Undercover Punch and Gun


Philip Ng is feeling boxed in.

(2019) Crime (Well Go USA) Philip Ng, Vanness Wu, Andy On, Nicholas Tse, Joyce Wenjuan Feng, Luxia Jiang, Aka Chio, Shuai Chi, Jia Meng, Aaron Aziz, Suet Lam, Carrie Ng, Susan Yam-Yam Shaw. Directed by Koon-Nam Lui and Frankie Tam

 

One of the biggest criticisms of action movies in general is that they often seem to be little more than excuses to go from one big action set piece to another. Plot and character development often go by the wayside, leaving the audience to marvel at the stunts, special effects and so on. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – great action sequences can often be their own catharsis, but I also can’t blame critics who would like to see actioin movies be better. It certainly wouldn’t hurt to develop the plot a little more, or give the characters some depth besides a few cheeky one-liners spouted at the end of a particularly grueling fight scene.

Xiao Wu (P. Ng) is an enforcer for a drug ring but what he REALLY is, as it turns out, is an undercover cop. During a drug deal that goes south, gunfire erupts between rival gangs of cops and gangsters. During the chaos, the boss (Lam) is killed and Wu ends up in charge. He is tasked to take down Ha (On), a smuggler who not only imports drugs but dabbles in the human trafficking trade – about as much as Apple dabbles in computers. Ha is as ruthless as they come, and Wu along with his buddy Tiger (Wu) are definitely in over their heads.

The producers for the film apparently never heard the old aphorism “too many cooks spoil the broth.” There are no less than two directors and seven writers credited on this film, and it shows. There is an inconsistency in tone that is maddening as the movie goes from slam-bam action to slapstick comedy to dark social drama often within the same scene. I get that Asian cuisine often has a multitude of layered flavors, but that doesn’t always work for movies.

The characters don’t always act as you’d expect which can be refreshing so long as there’s a logic to it. When Wu’s girlfriend is kidnapped, one wonders about the girl; she isn’t in much of the movie until the end where she basically exists in order to be rescued. The saving grace here is that the action sequences, particularly the fights, are really, REALLY good. Ng, who doubled as fight choreographer, is a natural and could well be the next big international action star to come out of the Far East. He has a brooding presence, but doesn’t handle the comedy quite as well.

Then again, the comedy here is mainly of the low-brow variety and often brings the movie to a screeching halt. The comedy is largely centered around Tiger and while Asian audiences tend to appreciate a broader sense of humor than American audiences do, the jokes here are largely painfully unfunny, as when the baddie wips out his cell phone and tells the hero “There! I unfriended you!” Take that.

Sometimes the action sequences are all you really need to make a movie worthwhile, but the sometimes-painful comedy breaks really do bring the movie down overall. There is also a jazzy score that is wildly inappropriate for the film; the movie just isn’t noir enough for it. Action fans, particularly those who love the martial arts films of Asia, are going to flip for it. Also, keep an eye our for Ng – he could be a household name a few years from now.

REASONS TO SEE: There are some nifty action sequences.
REASONS TO AVOID: The wild shifts in tone (particularly the generally unsuccessful attempts at comedy) drag the film down overall.
FAMILY VALUES: There is quite a bit of martial arts violence, as well as some drug content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Originally released under the title Undercover vs. Undercover.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Hi-Yah, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/22/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Infernal Affairs
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Bullied

Deliver Us From Evil (Daman akeseo guhasoseo)


It is twilight for a professional killer.

(2020) Crime (Well Go USA) Jun-min Hwang, Jung-jae Lee, Jung-min Park, Moon Choi, Hakuryu, Park Myeong-hoon, Dae-hwan Oh, Tomonori Mizuno, Young-chang Song, Kosuke Toyohara, Hiroaki Hirakawa, Ito Keitoku, Ken Kurahara, Atsundo Maruyama, So-yi Park. Directed by Won-Chan Hong

 

For an action film to be successful, it doesn’t have to be particularly original, although that certainly helps. When an action movie is well-thought-out, well-choreographed and well-paced, a lack of imagination can be forgiven.

In-nam (Hwang) is a contract killer who used to be a cop. He has just finished his last job before retiring to Panama to live on a quiet beach, but that is not to be. For one thing, the last man he killed, a yakuza named Goreda (Toyohara) has a vengeful brother named Ray, who is better known as Ray the Butcher (Lee). You really don’t want someone named “The Butcher” mad at you, particularly when that person is muscle for the yakuza.

Worse still, it turns out that an ex-girlfriend (Choi) has died and her young daughter Yoo-min (S-y Park) has been kidnapped by human traffickers and taken to Bangkok. In-nam is not helping out because he’s a particularly good guy; he is about as stone cold as they get, but he does have some skin in that particular game. With raving lunatic Ray chasing the ice-cold In-nam, you can imagine that sparks will fly when the two meet.

And sparks do fly. Action fans will be pleased to know that this is as gripping an action movie as you’re likely to see this year, with well-staged martial arts fights and some spectacular action sequences that would do a Hollywood big-budget summer tentpole film proud. This is the kind of movie that doesn’t lack for entertainment.

It also doesn’t lack for action stars. Hwang and Lee are two of South Korea’s biggest stars; they haven’t been in a movie together in eight years, but their chemistry is undeniable. They work really well together, and Hwang does the taciturn, brooding killing machine about as well as anybody, although in the Bangkok heat the man sweats like a politician in front of a grand jury.

Where the movie is lacking is in plot. There is nothing here in terms of story that you haven’t seen before, and sometimes in better movies. How many retiring hit man movies have we seen even this year, where the retiree is drawn back into the business unwillingly? One place where the movie is a little different is that there is a transgender character, Yoo-Yi (J-m Park) who plays In-nam’s translater and girl Friday in Bangkok, where she hopes to make enough money for her gender reassignment surgery. While she’s mostly there for comic relief, surprisingly she is played as more sympathetic than you’d expect, and who ends up being the most likable character in the movie with the possible exception of the utterly adorable Yoo-min.

The movie was one of the top grossing films in Korea last year, having just finished production before the pandemic hit and was one of the few major releases in that country in 2020. With big budget Hollywood movies beginning to peek out from out of their quarantine, this might end up being lost in the shuffle which would be a shame; it is actually quite entertaining and a must for action fans who like their movies at break-neck speed.

REASONS TO SEE: Some spectacular action sequences. Hwang has the surly action hero thing down pat.
REASONS TO AVOID: Somewhat unoriginal.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a truck full of violence and gore (much of it brutal) and some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the second time that Hwang and Lee have appeared in the same action film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/28/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Taken
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
An Amityville Poltergeist

The Rookies (Su Ren Te Gong)


Toto, we’re not in Racoon City anymore.

(2019) Action Comedy (Shout!) Talu Wang, Sandrine Pinna, Milla Jovovich, David Lee McInnis, Meitong Liu, Timmy Xu, Suet Lam, Kwok-Kwan Chan, Zhan Xiao, Nuo Lu, Kathy Chow, Paul Allica, Bernadett Ostorhazi, David Rayden, Mekael Turner, Kyle Paul, Pierre Bourdaud, Barret Coates, Temur Mahrnisavilli, Isaac Fernandez, Franz Rugamer, Bjorn Freiberg, Timea Saghy. Directed by Alan Yuen

 

You’ve probably seen this one before; a billionaire decides to unleash a world-ending catastrophe being opposed by a dedicated spy of undeniable physical skills. Then again, saving the world isn’t what it used to be.

In this hot mess by veteran Hong Kong action director Alan Yuen, social media extreme sports star Zhao Feng (Wang) literally drops in on a meeting of criminal gangs who are delivering the gas to the billionaire in exchange for the (wait for it…you guessed it…(wait for it)…Holy Grail. Indiana Jones would be rolling in his grave if he had one. Graham Chapman certainly is.

Feng is rescued from the gun-toting baddies by Bruce (Jovovich), a stone-faced agent for the Order of the Phantom Knighthood (I’m not making this up) and who now recruits Feng into the Order to help them steal the Grail from its current resting place in the collection of a Hungarian squidillionaire and keep it safe while protecting the world from the crazed Iron Fist (McInnis) who frequently talks to his dead wife’s eyeball, which he keeps preserved in a jar. Doesn’t everybody?

Feng is joined in his quest by a ragtag team of other novices; Miao Yan (Pinna), a cop with anger management issues, Ding Shan (Xu), a somewhat eccentric genius and crackpot inventor, and LV (Liu), an unemployed doctor who worships Ding and cheerfully tests his dangerous inventions. Feng’s own exaggerated ego may come back to haunt the team as they race against time and the odds to save the planet. Can these rookies succeed where seasoned pros have failed?

Like many Hong Kong action films dating back to the 80s and 90s, there is an absurdist streak that is rampant in the film, something that Hong Kong audiences tend to accept a bit better than their American counterparts. However, Yuen takes it to new heights (or depths) in this case with sight gags that fall flat and quips that lose something in translation. And speaking of translation, the distributors elected to dub this rather than subtitle it which is not always a good idea. Unfortunately, some of the signs and titles go untranslated which is frustrating to those who don’t read Mandarin, and we get the sense that the translation may not be all its cracked up to be.

But most folks watch these sorts of films for the action sequences and those are in general right on the money. Feng may be an insufferable boob whose face you may want to punch ten minutes into the movie, but Wang (or his stunt double) is a pretty able action star which does take some of the sting out. Jovovoich, ever the consummate pro, does what she can here until her character is sidelined way too early in the movie and she is more or less out of the picture from then on.

The CGI tends to be pretty weak here, but from what I can tell Chinese audiences tend to be a lot less discriminating in that regard, so take that for what it’s worth. There is some entertainment value here, but American big-budget action fans are likely to find this primitive, dumb and unsatisfying, but those who have already embraced Hong Kong action films for the delights that they are may find this a worthwhile investment of their time.

REASONS TO SEE: Some nifty action sequences.
REASONS TO AVOID: The lowbrow humor wears on you as the film goes along.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, sexuality and nudity, adult themes and drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was released in China in 2019, but did mediocre business which may account for it not getting a Stateside release until now.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/25/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 23% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: My Spy
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Slalom

Boss Level


Reliving the future.

(2021) Action (Hulu) Frank Grillo, Mel Gibson, Naomi Watts, Will Sasso, Annabelle Wallis, Sheaun McKinney, Selina Lo, Michelle Yeoh, Ken Jeong, Meadow Williams, Mathilde Ollivier, Rio Grillo, Armida Lopez, Buster Reeves, Eric Etebari, Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, Rashad Evans, Joe Knezevich, Adam Simon, Rob Gronkowski, Melanie Kiran. Directed by Joe Carnahan

 

It goes without saying that an action movie should have thrilling action sequences. But it is equally important that an action movie be fun. So many of them take themselves so seriously that we end up wondering when Scorsese started making mindless action flicks. Well, he hasn’t yet but he might just approve of this one. Or, he might not. You be the judge.

Roy Pulver (F. Grillo) wakes up with a machete whistling towards his head. Being an ex-Delta Force commando who has a particular set of skills, he is able to dodge his would-be killer, and also avoid the chain gun being fired at his apartment from a hovering helicopter. As the final wreckage of his place becomes explosive (no damage deposit return for Roy), he leaps out into a passing dump truck, rolls gracefully into the street with his upswept coif neatly in place, and commandeers a sports car from a screaming, whining civilian and roars off, to be chased by a legion of assassins. Roy has no idea who wants him dead, or why. All he knows is that in the end, they kill him and always by 12:47pm. Then he wakes up and starts the whole process all over again.

Now, this concept has been used in a variety of genres with results that vary in quality. I have news for you, though – this one is better than most. It has an incredible cast, including Gibson as the well-meaning but out of his mind military-corporate bad guy (Gibson is getting a second career as a heavy after he self-sabotaged his A-list career as the kind of action hero that might well have had the lead heroic role in the movie had it been made in 1987), Watts as Roy’s scientist ex-wife who works for Gibson, Sasso as Gibson’s major-domo, Jeong as a wise-cracking bartender, Yeoh as a legendary sword master and so on. Roy is beset by a group of assassins each with their own gimmick, from the guy who looks suspiciously like him (whom he calls “Roy #2”) to a pair of Teutonic twins of African descent and grumpy disposition as well as a smug self-aggrandizing Asian swordswoman who announces her name every time she dispatches poor old Roy and confirming that she, in fact, is the one responsible for the carnage. She probably needs to talk to a legal expert.

If you think of this as an action-packed videogame, you will likely come as close as you’re going to in understanding what this movie is about. My advice is not to think too hard about it; best to just go with the flow and mow down baddies while your perfectly coifed hair remains uncannily in place. The movie plays a lot like a videogame (the title gives it away) and gamers will likely find this of slight interest but would probably prefer to play a game over seeing a movie. Gamers are natural-born control freaks, don’t you know?

As for the fun quotient, it’s through the roof. This isn’t meant to be taken too seriously; it moves at a pace equivalent to the chain gun fire that punctuates every morning in Roy’s apartment. You’re not really given a whole lot of time to think, although if you do you’re apt to get a headache so I would advise against it. It’s big, loud and dumb with a sick soundtrack that will keep your grin fixed as immovably in place as Grillo’s hair, and it requires no investment whatsoever other than the hour and a quarter of the movie’s compact running time. It’s a wise investment, though; action movies are rapidly morphing into big budget eye candy that requires the entire population of China to buy a ticket in order to almost break even at the box office. While there are some pretty nifty special effects (and Grillo’s hair is clearly either green screened, or a product of alien technology), it doesn’t appear they broke the bank with their budget and Grillo, it turns out, is a companionable action star who you will have no problem rooting for. If there are a few too many side quests (such as Roy trying to get to know his son, who isn’t aware that Roy is his dad – now that’s kind of messed up) it can be forgiven because Carnahan, already one of the best at action in the business, packs so much into it’s short running time you don’t begrudge a little padding. This one is worth getting a subscription to Hulu for all by itself and when you throw in the upcoming animated M.O.D.O.K. series with Patton Oswald waiting in the wings, you probably should seriously consider it.

REASONS TO SEE: Captures the charm of a side-scrolling shooter game. Frenetic and funny.
REASONS TO AVOID: As with most pictures with this gimmick, it does eventually start to get old.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s all sorts of violence and a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Roy’s son Joe is played by Frank Grillo’w real-life son Rio.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Hulu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/7/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 73% positive reviews; Metacritic: 56/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Edge of Tomorrow
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Say Your Prayers

Destroyer


Here’s a face that’s seen a lot of miles down a hard road.

(2018) Crime Drama (Annapurna) Nicole Kidman, Toby Kebbell, Tatiana Maslany, Sebastian Stan, Scoot McNairy, Bradley Whitford, Toby Huss, James Jordan, Beau Knapp, Jade Pettyjohn, Shamier Anderson, Zach Villa, Natalia Cordova-Buckley, Colby French, Kelvin Han Yee, Joseph Fatu, Cuete Yeska, Doug Simpson, Kate Clauson, Jan Hoag, Cecily Breaux. Directed by Karyn Kusama

 

One of the first things we see in this gritty L.A.-set crime drama is the face of Nicole Kidman, but it’s not the glamorous beauty that we have come to know; her face is aging, careworn and dead-eyed, the face of someone who has had the shit kicked out of her by life and is just going through the motions until she dies.

This is L.A.P.D.’s finest Erin Bell, and she is damaged goods. An incident back in the 90s when she and her partner Chris (Stan) had infiltrated the gang of a charismatic bank robber named Silas (Kebbell) has changed her forever. Now, Silas is back and Erin knows that there can be no justice for one such as he unless she metes it out herself, and this is what she intends to do.

This is not the Nicole Kidman you’ve ever seen before. Erin Bell is a piece of work, as they like to say in cop shows. She bends the system until it breaks, has not a single relationship with anyone that can be termed even remotely healthy. She walks with a shuffle like an old lady going to the corner store to buy latkes but it is her eyes that generate the most hideous visage of all, the eyes of a woman who has seen Hell and understands that’s where she belongs. You won’t like Erin Bell much, but you’ll love the job Kidman does playing her.

You’ll also like the rest of the impressive cast, all of whom do sterling work. This is a sun-drenched film which is fitting; most noir films are more comfortable in nighttime settings, but this one demands the lurid, unflinching light of day. This is one of Kidman’s best performances ever and it ill serve as one of the talented Kusama’s better films.

REASONS TO SEE: Kidman is an absolute force. The supporting cast is pretty strong, too.
REASONS TO AVOID: The plot is a little bit diffuse.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s a whole mess o’ profanity, a lot of violence, some sexual material and brief drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Sebastian Stan originally auditioned for the role of Silas, but Kusama felt he’d make a better love interest for Kidman.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Hulu, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/19/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 74% positive reviews, Metacritic: 62/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Brick Mansions
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Social Ones

The Old Man & The Gun


A couple of screen veterans doing their thing.

(2018) Biographical Drama (Searchlight) Robert Redford, Casey Affleck, Sissy Spacek, Danny Glover, Tom Waits, Tika Sumpter, Ari Elizabeth Johnson, Teagan Johnson, Gene Jones, John David Washington, Barlow Jacobs, Augustine Frizzell, Jennifer Joplin, Lisa DeRoberts, Carter Bratton, Mike Dennis, Tomas “Dutch” Dekaj, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Patrick Newall, Daniel Britt, Leah Roberts, Elizabeth Moss.  Directed by David Lowery

 

The benefits to having a real, honest-to-goodness movie star in your film is that no matter what, there will be something positive about your film because in the case of stars like Redford and Spacek, they have enough screen presence and expertise on how to best utilize it to make any film they’re in just that much better.

 

Forrest Tucker (Redford) is a man getting on in years, but like others his age still shows up at work. Of course, Tucker’s job is robbing banks and he gets a big kick out of getting away with it. Tucker is not the kind of bank robber who terrorizes folks in the bank and thinks nothing of shooting unarmed people; he’s a gentleman who gives an implicit threat, remarks on gee whiz what a shame it would be if he were forced to resort to violence and he really doesn’t want to shoot you because, for goodness sakes, he really likes you. What bank teller or bank manager would not be charmed?

Decidedly charmed is Jewel (Spacek), a widowed horse rancher whose pickup truck breaks down at the side of the road just as Forrest is trying to get away from the cops after a bank job. Spotting the opportunity for misdirection, he pulls over and assists her while the cops go whizzing by. However, the decoy turns into a romance and Forrest feels comfortable enough with her to tell her what he really does for a living over pie and coffee, although she doesn’t believe him at first.

Decided not charmed is Detective John Hunt (Affleck) who is in the bank while it’s being robbed with his two daughters. Burned out on his job to the point where he’s considering leaving the force, the robbery under his very nose gives him motivation to go after Tucker full throttle. Talk about lighting a fire under one’s butt.

The movie rests on the charm of its actors and Redford, Spacek and Affleck have plenty of charm to go around. They also have plenty of talent at their craft – all of them have Oscar nominations (and wins, in some cases) – to sustain the fairly light-tempered movie. Although the running time is only 93 minutes, it seems a bit longer because the story moves along so slowly and is filled with quite a bit of unnecessary material. Still, it is enjoyable to watch old pros (extending down into the supporting cast) do what they do best, even if what they’re doing essentially is a bit of fluff, despite the opportunity for social commentary – Lowery chooses to simply tell his story simply. I can’t really fault him for that.

REASONS TO SEE: Redford, Affleck and Spacek all deliver excellent performances.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little bit too long; could be argued that it’s too low-key as well.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The opening credits are written in the same font as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (1969) which Redford also starred in.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Max Go, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Redbox,  Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/18/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews: Metacritic: 80/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Bonnie and Clyde
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Senior Escort Service

Mile 22


Mark Wahlberg does his best Rambo.

(2018) Action (STX) Mark Wahlberg, Lauren Cohan, Iko Uwais, Ronda Rousey, Terry Kinney, John Malkovich, Carlo Alban, Natasha Goubskaya, Chae Rin Lee, Sam Medina, Keith Arthur Bolden, Jenique Hendrix, Billy Smith, Myke Holmes, Emily Skeggs, Brandon Scales, Poorna Jagannathan, Peter Berg, Elle Graham, Nikolai Nikolaeff, Ariel Felix, Tom Astor, Kate Rigg. Directed by Peter Berg

There is nothing wrong with a chest-thumping testosterone epic. Those movies have their place and when done well, can be extremely entertaining as the careers of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone can attest. HOWEVER, when not done well they can be almost painful to watch – particularly when they have every reason to succeed.

Jimmy Silva (Wahlberg) is the leader of an elite covert CIA team that does all the dirty deeds (and not dirt cheap) that our country needs done under cover of darkness. The world is on the brink; radioactive material is missing and there are terrorists on the hunt for it. The cesium must be found before all Armageddon breaks loose. Policeman/CIA informant Li Noor (Uwais) has a disc that has the information they need, but he needs to be transported out of the country before he’ll decrypt it – the corrupt Minister of Oppressing His People and Making Huge Personal Profits is out to get him, you see.

Because of a complicated set of circumstances I won’t even go into here, the plane to take Li Noor outta Dodge can only touch down for no more than ten minutes. The rendezvous point is 22 miles from the safe house that they have him stored in. In order to get him there, they’ll have to fight their way through motorcycle gangs, well-armed mercenaries and the Ip Man School of Martial Arts. Okay, I was exaggerating about the last one.

The plot is confused and confusing; nothing really makes much sense. I attribute most of that to lazy writing; first time scribe Lea Carpenter seems more interested in excuses for fight scenes than in crafting a riveting action movie. The team doesn’t even embark on their main mission until the film is more than halfway over.

Those fight scenes are at least well-staged; casting Uwais, the veteran from the two Raid movies, was a boon for the film. Unfortunately, there’s too much voiceover (another sign of lazy writing), too much exposition, too little character development and too much plot. There are a lot of great action movies out there. That means you don’t have a reason to check out a mediocre one. If you give this one a miss, I’ll certainly understand.

REASONS TO SEE: The fight scenes are well-staged.
REASONS TO AVOID: A confusing mess.
FAMILY VALUES: There is all sorts of violence and profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The airport that is playing the Moscow airport in the film is actually Long Beach airport.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Showtime, Sling TV, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/11/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 23% positive reviews: Metacritic: 38/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Gauntlet
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Operation Finale

The Spy Who Dumped Me


Mila Kunis and Kate McKinnon shouldn’t need to crawl for anybody.

(2018) Spy Comedy (LionsgateMila Kunis, Kate McKinnon, Justin Theroux, Gillian Anderson, Hassan Minhaj, Ivanna Sakhno, Sam Heughan, Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, Fred Melamed, Justine Wachsberger, Dustin Demri-Burns, Kev Adams, Mirjam Novak, Jane Curtin, Paul Reiser, James Fleet, Carolyn Pickles, Tom Stourton, Lolly Adefope, Ruby Kammer. Directed by Susanna Fogel

 

Getting dumped is a bummer. Then again, getting shot at by assassins who are after your ex because he’s really a spy – something that apparently didn’t come up in conversation. Then, having to complete his last mission by flying to Vienna with a plastic trophy to give to some mysterious figure…not cool.

But that’s what happens to Audrey (Kunis) whose boyfriend (Theroux) had already 86ed her by the time the movie starts. Audrey’s less-than-responsible friend Morgan (McKinnon) tries to cheer Audrey up to no avail but when the rubber hits the road – and the bullets start to fly – she’s got her bestie’s back.

Buddy spy movies have been done both on the big screen and small over the years although distaff versions are rare indeed, so writer-director Fogel gets points for that. She also gets points for casting Kunis, a gifted comedic actress who takes a fairly colorless character and makes her relatable, no easy task. However, she completely wastes McKinnon, so effective on Saturday Night Live who hasn’t really found a role on the big screen that really captures her talents well. Here, Morgan is extremely overbearing but not in a funny way and in fact so much so that we end up wondering why Audrey would want to hang out with her.

Then again, Morgan is at least a loyal friend and that’s not always an easy trait to find, so there’s that. There are some halfway decent action sequences – some which are unusually bloody for this genre. Sadly, the plot is kinda predictable too. The relationship between Morgan and Audrey, as well as Kunis’ screen charm are what save this film. Otherwise it’s one of those you might well see only if you’re bored and stoned out of your mind.

REASONS TO SEE: Kunis does her best considering the material
REASONS TO AVOID: McKinnon is overbearing
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, some crude sexual material, graphic nudity and pervasive profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: McKinnon once won a Halloween costume contest by dressing up as Scully, Gillian Anderson’s character from The X-Files.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Hulu, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/2/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 49% positive reviews: Metacritic: 52/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Spy
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Overlord

Beyond the Law (2019)


Once a badass, always a badass.

(2019) Action (CinedigmJohnny Messner, Steven Seagal, DMX, Bill Cobbs, Zack Ward, Randy Charach, Patrick Kilpatrick, Chester Rushing, Saxon Sharbino, Kim DeLonghi, Jeff M. Hill, Sean Kanan, Yulia Klass, Ken Garito, Scotch Hopkins, Mitchell J. Johnson, Mike Ferguson, Madeleine Wade, Victoria De Mare, Cody Renee Cameron, Kansas Bowling, Brialynn Massie. Directed by James Cullen Bressack

 

Some of you may be old enough to remember the era of direct-to-VHS action films; others who are longer in the tooth may remember the action movies of such purveyors as Cannon Films, New World and AVCO Embassy. They were often characterized as schlock, but they were entertaining to say the least.

=This new flick harkens back to those eras and those types of films. Here, ex-cop Frank Wilson (Messner) finds out from Detective Munce (DMX) that his estranged son Chance (Rushing) has been brutally murdered. Chance has made a series of really terrible decisions, not the least of which was getting involved with Desmond Packard (Ward), the particularly bloodthirsty son of mobster Finn Adair (Seagal) who has a history with Frank.

=Realizing that his son won’t get any justice from the hopelessly corrupt cops on the city Frank leaves his mountain cabin to return to the place he once worked as a cop in. It hasn’t changed much, but it has changed – and not for the better. He will have to fight off Desmond’s goons, corrupt cops and at the end of the day, the father of his son’s killer if he is to get justice for Chance.

The plot sounds like something you’ve seen before and it is; revenge films are one of the core types of action movies. Some might be attracted to seeing this by the presence of Seagal but they are likely to leave disappointed; Seagal has only a supporting role in the movie and mostly sits behind a desk, puffing on a cigar and lecturing his son on all the ways he’s gone wrong in his life. Seagal appears only in one fight scene and that so briefly that if you blink you just might miss it.

This is really Messner’s movie and when last I saw him in Silencer, I thought he had a future. I still do, but this is definitely a step backwards. Perhaps it’s the proximity to Seagal (who only has one scene with him) but Messner mumbles his lines in a low gravelly voice that you kind of hope for subtitles. Seagal has always been a mumbler and with his thick Louisiana accent it can be hard sometimes to make out what the two men are saying.

This is a low budget affair and while the action sequences are competent, they are pretty sparse, so we have to rely on the ability of the actors to hold our attention. Sadly, despite having a fairly decent cast, that doesn’t happen. Most of the performances here are stiff and lack believability. Then again, given that they have a script with dialogue that doesn’t sound like it could ever possibly be uttered by an actual human being for whom English is a first language, and plot points that feel like they’ve been borrowed from dozens of B-movies from the 70s, 80s and 90s and you’ve got yourself a hot mess here.

Still, as terrible an actor as Seagal is, he has always had that indefinable something that made him a star. Strangely, he still has it but the filmmakers don’t utilize him as well. Years ago, Seagal would have been playing Frank Wilson and maybe the movie would have worked better in that instance but one gets the sense that Seagal isn’t terribly interested in re-exploring old trails. Incidentally, those hoping that this is a sequel to Seagal’s action classic Above the Law will also be disappointed; the two films have nothing in common other than the last two words of their titles.

REASONS TO SEE: Seagal still has plenty of presence.
REASONS TO AVOID: The acting is pretty stiff. The film is riddled with clichés from the script to the score.
FAMILY VALUES: There’s plenty of violence and profanity as well as some drug and sexual references.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Seagal and DMX previously appeared together in the 2001 film Exit Wounds.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/3/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Basically, any Steven Seagal movie
FINAL RATING: 4.5/10
NEXT:
The Report

Beast Stalker (Ching yan)


In Hong Kong action movies, even pedestrian overpasses aren’t safe.

(2008) Crime Drama (Emperor) Nicholas Tse, Nick Cheung, Jing Chu Zhang, Pu Miao, Kai Chi Liu, Ho Man Keung, Jing Hung Kwok, Sherman Chung, He Zhang, Suet Yin Wong, Sum Yin Wong, Kong Lau, Tung Joe Cheung, Simon Lee, Accord Cheung, Ka Leong Chan, Esther Kwan, Si-Man Man, Francis Luk, Sai Tang Yu, Kim Fai Che, June Tam. Directed by Dante Lam

Lives can be changed in the blink of an eye. Being in the wrong place at the wrong time can have devastating consequences, the effects rippling out like a rock thrown into placid waters. Rarely are those ripples pleasant although in time they can turn out to be beneficial but that isn’t often the case.

Hong Kong police detective Tong Fei (Tse) is ambitious and arrogant. He’s chasing a well-known Triad crime boss and has him in his relentless sights. Working with his team whom he sets very high standards for, he manages to get the criminal arrested – only to learn that the guy’s thugs have managed to break him out of custody. Fei personally leads the chase after him along with longtime friend and mentor Detective Sun (Liu). A violent car crash leads to a terrible tragedy in which an innocent little girl is killed. Fei is devastated.

Months afterwards, the prosecutor for the case, Ann Gau (J.C. Zhang) is getting past the grief of losing a child when her surviving child is kidnapped by Hung (N. Cheung), a half-blind assassin who is caring for a paralyzed wife and needs the dough. The guilt-wracked Fei is obsessed with finding the missing daughter despite Ann’s pleas for him to butt out – she has been warned to not involve the police. She agrees to alter the evidence that will put the crime lord behind bars for a very long time; so Fei goes out looking for the girl on his own. Hung is just as desperate to make sure that the girl isn’t found and both men play a game of cat and mouse with a little girl’s life hanging on the outcome.

Like many Hong Kong crime dramas, the plot hinges around a number of coincidences (some might say improbabilities) that require a whole lot of disbelief suspension. How likely is it that the crook would steal the car of his prosecutor who just happened to stop the car she was driving so she could yell at her ex-husband on the phone? And the coincidences don’t end there.

However if you can unwrap your head around those plot points you’ll be treated to a story with plenty of nice twists and turns, maybe one or two you won’t see coming. Nicholas Tse and Nicky Cheung are two of HK’s  best action stars and they are at their best in this movie. The action sequences, particularly the initial car chase that sets everything up, are extremely well done with the aforementioned chase being literally breathtaking.

The story does get a little bit maudlin in places but again that’s pretty much standard operating procedure for Hong Kong action films – is there a manual for these things? – and anyone who is a fan of that genre won’t mind a bit. Dante Lam is one of Hong Kong’s surest action directors and while this wasn’t his very best work, it was certainly one worth reviving. It played the recent New York Asian Film Festival. While I don’t see it listed on any of the standard streaming services, you can find the DVD and Blu-Ray in a variety of places. If you like Asian action, you won’t want to miss this one.

REASONS TO GO: The action scenes are uniformly excellent. The plot is full of lovely twists and turns.
REASONS TO STAY: The camerawork is so aggressive and kinetic it becomes distracting. The story is a little bit maudlin in places.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of violence, some mild profanity and a few disturbing images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was nominated for five Hong Kong Film Awards in 2009, winning two.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/11/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Infernal Affairs
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Looming Storm