Tom Clancy’s Without Remorse


Attack a Navy SEALs family? Oh no, you didn’t…

(2021) Action (Paramount/Amazon) Michael B. Jordan, Jodie Turner-Smith, Jamie Bell, Guy Pearce, Lauren London, Jacob Scipio, Todd Lasance, Jack Kesy, Lucy Russell, Cam Gigandet, Luke Mitchell, Artjom Gilz, Brett Gelman, Merab Ninidze, Alexander Mercury, Colman Domingo, Rae Lim, Sumi Somaskanda, Zee Gunther, Jill Holwerda, Conor Boru, Bella Shaw. Directed by Stefano Sollima

 

It is a tried-and-true action cliché that you can mess with a Navy SEAL, but if you mess with a Navy SEAL’s family, you’re in deep doo-doo because not even God will help you. God knows better.

Navy SEAL John Kelly (Jordan) is part of a team led by Lt. Cmmdr. Karen Greer (Turner-Smith) that goes to Aleppo in civil war-torn Syria to rescue a CIA operative. It appears to have gone without a hitch but something about it feels wrong to Kelly and his suspicions soon prove to be true when it turns out that what they thought were Syrian soldiers were in fact Russians and boy, are they angry about the American operation. Once the SEALs go home, Russian operatives stalk the individual members of the team and kill them.

When they go after Kelly, he survives. Unfortunately, his pregnant wife Pam (London) doesn’t and if you thought the Russians were angry, Kelly is about to get medieval on some Russian tushies. He stalks a Russian diplomat and sets his car on fire, then leaps into the inferno with the diplomat and demands to know who carried out the assassinations. When he gets the name he needs, he exits the car but not before sending the Russian to join the Choir Invisible.

With the support of Secretary of Defense Thomas Clay (Pearce) and the more reluctant support of CIA agent Robert Ritter (Bell), Kelly joins a team that is headed into Mother Russia to track down the operative, Viktor Rykov (Gelman, a curious bit of casting) and exact his revenge but the plane is ambushed and shot down. It becomes clear that the Russians knew they were coming; but who told them and why?

Based on a novel by Tom Clancy in a spin-off from his hugely popular Jack Ryan series (the character of John Kelly, who will be known as John Clark for reasons explained later in the movie, appears in several of those books) has long been in gestation as a film project, but finally saw the light of day after nearly two decades of development – only to run smack dab into the pandemic. Ticketed for theatrical release in 2020, after several delays and postponements the property was finally sold to Amazon who have been having success with their own John Krasinski-led Jack Ryan series seemed to be a perfect fit.

This movie gets an enormous amount of star power from Jordan who has become one of the most charismatic stars in Hollywood. Even when he plays villainous roles, he turns in a performance that actually can be sympathetic. He has an enormous amount of screen presence and he actually elevates what is otherwise a mediocre film into something a little more.

Part of the problem here is that Clancy wrote with a Cold War-era worldview that is a bit off in the 2020s. It’s not that we don’t have an adversarial relationship with Russia these days – of course we do – but it’s a different kind of playing field altogether. Some of the geopolitical content feels a bit dated somehow.

A film like this is going to live and die on its action sequences and while most of them aren’t too bad, there are one or two that stretch believability and make you scratch your head a little bit and say “wouldn’t it be easier if he just…” and that’s never a good thing in an action movie. While action sequences should be breathtaking, there has to be an air of reality to it that viewers believe the derring-do is at least possible. It takes you right out of the movie when it feels implausible.

This isn’t a bad movie and Amazon Prime users get to watch it for no additional charge which makes it even more enticing. Could this have been a better experience in a movie theater? In all likelihood, yes, but it’s not a bad option if you want to watch something loud and that requires little thought on your part.

REASONS TO SEE: Jordan is one of the most watchable stars in Hollywood today.
REASONS TO AVOID: Lacks character development.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence and some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jordan is the third actor to play John Clark (John Kelly in this film); Willem Dafoe played him in A Clear and Present Danger and Liev Schreiber played him in The Sum of All Fears, both Jack Ryan films.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/24/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 45% positive reviews; Metacritic: 41/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: A Clear and Present Danger
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Take Out Girl

The Courier (2020)


Benedict Cumberbatch tackles a most un-Dr. Strange-like role.

(2020) Biographical Drama (Roadside Attractions) Benedict Cumberbatch, Merab Ninidze, Rachel Brosnahan, Anton Lesser, Jessie Buckley, Angus Wright, Kirill Pirogov, Keir Hills, Jonathan Harden, Aleksandr Kotiakovs, Olga Koch, Harry Carr, Vladimir Chuprikov, James Schofield, Fred Haig, Emma Penzina, Maria Mironova, Petr Kilmes, Alice Orr-Ewing. Directed by Dominic Cooke

 

There is a definite fascination with espionage during the Cold War era as spies from the United States and United Kingdom sparred with their opposites in the Soviet Bloc. The reality of the situation back then was less James Bond and more Robert Ludlum.

In 1960, the CIA and MI-5 were surprised to get a note from a high-ranking Soviet official and war hero named Oleg Penkovsky (Ninidze) who is also a war hero. He has become increasingly dismayed by the willingness of Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev (Chuprikov) to force a confrontation with the West – a confrontation that could lead to nuclear annihilation for both sides. In order to prevent that, he proposes to help by supplying information that will keep the Soviets from gaining the kind of advantage that might lead Khrushchev from pushing the button.

A summit meeting is held in London with CIA representative Emily Donovan (Brosnahan) and MI-5 administrator Bertrand (Lesser) and British trade minister Dickie Franks (Wright) discussing how to get information from Penkovsky back to NATO. An agent would be known to the KGB and to the GRU and would put Penkovsky in jeopardy. No, the go-between had to be a non-professional, someone who the Soviet intelligence agencies would never suspect. London businessman Greville Wynne (Cumberbatch) would be perfect.

A businessman with contacts behind the Iron Curtain who was already exploring a business relationship with Moscow, his presence could be easily explained and in fact he would have legitimate reasons for meeting with Penkovsky. Wynne, a stolid, stodgy family man with no training whatsoever, is reluctant at first but eventually relents. His country needs him, after all.

He doesn’t count on forging a personal admiration and relationship with Penkovsky. The two have much in common and their friendship become real. Then, Penkovsky discovers that Khrushchev plans on putting Russian missiles in Cuba which he realizes that the White House and JFK would see as an act of war. But getting the pictures to identify the missiles to the Americans would put him further at risk, but there is no choice, really, if he ants his children to one day have children of their own.

The plot may sound like something out of a John Le Carre novel, but in this case, it’s based on actual events. The principals involved did the things shown here and really helped vert nuclear war. Cooke, who largely has directed for the stage in his career, assembles a terrific cast starting with Cumberbatch who imbues Wynne with the kind of everyman ordinariness that makes him somewhat endearing, even though he’s a bit of a stick. Ninidze gives Penkovsky a sense of decency and a man driven to do the right thing, no matter how dangerous it was and makes the character eminently relatable. Brosnahan, better known as The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, stretches her limbs into a completely dramatic role, from approximately the same period as her Amazon Prime comedy series, but is given kind of a hideous blonde wig to wear. Finally, Jessie Buckley turns in a wonderful supporting performance as Wynne’s wife, who suspects her husband’s frequent trips to Moscow are hiding an affair, something her husband had been guiltyof before in their marriage.

There are no car chases here, no gun fights, no cars with ejector seats and no cameras hidden in fountain pens. In a sense, this is more of a situational spy thriller, with the tension built on the possibility of discovery. Of course, we all know that there wasn’t a catastrophic nuclear war, but still most people don’t know the fates of the various people involved; did they get caught? Did they pay the price for their espionage? That’s where the tension comes in. Of course, there are thoe who are well-versed in Cold War minutiae that will know how the story ends.

In short this is a well-acted dramatization of an important but largely forgotten incident in the Cold War. Cooke and his production design team absolutely nail the era, so that’s to the plus. But the story drags from time to time and there isn’t a lot that most spy fans will find exciting; not a single car chase to be had. So if you’re willing to watch something that is more true to what spying is really all about, this is for you.

REASONS TO SEE: A nice throwback Cold War thriller that happens to be based on actual events. Cumberbatch is always interesting.
REASONS TO AVOID:
Somewhat stodgy in its storytelling.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some brief profanity, violence, brief nudity and depictions of torture.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film’s North American release was on the real Greville Wynne’s birthday (March 19th).
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/20/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Bridge of Spies
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Happily

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

The Equalizer 2


You never know what might be peering around the corner.

(2018) Action (ColumbiaDenzel Washington, Pedro Pascal, Ashton Sanders, Orson Bean, Bill Pullman, Melissa Leo, Jonathan Scarfe, Sakina Jeffrey, Kazy Tauginas, Garrett A. Golden, Adam Karst, Alican Barias, Rhys Cote, Tamara Hickey, Ken Baltin, Colin Allen, Antoine de Lartigue, Abigail Marlowe, Jim Loutzenheiser, Rex Banning, Lance Williams, Caroline Day. Directed by Antoine Fuqua

 

Washington returns as Robert McCall, the retired CIA black ops assassin turned do-gooder in the movie franchise based on a popular 80s TV series. Here his- vengeance takes a more personal note; his former CIA handler (Leo) is brutally murdered in Brussels while investigating the deaths of informants and assets there. Naturally, Denzel doesn’t take kindly to this; she’s one of his only friends. So, it’s up to McCall to go medieval on a bunch of asses before finding the man behind it all – whose identity should surprise no-one.

Fuqua is a skilled action director and Washington one of the most charismatic actors to ever appear onscreen. Even their considerable talents though can’t quite make you forget that the script is heavy with predictable plot points and leaden dialogue. There is also a subplot involving Bean as a nonagenarian Holocaust survivor trying to reunite with his sister which while sweet adds absolutely nothing to the story; we get plenty of other instances of McCall’s charitable nature to get the point.

This isn’t a bad movie by any means but with talents like Fuqua and Washington involved it should be a better movie. Action fans will love the sequence when a knife-wielding assassin tries to take out McCall in a moving car while Denzel fans will love the fact that the Oscar-winning actor is as good as ever in the movie. I still wish that some of the writers from the old TV show might have taken a crack at the script here. With a little bit more care and imagination this could be essential viewing. As it is, it makes for a mindless way to spend a couple of hours.

REASONS TO SEE: Denzel is, as usual, a force of nature.
REASONS TO AVOID: The plot is a tad too predictable.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of profanity, some occasional drug content and a lot of violence, some of it brutal
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the first sequel for both Fuqua and Denzel.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Sling TV, Starz, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/27/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 52% positive reviews: Metacritic:50/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Punisher
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Dark Matter 2019 short

The Report


Going through millions of pages in government reports could turn anybody into Kylo Ren.

(2019) True Life Drama (AmazonAdam Driver, Annette Bening, Jon Hamm, Ted Levine, Maura Tierney, Michael C. Hall, Corey Stoll, Linda Powell, John Rothman, Victor Slezak, Guy Boyd, Alexander Chaplin, Joanne Tucker, Ian Blackman, Tim Blake Nelson, Fajer Kaisi, Scott Shepherd, Jennifer Morrison, Matthew Rhys, Kate Beahan, April Rogalski. Directed by Scott Z. Burns

 

As Americans, we have always held ourselves to certain standards. We are strong, true and follow the law. We do the right thing. There came a time though, that our self-image took a pounding.

Young Daniel Jones (Driver) is ambitious, ready to keep America safe after 9/11. He was anxious to make a difference the best way he could – behind the scenes as a Congressional aide. When Senator Diane Feinstein (Bening) asks him to look into recordings of interrogations that the CIA had reportedly destroyed, he uncovered something terrible; evidence that the CIA was torturing prisoners for information.

Calling the effort “Enhanced Interrogation Techniques,” or EIT, the program was put in place by a pair of contractors with backgrounds in psychology and the military. Nobody seemed to be bothered by the fact that the two men had never conducted an interrogation before, or that evidence was strong that torture almost never yielded any actionable intelligence. The program went on and keeping it covered up seemed to be the main focus.

Jones and a small team of researchers worked in a basement office in a CIA satellite office for five years, working crazy hours going through more than six million pages of documents. Despite reluctance by the CIA and certain segments of Congress, Jones pressed and pressed until he uncovered the shocking truth.

The story is an important one, one that is especially relevant these days. Not every important story makes a good movie, however; much of what happened involved researchers sitting in front of a computer screen in a jail cell-like atmosphere. The dramatic tension here is not very strong. It doesn’t help that Burns doesn’t really develop Jones much as a character; we never see much of his personality except for that he’s driven and almost obsessive. He’s passionate about what he’s looking for and sometimes gets frustrated when others don’t share his outrage.

Bening and Driver are both outstanding actors and they don’t disappoint here. Driver is definitely in a much more different kind of role than we’re used to from him and it’s a good fit. I’m impressed by his versatility as an actor and he really stretches himself here. Bening is an actress who doesn’t always get the due she deserves; she probably won’t get a ton of accolades for her performance here but she really brings Feinstein’s personality to the forefront; that’s not surprising considering the two are friends in real life. Good casting is important in any cinematic endeavor.

I can see where those who are politically conservative might not like this much; the Conservatives don’t come up covered in glory here. Still, it’s an important story about how easy it is for the way to be lost, and how wanting to preserve our security can sometimes lead to compromising our soul. It’s a chilling tale and one that needs to be committed to memory.

REASONS TO SEE: A compelling story chilling in its implications. Strong performances by Driver and Bening.
REASONS TO AVOID: Overall the movie is a bit more underwhelming than the story deserves.
FAMILY VALUES: There are disturbing depictions of torture, violence, plenty of profanity and graphic nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The real Daniel J. Jones attended the film’s world premiere at Sundance and received a standing ovation from the audience.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/6/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews: Metacritic: 66/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Zero Dark Thirty
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Last Color

Mission: Impossible – Fallout


Proof positive that Tom Cruise is Peter Pan.

(2018) Spy Action (ParamountTom Cruise, Henry Cavill, Ving Rhames, Simon Pegg, Rebecca Ferguson, Alec Baldwin, Sean Harris, Angela Bassett, Vanessa Kirby, Michelle Monaghan, Wes Bentley, Frederick Schmidt, Liang Yang, Kristoffer Joner, Wolf Blitzer, Raphael Actoque, Andrew Cazanave-Pin, Grahame Fox, Efion Jolly, Lolly Adefope, Alix Bénézech. Directed by Christopher McQuarrie

 

Ethan Hunt (Cruise) returns in maybe the best, most kinetic and most edge-of-your seat action films of the M:I franchise. He and his intrepid team of IMF heroes – whittled down now to computer genius Luther (Rhames) and worry wart Benji (Pegg) – are tracking down stolen plutonium that has made its way into the hands of an absolutely bonkers terrorist group who thinks the only way that mankind can be saved is to suffer first. A lot.

Actually, the plot really isn’t all that important in a film like this; just give the guys an excuse to perform unbelievable stunts and you have a license to print money and yes, the stunts here are of the “No, he did not!!!!” variety that will leave you gape-mouthed with astonishment. If there’s one thing this franchise has always delivered on, it’s spectacular stunts.

In many ways, this is the best film of the franchise, tying together ends you didn’t even know were loose from other films. Add to the mix the regal Angela Bassett as a by-the-book CIA officer and Henry Cavill as an agent who’s an ends-justify-the-means kinda guy, and you’ve got a summer movie that you will want to watch year-round (and given its presence on Hulu and Amazon Prime, you can do just that).

Cruise, at 56, is at last starting to look middle-aged rather than the eternal young guy he’s been throughout the series. Rhames is also beginning to look like this might be his series swan song, or close to it. If this does turn out to be the last film in the franchise, it’s a marvelous way to go out. However, I wouldn’t bet my last dollar that we don’t see Ethan Hunt and cohorts at least one more time.

REASONS TO SEE: Incredible stunt sequences, as always. Might be the best film in the franchise, tying together a number of other films in the franchise in a nice bow.
REASONS TO AVOID: Cruise and Rhames are getting a little bit long in the tooth for this.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and plenty of action and violence, including some fairly intense sequences.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Cavill was offered the role via public Instagram post by director Christopher McQuarrie.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Hulu, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/2/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 97% positive reviews: Metacritic: 86/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kingsman: The Secret Service
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Beyond the Law

Sicario: Day of the Soldado


Hispanics with guns: Donald Trump’s nightmare.

(2018) Action (Columbia) Benicio del Toro, Josh Brolin, Isabela Moner, Jeffrey Donovan, Manuel Garcia-Ruffo, Catherine Keener, Matthew Modine, Shea Whigham, Elijah Rodriguez, Howard Ferguson Jr., David Castañeda, Jacqueline Torres, Raoul Trujillo, Bruno Bichir, Jake Picking, Tenzin Marco-Taylor, Alfredo Quinoz, Nick Shakoour, Lourdes del Rio Garcia. Directed by Stefano Sollima

 

Our Southern border has been a hot button item for those on the left and on the right. Blue staters tend to look at the issue as a humanitarian crisis born largely of our own policies in Latin America while red staters see it as an invasion of criminals, layabouts and terrorists.

Following the destruction of a Kansas City big box store by suicide bombers, the U.S. Government has had more than enough. They bring in “consultant” Matt Graver (Brolin) and his nearly indestructible assassin Alejandro (del Toro) to ferment war among the Mexican cartels who were responsible for smuggling the bombers across the border. To do that, Alejandro kidnaps the daughter (Moner) of a particularly vicious cartel boss. This predictably stirs up a hornet’s nest and while it gets the desired results, the conscience of Alejandro – whose family was wiped out by drug lords like the girl’s father – doesn’t go unscathed.

The movie sorely misses Denis Villaneuve who directed the first one; his sure hand could have made this a better film. Italian television director Sollima, best known for the ultra-violent Gomorrah series, does pretty well with the action series and keeps the pacing of the film up to snuff. He has more trouble with character development as other than the three characters mentioned above, nearly all the characters get lost in the shuffle, including a young Mexican-American boy in McAllen, Texas played by Rodriguez who falls into working for the cartels and ends up in a violent confrontation with Alejandro. A little more depth of character there might have given the film some oomph.

Del Toro and Brolin are both outstanding and are the real reason to see the film. I understand that this is meant to be the middle chapter in a proposed trilogy and although the box office numbers don’t really seem to point the way for a third installment, I nonetheless wouldn’t mind seeing one.

Emily Blunt, who starred in the first film, is also sorely missed and while the filmmakers assert her story had gone full circle, it still leaves the film without much of a moral center and I suppose that is merely appropriate. When one considers that in many ways this movie is making the case for the right’s take on the border, it’s hard to justify it in the face of children who continue to be separated from their parents at the border. But then, that’s just my own personal bias rearing its head. I guess it is fairer to say that Sicario: Day of the Soldado is a solid action film that has political elements that makes it very relevant to what’s going on at our border. If you leave the theater chanting “Build that wall” though, it’s on you.

REASONS TO SEE: Brolin and del Toro make an excellent team.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little less focused and a little more cliché than the first film.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a surfeit of violence and profanity as well as some fairly bloody images.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Denis Villaneuve, who directed Sicario, was unable to commit to the sequel due to scheduling conflicts.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Google Play, iTunes, Starz, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/20/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews: Metacritic: 61/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Miss Bala
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Tomorrow, Maybe?

Red Sparrow


Misogyny? Wellllll….

(2018) Espionage Thriller (20th Century Fox) Jennifer Lawrence, Joel Edgerton, Matthias Schoenaerts, Charlotte Rampling, Mary-Louise Parker, Ciarán Hinds, Jeremy Irons, Joely Richardson, Bill Camp, Thekla Reuten, Douglas Hodge, Sakina Jaffrey, Sergei Polunin, Sasha Frolova, Sebastian  Hulk, Ingeborga Dapkunaite, Nicole O’Neill, Kristof Konrad, Hugh Quarshie, Kinscö Pethö. Directed by Francis Lawrence

While this is set in recent years, Red Sparrow could very easily be mistaken for a Cold War-era spy thriller by John Le Carré or those of his ilk. At the center is Jennifer Lawrence as Dominika, a former Russian ballerina who has had to move on to other career choices when her ballet career is cut brutally short. She is sent by a well-meaning but corrupt relative slash government official to a school for spies, which she disdainfully calls “whore school.” There she’s taught to use her sexuality as a weapon and the rest of her body as well. Her assignment is to make contact with American agent Nate Nash (Edgerton) but whether or not she is following orders remains to be seen.

This doesn’t particularly add anything to the espionage thriller genre but it doesn’t disgrace itself either. There are plenty of twists and turns in the plot, enough so that the studio sent an e-mail pleading with critics to reveal as little about the plot as possible which in this case is justified – the less you know about what actually happens, the better your enjoyment will be of the film.

The surprising thing about the movie is star Jennifer Lawrence. She has been for several years now one of the most reliable and talented actresses in Hollywood, but this one she falls quite a bit short. Her Russian accent is unbelievable and it slips throughout the movie. Lawrence is a lot of things but she is not a ballet dancer; she doesn’t move like one and any woman who has been through the kind of training that lands you a spot on the Bolshoi is going to have a certain elegance and grace in her every movement.

This is pretty much standard spy stuff, although granted with a surfeit of graphic mayhem, torture and yes, rape. I think some women, particularly those who are sensitive to how women are portrayed as sex objects, are going to have some serious problems with this. It’s not quite misogynistic but it’s close. This is one well worth skipping which is a first in J-Law’s otherwise glittering career. I guess she’s just due for a misstep.

REASONS TO GO: Fans of Cold War-era espionage thrillers will love this. Rampling and Irons deliver swell performances.
REASONS TO STAY: There’s too much rape and torture – there’s too much of everything (it’s too long). J-Law’s Russian accent keeps slipping.
FAMILY VALUES: There is severe violence, torture, rape, sexual content, profanity and some nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Deer Tick was originally formed in Providence, Rhode Island. They are currently based in New York.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Fios, Frontier, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/23/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 47% positive reviews: Metacritic: 53/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Atomic Blonde
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Tomb Raider

Beirut


It’s hard to tell the good guys from the bad in the desert.

(2018) Thriller (Bleecker Street) Jon Hamm, Rosamund Pike, Mark Pellegrino, Dean Norris, Shea Whigham, Douglas Hodge, Jonny Coyne, Leila Bekhti, Kate Fleetwood, Alon Aboutboul, Larry Pine, Sonia Okacha, Mohamed Zouaoui, Ben Affran, Ian Porter, Idir Chender, Nora Garrett, Mohamed Attougui, Anton Obeid, Jay Potter, Brahim Rachiki, Max Kleinveld. Directed by Brad Anderson

 

Lebanon has a history of being a cosmopolitan, beautiful country. Beirut was once described as the Paris of the Middle East. There were sizable Christian and Muslim communities but in the 1970s with an influx of Palestinian refugees Beirut became a powderkeg that exploded into Civil War that by the 1980s left Beirut the usual analogy for dangerous, hostile places.

Mason Skiles (Hamm) in 1972 was the Deputy Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy in Beirut. A disciple of Henry Kissinger, he was the fair-haired boy in the State Department, on his way to an ambassadorship of his own and at the very least becoming a major player in the diplomatic corps. Then, a terrible tragedy leaves his career in tatters and Skiles personally broken.

Fast-forward ahead ten years and Skiles works as an arbitrator in labor negotiations and not a very good one at that. Maybe it’s due to the fact that Skiles has fallen into the bottle and shows no signs of emerging. However, he is summoned to Beirut – the last place on Earth he wants to go – ostensibly to lecture at the American University there but in reality he is savvy enough to know that’s only a cover.

In fact, his good friend Cal (Pellegrino) has been kidnapped by a PLO splinter group and they will only negotiate with Cal for reasons that will become readily apparent. The problem is that Cal, who works for the CIA, knows enough to make life uncomfortable for the agency in the Middle East. Mason soon discovers that everyone in the American embassy seems to have an agenda of their own; nobody is trustworthy, not even the assistant/handler Sandy (Pike) who has been assigned to Mason. Getting Cal back alive will be no easy matter, not will it be easy for Mason to stay that way as well.

Veteran movie fans will note that Tony Gilroy wrote the script and won’t be surprised at the often convoluted plot – nor will it be surprising that the story is interesting throughout. Anderson is a strong director who keeps the pace brisk without going too fast and glossing over things. Despite having a plot that requires some concentration to follow, this is nonetheless an easy movie to watch.

.Hamm has been on my radar ever since he starred in Mad Men and I’ve always thought that he was going to one day be a big movie star; he’s just one good role away. This is the closest he’s come to that role; despite his character being deeply flawed, Hamm makes him sympathetic. He shows a great deal of charisma and onscreen charm from start to finish. In short, he’s the best thing about the movie which is saying something in a movie with Rosamund Pike in it.

The dialogue can be a bit noir-ish (which can be a bad thing) and the flashbacks can be jarring. Most negatively, there are sequences in which handheld cameras are used that are literally jarring. Those are all minuses to be sure but the pluses just edge them out enough to make this worth a shot.

REASONS TO GO: Hamm continues to show off star quality. The pacing is very crisp.
REASONS TO STAY: There are some unnecessary handheld camera sequences. The ending is a bit anti-climactic.
FAMILY VALUES: There is violence, profanity and a brief image of nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Both Hodge and Hamm have appeared on the Netflix series Black Mirror.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/11/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 78% positive reviews. Metacritic: 70/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Syriana
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
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