Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Risky Flicks: Jurassic World



Jurassic World (2015)
Dir. Colin Trevorrow
Written by Rick Jaffa & Amanda Silver and Colin Trevorrow and Derek Connelly, and, I suspect, about a dozen other people.
Starring Chris Pratt, Bryce Dallas Howard, Ty Simpkins, Nick Robinson, Irrfan Khan, Vincent D’Onofrio, B.D. Wong, Omar Sy, Jake Johnson




The challenge: 22 years after the beloved original, 14 years after the last sequel, some imaginative studio suits remembered that, “Hey, ‘Jurassic Park’ is a thing that used to exist, and retains strong name recognition among the lucrative 18-35 male demographic.” Thus artistically inspired, they set a course for sequel-town.


What’s the risk?
  • $150 million bucks of studio money handed over to novice 30-something director of one previous feature, a cutesy indie comedy called SAFETY NOT GUARANTEED which cost less than 1/150th of JW’s budget. In other words, they wanted someone in the supposed “directors” chair who was well aware that the studio owned his sorry ass and wasn’t going to try and sneak anything interesting or unexpected in there.
  • At least four credited screenwriters, probably plenty more where those came from.
  • The clip they released before the premiere is literally, with no exaggeration, one of the most uncomfortably incompetent scenes from a major film since Qui-Gon tried to explain what midichlorians are. Pratt and Howard both seem stiff, awkward and uncomfortable with the hilariously regressive casual sexism, the rhythm is all off for any of the supposed “comedy” to land, the camera is all over the place, the music is aggressively whimsical… it’s just a terrific mess on every imaginable level.
  • Cameos from both Jimmy Buffett and Jimmy Fallon, my two least favorite Jimmys. That anyone in the creative process thought this would be a plus for the movie is a dangerous indicator of the levels of taste that went into this.
Possible Mitigating Factors:
  • One word, my friend: Dinosaur.
  • I dunno, it’s nice to see Irrfan Khan and Vincent D’Onofrio in a huge Hollywood movie, I guess.


The Case:
Looking back, this should have been obvious. I mean, look at that list of risks -- those four bullet points alone should have been enough to make it clear how this was going to end, and I actually deleted a few others because I didn’t want to show all my cards right at the start of this review.  But somehow I didn’t really put the pieces together beforehand. I think it was mostly that I wasn’t thinking much about this one at all until it kind of lurched into the cinemas, of course. But if I’ve got to be really honest, it was probably a little more than that. I think --like virtually everyone my age-- I have so much nostalgic affection for the original movie that even two disastrously incompetent sequels later, my pessimistic imagination was still a little blunted in regards to how bad this thing could potentially be. But man, it’s bad. It’s a mess, certainly the most openly incompetent big-ticket movie since at least AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2, and maybe even further back. And bear in mind that virtually all big-ticket items these days are at least somewhat incompetent, sagging and beleaguered with directionless bloat slapped on by megalomaniac studio execs fighting each other for control, wandering plot threads left over from previous script drafts, and shameless franchise servicing in the hopes of spinning off ever more money in the future. It’s widely accepted these days that to even see a movie that costs over 100 mil simply performing the feat of telling a basic story with a clear objective and discernable character arcs is something of a miraculous accomplishment. And JURASSIC WORLD is startlingly shoddy even by those pitiably low standards.


The fundamental problem, of course, is that --just like the movie’s central villain, the lab-created genetic hybrid dinosaur awkwardly christened Indominus rex-- this movie was created for all the wrong reasons by a committee of people with nakedly self-serving motives and no ability or interest in distinguishing between pandering knockoffs and the real thing. To its credit, it knows that. But to its massive and unforgivable detriment, it decides that instead of trying to actually create a good reason for it to exist, it’s enough to just shrug its shoulders, admit it’s a shameless money grab, and plug away with all the mechanical enthusiasm of a dead-eyed street hooker on her 9th client of the day. It provides what it says it’s going to provide, but without even the faintest pretense that it cares about this or wants to be here, and, in fact, with a subtle smirking smugness about the very idea that anyone would expect this movie to be good.

You get the feeling the producers spend a lot of time in the bubble.

On paper the setup sounds OK: you got your requisite Spielbergian children of a divorce (Ty Simpkins, IRON MAN 3, Nick Robinson, THE KINGS OF SUMMER), sent on an exciting vacation to a theme park while Mom and Dad hammer out the details of their separation. The idea is that Mom’ sis Claire (Bryce Dallas Howard, “Surprised Who” in HOW THE GRINCH STOLE CHRISTMAS) will take care of them, but it seems like no one really thought this through too well because Claire is a cold, number-crunching career woman who has no time for feelings or family and quickly fobs the kids off on her disaffected millennial assistant with a free all-access pass to the enormous fully-functional Jurassic World themepark. The movie and the kids treat this as roughly tantamount to child murder (no one seems at all sympathetic to the idea that she is the COO of a multi-million dollar business and is having her nephews dropped off while she’s at a high-stakes business meeting), and miss no opportunity, however small, to make sure we know Claire is a frigid beancounter bureaucrat who needs to embrace her womanly instincts for childrearing and doing what men tell her to in order to be happy. Fortunately, ample opportunities for both will be thrust upon her very soon.


Enter Owen Grady (Chris Pratt, 14th-billed in STRANGERS WITH CANDY THE MOVIE), velociraptor trainer and baddest mutherfuck in man’s history. I mean, this guy is just so fucking alpha, it’s unreal. But I assure you, it IS real. In fact, he even refers to himself as the alpha, multiple times. And the movie fawningly backs that up at every possible opportunity. It's almost hilarious how aggressively the movie pushes the (rather unfounded) idea that Pratt's character is just the awesomest guy in the world. I mean, it seems like he can hardly walk into a room without other characters excitedly remarking out loud on how fuckin’s boss he is. Multiple times, characters simply feel compelled to reverently reflect to themselves just how goddamn amazing this Grady guy is. I don't know if I've ever seen a movie so desperate to hype up its male lead. He rides motorcycles! He fixes motorcycles! He's in the military! He's a gun expert! He trains vicious animals! He's old-fashioned but kids love him! Women want him, men want to be him! He's just a simple man but he knows a thing or two these big city folks never will about good old common sense! In one particularly bold moment of insecurity, when he finds that one of the kids has fixed a broken-down jeep to make it run, the movie immediately assures us that he could definitely do that too, if he wanted. I mean, this movie wants this guy’s dick so bad it can’t even see straight. It’s so laughably over-the-top you gotta kinda enjoy it. This dude is one cowboy hat away from being an active parody of pop culture masculinity, and consequently is the only consistently entertaining thing about the whole movie.


Maybe they figured it was necessary to go way overkill on pimping this motherfucker since when you actually get down to it, he accomplishes exactly nothing of value in the movie (he always sounds very confident, but a script this lazy can’t find reasons for danger to occur without making the characters idiots and so gradually you can’t help but notice he ends up being wrong about everything). But I’m thinking the bigger reason is because frankly Chris Pratt is not exactly the name you think of when describing a character as a hyper-macho ex-marine alpha dog. Pratt still has his GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY muscles, but come on, look at that face. Putting a little scruff on some pretty-boy 30-year-old does not a rough, gruff, tough guy make. Pratt does the best he can, and certainly makes the character reasonably likable, but a role this over-the-top really required one of the bulging larger-than-life action stars of the 80s, which they don’t really make anymore, or at least a grizzled character actor with an interesting face. JURASSIC PARK had Bob Peck as Muldoon; LOST WORLD had Pete Postlethwaite as Roland -- Pratt’s Grady is clearly intended to be in this tradition, but come on, I defy even Pratt’s mother to try and claim he’s in the same league as those two. I’m sure the studio demanded a bankable, handsome young action star, but they should have re-written the character if they had to go that route; pretending Pratt is an adequate substitute for Postlewaite is a microcosm of the folly of pretending JURASSIC WORLD is an adequate substitute for JURASSIC PARK. Nobody had to deliver a line of dialogue about how badass Muldoon was for us to get it.

Mano a Mucho Mano.

Anyway, moving on, it turns out the plot (if we dare call this ungainly mess by that name) revolves around said Indominus rex, a genetically engineer abomination cooked up because, we’re told, resurrected dinosaurs are now old news and the suits are worried that kids want something flashier and sexier, a premise which the movie offers as an unabashed metaphor for its own tortured existence. And just like the movie, Indominus is huge, expensive, over-produced, ill-considered, and ultimately kind of a letdown, somehow both too flashy and a pale imitation of the real thing (which the movie finally grudgingly acknowledges when it has no choice but to juxtapose Indominus with Tyrannosaurus in the film’s finale). Just like a big-budget sequel, Indominus is the result of extensive focus-group testing, bureaucratic squabbling, clueless management, and in general too many cooks all squabbling to shout the loudest. The result is that it’s something of a dinosaur supervillain, with numerous genetically-engineered PREDATOR-like superpowers (including, but not limited to, heat-vision, invisibility, body-temperature modulation, and the ability to talk to other dinosaurs) and what can only be defined as a penchant for machiavellian evildoing. I mean, this thing, whatever it is, has some sort of nihilistic desire to ruin themeparks, even when doing so clearly has no biological benefit to it whatsoever.


Even so, it would never have been a problem except that when they casually glance into the cage and can’t immediately see it, they decide it would be a great idea to just fling open the cage door and wander around in there for awhile, just kinda see what’s up. Yeah, it’s that kind of movie. I’m trying not to get nitpicky about the plot here because I consider it kind of lazy criticism --and hey, I, for one, have never shied away from enjoying profoundly stupid entertaining movies-- but man, this movie practically dares you to ignore its freewheeling logical leaps, makes not the slightest gesture towards establishing any kind of credibility. That could be a heady, exciting experience in theory, but in practice JURASSIC WORLD gives you precious few excuses to just roll with the punches and have fun, since there’s surprisingly little actual fun to be had here. And that’s the one truly unforgivable sin a dumb movie can commit. I can deal with dumb; hell, you want a movie like this to be a little dumb. But you want that dumb to be in the service of delivering the maximum amount of fun -- you want it to be a byproduct of a creative team so bursting with awesome ideas that they prefer to throw logic to the wind and indulge all of them. Here, Trevorrow gives little indication that he has much real affection or imagination for the the particulars of dinosaur-driven mayhem.


There are virtually no new ideas in here, almost nothing that hasn’t already been done before in the previous movies. The few new ideas that are presented -- a genetically engineered superdinosaur with magical totally legit scientific powers, a pack of trained velociraptors working with our heroes-- had potential, but despite the promising setup they don’t end up paying off at all. They make a big deal about how the giant Indominus can camouflage itself, for example, and then the one time it happens it’s basically off-camera and never comes up again. Hell, the whole selling premise of the film itself --what if Jurassic Park actually got built, and the dinosaurs really did break loose and start eating the sightseers?-- is shamefully neglected, there’s only one major scene in the entire film which even toys with that idea, the rest of the dinosaur action takes place in the jungle just like every other JP film.The movie’s sole bright spot of dino-action comes from the inclusion of a new predator, the enormous aquatic lizard (not actually a dinosaur) called mosasaurus, who lunges out of the water to grab unsuspecting prey in all three of the movie’s genuinely fun moments. The JURASSIC PARK series has never had a creature with this particular gimmick, and it’s a fun one to see. Other than that, though, every beat from this film is a retread of --if not an out-and-out callback to-- a moment from one of the previous films.

Remember this? From that other movie, except this one has a duller color scheme?

That, I believe, is the ultimate source of the film’s problems, even beyond being a compromised filmmaking-by-committee money grab.  It’s a movie powered and motivated almost exclusively by nostalgia, and like the recent spate of irritating “self-aware” millennialsploitation dreck -- STAR TREK: INTO DARKNESS, KINGSMAN, TERMINATOR GENYSIS, the EXPENDABLES movies-- the movie is less a respectful homage to its famous predecessors than an extensive list of references mechanically checked off one by one in a seedy attempt to coast through entirely on fond memories of better films. Bereft of ideas of its own, and openly contemptuous of the very idea of franchise sequels, the only place left to run is back to the fount, and so Trevorrow shamelessly trots out a parade of the comfortingly familiar. Since the only point is to remind viewers of the much better time they had watching a much better movie, he pays no heed whatsoever to context or to fitting the old into the new in any sort of elegant way -- there’s nothing of substance in the new, after all, so why bother-- resulting in scene after scene of unearned mooning over the icons of yesteryear in a way which borders on the pornographic. Yes, that great John Williams theme is in here, but accompanied by exactly none of the visual awe and bittersweet wonder that made it make sense for the original. Yes, the beloved original park makes an appearance (they apparently abandoned it in the jungle and built another park nearby, because that makes sense), as, you know, a place that the characters walk through for awhile while they mill around directionlessly waiting for the climax. Oh, and they excitedly pick up the (beloved?) night-vision goggles from the original! And then set them down again. They make sure to reverently reflect on how much it meant to them, though -- in fact there’s one character played by Jake Johnson (Jesus in A VERY HAROLD AND KUMAR CHRISTMAS) whose whole point in the movie is to explain out loud about how much being a JURASSIC PARK fan means to all of us.


But none of Trevorrow’s flagrant fan service betrays any real affection for or even comprehension of what made the original good to begin with. The original JP was, at its heart, a sci-fi horror movie -- an expertly crafted setup and payoff for extended setpieces of terrifying monsters stalking and menacing the protagonists. Trevorrow displays no affinity whatsoever for the nuances of horror; his scenes are alternately slack or frantic, failing again and again to deliver any sense of tension or escalation, or even an attempt to do so. This is especially problematic when the script so openly begs us to compare what we’re seeing to parallel scenes from the original. I defy anyone to contrast the sequences where the Indominus sniffs around a stationary car looking for Pratt, or attacks the kids in a mobile vehicle from above, to their original counterpart in JURASSIC PARK without bemoaning their obvious inferiority. Both are so closely modeled after iconic scenes from the original that it’s virtually plagiarism, and yet neither has an ounce of the tension and raw power of Spielberg's work. Academy-Award-winning cinematographer John Schwartzman unhelpfully continues his unfortunate trend from DRACULA UNTOLD of making every scene --from sweeping establishing shots to grisly death scenes-- look as uniformly clean and antiseptic as a virgin Apple store, and composer Michael Giacchino barely even registers when he’s not directly stealing from Williams. There’s no atmosphere, no build to these scenes, no sense of urgency. A needlessly frantic pace is the final nail in the coffin: scenes with radically different tones are plopped down at random, quickly replicate a shot or two from an older movie, and then the movie zips away to some other plot somewhere else. Nothing is allowed to slowly ramp up, no sequence is allowed to find its own rhythm, no incident is allowed to cultivate any impact whatsoever.


It’s so bad it somehow makes being chased and stalked by dinosaurs seem like a fairly minor hassle for these characters. During the big reveal that the Indominus rex has escaped, Howard looks mildly annoyed, and Pratt is so uninterested he actually leaves the room. Everyone deals with this obvious calamity in such a incongruously blasé manner that I actually got confused and wondered if I had somehow misheard what was going on. The movie thinks that just by mimicking things it saw in the original, it will recapture their power, but it completely lacks any notion of why these things worked before. They’re indifferently staged, perfunctory, and completely lacking in even the most indifferent appearance of dramatic weight. The perfect example is the film’s one pretty cool death scene. The JP series has always been more about stalking and chasing than “cool deaths,” but at least having one in here acknowledges its monster movie roots. But then the death itself is of a random, minor character who we know nothing about. There’s no satisfaction in the death of a hateful villain, or tragedy in the death of a beloved friend. It’s purely mechanical, and it’s in there because some studio note said that the movie needed to have a showpiece death sequence and nobody felt like re-writing the script to kill off an actual character. It’s on the Things The Movie Needs To Have studio checklist, not something that arises naturally out of the scenario as written, and as such it’s not just hollow, it’s trivial, utterly divorced from anything actually going on in the story.

Go fish
And that doesn’t just go for the dinosaurs, but the humans, too. You’d think this hipster comedy director would at least be able to craft some likeable, relatable characters, but somehow they end up seeming even phonier than the dinosaurs. Pratt’s character is one example of the film’s desperate inability to craft characters without specifically having dialogue to describe them to us, but he’s still better served than most of the cast. Howard’s character is an outright disaster -- a embarrassingly regressive stereotype of a frigid career women who needs a man and a family to loosen her up, which would have been hopelessly dated in 1960, let alone fucking 2015. It’s so ludicrously anachronistic you can’t even really get mad about it --it’s about the equivalent of having jokes about the filthy, subhuman Irish or something-- but man, does Howard look embarrassed to be playing it, and boy, does the movie not give her anything else to work with. Even more tragically wasted are Irrfan Khan (THE NAMESAKE, THE LIFE OF PI) and Vincent D’Onofio (MEN IN BLACK, ED WOOD), both fobbed off on needless characters who contribute nothing, and are not just badly written but bizarrely inconsistent even within the limited confines of their underdeveloped parts. The movie can’t seem to decide if it likes Khan’s character or not, so it spends endless expository scenes with him and then unceremoniously dumps him halfway through. D’Onofrio’s sneering villain character is awkwardly shoehorned into a plot which doesn’t need a villain at all, and even at that his plan is trivial to the point of irrelevance and his very position within the company is left frustratingly unclear. What exactly does this guy’s job entail on days when the dinosaurs are not rampaging? Just standing around Chris Pratt and trying to entice him to sell out? Wait, does the fact that it seems like he can just walk into the Jurassic World headquarters and take over insinuate the park is some kind of front for his sinister but vaguely defined military-industrial complex? Is he even an employee here, is he undercover, what the fuck is going on? This is not just aesthetically bad writing, it’s actively confusing, makes it genuinely difficult to figure out what exactly the conflict is supposed to be.


A lot of this seems to have been written in to enable future material for potential sequels (a trilogy is planned, and since this movie made more money than the average GDP of at least 30 countries I can find, I expect that’s just the beginning), but here, in this movie, it’s just so much deadwood, larding up the already cumbersome multiple barely-related plot threads with even more characters searching in vain for someone who cares enough about them to construct even a rudimentary arc with any meaningful payoff. None ever find it. In fact, the only moment in the whole film that really has any genuine conflict at all is the very end, when the movie tacitly abandons its nominal cast and simply lets all our favorite dinosaurs slug it out in a totally unmotivated grudge match which seems virtually certain to have been written by an uncredited 6-year old acting it out with toys. This goes well beyond ridiculous into the realm of the surreal, but at least it successfully capitalizes on our earned affection for those beloved characters from the previous movie, Velociraptor Pack and Tyrannosaurus Rex. Compared with the charisma these guys bring to the table, even in this futile role, our human characters all but vanish, mercifully.


The Verdict:


So yes, this is a bad movie. I mean Jesus people, if any big-budget movie can meaningfully be called bad, it HAS to be this one. It fails on every imaginable level: the sub-literate script, the amateurish, tone-deaf acting, the completely unsuitable score, the pedestrian camerawork, the confused mish-mash of conflicting narratives and half-finished self-contradictory subtexts. Yeah yeah, Mr. hoity-toity art snob, but come on, it’s not supposed to be Shakespeare, who cares about all that, I just want to see Dinosaurs move around in front of my eyes for a while. Fair enough. Even by those depressingly low standards, though, this is a failure; there’s not a moment here which looks as impressive as the original JURASSIC PARK did 22 years ago. It looks expensive, I'll grant, but at almost no point --maybe 10 minutes in the entire 124 minute runtime-- are the dinosaurs actually doing anything interesting or memorable. Even adjusted for inflation, JURASSIC WORLD cost 50 million bucks more than JURASSIC PARK, and 40 million bucks more than LOST WORLD, and yet there’s not a single element of the film that doesn’t feel smaller and meeker. Hell, it openly admits its own inferiority with its incessant, insecure need to compare its own monstrous existence with its cobbled-together genetic freak of a villain. And so you’re left with nothing whatsoever to hold onto. The film is roulette wheel of self-defeating script choices and leaden pacing sullenly dragged along by some bloodless, weightless and mostly incidental dinosaurs. Even the end, when it plunges headlong into out-and-out parody, is just barely ridiculous enough to spur some minor interest. This is corporate filmmaking-by-committee at its most pandering and stultifying. 150 million spent and the really the only things of even passing note are its hilariously regressive gender stereotypes and the amusingly desperate hard-on it has for Chris Pratt.


This would be all be fine, except that it has larger implications. Mark my words, all of you who are tolerating this mess of shoddy, servile film-making and apologetic meta-jokes about how dumb the movie you’re watching is: you will learn the true meaning of horror when Hollywood looks at the piles of money this thing is still making, and decides that the thing that the public wants is for them to stop trying and openly admit that sequels are worthless disposable garbage that just need to string some nostalgia along with a few expensive effects. THEN you’ll rue the day you ignored my prophetic words. Case in point: they’re handing this clown Trevorrow STAR WARS IX, as if somehow it was his genius direction that turned a bunch of dinosaurs and a lazy parade of fondly-remembered merchandise into a license to print money. Will that also translate into mountains of cash? Probably, but if they really go down this road, they’re eventually going to be in real trouble: it’s easy to cash in on fond memories, but 22 years from now, nobody’s going to remember this phony bullshit and you’re not going to have anything left to coast on. Nostalgia is not a renewable resource if you don’t give people anything independently meaningful enough to be nostalgic about. Eventually, there will be no choice but to go back to making actual movies, and frankly I’m not convinced anyone will remember how by that point. Oh, we’ll still have the classics, sitting around in amber waiting for some future Trevorrow to try and clone them back. But if the JURASSIC PARK series has taught us anything at all, it’s that you shouldn’t try to replicate things from the past that you don’t fully understand. In the immortal words of Ian Malcolm:  


“If I may... Um, I'll tell you the problem with the scientific power that you're using here, it didn't require any discipline to attain it. You read what others had done and you took the next step. You didn't earn the knowledge for yourselves, so you don't take any responsibility for it. You stood on the shoulders of geniuses to accomplish something as fast as you could, and before you even knew what you had, you patented it, and packaged it, and slapped it on a plastic lunchbox, and now you're selling it, you wanna sell it. Well… your scientists Hollywood studios were so preoccupied with whether or not they could that they didn't stop to think if they should.”


So if this is the future, the only thing left to do is quote another classic line… “Hold on to your butts.”

FIN


Running from the past.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Risky Flicks: Kingsman (The Secret Service)



Kingsman: The Secret Service (2014)
Dir. Matthew Vaughn
Written by Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn
Starring Taron Egerton, Colin Firth, Samuel L. Jackson, Mark Strong, Michael Caine




The challenge: Oh good, finally, a movie about a white guy who is unfairly ignored by the world which doesn’t appreciate his obvious greatness, and then he learns that because of his father he’s destined to be a great warrior, and kills a bunch of bad guys, and then he feels much better about himself and everyone agrees he’s awesome. Why haven’t they ever thought to do that one before?  


What’s the risk?
  • I thought the two last Mark Millar adaptations I watched --WANTED and KICK-ASS-- were just overwhelmingly unpleasant, idiotic, empowerment-fantasy porn for angry, self-pitying, narcissistic gamergate types. And this is by the same director and the same writer as KICK-ASS, probably my most viscerally hated movie of the last half-decade.
  • The lead character is named Eggsy. And he has a face so aggressively punchable that when Jesus said to, “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,” he went on to specifically add, ”...although, there is this one little broke-ass little bitch Eggsy, and it’s completely OK if you just want to start wailing on him for no reason. In fact, I’m going to go ahead and say, I would completely understand and encourage you to do so. I’m Jesus Christ and I approve this message.”
  • KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE is a title which just gets more confusing with each unnecessary added word, and it adds up to a awkward mouthful which somehow still communicates no clear point. Also it ends up that they’re an international cartel and not, in fact, related to the monarchy in any way, so not “Kingsmen” by any comprehensible measure. And while they are sort of a service, I guess, which is secret, the “Secret Service” is already a thing, and they’re not that thing. It’s like if they made a film about a group of English citizens who enjoy collecting antique rifles and called it “Kingsmen: The National Rifle Association.” Technically accurate, maybe, but a bit confusing, don’t you think?
  • Somebody said something about an anal rape joke?
Possible Mitigating Factors:
  • Matthew Vaughn. As much as I loathed KICK-ASS with every fiber of my being, I’ve actually enjoyed everything else he’s done (X-MEN: FIRST CLASS, LAYER CAKE, and I haven’t seen it but people keep telling me STARDUST is fun) and was willing to blame Millar for the shitty source material rather than Vaughn.
  • Great cast -- Colin Firth, Mark Strong, Sam Jackson, Michael Caine, and what the hell, Mark Hamill’s in there too!


The Case:
So, this one has plenty of potentially problematic factors that got the ol’ internet predictably riled up. There is a surprisingly nasty conservative streak in there (the bad guys are black, liberal environmentalists, the good guys are aristocratic white Englishmen, and they [spoiler]  kill Obama as a joke, after he is depicted as complicit in mass murder) but again, I just can’t get as mad as the rest of the internet did about that because, come on, it’s just a nasty movie in general, and its desperate desire to offend is so transparent that it’s almost cute. Almost. Like KICK-ASS, the movie is gilded with a regrettable spitefulness that labors under the mistaken impression that going too far is the same thing as being provocative. So it delights in wallowing in embarrassing stereotypes, casual ultra-violence, and played-out misogyny under the proudly waving banner that offending people is the same as telling off the man or subverting the genre. So brave. It’s unappealing, but fortunately it does this on a more desperate, juvenile level than either of Millar’s other two cinematic adaptations; it’s more of a lonely teenager doodling swastikas in his notebook so people will notice him than it is the impotent white rage of a mass shooter that underpins the guiding logic of KICK-ASS and WANTED. It wants to shock you so you’ll think it’s cool, not because it really has any opinions on anything. And ironically, that turns out to be the bigger problem here. But at least it’s a better problem to have than being an inspiring hero’s journey for the angry nerds who aspire to be violent bullies. Baby steps. Plus, again, Mark Hamill’s in it!


Basically, the setup is this: There’s a ultra-secret “service” of upper-crusty white British guys, who are under the authority of no government but have taken it upon themselves to dispatch brutal vigilante justice whenever they feel it will benefit the world as they see it. They have all sorts of James-Bondy gadgets and a lavish HQ/training facility with all sorts of colorfully outrageous trap rooms, etc. But when an agent dies trying to save Mark Hamill, one of their arguably more open-minded members (Colin Firth, APARTMENT ZERO) decides to recruit the son of a fallen colleague, who turns out to be our man Eggsy (Taron Egerton, the upcoming LEGEND with Tom Hardy). Eggsy is as unpleasant a protagonist as they come, with his “U won 2 step up m8?” wannabe attitude and self-pitying sullenness. But Firth, clearly relishing his unusual role as an action hero, more than makes up for it, playing the part with a startlingly precise ear for tone, equal parts superhero swagger and prim English deadpan comedy. Firth has to induct Eggsy into the world of the “Kingsmen” and prepare him for a series of deadly auditions against --you guessed it-- snobby fancy-pants types who have been training for this moment their whole lives (will his streetwise, loose cannon moxie help him outsmart these over-educated prissies? I’ll never tell). You’d think Firth would explain a little more about what’s going on to Eggsy before throwing him in there, but you know how things go. I mean, you literally know how things go, since I think you can probably figure out beat-for-beat what happens with these auditions without me explaining further (side note: apparently the three abilities you need to be a Kingsman are: figuring out to breath air trapped in a toilet in a flooded room, skydiving, and being able to shoot a puppy). Unfortunately all is not well in Kingsman-world, because a nefarious Samuel Jackson has an inexplicable, convoluted plan to kill of most of the population in order to save the environment. Will our intrepid hero be able to solve this problem and avenge someone, possibly his mentor but you never know, it could be anyone, by using violence? Who can say for sure.

Never judge a man til you walk a mile in his gimmicky spy gadget shoes. After that, though, judge away.

This is a pretty dumb movie, but I honestly have to give it this: it’s reasonably well-structured, paced nicely (especially given its 129 minute runtime) and sprinkled with some fabulously executed fight sequences. While obviously you should take the internet’s opinion that this is without doubt the greatest action movie of all time!!!1 with a grain of salt large enough to safely guarantee a steady supply of margaritas well into the next century, I cannot tell a lie, there are a handful of scenes here which are genuinely impressive. Firth, with the generous assistance of a lot of computers, manages to seem wonderfully athletic and graceful as he dances his way through inflicting bodily harm on people using his gentlemanly umbrella as a club, sling, and sword. The action itself is splendidly shot, often in show-offy long “takes” (composed of short takes grafted together with computers, but it looks cool) which depict with loving clarity the gleeful mayhem our heroes are inflicting. There is one scene in particular -- a delirious symphony of ultra-violence set to “Freebird” for no discernable reason other than their spiritual kinship in wild excess, dazzling technical proficiency, and brainless overkill-- which surely has to rank among the most impressive action spectacles of 2014. These moments of inarguable brilliance are somewhat few and far-between --other action sequences are professional but disposable, particularly the laboriously protracted but instantly forgettable climax-- but it would be unconscionable to ignore the nearly peerless strength of Vaughn’s best material here.


Alas, it is his very strengths as a filmmaker that undermine him here. Vaughn has a tremendous talent at creating well-paced, energetic, and entertaining pop entertainment, but here he never quite allows us to be seduced by the world he’s set up. For all the money at his disposal, all his great cast, all his obvious effort to craft a well-structured hero’s journey,* Vaughn keeps insisting throughout the entire film that we shouldn’t bother to take any of this seriously, that the heart of what he’s trying to do is not really to tell a story but to provide structure for a not-especially-pointed parody of the action-spy genre. Every time you start to actually care about the story  -- and you will, because Vaughn’s a terrific scene builder and working with a raft of wonderful actors -- it seems like he can’t wait to ruin it with some dumb hacky reference to another movie which just pulls you right back out again. Just as he did in KICK-ASS, Vaughn seems to think that just adding blood is the same as subverting our expectations, or commenting on the genre -- and he wants us to be never less than fully aware that this is his intention. So every single fucking beat in the movie is accompanied by some stupid postmodern quip meant to remind you how much more self-aware this movie is than the very movies from which it takes all of its best parts.

This is what happens when an Englishman misses tea time.

But just being “self-aware” is not the same thing as actually having anything to say. For a movie that keeps insisting it’s a cheeky parody, it’s just not very funny. The jokes are lazy and sophomoric, and most of its references are so punishingly generic they’d barely stand up as satire in a late-season SNL sketch, let alone a film which obvious thinks it’s being hip and subversive. Jackson’s villain character makes a big joke about how he’s not going to reveal his plan because “it’s not that kind of movie.” Nevermind that this exact postmodern joke is almost as old as that trope it’s mocking, when was the last time you actually even saw a movie do that? Fundamentally, KINGSMAN’s toothless pokes at dusty cliches are not really any more substantial than the dire reference-fest oeuvre of the infamous Freidberg/Seltzer movies, a comparison so toxic that it may well invoke Godwin’s law. Even the basic structure here belies the idea that the authors had any real understanding of the nuts-and-bolts mechanics of the genre they’re trying to comment on-- how many genre-defining spy thrillers can you think of that are set up as a Campbellian Hero’s Journey? Virtually none. Hence, the parody can hardly be anything but superficial. And superficially, the Bond movies are basically already parodies of themselves. Is there anything more desperately lame than a over-the-top parody of something which was already a deadpan comedy?


So it’s a long movie which consistently seeks to remind us it’s not really about the plot, but then fails to offer any workable alternative theory about what it is about. By default, then, it ends up being about nothing at all, purely an exercise in sound and fury, signifying nothing, not even the most modest aspiration of callow wish-fulfillment fantasy. Even a solidly conservative hit piece would be preferable; I might not like it, but at least it would be something. Here, the prickly traces of angry conservatism sprinkled throughout the plot don’t add up to any kind of meaningful commentary or worldview. Just like the lazily generic Bond references, they sit there stillborn, sputtering in a stew of underbaked ingredients, drowning under the slow pull of a black hole of intention. Just because they’re there doesn’t give them meaning. And no one else ever tries.

See, this looks good but it should be a lot more awesome than it is in context.

Simply being a meaningless, superficial postmodern joke isn’t death for a movie like this. Being an unfunny one is a little more of a problem, but still not enough to sink the whole operation. There’s lots to like here; I mean, thanks to Vaughn’s sharp direction and cast, there’s nearly always something entertaining happening on-screen. But it does seem like kind of a shame that so much talent has gone into something so disposable here. I’m not asking for Shakespeare, but would it have been so untenably unhip to even pretend the movie cares about the plot, considering it takes up so much runtime? This seems like a lot of effort to go through to tell a story, only to keep assuring us it isn’t important and we shouldn’t care. I mean, it actually is a solid action movie when it sets its mind to it -- so why not just actually be an action movie? Why deflect from the one thing it genuinely does well with a much of broad meta winking at the camera? It actually feels kinda insecure to try and have it both ways, like your annoying friend who has to add an uncomfortable “just kidding!” after everything he says if it doesn’t seem to be going over well. But that just immediately deflates any possibility of either the comedy or the drama ever having much punch. The fabled Anal Sex Joke that got everyone so angried up is a classic example. I get that it’s an attempt to subvert the classic Bond double-entendres by instead going the opposite route into artless vulgarity. But what is it doing there, right in the middle of the climax, as things are supposed to be getting exciting? It’s so blatantly referential and so broadly comic that it’s impossible to get too invested in the sequence which follows it -- which happens to be the climax! With this, they exchange any possibility of an exciting, thrilling action sequence for --at best-- a mild chuckle at how rude they’re being. Not a very good trade.


The Verdict:


Well, considering I thought there was a good chance I would out-and-out hate this one, I guess being moderately but legitimately entertained by it is a pretty positive outcome. It’s surely more evidence that Vaughn is a genuine talent, and that in particular his ability to direct strong action sequences has only improved with age. Still, I can’t help but feel a twinge of disappointment that despite all the tools available to him, Vaughn decided to make something so lazy and disposable. He’s still disappointingly hung up on the rather dull idea that simply adding more explicit button-pushing content to tired old genre hokum is A) hilarious or B) subversive. I guess it’s working out for him because these movies have been big hits, but it’s a shame to see an artist with such unusual deftness for the kinetic possibilities of cinema making such uninteresting and uninvolving movies. Here’s hoping this success gives him the confidence to try something with a little more meat. I mean, it doesn’t have to be philosophical or nothing, I’d settle for a movie which can simply stand on its own two feet without having to define itself via what it’s not. Once Vaughn figures that one out, I think he may really have something.

*Even if that just meant in this case lifting the entire plot wholesale from MEN IN BLACK, at least that’s a fine source to steal from.


Mary Poppins could do this too, she just chose not to.