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Normally one of the iron rules of cinema – from that subset of the regulatory corpus devoted to the art of the franchise – is that successful sequels are usually a question of providing more of the same thing from the first film. The trick, such as it is, lies in adding just enough novelty to hide the fact that the film is an exercise in repetition. Long-running franchises inevitably mutate over time, but it’s quite unusual for any two films to be radically different in tone or atmosphere (this is usually the sign of a break in production, a change of key personnel, or both).

So exactly what the hell Netflix think they are doing with Matthias Schweighofer’s Army of Thieves seems to be a reasonable question. One of the arch-streamer’s big releases from early in the summer was Army of the Dead, a big-budget horror extravaganza directed by Zach Snyder in full-on taste-and-nuance-free mode. I had a fairly good time watching Army of the Dead, although I think it’s not a patch on the films that obviously inspired it. Army of Thieves, on the other hand, is a completely different proposition.

Schweighofer was in Army of the Dead and reprises the role here in addition to directing. His character is revealed to have led a former existence as Sebastian Schlencht-Wohnert, by day a bank clerk leading a repetitive, dull life, in his spare time an aspiring YouTuber and expert on safecracking and its history. Of particular interest to him are a series of legendary safes made by a man named Wagner, based on his famous namesake’s Ring Cycle of operas.

One day, he is challenged to put his money where his mouth is, when he gets an invite to a secret underground safecracking club in Berlin (my partner has lived there for many years and I don’t recall her mentioning this being a thing, but then I do spend some of the time tuned out while she’s talking). His performance there leads to an invitation to join a faintly ridiculous gang of elite international thieves. So far the overall tone of the film has simply been a bit odd – low-key character comedy with Schweighofer, mixed with bizarre background details about an outbreak of a zombie virus over in Nevada – but its influences and aspirations become a bit clearer, not least because the leader of the gang is Nathalie Emmanuel, best known for playing a supporting member of the Fast & Furious All-Stars in the last few films from that franchise. Also present are Ruby O Fee as an ace hacker and general cool cat, Scott Martin as an especially absurd alpha-male, and Guz Khan as their sandwich-loving getaway driver.

Yes, with the world’s banks on edge because of the zombie virus outbreak and money being shifted around the world, the gang have decided that this is the optimum time to carry out a series of heists on three of the four Wagner vaults (naturally, all the vaults are about to be decommissioned, meaning the robberies must be performed on consecutive days in different European countries). As the world’s leading expert, it will be Sebastian’s job to crack the safes. What could possibly go wrong?

Army of the Dead had a bit of a fridge title, mainly because the zombies were only figuratively an army, and Army of Thieves really does too, because I don’t think five robbers really constitutes an army, either. This is quibbling stuff, however, as Army of Thieves rather unexpectedly turns out to be really good fun. I must admit that when I first heard of the movie and its premise, the old brow did furrow up a bit – it’s a prequel to a zombie movie that doesn’t actually have any zombies in it? – and there is a sense in which it remains a rather odd proposition. This isn’t really a zombie movie, or any kind of horror movie – and yet they feel obliged to put in background sequences about the zombie outbreak in America, and dream sequences with the undead, and references to the zombie crisis. It’s certainly a new approach to a genre mash-up, but whether it genuinely works or not I wouldn’t like to say.

If you disregard all the stuff about zombies – which is, I have to say, a relatively minor element of the film – what you’re left with is an appealing, slick, almost entirely ridiculous caper movie, built around an engaging performance from Schweighofer and directed by him with a lightness of touch which is very appealing. The Netflix caper comedy which has been getting all the attention is Red Notice, which got a massive audience despite being largely dreadful; there are numerous points of similarity between Red Notice and Army of Thieves (there’s even a casual line of dialogue about one character having been the subject of a red notice since they were a teenager), almost to the point where you wonder if all the people working for Netflix ever actually talk to each other about what they’re doing. However, Schweighofer’s movie is much better, being less smug and lazy and taking the time to establish more rounded characters (some of these guys are well on the way to being three-dimensional) and a slightly more coherent plot. The uninitiated viewer will even learn something about the plot of the Ring Cycle, which isn’t something you can say about most action comedy caper movies.

Quite apart from all the odd bits with zombies in them, the film’s existence as a prequel does result in a few slightly regrettable effects – the storyline about the four Wagner vaults isn’t entirely resolved, because, guess what, the final safe is the one Schweighofer is hired to crack in Army of Thieves (all the Wagner music on the soundtrack in that movie finally makes sense as more than a tip of the hat to Excalibur, which is apparently Zach Snyder’s favourite movie), while some of the violence in this film is just a touch more graphic than you might expect given the overall frothy tone of it. (I must also report yet another appearance of that disagreeable trope where, given a nicely diverse group of characters, it’s always only ever a character of one gender, one orientation, and one ethnic group who turns out to be the traitorous villain – see also Eternals, for another example of the same thing.)

On the whole, though, a really entertaining and fun movie, and one which perhaps even manages to give Army of the Dead a bit of much-needed poignancy and depth, given the way it expands Schweighofer’s character. (Then again, unlikely as it seems, apparently he’s going to be in the next sequel, Planet of the Dead, as well.) This is very possibly a better film than its progenitor, but it’s obviously incredibly hard to compare the two. This is a rare example of a franchise where it’s entirely possible someone could thoroughly enjoy one film but take a violent dislike to the other.

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One of the things the last couple of years has really brought home to me is the fact that while I do, obviously, enjoy watching films, I also have a helpless passion for the theatrical experience: actually going out to a cinema, trying to sit patiently through the adverts, wondering which trailers we’re going to get, and so on. I’ve got West Side Story on DVD and have lost track of how often I’ve seen it, but every time it comes back on at a cinema I try to watch it again there, simply because the context makes a truly great film into an almost overwhelming one. I saw it on the big screen again the other night, where it was preceded by the trailer for Steven Spielberg’s forthcoming version: predictable cries of ‘Spoilers!’ from someone at the back, in addition to a vague sense of bafflement at what on earth Spielberg thinks he can possibly achieve. No film is entirely perfect, but West Side Story comes much closer than most, especially up on the big screen.

It was just as well I went, as the following day Niece tested positive for Covid (life is still not back on an entirely even keel and my family are showing superhuman reserves of patience and generosity by putting up with me for much longer than anticipated) and trips to the cinema are off the agenda for at least the next ten days. So much for an early verdict on the Ghostbusters sequel or Benedict Cumberbatch’s new western.

‘There’s always home cinema,’ someone said, but, you know, that always sounds a bit of an oxymoron to me. But I am in a minority, of course: the home cinema audience is huge, and it seems like an appreciable chunk of them spent the other weekend watching Rawson Marshall Thurber’s Red Notice, which apparently had the biggest audience share for its debut of any film in Netflix history. (It also had the tiny cinema release Netflix usually reserves only for films it hopes will win Oscars: I’m going to stick my neck out and say unless they introduce a new category for Best Film With No Substance, Identity, or Original Ideas of Its Own, Red Notice will be going home empty-handed.)

Red Notice is virtually a fridge title anyway: apparently it’s another name for the most serious kind of international arrest warrant, not that this has any relevance to the plot until the last few seconds. The film gets going with some flim-flam about fabulous jewelled eggs that Mark Antony gave to Cleopatra as a wedding present (the eggs and even the marriage are entirely fictitious, by the way); the quest to reunite the eggs is the plot device the rest of the movie pivots creakily around.

One of the eggs is in Italy, so we get a swooping drone camera shot of the iconic and unmistakable skyline of Rome, which the director then decides to obscure behind a huge caption saying ROME, presumably because he knows this film is aimed at an audience whose carpets and knuckles are frequently in contact. Leaping stoically from a hefty vehicle is genial Dwayne Johnson, whose head looks a bit like an egg these days (he was paid 10% of the very substantial budget): Dwayne basically seems to be playing a variation on his Fast & Furious character, in this case a no-nonsense FBI agent chasing a daring art thief. Johnson thinks the thief has already nicked the egg. ‘Of course not!’ sneers the museum director. But our man knows better, and the thief has made the mistake of swapping the priceless treasure for a fake which dissolves when a well-known soft drink is poured over it. Even more perplexingly, given he must have nicked the egg the previous night (the exhibit is surrounded by tourists all the time), the thief (Ryan Reynolds) has stuck around for some reason.

Still, it enables Johnson and Reynolds to chase about and swap repartee for a bit, which is really the meat of this kind of movie; it looks for a bit like Reynolds has got away, but no, Johnson turns up and nabs him properly, and he gets sent off to the Russian gulag to await trial (I think some of the jurisprudence in this movie is a bit iffy, but I expect you had already figured that out for yourself).

But lo! There is another twist, as another art thief (Gal Gadot, on another 10% of the budget) pinches the egg after Johnson recovers it, having taken on the job of finding all three in return for a huge payday. What’s more, Gadot frames Johnson for the theft, and Interpol send him off to be Reynolds’ cell-mate in Russia.

Yes, we are back in buddy-buddy land, and it falls to Reynolds and Johnson to team up, bust out of prison with virtually a single bound, and try to stop Gadot from getting the other two eggs, bickering and squabbling all the way. Can they find the other eggs in time? Will they come to respect and like each other? And just how big a slice of the budget is Ryan Reynolds actually in line for?

Let’s get one thing straight: Red Notice is a pretty bad movie, even by the standards of Netflix originals. All three stars have basically been nailed into their comfort zones and are required to work with a script where various elements of old Fast & Furious, Ocean’s Eleven and Indiana Jones films are cobbled together, all seemingly with the least demanding of audiences in mind. There are holes in the plot Dwayne Johnson would probably fit through, plot twists that are either very predictable or completely absurd, grindingly obvious expo- and info-dumps, and heavy reliance on slick and (also obvious) CGI. There are some tonal problems for what’s supposed to be a knockabout caper (at one point Gadot, desirous of information, applies electrodes to Johnson’s lower anatomy, and not in a recreational way). Such is the nature of the plot that the film doesn’t even have a proper climax or ending, just sort of crunching its way down into a lower gear while getting ready for the inevitable sequel or two. It is mechanical popcorn film-making of the least attractive kind, and shorn of the benefits of the theatrical experience there is little to disguise this.

However, it would be remiss of me not to admit that watching it was not a wholly horrible experience: genial Dwayne has become the world’s biggest star because he is an agreeable screen presence, after all, and in this film he does the sort of thing audiences like to see him do – the film only really pushes him into new territory at one point where he is required to do the tango with Gadot, which resembles what will happen if examples of industrial architecture are ever allowed to compete on Strictly. Ryan Reynolds, also, is very good at the kind of snarky, faintly camp and knowing schtick he is constantly doing throughout, and the film does have some pretty good gags in it. I must also acknowledge the presence of what I have called for some years the Kurylenko Factor: which is that any film in which someone like Gal Gadot habitually turns up in tight dresses, well-fitted jodhpurs, swimsuits, I think you’re getting the idea here, is always going to have a kind of rudimentary appeal on a very basic level, no matter how bad the script. I’m not proud of it, but it is a fact.

The thing is, though, that the idea is surely to take charismatic stars, adept light comedians, and beautiful women and put them in a film with a really good script where they shine, not just treat them as nearly sufficient in and of themselves and just do the barest minimum to cobble a story together around them. But this is what Red Notice feels like: it’s just dumb and pointless, for all the slick and lavish presentation. A shocking waste of time and talent, and a very bad omen for the future.

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I like Tom Hardy; he’s a talented guy. I also like Andy Serkis, for the same reason. I like Woody Harrelson, Naomie Harris, and Reece Shearsmith too, and I suppose I don’t have a beef with Stephen Graham or Michelle Williams either, now that I think about it. An enviably talented bunch, that lot, with some really impressive work behind them.

Quite what they’re all doing making Venom: Let There Be Carnage together, I have no idea, but I suspect the siren song of an $850 million box office return for the original film may have something to do with it. That is a slightly baffling figure for a not-especially-good film where (essentially) a pool of brain-eating slime is the theoretical protagonist and lots of things don’t actually make a great deal of sense. But here we are, with a sequel touted as featuring ‘one of Marvel’s greatest and most complex characters’.

(Yes, we are back in the realm of Marvel Comics-inspired movies yet again, though – for anyone not versed in such matters – this is not an actual Marvel Studios production, but one made ‘in association with Marvel’ – basically, Marvel sold off the rights to the Venom character years ago to Sony, who know a promising bandwagon when they see it and are pressing ahead with their at-a-slight-remove franchise of Spider-Man characters, tangentially connected to the Marvel Studios juggernaut.)

Greatest? Well, that’s a matter of opinion – but ‘most complex’? Venom’s a pool of brain-eating slime that started off as a gimmick costume for Spider-Man, so let’s not get delusions of grandeur here – we’re hardly talking about Othello or Hamlet. Thankfully, the film has little truck with this sort of pretentiousness, cheerfully chucking it out (but presumably failing to notice that things like characterisation and plot coherence were apparently packed in the same box).

Tom Hardy, who also co-wrote the story and co-produced the film, once again plays Eddie Brock, a whiny loser of a journalist who is still sharing his body with Venom, an alien symbiote with various bizarre powers, an egotistical personality, no moral compass whatsoever and an insatiable appetite for brains. (The dynamic between the two of them is oddly reminiscent of that of Rod Hull and Emu, although with more CGI.) For reasons mainly to do with the requirements of the plot, Brock is summoned to meet with imprisoned serial killer Cletus Kasady (Woody Harrelson).

This whole plot element is epically fudged, to be honest, but the upshot is that Kasady is sent to death row, for which he blames Brock. (Forget all those years of appeals and pleas for clemency you often see in movies and documentaries – on this occasion, from sentencing to execution seems to take about a day and half.) However, Kasady also manages to eat part of the Venom symbiote (don’t ask), which fissions off into an angry red blob with severe daddy issues called Carnage. Pausing only to bust his crazed girlfriend (Harris) out of an institute for mentally unstable people with mutant powers, Carnage sets off to destroy Venom, Brock, and everyone close to them…

(Yes, it is very odd that, in a film set in a world where there isn’t a superhero on every street corner and Venom and Carnage appear to be the only unusual inhabitants, someone randomly turns up with mutant powers, but no-one makes much of a fuss about it even though it feels like a stretch for this particular movie. But the whole issue of the relationship between the different Marvel franchises is a live and dynamic one right now, and this film is likely to be discussed a lot with particular reference to a moment which will presumably end up being blamed on Lokiette nuking the Sacred Timeline.)

I thought the greatest value of the first Venom movie was as a stern reminder of just how bad a lot of superhero movies were, X-Men franchise excepted, in the late 90s and the early years of this century. This one is, objectively speaking, at least as bad and quite possibly worse – it’s a toss-up as to whether the plot makes more or less sense this time around, but there’s also an undistinguished performance from Harrelson, who is perhaps a bit swamped by all the CGI, and Harris frantically chewing the scenery as an almost totally one-dimensional character.

And yet, and yet… oh dear. I have to confess that I really enjoyed a lot of this film, although I did feel a bit embarrassed about it even at the time. This is mainly because the movie isn’t afraid to really engage with the potential silliness of the relationship between Brock and the symbiote and play it hard for laughs. The bromance between the two of them and their various squabbles over who is in charge, are actually quite sweet and funny, and Tom Hardy gives a genuinely accomplished comic performance, both in terms of physical slapstick as Brock, and vocally as Venom. (Never mind Patrick Stewart or Ronnie Kray or Bane, the Venom voice is probably the most impressive in Hardy’s repertoire.)

Perhaps one of the problems of the film, for Woody Harrelson in particular, is that Carnage comes across as a slightly tedious single-issue version of Venom, with essentially the same powers and a boring personality – if Harrelson had found a way to differentiate between the two characters more effectively, the rest of the film might have been as engaging as Tom Hardy’s comedy schtick.

In the end it is really just an exercise in simple charisma and incidental pleasures; the film is paced like an absolute bullet, presumably to ensure no-one has time to think about exactly what’s going on in front of their eyes – most of the time you’re bombarded with decent gags frequently enough to keep the weaknesses of the film from seeming too obvious. (That said, the climactic CGI battle is, as usual, 10-15% too long.)

I wouldn’t bet against Let There Be Carnage’s mixture of CGI-boosted grisliness and slapstick turning out to be just as big a hit as it was the last time around, but it’s difficult to see where they can go next with the character without repeating themselves – beyond the obvious alternative, which is to do a team-up with one of the other characters they have the rights to. That would certainly be interesting. Putting Venom into a bigger world might do both him and it some good; as it stands, this film is likely headed for cult guilty pleasure status.

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The arrival of a new James Bond film has always been a very big deal, for as long as I can remember – but such is the breathless expectation awaiting Cary Joji Fukunaga’s No Time to Die that one half expects significant chunks of the population to turn purple and fall over. This is, let us recall, the production which saw Danny Boyle depart shortly before shooting began, due to script differences; various injuries besetting key cast members; and not one but two substantial postponements, the second of which was the catalyst which caused several major UK cinema chains to shut up shop last Autumn, well ahead of the second lockdown.

Now, of course, it seems that Bond is the latest movie to be hailed as the saviour of commercial cinema. So desperate, so certain is the company running the local multiplex where I’m living, that they scheduled forty-five screenings of the movie on its day of release alone (not counting the midnight showing – they started at nine in the morning and continued several times an hour until eleven at night). This is unprecedented, mad, and silly; it almost qualifies as a new level of hype and expectation. No film, not even a classic Bond, can match up to this kind of hype, surely?

Well. The film opens with the customary pre-credits sequence, but its first innovation is to shatter the record for time elapsed before the actual titles roll. Don’t hold your breath or you’ll be turning purple and falling over again. To be fair, this is a hugely confident and thrilling segment, opening with a vignette like something out of a horror movie, segueing into something unexpectedly moving, and then slamming into high gear as Bond’s trip to Italy with his girlfriend from the last movie (Lea Seydoux) hits a few wrinkles – suffice to say the famous Aston Martin DB5 gets one more glorious run-out.

Then we’re off into the plot, which starts with a resurgent SPECTRE (I know I’m the only one still capitalising the name of the organisation, but I’m a sentimental old thing) attacking a London bio-warfare lab, stealing a new weapon, and kidnapping its creator. Shadowy forces are at work inside the governments of the free world and a retired Bond is recruited by his old friend Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright) to retrieve the boffin before SPECTRE persuades him to do something nefarious with it. However, he finds himself in competition with his old paymasters at MI6, who have sent a Double-O agent from the younger generation on exactly the same mission…

And it all takes off from here, more or less. The plot is convoluted, but not impenetrably so, although it does feel sometimes that all the double-crossings and personal angst and exposition of bleak back-story is rather taking the place of the action and grand set-pieces which have always been the Bond franchise’s bread and butter. Somewhere along the way, too, exactly what the agenda of the diabolical mastermind (Rami Malek) is seems to become rather unclear. Even so, the film finishes strongly, with all the requisite crash-bang-wallop (along with a few more surprising touches) and the getting-on-for-three-hours running time more or less floats by provided you haven’t ingested too many liquids before it starts.

This is lavish, highly entertaining stuff, less glum and introspective overall than some of the Craig Bond films have been in the past, and striking an interesting balance between honouring the series’ history and engaging in some startling acts of iconoclasm – the plot draws on elements from the original version of You Only Live Twice, while the film overall is informed by one previous entry in the series in particular. Daniel Craig himself carries a huge movie with aplomb, but he is very well supported – Rami Malek is an authentically creepy and twisted Bond villain, Jeffrey Wright manages to make Leiter so much more than just Bond’s sidekick, and there’s an eye-catching extended cameo from Ana de Armas (who I think everyone was expecting to be in the movie a bit more than she actually is).

However, there are a lot of things about this film which it’s very difficult to talk about without spoiling it completely – most of them ultimately boiling down to the question of just what place, if any, there is for a character like James Bond in the world today. The producers (one of whom is Craig) seem very aware of this, which is why a number of what can perhaps be called corrective measures have been put in place – Lashana Lynch plays one of Bond’s fellow agents and the script has been given a polish by the acclaimed Fridge Wallaby, writer and star of Fleabag. Even so, one gets a sense of the decks being swept quite clean and a line firmly being drawn under the Craig era, in preparation for…

Well, that’s the question. When you really get down to it, James Bond – Ian Fleming’s James Bond 007, as the credits still put it – is the personification of a white heterosexual male power fantasy, and I can’t think of anything more problematic in modern culture. Bond has always been a bit problematic, but never more so than today, when virtually every major remake or adaptation of an older story sees characters ostentatiously having their genders or ethnicities changed.

Looking at the Craig era now, it’s clear that throughout them there’s been an ongoing negotiation between Bond-as-power-fantasy-figure and Bond-as-an-actual-credible-character; what made Casino Royale such an astounding breath of fresh air was that it did treat Bond seriously as a character; the series’ occasional problems since then have largely arisen from the limitations of this approach within the confines of a traditionally big, brash, and slightly tongue-in-cheek blockbuster action movie series. The new film really pushes this approach to its uttermost limits: one of the things I predict will prove highly polarising and divisive about it is that it is the human, flawed Bond that is central to the (rather contrived) final sequence, rather than the comforting, infallible superhero. (Not that the pay-off to this isn’t unexpectedly moving.)

The old idea of James Bond as a white male wish-fulfilment figure likely has no future, the modern cultural landscape being as it is. The problem is that the subtler Bond the Craig movies have brought to the screen, a somewhat modulated and updated, more humanised version of the character from the novels, likely has little distance left to run either: for a new actor to continue with it now would only invite deadly comparisons with Daniel Craig. But there has to be something a Bond movie provides that you just don’t get from – say – a Fast & Furious movie; call it the quintessence of Bondishness. What the people at the top of Eon have to figure out now is just what that is and whether it still has a place in the culture of the future.

I must admit to not being particular optimistic on this front, having seen too much well-intentioned cultural vandalism over the last few years. Bond is really the last of the great masculine icons; it’s a wonder he’s lasted this long. If this twenty-fifth Bond film does prove to be the last hurrah of the series before it’s reconfigured into something fundamentally different, then that’s a shame – but No Time to Die is at least a worthy and entirely fitting piece of valediction.

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My usual line when it comes to John Carpenter and his career (as previously articulated here, quite a few times I expect), is that he basically did it backwards – starting with the acclaimed, massively influential studio films and then going on to make a range of eclectic movies, which only really have in common the fact they are exasperatingly inconsistent. The consensus is that Carpenter started to go off the boil after making The Thing in 1982, though I am aware that Starman (1984) has its champions and some of the other later films have achieved cult status too (Carpenter probably qualifies as a cult director, full stop).

One of those later film is They Live, from 1988, although it is a divisive and provocative work. The director Alex Cox has described it, essentially, as being halfway brilliant – which I’m not sure I’d entirely agree with. I’m fully in accord with Cox when it comes to the many flaws of the film, which are substantial, I’m not sure the rest of it is quite as good as he thinks.

The movie opens with the usual sort of Carpenter-penned theme music (my niece has been known to complain that the music of Sparks is repetitive, but they have nothing on Carpenter in this respect) and a blue-collar drifter arriving in Los Angeles; he is (initially at least) a taciturn, thoughtful chap, and also a strapping lad (he is played by wrestling heel par excellence ‘Rowdy’ Roddy Piper). Our hero is never actually named on screen, but he’s credited as Nada (meaning ‘nothing’). Nada is part of a growing underclass of people struggling to make ends meet, though he manages to find work on a construction site. In Carpenter’s usual sparse way, he establishes a situation not unlike an 80s-set update of The Grapes of Wrath – the majority desperately struggling to survive as a tiny elite grow richer, although there is the very non-Steinbeckian motif of the poorer members of society being placated by an endless diet of cable TV.

But then, as this is a Carpenter movie, another element appears: pirate TV broadcasts seemingly ranting about a conspiracy to subjugate and exploit the population, railing against the mysterious group responsible for the economic and social divisions in the country. It turns out the rebellious group are based in the church next to the camp for homeless people that Nada is living in; the police arrive and brutally deal with the group.

However, Nada does some poking around in the lab that the rebels were operating and finds a pair of sunglasses. He pays them little heed until he puts them on and sees a world transformed: TV screens, billboards, signs, the covers of books and magazines – all of them projecting subliminal messages along the lines of OBEY, CONSUME, DON’T QUESTION AUTHORITY, and so on. Even more disturbingly, the glasses reveal that many of the wealthiest members of society are in fact skull-faced green-skinned aliens…

It’s They Live’s one great moment of inarguable brilliance, and such a neat idea it has been co-opted by other films since (most recently Free Guy). Of course, it’s a good science fiction idea, but it’s also an openly allegorical and subversive one (Slavoj Zizek discusses the film at some length in The Pervert’s Guide to Ideology) – you have to give Carpenter some credit for managing to get such an anti-capitalistic message into what was a fairly mainstream film.

(Of course, Carpenter is on slightly treacherous ground here – as far as he’s concerned, They Live is metaphorical, suggesting that the elite of society have alien values and treat everyone else like a different species (possibly contentious, but defensibly so). The problem is that some people have interpreted the film as an actual allegory in support of a wide range of crackpot (and objectionable) conspiracy theories about the world being secretly run by aliens or lizards or alien lizards, which usually end up heading off into anti-Semitic territory or somewhere even nastier. Carpenter has said this wasn’t his intention, and I have no reason to disbelieve him, nor do I think that a film is necessarily bad just because it can be interpreted to support offensive views.)

Unfortunately, making a truly great film isn’t just a matter of having a good idea, you have to do something with it too – and the problem with They Live is that, having finally pulled off his big reveal (and not before time – we’re quite a long way into the film by now), Carpenter doesn’t seem to know what to do next in terms of developing his idea or exploring it further. So he falls back on cheesy B-movie action tropes and cliches.

Up to this point Nada has been depicted as a more or less normal, decent, reasonable, reserved kind of guy; probably a Republican voter, but you can’t have everything. Having been attacked by two aliens disguised as police, however, he arms up with their weapons, walks into a bank, delivers a cheesy one-liner and starts blowing away every alien he sees with a stolen shotgun. The action is reasonably well-mounted, but it still feels like a film which initially showed compassion and a flash of real intelligence and wit has suddenly become gleefully stupid and a tiny bit crass.

It gets worse (in every sense). The screenplay was written by Carpenter himself (under the Lovecraftian pseudonym of ‘Frank Armitage’, which is also the name of Nada’s sidekick, played by Keith David), although ‘written’ probably suggests a degree of structure and coherence which it doesn’t really deserve. Many of Carpenter’s creative decisions are, well, very odd indeed, and seem poorly thought-through (if thought-through at all) – for instance, most films start fairly slow and then pick up the pace as they continue, but this one plods along steadily from beginning to end. Even the film’s most celebrated sequence – a brawl between Piper and David in an alleyway, adding very little to the plot, which goes on for six ridiculous minutes – has a weirdly stately and unhurried quality to it.

They Live doesn’t just become a cheesy B-movie action film, it turns into a really bad cheesy B-movie action film. By the end, characters and locations are appearing and disappearing simply to serve the meanderings of the story, with their personalities and agendas changing to suit. The main female character, played by a third-billed Meg Foster, initially comes across as a steely Howard Hawks-type dame, but in each of the three short sequences she appears in she has a different attitude and set of priorities – she’s very obviously a plot device rather than a character.

Some have suggested the sheer badness and incoherence of the second half of They Live is intentional, that it’s a deconstruction of the kind of pap commercial cinema the big studios routinely pump out, and that as it a result it’s part of the film’s subversive thesis. But it just seems like a bad movie to me, and – regrettably – much of a muchness with a lot of later Carpenter movies. Perhaps it’s because the film has that one really great cinematic moment of revelation that the rest of it feels so very disappointing in comparison. But what is certain is that the opening section of the film promises a very great deal, which the conclusion dismally fails to deliver.

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I remember when the question of what a film was actually called seemed quite simple. Of course, there were always jokes about Jaws being retitled as Teeth of the Sea, A View to a Kill as Indestructible Iron Man Fights the Electronic Gang, and the 1980s Lancaster-Douglas vehicle Tough Guys as Archie and Harry are Too Old to Do It Any More. But, you know, I try to keep my horizons nice and broad, and when you have a film which went out under the English-language title Furious, as The Last Warriors in German, and Legend of Kolovrat in its native Russia, what is a right-thinking internet-based pretend-film-critic to do? Let’s stick with Legend of Kolovrat as it saves the risk of confusion with Vin and co.

So – this is a 2017 film which operates on the more realistic side of the border between the historical adventure and fantasy genres. Things get underway in 13th century Russia, which is facing up to the likelihood of an invading Mongol horde in the not too distant future. Keen to do his bit is young lad Evpaty, whose speciality appears to be swinging two swords around his head at the same time; this leads to his master’s daughter Nastya nicknaming him ‘kolovrat’, after a spinning wheel (also the slightly sus kolovrat icon, which resembles a double-swastika).

However, Evpaty’s youth and innocence come to an end when his master is ambushed by a Mongol raiding party. Startled by his whirling-swords trick, the Mongols decide not to take any chances and just crack him on the head with what looks like a stone bola.

Abruptly, the scene changes; Evpaty is now a grown man (with a nasty scar on his temple), waking up in his room in the city of Ryazan, still busting to keep fighting the Mongols. An also-grown Nastya rushes in and calms him down: it’s over a decade later, but due to his bang on the head Evpaty (also known as Kolovrat, for obvious reasons) has a problem with his memory. Every day he wakes up initially having forgotten everything that’s happened since the battle with the Mongols, and needing to be reminded of it. (The adult Kolovrat is played by Ivan Malakov, who does what the film requires of him capably enough; Nastya is played by Polina Chernyshova, who is not the kind of able young actress to let an underwritten part and a gratuitous nude scene get in the way of her doing her best with her role.)

Kolovrat is now an officer, training the guards of the Prince of Ryazan. The guards may well soon be required to call on their skills as the Mongol horde is still on the warpath and heading in Ryazan’s direction. The Prince decides to pack his son off at the head of a delegation to try and buy the Khan (Aleksandr Choi) off, or at least give them time to prepare the defences. Kolovrat is sent with him, against his wishes – he is worried his little memory-related quirk may prove to be an issue. To stop this being a problem, Nastya sends along one of her maids, Lada (Yulia Khlynina), to remind him who he is every time he has a nap. (Nastya’s other maids, Skoda, Yugo, and Trabant, are not allowed to go along.)

Well, there is a lot of macho posturing when the Ryazans arrive at the Khan’s camp, with their host being quite open about his intention to conquer the city. It soon becomes apparent that the Khan intends to kill or capture them all (so much for the diplomatic niceties). But, of course, Kolovrat and his comrades manage to escape, taking with them some prisoners they have managed to free (including Nastya’s father, who has spent the last decade or so being used as a table leg). Now they just have to get back home and rally resistance to the invaders in the name of Russia!

One of the reasons I enjoy watching films from other cultures that I know virtually nothing about is the pleasurable frisson I get from sitting down in front of a movie which is pretty much a complete mystery to me – this is in addition to the other pleasures of a foreign movie, of course. Sometimes you end up watching something wholly new and surprising; other times what’s startling is just how closely other parts of the world end up copying the style of popular American movies (I guess that’s what hegemony comes down to in the end).

Legend of Kolovrat is a pretty decent movie for what it is: a big, broad, fairly colourful historical adventure, tending towards epic: the art direction and costuming is excellent, the fight choreography does the job very nicely, and really the only brick one could sling at the production is the fact it is every bit as reliant on obvious CGI effects and greenscreen backdrops as any comparable English-language production. But I suppose that’s the nature of the beast these days.

The most immediately striking plot element is the fact that this is a historical action movie where the protagonist is suffering from a chronic brain injury. This at least makes the film somewhat distinctive, although it’s mainly there as colour (apart from serving a useful expository function early on, it doesn’t inform the plot very much). To be honest the film doesn’t seem quite sure what to do with it, or even how it works, exactly. There’s a bit early on where the adult Kolovrat makes Nastya a whistle to replace one which she dropped just before the fight, thirteen years earlier (but only a few minutes ago from his perspective). It’s a touching beat, but I thought ‘If they did a parody of this, you’d now see Nastya putting it in a huge box of whistles, as he makes her one every day without realising it’. And then you see Nastya putting the new whistle in a huge box full of them.

Oh well, chronic brain injuries aside, the thing about Legend of Kolovrat which smacks you in the face is just how much it seems to be aping the style and structure of Zach Snyder’s 300 (maybe not the first time chronic brain damage has come up in relation to 300, but this exact context may be new). Quite apart from being a CGI-powered historical epic, the Mongols stand in for the Persians, the Ryazan delegation get to be the Spartans, and it all boils down to an heroic last stand and even more posturing before everything is resolved, with a conclusion which is almost drawn shot-for-shot from the Snyder film. Now, I like 300, up to a point, and I enjoyed this Russian version of the story quite a lot as well. But I imagine someone who puts more of a premium on originality might feel differently.

I suspect there isn’t enough about Legend of Kolovrat to make it really distinctive; this is why the film feels so much like a knock-off. But it’s a well-made and fairly enjoyable knock-off, pleasing to the eye and with plenty of pace to it. I don’t think it’s anyone’s idea of a great film (anyone outside the Russian-speaking world, anyway), but I find it hard to be really critical of it.

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If I cast my mind back into the dimmest recesses of history – we’re talking years and years ago, now – there was a time when I occasionally said something nice about Zack Snyder or one of his films. We’re talking the mid-to-late years of the last but one decade – are we really going to call it the noughties? Is that the best we can manage? – obviously, before his collision with the DC comics series movie franchise. Up to a point, I rather liked his version of Dawn of the Dead, and had a good time in 300 and Watchmen, as well. (Watchmen probably got him the DC gig, although the minds responsible don’t seem to have twigged that Moore and Gibbons’ masterpiece has an utterly different sensibility and tone to a conventional superhero film.)

So, always with the proviso that it doesn’t feature any superheroes, I should perhaps be cautiously hopeful about a new Snyder project, even if it is a Netflix original (the company continues to splash out vast sums on these big productions, but the people running it are apparently confident the massive debts incurred are manageable). It’s still not exactly what you’d call a step into bold new territory from the director, as it’s basically just another zombie movie, albeit on the kind of scale that George A Romero could only have dreamt of.

The premise of Army of the Dead (very nearly a fridge title) is that a zombie outbreak in Las Vegas has led to the entire city being walled off with the undead left inside to do whatever zombies do when there’s no-one around to eat. Obviously, this is a catastrophe waiting to happen, and so – in a blackly comic touch – the government is planning to nuke the city on the Fourth of July and thus permanently resolve the situation.

This doesn’t really affect ex-special forces hard-nut and aspiring short-order cook Scott Ward (Dave Bautista), until a slimy casino owner approaches him with a deal: in a vault underneath one of the hotels is $200 million in cash. If Ward leads a team into the city, cracks the safe, and returns with the money, he can have a quarter of it to distribute however he sees fit. Is he interested?

Well, it would be a much, much shorter movie if he wasn’t. The crew Ward assembles includes various other tough guys and oddballs, with Matthias Schweighofer as a safecracker, Tig Notaro as a helicopter pilot, and Nora Amezeder as a scout and zombie expert. There’s also a clearly dodgy character in the employ of the slimy casino owner, and – for only slightly contrived reasons – Ella Purnell as Ward’s petite and wide-eyed young daughter (who must take after her mother).

So in they all go, and you can probably guess what takes up most of the rest of the movie – lots of sneaking about with the occasional interlude of extreme violence, revelations, double-crosses, desperate sacrifices, and so on. It’s an action movie at least as much as a horror film, and a stupendously violent one – although there are also elements of a heist film in the mix, obviously, and the plot has very obvious echoes of Aliens in a few places, too.

Zack Snyder is very good at orchestrating this sort of thing. (Hey, there you go: an unqualified piece of praise for Zack Snyder.) Some people have called the film humourless, but I’m not sure I’d agree: there’s a definite element of black comedy to the initial scenes of Las Vegas being over-run by zombie showgirls and Elvis impersonators, and the whole thing has a kind of tongue-in-cheek comic book sensibility to it. If anything, it’s attempts to give the film more of a serious emotional core which are less successful, and this may be down to the casting as much as anything else.

Most of the scenes in question feature Ella Purnell, who is clearly an able young actress, and Dave Bautista, who is a hulking ex-wrestler. (I think Bautista comfortably claims the #3 spot on the current Top Movie Hulks list, after genial Dwayne and Vin.) Bautista is very good in the scenes requiring him to mete out carnage to the undead, but less effective when it comes to delivering a dramatic performance. He’s not actively bad. But it’s fair to say that he is not a revelation in this role, and the scenes between him and Purnell feel underpowered as a result.

But you could also argue this is an ensemble piece rather than a star vehicle for Bautista, and there are certainly a lot of characters in the mix. Everything present in Army of the Dead is here in large quantities: lots of characters, lots of zombies, lots of gore, lots of money. The movie ends up being a hefty two-and-a-half-hours long as a result – at one point I checked how long was left, assuming the thing was virtually over, and found there were nearly twenty minutes left to run – with a lavish prologue depicting how the zombie outbreak got started, and a fairly elaborate epilogue potentially setting up a sequel. I’m not sure these are really needed; the film is probably about forty minutes too long considering it’s a zombie action movie.

Because in the end that’s really all it is. It’s a lavish and technically very accomplished production – apparently one of the more prominent actors got Weinsteined after filming had concluded and was digitally replaced in post-production, and you genuinely cannot tell – and, you know, it has epic spectacle to offer and all that. (Not to mention a zombified version of one of Siegfried and Roy’s tigers.) But while it’s obviously inspired by a George Romero movie, it’s very hard to see any sign of the big ideas about society or culture that are such a key element of his best films. This is just rock ‘n’ roll, crash-bang-wallop stuff, with a big dollop of calculated nastiness added to the mixture. It’s undeniably an entertaining film, if zombie action horror is your cup of tea, and less actively exasperating than most of the things Snyder has directed in the last decade. But despite all of this it’s essentially just an exploitation B-movie blown up to ludicrous proportions, and ultimately vacuous.

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Retirement ages for film stars are not rigidly enforced, and so the phenomenon of the action movie starring someone really a bit too long in the tooth for it has been with us for a while – going back to the late 60s or early 70s at least. Here we must distinguish between films which are vehicles for an established star who is simply refusing to go gentle into the good night of actually acting their age, and those in which the long-in-the-toothness is an element of the story: part of the point of the film is that it’s about a person who’s getting on a bit. (For a reasonable example of the first, I would suggest the 1975 film Brannigan, and for the second the 1976 film The Shootist, both starring John Wayne.)

The question, of course, is really which category the slate of films made by Liam Neeson in recent years should go into: Neeson himself is 70 next year, but while the films do sort of acknowledge the fact that he seems like an unlikely person to be beating much younger actors up with quite such gusto, the issue of his actual age is usually skated over. Nevertheless, I have been known to refer to films of this type as ‘bus pass bad-ass movies’, as they are usually about vigilante pensioners or something of that ilk. (Not that they are necessarily bad films, I should add: Michael Caine’s Harry Brown is a fine example of the form, and a pretty good movie too.)

Heading sort of into this territory comes Ilya Niashuller’s Nobody, which really resembles a Liam Neeson movie as hybridised with John Wick (writer Derek Kolstad and producer David Leitch have form with the Keanu Reeves franchise about a short-fused hitman). The first odd thing about this film is that it is a star vehicle for Bob Odenkirk; this is strange because I had absolutely no recognition of his name or face before going into the movie. Men in their late 50s don’t just walk into the lead role of an action movie; at least, not normally they don’t. (It turns out Odenkirk’s star has been on the rise for a few years due to his being in Breaking Bad and its spin-off; clearly I should be watching more on TV than just re-runs of Civilisation and Space: 1999.)

Then again, the sheer nondescriptness of Odenkirk is really what the film is about; he is a slight chap, with an interestingly craggy face a bit reminiscent of Bob Peck but also of Hugo Weaving. In this film he plays Hutch Mansell, a middle-manager at a small family-run factory, with a nice wife (Connie Nielsen), nice kids, a nice house, and a life which is deeply mired in routine.

This changes one night when burglars break into the house and hold Hutch and his family at gunpoint. At one point Hutch has the opportunity to overpower them, but decides to resolve the situation non-violently and lets them go. (Hint: this is possibly the last time anything is done non-violently in the whole movie.) For this he is treated with condescension, pity, and contempt by his in-laws, neighbours, children, the police, and so on: a real man would have fought back, wouldn’t he?

It looks like Hutch initially manages to swallow his pride, but when it looks like his young daughter’s precious kitty-kat bracelet was accidentally taken by the burglars, something pops, or ignites, inside him. It turns out that – not entirely surprisingly – he has a bit of a past, and a set of skills he’s secretly dying to use again. He ends up sitting on a bus as a group of drunk young thugs get on, quietly praying they’re going to make trouble (the audience is probably hoping the same thing by this point). Suffice to say some top-notch violence ensues as the drab little manager puts the entire gang in the hospital, but it could be that Hutch has made a mistake – one of the victims of his righteous fury was the little brother of Russian Mafia boss Yulian (Alexei Serebryakov), who is a homicidal karaoke-loving psychopath, and now looking for an equally extravagant revenge…

Watching In the Heights was frequently a joyous experience, but I can’t remember the last time I saw a film which was quite as much fun as Nobody: it gets the fusion of accomplished, gritty action and droll black comedy just about spot-on. It’s not as stylised as John Wick nor as vicious as parts of Taken, and it’s a lot funnier than either of them.

Bob Odenkirk is consistently excellent value in the lead role, easily carrying the film. Not only is he funny, but he and the film also know when to drop in a grace note of pure seriousness as well, and this is something Nobody handles rather better than a lot of higher-profile films. There are many films about men with a history of violence who are looking to put it behind them, but find this kind of life impossible to escape. In most of them – Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine films, for instance – it’s all handled in a very po-faced sort of way, with the protagonist staring mournfully into the middle distance as they contemplate the fact they keep getting dragged into mayhem and carnage against their will.

Nobody does it differently. This film is quite open about the fact that there’s a part of Hutch which just really enjoys messing people up and destroying property, no matter how he tries to suppress it. More than once in the film he finds himself in a situation which could go one of two ways – and every time, you can see him really hoping it’s going to be the one involving property damage and a soaring body-count. Yet you also get a real sense of the conflict in him – the glimpses of regret and dismay in his face after he gives in to his darker impulses are unmistakeable.

Odenkirk’s performance gives unexpected heft and emotional weight to what’s otherwise a fairly silly, operatically violent action film, but it works superbly. He is surrounded by a great supporting cast and the action is superbly staged, and the plot, while being a bit convoluted in the early stages of the film, also hangs together. I feel compelled to mention in particular Christopher Lloyd’s extended cameo as Hutch’s shotgun-toting father – it’s another performance which is perfectly pitched for this particular film.

Quite often your mid-range action film is fairly forgettable filler, slapped together according to a formula with not a great deal of evidence of car being taken over it. Nobody feels like the work of people who appreciate that a mid-budget genre movie can still be a great film: it’s visually inventive, witty in all sorts of ways, maintains its tone with impressive ease, contains interesting characters, and is very well-paced too. I enjoyed it enormously; for once I am crossing my fingers for a sequel.

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When the cinemas started closing last Autumn, long before the second full lockdown, the reason given was the decision by Eon to postpone the release of No Time to Die: a demonstration of how dependent movie theatres can be on a just a handful of huge movies in order to stay open. Not many films pack as much clout as Bond, obviously, but when it comes to balancing box-office power with sheer ubiquity, you could do much worse than look at the Marvel franchise.

Marvel started pumping out three blockbusters a year a little while back, and the delay in the release of Cate Shortland’s Black Widow means that they have been piling up during the period of the pandemic: we can now look forward to (or nervously anticipate) the appearance of no fewer than four films under the Marvel marque before the end of this year, with another four in 2022.

Could this finally be the point at which the brains behind Marvel overestimate public demand for their products? (Bear in mind there are also a dozen TV series either in development or already available.) Well, given Marvel’s success in defying expectations and really altering the way that people engage with blockbuster entertainment, it would be a brave person who predicted their imminent demise – certainly, the appearance of Black Widow (finally) suggests that cinema is on the verge of getting back to something approaching normal.

The fact that it’s a film which makes a couple of call-backs to Bond films of yesteryear (one Roger Moore title in particular) is probably a coincidence. It opens in a very domestic mode, with two young sisters living with their parents (David Harbour and Rachel Weisz) in mid-90s Florida – but all is not as it appears and the family (if such it really is) ends up fleeing the country, pursued by the authorities: they are Russian spies. (The film does its best to skate over the fact that this is a few years too late for it to be Cold War espionage, but there’s still something a bit odd going on here: Harbour’s character is just a bit too much of an OTT Soviet ideologue.) The two girls are removed from their surrogate parents and entered into an indoctrination and training programme designed to produce elite spies and assassins: the Black Widow project.

And all this is just the pre-credits sequence. Things pick up over twenty years later, with the elder sister, Natasha Romanoff (the splendid Scarlett Johansson) on the run from the authorities following the events of 2016’s Captain America: Civil War (don’t worry, detailed knowledge of Marveliana is probably not required). Her attempts to live quietly in Norway are foiled when she receives a mysterious package from Budapest and is shortly after attacked by a silent, lethal assassin codenamed Taskmaster (Greg Davies).

Naturally, Nat pops off to Budapest to see what’s what, only to encounter her younger ‘sister’ Yelena (the fabulous Florence Pugh), now another graduate of the Black Widow programme. Yes, it’s still going, despite Nat being under the impression she had killed its prime mover, Dreykov (Ray Winstone), many years earlier. After smashing each other into the fixtures and fittings for a bit, the two women decide they both really want to stop Dreykov properly, but to do so will involve reaching out to other figures from their past, as well as evading Taskmaster and the army of Black Widows their enemy has under his control…

So, yes, many moose-and-squirrel accents on display in this one, along with quite a lot of leather catsuits (as befits a film about a character spawned from late-60s spy-fi fantasies). It’s probably worth mentioning that the Progressive Agenda Committee have been in session and Yelena’s Black Widow outfit is notably less… how best to put it? …likely to inspire impure thoughts in the audience; I suspect this sort of thing may prove to be a bit of a hallmark of the latest phase of the Marvel project.

Nevertheless, it’s good to have something as solidly, reliably entertaining as a Marvel film back in the cinema. I suspect that not even the most fanatical fan of either Scarlett Johansson or Black Widow would seriously contend that this is a film from the uppermost echelon of the series, but let’s not forget that even their weaker movies tend to be pretty entertaining.

As usual, they modulate the usual Marvel tone and structure a bit to suit whatever story they’re telling – in this case, a relatively gritty tale of shadowy covert projects, not entirely unlike one of the Bourne films but with extra retired super-soldiers and flying secret HQs – and, also as usual, the producers work their usual trick of hiring distinctive, interesting talents (Shortland, Johansson, Pugh) and then putting them to work making something which is really much of a muchness with the other films in the series. (But hey, this is no-question-about-it commercial film-making, and you can’t argue with a total box office take of twenty-two billion dollars.)

It’s such a consistently enjoyable muchness, anyway, even if the carpentry supporting the rest of the franchise is as visible as ever – one of the film’s jobs is clearly to establish Pugh as the ‘new’ Black Widow who will be appearing in future projects. The plot is deceptively slim this time around, especially for a film clocking in at nearly two and a quarter hours, but the action is rousingly done, and the comedy of Romanoff and her dysfunctional family is very effective (David Harbour in particular is good value as a bombastic, gone-to-seed ex-patriotic hero; shades of The Incredibles here a bit). The emotional subtext is surprisingly effective given the context it’s in.

What is missing somewhat is Scarlett Johansson herself, especially considering this is almost certainly the last time she’ll be playing this role. She’s front and centre throughout, certainly, but given she plays the character very straight indeed she’s prone to get upstaged by anyone else who’s prepared to push the envelope and go big, performance-wise. It’s a bit of a shame, as Johansson is obviously a talented, committed performer – but even the star of a Marvel film isn’t bigger than the larger project.

You’re allowed to revile and detest Marvel movies, obviously (but if you do so while suggesting that anyone else makes this kind of film better, your anchor has clearly slipped from the moorings of reason), and Black Widow is not the film to persuade anyone to get on board who has issues with this franchise. It has many of the strengths of the series, along with most of the weaknesses – business as usual, really. The end result is a solid piece of entertainment the like of which the last year and a half has largely deprived us of. The Marvel project may ultimately be just a grand and implacable machine, but it’s also quite nice to have it back.

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The situation has improved to the point where I feel hopeful enough to be able to resume activities…

Truly it is said that you don’t know what you’ve got until you haven’t actually got it. While there is a pleasing symmetry to the fact that my last trip to the cinema pre-pandemic was to see Vin Diesel in Bloodshot, and the first now we are entering what I can only refer to as a post-pandemic phase of life was to see the same big lad in Justin Lin’s F9 (aka Fast & Furious 9, and various other things), a far greater gulf than even that fifteen month gap suggests separates the two. Things changed; the simple act of physically getting to the cinema became much more challenging than I would have possibly imagined. Being there at all suddenly seemed like an impossibly precious experience.

But, on the other hand, it was a Fast & Furious film, so there’s a limit to how transcendental an experience it could actually be. The film gets underway with a flashback to 1989, depicting an incident from the racing career of racing driver Jack Toretto, specifically one which brings that career (and much else besides) to a spectacular and very definite end. Jack Toretto, of course, is the pappy of gravel-voiced man-mountain Dom Toretto (Diesel), and one problem the film never quite overcomes is the fact that the actor hired to play the young Dom (exactly what his name is depends on where you look: it’s either Vinnie Bennett or Vincent Sinclair Diesel, but this may be because there are various junior Doms at different points in the film) actually looks nothing like the senior version (the script even comments that Dom Toretto has ‘very distinctive features’).

Well, from here we snap back to the present day, where Dom and his wife Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) are living in rustic seclusion with Dom’s son Little Brian (who is being taught to service tractor engines at a surprisingly young age). Three of their old associates rock up with a problem, asking them to leap back into action, and the danger at this point is that the audience is too busy going ‘I remember this bit from Avengers: Endgame, and it didn’t end well for everyone’ that they miss the exposition which is being laid at this point.

It turns out that yet another secret doomsday weapon is in danger of being acquired by the wrong people, said device having been conveniently divided into discrete chunks, each of which provides a fine opportunity for the obligatory overblown stunt sequence. So it’s off to Mexico (the role of Mexico is played by Thailand, rather transparently), Edinburgh, and Tbilisi, amongst other places, for all the usual silly carnage. The big twist or emotional impeller for this film is that the most prominent bad guy is Vin’s never-before-alluded-to little brother Jake (John Cena), whose neck seems to be permanently clenched.

We’re twenty years into Fast & Furious at this point (yes, by all means take a moment to process that). I myself was relatively late to the party, not really paying proper attention until Fast & Furious 5, the point at which the series completed its unlikely transition to full-blown blockbuster franchise – but, certainly since that point, it’s worth remembering what effortlessly accomplished and agreeable entertainment these films have been, negotiating some rather formidable obstacles with relative grace.

But twenty years is still twenty years, and bigger names than this have wobbled or come undone before this point. The X Men series had already fizzled out; the Bond movies were just about to hit their late-Moore/Dalton rough patch. Nothing lasts forever, something we should all be very aware of right now; so perhaps it should not come as a surprise that for the first time in ages, we are presented with a Fast & Furious film that sputters more than it cruises.

The three big action sequences hit their marks, it’s true – but there’s an awful lot of obvious CGI, and an increasingly reliance on improbable shenanigans involving electromagnets as the film goes on. It’s not that they’re bad, as such; but the series has done better in the past.

F&F was never just about the stunts and crashes, anyway: what gave the best of these films their heart and warmth was all the other stuff with the ensemble cast and the agreeably ridiculous complexity of the ongoing plot linking the various instalments. F9, certainly to begin with, seems to be fielding a somewhat depleted side: hiving Genial Dwayne Johnson off into his own spin-off film (apparently he and Vin Diesel had a major tiff) removes one of the series’ biggest and most likeable presences, and leaves a gap they struggle to fill: giving Tyrese Gibson additional comic relief bits to do isn’t much of a solution, especially when the running gag is an excruciatingly knowing and laborious one about how implausible these films are. ‘As long as we obey the laws of physics, we’ll be fine,’ says Chris Bridges’ character at one point: obviously, this means they should all be dead, but it’s more evidence of a drift towards self-awareness that bodes rather ill – and the climax of the film features a ridiculous conceit seemingly nicked from an old episode of Top Gear, something so brazenly, stupidly absurd that it really feels like F&F drifting into the realms of self-parody.

You can see something similar happening elsewhere in the film. They seemingly try to get around the Johnson Gap Problem (Scott Eastwood has also been sacked) by mustering a slew of familiar faces from previous films: Jordana Brewster gets invited back, most obviously, while there are cameos, extended and otherwise, by various people, some of whom only the most dedicated F&F watcher will recognise (I’m talking about the main cast of Tokyo Drift, amongst others). The contrived plotting required to facilitate all of this, in addition to the main storyline, just adds to the impression that the writers didn’t care all that much about it, and they’re hoping the viewer won’t, either. But it does feel increasingly problematic that one character whose death was a major plot point in two or three previous films has been miraculously brought back from the dead, at the same time that the film is doing an awkward dance around the fact that former main character Brian O’Conner is supposedly still alive and well, but never quite appears on screen due to Paul Walker’s death (for most of this movie, O’Conner is supposedly handling everyone else’s childcare requirements).

That really sums up what I took away from F9: it’s a film which seems just a little too sure of the audience’s goodwill, and which trades on it just a bit too much. Yeah, all this is completely ridiculous, the subtext seems to be saying: but you knew that coming in, so we’re not going to bother too hard to cover any of that up. Here’s just a load more stuff like the old stuff; you liked it then, and you’re going to like it now, especially as it’s extra silly this time round…

Hum, well – to be honest, I didn’t, at least not as much: perhaps it was inevitable that the F&F franchise would pass the point at which the whole edifice started to collapse under the weight of its own implausibility. Even so, there’s not much of an attempt to disguise or counter this in evidence. Perhaps the fact that there is only one more of these films left to come is just as well. Either way, while this just about delivers what you expect from a film in this series, it’s still the weakest episode in ages.

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