse acting. Fimmel is the only one in the cast who makes an attempt to have a little campy fun in what he must have surely known was a stinker of a film. However, the rest of the cast members just embarrass themselves with acting that is either too stiff or too hammy. The characters of Barbie and Mukul are completely useless.

The action sequences, which should be among this movie’s biggest assets, are uninteresting and sloppy. As for the movie’s romance, it’s the epitome of empty and shallow. It doesn’t help that Boneta and Daddario do not have convincing chemistry with each other. The only thing that really dies in “Die in a Gunfight” is the expectation that this movie will get better as it goes along, because the ending is just atrocious and the worst part of this idiotic movie.

Lionsgate released “Die in a Gunfight” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on July 16, 2021, and on Blu-ray and DVD on July 20, 2021.

Review: ‘Jungle Cruise,’ starring Dwayne Johnson, Emily Blunt, Edgar Ramírez, Jack Whitehall, Jesse Plemons and Paul Giamatti

July 27, 2021

by Carla Hay

Dwyane Johnson and Emily Blunt in “Jungle Cruise” (Photo by Frank Masi/Disney Enterprises, Inc.)

“Jungle Cruise”

Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra

Culture Representation: Taking place mostly in 1912, in Brazil and England, the action-adventure film “Jungle Cruise” features a racially diverse cast of characters (white, African American Asian and Latino) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A sassy researcher and her fussy botanist brother, who are both from England, enlist the help of a wisecracking American skipper of a ramshackle cruise boat to go to a Brazilian jungle to find a magical tree which has a petal with the power to save lives.

Culture Audience: “Jungle Cruise” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of any Disney adventure films, but might not hold much interest to people who’ve seen better family-friendly adventure films that take place mostly in a jungle.

Jack Whitehall, Emily Blunt and Dwayne Johnson in “Jungle Cruise” (Photo by Frank Masi/Disney Enterprises, Inc.)

Overstuffed with generic villains and too rambling for its own good, “Jungle Cruise” offers nothing new or exciting to people who’ve seen higher-quality and more unique adventure films with a jungle at the center of the action. It’s a bland misfire that borrows heavily from 1981’s “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and 1951’s “The African Queen.” Viewers already know how a movie like “Jungle Cruise” is going to end, so “Jungle Cruise” needed to have other elements to make it stand out from similar movies that have a wisecracking male hero and his adventurous love interest who wants to be treated as his equal. Unfortunately, “Jungle Cruise” is stuck in a rut of mediocrity that will make this movie forgettable soon after watching it.

At a total running time of 127 minutes, “Jungle Cruise” over-indulges in characters and scenes that weren’t needed for the movie. Children under the age of 8 and people with very short attention spans might get bored or irritated by the unnecessary convolutions to the plot, which just weigh the story down more than stagnant muck in a jungle swamp. Don’t be surprised if some parts of the movie will make you want to go to sleep.

Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, “Jungle Cruise” was written by Glenn Ficarra, John Requa and Michael Green. The extraneous plot contrivances seem entirely designed to stretch out the movie’s running time, as if the writers were afraid that that sticking to a simple concept wouldn’t work. In addition, too many parts of the movie seem forced and very fake, such as the romance between the male and female protagonists.

There are also some heavy-handed references to sexism and feminism that are repeated to irksome levels, as if the “Jungle Cruise” filmmakers think viewers are too dimwitted to notice the first three times these same references are in the movie. A running commentary in “Jungle Cruise” is that some of the men can’t believe that the female protagonist is wearing pants. The male protagonist even starts calling her “Pants” as a nickname. It’s a tired joke that wears very thin quickly. And the “feminism” messages in “Jungle Cruise” come across as extremely phony when this movie’s cast members who get top billing are several men but only one woman.

“Jungle Cruise” takes place in 1912, but there are flashbacks throughout the story to previous centuries. The movie opens with a voiceover explanation about the ancient legend that serves as the catalyst for this story. (The musical score during this intro uses an instrumental version of Metallica’s 1991 ballad “Nothing Else Matters,” which is kind of distracting for viewers who know this song.)

In the Legend of the Tears of the Moon, a magical tree called Tears of the Moon exists in the Amazon jungle. This tree has a petal that can cure any illness and break any curse. Over centuries, many explorers sought to find this petal. One of these explorers was a Spanish conquistador from the 1500s named Don Lope de Aguirre (played by Edgar Ramírez), also known as Aguirre, who got injured during his exploration and was found by the guardians of the tree.

After these guardians nursed Aguirre back to health, he demanded that the guardians give him a sacred arrowhead, which is believed to be the key to finding the Tears of the Moon. Aguirre and his conquistadors attacked the guardians, and the jungle fought back. (And yes, there are predictable scenes of trees coming to life and using their branches to tie up people.) As a result, Aguirre was cursed and held captive by the jungle trees for eternity.

In London in 1912, botanist MacGregor Houghton (played by Jack Whitehall) is making a presentation pitch to an all-male group of high-society members in a museum lecture hall. He’s reading a speech from index cards that were written by his much-smarter sister Dr. Lily Houghton (played by Emily Blunt), a researcher who is watching nervously from the balcony. MacGregor wants to convince this group of elites that the Legend of the Tears of the Moon is real, so that they can invest in a trip that MacGregor and Lily want to take to the Amazon jungle to find this magical tree.

MacGregor is fairly unskilled at public speaking (or he didn’t take the time to rehearse his speech), because on the index cards, where Lily wrote in parentheses “pause for dramatic effect,” he actually reads out loud the words “pause for dramatic effect.” MacGregor’s speech is not well-received, to put it mildlly. He gets a resounding “no” from the group when requesting funding for the exploration trip.

As McGregor verbally flounders and gets flustered on stage, Lily sneaks off into an off-limits room to find the sacred arrowhead that supposedly will lead whoever possesses it to the Tears of the Moon tree. She pries open a crate, sees the arrowhead and steals it. But before Lily can leave undetected, she runs into a museum official named Sir James Hobbs-Coddington (played by Andy Nyman), a stern and greedy bureaucrat.

He’s about to secretly sell the arrowhead to a visiting German royal called Prince Joachim (played by Jesse Plemons), who sees that Lily has the arrowhead and demands that she hand it over. A predictable chase ensues in the room with some unrealistic choreography involving a ladder that leads to Lily hanging out of a window where she could fall and die. Prince Joachim has her cornered and tells Lily that if she hands over the arrowhead, he will rescue her.

Lily gives Prince Joachim a small box that she says has the arrowhead, but he pushes her off the building anyway. Just then, a double-decker bus with an open top drives by, and Lily lands in the bus. Inside the building, Prince Joachim sees that what’s inside the box isn’t the arrowhead but a duck-hunting decoy shaped like a toucan. Meanwhile, MacGregor gets kicked out of the lecture hall with perfect timing to be outside in the same place as Lily when she landed. MacGregor and Lily make their getaway on the bus. Yes, it’s that kind of movie.

You know the rest: Lily and MacGregor find a boat navigator who can take them to the Porto Vehlo, Brazil, where their Amazon jungle adventure will begin. He’s a skipper named Frank Wolff (played by Dwayne Johnson), who makes a meager living as a tour guide to visitors on his run-down steamer boat La Quila. One of Frank’s identifying qualities is that he constantly likes to tell jokes with bad puns. People will either find it charming or annoying.

For example, while ferrying a group of unlucky tourists who have to listen to his bad jokes, Frank points out a pair of toucans and says, “Only two can play.” Frank’s “wink and nudge” tone is: “Get it? The words ‘two can’ rhyme with ‘toucan.'”

He tells another groan-inducing pun joke to the people on his boat: “I used to work in an orange juice factory, but I got canned. I couldn’t concentrate. Yeah, they put the squeeze on me too.” A young girl on the boat tour voices what a lot of viewers will be thinking about Frank and his cheesy jokes: “Make him stop!”

“Jungle Cruise” is very self-aware that the jokes are silly, but after a while it does get very tiresome and comes across as lazy screenwriting not to have anything else about Frank’s personality that’s memorable. In fact, one of the reasons why “Jungle Cruise” is so disappointing is that none of the characters in this movie has an outstanding personality. You know a movie is bad when it has three villains/antagonists, and they’re just watered-down versions of many other movie villains.

The most obvious villain is Prince Joachim, who spouts cliché lines and does everything a stereotypical villain does but twirl his moustache. Plemons struggles with having a believable German accent in this role. It’s like he’s trying to do a parody of a Christoph Waltz villain, but it doesn’t land very well because Prince Joachim’s dialogue is so witless. Prince Joachim doesn’t come across as cunning or dangerous as much as he comes across as a spoiled and stupid royal who wants his way.

Another villain is Aguirre, who shows up later in the movie. The “Jungle Cruise” filmmakers wouldn’t have taken all that time in the beginning of the movie to tell viewers who Aguirre is without him making an appearance. Aguirre could’ve had an interesting personality and story arc, but he mostly just growls his words and gets into fights.

A third villain, who’s in the movie for less than 10 minutes, is Nilo (played by Paul Giamatti, speaking in a questionable Italian accent), a rival riverboat tour operator who is after Frank for debts that Frank owes to Nilo. If Frank doesn’t pay up, Nilo will get Frank’s boat. Nilo is probably the movie’s most useless character that has a well-known actor in the role. Most people who see “Jungle Cruise” won’t remember who the Nilo character is and what he does for a living.

There’s a time-wasting sequence where Frank impersonates Nilo when he first meets Lily, who’s looking to hire a boat navigator. She soon finds out who the real Nilo is, so her first impression of Frank is that he’s a liar and a con artist. The expected bickering between Lily and Frank ensues, which we all know will eventually lead to them feeling romantically attracted to each other.

MacGregor is a high-maintenance dandy who’s upset that he can’t take many of his possessions—such as a large wardrobe of clothes and tennis rackets—with him on Frank’s boat. Frank’s way of dealing with this issue of MacGregor’s extra luggage is to throw away the luggage in the water. How rude. Later in the movie, it’s implied but not said directly that MacGregor is a semi-closeted gay man. MacGregor talks about how grateful he is that Lily is his sister, because she protects him from being persecuted.

Frank has a pet leopard named Proxima, which is introduced in the movie in a very dubious way: Frank has trained the leopard to scare people away in a restaurant. How is that supposed to be funny? The visual effects for this CGI leopard are not very convincing. It looks every inch like the computer-generated animal that it is.

In fact, all of the visual effects in “Jungle Cruise” are very ho-hum or look bogus enough to be distracting to the movie. The hair and makeup are overdone for Lily, who looks too polished in certain action scenes, where realistically her makeup would’ve sweated off of her face, and her hair would be lot more disheveled.

As for the “jungle adventure,” Frank, Lily and MacGregor have the predictable experiences with jungle tribes, as well as chase scenes with Prince Joachim and his henchmen. There’s also the “eccentric exotic person” who seems to be in every jungle movie. In “Jungle Cruise,” this character is a tribe leader named Trader Sam (played by Veronica Falcón), who becomes an ally to these adventurers. And there are more bad pun jokes from Frank.

But when it’s revealed that Frank has a secret identity, that makes the movie go off the rails. Without giving away too much information, it’s enough to say that Frank’s secret identity meant that he grew up in a country where English is not the primary language. However, Frank has a very American accent throughout the movie. This discrepancy can be explained by Frank living enough of his adult life in the U.S. that he now has an American accent.

But the movie’s tone gets a little too dark for a family film when Frank says that he wants to die. (And it’s not a joke.) It puts a weird damper on the rest of the “adventure,” because it’s an unnecessary death wish for the hero of the story to have, after it’s made obvious that he has romantic feelings for Lily. (And yes, they’ve already kissed each other at this point.) Apparently, no one told Frank that telling a potential lover that you want to die is not the way to romance someone.

Anyway, we all know that this “death wish” is a very manipulative part of the story just to create unnecessary drama. After all, why kill off the hero when there are potential “Jungle Cruise” sequels to be made? Do the filmmakers really think viewers are that stupid?

The chemistry between Johnson and Blunt isn’t convincing enough to make Frank and Lily look like they could be in a real long-lasting relationship. Sparring partners in arguments? Yes. But as romantic partners? No. “Jungle Cruise” tries very hard to make it look like Frank and Lily are a great couple. But after this trip is over, it’s hard to imagine that Frank and Lily would enjoy each other’s company and have a lot to talk about in their everyday lives.

In “Jungle Cruise,” Johnson and Blunt do versions of characters that they’ve already played in other movies. There’s nothing fresh or intriguing about their “Jungle Cruise” performances. Johnson just isn’t very good at portraying someone from an era that happened before he was born. The way he talks and his mannerisms are better suited for roles that take place in his contemporary time period.

Everything about “Jungle Cruise” (which is inspired by the Jungle Cruise theme park ride at Disneyland and Disney World) is supposed to be fun, original and adventurous. Instead, too much of it looks and sounds over-calculated and ripped off from other movies. (And the hackneyed “Jungle Cruise” musical score by James Newton Howard is overbearing at times.)

There’s a pivotal scene in “Jungle Cruise” where an entire jungle lights up in purple, but it looks like it was copied from a pivotal scene in Pixar’s 2017 Oscar-winning film “Coco.” Simply put: “Jungle Cruise” takes no bold or creative risks when it could have. “Jungle Cruise” is more like “Jungle Snooze.”

Walt Disney Pictures will release “Jungle Cruise” in U.S. cinemas and at a premium extra cost on Disney+ on July 30, 2021. 

Review: ‘Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins,’ starring Henry Golding

July 22, 2021

by Carla Hay

Henry Golding and Takehiro Hira in “Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins” (Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures/Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures/Skydance)

“Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins”

Directed by Robert Schwentke

Culture Representation: Taking place in Japan and briefly in Washington state and Los Angeles, the fantasy action flick “Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins” features a predominantly Asian cast (with some white people and African Americans) portraying a heroic ancient Japanese clan called Arashikage and the story’s villains.

Culture Clash: Members of Arashikage battle against villains from a group called Cobra, who want to take over the world.

Culture Audience: Besides the obvious target audience of people who are fans of the “G.I. Joe” games and franchise, “Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching mindless action flicks that don’t offer anything new or exciting to the genre.

Peter Mensah, Iko Uwais, Haruka Abe, Henry Golding and Andrew Koji in “Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins” (Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures/Metro Goldwyn Mayer Pictures/Skydance)

The “G.I. Joe” movies never had a reputation for being well-made action classics. “Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins” won’t do anything to change that reputation. It’s a frequently dull parade of sloppily filmed action clichés and no-talent acting by some of the movie’s cast members.

No one is expecting this movie to be an Oscar-caliber film. But there should be a reasonable expectation that the action scenes will be memorable and exciting and the characters will be engaging. Instead, “Snake Eyes: G.I . Joe Origins” (directed by Robert Schwentke) follows the same, lazy formula of forgettable B-movies about people who use martial arts skills in battles of good versus evil. B-movies have just a small fraction of the reported $88 million production budget that “Snake Eyes” had, but in many ways, “Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins” doesn’t look like money well-spent.

The movie opens with an origin story cliché of a male hero in an action movie: He becomes an orphan as a child. It’s 20 years ago, in a heavily wooded area of Washington state, where a young Snake Eyes (played by Max Archibald), who’s about 11 or 12 years old and apparently doesn’t have a regular name, and his unnamed father (played by Steven Allerick) are hiding in the woods. Snake Eyes’ father doesn’t want to alarm his son, so he makes it look like they’re on some kind of adventure. (Snake Eyes’ mother is not seen or mentioned in the story.)

Father and son go to a safe house, where Snake Eyes’ father tells Snake Eyes to lock himself into a room. “Do not move, no matter what happens.” But something does happen: A ruthless villain named Mr. Augustine (played by Samuel Finzi) shows up with two thugs. Mr. Augustin rolls a pair of dice, which each end face up with a “number one”, also known as a “snake eyes” total.

Mr. Augustine and his goons rough up the father, and Snake Eyes runs out of the room to come to his father’s defense. Snake Eyes’ father is shot and killed, and Snake Eyes runs away into the woods. Before Mr. Augustine and his henchmen leave, they burn down the house.

Twenty years later, Snake Eyes (played by Henry Golding) is (cliché alert) an emotionally damaged loner living on the edge of society. He’s a drifter somewhere on the West Coast of the United States. Snake Eyes has made it his mission in life to find his father’s murderer, and kill him for revenge. Snake Eyes apparently doesn’t do much else with his life but get into brawls with strangers.

In this particular moment when viewers first see the adult Snake Eyes, he is in a brutal fight with several men, and he’s able to take on all of them, even though he’s outnumbered. (Get used to this type of unrealistic spectacle, because this movie has a lot of them.) There’s someone who’s watching this fight who’s very impressed with Snake Eyes’ fighting skills. His name is Kenta Takanura (played by Takehiro Hira), who recruits Snake Eyes to work for him. “I could use a guy like you,” Kenta tells Snake Eyes.

The next thing you know, Snake Eyes is at the Port of Los Angeles four weeks later. He’s at a warehouse filled with an all-male crew of workers who are hiding guns in large gutted fish. Snake Eyes gets suspicious over this obvious illegal activity, so Kenta tests Snake Eyes to see what kind of loyalty he has. Kenta orders Snake Eyes to shoot and kill Kenta’s cousin Tommy (played by Takehiro Hira), who is also a worker at the warehouse, but Snakes Eyes refuses to do it.

Instead, Snake Eyes and Koji fight off several men in the warehouse, and the two escape by trying to drive off in a truck. However, the warehouse workers, who apparently are secret ninjas too, attack the truck by plunging several swords through the truck’s roof and windows while Snake Eyes and Tommy are inside. Apparently, none of these ninja villains thought to use the swords on the truck’s tires.

This is the type of ridiculous fight scene that litters “Snake Eyes” with mind-numbing repetition of the heroes getting out of seemingly “impossible” situations, even though they’re outnumbered and surrounded. Cops from the Los Angeles Police Department show up at the scene of the truck attack, but then the movie inexplicably cuts to Snake Eyes waking up on a luxury private plane with Tommy.

What happened after the cops showed up? Was anyone arrested? The movie doesn’t reveal any of that information, so viewers will have to assume that everything worked out for Tommy and Snake Eyes, because now they’re hanging out on a private plane as if they’re jetset adventurers. The plane is not a ramshackle aircraft: It’s first-class, with luxury amenities and staffed with attractive female flight attendants. Who’s paying for all it?

Snake Eyes is about to find out. The plane is headed to Japan, where Tommy reveals that he’s a member of a heroic ancient Japanese clan called Arashikage. Tommy is grateful that Snake Eyes saved his life, so he invites Snake Eyes to consider joining Arashikage. The leader of Arashikage is Himiko (played by Eri Ishida), a no-nonsense and traditional elderly woman who will decide if Snake Eyes can become a member of the clan.

And you know what that means: More busy-looking, logic-defying fights so that Snake Eyes can prove his worth. He has to complete three different “challenges of the warrior” before Himiko can approve Snake Eyes to Arashikage. Not surprisingly, the third and final challenge is supposed to be the hardest.

“Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins” is one of the worst-lit and wobbliest action movies you might see in recent memory. For a movie that’s not set in outer space or a location underneath the ground, the lighting is way too dark in many scenes, even when the scenes are during the day. Maybe all this dark lighting and shaky camera work (from cinematographer Bojan Bazelli) are so viewers won’t notice how mediocre the fight choreography is.

One of the few scenes in the movie that’s well-lit is at a visually striking location where there are hundreds of lighted Japanese lamps on display. It’s one of the best set designs for this overall unimpressive movie. Good set designs are wasted though when the story isn’t written well. Evan Spiliotopoulos, Anna Waterhouse and Joe Shrapnel wrote the screenplay for “Snake Eyes: G.I . Joe Origins.”

All of the movie’s characters, including Snake Eyes, are very generic. The actors are stuck with playing two-dimensional characters, with only Snake Eyes having anything that can be called a backstory. This is a pure action film: There are no distracting love stories or even a hint that these characters have personal lives. Kenta and Tommy are cousins who’ve become enemies, but their family dynamics and family history are mostly ignored in the movie.

Other characters who interact with Snake Eyes include three people who are tasked with supervising Snake Eyes in his challenges: Blind Master (played by Peter Mensah), Hard Master (played by Iko Uwais) and Akiki (played by Haruka Abe), who is Arashikage’s head of security. Akiki is skeptical of a lot of Snake Eyes’ abilities and belief, so Akiki and Snakes inevitably disagree with each other. It’s a bit of a stretch to describe their conflicts as “personality conflicts,” because you have to have a personality in the first place, and these characters have none.

Samara Weaving plays an Arashikage ally called Scarlett, but she’s not in the movie as much as a lot of viewers might think she is. There’s a female villain called Baroness (played by Úrsula Corberó), who displays the stiffest acting out of all the principal cast members. It’s hard to take a villain seriously when the person playing the villain has acting that’s so bad, it’s a distraction. Instead of the Baroness, she should’ve been called the Boringness.

And what about Snake Eyes’ quest to avenge the death of his father? The movie doesn’t forget about that. This revenge subplot is handled in a very predictable way, if you know before watching “Snake Eyes” that it’s been rated a family-friendly movie for people over the age of 12. The most obvous sign that the movie doesn’t too heavy with any violence is because there’s a lot of fighting with swords and other weapons, but there’s hardly any blood in sight.

A few of the fight scenes end too abruptly, which are signs of careless screenwriting and editing. For example, there’s a scene where Snake Eyes is trapped somewhere with attackers, and someone in Arashikage swoops in to come to his rescue. But viewers never get to see the rescue. Instead, the next scene just cuts to Snake Eyes and his rescuer back at Arashikage headquarters, as if nothing happened.

The movie makes a half-hearted attempt to throw in a few surprise curveballs, by showing one or two characters who have “fluid alliances.” But it just comes across as phony and not the shocking twist that this movie needed to liven up this formulaic story. The characters are so underwritten that viewers won’t feel like they know any of them well enough to get a sense of what the characters want to do with their lives besides join in on a fight when needed.

And if viewers are expecting an awe-inspiring mega-weapon in the movie, forget it. There’s a glowing red gem (about the size of small vase) that has the power to make people burst into flames. For a movie that cost $88 million to make, it’s kind of pathetic that’s the best they could come up with for the story’s most-coveted deadly weapon.

The visual effects in “Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins” aren’t going to be nominated for any awards. In a film called “Snake Eyes,” there are inevitable snakes in multiple action scenes. In this movie, they’re giant anacondas. But the suspense in these scenes almost becomes laughable, when Snake Eyes closes his eyes and uses a meditation technique where the meditation energy will supposedly make the attackers peaceful and willing to back away. If you want to believe that giant anacondas can tap into an inner Zen in the middle of an attack, go right ahead.

Viewers will feel like closing their eyes for a different reason: The movie is so tedious that it could put some people to sleep. You could fall asleep in the middle of the film and still know exactly what’s going happen by the end of the film. And it does. It’s all just a set-up for a sequel.

Paramount Pictures will release “Snake Eyes: G,.I. Joe Origins” in U.S. cinemas on July 23, 2021.