21 Jump Street


21 Jump Street

Channing Tatum and Jonah Hill prepare for the next Tour de France.

(2012) Crime Comedy (MGM/Columbia) Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum, Brie Larson, Rob Riggle, Ice Cube, Dave Franco, DeRay Davis, Jake Johnson, Johnny Simmons, Johnny Pemberton, Dakota Johnson, Ellie Kemper, Holly Robinson Peete, Dax Flame, Caroline Aaron, Joe Chrest. Directed by Phil Lord and Christopher Miller

 

Those of you who might remember the late 80s undercover cops in high school drama might mostly remember it for the presence of Johnny Depp, who used his appearance in the show to catapult himself into movie stardom. Most don’t remember that it took on issues of drug abuse, child abuse, teen sex, gang violence, school violence, racial tension and teen drinking, among others things. Sure, it was mostly formulaic and doesn’t hold up well over time (it was very much a child of the era) but it had its good points.

This film version, co-scripted by Hill, takes little of what originally comprised the series and kind of turns it for the most part on its ear. Schmidt (Hill) was a nerd in high school,  a sweet-natured kid who due to his girth, social awkwardness and braces was the butt of a large number of jokes. Jenko (Tatum) was a popular jock, not too bright unfortunately but all about fitting in. The two couldn’t have come from more different viewpoints if they had been born on different planets.

Yet they share something in common; both of them want to be police officers. What went on in high school seems to be continuing at the academy; Schmidt aces the written exams but does poorly in the physical training while Jenko rules in the physical aspect but fails the written exams. The two realize that they can help each other and thus an unlikely friendship is formed, leading to their graduation from the Police Academy.

They are immediately assigned to park duty on bicycles, which causes Jenko to muse “I thought there’d be a lot more car chases and explosions and less homeless people doo dooing on the sidewalk.”  They catch a lucky break when they find a bike gang loitering around in the park with drugs on them. They make the arrest but it’s immediately thrown out because Jenko fails to read the Miranda rights to the suspect; in fact, he does not even know what they are.

Both Jenko and Schmidt are exiled to a program that had been shelved since the ’80s; a high school undercover group headquartered at an abandoned Korean Christian church at 21 Jump Street. There they are given their assignment by Captain Dickson (Cube), the stereotypical black captain with anger management issues. They are joined by fellow officers Hoffs (Peete) among others who look at the two newest additions as losers.

The two are assigned to find the supplier of a new designer drug at Sagan High and are given new identities as brothers staying with Schmidt’s parents (Aaron, Chrest). One is supposed to be a nerd and the other popular, but because they are knuckleheads they mix up which one is supposed to be witch so Schmidt winds up being the track star/popular guy and Jenko the science nerd.

That’s just as well because things have changed considerably since they were in school. Compassion and ecological awareness is more what makes you popular these days and the two quickly find out  that the dealer is Eric (Franco), a sensitive sort who quickly bonds with Schmidt who finds that his second go-round in high school is far more enjoyable than his first. Jenko struggles at first with the learning but thanks to helpful science geeks he suddenly finds he has an aptitude for it.

The two have to put up with overzealous gym teachers (Riggle), an oversexed science teacher (Kemper) who’d like nothing more than to get inappropriate with Jenko and a sweet cheerleader (Larson) who has developed a bit of a crush on Schmidt. However, finding the supplier proves to be a tougher challenge than they thought and soon Jenko and Schmidt are facing being drummed out of the force if they can’t stop the tide of HFC flooding the school.

This isn’t a remake but more of a re-imagining and to nearly every critic’s surprise it actually works. This could easily have been just another big, dumb movie (which many remakes of classic television shows have been) that adds nothing to the mix but it actually is quite entertaining. It manages to balance the line between action and comedy nicely and even if Jonah Hill isn’t who you’d think of as the next action star and Channing Tatum the next big comic actor, they acquit themselves nicely in fish-out-of-water roles.

In fact, the reason the two do so well is that they play to their strengths and avoid doing things that are beyond their capabilities. Tatum has been busy of late (and will continue to be) with roles mostly in romances and action films but he relies on his not-too-bright character to generate most of the laughs, playing on cop show (and cop movie) clichés and becomes part of the joke rather than having the joke be on him. Hill isn’t a great physical specimen (although he lost 40 pounds for the role) and the likelihood that a pretty high school-age girl would fall for him are pretty long, he makes his character pretty decent at heart (although he does show some dick-ery during the second half of the film when he is trying to fit in with the popular crowd).

Larson is not only easy to look at, she’s also got a good deal of talent and does a pretty good job here; she’s one of those actresses who have a great deal of promise if she can get the right sort of roles and this one is one of them.

The action sequences aren’t super-exciting and they don’t particularly give you any gee wow moments, although they tend to focus on Schmidt’s complete lack of competence in the physical aspects, which adds to the comedy nicely.

I’d just like to go on record as saying I wasn’t a particular fan of the show when it aired and thus I had no expectations going in. I will say this is mighty entertaining although there are plenty of other films out there that are just as good. Let’s just say this is better than average and not a waste of time and in fact there are plenty of people out there who are REALLY going to like it. Do check it out and not just for the cameos.

REASONS TO GO: Credible action comedy that blends just enough action with just enough laughs. Plays to the strengths of the lead actors.

REASONS TO STAY: Nothing groundbreaking here.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a lot of drug content as well as crude humor and sexual content, some teen drinking, a bit of violence and pretty much non-stop swearing.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Tatum’s character Jenko is named for the first captain on the series, Capt. Richard Jenko who was played by Frederic Forrest and was killed off after the first season.

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/26/12: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews. Metacritic: 69/100. The reviews are strongly positive.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Starsky and Hutch

ORIGINAL SERIES LOVERS: Johnny Depp and Peter DeLuise make cameo appearances near the end of the movie as their original characters from the series; Peete is present throughout the film as her original character and Dustin Nguyen shows up on television several times when characters in the film are watching TV and the original series is always on.

FINAL RATING: 6.5/10

NEXT: Jeff, Who Lives at Home

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Faster


Faster

Dwayne Johnson realizes that sometimes, the People's Elbow just isn't enough.

(2010) Action (CBS) Dwayne Johnson, Billy Bob Thornton, Carla Gugino, Maggie Grace, Moon Bloodgood, Oliver Jackson-Cohen, Tom Berenger, Courtney Gains, Mike Epps, Xander Berkeley, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Jennifer Carpenter. Directed by George Tillman Jr.

The American action picture is somewhat of an archetype. It borrows heavily from the Western and often employs taciturn loners as heroes. It takes place on windswept plains and empty towns, and sometimes in big cities which convey a different type of loneliness. In this world, a man is measured by the size of his gun and his willingness to use it.

Driver (Johnson) is being released from prison after doing a ten-year stretch. Although the warden (Berenger) chides him to seek help if he finds himself going down the wrong path, Driver already has a direction in mind.

After picking up a 72 Chevy muscle car in a scrap yard, Driver has some business to take care of. You see, the gang that pulled off the bank heist that got him sent to the pen was ambushed by a rival gang who killed them all off and left Driver for dead having taken a bullet to the back of the skull. Surgeons affixed a metal plate to keep his brains from leaking out and now he walks around with a bit of a bad attitude.

Normally Driver could let something like that go but one of the dead was his half-brother and Driver doesn’t cotton much to that. He’s out to kill every mutha on the list of those who were responsible, from the low-lifes who were there to the ones pulling the strings behind the scenes. The latter would rather he didn’t come too close so they send out a hit man (Jackson-Cohen) with a strange British accent and impulse control problems. Killer, as he’s called is more of a dilettante than a professional, but he does have a girl (Grace) of his own and by gum he’s gonna marry that girl if it’s the last thing he does.

Also on Driver’s tale is a Cop (Thornton) who has even more problems than Driver or Killer. Ten days from retirement, he is a heroin user whose estranged wife harangues him for being late picking up his son for a baseball game and he’s more or less a joke to his peers. He has one last chance at redemption, not that Detective Cicero (Gugino), his partner, is interested; she just wants to catch this killer and she doesn’t want a sad sack junkie partner slowing her down.

This sounds more like an action movie of the ‘70s and in some ways it is. There is also a bit of the dark soul of film noir from the ‘40s and in some ways, it is. What it REALLY is, believe it or not, is an old-fashioned morality play. This story is not so much about revenge as it is redemption; it’s not so much about car chases as it is about forgiveness. While the trappings of an action movie are there, there’s a lot more going on than meets the eye.

Part of why the movie succeeds is because of Johnson. The Rock, the Brahma Bull, the People’s Champ. That guy. This is by far his best performance to date. His Driver starts out a killing machine, fueled by rage. As the body count gets higher, so does his sense of remorse, and a feeling that maybe revenge isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. By the time he reaches the final name on his list, a man who has reformed and become a Pentecostal preacher (Akinnuoye-Agbaje) the doubts have really set in. Things are no longer so black and white; it’s easy to walk up to a bad guy and blow the back of his head off if there is no doubt he is bad.

Thornton excels at playing folks who are a little bit flawed; he’s even better at playing folks who are a LOT flawed. That’s just what Cop is – a lot flawed (he actually has a name that appears briefly on a document near the end of the movie, but I didn’t catch it). Thornton gives him the hangdog look of a man who has made more mistakes than he can count and is desperate to try and redeem himself.  There’s that whole redemption thing again.

Gugino, who I still continue to maintain is one of the most criminally underutilized actresses in Hollywood gets wasted again in a role that she could easily have phoned in but chose not to. Her character is suspicious and somewhat hostile at first but ultimately makes some choices that show her to have a soft heart as well…oh yeah, I guess that you could call that…the “R”  word.

This is not a typical action movie and I don’t believe it ever was intended to be. In some ways it’s grim and brutal and the story line is a bit predictable (Da Queen figured out who was behind all the messed-up events long before the Big Reveal in the final reel, which puts her one up on me) and at times it feels like the characters are going through the motions as they drive through the deserts of Bakersfield and Inyo County. It isn’t the kind of entertainment that is mindless and easy (not that there is anything wrong with entertainment that is both of those things). I found myself reacting to the movie with a curious intellectual fascination which is not something you get from an action movie normally. For that reason alone I can recommend this.

REASONS TO GO: While ostensibly an action movie, this is also a morality play on steroids. Johnson makes a welcome return to a genre he is very well suited to.

REASONS TO STAY: The ending is a bit predictable and the movie has a curious lack of energy for a movie of this type.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a surprising amount of drug use in the movie, quite a bit of violence and a fair amount of foul language. There is also some brief sexuality that ought to bother nobody.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the first strictly action film that Johnson has done since Doom (2005).

HOME OR THEATER: Some of the car chase sequences look good on the big screen but a lot of the rest of the movie is fairly intimate. Too close to call for me, so I’ll let you make it.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Private Lives of Pippa Lee

Max Payne


Max Payne

Mark Wahlberg finds out that this movie is for the birds.

(20th Century Fox) Mark Wahlberg, Mila Kunis, Beau Bridges, Ludacris, Olga Kurylenko, Chris O’Donnell, Donal Logue, Kate Burton, Amaury Nolasco, Marianthi Evans. Directed by John Moore

When tragedy strikes, we have a need to know who was responsible, the better to make sure they are accountable for what they did. Sometimes, however, the more important question is not who but why.

Max Payne (Wahlberg) is an NYPD detective who has the kind of life nightmares are made of. His wife Michelle (Evans) and baby were murdered by apparently drug-addled thieves who have not been caught three years later. Max works in the cold case division, where his own wife’s case rests. He is not a very companionable guy to say the least.

He is also an obsessed guy, still looking for the person responsible for the death of his family. A tip leads him to a party where he meets Natasha Sax (Kurylenko) and her sister Mona (Kunis). When Max sees Natasha’s wing-like tattoo on her wrist, he invites her back to his place for a chat. The tattoo has some significance to his wife’s murder and he intends to question her about it.

Instead she attempts to seduce him but breaks the mood with an insensitive remark about his wife. He throws her out of the apartment, leading her to walk away down a snow-covered alley to an encounter with a misshapen winged creature. The next morning, her body is discovered and Max’s wallet (which she had lifted in a snit at being tossed out on her derriere) is found at the scene. Max becomes suspect number one. His ex-partner Alex Balder (Logue) who was the lead investigator on his wife’s murder is investigating this one. The tattoo on her wrist intrigues him as well, and as he digs further he finds out a further connection to his wife’s murder. Unable to contact Max, Alex goes to his apartment to wait for him.

When Max finally does return home, it is to an apartment in shambles and the body of his friend Alex lying on the floor. Before Max can react, he is knocked out from behind. He awakens in a hospital with his dad’s ex-partner on the force (and current head of security for the pharmaceutical company Aesir which Michelle was working for when she died) BB Hensley at his side. BB assures him he will take care of him as best he can with what connections he has left on the force but that he is the prime suspect in both murders now.

As Max delves deeper and deeper into the mystery, the body count piles up and the suspects begin to die off in droves. Who are those mysterious winged creatures, and what role does Aesir play in all of this?

This is based on the 2001 videogame of the same name and while some of the plot points are similar, the movie diverges from the videogame in a lot of significant ways. Director John Moore has said repeatedly that he was trying to keep the fans of the game happy, but in the end I honestly don’t think they were.

The tone here is dark, dark, dark, black as pitch and twice as gloomy. This is cinematic depression at its finest folks, and if you’re in the mood for a good brood, this is your express train. Moore tries to capture the noir-ish look of the game and to a degree succeeds. One of the best things about the movie is the way it captures and maintains its mood. Wahlberg does a credible job in a role that doesn’t call for much more than scowling and shooting.

What eventually sinks the movie in my opinion is that the script takes too many liberties with logic and advances the plot with too many cliches. I don’t mind a cliché or two when necessary but it shouldn’t be so easy to predict what’s going to happen next. Also, the movie was sold as a supernatural thriller but quite frankly, it ain’t. Fans of the videogame will know that to be true but those of us who are less familiar with the game are going to be a trifle pissed off when the big reveal comes.

I think the videogame had enough elements in it that were worthwhile that a good movie could have been made out of it with very little tinkering. Unfortunately the tinkering that was done here was not for the better and in fact made the storyline even worse. Videogame adaptations have been, for the most part, simply awful (the Resident Evil series is a notable exception) and this one doesn’t improve the batting average. I think part of the problem is that Hollywood doesn’t really respect videogames very much and quite frankly, videogame producers have tended to sell their rights to producers and writers who might not meet the standards they’re looking for. Hopefully, before such big ticket properties as Halo and World of Warcraft hit the big screen, some of that paradigm will change. Until then we’re going to see an awful lot of movies just like this one.

WHY RENT THIS: Those who like dark-tone action movies like The Crow will probably find something in this worth liking. Wahlberg is a fine brooder.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Deviates from the videogame enough to alienate those who loved the game. The script takes far too many leaps of logic to be taken seriously.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a great deal of violence, some sexuality and plenty of foul language. Definitely a movie for mature teens or older.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: James McCaffrey, who voiced Max in the videogame, makes a cameo appearance as an FBI agent.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There’s an animated graphic novel on the Blu-Ray edition called Michelle Payne that supposedly fleshes out the backstory of Max’s doomed wife but in all honesty an awful lot of this is covered in the movie as well.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: Powder Blue

Taken


Taken

Liam Neeson takes time to do his squats during a firefight; after all, a spy's gotta stay in shape.

(20th Century Fox) Liam Neeson, Famke Janssen, Maggie Grace, Katie Cassidy, Goran Kostic, Leland Orser, Jon Gries, David Warshofsky, Holly Vallance, Xander Berkeley. Directed by Pierre Morel

When it comes to France, there are some things that you can take as absolute facts that are undeniable. One, that the Eifel Tower will always be the symbol of Paris. Two, that you will eat better at any sidewalk bistro than you will in all the fast food purveyors in America. Finally, that Luc Besson knows how to make a good action movie and will churn one out year after year after year.

In this Besson-produced thriller, Bryan Mills (Neeson) used to work for the CIA. He was, in his own terminology, a “fixer,” the kind of guy who would be sent in to stop a problem before it starts, whether by a timely assassination, a daring theft or a campaign of disinformation. Not that the CIA doesn’t engage in such things but I don’t get the impression they do that kind of work all that often.

Anyway, as will often happen with interesting jobs, Mills’ job becomes his life and his wife (Janssen) packs up and leaves, taking their 17-year-old daughter (Grace) with her. Not long after, she marries a mega-rich American industrialist (Berkeley) whose idea of a birthday gift is not just a pony but a future Kentucky Derby winner. It’s kind of hard to compete with that when all you have to give is a karaoke machine.

Mills decides to hang up his black ops jumpsuit and move to the States to be closer to his daughter but his bitchy wife prevents this at almost every turn. Mills the suave icy-cool spy quickly becomes the hangdog intimidated ex-husband who meekly accepts the crap his ex-wife hands him and sits at home counting the hours until he can spend time with his daughter. Hard to believe a man of action such as Mills would settle for this kind of role, but okay.

When his daughter Kim (Grace) phones up dad to set up a one-on-one lunch (just the two of them), Mills is overjoyed – until he finds out that bitchy ex-wife used this as a means to get him to sign a parental consent form allowing Kim to spend the summer in Paris with her friend Amanda (Cassidy) unsupervised, although Kim swears up and down that adult cousins of Amanda will be there to act as chaperones. After some misgivings, Mills gives in.

Of course his misgivings prove to be well-founded. Soon after his daughter lands in Paris, Mills gets a phone call letting him know she’s landed safe and sound – and hears the kidnapping of his daughter over the phone. When one of the kidnappers picks up the phone, Mills tells him in a quiet, calm voice that he doesn’t have money to pay ransom but what he does have is a particular set of skills that would make life unpleasant for his crew and that if he doesn’t turn his daughter back over to him, he will find him and kill him. The bemused kidnapper responds with a single sneered “good luck,” done in a fine Clint Eastwood-like snarling whisper.

From this single two word message, Mills’ buddies at the CIA are able to determine the identity of the kidnapper, his nationality, and that the gang that he’s affiliated with specializes in kidnapping naïve young women and selling them as sex slaves and prostitutes to wealthy men (if they were really that amazing, Bin Laden would have been in a body bag long ago). Oh, and that once 96 hours have passed, his chances for finding his daughter go down to zero. His ex-wife’s new husband sticks Mills on a private jet for Paris where, as you might guess, much mayhem ensues. The only thing missing is the Eifel Tower crumbling to the ground in a graceful swan dive.

Besson protégé Morel does a fine job of pacing the film, particularly during its second half when the action portion of the movie really kicks in. Quite frankly, Paris makes an excellent backdrop to the action sequences as well, so that works in the filmmakers’ favor. Besson delivers a script that mostly works.

It does get a little out to left field from time to time in terms of its internal logic. However, what saves the movie is Neeson. Neeson’s acting chops are beyond question; his work in such films as Schindler’s List and Michael Collins corroborate that. He gives the character a sense of gravitas. Mills is a killing machine, capable of demolition, sharpshooting, lethal hand-to-hand combat and driving like Remy Julienne but he is, at the core, just a sad dad who just wants to see his kid.

The support cast is mostly solid although unremarkable enough. They do their jobs without distinguishing themselves any, leaving Neeson and the action to take center stage which is probably a good thing. The movie was a surprise hit when it was released in January 2009 and not without reason; it also got some pretty impressive critical props.

Action movies work best when you try not to think about them logically but rather just sit back and enjoy the ride. Taken is kicked up a notch in the thoughtfulness department (mostly due to Neeson) but it doesn’t sacrifice one inch of its action pedigree. Mindless entertainment, yes but good mindless entertainment.

WHY RENT THIS: Liam Neeson makes for a natural action star, lending gravitas to his physical skills. The film moves with breakneck pacing, something crucial for a good action movie.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Occasionally veers into the realm of the preposterous but then again, so do most action movies.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a good deal of violence and sexual situations, with the depiction of many girls presumably drugged and raped (at least implied). The language is pretty rough, so all in all not for youngsters.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The martial arts style used by Mills in the film is called Nagasu Do, a hybrid blending Ju-Jitsu, Judo and Aikido. Liam Neeson was trained by SAS soldier Mick Gould for his various skills.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: The “Black Ops Field Manual,” available only on the Blu-Ray edition of the release, keeps a running count of the injuries and kills during the movie, displays a clock telling how much time Bryan has left to find his daughter and shows you his exact route from one scene to the next. It’s a good deal of fun!

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: The Night Listener