Category Archives: Action/Adventure

Atomic Blonde (2017, David Leitch)

Far more often than not, Atomic Blonde is not more than it is. Atomic Blonde is not a “realistic” late eighties spy thriller à la Graham Greene or even John le Carré (see, I can do nineties “New Yorker” levels of extra too). It’s not a James Bond movie with a female lead (Charlize Theron). It’s not a great part for Theron. It might be a great role–Blonde’s got its problems but none hurt the idea of a sequel for Theron. In fact, if it weren’t filled with so many twists and turns–which is, unfortunately, what Atomic Blonde is, what it wants endeavors to be—full of twists and turns. Because Blonde really doesn’t care about logic, it cares about effect. I was going to say impact and effect but… actually, not so much impact. Because Blonde also isn’t some amazing all-out action picture with Theron kicking ass for a hundred minutes set to an amazing eighties soundtrack. There’s some Theron kicking ass, there’s some excellent action, there’s some… great songs… adequately applied, but all of those successes are extremely qualified.

First—Theron. Who is in every scene save a handful and the action is centered around her. She’s a British spy going to West Berlin to get a master list of spies out of East Berlin before the wall falls or the Soviets find it. Now, maybe biggest logic problem in the movie? Who made the stupid list. See, there’s the super-secret double agent who is doing terrible damage. Double agent British and Soviet, so originally a British spy, but then turned to the Soviets. The movie takes a while to introduce that detail—originally Theron just thinks the list is about not outing all the other spies, she’s not even aware of the double agent until the action in the movie takes place. Also there’s a dead ex-lover in Berlin. There’s a lot. And Blonde does a good job establishing it. The first act is incredibly solid. But once it becomes clear it’s not going to do anything particularly interesting with Theron or anyone else… it gets a little tedious. Even the action, which isn’t good.

See, Blonde increases the spans without action as the film progresses. Less action overall, longer action scenes. Sometimes it’s a car chase all in a “continuous” shot, sometimes it’s a fistfight. Actually, in the case of the car chase, it’s the fistfight then the car chase. It’s a whole lot. Atomic Blonde can be a lot, but never quite the right a lot. Where to gets going in the third act, with all the reveals and consequences of twists… there’s enough material it could’ve been a much better part for Theron. If it had been more Graham Green or John le Carré. Or if it had been less. If it had just been the action, the endurance aspect would’ve been awesome for Theron. The in-between doesn’t leave her much in the end. Potential for a better written sequel, which isn’t great.

It would also help if James McAvoy weren’t so bland. He’s the British West Berlin station chief and he’s “gone native,” or so spymaster Toby Jones worries, which immediately makes McAvoy suspicious re: the double agent to the audience and Theron and even Bond girl French spy Sofia Boutella, but not Jones or big boss James Faulkner or, seemingly, anyone in Berlin. Maybe it’s bad exposition on the double agent thing. Blonde sometimes rushes exposition—it leverages the direction, the photography (Jonathan Sela), Elísabet Ronaldsdóttir’s excellent but underutilized editing, and lead Theron being cool to get over the pesky details. Blonde avoids the details of the twists and turns to get the effect. Hence the aforementioned lack of impact.

Anyway.

Director Leitch doesn’t care enough about the soundtrack—and, I’ve been wanting Til Tuesday’s “Voices Carry” in an action movie since the late nineties and it’s finally in one and it’s in a very problematic sequence involving Bond girl Boutella. They do a really weird job of establishing Boutella in the film—including via a Blow Out homage—and she’s one of the film’s biggest misses. Biggest miss? James McAvoy. He’s got less heft as a Berlin spy in the late eighties than Til Schweiger, who’s in three thirty second scenes, with no close-ups, always sitting down. Theron carries McAvoy through their scenes, which isn’t easy because she doesn’t get a lot of lines opposite him. She does with some of the other characters, but McAvoy’s supposed to be dominating their scenes and Theron literally has to hold it up with silent energy. McAvoy’s exhausting. And he never pays off, even in a little, in performance or script. The latter isn’t the bigger problem but it never giving McAvoy anything good, even at the end… eh.

McAvoy being so bland hurts the rest of the cast. John Goodman being bland in a much smaller role, an extended cameo maybe—he’d be able to get away with it if it were’t for McAvoy. Even Jones, who does an entirely serviceable job… it’d be nice if he had some personality. Faulkner’s good though. Eddie Marsan’s good enough. Roland Møller and Bill Skarsgård are both fine and likable, but there’s not much for them to actually do.

As a “Charlize Theron, action hero” vehicle, Atomic Blonde’s solid enough. But it’s not Atomic or Blonde and doesn’t even really try to be. It’s perfunctory.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by David Leitch; screenplay by Kurt Johnstad, based on a graphic novel by Antony Johnston and Sam Hart; director of photography, Jonathan Sela; edited by Elísabet Ronaldsdóttir; music by Tyler Bates; production designer, David Scheunemann; costume designer, Cindy Evans; produced by A.J. Dix, Eric Gitter, Beth Kono, Kelly McCormick, Peter Schwerin, and Charlize Theron; released by Focus Features.

Starring Charlize Theron (Lorraine Broughton), James McAvoy (David Percival), Eddie Marsan (Spyglass), Sofia Boutella (Delphine Lasalle), Roland Møller (Aleksander Bremovych), Toby Jones (Eric Gray), James Faulkner (Chief ‘C’), John Goodman (Emmett Kurzfeld), Bill Skarsgård (Merkel), and Til Schweiger (Watchmaker).


Hobbs & Shaw (2019, David Leitch)

Hobbs & Shaw is a tad too aware of how little it needs to try to succeed. Like it knows it doesn't just have Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, it's got him giving a downright good performance in an energy drink version of a James Bond movie. Sure, Jason Statham–Shaw to Johnson’s Hobbs—doesn’t really work out, but Vanessa Kirby makes up for him as his fugitive secret agent sister. Rounding out the leads is Idris Elba as the villain. He’s basically a Bond henchman but well-acted (one wonders how Elba kept a straight face during some of the exposition); he’s got an unseen boss with an electronically disguised voice so they can wait for the sequel to cast him. So Elba’s stuff when he’s talking to the unseen Big Bad is silly but Elba still keeps it going. If Statham were better and the script weren’t insipid, the movie might have more of a chance. And if the second act weren’t such a slog.

But the first act and the third are really solid, mostly because of Kirby in the third and Johnson in the first. Despite being a Fast and Furious spin-off, the movie’s got no attachment to its parent franchise other than Johnson, Statham, Johnson having a kid (Eliana Sua), and Statham having a criminal Helen Mirren for a mum. Mirren’s got a fine cameo, but given how much she’s holding Statham up for it, it should’ve been a sign he was going to run out of energy. But he actually never gets it. Kirby’s got it, Johnson’s got it, Elba’s got it. But not Statham. He never does anything wrong in a scene, but he never tries either. The scenes where he and Johnson banter back and forth, Johnson’s carrying Statham and the scene. Same goes for Kirby. Maybe they cut out Statham’s subplot because the movie’s already two hours and seventeen minutes and it’s incredibly bloated in the second act.

Or maybe Statham just isn’t enthusiastic enough for the movie. Hobbs & Shaw, in general, confuses bombast for enthusiasm. Statham has neither. Johnson’s got enough to share, so it works out.

There are also the silly cameos, which are funnier than they ought to be because their inclusion is so desperate. Because the biggest one is for Johnson, who doesn’t need the help; unless the Helen Mirren scene with Statham is supposed to count but it doesn’t. For a movie with endless exposition, somehow Hobbs & Shaw is always missing the right exposition. Instead it’s nonsense about cyborg supermen, human evolution, and programmable viruses. It’s cartoon blather but the film knows it doesn’t have to do better because Johnson’s charming and is about to have a decent action sequence—albeit one with lousy digital background composites, a problem plaguing the film and its action—so it doesn’t try. It doesn’t make Statham do better, it doesn’t worry about the messy second act.

It’s not wrong about it’s ability to land the proverbial plane despite the turbulence. The film finds a way to get sillier but also more human, becoming cartoonish in a good way, and the third act is good. The sequel set up is obnoxious but as long as Kirby’s back, it’d be worth it.

Also perfectly good in the supporting cast are Eddie Marsan and Cliff Curtis. Marsan’s a little rocky at the start, but he finds the film’s rhythm. Curtis is so sturdy you wish he’d had a bigger part.

Hobbs & Shaw is stupid, fun, and funny. The soundtrack is loud and omnipresent—including a full song montage presumably for the artist placement—and never seems like the track complimenting the action is as important as the track getting used. The film’s also big on production placement, McLaren underwrites Statham’s garage of sports cars while Elba’s cybernetically-linked (it’s a cartoon, just go with it) Triumph motorcycles gets a lot of screen time.

It ought to be better, it’s not as good as it should be, but it makes clear it could’ve been worse. Johnson, Elba, and especially Kirby make it work.

1/4

CREDITS

Directed by David Leitch; screenplay by Chris Morgan and Drew Pearce, based on a story by Morgan; director of photography, Jonathan Sela; edited by Christopher Rouse; music by Tyler Bates; production designer, David Scheunemann; produced by Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, Hiram Garcia, and Morgan; released by Universal Pictures.

Starring Dwayne Johnson (Hobbs), Jason Statham (Shaw), Idris Elba (Brixton), Vanessa Kirby (Hattie), Helen Mirren (Queenie), Eddie Marsan (Professor Andreiko), Eliana Sua (Sam), Cliff Curtis (Jonah), and Lori Pelenise Tuisano (Sefina).


Blade (1998, Stephen Norrington)

Back when the movie came out—on DVD, anyway—I tried watching Blade 1 a couple times. The first time I turned it off before I was twenty minutes in, which used to be a soft rule (give the movie twenty minutes, depending on runtime); I think I gave it until Stephen Dorff showed up, then had to stop. Stopping when you see Stephen Dorff is always a reasonable action. The second time I with a friend (because a Blade buddy might help me get through it?); we put it on, I promptly passed out. The funny thing about the latter attempt was I passed out before I had stopped it, though I think I woke up for some of the end… but maybe not. I didn’t know Blade had a bad Raiders of the Lost Ark rip for an ending.

The first failed attempt was during the controversial—amongst my film enthusiast friends—“you don’t stop a movie if you start it” period of nineties film snobbery. That period overlaps, possibly entirely, with the “sit through the end credits to show respect for the crew” period of nineties film snobbery. These periods weren’t me solo, in fact I picked up at least the latter from my film snob peers. The former seemed like common sense, but is, of course, the anthesis of common sense. The second failed Blade attempt—I mean, I was also blasted—was during in a different period; “why bother watching if you’re not learning anything from it.” That period didn’t just cover film, it was for all media ingestion. Why read a novel if it’s not going to teach you (specifically) anything applicable for your writing craft. That third period went the longest, well into when I started blogging about film here on “The Stop Button.” While I see that third period as an organic result of the first two, along with some seasoning from academe, my film snob pals never went for it. Somehow it was too far a leap.

And I’ve also given it the boot, slowly over time, as I discovered how I wanted to write about movies.

In some cases, it’s spending three hundred words talking about not watching the movie. And Blade is the perfect subject matter for that approach. Because Blade is not a good movie. I toyed with the idea, after all these years, of how crazy it would be to give Blade a star. But anything good about it is incidental. Director Norrington just couldn’t manage to make it terrible because he was distracted screwing something else up. The film also has a stunningly bad script from David S. Goyer. Between the godawful exposition (Kris Kristofferson gets a lot of it and can’t do any of it) and the quizzical plotting—when the Raiders of the Lost Ark thing takes over in the second half, along with the big second act surprise, Blade feels like a very different film. Sort of. It’s still ugly in all the ill-advised ways Norrington employs, like the harsh, high often contrast lighting (courtesy Theo van de Sande, who either’s responsible or not but I wouldn’t want to track his career either way) or the crappy CG. Blade is ostensibly super-gritty but only when it’s Wesley Snipes. The nineties emo vampire stuff is never super-gritty. Norrington’s understanding of super-gritty is occasional shaky cam and inept head room and letting editor Paul Rubell chop whole seconds of action out to make it seem speedy. Every once in a while, there will be a sequence—like Snipes with his samurai sword taking out an endless stream of vampires dressed like they’re Joker thugs from Batman ’89—and you can see exactly how Norrington could’ve done it well. Because pretty soon it would be done well. Blade anticipates the visual tone of future films but none of the future style or technical ingenuity. Because Norrington sucks.

Someone also got the idea to have Mark Isham score it like John Williams, which doesn’t make sense until the end when it’s Raiders; for a while the movie pretends it’s Terminator 2—Snipes and partner Kristofferson hanging out with on-the-run-from-the-vampires hematologist N'Bushe Wright in their clubhouse; those scenes are really weird with the Isham score. Goyer’s script isn’t derivative and is bad. Norrington’s direction isn’t ever not derivative and is bad. It’s incredibly interesting how the two collide.

Stuck in the middle are Snipes and Wright. Blade can’t help but give Wright a great role and Goyer and Norrington can’t help but try to destroy it. Norrington’s got some… toxic masculinity issues. Or maybe just rape culture ones. It’s a couple things, with Wright being on the receiving end later (courtesy “no way” ex-boyfriend Tim Guinee), but the first one is Norrington’s onscreen director title card. It’s a gross “really, dude?”

Wright comes out very sympathetic, but she’s a lot better at the urban vampire action than the pseudo-Raiders thing. Some of the problem with the Raiders thing is Norrington’s bad visual storytelling, some of it is Goyer not giving Wright enough to do; if any of it’s Wright’s fault, you basically can’t tell. Goyer and Norrington give their separate badnesses 110%. You can barely make-out the acting through it.

Well, except with Dorff, who’s hilariously bad, Donal Logue, who’s hilariously bad, Udo Kier, who’s hilariously bad but also very obviously just playing a caricature and not trying… every once in a while, you get the feeling Blade could’ve been a lot better if it just let itself camp out on the shitty vampires. Wesley Snipes killing a bunch of silly, shitty white vampires would be a fun movie. Especially if Norrington had long enough shots of Snipes kicking ass. Snipes gives his physical performance his all in Blade and Norrington picks up about twenty percent of it. Other times the camera will be focused on a pillar instead of Snipes doing a jump kick or whatnot. Norrington is a stunningly bad action director, even for bad action directors.

Other bad performances include Arly Jover, who at one point seems like she’s going to give a good performance but then doesn’t. Sanaa Latham is actually good, which takes a few moments to comprehend–unqualified good acting in Blade.

For Snipes, it’s a good lead role. Ish. There’s not a lot of heavy lifting, his occasional personable action hero insert shots are weird, but he gets through it. He and Wright have less chemistry than… I don’t know, Kristofferson and Wright or something. It’s unfortunate and another way the filmmakers fail Wright.

I’m a little curious how the Isham score stands on its own—at one point he’s got to add all the tension to an action sequence because Norrington can’t figure it out–but otherwise, Blade doesn’t have much one could learn from it. Outside the contextual trivia.

It’s nowhere near as bad (or good) as it could be, which is the biggest disappointment of all.

It’s eh.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Directed by Stephen Norrington; screenplay by David S. Goyer, based on the Marvel Comics character created by Marv Wolfman and Gene Colan; director of photography, Theo van de Sande; edited by Paul Rubell; music by Mark Isham; production designer, Kirk M. Petruccelli; produced by Robert Engelman, Peter Frankfurt, and Wesley Snipes; released by New Line Cinema.

Starring Wesley Snipes (Blade), Stephen Dorff (Deacon Frost), Kris Kristofferson (Whistler), N’Bushe Wright (Karen), Donal Logue (Quinn), Arly Jover (Mercury), Tim Guinee (Curtis), Sanaa Lathan (Vanessa), and Udo Kier (Dragonetti).


Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure (1959, John Guillermin)

Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure is a fairly solid action thriller. Tarzan (genial, musclebound Gordon Scott) is hunting nemesis Anthony Quayle through the jungle. The movie opens with Quayle and his crew robbing an African settlement. They’re after the dynamite but they end up killing a couple people. They’re also in blackface, which would just be a dated oddity if you didn’t realize they were in blackface until one of them is deliberating the fate of an actual Black person, a sick African child. It’s this really weird moment in the film and it’s the first really memorable sequence. Greatest Adventure seems a little different from the start.

So the gang. Sean Connery is the cocky, rough and tumble one, Niall MacGinnis is the nerdy Dutch one (he’s the diamond guy—turns out it’s all about diamonds), Al Mulock is the secretive boat driver, Scilla Gabel is Quayle’s woman. Connery and Gabel are flirty but it’s never a thing for Quayle because Quayle’s so secure. Connery worships him, MacGinnis is terrified of him, and Mulock respects him. Because Quayle and Mulock are the older guys who aren’t shifty Dutchmen or cocky heartthrobs, they’ve got the experience. Half of Greatest Adventure is this “after the heist” movie, just set in Africa on a questionable boat. There are certain exterior shots where the boat looks really fake. And I think always when it’s on a set. And now I guess I better just get the set-talk over with.

Greatest Adventure has profound production deficiencies. Director Guillermin and cinematographer Edward Scaife are mixing location shots from two obviously different locations—usually with a jump cut courtesy Bert Rule—but Guillermin and Scaife also have some set shots, then some projection composites, then stock African safari footage. And then Rule’s jump cuts. And Guillermin’s composition. He’s so close on it, every time. The way he shoots leading lady Sara Shane ruins her performance. Well, okay, Rule’s cutting probably hurts it worse, but Guillermin has a very strange way of shooting Scott and Shane—like he doesn’t trust them with the scene, and then when they succeed (occasionally with qualifications, yes, but still success), Guillermin doesn’t acknowledge it. Scott and Shane have this relatively effective love affair in this tense experience. Because Shane didn’t mean to tag along with Scott, she just wanted to be a jerk to him—Shane’s a model but mostly just a special friend to a very rich guy. The characterization of Shane and Gabel—their character setup—is not great. But Gabel and Shane get caught up in the events—Scott hunting Quayle, Quayle deciding to hunt him right back—and both women start their own character arcs, totally separate from the boys.

It’s cool. Even with all the issues.

Scott’s fine. Well, until the end when he needs to carry the movie, even for a moment and he can’t, but he’s fine. Even with the goofy dialogue. He’s got very goofy dialogue to show he’s Tarzan and not some regular dude. Formal but grammatically incorrect or something. But it’s all about Quayle. Quayle gives a truly superb performance. He gets to Ahab out, he gets to bare his soul, he gets to handle the mundane personality conflicts between his crew, he gets to have this weird but sincere romance with Gabel. Quayle takes the role as written and adds all sorts of depth to it. Guillermin helps a lot with adding texture—with the bad guys, anyway—but it seems like Quayle’s out there on his own and Guillermin is just getting to watch like the rest of us. It’s a great villain performance. And rather grounded, especially considering it’s Tarzan’s Greatest Adventure.

It gets good for a long while, then the end fumbles. Badly.

But Guillermin tries a lot and some of it succeeds. Quayle’s legitimately fantastic performance, for example.

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by John Guillermin; screenplay by Berne Giler and Guillermin, based on a story by Les Crutchfield and characters created by Edgar Rice Burroughs; director of photography, Edward Scaife; edited by Bert Rule; music by Douglas Gamley; produced by Sy Weintraub; released by Paramount Pictures.

Starring Gordon Scott (Tarzan), Anthony Quayle (Slade), Sara Shane (Angie), Niall MacGinnis (Kruger), Sean Connery (O’Bannion), Al Mulock (Dino), and Scilla Gabel (Toni).