Review: ‘Top Gun: Maverick,’ starring Tom Cruise

May 12, 2022

by Carla Hay

Miles Teller and Tom Cruise in “Top Gun: Maverick” (Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures)

“Top Gun: Maverick”

Directed by Joseph Kosinski

Culture Representation: Taking place in California, the action film “Top Gun: Maverick” features a cast of predominantly white characters (with some African Americans and Latinos) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: U.S. Navy Captain Pete “Maverick” Mitchell returns to the TOPGUN aviator program, where he reluctantly becomes an instructor for new recruits, including a man who blames Maverick for damaging his career and causing his father’s death. 

Culture Audience: “Top Gun: Maverick” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Tom Cruise, 1986’s “Top Gun” and any formulaic action sequel that is a virtual copy of its predecessor.

Jennifer Connelly and Tom Cruise in “Top Gun: Maverick” (Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures)

“Top Gun: Maverick” is an uninspired, outdated retread of 1986’s “Top Gun,” but with more implausible scenarios and with no women in military leadership positions. Even the original songs in this sequel are forgettable. While “Top Gun: Maverick” has more racial diversity than the first “Top Gun” movie, the people of color in the movie are still relegated to “sidekick” and forgettable roles. “Top Gun: Maverick” makes the same mistake that a lot of sequels do: Copying the same plot as the first movie without improving it.

What makes this mistake less acceptable is that “Top Gun: Maverick” has arrived 36 years after the release of the first “Top Gun” movie. That’s plenty of time to think up ways to take the movie in innovative and clever directions. (By contrast, Cruise’s “Mission: Impossible” movie franchise keeps things fresh with stories and action scenes that are unique to each movie.) Directed by Joseph Kosinski, “Top Gun: Maverick” was originally supposed to be released in 2020, but it was delayed multiple times because of the COVID-19 pandemic and other reasons. The movie was filmed before the pandemic.

A sequel should have familiar elements of its predecessor. It doesn’t mean that a sequel should rehash a predecessor’s plot. Ehren Kruger, Eric Warren Singer and Christopher McQuarrie wrote the formulaic and disappointing screenplay for “Top Gun: Maverick,” which essentially regurgitates the same story in “Top Gun.”

Both movies are about the U.S. Navy’s Fighter Weapons School at Naval Air Station Miramar in San Diego. This elite school is nicknamed TOPGUN. Both movies are about a hotshot young TOPGUN school airplane pilot clashing with an arrogant rival classmate while being haunted by the death of a loved one and facing a big challenge in the training program.

In “Top Gun,” Cruise’s Pete “Maverick” Mitchell character (played by Tom Cruise) was the hotshot student. In “Top Gun: Maverick,” he’s the main TOPGUN instructor, who has to teach his group of TOPGUN graduates how to fight in a secretive government mission targeting an unsanctioned uranium nuclear plant. In a case of history repeating itself, “Top Gun: Maverick” also has a funeral scene when someone close to Maverick dies.

Eddie Murphy’s horrible 2021 comedy Coming 2 America (the long-awaited sequel to 1988’s “Coming to America”) made the same mistake of lazily copying the same basic plot of its predecessor and trying to make the story look new by introducing a younger generation of new characters. “Coming 2 America” had even worse results, because of the movie’s awful racism and sexism, including making a joke out of an African American woman getting pregnant after she drugged and raped a man. “Top Gun: Maverick” isn’t as offensively bad as “Coming 2 America,” but the movie still has a “stuck in the 1980s” mindset that looks out of place in a movie that’s supposed to take place in the 21st century.

The first “Top Gun” movie (directed by Tony Scott, who died in 2012, at the age of 68) had only two or three people of color in the entire movie. They were African American men who were mostly put in the background. Only one of the African American men was allowed to speak in the movie, and he was literally given just two minor sentences to say. “Top Gun” was written by Jim Cash and Jack Epps Jr.

To its credit, “Top Gun: Maverick” has a lot more racial diversity in its cast. There are some African American and Latino characters who say more than a few sentences, but their personalities are very hollow and generic. Needless to say, the people of color in “Top Gun” Maverick” do not get backstories or a significant storyline in the movie.

“Top Gun: Maverick” also falters in its depiction of women, who are once again made into token characters. But in “Top Gun: Maverick,” the depiction of the women goes in a backwards direction, because there are no women shown in positions of power in the U.S. miliary or in the TOPGUN training program. Women have come a long way in the U.S. military since 1986, but you’d never know it from watching “Top Gun: Maverick,” which puts only men in military leadership positions.

At least in “Top Gun,” one of the main characters was an intelligent woman in a position of power, even though she was still a token: Charlotte “Charlie” Blackwood (played by Kelly McGillis), a civilian and an astrophysicist, who was an instructor in the TOPGUN program. Charlie and Maverick became romantically involved with each other. The movie realistically shows that Charlie was conflicted about this relationship because of how it might compromise her professional judgment and reputation. McGillis shared top billing with Cruise in “Top Gun.” In “Top Gun: Maverick,” Cruise is one of the movie’s producers, and he’s the only star who gets top billing.

The only other woman in “Top Gun” who had a significant speaking role (but got a lot less screen time than Charlie) was bubbly and outgoing Carole Bradshaw (played by Meg Ryan), the wife of Lieutenant Nick “Goose” Bradshaw (played by Anthony Edwards), who was Maverick’s best friend and Radar Intercept Officer, also known as a “wingman.” Carole and Goose have a son, who’s about 5 or 6 years old in the movie. In “Top Gun,” Goose died in a tragic accident during a training session with Maverick as the pilot. Maverick was cleared of any wrongdoing, but he’s been guilt-ridden about Goose’s death ever since.

Charlie and Carole are not in “Top Gun: Maverick” because these female characters weren’t even considered for this sequel, according to interviews that director Kosinski has given about the movie. Charlie is not mentioned in “Top Gun: Maverick.” Carole is briefly mentioned because she’s dead, having passed away for an untold number of years before this story takes place. In other words, the “Top Gun: Maverick” filmmakers killed off the Carole Bradshaw character.

In “Top Gun: Maverick,” the son of Goose and Carole is all grown up now. And just like his father, he’s a U.S. Navy lieutenant who’s now a trainee in the TOPGUN program. His name is Bradley “Rooster” Bradshaw (played by Miles Teller), and he’s got a chip on his shoulder and a lot to prove because he’s living in the shadow of his dead father, who was considered a military hero. If those “daddy issues” sound familiar, it’s exactly what Maverick was going through when he went through the TOPGUN training program. Maverick’s high-ranking U.S. Navy father was on a top-secret government mission when he went missing and is presumed dead.

Rooster knows that Maverick was not responsible for Goose’s death, but Rooster still has hard feelings toward Maverick over his father’s untimely passing. Rooster also resents Maverick because Maverick blocked Rooster from getting into the U.S. Naval Academy. Unbeknownst to Rooster, Maverick did so at the request of Rooster’s mother Carole, who didn’t want Rooster to be in the military. It was only after Carole died that Rooster was able to enroll in the U.S. Naval Academy.

In the beginning of “Top Gun: Maverick,” Maverick still has the ranking of captain. It’s explained that he has not been promoted for all these years because he has a tendency to be rebellious and reckless. However, the U.S. Navy has kept him on as a test pilot because of his extraordinary pilot skills. It’s mentioned in the movie that’s he’s the only pilot in the U.S. Navy to shoot down 30 enemy planes.

Maverick is considered a dinosaur relic from a bygone era by several high-ranking people in the U.S. Navy. Some of those people think he needs to be honorably discharged, but Maverick loves his military job too much to leave, and he is being protected by Admiral Tom “Iceman” Kazansky (played by Val Kilmer), who has a small supporting role in “Top Gun: Maverick.” As shown in the first “Top Gun” movie, Iceman (also played by Kilmer) was Maverick’s biggest rival in the TOPGUN program. However, they eventually became friends with deep respect for each other.

In California’s Mohave Desert, Maverick is part of a program that is being shut down because it hasn’t met Mach 10 standards. Rear Admiral Chester “Hammer” Cain (played by Ed Harris) is coming to the naval base for the official cancellation of the program. To embarrass him, Maverick takes a plane in the air, and not only hits the Mach 10 target, but he also exceeds it. But by doing so, he ends up flaming out, but how Maverick lands the plane is never shown. All that’s shown is that he comes back looking dirty and disheveled, without any injuries.

This unauthorized use of a military plane for a showoff stunt would be grounds for serious disciplinary action in the real world. But in this make-believe world where Maverick is supposed to be a roguish hero, time and time again, he gets let off the hook for his flagrant insubordination. Hammer tells Maverick with begrudging respect, “You’ve got some balls, stick jockey. I’ll give you that.” Get used to hokey dialogue like this in “Top Gun: Maverick,” because the movie is full of it.

Now that Maverick’s program has been shuttered, he’s been assigned to do something he doesn’t want to do: Go back to the TOPGUN program in San Diego to be an instructor. Maverick is one of those people who believes in that old saying, “Those who can’t do, teach.” In other words, he thinks this teaching job is for someone who’s a has-been or a never-was, who doesn’t have what it takes to currently be a pilot.

Admiral Beau “Cyclone” Simpson (played by Jon Hamm) is one of the Navy officials who is gunning for Maverick to leave the Navy. He even says as much, when he tells Maverick: “The future is coming, and you’re not in it.” Cyclone has a sidekick named Admiral Solomon “Warlock” Bates (played by Charles Parnell), who doesn’t do much but be in the same room as Cyclone and go along with almost everything that Cyclone says. However, Warlock has a few moments where he shows that he’s really rooting for Maverick. The same goes for Warrant Officer-1 Bernie “Hondo” Coleman (played by Bashir Salahuddin), who makes some bland wisecracks during the movie.

Maverick has to choose six of his 12 students to go on the secret mission to disable the uranium plant, which is set to activate in about three weeks. Predictably, Rooster and Maverick clash with each other. At one point, Rooster yells at Maverick: “My dad believed in you. I’m not going to make the same mistake!”

More than once in the movie, Maverick tells his trainees to ignore what they were taught in the Navy’s rulebook, and he says some variation of “Don’t think, just do” He expects them to not overthink things and to trust their instincts. Of course, in Maverick’s lectures about not following what authority figures say, he thinks he’s the exception, because he wants to be the only authority figure who must be obeyed in this program.

In addition to Rooster, the other students in the program include Rooster’s smirking, cocky rival Lieutenant Jake “Hangman” Seresin (played by Glen Powell), whose personality is a virtual replica of how Iceman was in the first “Top Gun” movie. Hangman tries to find emotional weakness in Rooster to have a competitive advantage. When Hangman discovers Rooster’s “daddy issues” and why Rooster has tensions with Maverick, it leads to the inevitable fist fight between Hangman and Rooster.

The token woman in this group of chosen trainees is Lieutenant Natasha “Phoenix”
Trace (played by Monica Barbaro), who doesn’t have much of a personality, except trying to fit in with the guys. Lieutenant Robert “Bob” Floyd (played by Lewis Pullman) has the role of the nerd who’s somewhat of social outcast in this competitive group. Bob gets teased because he hasn’t thought up a flashy nickname, also known as a call sign, like all the other TOPGUN aviators.

The other trainees do not have distinguishable personalities and are given very trite dialogue. They include Lieutenant Reuben “Payback” Fitch (played by Jay Ellis); Lieutenant Mickey “Fanboy” Garcia (played by Danny Ramirez); and Lt. Javy “Coyote” Machado (played by Greg Tarzan Davis). Most viewers of “Top Gun: Maverick” will have a hard time remembering these three characters’ names and what they said by the time the movie is over.

Unlike the first “Top Gun” movie, which showed the male trainees carousing at bars and trying to pick up women, the trainees in “Top Gun” are a much tamer crew. When they go to a bar, they gather around a piano and sing Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Great Balls of Fire,” with Rooster playing the piano. Maverick sees this camaraderie, and it triggers him to have a flashback memory to when he, Goose and other TOPGUN trainees did the same thing, with Goose’s young son sitting nearby for the sing-along. (This scene from “Top Gun” is shown as a flashback.)

Speaking of bars where these TOPGUN people hang out, the main bar they go to is The Hard Deck aviators’ club. It just happens to be owned and bartended by Penny Benjamin (played by Jennifer Connelly), who is the daughter of a U.S. Navy admiral. Penny was briefly mentioned, but never seen, in the first “Top Gun” movie as one of the many conquests whom ladies’ man Maverick got sexually involved with and then dumped.

Penny is now a divorced mother to a daughter named Amelia Benjamin (played by Lyliana Wray), who’s about 13 or 14 years old. Penny’s ex-husband, who is never seen in “Top Gun: Maverick,” has remarried and is living in Hawaii. It’s implied that never-married bachelor Maverick and Penny have had an on-again/off-again relationship, where Maverick left her heartbroken because he ended things with her every time. When Penny sees Maverick again all these years later, she predictably gives him a hard time for breaking up with her.

But just as predictably, she eventually lets him back into her life, and they rekindle their romance. Maverick and Penny look good together as a couple, but they don’t generate as much romantic heat as Maverick had with Charlie. Although Penny is a business owner, her role is essentially to be a generic love interest who follows Maverick’s lead when he courts her and succeeds in winning a place back into her heart.

Penny initially wants to keep this rekindled romance a secret from her daughter Amelia, who inevitably finds out anyway. Even after it’s no longer a secret, Maverick doesn’t spend any quality time with Amelia, which he would care about doing if he’s serious about a relationship with Penny. That’s why Maverick’s level of commitment to Penny is questionable, no matter how many “romantic” scenes are shown of Penny riding with Maverick on the back of his motorcycle. This scenario of Maverick giving his love interest a motorcycle ride is also recycled from the first “Top Gun” movie.

“Top Gun: Maverick” delivers when it comes to the airplane action scenes (with the F/A-18 being the airplane of choice), but too much of the movie is tediously predictable recycling of plot points and scenes from the first “Top Gun” movie. The scene of Maverick on a motorcycle while playfully racing a soaring fighter plane is recreated. It’s in the movie for pure nostalgia reasons for people who saw the first “Top Gun” movie.

Another recycled scene takes place at a beach where the TOPGUN aviators are playing a sports game together in their free time. In “Top Gun,” it was volleyball. In “Top Gun: Maverick,” it’s touch football. This beach frolicking scene only seems to be in the movie so that Cruise and the other men can be shirtless and show off their toned physiques. Even the closing credits scene is styled exactly like the first “Top Gun” movie.

One of the highlights of “Top Gun: Maverick” is a poignant scene between Maverick and Iceman, who is battling throat cancer, just Kilmer is in real life. However, “Top Gun: Maverick” ends up being marred by too many unrealistic scenarios. There’s even more disregard of real-life U.S. military protocol than what was in the first “Top Gun” movie. Maverick does things that would get him dishonorably discharged in the real world—but of course he doesn’t get discharged, because this is a Tom Cruise movie. And the ending of “Top Gun: Maverick” is even more cornball than the ending of the first “Top Gun” movie.

The “Top Gun” soundtrack was the biggest-selling soundtrack of 1986. And it’s easy to know why. People who’ve seen the first “Top Gun” movie know how the music was used to great effect. Kenny Loggins’ “Danger Zone” song fueled a high-energy scene early in the movie. Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away” memorably played during a romantic scene between Charlie and Maverick on the night that they became lovers. Those two signature “Top Gun” songs were instant classics that stayed in viewers’ minds long after seeing the movie. Although “Top Gun” got some criticism for being filmed almost like a music video, there’s no denying that the movie’s music was one of its biggest assets.

Unfortunately, “Top Gun: Maverick” has an utterly mediocre soundtrack, with songs that have been used in many other movies, such as Foghat’s “Slow Ride” and T. Rex’s “Bang a Gong (Get It On).” There’s nothing wrong with these tunes, but they’re overplayed in too many other places. And because “Top Gun: Maverick” is a movie of rehashes, “Danger Zone” also makes a reappearance. The original soundtrack songs on “Top Gun: Maverick,” such as Lady Gaga’s “Hold My Hand,” won’t be winning any Oscars, like Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away.”

Viewers who will enjoy “Top Gun” the most are those who want to see a superficial recreation of the first “Top Gun” movie. But for other people who know that “Top Gun: Maverick” could have been a lot better, the movie falls short in coming up with any major story arc that would be truly original and daring for this sequel. The performances in “Top Gun Maverick” aren’t terrible, but they aren’t that special either. In the end, “Top Gun: Maverick,” just like its main character, is stuck in a rut of reliving past glories, and ends up having more swagger and posturing than any real substance.

Paramount Pictures will release “Top Gun: Maverick” in U.S. cinemas on May 27, 2022.

Review: ‘Memory’ (2022), starring Liam Neeson, Guy Pearce and Monica Bellucci

April 29, 2022

by Carla Hay

Liam Neeson in “Memory” (Photo courtesy of Open Road Films/Briarcliff Entertainment)

“Memory” (2022)

Directed by Martin Campbell 

Culture Representation: Taking place in Mexico and Texas, the action film “Memory” has a predominantly white cast of characters (with some Latinos, Asians and African Americans) representing the working-class, middle-class, wealthy and the criminal underground.

Culture Clash: An assassin, who’s in the early stages of having Alzheimer’s disease, goes after people involved in child sex trafficking, as his memory begins to falter.

Culture Audience: “Memory” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Liam Neeson and anyone who cares more about shootouts and other violence in a movie instead of a movie having a good story.

Monica Bellucci and Guy Pearce in “Memory” (Photo courtesy of Open Road Films/Briarcliff Entertainment)

Liam Neeson and the filmmakers of “Memory” sink to new lows of action movie schlock with the tacky gimmick of making Neeson’s character a forgetful assassin with Alzheimer’s disease. “Memory” mishandles this debilitating disease in ways that go behind cringeworthy and are downright insulting to people who really have suffered from this terrible illness. Alzheimer’s disease robs people of the ability to remember and communicate clearly. “Memory” robs viewers who are unlucky enough to waste time and/or money watching this garbage film.

Directed by Martin Campbell and written by Dario Scardapane, “Memory” (which takes place in Mexico and Texas) is an inferior remake of director Erik Van Looy’s 2003 Belgian film “The Memory of a Killer.” Because “Memory” is based on a movie of much higher quality than this sloppy remake, it has a little bit more of a complex plot than the simplistic action junk that Neeson usually churns out with robotic regularity. However, “Memory” still manages to be a remake that pollutes the story with a lot of hackneyed stereotypes and stupid scenarios.

“Memory” starts out looking like a typical B-level crime thriller, repeating the same concept for almost all of the action movies starring Neeson. But somewhere in the middle of the film, “Memory” takes a steep nosedive into idiocy that at times can be painfully dull. There’s also very little suspense or mystery, because everything happens in such a predictable way.

In these formulaic flicks, Neeson portrays an “anti-hero” who kills people out of revenge or out of necessity because he really just wants to save helpless victims. The victims he wants to save are usually women and/or children. Neeson’s choices in starring in action movies with these repetitive plots indicate that he has a serious complex/fixation on wanting to portray “murderers with a heart of gold.”

The opening scene repeats a familiar murder scenario that’s been seen most of Neeson’s action films. In “Memory,” Neeson portrays an assassin-for-hire named Alex Lewis. The movie’s first scene takes place in Guadalajara, Mexico, where Alex is disguised as a hospital orderly on duty in the room where an elderly woman is bedridden and using an oxygen tube to breathe. Somehow, Alex knows exactly when this woman’s thuggish-looking son is going to visit.

It’s never really explained why this son is target of the murder that Alex is about to commit, but this unnamed target is first seen swaggering through the hospital with a bouquet of flowers. He leers at the hospital receptionist and flirts with her in a way that’s borderline inappropriate. She seems to like the attention though, and she smiles when it looks like he’s leaving the bouquet of flowers for her. But he smirks when he pulls the flowers away and says that the flowers aren’t for her. She looks dejected and embarrassed as he walks away.

The only purpose for this scene is to make this unnamed man look like a jerk, so viewers won’t feel much sympathy for him when Alex ambushes the man in the hospital room and strangles him to death with a wire. The man had gone to the hospital with a male companion, who didn’t accompany the man in the room when this murder took place. There is no explanation for who these men really are, because Alex isn’t really supposed to care either.

It’s the beginning of more mindless (no pun intended) scenes in “Memory,” which has Alex commit a string of badly staged murders that are too unrealistic, even in a stupid action movie. In one of the murders, Alex is in a public parking garage and ties his victim to the steering wheel of a car. And then he blows up the car, as if this parking garage doesn’t have any surveillance cameras.

In another unrealistic murder scene (shown in the “Memory” trailer), Alex shoots a man on the other side of a window in a public gym. The murder victim is on a treadmill, when the window shatters from Alex’s gunshots. A woman on a treadmill is in the same room just about a dozen feet away, but viewers are supposed to believe that, because she’s wearing headphones, she doesn’t hear the gunshots, the glass shattering, or the thud of the victim’s body hitting the floor. Meanwhile, Alex just casually walks away after gunning down this murder victim.

“Memory” also rehashes another cliché in a Neeson action movie: His character wants to quit the criminal lifestyle and “go straight.” In “Memory,” the reason why Alex wants to suddenly become an upstanding citizen is not because he has a guilty conscience about all the people he’s killed but it’s because he’s losing his ability to remember. In other words, Alex knows he will become an incompetent assassin, so he wants to quit while he’s ahead, to prevent his assassin reputation from being ruined.

It’s revealed fairly early on in the movie that Alex has an older brother who has Alzheimer’s disease and is in a nursing home, where Alex visits him and bitterly snaps at a nurse who gives Alex some helpful information. And what a coincidence: Alex has all the signs of early onset Alzheimer’s disease. He’s taking medication for it. And in one of the murder scenes, Alex accidentally drops his bottle of prescription pills at the crime scene.

After committing the hospital murder in Guadalajara, Alex is next seen in Mexico City, where he meets up with an assassin colleague named Mauricio (played by Lee Boardman), who is upset that Alex wants to quit. When Alex tells Mauricio, “I’m out,” Mauricio practically snarls at Alex and responds, “Men like us don’t retire.”

Meanwhile, Alex’s murder spree gets entangled with an undercover FBI investigation to bust an international child sex trafficking operation. FBI agent Vincent Serra (played by Guy Pearce) is first seen in the movie, in a scene taking place in El Paso, Texas. Vincent is undercover as a prostitution customer in a run-down home, where a sleazy father named Papa Leon (played by Antonio Jaramillo) is pimping out his 13-year-old daughter Beatriz Leon (played by Mia Sanchez), who’s expected to sexually service Vincent.

Papa Leon is part of an extensive sex trafficking ring that pays undocumented immigrants from Mexico to come to the United States and sell their children into sex slavery. (Beatriz’s mother is not seen or mentioned in this movie.) The undercover sting goes awry, when Beatriz notices that Vincent is wearing a surveillance wire. She shouts this information to her father, who panics and attacks Vincent.

A major physical fight ensues between Papa Leon and Vincent. FBI agents, who were listening in during this sting operation in a nearby van, rush to the building to provide backup for Vincent. Papa Leon and Vincent crash out of a second-floor window during their brawl. Papa Leon is instantly killed in the fall, while Vincent has sustained minor injuries.

Beatriz is taken to a detention center for undocumented immigrants. When Vincent visits Beatriz, he tries to get information from her about the people who are part of this sex trafficking ring. She refuses to tell because her father ordered her never to snitch, and she’s very angry at Vincent, whom she blames for her father’s death.

Vincent feels guilty because he knows how inhumane these detention centers can be. And so, even though Beatriz is an uncooperative witness, Vincent arranges for her to be taken out of the detention center and into a group home for orphaned children. If Vincent thought that Beatriz would be safer in this group home, he was wrong.

That’s because the “one last hit” that Alex has agreed to do before he “retires” takes place in El Paso, and it involves Beatriz. Alex been ordered to kill two people in this hit job: One is a businessman named Ellis Van Camp (played by Scot Williams), whom Alex strangles in Ellis’ home where Ellis lives with his wife Wendy Can Camp (played by Rebecca Calder) and their teenage daughter. Only Ellis is killed, because “Memory” goes out of its way to show that Alex doesn’t kill “innocent” women and children.

Alex finds out that the other person he’s supposed to kill in this hit job Beatriz. He doesn’t find out that she’s a child until he shows up and surprises her while she’s sleeping in the group home. It’s a huge, hard-to-believe plot hole that a so-called “professional” hit man doesn’t even know what his target looks like, let alone that she’s a child. Alex is horrified when he sees that Beatriz is a child. Beatriz sees this stranger with a gun pointed at her, so she begs him not to kill her. Alex backs away and leaves the house undetected.

Alex tells Mauricio that he won’t go through with the deal, because Alex says he will never kill children. Even if Alex wanted to return the money that he was paid, Mauricio warns Alex that he can’t cancel the deal, but Alex doesn’t care. The person who hired Alex for this assassin job is a real estate attorney named William Borden (played by Daniel De Bourg), who gets roughed up and punched by Alex when Alex tells William to call off this assassin contract.

Meanwhile, because of the botched sting involving Papa Leon and because Beatriz is an uncooperative witness who is likely to be deported, the FBI dismantles the task force that was involved in this sting. Vincent is upset because he thinks the group is close to busting the leaders and frequent customers of this sex trafficking ring. Vincent’s immediate supervisor is a no-nonsense FBI official named Gerald Nussbaum (played by Ray Fearon), who tells Vincent that the orders to shut down the task force came from FBI authorities who are ranked higher than Gerald.

The other task force members are a sensible and even-tempered FBI agent named Linda Amistead (played by Taj Atwal) and a mysterious and hot-headed Mexican law enforcement official named Hugo Marquez (played by Harold Torres), who has a vague background and prefers to be called Marquez. It’s stated that Marquez might or might not have official authority to help this task force, but apparently, the FBI in this movie never bothered to check. The task force needs Marquez because he claims to have connections in Mexico that can help the task force members get the information that they need. The FBI has officially disbanded the task force, but Vincent, Linda and Marquez agree to secretly continue working on the case together.

It should come as no surprise that Ellis Van Camp was suspected of being involved in this sex-trafficking ring. That’s why Vincent, Linda and Hugo go to the Van Camp house to interview Ellis’ widow Wendy, who is not helpful because she claims she doesn’t know why her husband was murdered. The El Paso Police Department has a detective named Danny Mora (played by Ray Stevenson), who’s heading the murder investigation. Detective Mora is at the house to interview Wendy too.

Predictably, the FBI agents clash with the cops from the El Paso Police Department, as more murders are committed in El Paso that are related to this sex trafficking ring. William Borden works for a real estate mogul named Davana Sealman (played by Monica Bellucci), who runs her company with her spoiled son Randy Sealman (played by Josh Taylor), whom she sometimes calls Rafo. They’re all desperately looking for some computer flash drives that have some very incriminating evidence.

Even before the movie reveals what’s on the flash drives, it’s very easy to figure out who are the guilty people, and why they don’t want anyone else to know what’s on the flash drives. And when Alex finds out, suddenly he doesn’t want to be a retired hit man anymore. He wants to kill everyone he can find who’s involved in this sex trafficking ring. There are no real surprises in “Memory,” which has all the subtlety of one of the movie’s many bloody shootout scenes.

One of the people killed by Alex is William Borden, whose murder is already revealed in the “Memory” trailer. Some innocent people who are not involved in the sex trafficking get killed along the way too. Law enforcement is hunting Alex, who is the prime suspect in all of these deaths. Meanwhile, the people who hired Alex want him dead because he didn’t kill Beatriz. It all just leads to one ludicrous chase and fight scene after another.

There’s a gruesome point in the movie where Alex gets a deep gunshot wound in his abdomen, and he lights the wound on fire, ostensibly to try to disinfect the wound so he could remove the bullet. But Alex actually doesn’t remove the bullet. That’s because his Alzheimer’s disease kicks in at random moments and he forgets things. Yes, it’s that kind of movie.

“Memory” is plagued with a lot of hokey dialogue and awkward scenes. For example, there are multiple scenes where vain and image-conscious Davana is getting Botox treatments in her home from her personal physician, Dr. Joseph Myers (played by Atanas Srebrev), who tactfully tries to tell her to age gracefully. Davana doesn’t want to hear it though. She spouts some gibberish about DNA being like an algorithm and that aging should be manipulated and controlled like an algorithm.

In another clumsily acted sequence, FBI investigators interview Maryanne Borden (played by Natalie Anderson), the widow of slain attorney William Borden. Maryanne, who is haughty and dismissive, essentially tells investigators that she was a trophy wife who really didn’t love her husband. Later, Marquez goes to the Borden home alone to get more information from Maryanne, who’s in a once-piece swimsuit, and she tries to seduce him by pulling down the upper half of the swimsuit. If this is movie’s attempt to be sexy, it’s a miserable failure.

In another scene that looks very phony, Vincent and Linda are “undercover” at a yacht party attended by Randy Sealman. The problem with this scene is that Vincent and Linda look, act and dress like obvious law enforcement agents who are there as part of an investigation. While everyone on the yacht is dressed in swimwear or party clothes, Vincent and Linda are dressed in casual business suits. These FBI agents glance furtively around at people when they talk, because clearly look like they don’t know anyone at the party. It’s just an example of the many terribly filmed scenes in the movie.

Alex’s murky past is given a very lackluster and poorly conceived backstory. When Vincent does a background check on prime suspect Alex, this FBI agent finds out that Alex and his brother used to be troublemakers in their childhood, with arrest records for their crimes. However, Alex and his father both have death certificates. What really happened in this family? That part of the story is not as intriguing as “Memory” would lead viewers to believe, because it all takes a back seat to the violence and gore.

None of the acting in “Memory” is special, because all of the main stars of the movie have played versions of these characters in much better films. Bellucci’s stiff and wooden acting drags the film down even more. Neeson’s character in “Memory” forgets a lot of important details, but it seems like Neeson has forgotten how to make good action films.

Open Road Films/Briarcliff Entertainment released “Memory” in U.S. cinemas on April 29, 2022.

Review: ‘The Contractor’ (2022), starring Chris Pine

April 26, 2022

by Carla Hay

Chris Pine in “The Contractor” (Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures)

“The Contractor” (2022)

Directed by Tarik Saleh

Culture Representation: Taking place in the United States and in Berlin, the action film “The Contractor” features a cast of predominantly white characters (with some African Americans) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A former Green Beret takes a mercenary job as a private contractor, and he finds himself at going against orders and being hunted by his former colleagues. 

Culture Audience: “The Contractor” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of star Chris Pine and anyone who likes formulaic “shoot ’em up” movies.

Gillian Jacobs and Chris Pine in “The Contractor” (Photo courtesy of Paramount Pictures)

“The Contractor” is as generic and dull as its title, with an over-used action-movie plot of a bitter military veteran who goes rogue. Throw in some ‘daddy issues,’ sloppy editing and a drab Chris Pine—and that sums up this soulless film. It’s also got an awkward mix of trying to be gritty and sentimental, often in the wrong places.

Directed by Tarik Saleh and written by J.P. Davis, “The Contractor” (formerly titled “Violence of Action”) is being marketed as an action thriller, but any “action” or “thrills” are utterly predictable and don’t really come until the last half of the movie. The first half of the movie is a dreary slog showing what led to James Harper (played by Pine) going from being a Green Beret to joining a shady mercenary operation as a private contractor. James is living in the shadow of his father Mason, a high-ranking U.S. military officer who expected James from an early age to also go into the military.

In the beginning of “The Contractor,” James has been estranged from his father for years, for reasons that remain vague. However, flashbacks and conversations reveal that Mason (played by Dean Ashton) was an overly demanding and emotionally abusive father during James’ childhood. The movie starts off with James as a U.S. Army Special Forces Sergeant first class, also known as a Green Beret. James is also a war veteran, and he sustained injuries during his war duties. James is currently stationed in Fort Bragg, North Carolina.

Now seemingly recovered from his injuries, James is due to go before a board of military decision makers who will determine if he will be reinstated as a Green Beret. However, James has a secret: Because he’s desperate to be in the type of physical shape where he can be re-instated, James has been illegally taking human growth hormones through needle injections.

The U.S. Army finds out when James tests positive for these drugs. He is honorably discharged, but as punishment, he won’t be getting his military pension or insurance benefits. It comes at a very bad time, because James and his homemaker wife Brianne (played by Gillian Jacobs) are heavily in debt and getting dangerously close to going bankrupt. They’re so financially broke, they’re behind on their utility bills. When debt collectors call, James just ignores the phone calls.

In addition to having a financial strain on their marriage, James and Brianne have grown emotionally distant from each other. Brianne and James have a shy and introverted son named Jack (played by Sander Thomas), who is about 8 or 9 years old and the couple’s only child. Because James has spent a long time away from home, Jack is bashful around James, but James wants to be a loving and attentive father, so he makes an effort to get closer to his son, by doing things such as teaching Jack to swim in a public pool.

Not long after getting the bad news about his military discharge, James finds out that his father has died. This death seems to trigger some strange behavior in James, in obvious indications that he has unresolved issues with his father. For example, Brianne finds James doing repairs on their house’s roof in the middle of the night. When Brianne wants an explanation, James says defensively to her: “I’m not my father.”

And in cliché-ridden tripe such as “The Contractor,” that means you’re going to see some hazy-looking flashback scenes of James as child of about 10 or 11 years old (played by Toby Dixon) and James’ father Mason, who was a stereotypical stern and macho military type. As seen in flashbacks, Mason was the type of father who expected James to be tough from a very early age. He even forced a pre-teen Mason to get a tattoo at a tattoo parlor, even though it’s illegal for tattoo parlors to give tattoos to people under the age of 18.

At his father’s funeral, James reconnects with his former military best friend Mike (played by Ben Foster), who is happily married to a woman named Christine (played by Tyner Rushing), who likes and respects James too. Mike and Christine have two children: Mike Jr. (played by Nicolas Noblitt), who’s about 10 or 11 years old, and Kelly (played by Eva Ursescu), who’s about 12 or 13 years old. When James goes to Mike’s house for dinner, Brianne is not with him, which is another indication of the cracks in their marriage.

During this visit at Mike’s house, James confides in Mike about his financial problems. Mike tells James that if James is interested in private contractor work, Mike can easily help James get a contractor job that pays $350,000. It’s an offer that’s too tempting to refuse, and James desperately needs the money, so he says yes. This “private contractor” work is really mercenary-for-hire work, usually done by ex-military people, for secretive employers who want to keep these “black ops” jobs as confidential as possible.

Brianne isn’t too pleased about this decision, especially since James promised her that he would never do this type of work. James has already made up his mind though, and there’s nothing Brianne can do to stop him. James’ family life then gets mostly sidelined, as the rest of the movie is about his private contractor job.

James’ supervisor in this job is a rough and jaded character named Rusty (played by Kiefer Sutherland), who says that James will get $50,000 up front as payment, and the remaining $300,000 after the job is completed. To launder his money, Rusty owns a company that imports and exports coffee.

Rusty knows that James is taking this job because James was essentially ousted from the U.S. military. Rusty tells James: “I was you. That’s why we started our own tribe.” Rusty also warns James about the ruthless mercenaries he will encounter in the job. “The stink of those guys, they will rub off on you.”

It’s an assignment that will take James, Mike and some other people on this black-ops team to Berlin. The other members of the team include a cunning operative named Katia (played by Nina Hoss) and a muscle-bound brute named Kauffman (played by Florian Munteanu). Later, James meets a mysterious recluse named Virgil (played by Eddie Marsan), who might or might not be helpful to James.

In Berlin, this black-ops group has been tasked with hunting down a 42-year-old man named Salim Mohsin (played by Fares Fares), a retired professor of virology who used to work at Humboldt University in Berlin. Salim is doing privately funded research, and he’s suspected of being involved in bioterrorism, because he is developing a poisonous gas that could be used as a weapon of mass destruction.

Salim’s research is being funded by Farak Ojjeh, the founder of El Sawa, a charity with known links to Al Qaeda in Syria. Salim and his wife Sophie (played by Amira Casar) have a 9-year-old son named Olivier (played by Tudor Velio) and a 7-year-old son named Yanis (played by Aristou Meehan). And predictably, this family will be caught up in some way in whatever dirty dealings happen in the movie.

Things happen during this mission that don’t sit right with James, so he decides to not follow orders. It leads to James and Mike going on the run from their colleagues, with double-crossings and shootouts in the mix. The action scenes aren’t impressive. And too much of the action has clunky editing, thereby making some of the chase scenes look very phony.

It all just leads to a very formulaic conclusion, where the people who die and those who survive are too easy to predict. All of the cast members just seem to be going through the motions in the action scenes. The only attempt at some emotional depth is in the underdeveloped family scenes near the beginning of the film.

“The Contractor” has all the cinematic resonance of a mediocre video game. That might be enough to entertain some viewers watching a movie with talented cast members who deserve better material. Everyone else can skip “The Contractor,” because they won’t be missing out on anything meaningful.

Paramount Pictures released “The Contractor” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on April 1, 2022. The movie is set for release on 4K Ultra HD, Blu-ray and DVD on June 7, 2022.

Review: ‘The Battle at Lake Changjin II,’ starring Jing Wu and Jackson Yee

April 24, 2022

by Carla Hay

Jing Wu, Zhu Yawen and Jackson Yee in “The Battle at Lake Changjin II” (Photo courtesy of CMC Pictures)

“The Battle at Lake Changjin II”

Directed by Chen Kaige, Tsui Hark and Dante Lam

Mandarin, Korean and English with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Korea, China, Japan and the United States, in December 1950, the action film “The Battle at Lake Changjin II” features a mostly Asian cast of characters (with some white people) representing military people and politicians involved in the Korean War.

Culture Clash: Two bickering brothers, who are in the China-based People’s Liberation Army, have various battles with each other and military enemies during the Korean War against the United States. 

Culture Audience: “The Battle at Lake Changjin II” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in violent war movies with amateurish dialogue and stereotypical characters that don’t have much that’s interesting to say.

Steven John Venn in “The Battle at Lake Changjin II” (Photo courtesy of CMC Pictures)

“The Battle at Lake Changjin II” should have the more accurate title of “The Battle at Lake Changjin: The Deleted Scenes.” That’s because this cash-grab war movie isn’t a true sequel but just a series of scenes that could’ve been in the first movie. And the first movie wasn’t even that great in the first place. And even though “The Battle at Lake Changjin” (which is nearly three hours long) and its sequel “The Battle at Lake Changjin II” (which has a total running time of about two-and-half-hours) are both over-indulgent messes, just because “The Battle at Lake Changjin II” has a shorter time length doesn’t make it better than its predecessor. “The Battle at Lake Changjin II” is worse.

“The Battle at Lake Changjin II” has a nearly identical storyline as its predecessor, because the movie has the same production team as 2021’s “The Battle at Lake Changjin.” Chen Kaige, Tsui Hark and Dante Lam directed both movies, while both screenplays were written by Lan Xiaolong and Huang Jianxin. In both movies, the Chinese military group People’s Liberation Army fights against the U.S. military during the Korean War’s Battle at the Chosin Reservoir.

The Army’s 7th Company is led by a courageous and respected commander Wu Qianli (played by Wu Jing), who has a 19-year-old brother named Wu Wanli (played by Jackson Yee) in the company. Wanli enlisted in the Army against Qianli’s wishes. Also returning from the original “Battle at Lake Changjin” movie are the 7th Company’s political instructor Mei Sheng (played by Zhu Yawen), fire platoon leader Yu Congrong (payed by Li Chen), artillery platoon leader Lei Suisheng (played by Hu Jun) and sniper Ping He (played by Elvis Han). Because this is a war movie, not everyone makes it out alive.

And once again, the chief villains of the story are U.S. Marines Major General Oliver P. Smith (played by John F. Cruz) and U.S. Army Commander Douglas MacArthur (played by James Filbird). “The Battle at Lake Changjin II” adds some more American leaders who weren’t in the “The Battle at Lake Changjin.” U.S. president Harry Truman (played by Ben Z Orenstein) appears briefly in a few scenes. Truman, who is depicted as someone who tried to reign in MacArthur, utters this line in one of the scenes: “MacArthur needs to be reminded that no man is bigger than this war.” Lieutenant Colonial Wilber Colbert (played by Steven John Venn) is a stereotype of a ruthless American military leader who thinks Americans are better than anyone else.

This inferior sequel does a few things differently with the characters in the movie, compared to “The Battle at Lake Changjin.” A wounded 7th Company battalion commander named Yang Wenjang (played by Geng Le) gets a little bit of a backstory. Wenjang has a flashback to his life before he was in the war, when he’s seen with his girlfriend. But that barely counts as character development, which is mostly non-existent in this movie.

“The Battle at Lake Changjin II” (also titled “Water Gate Bridge”) has even more over-the-top battle scenes than in “The Battle at Lake Changjin.” Some of the Chinese soldiers almost seem to have superhuman powers, based on the way they can do eye-popping leaps and kicks in the air, where they look like action stuntmen, not realistic soldiers. And sometimes, they’re literally on fire doing it, as there’s more than one sequence where soldiers who are burning up in flames still get things done.

Even though “The Battle at Lake Changjin” and “The Battle at Lake Changjin II” (which were both filmed during the same time period) are among the most expensively produced movies in China’s history, many of the visual effects look cheap and tacky, and the stunts often look sloppy. “The Battle at Lake Changjin II” is even more incoherent than its predecessor.

It isn’t until the last 15 minutes of this three-hour schlockfest that “The Battle at Lake Changjin II” tries to bring some grief-stricken humanity to the story, to show the realistic emotional traumas of war. But by then, it’s too little, too late. The last scene in the movie is overly sentimental and looks very forced, because the sappy tone is very off-balance from the rest of the callous violence film. This final scene looks like it belongs in a completely different movie but was dropped in “The Battle at Lake Changjin II” as a manipulative attempt to get viewers to cry.

The directors of “The Battle at Lake Changjin” movies have said that it’s possible that a six-hour directors’ cut could be released. Two to three hours of watching one of these films is more than enough time wasted. If you just want to turn your brain off and watch shootouts and explosions with mindless dialogue and forgettable characters, then “The Battle at Lake Changjin” movies are for you. If you care about watching more meaningful and authentic movies about real-life wars, your time is better spent on any number of higher-quality choices.

CMC Pictures released “The Battle at Lake Changjin II” in select U.S. cinemas on February 11, 2022. The movie was released in China on February 1, 2022.

Review: ‘The Battle at Lake Changjin,’ starring Jing Wu and Jackson Yee

April 24, 2022

by Carla Hay

Jackson Yee and Jing Wu in “The Battle at Lake Changjin” (Photo courtesy of CMC Pictures)

“The Battle at Lake Changjin”

Directed by Chen Kaige, Tsui Hark and Dante Lam

Mandarin, Korean and English with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place in Korea and briefly in China from June to December 1950, the action film “The Battle at Lake Changjin” features a mostly Asian cast of characters (with some white people) representing military people and politicians involved in the Korean War.

Culture Clash: Two bickering brothers, who are in the China-based People’s Liberation Army, have various battles with each other and military enemies during the Korean War against the United States. 

Culture Audience: “The Battle at Lake Changjin” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in violent war movies with amateurish dialogue and stereotypical characters that don’t have much that’s interesting to say.

James Filbird in “The Battle at Lake Changjin” (Photo courtesy of CMC Pictures)

“The Battle at Lake Changjin” is a very bloated war movie filled with simplistic dialogue, poorly written characters and tedious fight scenes. This repetitive depiction of a crucial battle in the Korean War does not earn its nearly three-hour running time. The film portrays China’s military group the People’s Liberation Army fighting against the U.S. military during the Korean War’s Battle of the Chosin Reservoir. Because it’s a scripted movie with some fictional characters, don’t expect it to be entirely accurate to real history.

If you only want to see war movies that have a certain agenda and care more about expensive-looking battle scenes than crafting a well-made war story, then “The Battle at Lake Changjin” might be for you. If you prefer to watch a war movie that places more importance on showing repetitive explosions and violent deaths than placing importance on audiences getting to know the main characters, then “The Battle at Lake Changjin” might be for you. For everyone else, it’s a mind-numbing slog that just looks like a video game with a big movie budget.

“The Battle at Lake Changjin” (directed by Chen Kaige, Tsui Hark and Dante Lam) is reportedly one of the most expensively made Chinese movies of all time, with a production budget of $200 million. Most of that money looks like it went into the bombastic battle scenes that pull out every visual-effects trick in the book to make the explosions, battlefield shootouts and killings look very over-the-top. Unfortunately, hardly any of the movie’s budget seems to have been invested in quality screenwriting or acting. The movie’s screenplay (written by Lan Xiaolong and Huang Jianxin) is simply abysmal, while the acting is mediocre at best.

“The Battle at Lake Changjin” attempts to have some meaningful family drama, by having the movie’s two central characters as brothers who often disagree with each other. Older brother Wu Qianli (played by Wu Jing) is commander of the People’s Liberation Army’s 7th Company, where is considered a a respected war hero. However, Qianli bears the burden and guilt over the war death of his older brother Wu Baili, who was killed in combat.

Qianli’s 19-year-old brother Wu Wanli (played by Jackson Yee) admires his older brother Qianli. However, the two brothers clash because Wanli wants to join the People’s Liberation Army, but Qianli doesn’t want that to happen, mainly out of fear that he doesn’t want to lose another family member in war combat. Wanli doesn’t see it that way, because he thinks that Qianli views him as inferior and not brave enough to fight in a war. Therefore, Wanli feels insulted.

Not surprisingly, Wanli ends up secretly joining the Army, much to Qianli’s disapproval. Qianli tells Wanli that he won’t get any special treatment, just because they are brothers. In fact, Qianli goes out of his way to not give Wanli any help or advice, even when other members of the Army bully and tease Wanli because they think Wanli will get nepotism perks. A lot of people in this army doubt that babyfaced Wanli has what it takes to be a tough soldier.

Wanli remains steadfast in his commitment to the Army. And slowsly but surely, he starts to gain respect from his Army peers and Wanli. These supporting characters in the 7th Company aren’t given enough depth in their personalities or development in their story arcs. They include political instructor Mei Sheng (played by Zhu Yawen), fire platoon leader Yu Congrong (payed by Li Chen), artillery platoon leader Lei Suisheng (played by Hu Jun) and sniper Ping He (played by Elvis Han).

Wanli’s first friend in the 7th Company is a fellow teen soldier named Zhang Xiaoshan (played by Shi Pengyuan) young soldier of the 7th Company who befriends Wanli. There’s also a sublot about how one of the People’s Liberation Army also includes Mao Anying (played by Huang Xuan), the eldest son of then-Chinese Communist Party leader Mao Zedong (played by Tang Guoqiang), also known as Chairman Mao, who allowed Anying to join the war with some reluctance. People who know Chinese history already know what Anying’s fate was.

Military officials in this movie are depicted as broad caricatures with hollow personalities that just recite forgettable lines. One of these side characters is Peng Dehuai (played by Zhou Xiaobin), People’s Volunteer Army commander and People’s Revolutionary Military vice chairman. The movie gives the worst jingoistic dialogue to American military officials such as U.S. Marines Major General Oliver P. Smith (played by John F. Cruz) and U.S. Army Commander Douglas MacArthur (played by James Filbird), who’s depicted as a robotic warmonger, who’s often wearing sunglasses and chomping on a pipe.

“The Battle at Lake Changjin” gives very amateurish re-enactments of what behind-the-scenes war strategies might have been. The filmmakers seem to think that throwing in a lot of explosions and gunfire, in addition to showing men constantly shouting at each other, are enough to make a compelling war movie. It’s not. “The Battle at Lake Changjin” is an onslaught of very staged and very loud scenes of destruction that turn into a mishmash of mayhem until its very predictable conclusion.

CMC Pictures released “The Battle at Lang Changjin” in select U.S. cinemas on November 19, 2021. The movie was released in China on September 30, 2021.

Review: ‘The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent,’ starring Nicolas Cage

April 19, 2022

by Carla Hay

Pedro Pascal and Nicolas Cage in “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” (Photo by Katalin Vermes/Lionsgate)

“The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent”

Directed by Tom Gormican

Some language in Spanish with subtitles

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in Los Angeles and Mallorca, Spain, the action comedy “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” features a cast of white and Latino characters (with a few African Americans) representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Desperate for money, famous actor Nick Cage agrees to a $1 million fee to appear at a wealthy superfan’s birthday party in Mallorca, where he reluctantly gets in the middle of an international espionage case. 

Culture Audience: “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” will appeal primarily to fans of star Nicolas Cage and comedies that are satires of real people.

Nicolas Cage, Lily Sheen and Sharon Horgan in “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” (Photo by Katalin Vermes/Lionsgate)

It’s not the comedy masterpiece that some people have been hyping it up to be, but “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” has plenty of hilarious moments in spoofing Nicolas Cage’s public persona and action films. The movie has some genuinely inspired scenes before the film’s last 20 minutes devolve into stereotypical formulas seen in many other comedic spy capers. “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” is also an above-average buddy comedy, with touches of family sentimentality to balance out some of the wackiness.

Tom Gormican directed “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” from a screenplay that he co-wrote with Kevin Etten. It’s Gormican’s second feature film, after he made his feature-film directorial debut with the forgettable 2014 male-friendship comedy “That Awkward Moment.” Gormican’s background is mainly as a TV writer/producer, with credits that include “Scrubs,” “Desperate Housewives” and “Ed.” At times, “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” veers into stale TV sitcom territory, but the movie has enough originality and charm to rise above its repetitive clichés. “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” has its world premiere at the 2022 South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival in Austin, Texas.

Cage has said in interviews that he initially rejected the idea of doing this movie. It’s a good thing that he changed his mind, because “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” is easily one of the funniest comedy films that Cage has done in decades. In the movie, he plays two versions of himself: (1) main character Nick Cage, a present-day version of himself, and (2) Nicky Cage, a younger, brasher version of Cage, circa the late 1980s/early 1990s. (According to the movie’s production notes, Nicky’s physical appearance was inspired by how the real Cage looked in his 1990 movie “Wild at Heart.”)

Nicky has de-aging visual effects for his face, and he appears to Nick as a figment of Nick’s imagination, in moments when Nick is feeling insecure. Nicky’s blunt and sometimes crude conversations with Nick (which are either pep talks, insults or both) are among the more memorable parts of the movie. Nicky has a habit of yelling out “I’m Nick fucking Cage!,” in an elongated way, as if he’s a WWE announcer yelling, “Let’s get ready to rumble!” before a wrestling match. In the film’s end credits, the actor listed as portraying Nicky is Nicolas Kim Coppola, which is a cheeky nod to Cage’s birth surname Coppola. (Numerous movie fans already know that Cage is part of the famous Coppola movie family.)

In the beginning of “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent,” Nick is a world-famous actor in Los Angeles, but he’s currently not getting the acting roles that he wants. Nick has been struggling with being labeled a “has-been” who’s been doing a lot of low-budget, low-quality movies in recent years. (Real-life filmmaker David Gordon Green has a cameo as himself in an early scene in the movie where Nick tries to impress him with an impromptu monologue reading.)

When Nicky shows up and talks to Nick, it’s usually to remind Nick that his younger self would never have stooped to the level of the type of work that Nick is doing now. In one of the movie’s early scenes, Nicky is lecturing Nick about it during a drive in Nick’s car, with Nick driving. A defensive Nick snaps back: “Hello! It’s my job! It’s how I pay my bills. I have to feed my family.” Nick ends the conversation by telling Nicky, “You’re annoying!” And then Nick kicks Nicky out of the car.

Nick’s fast-talking agent Richard Fink (played by Neil Patrick Harris, in a cameo role) tells Nick about a job offer from a Nick Cage superfan in Mallorca, Spain. This wealthy fan wants to pay Nick $1 million to make a personal appearance at the fan’s birthday party. Nick says no to the idea, because he thinks that these types of personal appearances are beneath him as a “serious actor.”

However, because Nick gets rejected for a movie role that he had been counting on getting, and because he has high-priced divorce payments and other bills, a financially desperate Nick agrees to the birthday party job offer. Nick makes it clear to Richard that this personal appearance better not include anything involving kinky sex. Nick has no idea that what he thinks will be an easy gig will turn out to be a life-threatening, mind-bending experience for him and other people.

Nick isn’t just having problems in his career. His personal life is also messy. Nick has a tension-filled relationship with his ex-wife Olivia (played by Sharon Horgan), a former makeup artist whom he met on the set of his 2001 movie “Captain Corelli’s Mandolin.” It’s revealed in “The Unbearable Wright of Massive Talent” that one of the main reasons why they divorced was because Olivia thought that Nick put his career above everything else in his life.

Nick and Olivia have a daughter named Addy (played by Lily Sheen), who’s about 15 or 16 years old. Addy is usually annoyed with Nick because she thinks he forces her to do things (such as watch movies) that are according to what he wants to do and his personal tastes, without taking into consideration Addy’s own personal wants and needs. For example, Nick has insisted that Addy watch the 1920 horror film “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” even though Addy has no interest in seeing this movie.

Addy also thinks Nick has been a neglectful father for most of her life. That’s why Nick and Addy are in therapy together. But as an example of Nick’s self-centered ways, a therapy session that’s shown in the movie reveals that Nick spends most of the time talking about himself, while Addy sulks in a corner on a couch. Their therapist named Cheryl (played by Joanna Bobin) has to listen to Nick ramble on about his career problems, while she tries to steer the conversation back to how to improve his personal relationships.

Nick is so financially broke, he doesn’t have a permanent home, and he’s living at a hotel. When he gets locked out of his hotel room due to non-payment, he calls his agent Richard to tell him that he’s taking the birthday party job. A self-pitying Nick also tells Richard that he’s going to quit being an actor. On his way to Mallorca, Nick has no idea that he’s gotten on the radar of the CIA, which has been tracking the activities of the fan who has hired Nick to be at the fan’s birthday party. The CIA has this superfan under investigation for being the leader of a ruthless international arms cartel.

Two CIA operatives who have been assigned to the case are named Vivian (played by Tiffany Haddish) and Martin (played by Ike Barinholtz), who are surprised and confused when they see Nick disembarking from the private plane that the superfan has chartered for this trip. Vivian, who has a take-charge and quick-thinking personality, immediately pretends to be an adoring Nick Cage fan, and stops him at the airport to take a selfie photo with him. It’s really a ruse to plant a tracking device on Nick. Vivian and Martin are generic and underwritten roles, so Haddish and Barinholtz don’t do much that’s noteworthy in the movie.

In Mallorca, Nick is taken to a lavish cliffside mansion, where he is greeted by several employees of this rich superfan, who is described as a mogul in the olive grove business. The fan’s name is Javi Gutierrez (played by Pasco Pascal), and he is so unassuming on first impression, Nick initially mistakes Javi for one of the servants, because Javi was the one who drove Nick to this mansion by speedboat. The two people in Javi’s inner circle who are the closest to him are his cousin/right-hand man Lucas Gutierrez (played by Paco León) and a savvy business person named Gabriela (played by Alessandra Mastronardi), nicknamed Gabi, who is Javi’s director of operations.

Nick soon finds out that Javi didn’t just invite him to make an appearance at Javi’s birthday party. Javi has written a movie screenplay, and he wants Nick to star in this movie. Javi is crushed when Nick tells him that he’s going to quit acting, so Javi desperately tries to get Nick to change his mind One of the running gags in “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” is how Nick reacts to Javi’s attempts to befriend Nick and get Nick to read his script. It should come as no surprise that Javi makes revisions to the screenplay, based on a lot of the shenanigans that he experiences with Nick.

As shown in the movie’s trailer, Vivian and Martin recruit/pressure Nick to spy on Javi for the CIA. Meanwhile, things get more complicated with the kidnapping of Maria Delgado (played by Katrin Vankova), a teenage daughter of a politician who’s running for a high office in Spain. There are entanglements with a thug named Carlos (played by Jacob Scipio) and a group called the Carabello crime family. And it should come as no surprise that Addy and Olivia somehow get mixed up in this mess too.

Along the way, there’s some drug-fueled comedy that’s intended to make the most of Cage’s slapstick skills. First, Nick accidentally drugs himself with a potentially lethal dose of gaseous poison. Later, Nick and Javi take LSD together and have a bonding experience where they go through various levels of elation and paranoia.

Nick and Javi’s budding friendship is at the heart of the movie. However, there are also some standout moments involving Nicky, Olivia and Addy and how their relationships to Nick end up evolving. (Nicky spontaneously does something outrageous, when he kisses Nick, in a scene that will have viewers either shocked, roaring with laughter or both.)

Pascal is pitch-perfect in his role as Javi, who might or might not be the movie’s biggest villain. When secrets are revealed, they’re not too surprising, but one of the best things about “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” is that it doesn’t make Javi into a meaningless caricature. Even though Cage is the larger-than-life central character in the movie, Pascal holds his own and can be considered a scene-stealer.

“The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” has the expected stream of jokes about previous real-life movies of Cage. Among those that get name-checked or parodied include “Con Air,” “Face/Off,” “Moonstruck,” “Valley Girl,” “The Croods: A New Age,” “Gone in 60 Seconds,” “The Rock,” “Leaving Las Vegas,” “National Treasure” and “Guarding Tess.” Also in “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” is a recurring joke about the animated film “Paddington 2” (which is not one of Cage’s movies) and how this family film sequel about a talking bear affects certain people who watch it.

Cage is a versatile actor who tackles his role in “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” with gusto. (He’s also one of the movie’s producers.) Cage makes this movie work so well because he’s fully on board with laughing at himself. Not too many well-known actors would risk doing a movie where they have to poke fun at their triumphs and failures, but it’s precisely this risk-taking that has made Cage one of the most interesting and unpredictable actors of his generation. “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” does indeed have massive talent, but this talent helps the movie soar instead of sink.

Lionsgate will release “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent” in U.S. cinemas on April 22, 2022. The movie is set for release on digital and VOD on June 7, 2022, and on 4K Ultra HD and Blu-ray on June 21, 2022.

Review: ‘Prisoners of the Ghostland,’ starring Nicolas Cage, Sofia Boutella and Bill Moseley

April 18, 2022

by Carla Hay

Sofia Boutella and Nicolas Cage in “Prisoners of the Ghostland” (Photo courtesy of RLJE Films)

“Prisoners of the Ghostland”

Directed by Sion Sono

Culture Representation: Taking place in Japan, in the fictional city called Samurai Town and in a fictional area called Ghostland, the action film “Prisoners of the Ghostland” features a cast of predominantly white and Asian characters representing the working-class, middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: A mysterious man is forced to find a ruthless leader’s enslaved concubine, who has escaped. 

Culture Audience: “Prisoners of the Ghostland” will appeal primarily to people who are fans of Nicolas Cage and anyone who likes action movies that have more style than substance.

Bill Moseley (center) in “Prisoners of the Ghostland” (Photo courtesy of RLJE Films)

“Prisoners of the Ghostland” has impressive production design and cinematography, but this visually stylish action flick is too much of an incoherent mess in all other areas to be a truly enjoyable experience. Nicolas Cage’s die-hard fans, who automatically praise everything he does, will probably like “Prisoners of the Ghostland” just because he’s in the movie, in spite of the film’s very obvious failings. Unfortunately, the “Prisoners of the Ghostland” story just too cliché, but the filmmakers try to distract from this unoriginality by cluttering up the movie with predictable fight scenes and some bizarre characters.

Directed by Sion Sono, “Prisoners of the Ghostland”(which takes place in fictional areas of Japan) is essentially a post-apocalyptic film that blends elements of Western movies and samurai movies. “Prisoners of the Ghostland” (written by Aaron Hendry and Reza Sixo Safai) has the over-used “male hero who has to save a woman” concept as the basis for the protagonist’s main mission in this story. Maybe it’s a joke or maybe the filmmakers were just too lazy to come up with a name for the protagonist (played by Cage), but he doesn’t have a name in the movie. He’s listed in the film credits as Hero.

The Hero character is not exactly an upstanding, morally righteous person. He’s in prison for a bank robbery where he and his partner in crime, named Psycho (played by Nick Cassavetes), murdered several innocent bystanders. (This bank robbery is shown in a very bloody flashback.)

Psycho was in a prison transport vehicle that crashed into a truck carrying nuclear waste, which caused a massive explosion, leading to much of the area becoming a wasteland disaster area. (“Prisoners of the Ghostland” was filmed in Japan and Los Angeles. The movie had its world premiere at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival.)

A corrupt and twisted leader named Governor (played by Bill Moseley) has created a settlement community called Samurai Town, which is a combination of a modern Japanese city and American Old West village. As such, people in Samurai Town either dress in traditional Japanese clothing or cowboy/cowgirl gear. The Governor keeps women as sex slaves, whom he calls his “granddaughters.”

One of the enslaved women has escaped. Her name is Bernice (played by Sofia Boutella), and the Governor lets Hero out of prison to force Hero to find Bernice and bring her back to the Governor. As part of this mercenary task, the Governor forces Hero to wear a black leather outfit that is rigged with a detonator. The bomb on the suit will go off if Hero does not return Bernice in two days.

There are voice recognition buttons on the outfit’s sleeves, so that Bernice can speak into these devices to confirm that she is with Hero. Electro-chargers have been placed around Hero’s neck and testicles that will detonate if he tries to take off this outfit before the task is completed. Instead of taking the black Toyota Celica that has been offered to him, Hero instead decides to leave on a bicycle.

The Governor has a samurai bodyguard/enforcer named Yasujiro (played by Tak Sakaguchi), who catches up to Hero and tells him to use the car, and Hero obliges. However, Hero ends up crashing the car and is carried into a bombed-out area called Ghostland, which can be best be described as a rebellious steampunk community. The leader of the Ghostland tribe is the demented Enoch (played by Charles Glover), who knows that Bernice is there, but he’s doesn’t want to let her go.

You know where this story is headed, of course. The rest of “Prisoners of the Ghostland” is just a series of one obstacle after another for Hero, who gets into a lot of fights along the way. And did we mention that there are also some zombies in this post-apocalyptic world? (How unoriginal and unnecessary.)

Unfortunately, none of the uneven acting in “Prisoners of the Ghostland” elevates this shoddily told story. The dialogue in this movie is simply atrocious. “Prisoners of the Ghostland” tries every hard to be perceived as a zany action movie, but there’s no wit, charm or unpredictability to this story. For an action flick, it’s got dreadfully sluggish pacing in too many areas.

“Prisoners of the Ghostland” also has a lot of characters that are either too bland or so wacky that they’re trying too hard and are therefore annoying. Cage is just doing another version of the angsty loner type that he has already done in many of his other films. The villains are hollow. And most of the supporting characters—including Bernice’s friends Stella (played by Lorena Kotô), Nancy (played by Canon Nawata) and Susie (played by Yuzuka Nakaya)—are underwritten and underdeveloped.

It seems like “Prisoners of the Ghostland” was made with the idea that it will be a cult classic that will inspire other movies, similar to what director George Miller’s 1979 post-apocalyptic action classic “Mad Max” ended up doing for sci-fi action cinema in a “wasteland” setting. However, “Prisoners of the Ghostland” doesn’t have enough meaningful characters to care about to see again in spinoffs or sequels. “Prisoners of the Ghostland” is just an empty exercise from filmmakers who think that all you need to make a good action movie are memorable set designs, a well-known actor as a headliner, and a variety of fight scenes. That’s not enough to save “Prisoners of the Ghostland” from being a disappointing mishmash of superficial self-indulgence and amateurish storytelling.

RLJE Films released “Prisoners of the Ghostland” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on September 17, 2021. The movie was released on Blu-ray and DVD on November 16, 2021.

Review: ‘Jiu Jitsu,’ starring Alain Moussi, Frank Grillo, JuJu Chan, Tony Jaa and Nicolas Cage

April 17, 2022

by Carla Hay

Nicolas Cage and Alain Moussi in “Jiu Jitsu” (Photo courtesy of The Avenue Entertainment)

“Jiu Jitsu”

Directed by Dimitri Logothetis

Culture Representation: Taking place in Burma, the sci-fi action film “Jiu Jitsu” features a cast of white and Asian characters (with a few African Americans and Latinos) representing the working-class, mercenaries and U.S. military officials.

Culture Clash: Several human beings battle a death warrior from outer space who comes to Earth every six years from comet-created space portal. 

Culture Audience: “Jiu Jitsu” will appeal primarily to people interested in sci-fi action movies that are interior imitations of “The Predator” movie franchise.

JuJu Chan in “Jiu Jitsu” (Photo courtesy of The Avenue Entertainment)

“Jiu Jitsu” has nothing to do with the martial arts craft of jiu jitsu, just like this movie has nothing to do with high-quality entertainment. It’s just a messy parade of sci-fi action schlock with tacky visual effects. It also blatantly rips off elements of “The Predator” movie franchise.

Dimitri Logothetis, a filmmaker of hack action movies, directed the mind-numbing “Jiu Jitsu,” which really is nothing but corny fight scenes strung together with abysmal dialogue, all lumbering along until the very predictable ending. Logothetis co-wrote the horrific screenplay with James “Jim” McGrath. “Jiu Jitsu” could have easily been a short film, but it’s dragged out to tedious levels because of repetitive battle scenes.

The gist of the flimsy story is that a mysterious, muscle-bound American man named Jake (played by Alain Moussi) finds himself at the center of an intergalactic battle that has been taking place on Earth for centuries. Every six years, a comet opens up a portal on Earth. A death warrior named Brax emerges from the portal to fight a group of humans who call themselves Jiu Jitsus. Their Jiu Jitsu leader is “the chosen one” who must fight Brax, or else everyone and everything on Earth will be killed.

Jake is first seen in “Jiu Jitsu” running frantically in a forest in Burma, as if something is chasing him. (“Jiu Jitsu” was actually filmed in Cyprus.) Jake falls over a cliff and plunges into a large body of water. A middle-aged fisherman (played by Raymond Pinharry) and his wife (played by Mary Makariou), who don’t have names in the movie, rescue Jake and gives some medical attention to his wounds.

It’s soon apparent that Jake has amnesia. The fisherman’s wife takes him to a nearby U.S. Army camp. The commanding officer in charge is a stern and impatient leader named Captain Hickman (played by played by John Hickman), who orders a buffoonish subordinate named Tex (played by Eddie Steeples) to act as a translator. Tex isn’t very fluent in Burmese, so he predictably botches some of the translating.

That’s when the fisherman’s wife tells them about the cosmic portal and the outer-space death warrior, whom she calls Dat Daw Taung. These Army guys think is just a bunch of rambling gibberish from a superstitious person. Of course, there would be no “Jiu Jitsu” movie if what she was saying didn’t turn out to be true.

Soon, Jake finds himself being interrogated by an Army intelligence officer named Mya (played by Marie Avgeropoulos), a no-nonsense type who doesn’t know what to believe when Rick says that he has no idea who he is and what he’s doing there, but later he has a vague recollection: “I’m here to do a job.” Mya thinks that Jake might be some type of spy. He’s held captive until the Army figures out what to do with him.

While Jake is in captivity, another captive breaks free from the prison compound. His name is Kueng (played by Tony Jaa), and he insists that Jake go with him. They run off into a field together. And lo and behold, emerging from the field, like beanstalks suddenly spurting upward from the grass, are three other “warriors”: tough-talking Harrigan (played by Frank Grillo), quiet Forbes (played by Marrese Crump) and courageous Carmen (played by JuJu Chan), who not surprisingly ends up in a thrown-together romance with Jake.

And so, off these five “warriors” go as they kick, punch and wield weapons (such as swords, guns and knives), with an Army leader named Captain Sand (played by Rick Yune) in hot pursuit. The five renegades inevitably encounter Brax (played by Ryan Tarran), who quickly heals from any wounds, thereby making him hard to kill.

Brax is dressed in scaly armor and has a full-sized helmet that shows light blue space where a face should be. Occasionally, outlines of eyes and other facial features show up in this blue space, using cheap-looking visual effects. Brax’s point of view is shown a few times as X-ray vision that looks like it’s bathed in a heat glow. It’s a direct ripoff of Predator’s vision from the “Predator” movies.

Nicolas Cage shows up 39 minutes into the 102-minute “Jiu Jitsu,” which is just another B-movie where he plays yet another unhinged, eccentric character. In “Jiu Jitsu,” Cage is a wilderness-dwelling loner named Wylie, who ends up joining Jake and his team. Wylie seems to know quite a bit about Brax and gives advice, much of it unsolicited and sometimes unheeded. In his spare time, Wylie likes to make triangular hats out of newspapers. These hats are not the cone-shaped head coverings that used to be called “dunce caps” in the old days, although “dunce caps” would not be out of place in this dimwitted movie.

Cage’s total screen time in “Jiu Jitsu” is only about 15 to 20 minutes, but he does have one battle scene with Drax that seems to be the main reason why Cage was hired for this movie. Cage gives a deliberately hammy performance that’s meant to show he knows he’s in a stinker of a movie. However, his comedic self-awareness just seems out of place in a movie where all the other cast members act like they’re in a serious action film. If Cage is openly smirking, it might be because “Jiu Jitsu” was an easy multimillion-dollar salary for him. The joke is on the “Jiu Jitsu” producers who forked over the money for a rehashed and unoriginal performance that Cage has done in dozens of his forgettable action flicks.

Sometimes, when an action movie doesn’t care about having a good story, intriguing characters or memorable dialogue, the movie makes up for this lack of appeal with dazzling action scenes. That’s not the case with “Jiu Jitsu,” which is filled with nothing but unimaginative fight sequences. None of the movie’s characters has an interesting story, although “Jiu Jitsu” tries to throw in a “plot twist/reveal” about the background of one of the characters. This “plot twist/reveal,” which is toward the end of the movie, is not surprising at all. The only thing surprising about “Jiu Jitsu” is that filmmakers actually thought that this abominable garbage wouldn’t be such a flop.

The Avenue Entertainment released “Jiu Jitsu” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on November 20, 2020. Paramount Home Entertainment released the movie on DVD on December 22, 2020. “Jiu Jitsu” is also available on Netflix.

Review: ‘The Northman,’ starring Alexander Skarsgård, Nicole Kidman, Claes Bang, Anya Taylor-Joy, Ethan Hawke, Björk and Willem Dafoe

April 16, 2022

by Carla Hay

Alexander Skarsgård and Anya Taylor-Joy as Olga in “The Northman” (Photo by Aidan Monaghan/Focus Features)

“The Northman”

Directed by Robert Eggers

Culture Representation: Taking place in Northern and Eastern Europe, from the years 894 to approximately 919, the fantasy action film “The Northman” features an all-white cast of characters representing the working-class, middle-class and royalty.

Culture Clash: In this Viking version of “Hamlet,” an exiled prince seeks to avenge the murder of his father, who was killed by the father’s brother.

Culture Audience: “The Northman” will appeal primarily to fans of the movie’s all-star cast, filmmaker Robert Eggers and Viking stories that are gory but realistically violent.

Oscar Novak, Ethan Hawke and Nicole Kidman in “The Northman” (Photo by Aidan Monaghan/Focus Features)

Brutally violent but artistically stunning, “The Northman” brings harsh realism and dreamy mythology to this Viking story that inspired William Shakespeare’s “Hamlet.” It cannot be said enough times as a warning: “The Northman” is not for viewers who are easily offended by on-screen depictions of bloody gore and sadistic violence. There are scenes in this movie that can best be described as downright filthy—and not just because these scenes have people covered in dirt, blood and other grime. There’s a filth of the mind that plagues many of the characters in “The Northman,” where murder, rape, torture and other assaults are a way of life to conquer and subjugate others.

American filmmaker Robert Eggers has made a career out of exploring the dark side of humanity in the movies that he writes and directs. His feature films—beginning with 2015’s “The Witch” and 2019’s “The Lighthouse”—have a rare combination of taking place in an otherworldly atmosphere while depicting people and events as if they are historically accurate. “The Witch” and “The Lighthouse” are defined by elements of horror, while “The Northman” (Eggers’ third feature film, which he co-wrote with Sjón) can be defined by elements of tragedy. “The Northman” is also a movie about Vikings, vengeance and violence.

Shakespeare’s “Hamlet” play was itself based on the medieval Scandinavian legend of Amleth, the story of a prince who vows to get deadly revenge for the murder of his father, who was betrayed and killed by the father’s brother. “The Northman” weaves into the story aspects of Scandinavian folklore, the occult and the effects of hallucinogenic drugs. The end result is an immersive cinematic experience that is both menacing and magical.

“The Northman” begins in the year 894, on the fictitious Scottish island kingdom of Hrafnsey, which is close to Orkney Island and Shetland Island. Hrafnsey is ruled by King Aurvandil War-Raven (played by Ethan Hawke), a confident leader who has just returned to the land after about three months away from home. King Aurvandil has a happy family life with his wife Queen Gudrún (played by Nicole Kidman) and their son Amleth (played by Oscar Novak), who’s about 10 or 11 years old when the story begins.

“The Lighthouse” co-star Willem Dafoe has a small role in “The Northman” as a court jester named Heimir the Fool. King Aurvandil is amused by Heimir’s talents, while the king’s jealous younger brother Fjölnir (played by Claes Bang) is dismissive and condescending to Heimir. The scene with the brothers’ two very different reactions to Heimir are meant to show their contrasting personalities and how they interact with people.

King Aurvandil is fixated on the idea that Amleth should be ready to lead Hrafnsey, because the king has a premonition that he will die soon. Aurvandil does not know when he will die, but he is certain of how he will die: “I must die by the sword. I will die in honor,” he says. Gudrún doesn’t like to hear Aurvandil talk this way, and she insists that Amleth is too young to learn about royal adult responsibilities. Nevertheless, Aurvandil and Amleth do a male-bonding ritual around a campfire together, where a shaman leads the father and son to enact various wolf mannerisms while proving that they’re still human.

Although the king is beloved by many of his subjects, there is a cabal of people waiting to betray him. Leading this traitorous group is Fjölnir, who is cruel, power-mad and ruthless. One day, when King Aurvandil and Amleth are spending some father-son time in a forest, Fjölnir and about a dozen of his cronies ambush the king and viciously murder him, while Amleth witnesses everything.

Amleth manages to hide and escape, but not before using a knife to cut off the nose of a brute named Finnr (played by Eldar Skar), who later lies to everyone by saying that he killed Amleth. For the rest of the movie, Finnr is known as Finnr the Nose-Stub. Amleth runs back home, only to find out that Fjölnir and his gang are plundering the land, invading homes, and letting everyone know that the king is dead and Fjölnir is now in charge. One of the last things that a terrified Amleth sees before he runs away from Hrafnsey is his mother being kidnapped by Fjölnir’s cronies.

The movie then fast-forwards about 20 years later. Amleth (played by Alexander Skarsgård) is now a strapping, angry man, who has joined a group of marauding killers hired to help conquer villages in Eastern Europe. Those who are not killed in these villages are held captive as slaves. “The Northman” has several of these invasion scenes that are not for the faint of heart. Amleth has become extremely jaded and callous in all the violence and murders he commits as a berserker warrior.

However, Amleth soon has a vision of a mystic named Seeress (played by Björk), who reminds Amleth that his immediate purpose in life is to avenge his father’s death. This sets Amleth on a path to disguise himself as a slave and go on a slave ship heading to Iceland. It’s on this ship that he meets Olga of the Birch Forest (played by Anya Taylor-Joy, the breakout star of “The Witch”), an enslaved Slavic devotee of the mystic arts. In other words, Olga is a witch. Amleth and Olga have a mutual attraction to each other that goes exactly where you think it’s going to go.

Amleth is going to Iceland, because it’s where Fjölnir has now settled with Amleth’s mother Gudrún, who is now Fjölnir’s wife. Fjölnir and Gudrún have two sons together: brash young adult Thórir the Proud (played by Gustav Lindh) and obedient pre-teen Gunnar (played by Elliot Rose), who have been brought up in a life of royal privilege. For all of his flaws and evil deeds, Fjölnir loves his sons immensely and will do anything to protect them. Considering how Gudrún ended up with Fjölnir, she is treated just like a trophy wife.

“The Northman” often has simplistic and cliché dialogue, but the cast members’ performances are mostly convincing. Skarsgård and Bang have a great deal of physicality in their roles as Amleth and Fjölnir, which play out in the expected “protagonist versus antagonist” ways. What they both bring to these characters is an added level of emotional depth that becomes more compelling when this nephew and uncle, who are sworn enemies, actually have something in common: their love of family as their biggest emotional vulnerability.

Kidman struggles with sticking to the same accent (sometimes she sounds Scottish, Nordic, Icelandic or various combinations of all three), but her overall performance as Gudrún is riveting, because Gudrún is the most complicated character in the story. Taylor-Joy is perfectly cast as the cunning and (literally) bewitching Olga. The rest of the cast members are serviceable in their roles.

Aside from the disturbing violence, “The Northman” will leave an impact on viewers because of how it creates a world caught in between medieval truths and timeless mythology. There are haunting and compelling scenes involving pagan rituals, ascending into heavenly spaces, and transforming someone’s interior body into some kind of mystical realm, with entrails snaking around like winding tree branches. “The Northman” also has more than a few nods to psychedelia, including Olga’s psychedelic mushrooms that are used as a weapon in this family feud.

“The Northman” greatly benefits from the almost-hypnotic cinematography of Jarin Blaschke, a longtime collaborator of Eggers. Whether or not people enjoy Eggers’ movies (which sometimes drag with slow pacing), there’s no denying that these films have top-notch cinematography. Viewers who can withstand the relentless onslaught of violence in “The Northman” can also appreciate that even amid the murder and mayhem, there are still glimmers of hope for humanity.

Focus Features will release “The Northman” in U.S. cinemas on April 22, 2022.

Review: ‘Ambulance’ (2022), starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and Eiza González

April 6, 2022

by Carla Hay

Jake Gyllenhaal and Eiza González in “Ambulance” (Photo by Andrew Cooper/Universal Pictures)

“Ambulance” (2022)

Directed by Michael Bay

Culture Representation: Taking place in Los Angeles, the action film “Ambulance” features a cast of predominantly white characters (with some African Americans, Latinos and Asians) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A longtime bank robber, who’s white, convinces his adopted black brother to rob a bank with him, and when things go wrong, they hijack an ambulance to make their getaway. 

Culture Audience: “Ambulance” will appeal primarily to people who like mindless action movies that repeat bigoted stereotypes of women and people who aren’t white.

Yahya Abdul-Mateen II and Jake Gyllenhaal in “Ambulance” (Photo by Andrew Cooper/Universal Pictures)

“Ambulance” is racist and sexist garbage that tries to cover up how stupid it is with car chases and gun shootouts. In this idiotic schlockfest, almost all black and Latino men are criminals, and women are a small minority. This movie hates black men so much, it makes the only black man in a group of bank robbers to be the one to commit the most violent and dumbest crimes. And by the end of the movie, there’s no doubt who is going to prison and who is not going to prison for the most serious crimes.

Directed by Michael Bay (who has a long history of making terrible movies) and written by Chris Fedak (in his feature-film screenwriting debut), “Ambulance” is a remake of writer/director Lars Andreas Pedersen’s 2005 Danish film “Ambulancen.” Both movies are essentially about bank robbers who make their getaway by hijacking an ambulance. The American version of “Ambulance” takes place in Los Angeles, where nearly half the population is Latino in real life. But in this horrible movie, the Latino men are criminals, and the sole Latina is a cold-hearted, difficult person who needs to be redeemed.

“Ambulance” opens with a scene that’s a very tired stereotype that’s been in too many other movies: an African American family is struggling financially. In this case, it’s the family of William “Will” Sharp (played by Yahya Abdul-Mateen II), a military war veteran who’s on the phone while he’s trying to get insurance coverage for his wife’s “experimental surgery” that his insurance won’t cover. Will and his wife Amy Sharp (played by Moses Ingram) have an infant son. Amy has cancer, although what type of cancer is never detailed in the movie. The character of Amy Sharp literally does nothing in this movie but hold a baby, look worried, and be a “stand by your man” woman, no matter how many violent crimes her husband commits.

Will is frustrated because the people he’s been dealing with at his insurance company are dismissive and downright rude. During this phone call, the insurance company employee hangs up on him when he expresses his irritation at being stonewalled. And you know what that means in a racist movie where an African American is financially desperate: The African American is going to commit a serious crime to get money.

Will has a brother named Daniel “Danny” Sharp (played by Jake Gyllenhaal), whom Amy dislikes and distrusts immensely. Amy warns Will not to contact Danny. And it’s precisely at this point in the movie that you know Will is going to contact Danny. Before Will leaves the house, he lies to Amy by saying that the insurance for her surgery was approved, and he’s going to work at a new job that he’s started. That job probably doesn’t exist.

Instead, Will goes straight to Danny, who is in a money laundering business of supervising a warehouse where wealthy people store their luxury cars. What Danny really does to make money is rob banks with his small crew of men. Later in the movie, it’s mentioned that Danny has been robbing banks since he was 17. “Ambulance” never mentions if Danny spent any time in prison for it, because the filmmakers want to make Danny look like a smooth mastermind who’s too clever to get caught.

Viewers find out during Danny and Will’s jumbled conversation in their awkward reunion that Will and Danny grew up together as brothers because Will was adopted as a very young child by Danny’s biological father, L.T. Sharp. L.T., who is now dead (for reasons not explained in the movie), is described in various parts of the movie as an evil, psychotic but brilliant criminal whose specialty was bank robberies. Not surprisingly, L.T. was the one who groomed Danny to become a bank robber, while L.T. eventually became estranged from Will. And because “Ambulance” doesn’t care about women, except to put them in the movie to react to whatever the men do, it should come as no surprise that this movie never mentions any mother that Danny and Will might have had in their lives.

Because of Danny’s criminal lifestyle, Will has been estranged from Danny for a long time, although how long is never detailed in the movie. What the movie does show more than once is the racism when people try to insult Will by saying that he’s not Danny’s “real” brother, because Will is black, and Danny is white. Will tells Danny that he needs $231,000 for Amy’s surgery. Danny says that he doesn’t have the money, but that he and his crew are about to commit a major bank robbery that day, in a theft where they expect to get $32 million.

Danny tells Will that Will can get more than enough of the money that he needs if Will is a part of the bank robbery. (The robbers’ target is Los Angeles Federal Bank & Trust, which is a fictional bank name for this movie. In real life, the movie’s bank scenes were filmed at a former branch of Bank of America.) And to put even more pressure on Will, Danny tells Will that Will has just five minutes to decide before they leave for the heist. We all know what Will decides, because almost all of the mayhem in “Ambulance” wouldn’t exist without Will’s bad decisions.

Meanwhile, viewers are introduced to Camille “Cam” Thompson (played by Eiza González), the only woman in “Ambulance” who has more than 10 minutes of dialogue in the movie. The filmmakers of “Ambulance” want viewers to forget that women and girls are 51% of the population in the U.S. and in the world. Cam (she insists on being called Cam, not Camille) is a very jaded and egotistical lead field-training officer of Falck Company’s Ambulance No. 3.

As an emergency medical technician (EMT), Cam is technically very proficient in her job, but her personality is emotionally detached and off-putting. She’s first seen responding to an emergency scene, where somehow a girl named Lindsey (played by Briella Guiza), who’s about 8 or 9 years old, has gotten a spike from a wrought-iron fence embedded in her abdomen. (The accident is not shown in the movie.) In the ambulance, Cam attends to Lindsey and talks to Lindsey’s frantic mother (played by Jenn Proske) in a way that is almost robotic. Cam says all the right things, but there’s no real empathy in her voice, and she often gets irritable with the people who need her help.

After Lindsey is taken to the hospital, Cam has a conversation with a new EMT trainee named Scott Daskins (played by Colin Woodell), who seems to be romantically attracted to Cam. Scott looks disappointed when Cam tells him that she’s dating a doctor who works at a local hospital. In this conversation, Cam makes it clear that the people with whom she comes in contact on the job are just names to her, and she just moves on to the next assignment. Cam advises Scott to take the same emotionally disconnected approach to the job, because she says it’s the best way to deal with all the trauma that they witness.

Later, when Cam and Scott have a meal together at a diner, Cam gets somewhat of a rude awakening when Scott tells her how much she’s disliked by her co-workers. Scott says that although Cam is considered one of the best EMTs on the job when it comes to the technical responsibilities, she has a reputation for being unlikable and “no one wants to be your partner.” Cam looks a little hurt and shocked by this revelation, but it still shows how huge her ego is that she has no self-awareness about how being cold and unfeeling to other people can make people dislike her. It’s at this point in the movie that you know Cam is going to get some “life lessons” that will possibly redeem her and her obnoxious attitude.

Danny has meticulously planned the bank robbery. But, of course, some unexpected things don’t go according to the plan. Danny has a motley crew of about six or seven robbers on this heist, including a hippie-ish dimwit named Trent (played by Brendan Miller), who insists on wearing Birkenstock sandals to the bank robbery, and he gets teased repeatedly about his choice of shoes. There’s also a hulking dolt nicknamed Mel Gibson (played by Devan Chandler Long), because Danny thinks the guy wears his long, bushy beard like a 13th century Scottish warrior in Mel Gibson’s Oscar-winning movie “Braveheart.” Apparently, Danny and the “Ambulance” filmmakers forgot that Gibson didn’t have a beard in “Braveheart.”

What Danny and his crew didn’t anticipate was that a rookie cop named Zach Parker (played by Jackson White) from the Los Angeles Police Department would insist on coming in the bank, without Zach knowing that a robbery was taking place at that exact moment. At this point in the robbery, Danny (who’s dressed in casual business wear) has locked the entrance door and disguised himself as the bank manager, by wearing the manager’s name tag. Zach wants to go in the bank to ask a bank teller named Kim (played by Kayli Tran) out on a date, because Zach has had a crush on Kim for a while.

While Zach’s more experienced, corporal-ranked cop partner Mark Ranshaw (played by Cedric Sanders) waits outside, Zach approaches the bank’s front door, while Danny tells him that the bank is temporarily closed and refuses to let Zach inside. Zach persists on being let in the bank and says that his reason for being in the bank won’t take long. Danny finally relents and lets Zach in, so as not to arouse suspicion.

Zach notices that he’s the only customer in the bank, but he doesn’t seem too concerned about it, because Danny told him that the bank was closed. Kim just happens to be at a bank teller window. Zach asks Danny what Kim’s last name is, and Danny quickly makes up a lie. Zach nervously asks Kim out on the date. When Zach notices that Kim is crying in distress, and that her last name on her name tag isn’t the same last name that Danny told him, Danny blows his cover and pulls a gun on Zach. Outside the bank, police officer Mark sees through the bank window that there’s an armed robbery in progress and calls for backup.

And that’s when all hell breaks loose. In the chaos of the robbers trying to get away, Will ends up shooting Zach in the leg. Much later in the movie, they find out that Zach was also shot in his spleen. During this desperate getaway, the rest of the robbers scatter outside, while Will and Danny stick together and hide in the bank. An ambulance is called for Zach, so Scott and Cam are the ambulance EMTs who arrive on the scene. The bank is surrounded by cops, and the robbers’ getaway driver becomes unavailable. And so, a trapped Will and Danny decide to hijack the ambulance to make their getaway.

Scott gets knocked down on the ground, while Danny and Will steal the ambulance, with Will driving and suddenly having the skills of a professional stunt driver throughout the rest of the movie. Cam is in the back of the ambulance while trying to give medical treatment to Zach, who is bleeding profusely and mostly unconscious during this entire ordeal. Danny, who alternates between the front and the back of the ambulance, thinks that he and Will should have more leverage if Cam and Zach are held as hostages.

It’s all just an excuse for “Ambulance” to show a lot of shaky cam chase footage and bombastic action scenes, with a lot of yelling and wreckage along the way. At various points in this moronic movie, Will punches Zach in the face to get him to shut up and render Zach unconscious; Danny tells a lot of bad jokes; and Cam (who’s not qualified to do surgery) does very unsanitary emergency spleen surgery on Zach, by getting videoconference advice from doctors on the ambulance’s laptop computer. Yes, it’s that kind of movie. And there are more silly shenanigans, such as people who are seriously injured and unconscious who then suddenly wake up as if they just took a harmless nap, or civilians show up at active crime scenes while law enforcement gives the kind of access to these civilians that wouldn’t be allowed in real life.

Meanwhile, the Los Angeles Police Department’s S.I.S. (Secret Intelligence Service) team, led by an arrogant, macho imbecile named Captain Tyler Monroe (played by Garret Dillahunt), gets involved in the chase. Captain Monroe and his S.I.S. team were actually undercover and waiting outside the bank during the robbery, because they laid a trap when they heard that this bank might be targeted for a robbery, but Danny and Will still managed to escape. Some members of the S.I.S. (who are almost all white) unfairly blame Zach’s cop partner Mark for Zach getting shot, in a scene that has racist overtones because Mark is African American.

Captain Monroe makes dumb mistakes after dumb mistakes in his bungled efforts to capture these bank robbers. There’s a scene in the movie where Captain Monroe tells his subordinates to temporarily halt because he wants to rescue his English mastiff dog Nitro, who was unwittingly left in the back seat of one of the cars giving chase. Trivia note: Nitro’s real name is Nitro Zeus (named after a “Transformers” robot villain), and he is the real-life dog of “Ambulance” director/producer Bay, who has directed most of and produced all of the “Transformers” movies so far.

The LAPD isn’t the only law enforcement to get involved in the chase. An uptight FBI agent named Anson Clark (played by Keir O’Donnell) gets called to the scene. He gets the call while he’s in the middle of couples therapy with his husband Kyle (played by Brendan Robinson), who is very annoyed that Anson has to rush off and do his FBI job of catching criminals and trying to save people’s lives. Because “Ambulance” is such a badly made movie, Anson is the only FBI agent who’s shown doing any real work in this case.

And predictably, “new school” FBI Agent Clark (who wears suits on the job) and “old school” Captain Monroe (who wears camouflage pants and a baseball cap on the job) have opposite personalities and ways of working, so they clash with each other. But there’s an extra twist to Anson’s involvement in this case: Anson soon reveals that he knows Danny from their college days, when they both studied criminology at the University of Maryland. By the way, the law enforcement in “Ambulance” is depicted as completely incompetent and slow in doing background checks when they find out the identities of the bank robbers.

“Ambulance” tries to inject some comedy to lighten the mood of the intense violence and chase scenes, but it doesn’t erase the ugly stench of racism, sexism and overall stupid filmmaking that pollute this movie. Other than Cam, the movie’s only other female character who gets more than five minutes of dialogue is LAPD Lieutenant Dzaghig (played by Olivia Stambouliah), who talks for less than 10 minutes in the film. Her role is to be Captain Monroe’s sidekick, who delivers wisecracks in a deadpan manner.

Danny utters most of the tacky jokes in “Ambulance,” because the filmmakers want to portray Danny as an unhinged but lovable rogue who can laugh at himself and others around him. In a scene where Danny gets sprayed with a fire extinguisher, Danny is upset that the water ruined his clothing. “It’s cashmere!” Danny yells to no one in particular. During another part of the movie, Danny leads a bonkers sing-along to Christopher Cross’ 1979 hit “Sailing.”

Will is just there to follow Danny’s orders. On the surface, Will is portrayed as more sensitive and less prone to violence than Danny. However, based on who Will decides to shoot in the movie (Zach isn’t his only shooting victim), Will is not mentally stable at all. Will’s decisions actually make him look more violent and more foolish than everyone else in this bank robber crew, including Danny. Danny isn’t off the hook for dumb decisions either, because holding a wounded cop hostage after committing a bank robbery is almost a sure-fire way for criminals to get even harsher prison sentences, if the criminals aren’t killed by police during the hostage crisis.

As for Cam, she really is just another token lead female in a Michael Bay action movie, where she ends up with makeup that stays perfectly intact throughout the entire messy ordeal. Even her sweat looks polished. Sure, Cam has some fake-looking marks on her face that’s supposed to resemble dirt, and her clothes get somewhat ripped and “bloodied” in the pandemonium. But somehow, her bright red lipstick and other face cosmetic makeup never get smeared and remain perfectly contoured in ways that are unrealistic for anyone who goes through what Cam goes through in this insufferable film.

The only other Latinos with speaking roles in “Ambulance” are criminals, led by a menacing thug named Hector “Papi” Gutierrez (played by A Martinez), who owns an automobile warehouse/chop shop in downtown Los Angeles. Danny calls on Papi during the chase when Danny needs help. Papi used to work for L.T. Sharp, so he’s known Danny for a long time and is almost like an “uncle” to Danny.

And because “Ambulance” is a cesspool of empty-headed, racist clichés, there’s a buffoon African American character named Castro (played by Wale Folarin, also known as rapper Wale), who is portrayed as Danny’s most vapid subordinate. There’s a part of the movie where Danny tells Castro to meet him in a designated area to spray paint the entire exterior of the ambulance in less than two minutes, which is a dopey and unrealistic request in and of itself. Instead of bringing the requested blue paint, Castro brings neon green paint to do the job.

None of the cast members in this movie does anything great. In fact, they frequently embarrass themselves with all the junk dialogue they have to say and witless scenarios that they have to enact. “Ambulance” drags out the chase scenes to ridiculous levels, but ironically, the movie has probably the shortest time length for end credits of any major studio film released this year. That’s assuming anyone wants to stick around for the end credits after enduring this train wreck of a movie.

Anyone who is okay with this type of “entertainment” is okay with tone-deaf Hollywood filmmakers churning out bigoted and outdated content because these arrogant filmmakers think most movie audiences are too dumb to care. Needless to say, “Ambulance” is a sloppy and inferior remake of the original movie. If you care about supporting quality entertainment that doesn’t insult your intelligence, do not waste your time with “Ambulance,” which is nothing but mind-numbing trash with a major studio budget.

Universal Pictures will release “Ambulance” in U.S. cinemas on April 8, 2022.

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