Review: ‘Unhinged’ (2020) starring Russell Crowe

August 21, 2020

by Carla Hay

Russell Crowe in “Unhinged” (Photo by Skip Bolden/Solstice Studios)

“Unhinged” (2020) 

Directed by Derrick Borte

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed U.S. city, the dramatic action film “Unhinged” features a predominantly white cast (with a few African Americans) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash:  A woman becomes the stalking target of a stranger who wants deadly revenge after they were involved in a road rage incident.

Culture Audience: “Unhinged” appeals primarily to people who like formulaic “stalking” movies that often have unrealistic and illogical scenes.

Caren Pistorius in “Unhinged” (Photo by Skip Bolden/Solstice Studios)

The dramatic action film “Unhinged” is the type of movie that wants people to turn off their logic and common sense and just go along for the chaotic and often-ludicrous ride of this story’s demented stalking. “Unhinged” could be considered a horror film, but the tone is more about being suspenseful than being scary. The way that “Unhinged” was made is as if it’s a Lifetime drama movie made for people who want manic, testosterone-fueled action with cars.

Directed by Derrick Borte and written by Carl Ellsworth, “Unhinged” shows right from the opening scene that the movie’s title describes the story’s villain. This deranged antagonist doesn’t have a name in the movie (although he uses the alias Tom Cooper later in the story), and he’s played by Russell Crowe, an Oscar-winning actor who should be doing higher-quality movies than this awful dreck. For the purposes of this review, we’ll call the villain Unhinged Man.

The movie begins with Unhinged Man parked outside a house on a quiet residential street on a rainy night in an unnamed U.S. city. (“Unhinged” was actually filmed in the New Orleans area.) He’s sitting in his pickup truck, he pops a pill, and then lights a match before the match extinguishes. He then takes a hammer, goes up to the house he’s been watching, and uses the hammer to break down the front door.

He then viciously murders a man and woman inside the house with the hammer while the house’s door is open. The murder victims can be heard screaming as they’re being attacked. After he kills them, he sets the house on fire before calmly driving away.

All of this loud mayhem would definitely get the neighbors’ attention in real life, but as Unhinged Man drives away, there are no signs of neighbors even knowing what just took place. No lights go on in the surrounding houses, no neighbors go outside or peek through their windows to see what’s happening. It’s the first sign that this movie is going to have some dumb scenes set up so that Unhinged Man can brazenly commit murder in front of numerous potential witnesses and get away with it for as long as possible.

During the movie’s opening credits, there’s a montage showing TV news footage or viral videos about how angry people are in America and how that rage is turning into random acts of violence. This montage is intended to get viewers in the state of mind that Unhinged Man is one of those people who will violently lash out at strangers, so whoever becomes his next target better watch out.

As for the people he murdered in that house, the movie never reveals who they are and why they were murdered. It’s one of many loose ends and plot holes in “Unhinged.” The identities of these murder victims seem to be kept deliberately anonymous as a metaphor for how anyone could be a target for Unhinged Man, and he can have very petty reasons for wanting to murder.

So who will be his next unlucky victim? It’s hair stylist Rachel (played by Caren Pistorius), who’s about to have a very bad day. (Most of the action in “Unhinged” takes place during a 24-hour period.) Rachel, who is in her 30s, is also going through some tough times. She’s in the middle of a contentious divorce that has reached a point where her estranged husband now wants to have the house where she lives with their son Kyle (played by Gabriel Bateman), who’s about 13 or 14 years old.

Also living in the house is Rachel’s younger brother Fred (played by Austin P. McKenzie), who’s in his early 20s and unemployed, but he says he has some great business ideas. In other words, he’s a freeloader. Fred has a girlfriend named Mary (played by Juliene Joyner), who might or might not live there too. The movie doesn’t make it clear where Mary lives, but she has a serious-enough relationship with Fred that she’s often at the house.

Rachel’s divorce lawyer Andy (played by Jimmi Simpson) happens to be her best friend, as he’s described later in the movie. One morning, before Rachel is about to drive Kyle to school, Andy calls to tell Rachel the bad news that her soon-to-be ex-husband Richard (who’s never seen on camera) is going to put up a big fight to get the house. Rachel is already running late for an appointment with her most important client Deborah Haskell (played by Anne Leighton), and she’s also in a rush to get Kyle to school.

Before they drive off, Rachel and Kyle debate on which route she should take to get him to school: Should they take the freeway or surface streets? Either way, they’re going to be in rush-hour traffic but they have to guess which might be the faster way. They take the freeway and run into a traffic jam, so Rachel decides to get off the freeway and drive on the streets.

These driving scenes have increasing tension, because during this car trip, Rachel gets two phone calls with bad news. Richard calls to let Kyle know that he has to cancel their upcoming father/son get-together for a sports game, because Richard just started a new job that is requiring him to do some work that conflicts with the game schedule. And then, Deborah calls Rachel in frustration over Rachel’s tardiness. Deborah tells Rachel that not only is she canceling the appointment but she’s also firing Rachel.

It’s during this phone call that Deborah mentions another setback that Rachel went through not too long ago: Rachel used to own her own hair salon, but she lost that business. The movie doesn’t reveal exactly when or why Rachel lost the salon, but this business failure is brought up as another example of how Rachel is under tremendous financial pressure. Losing her most important client has just made things worse.

Therefore, by the time Rachel encounters Unhinged Man, she’s feeling very stressed-out and anxious. While waiting at an intersection at a stoplight, she notices that the pickup truck in front of her won’t move after the light turns green. She loudly honks her horn, but the driver still won’t move. Finally, she decides to pass the truck and gives the driver a dirty look as she passes. The driver is Unhinged Man, of course.

Rachel hits another traffic jam on the streets, where she notices that Unhinged Man has followed her. He eventually drives up next to Rachel’s car, where Kyle (who’s in the back seat) has the window next to him rolled down. Fearing that she could be dealing with a nutjob, Rachel tells Kyle not to talk to the stranger. And it just so happens that when Kyle tries to close the window with the automatic button, there’s a malfunction and the window is stuck.

Unhinged Man has his window rolled down. He starts a conversation where he asks Rachel why she had to lean hard on her car horn instead of giving it a polite tap. She tells him that it was justified because he wouldn’t move while the light was green. Rachel also says that she’s in a hurry and she’s having a bad day. Unhinged Man then apologizes and asks Rachel to apologize too, but she refuses.

His demeanor then becomes menacing as he tells Rachel, “I don’t think you even know what a bad day is. But you’re going to find out. You’re going to fucking learn.”

And this heated exchange sets off the stalking and chase scenes in the movie, which includes numerous car crashes and some more people who end up murdered. The worst things about the movie are how many unrealistic things happen and how Rachel is written as a dimwit who makes horrible decisions.

For example, there’s a scene in the movie where Unhinged Man is chasing after Rachel while they’re in their cars. Rachel finds out that her phone is missing (for reasons that are shown in the movie), and she frantically tries to go through her purse to look for her phone while she’s driving. When she sees that her phone isn’t there, instead of going somewhere to get help and use a phone, she keeps driving.

There’s another scene where Unhinged Man goes after Rachel and he traps her in a packed fleet of cars that are locked in a traffic jam. Unhinged Man then acts like he’s at a monster truck derby and starts ramming cars. And yet, there’s no sign of people in any of the cars getting on their phones to call 911.

Unhinged Man also causes mayhem at a diner in another unrealistic scene. Unhinged Man just casually does what he does and stays too long in places where he knows that the cops are going to show up any minute. Let’s just say that the police take too long to arrive in many scenes in this movie.

And there’s another scene where after the cops show up, the people who were brutally attacked by Unhinged Man aren’t even taken to a hospital. The cops just take the report and then leave. The movie’s sloppy screenwriting also includes Rachel coming up with an illogical and unnecessary idea to lure Unhinged Man to the nursing home where her mother lives. Whether or not she goes through with the idea is shown in the movie.

But the biggest illogical thing about the movie is how, during all of this madness, Rachel doesn’t go to a police station. Instead, she wastes a lot of time making stupid decisions while she’s being chased by Unhinged Man. Crowe’s performance is almost campy, because there are some scenes where he literally growls as he gets angry. The rest of the cast don’t do anything particularly noteworthy in their roles, because their characters are written as fairly generic.

There are hints that Unhinged Man is someone with a troubled past. It’s revealed that he has problems holding on to a steady job (he was fired after just a month on his most recent job) and it’s implied that he went through a painful divorce. Based on how he reacts when he finds out that Rachel is in the middle of a divorce, it seems as if Unhinged Man felt he was the “victim” in his own divorce and he’s extremely bitter about it.

“Unhinged” essentially takes a trope that’s common for a Lifetime movie (a woman in peril) but with male rage given more weight in the story. The high-octane chase scenes and car crashes are meant to appeal to people who like “bang ’em up” action and don’t really care about the reasons for why this destruction is happening. Don’t expect to get a lot of insight into why these characters behave as illogically as they do. Viewers who get to the end of this movie will feel like they were trapped in a badly structured video game where only the chase scenes matter and the characters are as hollow and mindless as they can be.

Solstice Studios released “Unhinged” in U.S. cinemas on August 21, 2020.

Review: ‘Project Power,’ starring Jamie Foxx, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Dominique Fishback, Rodrigo Santoro, Colson Baker, Amy Landecker and Courtney B. Vance

August 16, 2020

by Carla Hay

Jamie Foxx and Joseph Gordon-Levitt in “Project Power” (Photo by Skip Bolen/Netflix)

“Project Power”

Directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman

Culture Representation: Taking place in New Orleans, the action thriller “Project Power” features a racially diverse cast (African American, white and Latino) representing the middle-class and the criminal underworld.

Culture Clash:  An underground drug called Power, which has the ability to give people superpowers for five minutes each time the drug is ingested, is at the center of a power struggle between criminals, cops, a man on a revenge mission and the teenage rebel enlisted to help him.

Culture Audience: “Project Power” will appeal mostly to people who like “race against time” stories that have sci-fi elements, numerous fight scenes and gory visual effects.

Dominique Fishback in “Project Power” (Photo by Skip Bolen/Netflix)

How do you get a superpower? In fictional stories, there are so many ways. And in the world of the action thriller “Project Power,” getting a superpower means swallowing a capsule pill called Power that can have one of two results: give someone a superpower for five minutes or immediately kill the person who ingests it. And in the world of “Project Power,” people are each born with a superpower that they won’t know they have until they take the Power pill that will unleash the power. When the pill kills someone instantly, it’s usually a bloody and gruesome death, such as someone’s body self-exploding.

Is it worth the risk to take the Power pill? That’s a dilemma that characters in this movie, which is set in New Orleans, constantly have to face when they have access to Power. Of course, this is the type of drug that’s not approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, so the underground/illegal status of the pill makes it even more valuable, especially to criminals. It’s why in the beginning of the movie, New Orleans is pretty much under siege by criminals who are taking the drug to commit and get away with violent crimes.

It’s during this chaos that three people’s lives collide: Frank (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a cop who’s secretly ingesting Power to fight criminals; Robin (played by Dominique Fishback), a feisty teenager who’s been selling Power; and Art (played by Jamie Foxx), a military veteran who likes to call himself “The Major” who’s out for revenge. (The reason for Art’s vendetta is revealed in the movie.)

Frank knows Robin because she’s the one who sells Frank his Power pills. To ensure her loyalty, he also buys her a motorcycle for her birthday. Frank’s superpower is that he’s bulletproof and can can heal quickly from any injuries.

Frank is involved in a big chase scene with a robber, and it becomes almost impossible for Frank not to hide that he’s taken a Power pill, based on the superhuman way that he was able to be immune to deadly bullets. It might only be a matter of time before Frank’s boss Captain Craine (played by Courtney B. Vance) notices that Frank has superhuman abilities on the job.

Meanwhile, Art rolls into the area from Tampa, Florida, because he’s on a revenge mission. He has to do some investigating into who is responsible for a crime that he’s avenging. He knows that the people he’s looking for are involved in dealing the Power drug. Art stops by the apartment of a lowlife named Newt (played by Colson Baker), who takes a Power pill when he figures out that Art is looking for him and there’s going to be a big fight. This showdown between Art and Newt kicks off a series of high-octane action scenes that involve a lot of mayhem, blood and destruction.

Art and Robin “cross paths” when Art kidnaps her and basically forces her to help him on his mission to find the crime lord responsible for overseeing the illegal sales of Power in the area. Why? Because Robin is a local drug dealer of Power, and Art figures that she can be easily pressured into giving up information that will lead to the higher-ups on the drug-dealing hierarchy.

When she finds out the reason why Art is hell-bent on revenge, Robin becomes more sympathetic to him and a willing ally. But Frank is after Art because he’s convinced that Art is one of the bad guys. And so, Robin is somewhat caught in the middle, and she has to decide which person she can trust more.

The two chief villains of the story are Biggie (played by Rodrigo Santoro), who’s a typical scumbag type who inevitably takes someone hostage in the movie, and Gardner (played by Amy Landecker), the type of boss who walks around in power suits and gets other people to do the dirty work. There’s nothing inherently scary or memorable about these two generic villains.

“Project Power” (directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman) is the type of movie where the characters are constantly chasing after or at the mercy of something that can “get into the wrong hands.” The main reason why people will want to see “Project Power” is to see what type of superpowers that characters will get to when they take the pill. The movie is essentially a showcase for these visual effects and chase scenes.

On the one hand, it’s refreshing to see an African American teenage girl have a prominent role in an action flick, when this type of role usually goes to male actors. On the other hand, “Project Power” (written by Mattson Tomlin) falls back on some over-used and negative stereotypes that African American teens in urban areas are criminals, because Robin is basically a drug dealer.

And the movie has this other tired cliché about African Americans: This teenage drug dealer is also an aspiring rapper. If this role had gone to someone who isn’t African American, it’s doubtful that the character would be a drug dealer/wannabe rapper. There’s a scene in the movie where Robin does a freestyle insult rap to a teacher who tries to discipline her.

The movie also has Robin as another African American negative stereotype: She’s the product of a financially deprived, broken home: She lives with her single mother Irene (played by Andrea Ward-Hammond), who’s struggling with an unnamed illness, and Robin has to be her caretaker. Andrea has no idea that her daughter is a drug dealer, even though it’s obvious that Robin’s minimum-wage, part-time job at a fast-food joint isn’t the reason why Robin has enough cash on her to help with the household bills.

All of these negative stereotypes would be extremely annoying if not for the fact that there is some redemption for Robin, and “Project Power” doesn’t spend a lot of time on these lazy and unimaginative clichés. What saves this movie from being a mindless set of action sequences is that Foxx and Gordon-Levitt have a push-and-pull rapport that is very entertaining to watch. Fishback also has some moments where she’s a scene-stealer.

“Project Power” also has some not-so-subtle messaging about how power (or the idea of having power) can be so addicting that people will stop at nothing to get it, even if it means risking death. There are some scenes where superpowers that are only supposed to last five minutes seem to go longer than five minutes. But most people watching this movie aren’t going to sit there and nitpick by keeping track of the length of time that the superpowers are really in effect. They just want to a lot of thrilling action scenes and at least one “freak creature” that hasn’t been seen before in a movie.

Netflix premiered “Project Power” on August 14, 2020.

Review: ‘The Old Guard,’ starring Charlize Theron

July 10, 2020

by Carla Hay

Marwan Kenzari, Matthias Schoenaerts, Charlize Theron, Luca Marinelli and Kiki Layne (Photo by Aimee Spinks/Netflix)

“The Old Guard”

Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood

Culture Representation: Taking place in France, England and briefly in Morocco, Afghanistan and South Sudan, the action flick “The Old Guard” has a racially diverse cast (white, black and Asian) representing the middle-class and wealthy.

Culture Clash: Immortal social-justice warriors battle against a greedy corporate mogul and his mercenaries who want to capture the immortals so that their special powers can be mined for profits.

Culture Audience: “The Old Guard” will appeal primarily to fans of Charlize Theron and people who like extra-violent superhero movies with underlying social messages.

Charlize Theron in “The Old Guard” (Photo by Aimee Spinks/Netflix)

With so many superhero movies and TV shows flooding the market, what makes “The Old Guard” stand out from the pack is that morality and alliances aren’t always as cut-and-dry as they are in other superhero stories about good versus evil. Although there’s plenty of thrilling action in “The Old Guard,” what will keep audiences coming back for more are the protagonists’ distinct personalities and the feeling that their background stories have fascinating layers of extra intrigue.

Directed by Gina Prince-Bythewood and written by Greg Rucka (he adapted the screenplay from his “The Old Guard” graphic novel series), “The Old Guard” movie starts off by introducing a tight-knit group of four immortal social-justice warriors who have lived for centuries but play by their own rules. These immortals have the enigmatic ability to have any of their wounds heal quickly, which is why these fighters are virtually indestructible when they are physically attacked.

They don’t know how they got their superpowers and they don’t know when their superpowers will stop working. But they got these superpowers at some point in their lives when they were supposed to die but instead mysteriously recovered. They can feel pain when wounded, and someone who has these newly acquired superpowers will not be able to heal as quickly as someone who’s had these superpowers longer. Technically, these immortals aren’t really “immortal,” because they can’t live forever, but they have the ability to live for centuries.

All of this information is not explained up front in “The Old Guard” movie, but instead these details are revealed in bits and pieces, much like the personalities of main players involved. The group’s leader (and the one who’s lived the longest) is Andromache the Scythian, nicknamed Andy (played by Charlize Theron), a tough-as-nails cynic who’s more afraid of being exposed and captured than she is of dying.

Andy’s right-hand man in the group is Booker (played by Matthias Schoenaerts), an adventurous French soldier, who became an immortal during the War of 1812. Rounding out the quartet are lovers/soul mates Joe (played Marwan Kenzari) and Nicky (played by Luca Marinelli), a Middle Eastern man and an Italian man who became immortal while they were fighting on opposite sides of the Crusades. In this movie, Andy won’t say when she became immortal.

Booker is similar to Andy in having a certain jaded quality to his personality, but Booker is a lot more impulsive than Andy, who is always on guard about their group being exposed as immortals. Joe is more vocal and overtly passionate than Nicky, who tends to be more level-headed and sensitive. Together, they have been a “found family” for centuries.

Andy and her group make money as underground hired mercenaries for people or causes that they feel comfortable helping. While in Marrakesh, Morocco, a former CIA agent named James Copley (played by Chiwetel Ejiofor) asks the group to help him rescue a group of 17 South Sudanese students (ages 8 to 13), who were kidnapped by militia, who murdered the teachers in the school. At first, Andy doesn’t want to do the mission. “We don’t do repeats,” she tells Booker, “It’s too risky.”

However, Andy changes her mind after she Copley (a widower whose wife died of ALS) tells her that food and water have not ben brought into the hostage area for several days. Andy and her crew travel to South Sudan. And this rescue mission leads the immortals to find out that they’re being hunted by a nerdy but ruthless leader of a corporate pharmaceutical company: Steven Merrick (played by Harry Melling) of Merrick Pharmacy.

Merrick wants to capture all the known immortals on Earth, so Merrick’s team of scientists can figure out and extract that physical components that can heal wounds and make people live for centuries. Merrick thinks he’s in a race against time because he wants to get the patent on this superpower product before any of the company’s competitors. The ultimate goal? Untold wealth and power.

Merrick has also begun selling a new pharmaceutical product that caused thousands of lab rats to die, and this new product’s flaws will soon be discovered by the general public. If he can find the secret to these immortals’ regeneration powers, it can be used as an antidote to the faulty pharmaceutical product that Merrick rushed to market.

Meanwhile, the quartet of immortals begins having shared dreams of a young lieutenant in the U.S. Marines named Nile Freeman (played by KiKi Layne), who is currently stationed in Afghanistan. They’re certain that Nile is a long-lost immortal who doesn’t know it yet. While in Afghanistan, Nile is part of a military team that captures a known terrorist who’s hiding in a small village dwelling.

The terrorist slashes Nile’s throat in such a deep and vicious way that it seems obvious that Nile will die from that jugular wound. However, not only does she survive, but the wound mysteriously disappears. Nile explains to her incredulous fellow soldiers that doctors were able to cover up her neck wound with a “skin graft,” but even Nile knows how unbelievable that story sounds. People who thought she was going to die start to look at her differently, as if she’s some kind of supernatural freak.

As Nile is still trying to figure out why she seems to have regeneration superpowers, she’s told that she’s going to be transferred to another station for further medical exams. Before that can happen, Andy abducts Nile and takes her to a remote desert area. Andy tells a disbelieving Nile that Nile is now an immortal who has to go into hiding with Andy and her group of immortals because they are being hunted.

Nile is reluctant to go with this stranger, who tells Nile that she will have to cut off contact with her family. Nile is also having a hard time believing that she’s now immortal until some vigorous physical fights with Andy prove that Andy is telling the truth. But just like a stubborn pupil who won’t listen to a teacher who knows best, Nile clashes with Andy several times because Nile has a lot of difficulty adjusting to her new life.

During the course of the story, Nile opens up to Andy and the rest of the immortals, while they do the same with her. It’s revealed that Andy’s biggest heartache and regret is how she couldn’t save her best friend Quynh (played by Van Veronica Ngo) from being put in an iron lady cage and buried in the ocean about 500 years ago, when Andy and Quynh were captured and persecuted for being witches.

Meanwhile, Booker is haunted by outliving his children, one of whom was a son who died of cancer in his early 40s. When Booker told his terminally ill son about his secret superpower, Booker was heartbroken over not being able to share that superpower with his dying son, who angrily and wrongly blamed Booker for not being able to save him from death. It’s one of the reasons why Andy thinks it’s a mistake to get too close to any “regular” human who might find out the immortals’ secrets.

As for Nile’s family, she was raised by a widowed mother after Nile’s military father died in combat when Nile was 11 years old. Because Nile cannot contact her family after joining Andy’s group, Nile feels a lot of reluctance and emotional conflict about what her life will be like from now on.

“The Old Guard” has a lot of expected violence and over-the-top stunts (some of the action scenes are more believable than others), but the movie’s real strength is conveying the “grass is always greener” frailties of human nature. Merrick and many others just like him think that people will be happier if they will never get sick and can live for centuries, while the ones who actually have the ability to live that long see it as a curse.

Through the immortals’ perspectives, “The Old Guard” shows that living for centuries can be emotionally exhausting. Death (which is feared by so many people) is a natural part of life that they haven’t been able to experience, thereby making them “eternal freaks.” However, on the flip side—as exemplified by Joe and Nicky—if two immortals find each other and become soul mates, death isn’t as easily welcomed.

Unlike other immortal “superheroes,” the superheroes in this story don’t know how long they can keep their superpowers, which can fade and eventually disappear, much like how a battery eventually loses its power. It’s that added element of the unknown that keeps things on edge. (The movie’s visual effects for the body regeneration scenes are very good and very believable.)

Theron (who is one of the producers of “The Old Guard”) has done plenty of action movies before—most notably 2015’s “Mad Max: Fury Road” and 2017’s “Atomic Blonde”—so it’s no surprise that she can light up the screen with her commanding presence. Theron’s Andy character is the most intriguing of Theron’s action characters so far because Andy literally has centuries of stories to tell about her life. Layne does an impressive job of holding her own as Andy’s very reluctant protégée. It’s great to see Layne take on such a different role from her feature-film debut in 2018’s “If Beale Street Could Talk,” a heartbreaking drama in which she played a loyal girlfriend of a wrongly imprisoned man.

“The Old Guard” has grittiness and bloody violence that definitely don’t make this a family-friendly superhero movie. This is also a superhero movie that  acknowledges real-world historical issues. The Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia and the Civil War in the United States are two examples of the many history-making events that are referenced in this story, because these superhero soldiers were involved in some way in being on the right side of history.

And unlike most other superhero movies that don’t acknowledge homophobia in the world, “The Old Guard” has a scene where Joe and Nicky confront this bigotry in a way that will make romantics applaud. Joe and Nicky’s love story is one of the reasons why fans of this movie will want a sequel. And you better believe that the ending of “The Old Guard” makes it obvious that the filmmakers plan to make “The Old Guard” into a movie series.

This superhero saga might not satisfy people who want to know how the heroes got their superpowers. And these protagonists definitely aren’t saint-like: Their underground status means they often have to collaborate with criminals to get things done, such as in a scene where Andy and Nile use a Russian drug runner’s plane to get to where they need to go. But for people who might be intrigued by a story about warriors who are still trying to figure out their lives after living and fighting battles for centuries, “The Old Guard” offers an immersive experience into that world.

Netflix premiered “The Old Guard” on July 10, 2020.

Review: ‘Force of Nature’ (2020), starring Emile Hirsch, Kate Bosworth, Mel Gibson, David Zayas and Stephanie Cayo

July 1, 2020

Mel Gibson, Emile Hirsch, Kate Bosworth and Stephanie Cayo in “Force of Nature” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

“Force of Nature” (2020) 

Directed by Michael Polish

Culture Representation: Taking place in San Juan, Puerto Rico, the action flick “Force of Nature” has a racially diverse cast (white people, Latinos and one African American) portraying middle-class citizens and criminals.

Culture Clash: During a hurricane, two police officers and four other people in an apartment building try to fight off a gang of ruthless thieves who’ve invaded the mostly evacuated building to steal a safe full of valuables worth $55 million.

Culture Audience: “Force of Nature” will appeal primarily to people who like movies with a lot of gun violence but very little substance.

Emile Hirsch and William Catlett in “Force of Nature” (Photo courtesy of Lionsgate)

Let’s say you’re in a gang of thieves who want to pull off the perfect heist in a building when there won’t be hardly anyone in the building. When do you want to commit this crime? During a hurricane, of course. That’s the premise behind the laughably bad action movie “Force of Nature,” whose stupidity is as relentless as the fake torrential rain that’s supposed to pass for a Category 5 hurricane in this mess of a story.

Directed by Michael Polish and written by Cory Miller, “Force of Nature” can’t even get basic elements right when it comes to portraying a hurricane in the movie. In “Force of Nature,” the Category 5 hurricane just looks like a heavy rain storm on the Category 2 level, since the wind gusts in the outside fight scenes are very mild compared to what a real Category 5 hurricane looks like.

But people who make these kinds of mindless movies aren’t really too concerned about realism or having a believable story. Their main concern is to stage as much violence and stunt shots to fill up the story with as much action as possible and distract from the flimsy plot. However, even the action scenes in “Force of Nature” are unimaginative and very repetitive.

In “Force of Nature” (which takes place in San Juan, Puerto Rico), viewers are introduced to the main protagonist: A police officer whose last name is Cardillo (his first name is never mentioned; he’s portrayed by Emile Hirsh), who is shown in the beginning of the film by himself in a bathtub with a gun pointed in his mouth. Cardillo doesn’t go through with shooting himself, and when he gets dressed, viewers see that he’s a police officer. Why is he suicidal? It’s revealed later in the movie.

Now that we know that this cop is suicidal, you have to wonder if it’s deliberate or a coincidence that this “gun in mouth” scene is similar to the “gun in mouth” scene in 1987’s “Lethal Weapon,” which had Mel Gibson also portraying a suicidal cop. It’s worth mentioning this comparison, since Gibson plays an angry retired cop in “Force of Nature.” We’ll get to that in a moment.

When Cardillo goes to work, he’s less than thrilled to find out that he’s supposed to train a new partner that day: Jess Peña (played by Stephanie Cayo), who has a fairly upbeat personality, but is no pushover when a cranky Cardillo makes it obvious that he doesn’t want to work with her.

Puerto Rico is about to go on lockdown because of an impending Category 5 hurricane, so Jess has been assigned to work with Cardillo to train on how to evacuate residents. They’ve been called to assist in an apartment building where two of the residents stubbornly refuse to evacuate.

Meanwhile, a crime boss named John, nicknamed John the Baptist (played by David Zayas), and one of his henchmen have taken an elderly lady named Mrs. Gradisher (played by Leslee Emmett) to a bank, where they force her by gunpoint to open a safe-deposit box in a private room. There’s cash in the box (which the thugs take), but what they’re really more interested in is a painting in the box.

As they start to leave the bank, John coldly executes the lady in the head in the bank lobby. Several horrified people in the bank have witnessed the shooting. Therefore, not only are these criminals ruthless, they also don’t care about being seen committing murder without any disguises, in full view of witnesses and security cameras.

Meanwhile, at a grocery store, a man named Jason Griffin (played by William Catlett) has stocked up on a cartload of meat. He’s taken so much meat that there’s no more left for other customers. Griffin gets into a dispute with another man who asks Jason for one packet of meat, but Griffin refuses.

The angry customer than gets a store manager and falsely claims that Griffin stole a package of meat right out of the hands of the other customer’s son. Even though Griffin denies it, the manager sides with the other customer and asks Griffin to leave the store. (There are some racial undertones to this scene, since Griffin is African American and the other customer is not.)

Before he leaves, Griffin lunges at the other customer in anger. And the next thing you know, the police are called. Guess who are the cops who show up to respond to this incident? Cardillo and Jess, of course.

The customer who started the dispute declines to press charges on Griffin, who is released from police custody. When Cardillo asks Griffin asked why he was trying to buy all that meat, Griffin explains that he wanted to feed his cat Janet before the hurricane arrived.

And it just so happens that Griffin lives in the same apartment building where Cardillo and Jess were headed to assist in an evacuation. Cardillo and Jess agree to let Griffin back into this apartment to feed his cat, on the condition that Griffin immediately evacuate after the cat is fed.

It’s easy to figure out, based on the type of meat and the large quantities that Griffin was going to buy, that he does not have a regular domestic cat. But apparently, these two cops are too dumb to notice these clues, and they’re shocked when they find out what type of cat Griffin has. This animal is the reason for a subplot to the movie that won’t be revealed in this review.

Meanwhile, the two residents of the building who refuse to evacuate are retired cop Ray (played by Gibson) and another retirement-age man named Paul Bergkamp (played by Jorge Luis Ramos), who is originally from Germany. Bergkamp has no on else in his apartment, but Ray’s daughter Troy (played by Kate Bosworth, who’s married in real life to “Force of Nature” director Polish) is in the apartment with Ray, because she’s been unsuccessfully trying get him to evacuate.

Troy is a doctor (her medical skills come in handy later in the story), but she tells Jess, “He doesn’t exactly respond to female authority,” which is why Ray won’t listen to her. (We might never know if Gibson’s own reputation for making sexist comments had anything to do with why he got cast in this role.)

At any rate, Ray is an ill-tempered curmudgeon who immediately says when the cops arrive to evacuate him: “The current PD [police department] is full of pussies who care more about liberties and politics. I’m staying here.”

The only other known person at the apartment building is the superintendent, who is outside boarding up and securing windows. Not long after Cardillo and Jess have the displeasure of meeting Ray, Cardillo witnesses the superintendent getting gunned down by John and his small gang of thugs. Why are these criminals at this apartment? To get to a safe that has $55 million worth of valuables.

The rest of the movie’s action is a showdown between the bad guys and the people at the apartment. And just to make it harder for anyone to escape, the apartment elevator just happens to be not working. And did we mention that Ray has an arsenal of weapons at his disposal?

Gibson seems to be very self-aware of his controversial reputation, because he plays Ray to the hilt as an anti-hero, so there’s almost an element of camp to his acting. The rest of the cast members play it straight in this very formulaic, cheaply made action flick. The visual effects are tacky, and the director does a sloppy job with the action sequences, where it’s obvious to see who the stunt doubles are.

Much of the dialogue in “Force of Nature” is also very cringeworthy. At one point in the movie, Jess says, “Let’s go. Rock me like hurricane.” “Force of Nature” is supposed to take place during a hurricane, but the movie itself is another kind of disaster.

Lionsgate released “Force of Nature” on digital and VOD on June 30, 2020.

Review: ‘I Am Vengeance: Retaliation,’ starring Stu Bennett and Vinnie Jones

June 20, 2020

by Carla Hay

Stu Bennett in “I Am Vengeance: Retaliation” (Photo courtesy of Saban Films)

“I Am Vengeance: Retaliation”

Directed by Rob Boyask

Culture Representation: Taking place in unnamed cities in England, the action flick “I Am Vengeance: Retaliation” has a predominantly white cast (with a few black people and Asians) portraying highly trained government mercenaries and the criminal underworld.

Culture Clash: A mercenary for hire ends up leading a team to capture a rogue former agent who’s become an outlaw fugitive.

Culture Audience: “I Am Vengeance: Retaliation” will appeal to people who like an action flick to be ultra-violent and don’t care if the movie is dumb.

Vinnie Jones in “I Am Vengeance: Retaliation” (Photo courtesy of Saban Films)

Even before anyone watches a second of the action film “I Am Vengeance: Retaliation,” it’s easy to see that it’s mindless schlock that doesn’t try to pretend that it isn’t. There are hints at the end of the movie that the filmmakers (including writer/director Rob Boyask) hope that it can turn into a franchise. But if there are any sequels to this movie (which won’t have a large audience), then don’t expect there to be any improvements. You can’t turn noxious garbage into a gourmet meal.

“I Am Vengeance: Retaliation” doesn’t waste any time in showing its nonstop parade of violent killing sprees and hand-to-hand combat. The opening scene is of mercenary-for-hire John Gold (played by Stu Bennett) storming into a strip club with an assault rifle. He sees three goons who are in charge at the club and demands that they confess to the kidnapping and homicide of a young woman whose murdered body was found the day before.

John tells the assembled thugs that he was hired by the young woman’s parents to get justice for her murder. John says that he knows that the strip club was the last place where she was seen alive before she disappeared two weeks prior. The three hoodlums at the club (who are also armed with guns) refuse to confess, so John proceeds to kill them all. He shoots two of them to death, and he murders another one by breaking his neck.

This is the kind of movie where someone who is outnumbered and outgunned still manages to pick off opponents, one by one. It’s the type of action sequence that happens over and over until it becomes a very boring and predictable repeat loop that strangles any type of suspense this story could have had.

After committing this murder spree in the strip club, John steps outside to find a secretive government agent named Frost (played by Mark Griffin) conveniently waiting for him. Frost tells John that he wants John to lead a team to find and capture one of John’s former colleagues named Teague (played by Vinnie Jones), who was declared dead but the government has recently discovered that Teague is actually still alive.

Teague is a former government operative who went rogue several years ago, by turning on his team (which resulted in the murder of several members), and he went underground to become a mastermind criminal. Teague’s dirty dealings include assassinations, arms deals and illegal smuggling.

And what’s in it for John if he helps capture Teague? Frost tells John that the government will wipe John’s entire slate clean. It’s left up to this movie’s viewers to imagine what that means.

The next thing you know, John is in a bunker type of room, in a secret meeting with Frost, a crusty leader named Commander Grayson (played by David Schaal) and the five other members of the operative team tasked with finding Teague. Commander Grayson tells the team that their mission is to transport Teague to an “off the books” airbase then fly him to an “ever so hush-hush” area where “he’ll live out his days in a steel box.”

Two members of this team are the ones who spend the most time with John on the assignment: tough-as-nails Rachael (played by Lainy Boyle) and John’s right-hand man Shapiro (played by Sam Benjamin), who acts as if he wants to be like Tom Cruise’s Ethan Hunt character in the “Mission: Impossible” movies. The members of this team don’t have very distinct personalities from each other because they’re basically written as people who act like programmed robots or characters in a video game, by going into automatic fight mode when the situation calls for it.

It doesn’t take long for the team to capture Teague, but he escapes when the van they’re in is attacked by a mysterious, masked sniper. This sniper is named Jen Quaid (played by Katrina Durden), and she has an agenda that’s different from John’s team: She wants to kill Teague. Her reason for doing so is extremely predictable, as if the movie’s title isn’t enough of a hint.

The rest of the movie then shows John’s team battling with Teague’s group of thugs to re-capture him, while both groups are also trying to fight off Jen, who’s a one-woman army with martial-arts skills and some hidden tricks up her sleeve. Because there’s not much of a plot to this mindless fightfest, “I Am Vengeance: Retaliation” repeatedly shows Teague being captured and then escaping and then being captured. Rinse. Spin. Repeat.

The “I Am Vengeance: Retaliation” costume design by Emily-Rose Yiaxis has to be singled out here as especially unimaginative and (quite frankly) lazy. Everyone in the movie’s fight scenes is dressed head to toe in black, except for Teague’s “trophy girlfriend” fiancée Pearl (played by Jessica-Jane Stafford), who’s decked out in a fur coat and a low-cut red dress to show off her ample cleavage. Not surprisingly, Pearl doesn’t really do much except stand around and observe the action. Wouldn’t want to mess up that fur coat.

One of the funniest things about “I Am Vengeance: Retaliation” is it repeatedly does what bad action movies do: When someone is captured or has a gun to their head, instead of being killed right away (which is what would probably happen in real life), the captor spends a lot of time talking while holding the gun (or knife or grenade or whatever weapon is used) to someone’s head/neck/whatever, thereby leaving enough time to be caught off guard and overtaken. It happens so many times in this movie that as soon as someone with a weapon pauses to talk in the middle of a physical fight, it’s almost a guarantee that the motormouth is going to be ambushed.

John is apparently a legendary mercenary because even some of Teague’s thugs are slightly in awe of him. When one of Teague’s henchmen named Renner (played by Bentley Kalu) holds a knife to John’s neck and is about to kill him, Renner drags out the moment by striking up a conversation with John. When one of his cohorts admonishes Renner for taking his time to kill John, Renner says, “Don’t rush me. I’m killing a hero here.” Renner then asks John, “Any last words?” John’s reply: “Prepare to be deeply embarrassed.”

It goes without saying that the movie’s terrible dialogue can make watching this dreck somewhat bearable if people can laugh at how bad it is. In one scene where Rachael wishes John good luck when he temporarily goes off on his own to find Teague, she says to him, “Don’t get killed and stuff.” In another scene when John and Teague have an inevitable one-on-one showdown, Teague says to John: “You’re like herpes. I can’t get rid of you.”

There is no cure for herpes, but there’s a cure for anyone who experiences this stupid junk pile of an action film: Watch a “Mission: Impossible” movie instead.

Saban Films released “I Am Vengeance: Retaliation” on digital and VOD on June 19, 2020.

 

 

 

Review: ‘Extraction’ (2020), starring Chris Hemsworth

April 24, 2020

by Carla Hay

Chris Hemsworth and Rudhraksh Jaiswal in “Extraction” (Photo by Jasin Boland/Netflix)

“Extraction”

Directed by Sam Hargrave

Culture Representation: Taking place in Bangladesh and briefly in Australia and India, the action flick “Extraction” has a predominantly Indian/Bangladeshi cast of characters mostly representing the criminal underworld, with the main character as an Australian visitor serving a dual purpose of being a mercenary and a “white savior.”

Culture Clash: The Australian mercenary goes on a mission in Bangladesh to rescue an Indian drug lord’s kidnapped teenage son, who was abducted because of his father’s feud with a Bangladeshi drug lord. 

Culture Audience: “Extraction” will appeal mostly to Chris Hemsworth fans and people who like high-octane, bloody action without much character development.

Chris Hemsworth and Randeep Hooda in “Extraction” (Photo by Jasin Boland/Netflix)

At this point in Chris Hemsworth’s career (he’s best known for playing Thor in several Marvel superhero movies), he might as well just lean in to being an action hero, since that’s the persona that seems to get the best reaction for him from movie audiences. Hemsworth’s starring roles in serious awards-bait dramas (2013’s “Rush” and 2015’s “In the Heart of the Sea”) have fallen flat. And even though he has a great sense of humor in several of his movies that call for comedic moments, he’s only chosen supporting roles so far for any comedy films that he does.

“Extraction” (not to be confused with the 2015 action flick “Extraction,” starring Bruce Willis) reunites Hemsworth with several key members of the team behind “Avengers: Endgame” and “Avengers: Infinity War”—co-director/co-screenwriter Joe Russo (who wrote the “Extraction” screenplay) and stunt coordinator Sam Hargrave, who makes his feature-film directorial debut with “Extraction.” Joe Russo and his brother Anthony Russo (who co-directed the aforementioned “Avengers” sequels) and Hemsworth are among the producers of “Extraction,” which stars Hemsworth as mercenary Tyler Rake.

It’s a movie that might get compared to “John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum” (another bloody and violent mercenary movie that’s set in Asia and directed by an American with a stunt coordinator background), but “John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum” is a far superior movie, in terms of screenplay and character development. “Extraction” is based on the 2014 graphic novel “Ciudad” (co-written by Ande Parks, Joe Russo and Anthony Russo), which takes place in Ciudad del Este, Venezuela. In “Ciudad,” the Tyler Rake character has to rescue a kidnapped adult daughter of a Brazilian crime lord.

Most of the story in “Extraction” takes place over just two days, but a lot of action and killings are packed in that short period of time. And yet, with all the murder and mayhem that takes place—a lot of it on public streets—the police either don’t show up or they’re relegated to being ineffectual extras. Yes, it’s that kind of movie.

The plot for “Extraction” is very basic: Two rival drug lords—Ovi Mahajan Sr. (played by Pankaj Tripathi) from India and Amir Asif (played by Priyanshu Painyuli) from Bangladesh—are the top drug lords in their respective countries. However, Ovi Sr. is in Mumbai Central Prison, and has entrusted his right-hand man Saju (played by Randeep Hooda) to take care of his 14-year-old son Ovi Mahajan Jr. (played by Rudhraksh Jaiswal). Ovi Jr.’s mother is not mentioned in this very male-centric movie, which has only two women with speaking roles.

When Ovi Jr. gets kidnapped in the back alley of a teen nightclub, Ovi Sr. blames Saju and demands that Saju find Ovi Jr., or else Ovi Sr. will have Saju’s young son killed. Saju knows someone who can get the job of finding and rescuing Ovi Jr., but he knows that this mercenary is out of Ovi Sr.’s price range.

That mercenary is Tyler Rake (played by Hemsworth), who’s tracked down in the Kimberley, Australia, where he’s a heavy drinker and opioid pill-popper who lives alone in a messy, ramshackle abode. Tyler also likes to dive off of cliffs and hold his breath underwater for as long as he can while sitting cross-legged, as if he’s doing a combination of a meditation and a daredevil death wish. Viewers find out later in the story why Tyler (whose name isn’t revealed until halfway through the film) is such an emotionally damaged and reckless soul. (It’s the most cliché and over-used reason for lone-wolf antiheroes in action flicks.)

The person who goes to Australia to find out if Tyler will take the assignment is Iranian arms dealer Nik Khan (played by Golshifteh Farahani), who’s written as a glamorous badass who doesn’t reveal much of a personality during the entire movie. It’s a very token female character without any depth or backstory. Fortunately, the movie doesn’t fall into the predictable cliché of making her the love interest (which would be too distracting to the single-minded brutal mission in this movie), although the way that Nik and Tyler sometimes eye each other hints that there might be some sexual tension between them.

Nik spends a lot of time communicating with Tyler remotely, since she’s in a room with colleagues waiting to receive an electronic payment for Tyler’s services, although later Nik finally gets in on some of the physical fight action, where she’s the only woman. The only other woman to have a speaking role in the movie is Saju’s spouse Neysa (played by Neha Mahajan), a small supporting role that is very much the stereotypical “worried wife at home” character that’s seen all too often in action movies.

The opening scene of “Extraction” shows a very bloody Tyler shooting at people with a military gun on a highway bridge with abandoned cars. His injuries are so severe that it looks like he’s ready to pass our or die at any moment. The movie then switches to a flashback to two days earlier, which is when the kidnapping of Ovi Jr. took place in India, and the teenager was then taken to Dhaka, Bangladesh.

It isn’t long before Tyler finds Ovi Jr. and rescues him, in an unrealistic manner of Tyler violently taking down the 10 or so thugs who were tasked with guarding the kidnapped boy in a run-down building. Tyler has some assistance from a remote sniper named Gaetan (played by “Extraction” director Hargrave) and later from an old pal named Gaspar (played by David Harbour), who lets Tyler and Ovi Jr. spends some time hiding out at his place. Saju is also looking to rescue Ovi Jr., who has to make a decision to either go with Saju or stay with Tyler, for reasons what are explained in the movie.

One of the best scenes in the movie is a long sequence of Tyler and Ovi Jr. escaping in a thrilling and very suspenseful car chase. The cinematography from Newton Thomas Sigel is top-notch in that scene. But in other scenes where it’s just shootout after bloody shootout, the violence becomes a little too repetitive and unoriginal. And, of course, there’s a predictable double-cross in the film that astute viewers can see coming long before it happens.

The only scene in the movie where there’s any  emotional vulnerability from the adults involved in these killing sprees is the scene were Tyler opens up about his past to Ovi Jr., who spends most of the movie looking terrified. Ovi eventually learns to trust Tyler, and in the course of just two days, Ovi apparently becomes so emotionally attached to this man that he just met that he starts to see Tyler as sort of a father figure.

In a scene where Ovi and Tyler are at Gaspar’s place, Ovi looks at Tyler in awe and asks Tyler why he’s so brave and if he’s ever had to kill people. This is after Ovi Jr. saw some of the carnage that Tyler caused, so clearly this is a kid who doesn’t have common sense if he’s wondering at this point if Tyler kills people. Ovi Jr. is supposed to be the son of a high-ranking drug lord, but he isn’t very “street smart.” In another scene where there’s a big shootout with several abandoned cars on a bridge, Ovi Jr. hides behind a car on the bridge that’s on fire, as if he doesn’t realize that the car could explode at any minute.

There’s a bit of a “white savior” mentality to “Extraction” that might be off-putting to some people. And there are a few scenes of children getting murdered, such as when one of Amir’s thugs throws one of Amir’s underage drug runners off of a roof, which might be too disturbing to watch for sensitive or young viewers. And some of the teenagers in Amir’s gang are sent to do battle with the adults, and let’s just say that things happen, and Tyler ends up calling them “the Goonies from hell.”

The chief villain Amir is written as someone who sends his minions to do his dirty work for him, and he doesn’t talk much in the film. He’s a stereotypical cold-blooded criminal, but there was a missed opportunity for screenwriter Joe Russo to give this character more of a personality. It certainly would’ve made “Extraction” more interesting.

And because almost all the main characters in the movie act like killing machines, there’s almost a video-game quality to “Extraction” that’s disappointing for a feature film that could have been better. The ending of “Extraction” hints that there could be a sequel. If there is a follow-up movie, let’s hope that more attention is paid to developing main characters that people will care about more, instead of making the action sequences the only memorable things about the film.

Netflix premiered “Extraction” on April 24, 2020.

 

Review: ‘Most Dangerous Game,’ starring Liam Hemsworth, Sarah Gadon and Christoph Waltz

April 22, 2020

by Carla Hay

Liam Hemsworth in “Most Dangerous Game” (Photo courtesy of Quibi)

“Most Dangerous Game”

Directed by Phil Abraham

Culture Representation: Taking place in Detroit, the action drama “Most Dangerous Game” features a predominantly white cast (with some black people, Asians and Latinos) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A financially desperate man, who’s been diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor, agrees to participate in a game in which he will be hunted by anonymous people who intend to kill him, but if he’s still alive at the end of the game, he will win $24.5 million.

Culture Audience: “Most Dangerous Game” will appeal primarily to people who like crime dramas where the action is more important than a well-written screenplay.

Christoph Waltz in “Most Dangerous Game” (Photo courtesy of Quibi)

The streaming service Quibi (which launched on April 6, 2020) has set itself apart from its competitors by offering only original content, and each piece of content is 10 minutes or less. Therefore, content that Quibi has labeled a “movie” actually seems more like a limited series, since Quibi will only make the “movie” available in “chapters” that look like episodes. The suspenseful drama “Most Dangerous Game” is one of Quibi’s flagship movies that began streaming on the service on Quibi’s launch date.

The title of “Most Dangerous Game” is no doubt inspired by the 1932 film “The Most Dangerous Game” (starring Joel McCrea and Fay Wray), because both have the same concept—people hunting and killing other human beings for sport. In Quibi’s action-filled schlockfest “Most Dangerous Game,” Douglas “Dodge” Tynes  (played by Liam Hemsworth) is the hunting game’s target who agrees to participate in the game out of financial desperation.

Dodge is a real-estate developer in Detroit who’s drowning in debt and is very close to being financially ruined. The main cause of his financial woes is a bad investment that he made by purchasing a run-down, high-rise office building that he hasn’t been able to sell. The building is in such terrible shape that Dodge hasn’t been able to attract tenants, and he doesn’t have the money to make improvements to the building.

Adding to Dodge’s financial pressure: His wife Val (played by Sarah Gadon) is pregnant with their first child. Dodge is such a loving and devoted husband that he serves Val breakfast in bed every morning. But he does keep some secrets from her.

Dodge has been experiencing painful headaches. One day, he’s walking outside when he’s overcome with pain and collapses on a sidewalk. He’s taken to a hospital, where the doctors tell Dodge that he has terminal brain cancer, and the tumor in his brain is inoperable. As he leaves the hospital in despair, a hospital orderly gives him a business card for a company called Tiro Fund. The orderly tells Dodge that the company can help patients like Dodge.

When Dodge tells Val the news about his diagnosis, she’s also understandably devastated. Dodge then confesses to her that he doesn’t have health insurance or life insurance, because he sold his insurance to help pay off some of his business expenses. Dodge’s parents are dead, Val’s parents are broke, and they have no one to turn to for financial assistance.

Is it any wonder that Dodge contacts Tiro Fund to find out what the company can do to help him? The first meeting that Dodge has with Tiro Fund chief Miles Sellars (played by Christoph Waltz, in yet another villain role) is actually shown at the beginning of “Most Dangerous Game,” before a flashback reveals how Dodge ended up becoming a part of this homicidal hunting game.

While meeting in a sleek, ominous-looking office at night, Miles calmly tells Dodge that he can become a multimillionaire if he plays the game right. Every hour that Dodge stays alive during the game, he earns a certain amount of money, and the hourly rate increases every time that he reaches a certain level in the game. If Dodge is still alive at the end of the game, he can win a total of $24.5 million. All of the money will be deposited in a secret offshore account in Dodge’s name that Dodge can monitor to verify that the deposits are being made on an hourly basis.

According to Miles, the hunters in the game are “elite, wealthy clientele,” who “hunt to kill” and who “want desperate humans” to hunt. Dodge won’t know what these hunters look like (they can be any race or gender) until the hunters reveal themselves to him when they attack. Dodge won’t know in advance how many of them will be hunting him. They can ambush Dodge, and it’s also possible that more than one hunter will go after him at the same time.

There are certain rules to the game: The hunters can use any weapons except guns while trying to kill Dodge. Dodge cannot leave Detroit city limits or else the hunt can go on for as long as he’s alive. And (not surprisingly) Dodge can’t tell anyone about this game.

Miles convinces Dodge that even if Dodge dies during the game, Dodge can still make enough money to financially take care of Val and their unborn child for several years. And all of that is enough to convince a desperate Dodge to agree to participate in the game, although he doesn’t come to that decision right away. He decides to go through it after a sought-after “last chance” business investor rejects Dodge’s proposal to invest in Dodge’s debt-ridden dud building.

The rest of “Most Dangerous Game” is basically a series of chases and violent attacks—some more believable than others. Dodge just happens to have a background as a star athlete—he was a prize-winning runner when he was in school—so it explains why he has much higher stamina in the chase scenes than a regular guy would have. But even with this athletic prowess, it’s a bit of a stretch to see Dodge do the type of stunts that he does in “Most Dangerous Game,” which clearly wants people to be wowed by the action and ignore all the problems in the screenplay.

“Most Dangerous Game” (written by Nick Santora and directed by Phil Abraham) is strictly B-movie material. The hunters who go after Dodge each has an alias that’s the name of a former U.S. president. The other hunters who try to kill Dodge are nicknamed Nixon, Reagan, Carter and LBJ. The less you know about what they look like in advance, the better the surprises are when they reveal themselves to Dodge.

However, one of the dumbest aspects about “Most Dangerous Game” is that the hunters, who are supposed to be “anonymous,” do nothing to disguise their faces when they attack Dodge in public (which is where they usually go after him), sometimes in crowded areas. And in a big city like Detroit, there are plenty of security cameras around, which is something the “Most Dangerous Game” creators want viewers to forget during the big fight scenes.

Some of the dialogue is so bad that it’s laughable. For example, in one scene, the hunter nicknamed Carter tells Dodge in the middle of a fight that he named himself after Jimmy Carter because “I like his work with Habitat for Humanity.” It’s actually one of the funnier lines in “Most Dangerous Game.” And the tone of the acting in “Most Dangerous Game” is uneven. Hemsworth acts like this is a serious drama, while Waltz seems to understand how cheesy this story is and injects some campy humor in his acting.

While the appropriately nicknamed Dodge is running around town, trying not to get killed, Val begins to notice large amounts of money being deposited to Dodge’s bank account. Wasn’t the money supposed to go into a secret offshore account? “”Most Dangerous Game” has too many inconsistences and plot holes to mention.

Val enlists Dodge’s best friend Looger (played by Zach Cherry), who’s a bar owner, to help her find out what’s going on, because at this point she’s figured out that Dodge (who hasn’t come home) is in deep trouble and involved in something illegal. Val and Looger foolishly go to the bank branch where Dodge has the account and to try to discover who’s behind the mystery deposits, but Val and Looger only end up looking suspicious themselves. Looger and Val leave the bank in a hurry when the desk worker they’ve been speaking to offers to get the manager for them.

What happened to the idea that the money was supposed to go to a secret offshore account? That plot hole is never explained. As the Val character, Gadon doesn’t have much in-depth acting to do in “Most Dangerous Game,” since she’s playing a typical “worried wife” role that has become a predictable stereotype for male-oriented action stories. Looger is also very loyal to Dodge, but he’s another supporting character that doesn’t have much depth.

Miles has a creepy henchman named Connell (played by Aaron Poole), who “conveniently” shows up at the hunters’ crime scenes to clean up messes and get rid of evidence, so that the game can stay “secret.” Meanwhile, Tiro Fund headquarters is decked out with a lot of hi-tech computer equipment that tracks Dodge’s whereabouts at all times (such as showing which streets he’s on), regardless if he’s in a car, on a bus, on a train, on a ship or on foot.

It’s never explained how they’re able to keep track of Dodge in such an extremely precise way, since he does not have his phone with him at all times. But many things in “Most Dangerous Game” are illogical, including the ludicrous twist at the end. “Most Dangerous Game” has some unintentional laughs because there are so many badly written parts of the story. If you don’t care about a good screenplay and just want to see Hemsworth in a lot of scenes involving chases and fights, then this type of mindless entertainment might be for you.

Quibi premiered the first three chapters of the 15-chapter “Most Dangerous Game” on April 6, 2020.

Review: ‘The Main Event’ (2020), starring Seth Carr, Adam Pally, Tichina Arnold, Ken Marino, Aryan Simhadri, Glen Gordon and Momona Tamada

April 10, 2020

by Carla Hay

Nikola Bogojevic, Eric Bugenhagen, Mia Yim, Mike “The Miz” Mizanin, Seth Carr, Keith Lee, Babatunde Aiyegbusi and Erik Tuzinsky in “The Main Event” (Photo by Bettina Strauss/Netflix)

“The Main Event” (2020)

Directed by Jay Karas

Culture Representation: Taking place in a fictional American city called Fall Bridge, this children-oriented action movie has a racially diverse cast (African American, white and Asian) and is about a middle-class 11-year-old boy who makes his World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE) dreams come true, thanks to a magical wrestling mask.

Culture Clash: The boy keeps it a secret from most people in his life that he has a mask with magical powers, and his sudden fame causes unexpected problems.

Culture Audience: “The Main Event” will appeal mostly to WWE fans and children under the age of 10.

Aryan Simhadri, Momona Tamada, Seth Carr and Glen Gordon in “The Main Event” (Photo by Bettina Strauss/Netflix)

WWE Studios (the film-production arm of World Wrestling Entertainment) isn’t known for making quality movies. One of the few exceptions is the 2019 biopic “Fighting With My Family,” starring Florence Pugh as wrestling star Paige. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that WWE Studios’ “The Main Event”—which should definitely not be confused with the 1979 Barbra Streisand/Ryan O’Neal boxing movie of the same name—is as cheesy and mindless as you might expect it to be. The main saving grace for the film is that it’s harmless, family-friendly entertainment, even though it’s ultimately very forgettable.

“The Main Event” screenplay was written by four people (Larry Postel, Zach Lewis and Jim Mahoney and Peter Hoareplot), but the plot is very simple: An 11-year-old boy named Leo Thompson (played by Seth Carr) is a passionate wrestling fan, especially of (not surprisingly) WWE wrestlers, and he finds a magical wrestling mask that gives him superpowers. Leo has posters of WWE Superstars all over his bedroom walls and watching WWE matches with his sassy grandmother Denise (played by Tichina Arnold) is among the highlights of his life.

Leo and his best schoolmate friends Riyaz (played by Aryan Sumhadri) and Caleb (played by Glen Gordon) spend a lot of time predicting and dissecting the outcome of WWE matches. All three of the boys are nerdy social outcasts who are sometimes bullied at their school. Riyaz is an aspiring filmmaker, while Caleb has a hidden talent that is revealed toward the end of the film. Leo dreams of becoming a WWE Superstar, but that goal seems very out of reach, given that he’s scrawny and not very athletic at all.

Leo is also experiencing problems at home. A few months ago, his mother left Leo and his father Steve (played by Adam Pally) for another man and moved to New York City. Steve is working two jobs to make ends meet (he’s a mechanic by day and a Lyft driver by night), so he barely has time to spend with Leo. When Leo tries to talk to Steve about why Leo’s mother left the family, Steve avoids the topic and asks Leo if he wants to help him work on some cars. Leo isn’t interested in cars because he’s obsessed with wrestling.

Leo’s single grandmother Denise (played by Tichina Arnold), who runs a thrift shop, has temporarily moved in to help raise Leo. “The Main Event” has Denise as a garishly dressed woman with multicolored hair who tries to act like she’s “hip” to modern youth culture, since Denise takes selfies and says she’s an Instagram influencer. Her desperation to look and act younger than her real age is meant to be humorous, but it’s kind of cringeworthy to watch. Denise also has a celebrity crush on Kofi Kingston, a WWE Superstar who has a cameo in the film.

One day, while Leo is chased by bullies at his school, he manages to hide from them by running into a real-estate open house. He goes into a room upstairs that happens to be filled with WWE memorabilia. (“The Main Event” is absolutely shameless in the over-abundance of WWE promotion.) In a secret compartment, Leo finds a very smelly, spiderweb-covered mask.

Suddenly, an old man, who appears to be the owner of the house, comes into the room and is surprised to find Leo there, but he doesn’t get upset since he can see that Leo is in awe of all the memorabilia. They have a brief conversation and the man lets Leo keep the mask.

When Leo gets home, he tries on the mask, some mystical mumbo jumbo happens, and he finds out that he’s developed magical superstrength where can lift hundreds of pounds and do things like crush furniture with his bare hands. He also has supernatural speed and gymnastic abilities. When he’s wearing the mask, Leo finds out that his voice has gotten deeper and he sounds like an adult. However, this movie makes his voice sound like a weird audio-manipulated version of a child’s voice.

By doing some research on the Internet, Leo finds out that mask used to be owned by an old-time wrestler who was rumored to have super powers that came from the mask. According to legend, the powers only work on those who are worthy of wearing the mask and have good intentions. Of course, Leo brings the mask with him to school. And it isn’t long before he uses his newfound superpowers to defend himself from the three kids who are his bullying tormentors: chief bully Trevor (played by Josh Zaharia) and his followers Mason (played by Dallas Young) and Luke (played by Bodhi Sabongui).

When the bullies come after Leo again in the school hallway, he secretly puts on the mask, turns off the lights in his superspeed, and the next thing you know, the three bullies are strung up on their lockers, like humiliated scarecrows. Because this defense attack happened so quickly and mostly in the dark, the students who witnessed it aren’t sure what happened. However, they do know that Leo stood up to the bullies, and they now see Leo differently and have newfound respect for him.

One of those students is popular kid Erica (played by Momona Tamada), who’s been Leo’s secret crush from afar. He tentatively asks her out on a study date. And to Leo’s surprise, Erica says yes, and she ends up hanging out with Leo, Riyaz and Caleb. Eventually, Riyaz, Caleb and Erica all find out about the mask’s superpowers, and so does Leo’s grandmother Denise.

One night, Leo overhears Denise and Steve talking about Steve’s financial problems. Steve owes the bank $20,000, and he’s in danger of losing the house. Later, while watching a WWE match on TV, Leo and his grandmother find out the WWE is coming to their city for a tournament to find a WWE NXT Superstar. The winner gets to join WWE NXT and earns a grand prize of $50,000.

Leo immediately wants to enter the tournament to win the money for his father. At first, Denise is reluctant, but Leo convinces her to enter the tournament if he promises not to get hurt. And when Leo goes to sign up for the tournament, he’s easily approved, without showing any identification. It’s one of the many things about the movie that put it in the “fantasy” category. Leo decides that his wrestling alter ego name will be Kid Chaos.

Needless to say, Kid Chaos slays the competition. His most formidable opponent is a 6’9″ hulk named Samson (played by real-life WWE star Babatunde Aiyebusi), who doesn’t speak but communicates with growls, snarls and grunts. Of course, the faceoff between Kid Chaos and Samson doesn’t come until near the end of the film. Meanwhile, Samson’s sleazy manager Frankie (played by Ken Marino) will do whatever it takes for Samson to win.

As Kid Chaos advances to the finals, he continues to use his superpowers outside of the wrestling ring, including stopping a robbery at a diner. Meanwhile, Leo and Erica get closer. He helps her overcome her shyness about dancing in public and encourages her to enter the school’s talent contest. He promises that he will dance with her at the contest, which wouldn’t you know, happens to be on the same day as one of his tournament matches. (You can probably guess what happens.)

“The Main Event” has a lot of over-the-top stunts that are kind of amusing to watch, but the stunts and visual effects definitely won’t be nominated for any awards. The acting is what you would expect (mostly mediocre or subpar), but one of the standouts is Gordon as Leo’s wisecracking pal Caleb. Despite some of the badly written lines that the actors have to deliver, Gordon makes his supporting character a bit of a scene-stealer.

There are also several of cameos from WWE stars that should satisfy WWE fans. They include the aforementioned Kingston, Mike “The Miz” Mizanin, Sheamus, Renee Young and Corey Graves, who play versions of themselves.

Most of the tournament opponents who face off against Kid Chaos are also from the WWE stable. They include Eric Bugenhagen as Big Billy Beavers; Mia Yim as Lights Out Leslie; and Otis Dozovic as Stinkface, who adds some gross-out elements to the story because he uses his sweat and farting abilities as weapons in the ring. Keith Lee plays Smooth Operator, a mild-mannered and friendly opponent who befriends Leo/Kid Chaos. The matches themselves have little suspense, since viewers already know that Kid Chaos has superpowers that he definitely uses in the ring.

“The Main Event” is the kind of movie that parents will put on for their young children to keep them entertained or distracted. Anyone older than the age of 10 might not enjoy the film as much, since the acting and the dialogue are very simple-minded and very much geared toward children. “The Main Event” has some heavy-handed preachy messages, but that’s nothing compared to the relentless plugging of WWE in the movie. After all, that’s what a WWE Studios movie is supposed to be: one big WWE commercial.

Netflix premiered “The Main Event” on April 10, 2020.

 

 

Review: ‘Bloodshot’ (2020), starring Vin Diesel

March 13, 2020

by Carla Hay

Vin Diesel in “Bloodshot” (Photo by Graham Bartholomew)

“Bloodshot” (2020)

Directed by David S. F. Wilson

Culture Representation: Taking place in various cities around the world, the sci-fi/action flick “Bloodshot” has a racially diverse cast (white, black, Asian and Latino) and a story that revolves around a U.S. military soldier who’s brought back from the dead, as well as the current and former members of a secret high-tech organization that’s experimenting on him to make him into an easily manipulated killing machine.

Culture Clash: Certain characters in the story have ethical dilemmas about using technology to train assassins.

Culture Audience: “Bloodshot” will appeal primarily to fans of star Vin Diesel and the comic-book series on which the movie is based, but the movie’s formulaic tropes will have little interest to people who aren’t die-hard fans of action movies.

Guy Pearce and Vin Diesel in “Bloodshot” (Photo by Graham Bartholomew)

Vin Diesel is best known for starring in the wildly successful car-racing “Fast and Furious” franchise since 2001, when the first “The Fast and the Furious” movie made him famous. Ever since then, he’s starred in multiple action movies that were clearly made with the hopes that they too would become blockbuster franchises with a series of several movies, but none outside of “The Fast and the Furious” and “XXX” (pronounced “triple X”) has panned out to be that way.

The sci-fi/action flick “Bloodshot” (based on the Valiant Comics series) is another attempt by Diesel (who’s one of the movie’s producers) to try and create a movie-franchise vehicle for himself, and this attempt will also fail. Although “Bloodshot” is a passably enjoyable film, the movie doesn’t have the charisma to make it the type of film where audiences will demand any sequels. This personality deficit in the movie has largely do with the fact that Diesel is a very robotic actor, which is no surprise to anyone who’s seen most of his films.

“Bloodshot” begins with a montage of Diesel’s Ray Garrison character on active duty as a U.S. Marines soldier. He saves a man from a hostage situation and ends up at Ariano Air Force Base in Italy, where he gets praise for his rescue mission. All of this globetrotting away from home has put a strain on his marriage to his British wife Gina (played by Talulah Riley), who’s an action-flick cliché of being the hero’s modelesque love interest who (of course) gets half-naked in the movie. Gina comments to Ray about his soldier duties, “At some point, your body can’t do this forever,” in what is supposed to pass as deep, meaningful insight in her dialogue.

Sure enough, Ray does get killed. But how he gets killed might or might not have happened in the way people might think it happened, since the movie plays tricks on characters’ minds about what’s real and what isn’t. What does happen on screen is that Ray is ambushed and kidnapped by two men in his bathroom. The next thing Ray knows, he’s tied to a chair in a slaughterhouse, where he undergoes a brutal interrogation about information that he swears that he doesn’t know.

Ray’s tormenter/interrogator in this kidnapping is Martin Axe (played by Toby Kebbell), who’s clearly unhinged because he starts dancing to the Talking Heads’ “Psycho Killer” before showing that Gina has been kidnapped and tied up too. And then Gina gets murdered in front of Ray.

As viewers soon see, the entire tragic scene was an elaborate virtual-reality manipulation that later will be used on Ray, who is dead in real life and being experimented on by a secret American high-tech organization called Rising Spirit Technologies (RST), led by the overly ambitious mad scientist Dr. Emil Harting (played by Guy Pearce). Harting wants to perfect a technology that can resurrect soldiers from the dead and train them to be assassins with superpowers. He plans to sell this technology to the highest bidder, and he expects to make billions. (This isn’t a spoiler, since this concept of reanimating Ray from the dead is in the movie’s trailer and it’s the origin story in the “Bloodshot” comics.)

Ray finds out that he’s been brought back from the dead when Harting shows Ray how he’s undergone a blood transfusion that has replaced his blood with a plasma-like liquid filled with molecular creatures that can quickly rebuild his body in any way after getting injuries or wounds, thereby making Ray virtually indestructible. (The visual effects for “Bloodshot” are actually quite good, but they won’t be winning any awards.)

Ray is the first person that RST has been able to bring back to life, according to what Harting says. Harting also says that no family members claimed Ray after Ray’s death, so that’s why Ray’s body ended up at RST. Ray’s memory has been erased, so he has no way to know if Harting is telling him the truth, and he’s trapped in the facility anyway. In order to ease Ray’s fears, Harting puts a positive spin on the situation by telling Ray that Ray now has a second chance at life. What he doesn’t tell Ray is that Ray is being used by RST to see if Ray can be turned into an easily programmable killing machine.

At RST, Ray meets three people who are also part of RST’s experiments: Katie, nicknamed KT (played by Eiza González), is someone whose respiratory system has been restored into something high-tech that can be controlled by Harting. Jimmy Dalton (played by Sam Heughan) is Harting’s most loyal foot soldier (literally), since his legs have been replaced by super-speedy mechanical limbs. Jimmy has other high-tech abilities that are revealed later in the story. Tibbs (played by Alex Hernandez), the quietest of the three, has ocular prosthetics that give him a superhuman ability to see.

What viewers see but what Ray doesn’t is that RST can create virtual worlds in Ray’s mind and erase his memories to start over and implant other ideas in his mind whenever they want. And what Harting wants to do in this phase of the experiment is to see if he can get Ray to complete a series of assassinations around the world, by tricking Ray into thinking that each of the men he assassinates is the same man who murdered Gina in front of Ray.

In order to do that, RST has to erase Ray’s memories every time he completes an assassination and start over by replacing Gina’s murder re-enactment with a different image of each man as the murderer, who will then be the target of Ray’s revenge assassination. And who are these men that Ray is supposed to kill? And why does Harting want them killed? Those details are revealed in the movie.

Meanwhile, KT gets a little closer to Ray, and there are hints that she’s attracted to him and wants a better life than the one she’s trapped in at RST. There’s also a fast-talking coding whiz named Wilfred Wigans (played by Lamorne Morris), a Brit who’s the comic relief in the movie. Wigans has a self-deprecating sense of humor that shows he’s aware that he’s a nerd who gets disrespected, but he’s determined to have the last laugh. Wigans is the only character in the movie who seems to have a personality that goes beyond two dimensions.

Most people who want to see “Bloodshot” will be interested in the action sequences. And some of these scenes are thrilling, particularly the movie’s best action scene, which takes place on a skyscraper. But the assassination scenes are very formulaic, especially since there are video games that have upped the ante and people’s expectations for this type of action.

In this age of Marvel Studios’ domination of superhero flicks, movie audiences are now expecting a lot more from superhero movies than what “Bloodshot” delivers, because the movie version of “Bloodshot” is a story that’s on the same quality level as a video game. “Bloodshot” director David S. F. Wilson (who co-wrote the movie’s screenplay with Eric Heisserer) should have kept in mind while making this film that today’s movie audiences want genuine and relatable character development in superhero movies, not just impressive visual effects. Wilson, who makes his feature-film directorial debut with “Bloodshot,” has a visual-effects background in mostly video games, including several “Star Wars” video game titles.

As the ruthless and greedy Dr. Harting, Pearce does a reasonably good job with his character, but he’s already played a memorable mad scientist in a superhero movie before—Aldrich Killian in 2013’s “Iron Man 3.” Since “Iron Man 3” was a much better movie than “Bloodshot,” the latter movie seems like an inferior retread for Pearce, and the Harting character doesn’t have the wounded emotional depth that Killian had.

And in the role of KT, González does a serviceable performance that, quite frankly, could have been played by any number of actresses. Huegan’s soulless Jimmy Dalton character is strictly a one-dimensional role where he has single-minded loyalty to RST and some jealousy toward Ray, who’s being groomed as RST’s alpha male experiment. And as the quiet Tibbs, Hernandez doesn’t have much to do with this character, who’s basically there to just follow Jimmy’s lead.

In order for a superhero movie to go from a one-picture deal to a series franchise, audiences have to want to come back for more because of the personalities of the main characters. In that respect, “Bloodshot” falls woefully short, because as the center of the story and as the titular superhero, Diesel’s acting is almost as artificially lifeless as Ray Garrison/Bloodshot.

Columbia Pictures released “Bloodshot” in U.S. cinemas on March 13, 2020. 

UPDATE: Because of the widespread coronavirus-related closures of movie theaters worldwide, Sony Pictures Home Entertainment has moved up the digital and VOD release of “Bloodshot” to March 24, 2020.

Review: ‘The Call of the Wild’ (2020), starring Harrison Ford

February 21, 2020

by Carla Hay

Harrison Ford in "The Call of the Wild"
Harrison Ford in “The Call of the Wild” (Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios)

“The Call of the Wild”

Directed by Chris Sanders

Culture Representation: Taking place primarily in Alaska during the 1890s Gold Rush era, the action-adventure film “The Call of the Wild” has a predominantly white cast that represent the working-class and middle-class whose lives are touched in some way by a very lovable and determined St. Bernard/Farm Collie mix dog.

Culture Clash: The characters have conflicts over greed for gold, as well as ownership of the dog.

Culture Audience: “The Call of the Wild” is a family-friendly film that will appeal to fans of Harrison Ford and people who love dogs.

Omar Sy in “The Call of the Wild” (Photo courtesy of 20th Century Studios)

“The Call of the Wild” takes Jack London ‘s classic 1903 novel on which it based and turns it into live-action/animated hybrid adventure story with moments that are heartwarming, heartbreaking and unapologetically sentimental. The story, which takes place during the 1890s, centers on a St. Bernard/Farm Collie mix dog named Buck, who teaches the humans quite a few things about bravery and emotional intelligence. Harrison Ford receives top billing in the movie, but viewers who don’t know the book’s original story should know that his John Thornton character is mainly in the latter half of the story, although his voiceover narration is throughout the film. The movie keeps most of the plot points the same as the original story, but there are also some changes from the novel.

When viewers first see Buck, he’s living a pampered life in Santa Clara, California, with Judge Miller (played by Bradley Whitford), his wife Katie (played by Jean Louisa Kelly) and their family. Buck is playful and mischievous—so much so, that he ruins the family’s Thanksgiving dinner by trashing the table and eating the entire Thanksgiving feast. Judge Miller gets angry but he’s a kind dog owner who doesn’t abuse his pet.

One night, Buck is stolen by a man who sells the dog to an abusive sailor, who hits Buck with a club and keeps him confined. There are scenes of animal cruelty that might be a little disturbing to very sensitive viewers. Buck is on a ship that is headed to Alaska. Through ingenuity, luck and a will to fight, Buck escapes his cruel owner and finds himself homeless in Dawson City, Alaska. He is taken by an old man, who doesn’t treat Buck much better than the sailor, so Buck runs away again.

While Buck is escaping, he runs into a gold prospector named John Thornton (played by Ford), a recluse who’s come into town for errands. Buck finds John’s harmonica on the street, and John is struck by how intelligent the dog seems to be. Unfortunately, Buck’s old man owner catches up to Buck and he’s back in captivity again.

Buck is eventually taken to a dog pound, where he’s bought by Perrault (played by Omar Sy), a French Canadian who runs a dog-sled service that delivers mail. Perrault immediately warms up to Buck, but his jaded assistant Francoise (played by Cara Gee) isn’t too fond of the dog at first. (In the novel, the dog-sled operators were two men named Perrault and Francois.) Perrault makes Buck part of the dog-sled team, which is lead by an arrogant alpha male Siberian husky named Spitz. The rest of the dogs are of various large-sized breeds.

The dog-sled work is grueling, especially when it’s in the snow, but Buck is a quick learner and he makes friends with the rest of the dogs, except for Spitz. For example, there’s a scene where Spitz makes the other dogs wait for him to finish drinking water from an icy lake, but Buck takes his paws to break open the ice to create a new place where the dogs can drink without waiting for Spitz.

It’s worth mentioning that the CGI visual effects for the animals start off looking very unrealistic, but they get better during the course of the movie. The animals have very humanistic facial expressions and movements, so don’t expect this movie to be completely realistic. You also have to suspend disbelief at some of the superhuman stunts that Buck is able to do. However, the movie doesn’t go too far with the human characteristics for the animals—the animals don’t cry, walk like humans, or talk in human languages—so overall the ways that the animals are presented are mostly realistic.

Whenever there’s an action movie that takes place near a frozen body of water, the inevitable happens: Someone falls through the ice into the water. This happens to Francoise, but of course Buck is there to rescue her and save her life. Her attitude toward Buck starts to change after that incident. She begrudgingly admits to Buck that she underestimated him and that he’s impressed her the most out of all of the dogs in the pack. And wouldn’t you know, Spitz is off in the distance seeing this bonding moment and gets jealous, so he later starts a fight with Buck, leading to a showdown over who’s going to be the alpha male of the pack.

Because the trailers for “The Call of the Wild” make the movie look like it’s only about Buck and John, viewers who don’t know the book might be surprised to see how much of the movie is about Buck’s time in the dog-sled pack. It’s a pivotal part of the story in the novel and the film, because it’s the first time that Buck experiences being part of a dog pack. It’s also the first time he becomes in touch with his wild instincts that originate from the wolves who are ancestors of domesticated dogs. (When Buck uses his primal instincts, he sees a vision of a black wolf with glowing eyes )

So how did Buck end up with John? Buck and the sled team get a new owner named Hal, a greedy, insufferable fop who’s the most abusive owner yet for Buck. Hal wants the dog pack to take him, his sister Mercedes (played by Karen Gillan) and Mercedes’ passive husband Charles (played by Colin Goodell) on gold mining expeditions. Hal beats and starves the dogs into submission. If you love animals, this part of the film is hard to watch, even if you know the animals aren’t real.

Luckily, when John encounters the gold-digging trio and the mistreated dog pack, he rescues a severely malnourished and injured Buck. Hal leaves with the rest of the pack. (What happens to Hal and the dog pack in this movie is different from what happens to them in the original novel.) John takes Buck back to his small and sparse cabin in the woods and nurses the dog back to health.

John lives simply, and his gruff exterior masks a lot of emotional pain. He’s the type of prospector who isn’t looking for gold to get rich. At one point, he tells Buck that all a man needs is enough money “to buy groceries for life.” And it’s easy to see why he feels a strong connection to Buck, because Buck has also experienced a lot of pain.

During Buck’s time with John, Buck meets a pretty female hinterland wolf with white fur, and she introduces him to her pack, which readily accepts Buck, and he spends more and more time with them. (This is where the movie takes a sharp turn from reality, because in real life, a domesticated dog would be attacked and probably killed by a pack of wild wolves.)

It’s during this time that John (who talks to Buck like a human) reveals what happened in his past that’s made him a such a recluse: He had a son who died (it’s not mentioned how he died), and the grief over his son’s death led to him being estranged from his wife. It’s implied in the movie that John left his wife, they’re now divorced, and he let her keep their marital house and everything in it.

John is also a heavy drinker—and this is where the humanistic qualities of Buck are really shown in the movie—the dog scolds John for drinking too much, whether it’s by Buck hiding John’s flask of alcohol or making disapproving noises when he sees John drinking too much. Yes, Buck is not only an incredibly resourceful dog, apparently he’s also an addiction counselor/interventionist too.

Whenever there’s a movie about the wild, wild West, there also seems to be an obligatory scene with a bar fight. That moment comes when John is drinking at a bar and he gets sucker-punched by Hal, who’s angry at John because the dog pack ran off, thereby putting a severe damper on Hal’s gold-digging excursions in the rough terrain. Of course, Buck comes to the rescue when John is attacked. John fights back too, and Hal is thrown out of the bar. Do you think that’s the last we’ll see of Hal in this movie? Of course not.

The rest of the movie is about the bonding time that Buck and John spend together when John decides to take the adventure trip that he and his son had planned before his son died. “The Call of the Wild” is the first movie with live action for director Chris Sanders, who previously directed the animated films “How to Train Your Dragon,” “The Croods” and “Lilo & Stitch.” Fans of the “How to Train Your Dragon” series might see some similarities in the “man’s best friend” theme in both movies and how the animals take on human mannerisms.

There have been other “The Call of the Wild” movies, but this is the first to have this type of CGI animation for the animals. For the most part, it works well, even if the action sometimes look cartoonish because of what some of the things these animated animals do that real animals can’t do. However, this version of “The Call of the Wild” (whose screenplay was written by Michael Green) keeps the story’s message of resilience and friendship intact and treats it with respect. It’s a timeless message that will resonate even with changes in movie technology.

20th Century Studios released “The Call of the Wild” in U.S. cinemas on February 21, 2020.

UPDATE: Because of the widespread coronavirus-related closures of movie theaters worldwide, 20th Century Home Entertainment has moved up the digital release of “The Call of the Wild” to March 27, 2020.