Assassin’s Creed


Michael Fassbender realizes that taking this role might have been a mistake.

Michael Fassbender realizes that taking this role might have been a mistake.

(2016) Adventure (20th Century Fox) Michael Fassbender, Marion Cotillard, Jeremy Irons, Brendan Gleeson, Charlotte Rampling, Michael K. Williams, Denis Ménochet, Ariane Labed, Khalid Abdalla, Essie Davis, Matias Varela, Callum Turner, Carlos Bardem, Javier Gutiérrez, Hovik Keuchkerian, Crystal Clarke, Michelle H. Lin. Directed by Justin Kurzel

 

Is free will all it’s cracked up to be? What is free will, after all, if the decisions you make are uninformed? Is it better to have someone make our decisions for us for the greater good? Or is it better that we have our own free will even if our decisions tend to be rendered by self-interest and disregard for others?

Convicted murderer Callum Lynch (Fassbender) is about to be executed. Never mind that he witnessed his father (Brian Gleeson) murder his mother (Davis) in cold blood without explanation, he turned to crime on his own and for his crimes he will pay. Except that he wakes up – not in heaven, but in a strange corporate facility where Dr. Sofia Rikkim (Cotillard) informs him that he’s still alive and about to take part in a procedure that will tap his genetic memories. Memories of ancestors, or in this case of a specific ancestor – Aguilar (Fassbender) who was an assassin – excuse me, Assassin – who alone knows the location of an artifact called the Apple of Eden.

This is all a part of an ages-old feud between two warring factions, the Templars and the Assassins, each fighting for their philosophy of free will versus control. Think of the Assassins as Chaotic Good while the Templars are the Lawful Evil. In any case, the Apple of Eden contains the genetic DNA of free will; he who controls it can modify human behavior – eliminate violence altogether, says Dr. Rikkim. Oh boy!

The means of doing that is through a machine called the Animus in which Callum can inhabit the body of Aguilar, see what he sees and utilize his skills which, as it happens, he retains when he comes back into his own body. There’s also a robotic arm on the Animus which allows Callum/Aguilar to do all sorts of nifty parkour moves.

The problem is as it always seems to be is that not everything is what it appears to be. Dr. Rikkim seems to have the best intentions, but what of her industrialist father (Irons) and the haughty patrician lady Ellen Kaye (Rampling)? And when it turns out that Callum’s hated father (Brendan Gleeson) is in the facility, a reckoning is sure to follow.

Like many movies based on videogame franchises, the basic appeal is going to be to the gamers who are familiar with the game and know the mythology behind it. Those of us who aren’t familiar with the game are going to have a hard time navigating this movie which is convoluted and over-complicated. The latter two traits actually work in favor for a videogame; gamers want a complex game to navigate because that maintains their interest.

The visuals are compelling for the most part although there’s a tendency for the scenes set in the Inquisition to be overlighted and a bit washed out. Scenes that are set outdoors don’t look it and I have to think that’s because the CGI is insufficient to the task. Nothing takes you out of a movie faster than scenes that don’t look real. Also, I understand that the Eagle that appears several times in the movie is a game thing, it seemed overused to me and also looked badly animated.

The stunts however were mind-blowing, some of the best of the year. While I thought that the best one (involving a more than 100 foot free fall, a stunt not attempted for a Hollywood film for more than 30 years) should not have appeared in the trailer when it does show up in the film it’s no less breathtaking.

One doesn’t go to this kind of film for the acting, but given the pedigree of the cast including some of the finest actors in the world (i.e. Fassbender, Cotillard, Irons and Gleeson senior) the performances show that they were at least attempting to do their best. Stiff upper lips must have been needed given some of the things they had to do and say here, but one can’t fault the cast here for the film’s shortcomings.

It is ironic that the theme here champions free will and yet the medium is a movie, which is essentially a passive enterprise in which the audience simply accepts the vision and viewpoint of the filmmaker as opposed to the videogame in which the player makes choices. The audience here makes none other than whether or not to walk out halfway through. What we have here is another failed attempt by Hollywood to make a hugely popular videogame into a movie franchise; perhaps they should stop trying.

I’m not against videogames or videogame adaptations – far from it. I’m just against bad adaptations. I would love to see a film adaptation that actually does justice to a game and I know it can be done. It just hasn’t really been up to now for any franchise not called Resident Evil. Hopefully at some point we will see one – just not today.

REASONS TO GO: The stunts are incredible. The cast at least take the material seriously.
REASONS TO STAY: The plot is overly complex and convoluted. All of the outdoor scenes look like they were filmed indoors in a simulation of late afternoon.
FAMILY VALUES: As you might expect with a videogame adaptation there is a ton of violence, some adult thematic elements and a bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was given a completely unique plot rather than bringing one of the videogames to the screen (there are nine of them in the Assassin’s Creed franchise) and Ubisoft has stated that all of their big screen films will have separate storylines from their games.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/22/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 17% positive reviews. Metacritic: 36/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Tomb Raider
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Fences

Brick Mansions


A pictorial representation of what is wrong with this movie.

A pictorial representation of what is wrong with this movie.

(2014) Action (Relativity) Paul Walker, David Belle, RZA, Gouchy Boy, Catalina Denis, Ayisha Issa, Carlo Rota, Andreas Apergis, Richard Zeman, Robert Maillet, Bruce Ramsay, Frank Fontaine, Chimwemwe Dave Miller, Bradshaw Anderson, Ryan Trudeau, Ron Lea, Danny Blanco Hall, Bruce Dinsmore, Carolina Barczak, Kalinka Petrie. Directed by Camille Delamarre

When Paul Walker passed away in November of last year, he had two films in the can and was in the midst of filming the seventh installment of the popular Fast and Furious series. He had a reputation for being one of the nicest and most compassionate guys in Hollywood, but had never really been able to move past a certain kind of role, mainly in action films and thrillers, that he played throughout his career.

Which is a shame. I would have liked to have seen him grow as an actor and I have no doubt he had that capability within him, but we’ll never know for sure. That’s what makes watching this movie which even by the standards of some of the turkeys he did was pretty awful.

In 2018 Detroit, the ghetto of Brick Mansions – once a sought-after address in the city but now overrun by drugs, gangs, crime and poverty – has been walled off and all services, including schools, hospitals and police patrols, removed leaving the citizens of that zip code to rot and fend for themselves.

Drug lord Tremaine Alexander (RZA) rules over his kingdom with an iron fist, although there are some chinks in his armor. One big one is Lino (Belle), a French-Caribbean who is a master martial artist and parkour runner who takes issue with Tremaine’s policies. Recently he’s pilfered some 20 kilos of drugs and destroyed them, which makes Tremaine none too happy. He sends his number two man, called K2 (Boy) to kidnap Lino’s girlfriend Lola (Denis) and hold her hostage basically to bring Lino back to the Mansions after Lino was arrested by a corrupt cop.

Undercover detective Damien Collier (Walker) also has a bone to pick with Tremaine. Collier’s father was murdered in cold blood by the drug lord and Damien has dedicated his life to bringing the all-but-untouchable criminal to justice. Having just taken down George the Greek (Rota), one of Tremaine’s main suppliers, he is offered the opportunity by the mayor (Ramsay) to go in and do some real good.

Apparently some of Tremaine’s men had ambushed an armored car that was transporting a neutron bomb – the kind that kills people but leaves buildings intact – and the ignorant Tremaine had accidentally armed it. The clock is ticking and in order to find the bomb and punch in the code to neutralize it, Damien will need someone who is familiar with the Mansions. And Lino just happens to be available.

Of course, the two men have differing agendas – Lino is much more concerned with getting his girlfriend back – and neither one trusts each other but given the firepower at Tremaine’s disposal and the high stakes they’re playing for, they will have to figure out a way to become a team if they are to rescue the girl, neutralize the bomb and capture the bad guy.

Writer-producer Luc Besson adapted this from District B-13 which also starred Belle, who happens to be one of the originators of parkour and still one of the best practitioners of the discipline. When Belle is onscreen, it’s magic and for those who haven’t seen him in the Besson film (and its sequel) this is a nice introduction to some of the amazing stunts that he can do.

Sadly, nothing in the rest of the film really holds up. Walker is at least somewhat charismatic, although he is given a character who mostly reacts to Belle’s actions. This is the kind of role that is normally in Walker’s wheelhouse and I think that he’s given a pass here mostly because of the situation, but were he still alive I think that the critics would have been much harsher. More on that in a minute.

The rest of the cast ranges from mediocre to just plain godawful. The plot has holes in it you can drive a dump truck through and the filmmaker needlessly gives the ending away in the very first scene. I could go on, but it would just be flogging a dead horse.

The French original is really much better – a better story, better acting and it still has Belle in it. Sadly for Walker fans, neither he nor Belle can save this film which fails in so many unnecessary ways. Remaking a film from another country doesn’t mean you have to dumb it down for an American audience, although sometimes it might seem that way.

The real tragedy of Walker’s passing is the wasted potential. He was well on his way to being a possible A-lister; just a couple of roles that took him out of the usual ones he did would have done it. There are critics who said that Walker had limited range and limited potential but I disagree. Some of his work in earlier films were pretty memorable. Unfortunately, films like this may well be his legacy. He deserved better.

REASONS TO GO: Great parkour action.

REASONS TO STAY: A disappointing American remake of a much better French film. Outside of Walker and Belle, the cast is uniformly horrible.

FAMILY VALUES:  All sorts of violence, gunplay and action, a fair amount of salty language, some sexual menace and quite a bit of drug content.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In reality Belle speaks with a thick French accent and he isn’t fluent in English. To make it more believable that he had been a long time Detroit resident, all of his dialogue was dubbed by Vin Diesel.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/11/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 27% positive reviews. Metacritic: 40/100.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Raid: Redemption

FINAL RATING: 4/10

NEXT: The Other Woman

District 13: Ultimatum (Banlieue 13 – Ultimatum)


Hair or no hair? Which is more badass? I can't decide!

Hair or no hair? Which is more badass? I can’t decide!

(2009) Action (Magnet) David Belle, Cyril Rafaelli, Philippe Torreton, Daniel Duval, Elodie Yung, MC Jean Gab’1, James Deano, Laouni Mouhid (La Fouine), Febrice Feltzinger, Pierre-Marie Mosconi, Johnny Amaro, Pascal D’Amato, Guy Amram. Directed by Patrick Alessandrin

Justice doesn’t come easy. It isn’t just handed to you. It must be fought for, and everything put up in risk for. Sometimes it takes time; sometimes it doesn’t come at all. But it won’t come without a fight.

The slums of Paris have become a war zone with five different gangs vying for ultimate power after the fall of a powerful gang lord. An indifferent government has essentially pulled the police out of District 13 after the events of District B13 and promises to improve things in the embattled district have fallen by the wayside with a change of administration.

Leito (Belle), an agile traceur (which is literally a practitioner of parkour) has become disillusioned with the broken promises and seeks to be a one-man agent provocateur, blowing up walls and leading cops and gangs on a merry chase in the streets of the district.

Capt. Damien Tomaso (Rafaelli) has taken down a drug lord all by his lonesome, using his martial arts skills to save an invaluable Picasso painting in the process. He goes home to his girlfriend only to wake up to an arrest warrant. Puzzled, he allows the DISS officers to take him to prison but being Tomaso he puts in a call to his friend Leito first.

Leito in the meantime has gotten hold of some damming video that shows officers of the DISS gunning down French police officers and leaving their bullet-riddled cars in District 13 for the gangs to be blamed. Walter Gassman (Duval), head of the DISS, we discover is in bed with Harriburton, an American multinational that is looking to raze District 13 and building luxury condos.

The weak-willed French president (Torreton) is inclined to give the order to evacuate the district and send in the bombs, but Leito and Tomaso have other plans. They’ll fight their way through gangs, corrupt cops and an uncaring French bureaucracy to get the President’s ear – or they’ll die trying.

Okay, that all sounds a bit preposterous – and it is – but you don’t go see an action movie because of its intricate plot do you? Well, you should – a movie with a good story well-told is always better than one without – but a lot can be forgiven due to the amazing action sequences. Producer Luc Besson, the godfather of European action films, pulls out all the stops here. The thing to remember here is that these stunts are being pulled off as you see them – no wires, no CGI. It’s pretty amazing stuff.

While neither Rafaelli or Belle are particularly great actors, they do have plenty of screen presence, enough to fill out most action star requirements. Rafaelli, a shaven head martial artist is a cross between Vin Diesel’s brooding sexuality and Jet Li’s agile grace; he is from the Clint Eastwood school of acting where lines are sparingly spoken and when they are, growled.

Belle is one of the originators of Parkour and at 35 is in marvelous shape. In District B13 his stunts dominated; Rafaelli is featured more here but when Belle is onscreen your breath is automatically held. He moves with grace and assurance, king of the jungle in an urban landscape. Both Belle and Rafaelli have enough to be action stars in the States in a just world. For now, they’re essentially objects of cult affection by discerning action junkies who don’t mind plowing through a few subtitles (although the cut released here is dubbed) to get their share of action goodness.

The plot is pretty weak and the ending aptly described by the San Francisco Chronicle‘s Amy Biancolli as a steaming pile of huh. There is some validity to the complaints about the somewhat haphazard plot points that kind of clunk up the movie but the frenetic action sequences more than make up for this. In a year where the action films have largely been lame, this gem sits in wait for discerning action fans to discover. If this sounds like you, you need to give this one a shot.

WHY RENT THIS: Amazing martial arts and parkour stunts. Belle and Rafaelli are charismatic.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Falls apart in the third reel. Political satire loses something in the translation.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a bit of violence, some bad language and drug usage.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: David Belle didn’t practice most of the stunts so that he could give the action a sense of freshness and improvisation so most of what you see him doing he’s doing for the very first time.

NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s a production diary as well as a music video from French hip-hop artist Alonso.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: €13.1M on a €12M production budget; the movie probably lost money at the box office.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Fast and the Furious

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Prince of Egypt

The Bourne Legacy


 

The Bourne Legacy

Jeremy Renner is having to get serious about fighting the women off.

(2012) Action (Universal) Jeremy Renner, Rachel Weisz, Edward Norton, Stacy Keach, Donna Murphy, Joan Allen, Zeljko Ivanek, Albert Finney, David Strathairn, Scott Glenn, Oscar Isaac, Louis Ozawa Changchien, Shane Jacobson, Michael Papajohn, Elizabeth Marvel. Directed by Tony Gilroy

 

We aren’t content to let things just go their own course. We have a habit of meddling, intruding, making changes willy-nilly without first considering the consequences of our actions. This continually gets us into trouble but if you think it’s a catastrophe-maker for you, think of it on an institutional scale; what happens when a government messes up?

Aaron Cross (Renner) is in Alaska on a training evaluation. He is climbing rocks, fighting off wolves, taking blood samples from himself and taking a little blue pill (no, not that one) and a little green pill; the first, as we will find out, improves his mental acuity; the second, his physical.

At last he reaches a remote cabin where a fellow operative (from Project Outcome, as we also later find out – you’re going to find a lot of things out later, trust me) who is known only as Number Three (Isaac) – best not to be known as Number One or Number Two – has been exiled to wait for agents like him and turn in their blood samples for analysis.

However, a funny thing happened on the way to the next mission. Aaron hears a strange noise outside the cabin and goes to investigate it. That strange noise turns out to be a U-CAV drone firing a missile that essentially vaporizes the cabin and everything in it, including the little green and blue pills which Aaron is going to need. He escapes the drone by doing a little homemade self-surgery on himself, removing a tracking device and placing it in a hapless wolf (wolf lovers, turn away from this one). He decides to head down to the lower 48 to find out what’s going on.

You see, what is happening is that the Jason Bourne affair has sent the upper echelons of the clandestine government operations – the Division, if you will – into a tizzy and in full panic mode, they enlist retired USAF Black Ops specialist Eric Byer (Norton) to close up shop on Treadstone, Blackbriar and all the related operations – particularly Outcome – and all those who knew what was going on. This involves giving the operatives little yellow pills which cause them to suffer from fatal nosebleeds.

At Sterissyn-Morlanta, which is the essential public face of Outcome, a scientist goes berserk (with a little help from his friends) and shoots everybody in his lab. The only survivor is Dr. Marta Shearing (Weisz), who is understandably upset. She gets a lot more upset when a psychologist (Marvel) sent to evaluate her in her Maryland home as she packs for a trip to visit her sister in Canada turns out to be there to terminate her. She is saved by the arrival of Cross who is looking for some pills.

This is bad news for Byer, who thought Cross dead at the cabin. When he discovers Cross has fled with his new friend to Manila, he figures out that Cross is there to get an upgrade which would give him the permanent mental facilities without having to take a pill. He sends in a grim operative from a different project, known only as LARX-3 (Changchien) to clean up the mess. LARX-3 has the same or superior mental and physical skills as Cross and a real dogged determination to see his mission through. Can Shearer and Cross figure out a way to escape from the implacable LARX-3 – not to mention a government with unlimited resources that wants them both dead?

A lot of fans were upset when they heard that the latest Bourne movie would be without Jason Bourne, played by Matt Damon in the last three movies of the series, or without director Paul Greengrass, who directed the last two. New director Gilroy does have a connection with the series- he wrote all three of the movies, so he’s very familiar with the world of Jason Bourne. That is a double-edged sword though.

To the good, he understands the backstory and grafts this new branch onto the tree seamlessly, in a way that makes sense and isn’t quite as jarring as seeing a brand new face playing James Bond. To the bad, there are many references to programs and projects from the first three films, with bureaucratic characters from them making an appearance in roles that range from little more than cameos to much more meaningful supporting roles. For those unfamiliar with the first three films it can be mighty confusing, although if you simply choose to ignore all of the code names and characters therein you can enjoy the ride of the movie on its own merits.

Renner, fresh from his acclaimed performance as Hawkeye in The Avengers further cements his place as one of the hottest leading men and action heroes of 2012. He’s got lots of charisma and my female friends tell me he’s rather easy on the eyes. Far be it for me to impugn the veracity of my female friends in matters of male hotness. I just know that when I see the guy onscreen he has my full attention.

Weisz is one of my favorite actresses in terms of performance but she is curiously muted here. There isn’t much energy and few sparks generated between her and Renner. I know why she was cast – few actresses appear to be as smart as she is – but she’s unconvincing in the action context and has little to do but look terrified and/or concerned.

The action sequences are as good as any I’ve seen this year, with pieces set in Dr. Shearing’s Maryland home, in the Alaska woods and a parkour and motorcycle chase in Manila all generating plenty of adrenaline. There is an intelligence here as well that is often missing in other action films, although not to the same degree of the first three Bourne movies which caught the essence of the Robert Ludlum books they were based on if not the plot – the sense of wheels within wheels, conspiracies and political game-playing all just under the surface. While there are all of those things here, they simply aren’t to the same level as, say, The Bourne Ultimatum which was the most recent in the series.

I’d say at the end of the day this is a must-see for action fans and adrenaline junkies, although those who don’t like their cerebellum being disturbed might find this headache-inducing. It’s a lot better than I feared it would be, and a good career move for Renner who looks to be a superstar if not already then dang soon.

REASONS TO GO: Renner is a magnetic lead. Action sequences are top-notch. Continuity between this and first three films is well-done.

REASONS TO STAY: Weisz’ character seems a bit bland. May be a bit hard to follow for those not familiar with the previous three films.

FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of action, plenty of violence.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The title of the book is the same of the first novel of the series to be written by Eric von Lustbader (after Ludlum passed away) but has nothing to do with the plot.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/12/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 53% positive reviews. Metacritic: 61/100. The reviews are pretty mixed.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Casino Royale

U-CAV LOVERS: An assassination attempt is made by unmanned drones who send missiles into the cabin where Cross had been moments earlier.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Hope Springs

Colombiana


Colombiana

Zoe Saldana does her gratuitously sexy dance.

(2011) Action (Tri-Star) Zoe Saldana, Jordi Molla, Lennie James, Michael Vartan, Cliff Curtis, Amandla Stenberg, Beto Benites, Jesse Borrego, Cynthia Addai-Robinson, Angel Garnica, Ofelia Medina, Callum Blue, Sam Douglas. Directed by Olivier Megaton

Revenge can be an all-consuming emotion, one that can change your life and become a focal point. When that happens, you run the risk of losing yourself – and your humanity – in your quest for vengeance.

Catelaya (Stenberg) is a 9-year-old girl whose parents owe money to a Colombian crime lord named Don Luis (Benites). Her dad Fabio (Borrego) also has some sort of microchip that Don Luis wants…very badly. So badly that after Fabio settles up his debt, Don Luis sends his right hand man Marco (Molla) to execute him and his wife (Addai-Robinson).

Fabio gives Catelaya the microchip and an address in America, telling her to go to the American embassy in Bogota and give them the microchip. He then kisses his daughter goodbye and goes to meet his maker.

Catelaya gives Marco the slip (although not before plunging a butcher knife through his hand) because apparently she’s a junior parkour champion and goes leaping and cavorting through the barrio like she’s on ESPN.  Eventually she makes it to the embassy and is shipped to the United States, but escapes from the DEA and makes it to Chicago where her Uncle Emilio (Curtis) lives. There she brashly tells him she wants to be a killer and he reluctantly agrees to teach her.

Fast forward some years later and Catelaya (Saldana) is now a full-fledged assassin, having performed 22 murders of Don Luis’ men who were involved in the murder of her parents. On each of them she left a calling card – the drawing of an orchid (the one she’s named after) in lipstick. It takes the feds in the form of Agent Ross (James) two years to figure out that the killer is a woman and two years to realize she’s sending a message to someone who isn’t them.

Once Ross publishes in the papers what Catelaya is doing, Don Luis gets the message loud and clear and sends Marco and his goons out looking for Catelaya and what’s left of her family. Now it’s a race for Catelaya to flush out Don Luis before Marco finds her and finishes what he started.

This is yet another action film from producer/writer Luc Besson, who has the Transporter and District B-13 series to his credit, as well as movies like La Femme Nikita and Taken to his credit. He is known for a style of action movie that is frenetic and often has female heroines who are damaged goods, as in this one.

Saldana has the lithe athleticism you need to make the action hero moves; she just doesn’t have the personality for it, at least here. She’s supposed to be cold, calculating and emotionless but sexy when she wants to be (she has a running relationship with an artist played by Michael Vartan that seems to be all about sex) – which seem to be at odd times where there are gratuitous shots of her dancing alone or showering which I would never imagine Liam Neeson or Jason Statham doing.

Megaton and Besson are both very good at the action genre and the action element doesn’t disappoint, from the early parkour sequence to the final shoot-out. There is nothing here that really sets the bar any higher in the genre, but it is all competently done and keeps the movie’s pace frenetic.

The plot, like a lot of these sorts of films, have enough holes to drive a Hummer through but that’s ok; most people who are interested in movies like that generally don’t give a hoot about plot. The characters tend to be cliche which is pretty much standard procedure for action films. Nonetheless this is solid entertainment which doesn’t require much intellectual investment from the audience which in these troubled times can be exactly what the doctor ordered.

REASONS TO GO: Some very well-choreographed action sequences.

REASONS TO STAY: Saldana doesn’t convince she can carry the film.

FAMILY VALUES: Like most action movies, this has it all – violence, bad language, a little bit of sexuality and a few disturbing images.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The film has been criticized for portraying Colombian culture as violent and crime-oriented.

HOME OR THEATER: While the opening chase sequence looks impressive on the big screen, the rest of the movie is definitely home theater-friendly.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Harry Brown

Casino Royale (2006)


Casino Royale

"All right, damn it, I'll say it - I'm Bond, James Bond. Now someone get me my freakin' martini!"

(2006) Action Adventure (MGM) Daniel Craig, Eva Green, Mads Mikkelsen, Judi Dench, Giancarlo Giannini, Jeffrey Wright, Simon Akbarian, Caterina Murino, Jesper Christensen, Ivana Milicevic, Isaach de Bankole, Tobias Menzies, Claudio Santamaria, Sebastien Foucan.  Directed by Martin Campbell.

There is a kind of comfort in certain things that don’t change. French waiters will always be rude, politics as usual will always be depressing and James Bond will always ride in to save the day. Of course, the franchise itself has been full of change. Circa 2006, there have been six men who have played Bond in the “official” series (more on that later). The newest one is making his debut in this, the last original Ian Fleming novel to have its title on a film from Eon Productions, who have been making the Bond movies since 1962, first under producer Albert “Cubby” Broccoli, and later under his daughter Barbara Broccoli, who went to college at Loyola Marymount University, where yours truly took several classes together as we both majored in Communication Arts (and no, I didn’t know who she was until much later). But how did Daniel Craig do in his first outing in the role? 

The filmmakers go a little radical here, choosing to create something of a Bond origin story. MI-6 agent James Bond (Craig) is promoted to Double O status after killing a double agent in the ranks of the British diplomatic corps and his contact. Afterwards, he is chasing a bomb maker (Foucan) to try and get closer to the terrorists that hired him (some amazing free running stunts here) when he is captured on camera apparently murdering unarmed diplomats in an embassy. This infuriates MI-6 chief M (Dench) no end and embarrasses the agency.

Bond being Bond, he doesn’t back off. He continues following the money and manages to determine that the next target is going to be a prototype airplane. He manages to avert the destruction of the prototype, unknowingly thwarting the plans to manipulate the stock of the airplane’s manufacturer by Le Chiffre (Mikkelsen), a kind of investment banker for terrorists. Now in the hock to a bunch of guys who like to kill innocent people (just imagine what they’ll do to someone who isn’t so innocent), he has to recoup his losses. Being an extraordinary poker player, he organizes a card tournament at the prestigious Casino Royale in Montenegro. MI-6, sensing a major opportunity to break Le Chiffre’s bank (which would effectively put him at their mercy, and perhaps in exchange for protection they could find out detailed information on most of the world’s terrorist organizations), know they need to beat him at his own game. And who do you send in to do it? The best card player in MI-6 – namely, Bond, James Bond. M is reluctant to do it – “I promoted you much too early” she snarls at him when he breaks into her home to hack her encrypted computer. Still, it is their best chance for success.

To keep an eye on the double “o’ bad boy, they send Vesper Lynd (Green) from the Ministry of Finance to keep an eye on the ten million pounds they are floating Bond to enter the tournament. Bond, having an eye for figures (ahem) manages to charm the frosty Lynd even though they don’t hit it off right away. Le Chiffre is desperate to win the tournament by any means necessary. Bond will have to use more than his card-playing skills to survive this Texas Hold’em tournament.

The filmmakers are returning to the style of James Bond that Ian Fleming originally envisioned when he first wrote the books more than 50 years ago. This is a gritty, rough around the edges Bond who can be urbane and elegant when he has to be. You see the cold, efficient killer in Bond more than the charming one-liner machine we saw in later incarnations of the character. Bond gets beat up something awful during the course of the movie, but he dishes out far more than he takes.

Director Martin Campbell, who got the Pierce Brosnan era off with a bang with GoldenEye does much the same here, although he is completely kickstarting the series. This is more real world Bond, relying less on gadgets (although there are some here, they aren’t the supercool spy gadgets of yore; these are things that you’d probably be able to find at your local Sharper Image) than on the skills of the world’s best spy. 

I was surprised to find that Oscar-winning screenwriter Paul Haggis (Million Dollar Baby, Crash) was one of the writers on this movie. It didn’t seem to be his style, at least so I thought, but he, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade have put together one of the more complex screenplays of the series. There are many twists and turns to the story, some of which you don’t see coming (some of which you do) and it’s nice to be kept guessing while watching a Bond movie. Bond movies have always tended to stick to a formula – a very successful formula, but a formula nonetheless – and the producers have served notice here that they intend to shake things up and they have, in a good way. 

The Bond girls, led by Green, are less Barbie Doll goddess gorgeous than past Bond girls; in fact, it could be said they are more conventionally pretty, the sort of girls you’d find in a shopping mall or at the beach rather than in an ultra-expensive spa or casino. Unfortunately, most of them are written pretty colorlessly, although that’s fairly standard practice for Bond girls of the last 20 years, Die Another Day excepted. This installment could have used another Jinx-like girl to liven things up.

Craig makes a pretty decent Bond, although nobody can replace Sean Connery. Even if someone was the perfect Bond(and I don’t think Connery was), he couldn’t compete with the memory of Connery who established the category and was as close to perfect as you could get in playing him. Craig may well have moved to number two on the list. He is ruthless, tough and brilliant. He doesn’t toss out facts like the know-it-all Bond would occasionally become; instead, he just knows the things he needs to. Craig may not fit the tall, dark and handsome stereotype of Bond but he captures the essence of the character. That goes a long way in my book. 

There were a few bugs in the movie – the poker sequences go on far too long, and the movie’s momentum is screwed up as a result. There is no Q Division or Moneypenny in the movie and both are missed, even though I do understand their absence. The early free running stunt sequence is SO spectacular that the climactic sequence in Venice pales next to it. These are not minor things exactly, but they are truly fixable. What’s important is that the producers have a Bond who they can count on for at least the next couple of films. Keep this kind of momentum up and who knows, they may be doing Bond movies when Barbara Broccoli’s grandchildren are producing. I’ll take mine shaken, not stirred.

WHY RENT THIS: Craig makes a terrific Bond, perhaps the best since Sean Connery. Tremendous action sequences.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Bond girls are colorless; no Moneypenny or Q. Poker sequences shut down the movie’s momentum dead.

FAMILY MATTERS: Some violence, a little torture, some sexuality and even a little nudity. A little more extreme than the average Bond but still Bond.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  “You Know My Name” is the first Bond theme song since 1983’s Octopussy to have a different name than the film itself.

NOTABLE DVD FEATURES: There are featurettes on the Bond Girls, as well as the selection process for the new James Bond. There’s a music video for the theme song as well.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $594.2M on  $150M production budget; the movie was a hit.

FINAL RATING: 7.5/10

TOMORROW: Paul

Paul Blart: Mall Cop


Paul Blart: Mall Cop

Shoplifters, be terrified: Paul Blart is on the job!

(Columbia) Kevin James, Jayma Mays, Keir O’Donnell, Raini Rodriguez, Shirley Knight, Bobby Cannavale, Erick Avari, Stephen Rannazzisi. Directed by Steve Carr

The legendary baseball manager Leo Durocher once famously said “Nice guys finish last,” and in our ultra-competitive American culture we have taken that as gospel. Sometimes, though, it’s not about finishing first – it’s about finishing at all.

Paul Blart (James) is a nice guy. He’s a single dad with a daughter (Rodriguez) who adores him and a mom (Knight) who spoils him. He works as a security guard at the local mall, but he dreams of becoming a state trooper. However, he’s hypoglycemic and passes out from low blood sugar inches short of qualifying for the exam.

Blart is on the socially awkward side. He has a thing for Amy (Mays) who sells hair extensions out of a kiosk, but is all thumbs when it comes to wooing her. He is the object of scorn to most of the people who work at the mall, especially pen salesman Stuart (Rannazzisi), who consider him something of a fat loser on a Segway. In fact, this movie might have the highest amount of Segway use of any movie ever. Take that for what it’s worth.

Anyway, he isn’t too busy to train Veck (O’Donnell), a newbie on the security team, or hang out with Vijay (Avari) who sells cell phones. After mistakenly drinking a pitcher of margaritas (he thought it was the non-alcoholic sort), he manages to alienate Amy and get his heart broken, not for the first time.

Then on Black Friday (the day after Thanksgiving, the busiest shopping day of the year), a gang of parkour runnin’ skateboardin’ tattooed criminals take over the mall in an effort to get the credit card codes so they can make off with a huge score electronically. Blart manages quite accidentally to be the only security man left inside the mall. This is his chance to finally be the hero he always wanted to be. But is he that hero, or the fat loser that everyone thinks he is?

I think you know the answer to that question. This is a very rare movie in that is a comedy that appeals to a family crowd that doesn’t portray every adult as a complete buffoon and have kids save the day. It also is a comedy that doesn’t drop an “f” bomb every other word and rely on sexual and scatological humor to carry it through.

This is essentially a 90 minute sitcom, with all that implies both positively and negatively. Blart is a bit of a schlub, but his heart is in the right place. There are a lot of fat jokes and pratfalls, but James is so likable that you can’t help but be won over by him.

This isn’t rocket science and by the same token it isn’t the worst movie ever either. While it got blasted by critics at its release, I can’t really figure out why it got so much hate. It really is an inoffensive, at times charming film. It doesn’t really inspire great love; by logical extension it shouldn’t inspire great hate either. It’s a movie that if you see it, you shouldn’t feel like you completely wasted your time.

WHY RENT THIS: Essentially harmless with a few laughs scattered here and there. James is a pleasant lead.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Not what I would call essential to your DVD collection, while it is mostly inoffensive there isn’t any real bite to it.

FAMILY VALUES: The humor is a little crude in places and there’s some mild violence; otherwise, this is perfectly acceptable for all audiences.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the first movie with a release date in January to ever gross over $100 million at the box office.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Going the Distance