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REVIEW: xXx: Return of Xander Cage

Review, Theatrical 1 Comment

Was anyone actually hanging for the return of extreme sports secret agent, Xander Cage? Were we really hungry for more of this franchise, which already changed leading men once when Ice Cube stepped into the top job in only the first sequel? Whatever, we’ve got one, and here’s the thing: it’s a lot of fun. In fact, xXx: Return of Xander Cage is the best xXx movie so far, if that isn’t damning it with faint praise.

What saves this film is its refusal to take itself too seriously. Right out of the gate we’re hit with cartoony pop-up character bios, cameos and cute in-jokes before we’re rapidly thrown into the thankfully simple plot. A McGuffin called Pandora’s Box can allow bad guys to drop satellites out of orbit with pinpoint accuracy. With the world being held to ransom, steely black ops spook, Marke (Toni Collette, vaguely uncomfortable with all this nonsense), recruits the only man who can get the job done – Vin Diesel’s titular extreme bro.

But wait – isn’t he dead? They actually made a short film, The Final Chapter: The Death of Xander Cage, to underline the fact. Well, never you mind, there’s no time for such trifling issues as continuity and plausibility when the fate of the world is at stake. Not being a man with much respect for the military hard nuts he’s been saddled with, Cage recruits his own team of rebellious operatives: Ruby Rose’s animal activist sniper, Rory McCann’s (yes, G0T‘s The Hound) paranoid stunt driver, and Kris Wu’s, uh, DJ? Sure, why not?


All the extra personnel are more than warranted, though, as the plot device has been swiped by a team of international super-thieves, including Ong Bak‘s Tony Jaa and Indian superstar Deepika Padukone, led by none other than Rogue One MVP, Donnie Yen. Thus the biggest suspension of disbelief problem you’ll have here is not the extreme stunts and the sometimes shoddy CGI, it’s the notion that Vin or, indeed, almost anyone, can go toe to toe with guys who have been kicking people in the head for a living for literally decades.

 

For all that Diesel is the star of the show – and the film goes to absurd lengths to portray him as a superhuman sexual tyrannosaur – he’s arguably the weakest link, mugging for the camera and delivering ludicrous tough guy lines while Yen radiates cool just by standing there. He comes across in a much better light if you can frame his antics as self-aware parody, but that may be a stretch. Still, he makes for a suitable point of focus and catalyst for things to explode around, and that is what we’re here for.

The action is huge fun, and while it never approaches the heights of, say, the recent insta-classic, John Wick, director DJ Caruso shows flair for staging, choreography and, most importantly, editing; while still well within the framework of modern rapid-cut action construction, you can always tell what’s going on. Again, though, CGI-assisted Diesel is no match for the likes of Yen and Jaa; that most certainly is not Vin skiing down a jungle mountain, while that most certainly is Yen (who is, lest we forget, 53 years old) destroying opponents in the boardroom fight scene.

Of course, if you expect any of this to come within spitting distance of “realism”, you’re gonna have a bad time, The xXx universe runs on the Rule of Cool, and any kind of narrative contrivance is allowable if it opens up the opportunity for a cool stunt or a fun cameo. If you’re okay with that, there are points that’ll have you cheering; if you’re not, you clearly wandered into the wrong cinema.

Return of Xander Cage is a far from perfect film, but it’s a fantastically enjoyable one. It rarely drops out of fourth gear, sprinting from setpiece to setpiece, too caught up in its own sense of fun to worry if any of this makes any kind of sense. That glib, rebellious attitude is infectious, and it’ll be a rare grinch who doesn’t want to come along for the ride.

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REVIEW: Patriots Day

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Bringing the 2013 Boston Marathon Bombings to the screen was always going to be a difficult task, but also a popular one. At one point there were three separate film projects based on the attack in development, and it’s easy to understand why: the combination of tragedy, heroism, patriotism, and the emergent “Boston Strong” movement is a heady brew, particularly for American audiences. It’s Lone Survivor and Deepwater Horizon director, Peter Berg, who has managed to get his project over the line first, working once again with his regular star, Mark Wahlberg, and the results are powerfully affecting while still occasionally drifting into the problematic.

Starting in the wee hours before the marathon and subsequent bombing, we meet a number of disparate characters, most of them based on actual people, and one who, particularly, is not: Wahlberg’s hard-drinking Southie cop, Tommy Saunders. That’s a bit of an issue, because he’s our chief point of view character, and it’s through him that we mainly experience the attack, the investigation, and even the capture of bomber, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (Alex Wolff). Apparently Wahlberg is there to represent all law enforcement as a kind of gestalt character, but it does gall a little that our way into this event is through a man who patently doesn’t exist.

Walhberg is supported by a strong roster of talent portraying the various actual participants in the events, among them John Goodman as Boston Police Commissioner Ed Davis; JK Simmons as Watertown Police Sergeant Jeffrey Pugliese, who was instrumental in the judicial killing of bomber,  Tamerlan Tsarnaev (Themo Melikidze); and Kevin Bacon as FBI SAC Richard DesLauriers. You don’t get an on-screen team like that together without getting good performances, and they all convey the drama, pathos and horror of the situation admirably.

The film also does extremely well in contextualising the lives of the people caught up in the event, letting us spend time with them before the crisis hits, including MIT Police Officer Sean Collier (Jake Picking), who was killed by the fleeing terrorists, and student Dun Meng (Jimmy O. Yang), who was kidnapped by them. We’re not allowed to think of these people as faceless victims, even in the scenes where the street is littered with the injured and maimed – Berg focuses in on a handful of the victims and forces us to connect with them, heightening the emotion considerably.

For all the filmmaking nous on display – and on a technical level Patriots Day is an extraordinarily well made work – there are serious tonal problems as Berg and his team struggle to reconcile the demands of the meticulous real-life drama the film really wants to be, the action thriller Berg is clearly more comfortable staging, and that particularly American brand of patriotism (or even jingoism, if you’re feeling uncharitable) that runs through all of the director’s recent output. There are a number of moments when the truth of the moment presented is punctured by an on-the-nose line, such as a uniformed cop shouting, “Welcome to Watertown, motherfucker!” during the climactic shoot out. At others, we get a shot of fluttering stars and bars that lingers a little too long, or a demonstration of intense patriotic pride that verges on the uncomfortable. To a non-American viewer these things are jarring; it’s interesting to speculate if they are so woven into the fabric of US society as to be invisible, or at least unremarkable, to an American viewer.

There are also numerous departures from the recorded facts of the case, but perhaps that’s allowable – this is not a documentary after all, and the broad strokes of what is depicted hold up. The emotional impact of what we see on the screen is unimpeachable, but still it’s hard to shake the feeling that there is a better, more nuanced, and graceful way to tell this story. Patriots Day‘s faults never sink it, but what we’ve got here is a very good film, when it should have been a great one.