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

July 30, 2021

by Carla Hay

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

“The Suicide Squad”

Directed by James Gunn

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review: ‘Brothers by Blood,’ starring Matthias Schoenaerts, Joel Kinnaman, Maika Monroe, Paul Schneider and Ryan Phillippe

January 31, 2021

by Carla Hay

Matthias Schoenaerts and Joel Kinnaman in “Brothers by Blood” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“Brothers by Blood”

Directed by Jérémie Guez

Culture Representation: Taking place in Philadelphia, the crime drama “Brothers by Blood” features an almost all-white cast (with a few Latinos) representing the working-class, the middle-class and the criminal underground.

Culture Clash: Two cousins who work for the Irish mobsters in Philadelphia have their loyalties tested due to family secrets and involvement with Italian mobsters.

Culture Audience: “Brothers by Blood” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching generic and tedious movies about “thug life.”

Ryan Phillippe and Felix Scott in “Brothers by Blood” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“Brothers by Blood” makes a half-hearted attempt to be a compelling crime drama, but the movie still ends up being formulaic and forgettable. It’s one of those mobster movies where two family members have an up-and-down relationship that propels much of what happens in the story. The problem is that all of the characters in the movie are derivative of other characters in much-better mafia films. “Brothers by Blood” is essentially a cheap wannabe Martin Scorsese gangster film.

Written and directed by Jérémie Guez, “Brothers by Blood” is based on Peter Dexter’s novel “Brotherly Love.” The original title of the movie was “The Sound of Philadelphia” (the city where the movie is based), and it’s easy to see why the title was changed, because “The Sound of Philadelphia” could mislead people into thinking it’s a music-oriented movie. Philadelphia is nicknamed the City of Brotherly Love, but the only love in this movie is tainted by brutal crimes and paranoia about betrayal.

The two main characters in “Brothers by Blood” are cousins Peter (played by Matthias Schoenaerts) and Michael (played by Joel Kinnaman), who own a small construction business that’s really a money-laundering front for the illegal work that the cousins do for the Irish mafia in Philadelphia. Peter is the introverted, level-headed cousin, while Michael is the extroverted, hot-headed cousin. Crime dramas often have a cliché of opposite personalities who have to work together and often clash with each other. “Blood Brothers” leans into this cliché hard enough to the point of over-reliance and stifling any depth for other parts of the story.

It’s very easy to see where this movie is going to go, once it’s established that Michael has a tendency to make impulsive and dumb decisions. About 70% of “Brothers by Blood” is a monotonous plot repetition of Michael doing idiotic things, while Peter tries to smooth things over and clean up Michael’s mess. Most of the movie takes place in 2016, but there are several flashbacks to Peter’s and Michael’s childhood, shown from Peter’s perspective.

Michael is impulsive and erratic, but Peter isn’t exactly mentally stable either. The opening scene shows that Peter has suicidal tendencies. In this nighttime scene, Michael and Peter are on the rooftop of one of their construction sites and listening to a friend drone on about a proctology exam that he recently had. (Yes, it’s that kind of movie.)

Peter steps onto the edge of the roof and suddenly jumps. Michael and the friend race to the street and see that Peter has landed in a very large pile of garbage and hasn’t been physically hurt. While their buddy is freaking out, Peter offers no explanation for why he jumped, while Michael says nonchalantly about Peter’s disturbing jump: “He does that all the time.”

It’s shown early in the movie that Michael and Peter have shady dealings with a local councilman named Taylor (played by Tim Ahern), who tells the cousins that he’s under ethical scrutiny for hiring six of his relatives, so he had to cut these family members loose from his employment. Taylor asks Michael and Peter to find jobs for these relatives at Michael and Peter’s construction company, even if these relatives aren’t qualified. During this office meeting with Taylor, a Republican presidential debate is shown on TV, and Michael predicts that Donald Trump is going to win the election.

One night, Peter and Michael end up drinking at a restaurant/bar owned by their friend Jimmy (played by Paul Schneider), who confides in Peter that he borrowed a lot of money from Michael to keep Jimmy’s business afloat. Peter tells Jimmy it’s a mistake to be in debt to Michael, but Jimmy is too drunk at the moment to heed any warnings. It’s later revealed that Michael has his own money problems that will get the cousins into trouble.

While they’re at the bar, Jimmy introduces his younger sister Grace (played by Maika Monroe) to Peter and Michael. She’s recently arrived from out of town, and Jimmy has given her a job as a bartender. Michael immediately flirts with Grace. However, Peter and Grace eye each other in a way that it’s obvious that these two will end up together in some way later in the movie.

“Brothers by Blood” also has poorly written subplots about Peter’s and Michael’s business interests aside from their construction company and thugging around with mobsters. Peter wants to possibly invest in boxing. He goes to a local boxing gym, where his acquaintance Carlos (played by Carlos Schram) is training a promising young boxer named Ryan (played by Tarek Hamite), who is living with Carlos because Ryan’s father is a “crackhead,” according to Carlos.

Michael is more interested in investing in horse racing. He’s bought a horse for $80,000, with the hope that the horse can be trained into becoming a champion. But something happens with Michael’s horse-racing investment, and how he handles it shows how much he’s an out-of-control loose cannon. In another scene in the movie, Michael can’t stand the thought of Peter being successful at anything without him, so Michael makes their hanger-on friend Leonard, nicknamed Lenny (played by James Nelson-Joyce) box Ryan in the ring. Lenny quickly and soundly gets beaten by Ryan, and that defeat aggravates Michael, who holds grudges.

Because of some debts and double-crossing, Michael has managed to anger the Italian mafia in Philadelphia. And so, a goon named Bono (played by Antoni Corone) from the Italian mafia has a threatening meeting with Peter and warns him that the Italian mafia will come after the cousins unless Peter kills Michael. Peter tells Bono that he won’t kill Michael. The rest of the story is about how much danger these two cousins get themselves into, as Michael continues with his screw-ups and some people inevitably get hurt or killed.

“Brothers by Blood” has frequent flashbacks to Peter’s childhood. It’s revealed that his seemingly happy life went on a downward spiral when he was 8 years old (Nicholas Crovetti portrays Peter as a boy) and witnessed his younger sister (played by Grace Bilik) accidentally get killed when she ran out into the street and was hit by a car. The car’s driver was a cop named Victor Kopec (played by Michael McFadden), who lives nearby. And Peter’s ill-tempered father Charley (played by Ryan Philippe) vows revenge.

Peter’s life gets even worse when his grieving mother has a nervous breakdown and she’s put in a psychiatric hospital, which is talked about but not shown in the movie. Peter’s father Charley is obsessed with getting revenge on Victor. Michael’s father Phil (played by Felix Scott), who is Charley’s brother, vehemently disagrees with Charley’s plan to murder Victor, because Charley and Phil are already involved with the Irish mafia. If Charley becomes a cop killer, it could cause problems for the brothers, not only with the police but also with the mafia.

Like a lot of derivative mobster flicks, “Brothers by Blood” limits the female characters in very sexist and shallow ways. Grace is the only female character with a significant speaking role in the film, and she’s really just there to be a potential love interest for Peter. Writer/director Guez has such little regard for Peter’s sister (whose death is the catalyst for a lot of the family drama) that he didn’t even give her a name in the story. In the end credits, she’s only labeled “Little Girl.” And Peter’s mother is reduced to being a nameless, background character who’s briefly shown sobbing over the death of her daughter.

Despite solid performances from Schoenaerts and Phillippe, “Brothers by Blood” could be called “Brothers by Boredom,” since this so-called gangster film has a lot of dull talk and not much action. Too much of the movie is about Michael being a swaggering fool and pulling guns on people, while Peter just stands around looking embarrassed and occasionally steps in to stop Michael from making things worse. We get it. These cousins are dysfunctionally co-dependent.

Peter’s childhood flashbacks are more interesting than the storyline with the adult Peter and adult Michael, because the flashbacks give some insight into how and why Michael and Peter ended up being so close. Their family experienced more tragedy besides the death of Peter’s sister. But this backstory isn’t enough to save “Brothers by Blood” from being a hollow and drab movie with a completely predictable ending.

Vertical Entertainment released “Brothers by Blood” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on January 22, 2021.

Review: ‘The Informer’ (2020), starring Joel Kinnaman, Rosamund Pike, Common, Ana de Armas and Clive Owen

November 14, 2020

by Carla Hay

Joel Kinnaman in “The Informer” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“The Informer”

Directed by Andrea Di Stefano

Culture Representation: Taking place in primarily in New York City, the crime drama “The Informer” has a predominantly white cast of characters (with some African Americans and Latinos) representing the middle-class and criminal underground.

Culture Clash: An ex-convict who’s become a confidential informant to the FBI gets caught up in a power struggle between the FBI, the New York Police Department and a drug kingpin when an undercover NYPD officer gets murdered during a botched drug deal.

Culture Audience: “Informer” will appeal primarily to people who like formulaic and generic movies about drug smuggling and undercover investigations.

Clive Owen, Rosamund Pike and Joel Kinnaman in “The Informer” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

There are times when people watching a movie have to suspend disbelief when they have to think to themselves, “It’s only a movie,” because the world created in the movie is not supposed to be a reflection of the real world. But when a gritty crime drama like “The Informer” invests so much of the story’s credibility in trying to be as realistic possible, it’s fair to judge the movie’s merits on how well the movie depicts “the real world.” Although the “The Informer” has moments of action-filled suspense, too much of the movie looks recycled from other better-made films, and some of the scenes are almost laughably unrealistic.

Directed by Andrea Di Stefano, “The Informer” is based on the 2009 Swedish novel “Three Seconds” by Anders Rosland and Börge Lennart Hellström. Di Stefano, Matt Cook and Rowan Joffe adapted “Three Seconds” into the mediocre and cliché-ridden screenplay for “The Informer.” The movie changes the setting of the story (it’s Sweden in the book, New York City in the movie) but the premise is essentially the same: An ex-con who’s an informant tries not to killed in a dangerous double-cross game as he deals with law enforcement and criminals.

In “The Informer,” Joel Kinnaman plays Pete Koslow, a Gulf War veteran who spent time in the fictional Bale Hill Prison for killing a man in a bar fight while defending his wife Sofia (played by Ana de Armas) from the sleazy guy who was harassing her in the bar. Now a heavily tattooed ex-con, Pete (who has post-traumatic stress disorder) lives in New York City with Sofia and their 8-year-old daughter Anna (played by Karma Meyer). Pete has stayed out of trouble since his release from prison, but he has a secret: He’s a confidential informant for the FBI to bust a major drug ring that has been importing and selling fentanyl.

The Polish kingpin who’s the leader of this drug-dealing operation is Rysard Klimek (played by Eugene Lipinski), who’s nicknamed The General. Pete is an American of Polish descent who can speak fluent Polish, and most of The General’s gang members are also Polish. Therefore, Pete has been chosen to help the FBI in busting The General and his drug-smuggling crew.

Pete has been able to infiltrate The General’s gang and gain their trust. The person he is closest to in the gang is an impulsive hothead named Stazek Cusik (played by Mateusz Kosciukiewicz), who sets off a chain of events that will test Pete’s loyalties and put Pete and his family in possibly fatal danger. With Pete’s help, the FBI is ready to do a huge drug bust to arrest The General and his gang.

Pete has been working directly with FBI agent Erica Wilcox (played by Rosamund Pike), and they have meticulously planned how the drug bust will go. Erica has instructed the FBI to “go easy” on Pete when the drug bust happens because he is one of the FBI’s informants. Erica has assured Pete that during the drug bust, he will be taken away safely in an unmarked vehicle.

But things go horribly wrong. Unbeknownst to the FBI, the New York Police Department has been trying to bust The General and his gang too. And the NYPD sent an undercover officer named Daniel Gomez (played by Arturo Castro), who’s been using the alias Carlos Herrera, to pose as a major drug buyer from Mexico. Stazek tells a nervous Pete that there’s been a last-minute change of plans since this “new buyer” named Carlos Herrera has shown in interest in making a big purchase.

During the meeting with “Carlos,” an argument erupts, he reveals he works for the NYPD, and Stazek shoots him in the head. A stunned Pete knows this has completely ruined the drug bust that the FBI had planned for that night. And sure enough, the FBI calls off the plans, and Erica cancels the backup that was supposed rescue Pete. Meanwhile, Stazek and some of his cronies dismember the murdered NYPD officer’s body and throw it into the river at a nearby dock.

Erica’s corrupt supervisor Agent Montgomery (played by Clive Owen) blames her and Pete for the botched drug bust and wants to cut Pete loose from the informant program. Erica begs Montgomery to give her and Pete a little more time to set up another drug bust. Montgomery says that officially the FBI is done with Pete and can’t give her the authority to continue dealing with him. But unofficially, Montgomery tells Erica that if she still wants to pursue the drug bust with Pete’s help, she’s free to do so but she has to inform him of what she’s doing. However, if things go wrong again, she will be forced to take full responsibility and she’ll probably get fired.

Meanwhile, the General is furious over the botched drug deal that got a NYPD officer killed, and he says that Pete owes his life to Stazek. The General orders Pete to get himself arrested so that he can be incarcerated again at Bale Hill Prison, where Pete is supposed to take over the drug operation there. Pete tells Sofia about his secret life as an informant for the FBI and how he’s now being coerced to do what The General wants.

It’s around this time that Pete has a meeting with Erica and Montgomery, who tell Pete that he can redeem himself with the FBI if Pete gets the names of all of The General’s drug operators in Bale Hill Prison. And so, Pete and Sofia stage a domestic violence incident that sends Pete back to Bale Hill Prison faster than you can say “stupid plot development.”

Meanwhile, the NYPD is investigating the murder of Officer Gomez, whose partner Detective Edward Grens (played by Common) is on a personal revenge mission to catch the killer. At first, he suspects Pete of committing the murder. Detective Grens eventually figures out that Pete is an informant for the FBI, so he confronts Erica and Montgomery, who deny knowing anything about Pete, even though Detective Grens has uncovered video surveillance and other evidence that Erica has been in contact with Pete.

Detective Grens decides that the FBI is covering up something, so he makes it known that if the NYPD has to go to war with the FBI, so be it. Detective Grens eventually goes to Sofia (who owns an aquarium shop) to ask for her help, but she has a hard time trusting him. She tells Detective Grens that ever since Pete got arrested for that deadly bar fight, whenever someone has offered to help, the person ends up doing the opposite and Pete gets in more trouble.

And so, with Pete feeling pressure from the FBI, the NYPD and The General who all have their own agendas, this is how the movie sets up dilemmas for Pete on whom he should trust and whom he should betray. The scenes of Pete in prison have the predictable elements that have been seen in many other dramas with prison scenes. Unoriginal stereotypes abound, including typical violent fights between inmates; a corrupt corrections officer named Slewett (played by Sam Spruell), who’s in on the prison’s drug trade; and a prison chief name Warden Leinart (played by Matthew Marsh), who looks the other way at the illegal activities that he knows goes on in his prison.

One of the dumbest scenes in “The Informer” is when Pete makes a desperate phone call from prison to FBI agent Erica, who is officially not supposed to be in contact with Pete at this point in the story. Apparently, the filmmakers want viewers to forget or not know that all inmate phone calls in prison are recorded. Someone who works for the FBI should know this too. It’s unfortunate that the filmmakers have made this FBI agent look so inept.

During Pete and Erica’s phone conversation, Erica and Pete say enough incriminating things in the conversation that would expose their “secret” plans to people in the prison, which is crawling with corrupt corrections officers, and word would get back to Slewett, who’s working with The General. This phone conversation from prison would also then get Pete branded as a snitch, which could make the inmates turn against him too. But the filmmakers cover up this massive plot hole, which completely ruins whatever credibility this movie was trying to grasp.

And then “The Informer” just turns into complete garbage with a very unrealistic prison hostage scene where viewers are supposed to believe that the hostage taker, who is just one person, is able to hold off a small army of law enforcement officers (including a S.W.A.T team) that come to the rescue. The hostage scenes exist only so that the movie can have more violence, such as shootouts, an explosion and a gross-out scene where the hostage taker plunges a pair of scissors into someone’s ear.

Although Kinnaman’s role in the movie requires a lot of physical prowess, his character is the typical tough, brooding, misunderstood loner that we’ve seen so many times before in movies about ex-cons who become confidential informants. Pike’s Erica character is problematic because she’s supposed to be morally conflicted, but the reality is that this FBI agent is just incredibly incompetent. Owen’s Montgomery character is a stereotypical callous bureaucrat, while de Armas has yet another role as a “worried wife/love partner,” which is the type of character she has in a lot of her movies.

“The Informer” director Di Stefano and cinematographer Daniel Katz occasionally try to make the movie look a little artsier than most cheesy crime dramas of this ilk. For example, the scene with Sofia and Detective Grens in her aquarium shop is lit with the blue-ish glow of the aquariums, not by overhead room lights. It’s as if to convey that Sofia is untouched by all the grime and sleaze that has ensnared her husband. However, as much as this one scene was trying to show the beauty amongst all the corruption and violence, it’s still not enough to compensate for the shoddily written screenplay.

When the FBI or a big city’s police department (such as the NYPD) is trying to bust a large drug operation in an undercover sting, there are things that these professionals are trained not to do, so that they won’t blow their cover. And yet, the numskulls in “The Informer” do a lot of dumb things to blow their cover that no self-respecting law enforcement official or street-smart informant would do in an undercover investigation. “The Informer” is ultimately for people who just want to see some forgettable fight scenes and other mindless violence amid a lot of plot holes. This movie is not for people who want to see a compelling and well-written crime drama.

Vertical Entertainment released “The Informer” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on November 6, 2020. The movie was released in several countries in Europe and Asia in 2019.

Review: ‘The Secrets We Keep,’ starring Noomi Rapace, Chris Messina, Joel Kinnaman and Amy Seimetz

September 18, 2020

by Carla Hay

Joel Kinnaman and Noomi Rapace in “The Secrets We Keep” (Photo courtesy of Bleecker Street)

“The Secrets We Keep”

Directed by Yuval Adler

Culture Representation: Taking place in 1959 in a fictional U.S. city called Spruce, the dramatic film “The Secrets That We Keep” features an all-white cast of characters (most of them are American, and a few are European immigrants) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A Romanian immigrant living in America kidnaps a man she suspects was the German Nazi who brutally assaulted her and killed her sister during World War II.

Culture Audience: “The Secrets We Keep” will appeal primarily to people who like crime thrillers or stories about Holocaust survivors.

Chris Messina and Noomi Rapace in “The Secrets We Keep” (Photo by Patti Perret/Bleecker Street)

Getting revenge on a suspected World War II Nazi who’s changed his identity is a concept that’s been done before in movies such as 1998’s “Apt Pupil,” 2011’s “The Debt” (which was a British remake of the 2007 Israeli film “Ha-Hov”) and 2016’s “Remember.” The competent but not particularly outstanding thriller “The Secrets We Keep” is another movie to add to the list. Directed by Yuval Adler, who co-wrote the screenplay with Ryan Covington, “The Secrets We Keep” greatly benefits from the above-average acting from the main stars of the cast, because the movie’s plot wears very thin after a while.

In “The Secrets We Keep,” it’s 1959 in a U.S. suburban city named Spruce, where people live on quiet, tree-lined streets in middle-class neighborhoods. One of the city residents is Maja (played by Noomi Rapace), a Romanian immigrant who is married to a compassionate American doctor named Lewis (played by Chris Messina), whose patients include several workers at a local refinery. The refinery is one of the biggest employers in the city.

Maja and Lewis have a polite and adorable son named Patrick (played by Jackson Dean Vincent), who’s about 7 or 8 years old. Lewis has a private practice, and Maja works part-time as an assistant in his office. They met when Lewis worked at a U.S. Army hospital in Greece in 1946, during the post-World War II Reconstruction.

It’s shown early on in the movie that Lewis is more open-hearted and trusting than Maja is. For example, during an appointment with disabled patient named Eddie (played by Frank Monteleone), who lost both of his legs in World War II, Lewis invites unmarried and childless Eddie over to have dinner sometime with Lewis and Maja. Later, while Maja and Lewis are having a private conversation in their home, Maja expresses discomfort over the dinner invitation.

Maja comments to Lewis about Eddie: “He doesn’t need your pity. You made him feel awkward.” Lewis replies, “No, I didn’t.” Maja, “Yes you did.” This back-and-forth continues for another minute or two, but it’s clear that Maja and Lewis have different ways of handling emotionally sensitive situations. This conflicting style causes much of the tension during what happens later in the story.

Lewis, Maja and Patrick have a tranquil and fairly uneventful life until Maja, just by chance, sees a man (played by Joel Kinnaman) whom she thinks she has encountered in the past. Maja sees him while she’s spending some time in a local park with Patrick. She intently stares at the stranger and starts to follow him until he gets into a car and drives away. The next time she sees this man, they are both in a locksmith store. This time, Maja follows the man all the way to his home and sees that he has a wife and two children: a daughter who’s about 5 or 6 years old and a baby boy.

Maja trespasses into their backyard and overhears him talking to his wife about his job at the refinery. He has a European accent and his wife is American. Maja is almost caught when the family’s dog start barking at her. The way that Maja looks at this man, it’s clear that she has a lot of animosity and suspicion toward him.

The next time Maja sees the man, it’s outside of the refinery, where she’s parked her car. She approaches him and tells him that she has car trouble and needs help. When he goes over to her car, she hits him on the head with a hammer and pushes him into the car trunk.

Maja then ties him up and drives to a shallow grave. When she opens the car trunk, she’s pointing a gun at the man’s head. He shouts something very quickly (which gives away something that happens toward the end of the film) and pleads for his life. “What do you want?” he frantically asks Maja.

It turns out that Maja thinks that this man is a German Nazi named Karl who, 15 years ago, murdered her sister and beat and raped Maja and left her for dead among some other murdered Romanians. The movie shows Maja’s memories of this vicious attack, which involved a group of Nazis, but Maja believes this man was the cruelest one in the group of attackers. The assaults and murders happened outside at night, but Maja says she will never forget Karl’s eyes.

The man whom Maja has abducted swears that he doesn’t know what Maja is talking about. He says he is a Swiss immigrant named Thomas and that he was never in Romania during the time that she described. Instead of shooting him and burying him in the shallow grave, Maja takes him home and tells a shocked Lewis what happened. It’s revealed later in the movie that Maja doesn’t want to kill this man until he confesses to the crimes she believes that he committed.

By bringing this kidnapped man into her home, Maja has to reveal to Lewis that she has a secret past as a Holocaust survivor. For the first time in her marriage, she also confesses to Lewis that she also lied about her family background. Instead of coming from a middle-class family, she actually came from a family of poor Gypsies. And she also tells Lewis for the first time that she was never an only child but she had a sister who was murdered.

Lewis’ first instinct is to call the police with the explanation that the kidnapping was a misunderstanding, but Maja persuades him not to do that because she says that the police will consider Lewis to be an accomplice in the kidnapping. Lewis reluctantly agrees to keep Joseph locked in their basement for one night. Of course, as soon as Lewis says this, viewers can easily guess that this kidnapping is going to last longer than one night.

The rest of the movie is a big guessing game: Is Thomas really who he says he is? How long can Lewis and Maja hold him captive in their basement without anyone finding out? And will Thomas try to escape? All of these questions are answered in the film, which has a lot of suspenseful scenes. But then, there are other scenes where the only suspense is when viewers have to suspend their disbelief at some of aspects of the story.

For example, it’s not a spoiler to say that a lot of what happens in the house during the kidnapping would be difficult to hide from an inquisitive child such as Patrick. Let’s just say that the basement isn’t 100% soundproof. The sounds of Maja torturing Thomas (which happens more than once in the movie) or Thomas being yelled at by his kidnappers result in some close calls with some people who don’t live in the home but go to the home to find out if anything out of the ordinary has been going on. But strangely and unrealistically, the child who lives in the house and would be able to hear these loud and disturbing noises never seems to hear anything.

And there’s a scene where Maja and Lewis foolishly forget to take their loaded gun with them when they leave Thomas alone in the basement. The gun is left right in plain view on a table within reach of Thomas. Even though he’s tied to a chair, he can still move his chair over to the table. And you can guess what might happen after that.

Maja also decides to try to befriend Thomas’ distraught wife Rachel (played by Amy Seimetz) and finds out that Rachel is Jewish. There’s also some information that comes out about Maja’s mental-health history that will make viewers wonder how credible her story is or if her mind is playing tricks on her. Lewis also does some investigating on his own to look into Thomas’ background.

“The Secrets We Keep” has some good acting by Rapace, Messina, Kinnaman and Seimetz. Rapace and Kinnaman also had solid performances when they co-starred together in the 2015 mystery thriller “Child 44,” another movie whose acting was better than the screenplay. However, parts of “The Secrets That We Keep” become repetitive with the “he said/she said” stalemate between Thomas and Maja.

On the plus side, some of the questionable aspects of the story can be explained. For example, it’s possible that a petite woman like Maja could overpower Thomas (who’s a tall man) if he’s injured. It’s also possible that a respected doctor and his wife wouldn’t fall under suspicion for Thomas’ disappearance, especially when there was no proof that Lewis and Maja had contact with Thomas before he disappeared. Maja took a big risk by kidnapping Thomas outside of his workplace, but this is in 1959, before video surveillance cameras existed.

For all of Maja’s explosive anger toward Thomas, she’s not as tough as she’d like to come across to the person she’s kidnapped. Her emotional vulnerability is apparent because it seems that it’s more important for her that Lewis believe that she’s not crazy rather than for her to immediately kill the man she keeps threatening to murder. The ending of “The Secrets We Keep” isn’t much of a shock. Although it’s a realistic conclusion (stranger things have happened in real life), it will probably leave a lot of viewers feeling emotionally disconnected from everyone in the story.

Bleecker Street released “The Secrets We Keep” in select U.S. cinemas on September 16, 2020. The movie’s VOD release date is October 16, 2020.