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Having an orderly brain, I noted a few years ago that the gap between the first Men in Black film and the second one was five years, and further that the gap between the second and the third was ten years. It seemed a fairly reasonable assumption that there would be a twenty year gap between the third and the fourth, presumably with Will Smith moving into the role of the grizzled old veteran and someone as-yet-unheard-of providing the youthful glamour. Friends, I am shocked to have to relate this, but I was wrong. The new Men in Black film has come out thirteen years early, and I have to say that some might suggest it shows.

The title of the thing is Men In Black International, concerning the global doings of the secret agency which, for the purposes of this franchise, polices alien activity on the planet Earth. (‘But… but…’ anyone who was paying attention back in 1997 might be spluttering, ‘wasn’t it kind of established then that aliens were really just limited to the New York area?’ Good point. But shush.) The story gets going, chronologically speaking, with a young girl named Molly witnessing the Men in Black in action and wiping her parents’ memories afterwards. She grows up to be a massive over-achiever (Tessa Thompson) and through diligence and ingenuity manages to track the agency to its secret base, where she persuades the director (Emma Thompson, mostly phoning it in) to recruit her.

She is then packed off to the London branch, where there are suggestions of something not being quite right in the ranks of the persons with a wardrobe of a limited chromatic range. It seems that a few years ago there was a showdown atop the Eiffel Tower, which contains some sort of hyperspace gateway built by M. Eiffel, who was also a Man in Black. (‘But.. but… wasn’t it kind of established that the Men in Black came into existence as an exclusively American agency, in 1961?’ Another good point. But shush again.) The two agents involved (Liam Neeson and Chris Hemsworth) saved the world from an invasion by shape-shifting alien horrors, but Hemsworth’s character has been acting rather erratically ever since.

And there is some more plot following this, but I will not trouble you with the details as they are unlikely to linger much in your head, even if you see the movie. The general recipe for the film is kind of the same as before: there’s a gentle send-up of some of the tropes of B-movie sci-fi, mixed with some spy and cop movie clichés, and also a few potentially slightly scary bits with an almost Lovecraftian sense of gribbly tentacled unpleasantness pressing in on the margins of the mundane world.

The thing is that this time around… well, here’s what I have been led to understand about this film. Apparently director Gray was keen to make a film with a bit of a satirical edge to it and some social commentary on the topic of immigration (you can imagine how that would work, along with some of the more obvious gags – one wonders what kind of dismal alien hell-world could have spawned the current US administration). Producer Walter Parkes (who I feel obliged to mention has some pretty decent movies on his CV) wanted something a bit more middle-of-the-road and proceeded to start rewriting the script while the film was actually in production. Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson, who reputedly signed on on the strength of the Gray script, were understandably bemused and independently recruited writers of their own to polish their dialogue.

(Yes, I know, it is utterly baffling that films are made this way, and we have to assume that it is not standard practice in the industry. Even so, this is a production with a budget of somewhere in the region of $100 million, yet the creative process involved seems to have primarily been based around squabbling and bemusement.)

When you consider all this, not to mention the producer and the director both assembling their own edits of the finished film (the producer’s version won out), one does have to say that Men in Black International is a staggering achievement in the way it still manages to be a more or less coherent story without a large number of holes in the plot. This is not to say that there aren’t any – there are still a few, and to be honest they are biggies, but it is unlikely to bother most members of the audience as the clash of different visions has resulted in a film with very little sense of what it’s supposed to be beyond a brand extension and franchise instalment. No one is likely to care or be engaged enough to worry too much about whether it makes any sense.

I mean, look, there is virtually wall-to-wall CGI for most of the film, and it is all very professionally done; fights and chases turn up on a regular basis; there are plot reversals and so on too. But none of it feels as if it means anything – it is all very mechanical and uninspired. It feels like a Men in Black film produced by some sort of artificial intelligence, or a joke written by a computer – all the structural elements are present and correct, it’s just completely flat and lifeless.

Now, of course, with this kind of film, winning chemistry from charismatic leads can go a long way towards taking up any bagginess in the other departments, but the film is also afflicted with, if this isn’t too harsh a way of putting it, the Chris Hemsworth problem. I have certainly enjoyed many Chris Hemsworth films and Chris Hemsworth performances in the past (mostly the ones where he has been playing Thor, to be honest). I have no beef with him as a person, not least because I have no personal relationship with him. However, he is in the awkward spot of being someone whose films make hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars, but only when he plays that one character he’s famous for. So just how big a star is he really? Opinion seems to be divided on the topic, especially if you consider the stories that one of the reasons the fourth Bad Robot Star Trek movie folded was Hemsworth’s involvement being judged not to be worth his very hefty asking price (he was due to reprise his before-he-was-famous role as Captain Kirk’s dad). Hemsworth’s attempts to establish himself as a leading man in his own right are not helped by the fact he is essentially giving a lightweight version of the same performance he delivered in his last couple of MCU movies (here the ratio is about 70% swagger to 30% smug), or the fact he’s paired with Tessa Thompson, one of his regular foils from those same movies, or the fact that the film brazenly includes cheesy in-jokes alluding to Hemsworth having played Thor for the last eight years. As for Thompson herself, I have to say I’m not entirely sure she has the chops to be co-lead in a big aspiring blockbuster like this one. She’s not actually bad. But you’re still perhaps a little surprised to see her there, vaguely feeling that you were expecting someone else.

This is cinematic entertainment as disposable, mechanical product. It is rarely actually dull, for at least it has been edited together to provide a good deal of pace. But it is just a succession of sounds and pictures that makes sense in a transactional sort of way. It has no resonance, no subtlety, no depth, nothing new to say or do. It almost feels like it is aspiring to be mediocre. Anything which made the first couple of films in this series memorable and entertaining has been scraped out of the carcass and what remains lurches across the screen in an almost wholly affectless way. It doesn’t engage the emotions, the brain, or the sense of humour. Nobody was demanding this film, I suspect, but it could still have potentially revitalised and updated the series. Instead, I think that in a sane world it would constitute the final swift blow to its throat. So we can probably expect a reboot at some point in the next ten years.

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The premise of Chad Stahelski’s John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum (yes, another of those punctuation-heavy sequel titles) is very straightforward. Opening scant moments after the conclusion of Chapter 2, it finds short-fused hitman John Wick (Keanu Reeves) running for his life, as the clock ticks down to the moment when open season is declared upon his person by pretty much the entire criminal population of New York City. (Wick’s faithful dog may also be in trouble.) How has he come to such dire straits? Well, this being the modern day, the film doesn’t really bother to recap – suffice to say that in the first film someone shot his (other) dog, and a roaring rampage of revenge ensued, which in the second film culminated in the world’s greatest hitman shooting someone he wasn’t supposed to shoot, apparently a grave transgression of the regulations and by-laws of the international underworld. I said it was very straightforward; I didn’t say it actually made sense.

Well, Wick’s time runs out, and he is forced to defend himself against wave after wave of attackers in a succession of unlikely places, in the process demonstrating his mastery not just of kung fu, but also gun-fu, knife-fu, horse-fu and library-book-fu. It very quickly becomes apparent that the action choreography in this film is every bit as good as in the previous ones in the series, but that John Wick 3 is – if it’s even possible – more astoundingly violent, with a savagely brutal edge that feels new. I went to a matinee showing of Parabellum, surrounded by (I would expect) a fairly hardened action movie crowd, and yet shocked oohs and aaahs and outbursts of appalled laughter drifted around the auditorium at the film’s most viciously inventive moments.

That said, this opening sequence is superlatively well put-together as a piece of entertainment, always assuming you can stand the violence, and by the end of it I was honestly starting to wonder if we needed to revise the history of the action movie to the effect that the John Wick series is really Keanu Reeves’ most impressive contribution to the genre.

However, they can’t sustain the pace (perhaps understandably, Keanu being 54 these days), and eventually the plot kicks in. This is really not the film’s strong point, and certainly not its raison d’etre, and takes a sort of twin-track approach. We get an inkling of Wick’s hitherto-enigmatic origins as he calls in a favour from the Russian Mafia (it appears he may possibly have been a ballet dancer at one point, but the film is carefully noncommittal about this) and heads off to Morocco in the hope of having a sit-down with the boss of the international underworld to sort it all out. This involves visiting an old friend and fellow dog-fancying hit-person (Halle Berry); I suppose it’s nice to see Berry again but it’s a very underwritten part she doesn’t find much to do with.

Meanwhile, in New York a steward’s enquiry as to how all of this has come to pass, undertaken by a representative of the criminal underworld authorities (Asia Kate Dillon). Having to answer some hard questions are various allies of Wick, including characters played by Ian McShane, Laurence Fishburne and Anjelica Huston. All of them carve off thick slices of ham, as does Mark Dacascos as the chief enforcer of the enquiry (Dacascos has been a very charismatic and able martial-arts actor for decades, and it is great to see him in such a high-profile role). How will it all end? Is full-scale war between Wick and everyone else inevitable? (Hint: probably, yes.)

I vaguely recall the first John Wick being a relatively down-to-earth, noirish thriller, with the sequel basically getting one foot off the ground in terms of expanding the background of the film. Well, this third movie is essentially a pure fantasy film in every way that matters, having only the most tenuous connection with reality. The first film actually featured criminals who went around committing the odd crime once in a while: everyone in this one seems totally fixated on the arcane and esoteric regulations of the criminal underworld, which come replete with their own complicated rituals and lexicon. People are always swearing fealty to each other in the most elaborate way, or ordering each other to do (usually grisly) penances. It feels a bit like a vampire movie, in a funny way; there is an odd thread of religious iconography and language running through it, and hardly anyone goes out in the daytime.

Probably not worth dwelling on any of this too much, though, as the plot (such as it is) is mostly just there to set up the third act of the film, which is another exercise in wall-to-wall mayhem, featuring many rooms with stylish glass panels and sculptures through which Reeves can be repeatedly kicked by the various bad guys. Before this there’s a first-person-shooter-ish sequence which is good but not great; but the showdown between Dacascos and Reeves is as good as you’d expect. It should really come over like something out of an Expendables movie, given it’s a kung fu fight between two guys with a combined age of 109, but it manages to stay entirely credible. There’s also a little treat for the kung fu movie connoisseur, as Reeves has a scene where he takes on Yayan Ruhian and Cecep Arif Rahan (Mad Dog and Assassin from the Raid series); this is also great stuff.

This is basically the purest kind of action movie – a string of set-piece fights and chases, held together by the most cursory and preposterous of plotting, with the whole thing slathered in stylishness. Crucially, it once again manages to hit the genre sweet spot of not taking itself too seriously, while also never completely sending itself up; Reeves again provides a rather peculiar central performance – he really doesn’t seem to be doing very much, but at the same time it’s impossible to imagine anyone else carrying the film in the way that he does here.

John Wick 3 is, once again, an outstandingly good Bad Movie; the only brick I can honestly send its way is that the saggy middle section is saggy in part because it’s setting up a potential Chapter 4. For most of the film it does feel like we’re heading for some kind of resolution, and that a proper trilogy is on the cards. But no: the door is left flapping in the wind for a potential fourth instalment, no matter how strained this feels. I really have enjoyed these films so far, but I can’t help feeling that this series has peaked and is on the point of collapsing into self-parody and excess. But I could be wrong, and John Wick: Chapter 3 is certainly good enough to convince me to keep an open mind on the subject.

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As recent events have perhaps shown into sharp relief, we as a culture don’t build many cathedrals any more. I feel this is a shame, as I love a good cathedral despite the fact I am not what you would call a person of faith. There is something about the sheer scale, workmanship and ambition of these vast spaces which I find tremendously uplifting. But, as I say, cathedral building seems to have gone into decline, and the skills that led to their creation seem to be slipping away too – wheel turns, civilisation rises; wheel turns, civilisation falls. One wonders what flavours of human endeavour will likewise disappear, or at least decline, in the years to come. Certainly many commentators have been predicting the disappearance of the big Hollywood movie as we know it for some years now: we may occasionally hear that box office income is looking healthier than ever, but this is mainly the result of inflation – actual ticket sales have been in decline for a decade and a half. There may be more really big movies than ever before, but there are also fewer medium-sized ones, and it’s questionable how long this situation can remain viable. There are many variables in play, obviously, but it does seem likely that there will be big changes over the next few years, leading to fundamental changes in the kinds of films we see and also how we watch them.

I mention all this because it is always good to appreciate what we have while it is still there. If the traditional summer blockbuster is destined to go the way of the Gothic cathedral, then we should take a moment to consider the skill and ingenuity that goes into making one of these films, especially a really good one. They are a distinct form of art, with their own conventions and requirements – not exactly high art, to be sure, and intrinsically populist, but still a form of art, and one that has brought genuine pleasure to multitudes of people for generations.

I suspect that some people may be rolling their eyes already, especially considering that I am ostensibly here to discuss the Russo brothers’ Avengers: Endgame. I do feel a little silly being quite so solemn in a piece about a film which delivers the purest kind of entertainment, but nevertheless, I genuinely think it represents an unparalleled achievement in the making of popular cinema, possibly one which will never be surpassed, and everyone involved deserves some recognition for this.

It occurs to me there may still be a few uninitiated people out there who may be wondering what I’m on about. Endgame is the twenty-second film in a franchise (or series of franchises) which began over ten years ago. The various films in the series share storylines and characters, build and riff on each other, plant seeds which only much later come to often-unexpected fruition. Just as the people who built the foundations of a cathedral often had only the vaguest conception of how they (or their descendants) were going to finish the roof, so it seems fairly likely that the makers of those first few films had little idea of exactly how the project was going to get to this point. Yet here we are, and the unity of vision and purpose the films have maintained, while not perfect, is still remarkable.

Following a couple of somewhat lightweight entries, the new film picks up shortly after the end of the nineteenth film in the series, Infinity War, which saw the cosmic titan Thanos (Josh Brolin) obliterate half the population of the universe, on sound Malthusian grounds. Left untouched by the cataclysmic finger-click were the founder members of the Avengers, although they were left scattered and traumatised by their failure to stop Thanos. The new film, you would expect, sees them regroup and attempt to either reverse Thanos’ terrible deeds or enact some kind of justice. But is it really the case that no good deed goes unavenged?

There’s probably going to be some more eye-rolling at this point, but that is all I’m going to say about the plot of the new film. I found it to be a delight, and that was largely because of my regime of (mostly) strict spoiler hygiene. Part of the joy of the story comes from the way in which the plot plays out, and the many surprises along the way. I imagine the world breaks down into two camps at this point: people who are just not on board the Marvel train, who won’t really care about the details of this film, and people who are, who will want to encounter Endgame in a state of blissful ignorance.

There are many remarkable things about Endgame, not least its sheer technical proficiency and ability to tell a story with a huge array of characters that still manages to feel personal, but perhaps the most surprising is that it genuinely manages to live up to expectations. Since this is the culmination of a story which has been playing out since 2012, if not earlier, this is an amazing accomplishment. More than that, in so many ways it even manages to surpass expectations – not just in terms of its inventiveness, either. Given the nature of the Marvel project, of which this is a landmark feature but by no means the end, I approached this film with a confident sense of knowing what was going to happen, or at least what the state of play would be at the end. Well, I was surprised by this as much as the rest of the film, for the script is not afraid to make some unexpected, tough choices, as well as providing numerous moments that left the audience of the screening I attended alternately cheering and sobbing.

It is true to say that people who decide to finally take the plunge and make Endgame their first Marvel Studios movie are probably going to be left a bit baffled, for there are not many concessions made to this audience – but this is really only to be expected, it’s the equivalent of opening Lord of the Rings a handful of chapters from the end and expecting to understand what’s going on. And given that this is not the final film in this series (there is one more to come this year, with others no doubt to follow), there are elements of this film’s story which are likely to prove problematic when it comes to scripting future instalments.

Finally, I would say that Endgame is a fantasy blockbuster, and if you don’t like the genre, you probably won’t like this film either. What makes it special aren’t exactly its own merits as a film, anyway, but the way in which it serves as a climax, a summation, a capstone, and a victory lap for the films that have preceded it. It is the boldness and confidence of the Marvel project which has been the most surprising thing about this series of films, not to mention the fact that they have generally managed to keep their standards so very high. In a very real sense this film marks the completion of something unprecedented in the world of entertainment – but it deserves to be recognised for its quality as well as its innovation. One can marvel at the mystery of how it came to be, but not to the point where one forgets to enjoy it.

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There were just under two hours left before we landed at Heathrow, which I reckoned should give me just enough time to enjoy, or not, Peter Berg’s Mile 22, a thriller starring Marky Mark Wahlberg. Berg and Marky Mark have forged a bit of a partnership in recent years, mostly doing based-on-a-real-life-disaster movies like Deepwater Horizon and Patriots Day, although I have to say I much prefer his earlier, sillier films like The Rundown and Hancock. My main interest in Mile 22 stemmed not from the involvement of Berg, nor indeed Wahlberg (who I find I can really take or leave as a performer), but that of Iko Uwais, a brilliant Indonesian actor and martial artist who starred in the Raid duology (he was also in one of the stellar conflict movies for about three seconds, but let’s not worry about that). Any film where Uwais gets to do his stuff has a claim on my attention, even when that film gets unfriendly (and that’s putting it charitably!) notices from legitimate film critics.

(Checking out Mile 22 on the in-flight information system, I was startled to find the entry on this movie ran something like ‘Critics have said very unkind things about Mile 22, but these are the same people who didn’t like The Greatest Showman – so why not give it a try?’ I’m all for people being encouraged to make their own minds up, but on the other hand it doesn’t necessarily follow that The Greatest Showman is not, by any rational standard, a massive cheesy wotsit. It didn’t put me in the best of moods, anyway.)

Hey ho. Anyway, the film gets underway with some shadowy American coves, led by Marky Mark, undertaking a secret operation against – so far as I have been able to find out – some Russian spies operating on the US mainland. (This is one of those films which attempts to generate verisimilitude by having the characters rattle out their dialogue in a very terse fashion, and it’s probably not the best movie to listen to over headphones on a crowded plane, even in the wee small hours around dawn.) Things do not go as planned, but for quite a long time it is really not clear what this has to do with the rest of the plot.

This takes place in the fictitious Asian nation of Indocarr, where some radioactive terror dust has gone missing, and the American government would quite like to get it back before people start melting in the street (at least this is what it’s suggested will happen). Marky Mark, who is playing a version of that character whose brilliant brain function excuses the fact he is somewhat sociopathic, is on the job, and it is made clear to us at some length what a tough job it is keeping Uncle US of Stateside safe. Hey ho.

Anyway, up pops Iwo Uwais playing Li Noor, a rogue cop who knows where the terror dust McGuffins are to be found, but will only reveal the information if he is whisked off to the airport (35.4 kilometres away) and given political asylum in the States. The US government isn’t technically allowed to do this sort of thing under the usual international conventions, and so they activate Marky Mark and his team of plausibly deniable agents, who will theoretically be private citizens for the duration of the mission. Also on the team is Lauren Cohan, playing an agent with a challenging personal life, and Ronda Rousey, playing an agent who can clearly bench-press a lot (finely-drawn characterisation isn’t really Mile 22‘s strong point). Shouting at everyone over the radio is John Malkovich. Off they go in their SUVs, and before long an awful lot of people are shooting at them. This makes up the plot of most of the rest of the film.

Hey, you know what? The Greatest Showman is still a massive cheesy wotsit and this film isn’t much cop either. (I should point out that they are very different beasts and even if you are one of those people who thought that Hugh Jackman organising a diversity barn dance was a profoundly uplifting emotional experience, you still probably won’t enjoy Mile 22.)

I remember the critic and commentator Mark Lawson making the observation that when it really boils down to it, there are two kinds of entertainment: Escapist, which attempts to help you forget how awful the world fundamentally is, and Reminder, which grinds your face into the dismal grit of reality. One of the worst mistakes you can make as a storyteller, he suggested, is to be at all unclear on this point, or be under the impression that you’re doing one when you’re really doing the other.

This is the problem with Mile 22. It has a nice high-concept premise to it – team of guys must transport other guy they don’t particularly trust through hostile urban territory – and basically has cheesy knockabout thriller written all over it. Two prominent characters are played by performers with a martial-arts background, after all. However, after all those gravitas-laden true-life stories, it seems that Berg and Marky Mark have no real interest in doing cheesy crowd-pleasing stuff: they are Serious Film-makers now, even if they are now making a film in which Iko Uwais beats three armed opponents to death in his pants.

Thus, that high-concept premises vanishes under a slew of dour, improbable plot-twists, downbeat character bits, and general complications that just make the film less fun to watch. We’re quite a long way into Mile 22 before they start going those twenty-two miles, and the stuff before that is not especially interesting.

It has to be said that the actual twenty-two miles themselves are not much better, mainly because Berg seems to be one of those people who thinks that the secret of a great action sequence is to cut between cameras every three seconds. This is good for generating incipient nausea, but not so good when it comes to tension and excitement. Needless to say, it favours the actors over the martial artists and stuntmen – what’s the point of hiring someone like Uwais if you never show what he’s capable of doing? (That said, Iko Uwais does deliver an impressive English-language acting performance, though I’m not sure the film is worth watching just for this.)

In the end it is just a frustrating and depressing experience, not just because of the tone of the story, but because it feels like you’re watching people with genuine talent actively setting out to make a bad movie on purpose. And you just wonder what the point of the exercise is, unless this is all supposed to be setting up a sequel. Even if it is, I can’t imagine many people feeling sufficiently motivated to come along and check it out. This is pretty much a thorough-going dud.

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The legend of Robert Rodriguez began with the circumstances surrounding the making of his first film, El Mariachi, over twenty years ago now. Rodriguez said he only had a guitar case and a tortoise and so was obliged to make the best of what he had available. One suspects he was being somewhat disingenuous but it was generally accepted that the whole film was made on a budget of about $7,000, some of which the writer-director supposedly raised by allowing experimental medical research to be done on him. The path from a $7,000 micro-budget thriller to a $200 million special-effects blockbuster is probably not a well-trodden one, but here Rodriguez is, in charge of the long-gestating film adaptation of Battle Angel: Alita. (This project was overseen for a long time by Jim Cameron, who eventually departed as director when the umpty-tump Avatar sequels in the works demanded too much of his attention, and Rodriguez apparently insisted on a change of name to Alita: Battle Angel because Cameron’s last two films beginning with an A were massive critical and popular successes.)

Quite early on in Alita: Battle Angel one gets either a comforting sense of being in familiar territory or a sinking feeling that the film is just a load of repurposed old spare parts. We are in another one of those post-apocalyptic futures, some time in the 26th century, with most of the Earth laid waste by interplanetary war. One vast floating city has endured, and living in its shadow a grimy, lawless sprawl has sprung up, the population trapped in poverty, kept docile by watching violent combat sports, and all dreaming of a better life in the sky-metropolis.

One of the locals is cyber-surgeon and part-time bounty-hunter Dyson Ido (Christoph Waltz), who while picking over the junkheap beneath the sky-city discovers a preserved human brain in a cybernetic skull. He pops this into a full-body prosthetic chassis and the result is Alita (Rosa Salazar), a saucer-eyed waif with (naturally) superhuman reflexes, agility and ass-whupping skills. Alita has movie amnesia, presumably as a result of spending many decades as a brain in a can.

Well, it eventually turns out that someone is after Alita, who finds herself involved in various bounty-hunting exploits and a big set-piece sequence concerning the sport of Motorball, which is basically a gladiatorial variation on roller-boogie. Alita gets a love interest in the form of the non-threatening Hugo (Keann Johnson), and together they recycle many favourite old lines from the Big Book of Old Sci-Fi Chestnuts – ‘Does it matter that I’m not human?’ ‘You’re the most human person I know’, etc – during lulls in the plot. But what is Alita’s mysterious past? Who is her enigmatic nemesis? What is his beef with her, and just what is she prepared to do to stop him?

There are many things to be said about Alita: Battle Angel, but probably the most significant one is that after 122 minutes, with the closing credits rolling in front of me, I still really had no clue about the answers to most of these questions. The screenplay doesn’t contain a plot so much as a collection of scenes roughly connected to one another, without much sense of focus or direction. Obviously this is a comic book adaptation, and it does feel like one – in some of the more cartoony elements of the story, but also in the way that the writers have clearly taken a huge corpus of stories, concepts, ideas, and characters and tried to include every single one of their favourites in a single script. The film strains to accommodate all of them, and one of the things that gets pushed out is traditional narrative development and structure.

A good point of reference for Alita would be Ghost in the Shell from a couple of years ago – both big-budget effects-driven American-made adaptations of Japanese manga, with a cybernetic heroine having an identity crisis, although Alita seems to have dodged the usual wave of venom about whitewashing (the word ‘adaptation’ just doesn’t register sometimes, it would seem). Ghost in the Shell is apparently considered a box office bomb, and regular readers will recall I did predict the same fate in store for Alita, a forecast I am not inclined to alter having seen the finished film. If you’re going to spend $200 million on a movie, you need to be pretty sure that audiences are going to turn out in force to see it (ideally several times each), and there doesn’t seem to be that much excitement about Alita: Battle Angel.

(Given that Jim Cameron’s career has often revolved around his gambling large sums of money making projects that industry insiders and commentators were vocally dubious about, which then went on to be immensely successful, one wonders if this has been a factor in his being able to get Alita funded. If so, I suspect the backers are in for a nasty shock this time.)

Certainly the film is light on all the things that a film needs to have in order to justify such a large budget – the story is not well-known outside the cult ghetto, and the well-known faces who appear in it are really character actors in supporting roles (in addition to Waltz, Jennifer Connelly and Mahershala Ali turn up in unrewarding, mostly-villainous parts). Ghost in the Shell didn’t make an impact despite the fact it prominently featured Scarlett Johansson in a body stocking (if they’d actually called the movie Scarlett Johansson in a Body Stocking I suspect it might have done better business), and I am not sure a heavily CGI-modified version of the comparatively little-known Rosa Salazar will have quite as much appeal.

Seriously, one of the questionable decisions Cameron and Rodriguez have gone for is the one to put Salazar’s performance through the computer and turn her into something not entirely unakin to Gollum, but with better skin and hair. Quite apart from whether the CGI is photo-realistic or not (I still don’t think we’re quite there yet), someone with eyes quite so big is just intrusive and distracting, and a constant reminder that you’re watching a big effects movie – it just makes the film less immersive. Salazar’s actual performance is functional – she possibly overdoes the breathless innocent bit in the early part of the film, but copes reasonably well with many scenes where they weigh down a bit too heavily on the exposition and back story pedals. The central romance remains thoroughly unimpressive, though.

The film is not outright bad, but it only really shows signs of life and energy when it comes to the action sequences – the highlight is probably the Motorball match, which manages to be genuinely exciting despite all the CGI, even in 3D. But even here Alita is seldom really exceptional, and once again I just can’t see it cutting through to make much of an impact on the cinema landscape today. Every time I go to an SF film with this much hype around it – as previously noted, the publicity for Alita has been inescapable – I’m hoping for that extraordinary, giddy sense of being taken to a world totally unlike any I’ve seen before, and the accompanying feeling of breathless delight. This almost never happens – obviously it happened with the first stellar conflict movie, and also with The Matrix and to some extent with Inception. But most films inevitably fall short, and just prove to be a bit too obviously derivative or lacking in the basic storytelling virtues. Alita: Battle Angel is obviously the work of people with a high level of technical proficiency, but it isn’t the work of original, visionary brilliance that its publicity appears to be suggesting it is – certainly not to the point where it excuses poor storytelling. It’s okay – but no more than that.

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Can we therefore look forward to Creeds II-VII, with Jordan taking on the disgruntled children of Mr T, Dolph Lundgren, and perhaps even the son of Rocky himself? Somehow I doubt it.

your correspondent, writing about Creed and displaying the usual level of uncanny precognitive ability

Christmas works party time rolled around again, and we reconvened in a pub a short walk outside the city centre, each having filled the time between ceasing pretending to work and the start of the festivities in our own particular way.

‘Did you go to the cinema?’ one colleague (whose name I shall be withholding) asked me. ‘What did you see?’

‘Creed II,’ I said.

‘I’ve not heard of that. What’s it about?’

The imp of the perverse was whispering in my ear, I’m afraid, and being aware that she was perhaps of a High Church of England-ish disposition… ‘It’s about the Council of Nicaea and the formulation of the Nicene Creed,’ I said. Keeping my face straight was almost too easy, now I think back on it.

‘Oh, really?’

‘Yeah, it’s all about the splits in the early Christian church,’ I went on. ‘At the end of the first Creed they thought they’d figured most of it out, but in this one the Arian heresy rears its ugly head and it causes them all an awful lot of trouble.’

‘Wow! I can’t believe they did a film about that,’ she said, clearly wondering how she could have missed hearing about this.

I did consider going on to describe how the Emperor Constantine was played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Ossius of Corduba by George Clooney, but my better nature made an unexpected reappearance and I had to confess it was all a pack of lies: Creed II is actually a boxing movie, the sequel to Creed and the eighth movie in the Rocky series, directed by Steven Caple Jr and (perhaps inevitably) co-written, co-starring and produced by Sylvester Stallone. (My colleague and I are still on good terms, thankfully.)

The movie opens with Adonis Creed (Michael B Jordan) fulfilling his potential and finally becoming heavyweight champion of the world. Yet nagging doubts remain – can he really live up to the example set by his late father, legendary champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers, who doesn’t appear in person, but who one hopes is getting decent remuneration for the use of his image throughout the movie)? Impending marriage and parenthood only add to the pressures on the young athlete.

And then Donnie’s trainer Rocky (Stallone) is startled by the reappearance of a figure from his past: Russian former boxer Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), the man who killed Apollo Creed in the ring decades before, and who was then humiliated by Rocky in a rematch on Russian soil. Drago was left in disgrace and has spent the intervening years raising his son Viktor (the splendidly-named Florian ‘Big Nasty’ Munteanu) as a living instrument of vengeance. The Dragos challenge Donnie to what’s basically a second-generation rematch, and one which Donnie feels obliged to accept, despite Rocky’s deep misgivings (not least because his own fight with Ivan Drago left him with permanent brain damage, not that anyone mentions this much nowadays).

What follows basically confirms that the Rocky series is the great sentimental soap opera of mainstream American cinema, as the various characters struggle with their personal demons, make tough choices, cope with success and failure, and so on, all expressed through a combination of character-based scenes, training montages, people talking to graves, and protracted fight sequences. This film tells a classical narrative of hubris, nemesis, and redemption, and the fact it is so familiar may be why it feels so satisfying to watch. The trick to these films, I have realised, lies not in the fight sequences themselves, for these are almost always completely predictable – given their context in the film, you always know who is going to eventually win in any particular situation. The film’s success lies in the fact that you don’t mind knowing what’s going to happen – what’s going to happen is what you want to happen, because the film has made you root for the hero and want to see the bad guy take the beating they have been earning throughout the film up to this point. Creed II is very successful in this respect, and credit must go to the screenplay (by Stallone and Juel Taylor) and the performances, particularly those of Jordan and Stallone (even if the latter’s transformation into someone resembling Popeye seems to be accelerating). On the other hand, it has to be said that this is very much a guy’s film, its themes of parental expectation and legacy largely expressed through the relationship between fathers and sons, and Tessa Thompson ends up with a slightly underwritten part as a result, mainly just there as girlfriend and mother.

Of course, the film may also be familiar due to the fact that, in that in many respects, it basically repeats the plot of Rocky IV, albeit with one rather big modification. You could argue that in some ways the first Creed basically revisited the plot of the original Rocky, which was a solid drama and won the Best Picture Oscar for 1976 (even if it has been known to pop up on lists of ‘Worst Film ever to win Best Picture’). Perhaps the most remarkable (possibly even miraculous) thing about Creed II is that it revisits the characters and events of Rocky IV, surely the silliest of these films, and still manages to produce a credible and affecting drama. I’m almost tempted to say that this is the kind of film The Expendables should have been: there’s a genuine sense of a significant moment taking place when Stallone and Lundgren finally meet one another, and it must be said that the big Swede gives a highly effective performance as the film’s antagonist (Munteanu is largely just there as a physical presence, though his acting performance is perfectly acceptable). It’s entirely possible that this is the best acting work Dolph Lundgren has ever done (not that this is necessarily saying very much, of course). Perhaps even more startlingly, the film also sees the return of Brigitte Nielsen as Drago’s ex-wife Ludmilla, albeit in a much more limited cameo. I expect that this film’s willingness to embrace the past of the series so whole-heartedly (I would have said that if you went into a major Hollywood studio and proposed doing a movie with Lundgren and Nielsen in key roles you’d just get laughed at) will largely be lost on the young audience it is aiming for, but for those of us who’ve been following along for many years, it’s a very impressive and likeable trait.

I did enjoy the first Creed a lot, as a solid sports drama, but I have to say it’s entirely possible I had an even better time watching Creed II, for its connections to the series’ past as much as its own very real merits as a drama. Eight films in, with critical plaudits still flowing, I expect the temptation will be to keep on going – but the Creed-Drago rematch was the obvious way to go with a sequel (even if it seemed quite unlikely to me it would ever get made, two and a bit years ago). I’m not sure if they could find a worthwhile direction to take this story in – but based on the strength of the first two films, I’d happily give them the benefit of the doubt. This is excellent entertainment.

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One of the things you occasionally hear people suggesting, when it comes to films, is that some of the famous old stories that have generally proven to be bankers time and time again – you know the sort of thing: Sherlock Holmes, Dracula, Tarzan, King Arthur – seem to have fallen out of favour, at least slightly. It’s not that they always flop, goes the theory, but they’re seldom world-conquering smash hits any more.

Nevertheless, people still keep making films based on these stories, even if it is the result of some sort of reflex action: we’ve had two big-budget Sherlock Holmes so far this century, with another on the way (even if it is a spoof); a rather poor Dracula a few years ago; and two King Arthur films since 2004 (the Clive Owen version, which suggested the famous king was a Romano-British soldier, and the Charlie Hunnam one, which presented him as a kung-fu fighting London gangster superhero). And now we are on our second Robin Hood film in not much than eight years (the last one being the Russell Crowe-Ridley Scott collaboration which seemed to get considerably less interesting between the time it was announced and its actual release).

The new film is (once again) Robin Hood, directed by Otto Bathurst. Now, I am generally well-disposed to an adventure movie in the classic style, even if the story is somewhat well-worn. However, I suspect that even if I had managed to get to the screening of the new film without encountering the trailer or advertising, my expectations would have been flattened like a tax-collector hit with a quarterstaff by the opening dialogue alone. ‘I could tell you what year all this happened,’ says the blokey voice-over, ‘but I’ve forgotten. I could bore you with the history, but I won’t.’ Yes, God forbid you should credit the audience with any intelligence or attention span, writers of Robin Hood, just patronise away. It really does sound like the makers of the movie getting their excuses in first.

I can understand why, for what the film-makers manage to do is take possibly the most famous of English historical folk-legends and – well, I was about to say that they make a film totally devoid of historical content, but this would not be true. There is lots of history in Robin Hood. It is all just mind-bogglingly, preposterously inappropriate history.

Things get under way with them setting up the romance between good-hearted young nobleman Robin of Loxley (Taron Egerton, who has turned into a serviceable enough leading man) and rebellious young working-class girl Marian (Eve Hewson, who is all heavy eyeshadow and embonpoint). However, their idyll is shattered when Robin receives his ‘Draft Notice’ in the post from the Sheriff of Nottingham (Ben Mendelsohn), sending him off to fight in the Middle East. Here we have our first two bits of history – the ‘draft letter’ scene, which could quite easily come from midwestern America in the late 1960s, and the Sheriff’s full-length grey leather trench-coat, which rather leads one to assume he is serving in the Wehrmacht, circa 1940.

It gets better (by which I mean it gets worse). Robin is supposedly serving in the Third Crusade (1189-1192), but the conflict is deliberately presented in a manner designed to create associations with the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, rather more recently – it is the same vicious chaos of house-to-house fighting. Swap out the longbows for assault rifles and stone throwers for air support and the sequence would be utterly indistinguishable from something contemporary.

Anyway, Robin’s moral qualms at the execution of prisoners by his brutal unit commander results in him being sent home in disgrace, but also in his earning the respect of an enemy warrior who eventually decides to go by the name of John (Jamie Foxx). Our hero is actually quite pleased to get home and see his girl again, but gets a tremendous surprise when he discovers he has been declared dead, his lands seized, and Marian is now shacked up with a bloke named Will (Jamie ‘Sex Dungeon’ Dornan). (This, by the way, was nothing to the surprise I got when Robin’s ship sailed into ‘Nottingham Harbour’, as Nottingham is generally agreed to be some sixty miles from the coast.)

Robin soon learns that the Sheriff is manipulating the war in Arabia for his own ends (apparently Nottingham is ‘the beating heart of the Crusades’), soaking the poor and spreading dark, divisive tales of multitudes of freedom-hating killers intent on infiltrating western civilisation. He and John resolve to stop it, but this involves discovering what the Sheriff is really doing with the money he takes from his subjects as taxes. They adopt a two-pronged approach – by day, Robin will be a charming young nobleman who will slowly gain the Sheriff’s confidence. But by night he will be a bow-slinging robber known only as the Hood!

I don’t especially want to labour this point too much, because (as mentioned) the film-makers do make it absolutely clear from the get-go that they couldn’t give a stuff about historical accuracy, but, short of proceedings halting for a musical number where Jamie Foxx delivers a new version of his 2005 meteorological ick-fest Storm Forecast, it’s hard to see exactly how this film could become any more divorced from things that actually happened in English history. One of the plot drivers is the question of what the Sheriff is up to with the cash, and I honestly would not have been entirely surprised to learn he was secretly building tanks or robots, because it would have been much of a piece with the rest of the film.

Even so, you have to be somewhat staggered by something passing itself off as a Robin Hood film which features no sword-fighting, no band of Merry Men worthy of the title (there are various characters with similar names, but almost without exception they bear no resemblance to the ones from folklore), and in which you only hear the word ‘Sherwood’ and get a close-up look at a tree in the last five minutes before the credits roll. Prior to this the film is just a generic cod-historical action runaround, most obviously influenced by various computer games and superhero movies and TV shows.

I suppose the big question when one chooses to revisit a fable like this one, if one has any kind of artistic soul, is why you are doing so, given there have been so many previous versions. What is the Robin Hood legend actually about? Why has it endured, and why does it continue to resonate? For me, the legend in its purest form is about a number of things – the complex nature of English society, the relationship between the people and the land, and the national inclination towards independent thinking and natural justice.

If the new version of Robin Hood is about anything beyond special-effects set-pieces, Taron Egerton looking soulful, and Ben Mendelsohn yelling ‘I’ll boil you alive in your own piss!!!’, then it appears to be a sort of glib, one-size-fits-all anti-capitalist and anti-establishment propaganda. Parallels between the situation in the film and recent events are drawn in with broad, clumsy strokes – young people are sent off to die in a foreign war puppeteered by wealthy old men at home, the poor are screwed over by the economic system, and corrupt leaders cynically employ divisive and racist rhetoric to maintain control over the masses.

You could, I suppose, have introduced some of these themes into a Robin Hood movie, if they were handled with care and delicacy, and inserted as a subtext. But here, the whole film feels like a cack-handed attempt at allegory – not so much Robin Hood as Occupy Sherwood.

I will try to find something nice to say about this film, beyond simply that it is not quite as bad as Peter Rabbit (I still had my head in my hands at various points, though). Well – much of it is quite well-staged, and competently organised. I suppose the production values are quite good, although the costumes and sets bear no relation to any particular point in history. Ben Mendelsohn does his best as the Sheriff (too many of the supporting cast are simply wooden). The plot sort of hangs together, on its own terms. But that’s about it, really.

The Rabbit comparison is a pertinent one, actually: in both cases, a well-known tale (or body of tales) has been comprehensively gutted of anything resembling the traditional content, in favour of something which the makers presumably think is contemporary, ‘street’, and edgy, but all the charm and texture of the original has been lost in the process. This is, by any rational standard, an awful Robin Hood film. It will probably make a lot of money. But give me Michael Praed any day.

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