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Zombieland director Ruben Fleischer’s Gangster Squad is a fairly derivative take on Brian De Palma’s The Untouchables: in this 2013 film 1940s Los Angeles takes the place of 1920s Chicago, and there are similarities between the two stories, both based on real life events, both involving honest cops tasked with taking down a well-connected and ruthless mobster with the help of a team of spirited misfits. I suppose one can hardly blame the younger, more inexperienced director for sticking rigidly to the same formula successfully employed by de Palma in the 1980s, but sadly, in almost every area in which the two films can be compared, Fleischer’s effort comes off as second best. To begin with, Sean Penn’s one-note crime boss Mickey Cohen is as boring as villains come, and the actor struggles to make anything like the same kind of impact that Robert de Niro delivered with his over-the-top and hugely enjoyable turn as Al Capone, though Cohen does at least exhibit some of Capone’s flair for inventing elaborate or unusual deaths for his underworld enemies. Josh Brolin, meanwhile, is this film’s noble Eliot Ness-alike, John O’Mara; a family man looking to do good, he narrows his eyes and stares off into the middle distance a lot while considering all the moral implications thrown up by his work, which involves disrupting Cohen’s empire by any means necessary. The team of incorruptibles working under O’Mara (played by Ryan Gosling, Anthony Mackie, Giovanni Ribisi, Robert Patrick and Michael Peña) have been given precisely one skill or personality trait each, and they wander round dutifully in the shadow of their leader, each waiting to step out into the limelight for his own brief heroic moment. Gosling’s the only supporting actor who gets an ample amount of screen time, but he’s unwilling to break out of his quiet, cool enigma thing here, and as a result you know as much about his character at the end of the film as you do when he first appears.

Will Beall’s script, meanwhile, is full of clichéd, self-important cop phrases about ‘the honour of men who carry the badge’ and the like, and it contains a dispiriting emphasis on male barking and growling; at one point Brolin sets out the stakes by gruffly telling his men ‘you lose everything and you win the war – you’re a hero. You lose everything and you lose the war – you’re just a fool’ and, rather weirdly, no-one either laughs in his face or calls him a preposterous, overblown c*** afterwards. In fact there is a huge amount of macho, guttural man rumbling in this film. Both Brolin and Penn sound as if they’ve been getting through three packs of Marlboros before their daily morning muesli and yoga sessions, though they are like high-pitched choirboys next to the mighty Nick Nolte, who appears here in a supporting role as a man who has apparently lived a thousand lives with just the one set of vocal chords. Still, despite a lack of originality and all of the assembled masculine posturing Gangster Squad isn’t dreadful, and there’s some impressive noirish production design and costume design to enjoy. Unfortunately there are several dull patches, and Fleischer seemingly can’t break free of them; the action here – which ought to lift the film and make it more entertaining – lacks the flair and imagination that made the set pieces in De Palma’s earlier film so watchable and so enjoyable. Poor old Emma Stone tries to make the best of one of the film’s two token and completely under-written female roles (she’s Cohen’s squeeze, later shacking up with Gosling’s charmer Jerry Wooters), but the director seems to give up on her after a while to concentrate on the throaty man growls. These continue all the way through the film and into its risible epilogue, in which there’s even more self-important talk of honour and cops and cop honour and honourable cops and the honour of cops and how cops are honourable. Meh.

Directed by: Ruben Fleischer.
Written by: Matt Sazama, Burk Sharpless.
Starring: Josh Brolin, Ryan Gosling, Sean Penn, Emma Stone, Anthony Mackie, Giovanni Ribisi, Robert Patrick, Michael Peña, Mireille Enos, Sullivan Stapleton.
Cinematography: Dion Beebe.
Editing: Alan Baumgarten, James Herbert.
Music:
Steve Jablonsky.
Certificate:
15.
Running Time:
113 minutes.
Year:
2013.

4 Comments

[I’m aware that this film hasn’t been released in some countries yet, so I’ve tried to keep this review spoiler-free.]

Let’s hope Zack Snyder’s watching, as this is a superhero film that successfully manages to balance its well-thought out action sequences with weightier concerns. Captain America: Civil War contains all the balletic, multi-hero set pieces you’re probably expecting (including the one teased by the trailer), and it also pays heed to the political and moral ramifications that arise when modern comic book heroes smash buildings, cities and imaginary states to smithereens (thereby killing thousands of imaginary, innocent people along the way). It’s a post-Man Of Steel, post-The Avengers none-more-2016 fad, I guess, and as with Snyder’s recent Batman v Superman: Dawn Of Justice the principal question asked here is whether anyone should be watching the watchmen. As such Civil War‘s superheroes argue and fall out, with some strongly believing that their hero cabal should continue to self-regulate and others feeling that submitting to NATO control is the way forward. Yet where Snyder’s film floundered as it tied itself up in knots while addressing similar issues, this blockbuster by Joe and Anthony Russo – who also directed 2014’s entertaining Captain America: The Winter Soldier – tackles the political and moral side of things in a light, uncomplicated fashion, and by doing so it doesn’t allow any portentous soul-searching or hand-wringing to overtake the main aim of the film, which is to entertain as wide an audience as possible. The conflicting opinions of the characters central to this story are set out clearly and concisely, but ultimately the Russo brothers have recognised that Civil War is…y’know…for kids (of all ages). And the fact is the majority of kids (of all ages) want to see Robert Downey, Jr’s Iron Man and Chris Evans’ Captain America batter the living daylights out of one another.

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Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen) gets busy

Evans and Downey, Jr are the clear stars here, but as both actors have appeared in so many films as their two characters it seems pointless to discuss the performance of either actor. I suppose at the very least I should say they are consistent with earlier turns, and that I’ve gradually warmed to Evans’ portrayal of the world’s most earnest, uptight man. There are several returning characters, too, with those currently without their own standalone movies (played by Don Cheadle, Paul Bettany, Elizabeth Olsen, Jeremy Renner, Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan and Anthony Mackie) all benefitting from the extra screen time. Needless to say anyone watching this who hasn’t seen any of the previous Avengers or Avengers-related films will be irrevocably lost. And as the trailers revealed, the film introduces two further additions to the ever-expanding Marvel Cinematic Universe, with Tom Holland’s fresh-faced Spider-Man amusing far more than he irritates and Chadwick Boseman’s Black Panther making an equally-strong impact. Given the sheer number of characters that appear the pre-release concern from some quarters was that the Russos would not be able to do justice to all of them, but somewhat triumphantly the film never seems overstuffed, and only a couple are given short shrift. (I guess the longer-than-average running time helps in that respect.) Paul Rudd’s Ant-Man is one; in the space of 15 minutes he threatens to steal the film from his more illustrious co-stars, a fact that the Russos seem to have taken into account, as he doesn’t get too much screen time after an initial cameo. You’re left wanting to see more of Rudd and his character, which I guess is a good thing. Lastly, Daniel Brühl is perfunctory as the scheming (Baron) Helmut Zemo, a Marvel comic villain who will probably be unfamiliar to most viewers, but he’s slightly more interesting than many that we’ve seen in this series of films to date.

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Black Panther (Chadwick Boseman) in Captain America: Civil War

But really we’re not here to see villains, or their dingy underground bunkers, where they seem to do little other than inject musclemen and women with brightly-coloured liquids. We’re here to see superheroes blast and kick and punch and chase and swoop down on one another, and Captain America: Civil War builds up to the kind of spectacular free-for-all that was popularised by expansive crossover Marvel titles such as Secret Wars (though Civil War itself has been very loosely adapted from Mark Millar’s similarly-named comic). The majority of superhero movie fans will sit through this six-on-six dust-up with a smile on their face, and to the credit of the directors it’s not at all chaotic, or difficult to follow the action. The exchanges and mini-scraps that occur within the larger pitched battle are filled with zingers, surprises and even compassionate, friendly exchanges between former colleagues who have temporarily taken opposite sides, though it’s the central fight between Iron Man and Captain America that packs the biggest punches, and which seems laced with the greatest animosity.

I’ve moaned about superhero movie fatigue on this blog – though I’ve also repeatedly admitted that it’s not as if anyone’s holding a gun to my head and forcing me to watch these films – but the fact is there have been a few releases that have seemed completely unnecessary or poorly written – Thor 2, Iron Man 3, for example – and I still dislike the feeling that I’m on a cinematic treadmill: one thing these films do – Civil War included – is hit the same notes over and over again, for better or for worse. There have been a few breath-of-fresh-air exceptions (Ant-Man, Guardians Of The Galaxy), but it’s the Russos who have made the two best recent installments of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Here they’ve cranked out a multi-hero film that’s a lot of fun, if utterly silly, and I genuinely feel sorry for anyone non-plussed by the experience. Look, ultimately it’s just another Marvel film, and by this stage you probably know what’s in store, but it’s a blast nonetheless and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Directed by: Joe Russo, Anthony Russo.
Written by: Christopher Markus, Steven McFeely.
Starring: Chris Evans, Robert Downey, Jr, Scarlett Johansson, Sebastian Stan, Daniel Brühl, Chadwick Boseman, Anthony Mackie, Don Cheadle, Elizabeth Olsen, Paul Bettany, Jeremy Renner, Paul Rudd, Tom Holland, Emily VanCamp, William Hurt, Martin Freeman.
Cinematography: Trent Opaloch.
Editing: Jeffrey Ford, Matthew Schmidt.
Music: Henry Jackman.
Certificate: 12A.
Running Time: 147 minutes.
Year: 2016.

7 Comments

John Hillcoat’s Triple 9 is one of those cops-versus-robbers thrillers that invites the application of adjectives like taut, or muscular. And it’s apt that those words are normally associated with the human body: this is the kind of film that requires its actors to act tough and look tough, so it’s jam-packed with stars who have clearly been working out at the gymif you were to sniff the screen at any point you’d probably OD on testosterone. All the men here sweat profusely as they do their Man Things, such as loading weapons, robbing banks, shooting other people, grimacing, chasing other men with guns, driving really fast and telling each other to SHUT THE FUCK UP. Then, to remind you that deep down some of them are actually sensitive human beings, and that we should care about their fate, Hillcoat ensures that we see a couple of wives being kissed or the affectionate ruffling of a child’s mop top.

Sadly the film never quite manages to wriggle out from underneath a suffocating blanket of cops-versus-robbers-muscular-taut-thriller clichés. It’s partly about a group of bent cops and ex-military badasses who are performing artfully-planned robberies in Atlanta at the behest of Kate Winslet’s ruthless Russian Mafia boss. As soon as you meet the group you can guess what their fates will be: there’s the leader (Chiwetel Ejiofor) who doesn’t trust a couple of other members of the gang; his loyal right-hand man (Norman Reedus), whose status marks him out as dead meat from the off; the wild one whose mouth is going to get them into trouble (Aaron Paul); a conflicted detective (Anthony Mackie); and a very unconflicted, cold-hearted detective (Clifton Collins, Jr) who is bound to sell everyone down the Chattahoochee at some point. It’s also partly about an honest cop (Casey Affleck) who gets caught up in their plans to steal some kind of MacGuffin or other from a secure facility: the gang’s aim is to create a ‘Triple 9’ diversion in the city by killing Affleck’s cocky detective Chris Allen, thus drawing most of the city’s police force to the scene, and allowing the gang extra time to carry out their theft elsewhere.

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Kate Winslet and Chiwetel Ejiofor in Triple 9

As you can see the chief selling point of the film is the ensemble cast; in addition to those mentioned above Woody Harrelson has a fairly sizeable role as Allen’s coke-snorting, weed-smoking uncle, who also happens to be the baggy-suited Sgt. Detective trailing the bank robbers (you have to regularly ignore such unlikely coincidences during Triple 9). Gal Gadot – at the beginning of a month that will presumably change her life forever, regardless of earlier success and achievement – has a small role as Ejiofor’s girlfriend, who is also the mother of his child and the sister of Winslet’s icy Irina Vaslov. Michael K. Williams and Teresa Palmer also get a scene or two, with Williams’ transvestite informant accessorising with a small dog that has been dyed pink (poor thing). In fact the cast is pretty good, and although we’ve seen many of these characters and scenarios before – Heat and The Town spring to mind – these stars show enough committment to the shouting and grimacing and running and shooting to make Triple 9 work. In particular both Harrelson and Winslet are fun to watch, playing completely over-the-top characters that allow both actors to partake in welcome bouts of scenery-chewing. Of the two, Winslet wisely exercises a little more restraint, while Harrelson can’t help himself.

The action is also of a good standard. An early robbery and getaway attempt via the city’s busy freeway can’t quite match the tension of Heat‘s street shootout or Sicario‘s gripping traffic jam scene, but two later claustrophobic sequences set in housing projects more than make up for it, and allow Mackie and Affleck further opportunites to sweat and practice their grimaces. These are well-handled by the director and his cinematographer, who put you in the middle of proceedings by employing hand-held cameras and shooting in close proximity to the actors. It’s a little disorienting at times, as hand-held camera footage tends to be in action films, but I can’t deny that the overall effect works well. So, given there are edge-of-your-seat sequences and the performances are on the money it’s a shame that Triple 9 is let down by an unremarkable industrial score and an unimaginative screenplay. There’s a bulbous mass of familiar material: as good as the action sequences are, the build up to each one is disappointing, and there’s little original about the numerous scenes set in police stations, the pavement confrontations with Hispanic gangs or the criminals relaxing in strip clubs before their big job. What makes this doubly frustrating is the fact that Triple 9 almost succeeds. Almost. Hillcoat is on the right path, his actors are on board, and I felt sufficiently entertained by the end, but ultimately the film fails to wriggle completely free of the cop action movie pack.

Directed by: John Hillcoat.
Written by: Matt Cook.
Starring: Casey Affleck, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Anthony Mackie, Aaron Paul, Kate Winslet, Woody Harrelson, Clifton Collins, Jr, Norman Reedus, Teresa Palmer, Gal Gadot, Luis Da Silva, Michael K. Williams.
Cinematography: Nicolas Karakatsanis.
Editing: Dylan Tichenor.
Music:
Atticus Ross, Bobby Krlic, Leopold Ross, Claudia Sarne.
Certificate:
15.
Running Time:
115 minutes.
Year:
2016.

9 Comments