Kingsman: The Golden Circle


Being a superspy can go right to your head.

(2017) Spy Action (20th Century Fox) Taron Egerton, Julianne Moore, Mark Strong, Channing Tatum, Colin Firth, Michael Gambon, Jeff Bridges, Halle Berry, Thomas Turgoose, Sophie Cookson, Elton John, Pedro Pascal, Poppy Delevingne, Bruce Greenwood, Emily Watson, Hanna Alström, Edward Holcroft, Keith Allen, Tom Benedict Knight, Samantha Coughlan. Directed by Mathew Vaughn

 

The first film in this nascent franchise, Kingsman: The Secret Service was a thinly veiled satire on spy film tropes and class warfare that included some fairly spectacular action set pieces and a notorious denouement in which a beautiful Swedish princess rewards the hero for saving her life by consenting to butt sex.

Critics of course took great umbrage to the latter and labeled it crass (which it was) and sexist (which it clearly wasn’t; women should be allowed to enjoy sex – even in the posterior – without it being some sort of political statement). There were some issues  revolving around an overabundance of gadgets and gimmicks but it was a solidly entertaining film that left the viewer anticipating a sequel.

So here it is; now that Vaughn has gone to the trouble of setting up his world of gentlemen spies, he decides to tear it all down by having the Kingsmen wiped out in the first act, leaving surviving hero Eggsy (Egerton) and gadget guru Merlin (Strong) asking the American counterpart – the Statesmen – for help (read into that what you want, politically inclined viewer). The agency works out of a Kentucky bourbon distillery and has agents with names like Whiskey (Pascal) who has a way with a whip, Champagne (Bridges) who is the agency head, and Tequila (Tatum) who has suspicions about the Brits. There’s also Merlin’s counterpart Ginger Ale (Berry) who suspects not all is morning in America.

They are up against a vicious, ruthless drug lord with a lavish jungle base. Now, you might have a vision in your head of a Latin hacienda but what Vaughn came up with is Poppy (Moore) who has a fixation on Happy Days-era America and has a bit of an inferiority complex. Lonely and bored in her jungle Main Street lair, she fills her days with vicious robotic dogs and Elton John (playing himself) whom she kidnapped to put on nightly concerts exclusively for her.

Vaughn has always excelled at action set pieces and he does so again here, but the camera work is highly kinetic and as a result many of the sequences are vertigo inducing and may work better for viewers susceptible to such things on the small screen. Still, he has no compunction about going way over the top and so he does here.

In my review of The Secret Service I maintained that the journey was out on Egerton who was lost among the gadgets a bit and here that is not so much the case. He comes off as smarmy and a bit superficial, a change from his cockney street kid turned gentleman spy in the first. It is not, I should say, a welcome change. Here Eggsy is trying to balance his relationship with the Swedish princess with his job as suave superspy. We rarely get a glimpse of his good heart that made him more palatable in the first film. This is what I would call a mistake in direction.

Moore is a talented actress but even she can’t elevate this role above the cookie cutter villain that Poppy turns out to be; all gimmick and no growl. She has her own plan for taking over the world and it’s a fairly clever one but it’s been done before both in Bond and in other imitations. While she has some fun interactions with the most venal President (Greenwood) ever, at the end of the day she lacks the spice to make her a truly interesting villain.

Most of the fun here comes from the supporting performances; Strong makes Merlin the heart of the Kingsmen and he gives the role more nuances than it probably deserves. Berry also shines as Merlin’s counterpart. I loved Elton John here as a kind of venomous caricature of himself, turning out to have some surprising ninja skills in the climactic fight. Never underestimate a gay pop star who has spent a career fighting for the lives of his fellow gay men during the AIDS crisis.

This simply isn’t as good as the first movie. While there are plans for a third film in the franchise and possibly a Statesmen spin-off film, I’m not looking forward to them as eagerly as I did this one. Once bitten twice shy when it comes to movie franchises and I suspect a lot of you out there feel the same way.

REASONS TO GO: Elton John is terrific in an extended cameo and Strong is equally so as Merlin. The fight scenes are hyperkinetic.
REASONS TO STAY: This is really not as good as the first movie. Egerton is too smarmy and Moore too generic.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a lot of violence, some drug use, a bit of sexuality and plenty of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: There are five Oscar winners in front of the camera: Moore, Firth, Bridges, Berry and Elton John, who won for Best Song.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, Fandango Now, Fios, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Movies Anywhere, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/2/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 52% positive reviews. Metacritic: 44/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Austin Powers in Goldmember
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Blade Runner 2049

Jason Bourne


Matt Damon espies a Trump for President sign.

Matt Damon espies a Trump for President sign.

(2016) Spy Action (Universal) Matt Damon, Tommy Lee Jones, Alicia Vikander, Vincent Cassel, Julia Styles, Riz Ahmed, Ato Essandoh, Scott Shepherd, Bill Camp, Vinzenz Kiefer, Stephen Kunken, Ben Stylianou, Kaya Yuzuki, Matthew O’Neill, Lizzie Phillips, Paris Stangl, Matt Blair, Amy De Bruhn, Akie Kotabe, Robin Crouch, Gregg Henry, Ava Katharina Maria Hoeller. Directed by Paul Greengrass

 

It’s been nine years since the most recent Bourne movie and that’s a long time for a spy to be on the shelf. Can the franchise that was once set to overtake Bond in the spy market recover?

Jason Bourne (Damon) has been living off the grid, but that’s what happens when the CIA wants you dead. He’s been making a living doing underground fights in Macedonia which is essentially a one punch affair for the world’s most dangerous assassin. Maybe all the blows to the head in the first three movies have jarred something loose but he remembers his past now, all of it. And he remembers in particular a meeting with his father (Henry) just moments before he was assassinated and at about the time that he – then known as David Webb – was recruited for Treadstone.

But as his long-time ally Nicky Parsons (Stiles) says, just because he remembers everything doesn’t mean he knows everything and he’s clearly got a lot to learn and he’s gonna go find out what he needs to know. New CIA director Robert Dewey (Jones) has a lot of skeletons in his closet and he doesn’t want Bourne opening his closet door. He sends an operative known only as the Asset (Cassel) after Bourne and Parsons, which doesn’t bode well for either of them.

Dewey in the meantime has an agreement with tech billionaire Aaron Kalloor  (Ahmed) who made his billions with a Facebook-like social media site that hides a nefarious secret and Kalloor is about to come clean, something Dewey cannot allow. Working on Dewey’s team is Heather Lee (Vikander), a CIA analyst and computer expert who is figuring out that there is a game afoot, but the players are playing for keeps and may well be out of her league. She will be the wild card when the end game makes its inexorable appearance.

I left the theater feeling a sense of déjà vu and not in a good way. There were high hopes for this franchise; not only was it making monster profits but first director Doug Liman and then Greengrass created bold, kickass movies that not only redefined the spy genre but made it relevant in the 21st century; even the James Bond franchise seemed to borrow from Bourne tonally once Daniel Craig was aboard. This feels like it cribbed a lot of its material from previous Bourne movies.

Greengrass likes to use the handheld camera for fight scenes and that does, I’ll admit, create a very kinetic action sequence. It also makes it nearly impossible to tell who is doing what to whom, and as a result it tends to waste the choreography and skill of those doing the fighting. I’m already prone to vertigo and those scenes don’t do me any favors; friends who have seen the movie who have no balance issues have reported feeling queasy during the fight scenes and having to look away from the screen. I get that this is something that Greengrass is known for and it’s tough sometimes for a filmmaker to give up a trademark of their style but perhaps he should consider it in this case.

Damon however, having won an Oscar since the last time he played Bourne, still is as Chuck Norris as they come in the role and yes I’m using the actor’s name as an adjective. He scowls with the best of them – in fact, I don’t think anyone cracks a smile in the entire movie that I could remember – and kicks bootie as well as any actor who doesn’t have a martial arts background to begin with. Bourne may well end up being his signature role (as Bond was for Sean Connery and Harry Callahan was for Clint Eastwood) and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Tommy Lee Jones is also fun to watch; he’s a crocodile in a business suit with a lapel pin and you can feel the slime dripping off of him as he works his magic. Hero or villain, Jones is one of the most reliable actors there has ever been; I can’t remember him ever phoning in a performance. French superstar Cassel (who is badly underrated here in the States) is almost Damon’s equal as the villainous Asset.

Despite the tendency towards overly kinetic camera work, Greengrass still knows how to mount edge-of-your-seat action sequences and the car chase down the Las Vegas strip near the movie’s conclusion may well be the best of the entire series. It is a thing of beauty and is worth seeing the film for all by itself. It is by no means the only well-staged action sequence in the film, however and in many ways other than Damon’s performance the action pieces are the best thing about the movie.

I don’t know if the franchise is getting a bit tired; something tells me that Greengrass probably has done about everything he needs to as far as Jason Bourne is concerned and while I think Damon is amazing in the role, it also might be time to put another actor into it if they are going to continue the franchise and if Damon won’t work with anyone else but Greengrass in order to play the part. Jeremy Renner will be returning in the not-too-distant future in another movie set in the Bourne universe, and perhaps it is time to see what other directors, writers and actors can do with it. I think that there’s a lot more that can come out of the franchise but this movie seems to indicate that those who have guided it successfully so far have essentially run out of steam.

REASONS TO GO: Matt Damon is as badass as ever. The Las Vegas car chase is a classic.
REASONS TO STAY: Shaky handheld camera work smacks of “Look, Ma, I’m Directing” syndrome. Too many elements are just like other Bourne films.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of action and violence as well as a little bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Part of the film is set in Athens, Greece but due to the high taxes and bureaucratic obstacles, filming for that portion took place in Tenerife in the Canary Islands instead.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/19/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 57% positive reviews. Metacritic: 58/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Spectre
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Nerve

Spectre


No vehicle is safe around James Bond.

No vehicle is safe around James Bond.

(2015) Spy Action (MGM/Columbia) Daniel Craig, Christoph Waltz, Léa Seydoux, Ralph Fiennes, Monica Bellucci, Ben Whishaw, Naomie Harris, Dave Bautista, Andrew Scott, Rory Kinnear, Jesper Christensen, Alessandro Cremona, Stephanie Sigman, Tenoch Huerta, Adriana Paz, Domenico Fortunato, Brigitte Millar, Lara Parmiani. Directed by Sam Mendes

The past has a way of surfacing when we least expect it. Sometimes, it’s just a pleasant memory we’d forgotten. Other times, our sins come back to haunt us in ways we could never possibly expect.

With the carnage of Skyfall behind him (there are spoilers here if you haven’t seen that movie so quick, go see it before reading on), James Bond (Craig) finds himself in Mexico City several months later during the Dia de los muertos celebration. He is after a terrorist who has plans to set off bombs somewhere in the city, but Bond has other plans. Before sending most of the men in the room making plans to end the lives of innocents to kingdom come, he overhears plans to meet with someone called the Pale King. As is the wont around James Bond, buildings are blown up, a chase takes place through the crowded streets of Mexico City and a fight ensues on a helicopter which narrowly avoids crashing into the crowd.

The trouble is, Bond wasn’t authorized to do any of this or even be in Mexico. The new M (Fiennes) is already having issues with C (Scott), the head of MI-5 who has recently merged with MI-6 and is now in charge, and who is threatening on dismantling the double 0 program and replacing it with the Nine Eyes directive – the combined surveillance material from the nine largest agencies in the world, including the intelligence communities of the United States, Russia, China and other nations. Only South Africa remains a holdout.

Given the ruthlessness of C, it isn’t any surprise when a terrorist attack in South Africa changes their vote. These events, Bond deduces, are related to his own chase of the Pale King. After seducing the widow (Bellucci) of the assassin, Bond tracks down an old nemesis whose daughter Madeleine Swann (Seydoux) holds the key to a sinister criminal organization known as SPECTRE – and it’s mysterious leader (Waltz) who has a connection with Bond’s past – in more than one sense.

This has every element that makes Bond films so entertaining; a debonair and cool as a cucumber spy, gorgeous women, mind-blowing gadgets, absolutely amazing action and stunt sequences and exotic locations. Well, it’s missing one element – a great theme song, but Sam Smith delivered an absolutely atrocious song that may go down as one of the worst of any Bond film ever – and there have been some absolute turkeys, although the vast majority of Bond themes have been fabulous.

Craig in his fourth film inhabits the role, and while he is contracted for a fifth film (which the ending sets up very nicely), he has said in interviews that he wouldn’t mind finishing out his run here. I think he may want to rethink that; this isn’t his best performance as Bond (Skyfall is) and he might want to go out on a higher note than this.

Part of the problem is similar to what plagued Quantum of Solace – it simply doesn’t measure up to the high bar set by the film before it. While this movie is much better than Quantum, it’s also no Skyfall and that isn’t a knock at all; Skyfall is in my opinion second only to Goldfinger in terms of great Bond movies. Sacrilege to some, I grant you, but that’s how I see it.

While Craig is ice cold through most of this, Waltz as the villain whose name I won’t reveal here is simply put the best villain of the Craig era and maybe the best other than Auric Goldfinger in the whole franchise. Waltz as…he who shall not be named….is as urbane as Bond, has a deadly edge to him and is certifiably insane, but not in a “Look at me I’m Napoleon” manner but in a quiet, serious “I’m going to do something spectacularly evil” way. You have no doubt that Waltz’ character is capable of conjuring up absolutely horrific mayhem and is quite willing to see it through.

We get to explore Bond’s relationships with his team, mainly Whishaw as Q, Harris as Moneypenny and Fiennes as M. There is a cameo by Judi Dench as the previous M whose posthumous message sends Bond careening off to Mexico, and we get a sense of Bond’s loyalty. He doesn’t trust anyone really, but one senses he trusted M – and not the new one, necessarily.

The stunts here are as good as ever – the Mexico City sequence is worth the price of admission alone – and while the gadgets aren’t as gee-whiz as in past years, the best line of the movie comes when Q hands Bond a watch and Bond asks “And what does this do?” Q responds with a droll “It tells the time.”

The movie feels like it’s cramming a little bit too much plot in; I don’t know that we needed to go all over the globe to finally end up in futuristic volcanic lair that we don’t really get to see much of but is apparently immense. They had to conjure up the largest explosion in movie history in order to…well, let’s just say that it doesn’t end He Who Shall Not Be Named’s nefarious plans.

Don’t get me wrong – this is thoroughly entertaining and certainly will keep Bond fans more than happy, although the critical reaction has been disappointing. I do hope Craig does do one more film and finishes his time in the franchise on a better note than this. It’s a good movie, but not a great one. I think Craig has one more great Bond film in him.

REASONS TO GO: Terrific action sequences. Waltz is the best villain of the Craig era. Continues the return to the iconic 60s Bond films.
REASONS TO STAY: A little on the busy side. Sam Smith’s song is terrible.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of action violence, some disturbing images, sexual innuendo and some mildly foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: At age 50 during filming, Bellucci is the oldest Bond girl to appear in the franchise by twelve years (Honor Blackman was 38 when she filmed Goldfinger).
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/15/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 63% positive reviews. Metacritic: 60/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: You Only Live Twice
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Veteran

Moonraker


In space, nobody can hear your witticisms.

In space, nobody can hear your witticisms.

(1979) Sci-Fi Spy Action (United Artists) Roger Moore, Lois Chiles, Michael Lonsdale, Richard Kiel, Corinne Cléry, Bernard Lee, Geoffrey Keen, Desmond Llewellyn, Lois Maxwell, Toshiro Suga, Emily Bolton, Blanche Ravalec, Walter Gotell, Arthur Howard, Michael Marshall, Brian Keith, Chichinou Kaeppler, Claude Carliez, Catherine Serre, Beatrice Libert.  Directed by Lewis Gilbert

Sci-Fi Spectacle 2015

Among James Bond fans, Moonraker remains even today a divisive subject. Some hail it as being among the best of the entire franchise (New York Times critic Vincent Canby thought it was even better than Goldfinger) while others look upon it as campy schlock with little redeeming value.

The plot is pure balderdash. A space shuttle, on loan to Britain from the U.S., is hijacked from a 747 on the way back to America. James Bond (Moore), MI-6 agent 007 is assigned the case by M (Lee, his last appearance in the franchise) and is sent to interview Hugo Drax (Lonsdale), the billionaire owner of Drax Industries who manufactured the shuttle. While on the French estate which the industrialist had moved stone by stone to the California desert, Bond meets Dr. Holly Goodhead (Chiles), an astronaut assigned to Drax and is nearly murdered by Chang (Suga), Drax’ bodyguard. With the assistance of Corinne Dufour (Cléry), Drax’ personal pilot, Bond discovers some blueprints to an unusual glass container.

Bond goes to Venice to find out the secret of the container and discovers that it is a vessel for a highly toxic nerve gas, accidentally killing several lab technicians in the process. Chang, however, he kills on purpose. He calls in the cavalry only to find the entire operation has disappeared. However, Bond kept a vial of the gas as proof and M keeps Bond on the case despite calls to take him off it. Under the guise of sending Bond on holiday, M sends him to Rio de Janeiro where Bond has discovered that Drax has moved his operations. There, with helpful contact Manuela (Bolton) he eventually learns that Drax has a secret base near Iguazu Falls on the Amazon.

Drax also has a new bodyguard, by the name of Jaws (Kiel) and a plan – to render Earth uninhabitable by humankind (the gas is harmless to animals and plants) and take the most beautiful specimens of humans onto a space station orbiting the Earth, kept hidden by a massive radar jamming device. Bond and Goodhead, who  turns out to be an ally, must stop Drax from wiping out all of humanity and beginning a new master race, one which he and his descendants will rule.

As Bond movies go this one is pretty ambitious. It had for its time an eyebrow-raising budget. In fact, For Your Eyes Only was supposed to follow The Spy Who Loved Me but as Star Wars had rendered the moviegoing public sci-fi crazy, producer Albert Broccoli decided to capitalize on the craze and send Bond into space. Utilizing series regular Derek Meddings on special effects (for which he was nominated for an Oscar) and Ken Adam for set design, this became one of the more visually spectacular of the Bond films, right up there with the volcano lair of You Only Live Twice.

Moore as Bond relied on witticisms more than Sean Connery ever did; here he approaches self-parody. By this time he was beginning to show his age (he was older than Connery was when he made Never Say Never Again) and becoming less believable in the role, although he would go on to make three more Bond films. This wasn’t his finest moment as Bond but he continued to make it through on charm and comic timing.

His main Bond mate, Chiles, was decidedly less successful. Many consider her the coldest Bond girl ever; she is decidedly unconvincing as a scientist and less so as a spy. She has almost no chemistry with Moore; Carole Bouquet would turn out to be a much better fit for Moore in For Your Eyes Only which wisely brought Bond back to basics when it came out in 1981.

Kiel, as Jaws, was already one of the most popular Bond villains of all time. Rather than being menacing, he became almost comic relief; his indestructibility becomes a running joke which might have been a tactical mistake by the writers. The movie desperately needed a sense of peril to Bond and you never get a sense he’s in any real danger other than a single sequence when Chang attempts to murder him in a G-force testing machine. Nonetheless Kiel is game and is one of the better elements in the film.

By this point in the series Bond films essentially wrote themselves and had become a little bit formulaic. Despite the popularity of this film, Broccoli knew that he had to break the franchise out of its rut and he would do so with the following film which would become one of the best of the Moore era; this one, while some loved it and audiences flocked to it, remains less highly thought of today. It is still impressive for its space battle sequence, it’s amazing sets and zero gravity sequences, even despite being somewhat dated. It, like nearly every Bond film, is solid entertainment by any scale.

WHY RENT THIS: Special effects were nifty for their time. Moore remains the most witty of the Bonds. Jaws.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Chilly Chiles. Lacks any sense of peril. Occasionally dull.
FAMILY VALUES: Violence and some sexual innuendo
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Would be the highest-grossing film of the series until Goldeneye broke the record in 1995.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The Special Edition DVD includes a still gallery and a featurette on the Oscar-nominated special effects. The Blu-Ray edition includes these as well as some storyboards and test footage.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $210.3M on a $34M production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (Blu-Ray/DVD Rental only), Amazon, iTunes, Vudu (download only)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT: Sci-Fi Spectacle continues!

Hitman: Agent 47


Shoot first and and don't bother to ask questions later.

Shoot first and and don’t bother to ask questions later.

(2015) Spy Action (20th Century Fox) Rupert Friend, Hannah Ware, Zachary Quinto, Ciaran Hinds, Thomas Kretschmann, Jurgen Prochnow, Rolf Kanies, Sebastian Hulk, Jerry Hoffman, Dan Bakkedahl, Emilio Rivera, Helena Pieske, Johannes Suhm, Angelababy, Tom Jester, Charlene Beck, Jesse Hergt, Daniel Stockhorst, Mona Pirzad. Directed by Aleksander Bach

Videogames are a multi-billion dollar business. There are tens – perhaps hundreds – of millions of gamers in the United States and around the world. Why, then, are movies based on videogames so bad and why have none been embraced by the gaming community? One theory is that gaming is an interactive medium whereas watching movies is a passive undertaking. Gamers prefer to influence their games, make decisions, determine the shape of the story. They can’t do that in a movie.

Which is horse hockey. Sure, gamers prefer an interactive medium, but that pre-supposes that gaming is the only medium they subscribe to. In fact evidence points to gamers also being readers as well as moviegoers. The reason that gamers can’t get behind movies based on games is because the studios, notorious for not understanding games or gamers, put what can only be described as a cursory (no pun intended) effort behind the film adaptations and the results are movies that aren’t just bad videogame adaptations but just bad period.

Take Hitman: Agent 47 for example. Games are by their nature cinematic and one gets the sense that Bach actually understands this; the movie is beautifully rendered, mainly lensed in Singapore (which is a city of fantastic architecture) and Berlin. The look of the movie is sleek and futuristic. There are some shots of a bikini-wearing woman slowly entering an infinity pool at the top of an exclusive Singapore hotel at dusk; cobalt blues, neon reds and greens blend to give the scene a surreal urban glow. However, this shot is also a microcosm for what’s wrong with the movie; the shot only exists for us to see Hannah Ware in a bikini. She has no reason to be swimming at that moment and it’s not germane to the plot.

The plot consists of Agent 47 (Friend), a genetically engineered assassin who is smarter, faster and stronger than the average human. He is on the hunt for Katia (Ware), a young woman who has shall we say hidden talents. What he’s really after is her father Dr. Litvenko (Hinds), who originated the Agent program. Many have tried to duplicate his work without success; one multinational corporation – known only by the obviously non-sinister nomenclature of The Syndicate, really wants an Agent. An army of them, in fact and their director, the Belgian Le Clerq (Kretschmann, a German) has sent a genetically modified assassin, John Smith (Quinto) to fetch the girl and find out what she knows. However 47, with a barcode tattooed on the back of his bald head, has his own agenda.

The story is weak and cliche and to be honest, I think that the studios really believe that the gaming community has to be pandered to rather than giving them stories that have depth and innovation. It hasn’t occurred to them that gamers are used to vast universes with complex back stories and games that not only challenge the gamer to think but require him/her to. Videogames are not all shoot-em-ups or football simulations.

This is a beautiful looking film, with lovely cityscapes and urban environments. The syndicate’s headquarters is all glass and fiberglass, with computer terminals the size of desks and cubicles that look like they were designed by the same person who does the W Hotel chain.  The film is well-lit for a change, which means that the movie isn’t murky throughout like a lot of action movies seem to be these days.

There are also some nifty action sequences with Syndicate goons going after 47 and Katia, or vice versa. Generally the movie is at it’s best when the action takes center stage. Friend is fairly limber which is necessary when making some of the moves 47 does, pirouetting and tumbling about like a demented gymnast in a suit. The choreography, while not up to some of the great Hong Kong action films, is nonetheless superior to most Hollywood action movies.

Friend goes through the movie essentially trying to play a Vulcan, which he could have gotten pointers from Quinto on. He mostly speaks in a monotone which really isn’t the way to go and from time to time I get the feel that the actor is frustrated with his role. Quinto is a good deal of fun when he’s onscreen, the reliable Hinds does what he can in a standard aging mad scientist role and Ware is pretty much wasted in a role that could have been a strong feminine heroine but isn’t.

This is like a supermodel with a lobotomy; great to look at but really nothing inside which is a shame; there’s a lot of potential in the franchise but the producers and the studio bungled it in a depressing way. The studios will probably go on thinking that the gamer market should be dumbed down to and will pour money into all the wrong things when it comes to videogame adaptations and audiences and critics alike will continue to go on thinking that the studios don’t have a clue what to do with these franchises, which is a frustrating situation for those who’d love to see some really good movies come out of these great video game franchises. Why is it that Hollywood can make great movies out of comic books but not of video games? I think that someone like Blizzard or Square Enix will have to do what Marvel did – create their own film division – before we see that happen.

REASONS TO GO: Visually impressive. Quinto is fun to watch.
REASONS TO STAY: Inane plot. Wasted potential.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence and a smattering of foul language.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Paul Walker was set to play the title role until his untimely death.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/9/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 7% positive reviews. Metacritic: 28/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: :Kingsman: The Secret Service
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Meru

Kingsman: The Secret Service


Accessories are important for the true gentleman.

Accessories are important for the true gentleman.

(2015) Spy Action (20th Century Fox) Colin Firth, Samuel L. Jackson, Michael Caine, Taron Egerton, Mark Strong, Sophie Cookson, Sofia Boutella, Mark Hamill, Jack Davenport, Geoff Bell, Samantha Womack, Jordan Long, Tobi Bakare, Nicholas Banks, Edward Holcroft, Morgan Watkins, Jack Cutmore-Scott, Hanna Alstrom, Fiona Hampton, Lily Travers. Directed by Matthew Vaughn

The spy movies of the late 60s and onward have a certain place in the cultural psyche. They represent a particular era, sure, but they also represent the fight between good and evil, our fascination with technology and a certain sense of humor about life in the modern age. Our attitudes towards women, patriotism, freedom and what constitutes a gentleman have been largely shaped by these films.

Gary “Eggsy” Unwin (Egerton) is growing up aimlessly in a working class London neighborhood. His dad died when he was a baby and his mom (Womack) has taken up with a local thug (Bell) named Dean. Dean abuses his mom but Gary isn’t strong enough to stand up for her or for himself. Dean despises him and ridicules him for it.

But Eggsy has a good heart to go along with his Cockney accent and when he gets arrested for stealing the car of one of Dean’s underlings and leading the police on a merry chase, he knows he can’t call home. Therefore, he calls the number on the back of an amulet once given to his mother by a gentlemen who came to inform her of the death of Eggsy’s father, remembering that if he called that number and read a certain phrase, help of whatever nature was needed would be forthcoming.

It comes in the form of Harry Hart (Firth), a debonair and well-dressed gentleman who tells Eggsy that in fact, his father once saved Harry’s life and that Harry wanted to repay that debt by offering his son the opportunity to try out for a position in the same super secret organization that his father served in and that Harry in fact serves in now – the Kingsmen. No, not the “Louie, Louie” bunch.

The Kingsmen are a secret, non-government affiliated group of highly trained, highly skilled gentlemen. They aren’t spies particularly; what they do is prevent bad things from happening. They have a seemingly unlimited budget and there are only a set number of them; when one dies they are replaced. This is the group that Eggsy is about to join – if he can survive the process of selecting the winning applicant, that is and it is a brutal one, focusing on teamwork, thinking on one’s feet and assessing dangerous situations. Most of the applicants are upper class snobs, although Eggsy befriends Roxy (Cookson), a female applicant (who gets her share of grief from the snobs, as does Eggsy) and Merlin (Strong), the tech wizard of the Kingsmen and the right hand of Arthur (Caine), head of the organization.

In the meantime, a tech billionaire named Valentine has big, bad plans. See, he’s a little bit concerned about climate change. Okay, he’s a lot concerned about climate change. He’s given up on the government doing anything about it and has decided that to make humankind’s carbon footprint smaller he needs to make the population smaller. His plan is to use a special cell phone signal through special SIM cards in free cell phones he’s given away to nearly everyone trigger a violent, murderous rage in those who hear it. Only those wealthy, beautiful few who he’s personally approached and implanted a microchip that cancels out the signal in their heads will be immune to the carnage, especially after they all are safely ensconced in bunkers around the world.

It’s a mad plan, certainly but Valentine is deadly serious about it. He’s even hired himself a mercenary army and constructed a lair within a mountain. You know he’s got to be a villain with a mountain lair. In any case, with Valentine’s powerful connections, getting to him won’t be easy and preventing an anarchic Armageddon even less so but that’s what the Kingsmen are there for, after all – to save the day.

Vaughn has made films based on Mark Millar comic series before (as this film is) and the collaborations between the two have been fruitful, producing the fine superhero film Kick-Ass for example. Vaughn has become one of my favorite directors of late with some excellent genre films to his credit. He knows how to make a film visually spectacular and hit all the right buttons in the fanboy psyche while not taking the movies so seriously that they become ponderous. His movies are almost always deeply entertaining.

And this one is no exception. Colin Firth as an action hero seems like a pretty unlikely casting, but it works here. Firth actually performed a surprising amount of his own stunts, but handles the role well, keeping a Bond-like facade of cool while kicking the butts of a group of Dean’s thugs, or some of Valentine’s flunkies, or a church full of homicidal fundamentalists.

Samuel L. Jackson makes a fine villain. Given several personality quirks (he gets violently ill at the sight of blood for example) by the writers, Jackson gives the character a lisp that makes him all the more memorable which is in the grand tradition of Bond villains. While the lisp does occasionally fall off, Jackson gives the character the right amount of menace to make for a formidable foe but enough goofiness to give the film a lighter tone. He also gets a nifty assassin in Gazelle (Boutella), who has no legs but on her Pistorius-like artificial limbs is fast, graceful and deadly as she is able to unfold sword blades from those artificial legs while in mid-air. Tres cool.

There are a lot of asides to the spy movies and television series of history; a reference to the Get Smart! shoe phone for example, or the glasses worn by super-spy Harry Palmer in films like The Billion Dollar Baby and The Ipcress Files. Clearly there are several Bond references although many are turned on their ear; Valentine at one point has a speech in which he says “This is the part where I reveal to you all my plans, and then come up with a slow and convoluted way for you to die, and you come up with a convoluted way to escape and stop me. Except this isn’t that kind of movie” at which point he shoots his nemesis in the head, much like Indiana Jones once shot a swordsman making fancy moves before he could attack.

Egerton shows a lot of potential, although I can’t say he’s a slam-dunk future star. He’s got charisma but he wasn’t really asked to carry this movie (as well he shouldn’t have been) and so I’m not certain he can rise above the gimmicks and gadgets, of which there are plenty here. The jury is out on him for me, although I can see him eventually ascending to a leading man status.

The humor here is mostly dry although there are some broad physical jokes here from time to time. Those who find the English wit not to their liking may consider this not their cup of tea, although I enjoyed this a great deal. In fact, this is the most entertaining movie I’ve seen thus far this year (which isn’t saying much) and one of the most entertaining I’ve seen in the first quarter of any year (which is saying a lot) ever. For those looking for a fun time at the movies, this is your best bet at least until some of the more anticipated movies of the spring start appearing next month. I certainly wouldn’t complain if this became the start of a new Fox franchise.

REASONS TO GO: Highly entertaining. Great action sequences. Strong performances throughout.
REASONS TO STAY: Relies a bit on gimmickry and gadgetry. May be too droll for some.
FAMILY VALUES: Plenty of violence and mayhem, some pretty crude language and some sexuality and brief nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The menswear shop on Savile Row which is the entrance to the Kingsman headquarters is based on Huntsman, a real store in the area. Because shooting in the actual shop would have been impractical, a set was built copying many of the characteristics of the original although production designer Paul Kirby added his own touches to give the set its own personality.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 2/22/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 73% positive reviews. Metacritic: 59/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: This Means War
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT: Hot Tub Time Machine 2

The November Man


One Bond reference too many.

One Bond reference too many.

(2014) Spy Action (Relativity) Pierce Brosnan, Luke Bracey, Olga Kurylenko, Bill Smitrovich, Amila Terzimehic, Lazar Ristovski, Mediha Musliovic, Eliza Taylor, Caterina Scorsone, Akie Kotabe, Will Patton, Patrick Kennedy, Dragan Marinkovic, Ben Willens, Milos Timotijevic, Dragan Dvojakovic, Tara Jervrosimovic, Nina Mrdja, Milutin Milosevic, Lena Milan. Directed by Roger Donaldson

In a recent interview, Liam Neeson, in describing his character from the film A Walk Among the Tombstones, declared that people need a hero who is a bit of a loner; one who has one foot on the side for justice and one foot on the side that is lawless. Our heroes can’t be completely pure, otherwise we have trouble relating to them.

Peter Devereaux (Brosnan) is an operative for the CIA, a veteran and crafty one at that. His partner and protégé is David Mason (Bracey), a brash and arrogant sort who doesn’t always listen to those with years of experience on him. When on a mission to protect an American ambassador targeted for assassination, Mason’s inability to follow orders ends up with an innocent child getting killed in the crossfire. Devereaux takes early retirement soon after that.

He is running a small bar and cafe in Lausanne, Switzerland when his old friend and handler for the CIA Ray Hanley (Smitrovich) turns up, telling him that a double agent buried deep in the employ of Arkady Federov (Ristovski), a war hero from the Chechnyan civil war and favored to become the next Russian president, has discovered something big and needs to be pulled out. However, Peter is the only agent she trusts to get her out of Russia.

So, reluctantly, Devereaux heads to Moscow to pull out the secretary Natalia Ulanova (Musliovic) and get the flash drive with her information on it. However, things go sideways quickly and Russian security is hot on their tails. A CIA higher-up, Perry Weinstein (Patton) gives the order to terminate the asset. The woman is then shot by a company sniper.

Furious, Devereaux gives chase to the assassins and takes out most of the team. When he discovers who the trigger man is, he is momentarily shocked and walks away. The man who killed the asset – David Mason.

Now, Devereaux and the CIA are in a race to find the one connection that can take down Federov – a girl named Mira Filipova (Mrdja). The girl however seems to have completely disappeared off the face of the Earth – the only link to her is Alice Fournier (Kurylenko), the director of a refugee agency. Luckily, Devereaux gets to her first. However, now the race becomes a game of cat and mouse between Devereaux and the CIA. Just who the cat is and who the mouse is in the equation is anyone’s guess.

Based on the seventh in a series of novels by Bill Granger written back in 1979 in this specific case, the movie combines the action of a Bond film, the realistic spycraft of Le Carre and even elements of the Bourne series. That kind of leaves one with a been there-done that feel pretty much throughout.

The saving grace is Brosnan who steps into the shoes of a superspy and finds them a comfortable fit. He is just as suave and sophistication as he was in his heyday as Bond nearly twenty years ago. He dominates the screen and adds a hint of sadness and weariness to the character that was absent from Bond. Brosnan has done some really good acting jobs in films like The Ghost Writer since hanging up his Walther PPK and there is a level of depth here that wasn’t really necessary in the Bond films but adds additional flavor to the role. It might be the best action hero performance of the year. Devereaux is also far more ruthless, willing to slice open the femoral artery on an innocent girl in order to get in the head of Mason.

The action itself is pretty old school with plenty of car chases and Devereaux being chased by dozens of lethal, highly trained agents but getting away with some ease. He has survived as long as he has by always being a step ahead of his quarry or his pursuers and that aspect of the character looms large throughout the film.

The movie seems anachronistic at times, with modern cutting-edge technology on the one hand, but cell phones with flip cases – which have been out of style for almost a decade now – are everywhere. I’m wondering if that is what is new and cutting edge in Belgrade, where this was mostly filmed. I think not however and no mention is ever made of the action taking place in 2005 or thereabouts which it sometimes seems to be.

There are plenty of twists and turns as you’d expect in an espionage thriller, a little too many for my taste. While I understand the need to keep your audience guessing and as off-balance as the filmmakers can make them, the movie seems overly complicated which it really doesn’t need to be. A story like this can be told without quite so many moving parts and still be quite effective.

As action and espionage thriller material goes, well, it’s what you’d expect to find in the dregs of summer. It’s not anything that is going to make you want to run right out to the theater, but it isn’t anything that will make you regret being there either. It is nice to see Brosnan in the type of role that is right in his wheelhouse and I can’t help hope that there are more roles like it in his future, although he is getting on a bit. Still, while the Devereaux series doesn’t seem to be likely to be continuing any further given the anemic box office for this film, the acclaim for Brosnan makes me think that there may be other producers perhaps ready to hand over to Brosnan the types of roles that Neeson has been getting for the past decade now.

REASONS TO GO: Brosnan is an old pro at these sorts of movies. Some fairly nifty old school action scenes.
REASONS TO STAY: Seems oddly dated. Plot unnecessarily over-complicated.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is plenty of violence, some of it brutal, as well as a sexual assault. There’s a good deal of foul language, some sexuality, brief nudity and one scene in which drugs are used.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: When we glimpse Devereaux’s file, the birthday given for Devereaux is the same as Brosnan’s actual birth date. Also, along with Brosnan, Kurylenko also has Bond experience in Quantum of Solace.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 9/21/14: Rotten Tomatoes: 35% positive reviews. Metacritic: 38/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Goldeneye
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT: Life After Beth