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12 Strong

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In the immediate aftermath of the September 11 attacks, an American Special Forces team is inserted into the mountains of Northern Afghanistan to help the Northern Alliance fight the Taliban. Embedded with Afghani tribal warriors who have been fighting all and sundry for generations, can Captain Mitch Nelson (Chris Hemsworth) and his team (including Michaels Shannon and Pena) earn the respect of warlord Abdul Rashid Dostum (Navid Negahban) and his hardened guerrilla fighters?

Based on the non-fiction book Horse Soldiers by noted journalist and war historian Doug Stanton, 12 Strong is nominally a true story. But, as the much-missed Lionel Hutz once wisely intoned, there’s “the truth” and “the truth”, and what has arrived on the screen is a vastly simplified account, dumbed down narratively, thematically, and politically.

It’s staunchly patriotic to such degree that charges of propaganda are not unwarranted, with the first 20 minutes packed with “man’s gotta do” “once more unto the breach” platitudes. On the one hand, this might very well be accurate; we are, after all, dealing with an elite American military unit, true believers to a man, going into the field in the wake of the most notorious terrorist attack in history. On the other, if screenwriters Ted Tally (The Silence of the Lambs) and Peter Craig (Blood Father, The Town) were going to alter events for dramatic purpose in any case, they perhaps could have done something about the dialogue – we don’t need our onscreen protagonists to communicate solely in macho clichés even if their real life counterparts (possibly) do.

Things pick up once our boys get on the ground and are haring around on horseback with Dostum’s army, lighting up Taliban hotspots for aerial bombardment and indulging in the occasional cavalry charge. All other considerations aside, Chris Hemsworth on horseback charging machine guns with nothing but an M4 and a can-do attitude is one of those images that the film medium is made for. Debut director Nicolai Fuglsig frames the action competently if somewhat generically, all suspended atmospheric particles, quick cuts, and carefully deployed moments of slow motion, and it’s hard not to get caught up in the excitement as mounted soldiers gallop through gunfire while explosions fill the air with smoke and scattered earth, bringing bloody retribution to the evil Taliban.

And boy, are they evil in this film (and in real life, let us not forget). Never mind starting the proceedings on September 11, 2001 – 12 Strong feels the need to underline the vileness of its villains by staging a scene wherein a Taliban commander (Numan Accar) executes a village woman for daring to educate her daughters. It’s a horrific and troubling scene, effective in its way, but tonally it’s at odds with the rest of the film which is, despite being couched in recent history, pretty much a straight up military adventure.

It feels patronising, and it’s not the only element of the film to do so – we frequently cut back to a couple of officers (William Fichtner and Rob Riggle) back at the American command centre, who provide a kind of military-flavoured Greek Chorus for any audience members who are struggling to get their head around the action of the plot. The Byzantine tribal politics are vastly simplified to an almost offensive degree, with the driven but prideful Dostum – who in real life went on to become Afghanistan’s Vice-President – having to be taught by his new American allies how to cooperate with his political rivals for the greater good. All complexity is stripped away, leaving a narrative where a group of men go from one place to another to blow things up, occasionally troubled by armed resistance that they swiftly obliterate to general acclaim.

Still, taken at face value, 12 Strong is entertaining enough, as long as you don’t ever expect it to step outside its exceedingly specific remit. Any given viewer’s reaction is going to depend very much on whether we’re at a far enough remove from the actual events depicted for them to serve as action movie fodder. If the answer is yes, a meat and potatoes good time is on the cards. If no, then 12 Strong is a singularly frustrating experience that takes a complicated historical milieu and reduces it to a series of jingoistic money shots.

 
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The LEGO Ninjago Movie

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The exotic, plastic-brick, vaguely Asian-y city of Ninjago is under constant threat from the evil, four-armed Lord Garmadon (Justin Theroux) and his army of shark-themed minions. Luckily, the city is protected by a team of six ninja warriors who pilot giant Lego robots – think Power Rangers but, y’know, Lego-y. Unbeknownst to all, the six heroes are in fact teenagers at Ninjago High School who have been trained by the inscrutable Master Wu (Jackie “my cheque, please” Chan). And doubly unbeknownst, one of their number, the Green Ninja, is in fact Lloyd Garmadon (Dave Franco), whose familial link to the would-be conqueror makes him a social outcast. However, when Garmadon actually manages to conquer to city, Lloyd and his teammates must look deep within themselves to… ah, you get the gist.

It took three directors, six credited writers, and seven people under the dubious “story by” banner to come up with The LEGO Ninjago Movie‘s rather soulless and generic story, and perhaps those numbers are indicative of the root problem: it feels like it’s designed by a committee with a firm grasp of market demographics and a dismal understanding of plot, character, and purposefulness.

We were two for two with Lord and Miller’s excellent The LEGO Movie and Chris McKay’s The LEGO Batman Movie, both of which transcended their presumed “kids movie” genre box to become something across-the-board entertaining and, even more surprising, meaningful.

Ninjago doesn’t do that.

What it does is squander an incredibly talented voice cast (Michael Pena, Kumail Najiani, Abbi Jacobson, Zach Woods, Fred Armisen, Olivia Munn) on a stunningly hoary hero’s journey, wrapped in a weird Orientalist mythology that is happy to swipe the visual cues from Chinese and Japanese culture and history, but draws the line at actually foregrounding characters from those cultures; all the actors of Asian descent are in supporting roles, while culturally Ninjago feels like Southern California by way of the Shaw Brothers backlot – it’s very, very American.

The world feels ramshackle and forced – there’s a fine line between the freewheeling creativity of The LEGO Movie, which managed to incorporate huge and varying swathes of pop culture and still feel of a piece. Problems start right out of the gate when we’re served a live action framing device ala The Neverending Story in which Jackie Chan, as charming and avuncular as ever, drops wisdom on a bullied child – how this ties in to the plastic brick universe of the main narrative is never made clear, nor is the “physics” or “cosmology” of the Ninjago setting (that may sound high-minded but, again, reflect on The LEGO Movie, which pulled off a stunning late-act reveal by connecting the “real” and “Lego” universes).

It all feels lazy, poorly thought out and redundant – which is kind of amazing when you consider the incredible work and attention to detail that’s gone into the design of the film. We’re not yet at a point where these towering Lego creations are visually uninteresting, praise the lord, and Animal Logic deserve plaudits for some of the spectacular builds in the movie – not the least of which is Gormadon’s giant robot, complete with shark-firing canon.

That doesn’t make for a good story, though, and Ninjago‘s story fails on some really basic levels, like cause and effect. Garmadon conquers Ninjago simply by climbing to the top of its tallest tower, which works fine when you’re five and play-fighting on a playground fort, but makes zero sense in this context. It feels like we’re expected to just go with it because it’s a kids’ movie, which absolutely flies in the face of why the previous Lego films worked at all.

Being charitable, kids who are into the Ninjago franchise will in all likelihood get a kick out of this one – there are references to mythology elements outside of the frame of the film that might give a little rill of continuity joy to the faithful (or they may be meaningless – it’s hard to say), but the simple truth is that The LEGO Ninjago Movie is not the cross-demographic joy that its predecessors are. In fact, it feels like the lazy offering we expected back in those cynical days when they first announced a Lego movie, and that’s pretty damning.

 
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CHIPS

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CHIPS, the old ’70s TV series that saw a couple of Californian motorcycle cops deal with the lightest of crimes in the sunniest state, gets raunched up and re-imagined for the 21st century big screen by writer, director, and star, Dax Shepard, who learns the hard way that this 21 Jump Street malarkey isn’t as easy as it looks.

Shepard is John Baker, a battle-scarred former stunt rider turned rookie California Highway Patrol officer, who teams up with Michael Pena’s Frank “Ponch” Poncherello, an undercover FBI agent sent into the CHP to root out some crooked cops who are pulling armed robberies on the side. The wackily mismatched partners get on each others nerves, but bond in the course of their debut adventure, with plenty of laughs and action along the way.

That last sentence doesn’t happen though.

Instead, we get a long series of risible gross-out jokes, some horrible ill-judged homophobia (Pena’s Ponch is so mortally terrified of male intimacy you half expect him to straight-up shoot the touchy-feely John and claim “gay panic”), and a lurching, tepid plot that somehow manages to be both utterly predictable and bafflingly convoluted at the same time – it’s the alchemical marriage of bad writing.

CHIPS fails to function at even the most basic level. Characters change traits and goals for no good reason, scenes run on past any logical cutting point, joke after joke falls flat, and what little action there is fails to make an impact. Seriously, you would think that the minimum requirement for a film literally centered on a stunt motorcyclist is a decent number of motorcycle stunts.

The incompetence on display is staggering. It would be interesting to get a look at the shooting script, if only to see how much of this rubbish is on the page and how much is the result of poor on set improvisation – the latter would at least account for the film’s flabby, unstructured feel. But it wouldn’t excuse the strong current of ugly misogyny that runs through the film.

Most of that is courtesy of Ponch, who spends his spare time ogling women in yoga pants and pursuing sex with women he clearly despises, but there’s a weird strain of it going on with Shepard’s John, too, who has joined the CHP, as he repeatedly tells anyone who will listen, to win back his wife. Said wife is portrayed as a stone cold bitch who has forced our boy to live in their guest house while she moves on with her life, and John’s arc is basically him realising that he’s pining away for a gold digger. The implications of her being played by Kristen Bell, Shepard’s real life wife, are best left uninvestigated.

CHIPS is an ugly film: cheap, mean-spirited, joyless and pointless. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a misanthropic comedy, but it needs to have some kind of reason for being, some hint of an operating principal. At the bare minimum, it needs to be funny. As it stands, CHIPS is bereft of both meaning and comedy. It’s a nasty exercise in meanness for its own sake, that seems to despise its characters and its own existence, and invites the viewer to do the same. Better to simply ignore it instead.