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It’s easy to forget that, about three years ago, predicting the imminent failure and embarrassment of James Gunn’s Guardians of the Galaxy was a popular pastime amongst a wide range of respected and sensible industry commentators: Marvel couldn’t keep on making huge hits, after all, and this was a step into the unknown for the studio – a comedy SF adventure featuring quite possibly the most obscure group of Z-list superheroes ever committed to the big screen? With Vin Diesel playing a tree? Come on.

Of course, following critical acclaim and a box office take of nearly $775 million (not to mention a bunch of other substantial hits in the interim), no-one is saying the same kind of thing about Gunn’s sequel, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2: quite the opposite. Expectations have risen to a level that might give some folk pause. But not, it seems, Marvel Studios – the new movie has received the plum late-spring release date, even ahead of the new Spider-Man film, a considerable vote of confidence. But is this justified? Are people going to stroll out whistling the soundtrack, or not even stay for the first couple of post-credits sequences (there are a lot of these)?

James Gunn has never really been one to avoid unusual creative decisions, and the first of many in Vol. 2 is to explicitly set the film in 2014, even though the story has only the most marginal connection with anything happening on Earth. (All this achieved, really, was to make me wonder what the timeframe and chronology is as far as all the other Marvel films is concerned – do they take place in real time? On-screen evidence suggests otherwise. Drawing attention to this topic may be a mistake.) Anyway, that the new film is going to really be more of the same is indicated almost at once, as the opening credits showcase a dance routine to ELO, occurring in front of a backdrop the likes of which Jeff Lynne can surely never have dreamed.

Having been successful in their latest mercenary exploit, Star-Lord (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana), Drax (Dave Bautista), Rocket (Bradley Cooper), and the currently pot-plant-sized Groot (Vin Diesel, apparently, not that you can actually tell) head off, intent on turning Gamora’s insane sister Nebula (Karen Gillen) in for a substantial bounty. However, the kleptomaniac tendencies of one of their number land the Guardians in serious trouble, and result in their former associate Yondu (Michael Rooker) being hired to hunt them down.

Help of a sort arrives in the unexpected form of mysterious space entity Ego (Kurt Russell) and his assistant Mantis (Pom Klementieff). Ego reveals he is actually Star-Lord’s long-estranged father, and whisks him off to his domain to explain his true heritage and tutor him in the use of his cosmic powers. However, Yondu and his band of ne’er-do-wells are closing in… but is all quite as it seems?

It does not take too much effort to interpret much of Vol. 2 as a resounding ‘Ha-HAH!’ from Gunn, directed at all those people smugly predicting the first film would be a disaster and that he was just not suited to directing mainstream movies. All the things that made the first film tonally distinctive, not to mention odd – the garish production designs, the 70s and 80 pop cultural references, the oddball, tongue-in-cheek humour – are here again, and more prominently than before.

However, one change which has not been much commented upon is the fact that Gunn has written and directed this film single-handed, whereas the script of the first volume was partly the work of Nicole Perlman. One of the reasons the first film worked so well was that all the weird stuff was built around a story with an absolutely rock-solid structure, and I am compelled to assume that most of this came from Perlman’s initial work, not least because (having seen Slither and Super) narrative discipline is not something I would necessarily associate with Gunn, and it’s certainly absent from long stretches of Vol. 2.

The film opens strongly, but relatively soon feels like it’s losing direction – there’s no sense of what the story is actually about, or where it’s heading. This is partly necessitated by the nature of the plot, I suspect, but perhaps that just suggests the plot itself is inherently flawed. Instead of a sense of progression in the narrative, the film proceeds through a succession of eye-catching directorial set-pieces, somewhat earnest character scenes, and outrageous comedy sketches.

Now, let’s not get confused about this: the film looks great, is filled with fine actors doing their stuff, and when it’s functioning as a pure comedy it is often very, very funny (though certainly not a film to take small children to see) – Vol. 2 doesn’t fail to entertain, distract, and amuse. However – and here’s the ironic thing – it feels more like a compilation tape than a movie in its own right. All the stuff you really enjoyed from the first one is here, and turned up to the max; but many of the less-noticeable elements that helped to make it function so well as a satisfying movie have been a bit skimped on.

In short, it’s a mightily self-indulgent beast, though forgiveably so for the most part – though new viewers (and even some casual ones) are likely to find it slightly baffling. Some of the characters seem to be here more because Gunn likes them than out of any necessity to the plot: here I’m looking particularly at Nebula, to be honest. Speaking of self-indulgence, as is not unusual in this sort of film, the final battle/climax seems to go on forever, and is followed by a lengthy and somewhat sentimental coda that I’m not sure the film works hard enough to justify. Then we’re off to all five of the post-credits sequences, if you can believe that.

There’s something not-unimpressive about Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2‘s adamantium certainty that the audience is going to be utterly beguiled and swept along by it, but at the same time it does almost feel a little bit smug, especially given the lack of narrative impetus in that long middle section. This movie is by no means a failure, because it does function as a spectacle and a comedy (Dave Bautista is, by the way, consistently the funniest thing in it), and it’s by no means the weakest of the sequels that Marvel Studios have released. But it’s not in the front rank of the movies that they’ve released, by any means. Cut it a degree of slack and you’ll have a good time watching it – and rest assured that no matter how much slack you cut it, that’s still almost certainly less than the amount of slack it cuts itself. In the end, this is only a moderately awesome mix.

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There comes a point during F Gary Gray’s Fast and Furious 8, possibly when the great Vin Diesel is jumping his car over a nuclear submarine in order to rid himself of the heat-seeking missile which someone has inconsiderately launched at him, when it is entirely reasonable for a person to forget that things were not always thus with this franchise. The last four or five installments have been such utterly reliable, if slightly ridiculous, big-scale entertainment, that you might assume that this is really an in-name-only sequel to the moderately gritty and down-to-earth 2001 progenitor of the series.

This is about as good a hopping-on point for newcomers as any film in the series. As things get underway, man-mountain boy-racer and mastermind of good-hearted skulduggery Dom Toretto (Diesel) and his wife Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) are enjoying a postponed (since F&F4) honeymoon in Cuba. This involves Toretto launching burning cars into the harbour at supersonic speed, backwards, but romance is a personal thing, after all. Meanwhile, colossus of justice Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) is enjoying a little down-time, until someone arrives to deliver some important exposition. Thus we get a scene where someone is trying to explain to Hobbs about a stolen doomsday weapon while he is distracted and trying to coach his daughter’s soccer team.

Well, Hobbs retains Toretto and the rest of the F&F All-Stars to help him get the doomsday widget back, not realising Toretto has fallen under the sway of evil cyber-terrorist Cipher (Charlize Theron), who gets him to pinch the widget and zoom off with it, abandoning the rest of the All-Stars. But how is this possible? Given that Dom devotes most of his dialogue in these films to rumbling on about the importance of ‘fam-er-lee’, what could possibly make him sell out his nearest and dearest this way?

Anyway, Hobbs gets slung in the chokey for his part in the failed mission, and ends up in the next cell to Deckard (Mr Jason Statham), the villain of F&F7, conveniently enough. Energetic prison-riot shenanigans inevitably ensue. In the end, shady intelligence puppetmaster/plot device Mr Nobody (Kurt Russell) gets the All-Stars, Hobbs, and Deckard together and tasks them with finding Toretto and Cipher before they can do anything too naughty with the stolen doomsday widget. Cue a succession of monumentally overblown car chases and fist-fights, a peculiar bromance between J-Stat and the Rock, some extremely broad humour, and more than a whiff of sentimentality as people bang on and on about ‘fam-er-lee’…

The key question about this one, I suppose, is whether or not you can make a viable and satisfying Fast and Furious movie without the late Paul Walker (or, for that matter, Jordana Brewster, who doesn’t appear either). The answer seems to be ‘yes’, but I get a sense of the film-makers being aware of the change in the essential dynamic of the series – this may be why Diesel is sent off into his own plotline away from the other characters for most of the movie, and Statham and Johnson inserted into the heart of the ensemble (although rumour has it that this may also be due to Diesel having had a bit of a tiff with certain of his co-stars and refusing to share any scenes with them). This is very successful, I would say, because these are two charismatic dudes who deserve a chance to do more than just sweat and either sit behind steering wheels or wallop stuntmen. The dividend extends further, with both Michelle Rodriguez and Tyrese Gibson getting some of their best material in the history of the series. (Scott Eastwood turns up as a new character and also does surprisingly well.)

Even Charlize Theron does pretty well with a character who is, on paper, not much more than an, um, cipher, much given to slightly preposterous speeches about evolutionary psychology and so on (clearly she’s yet another person who’s just read Sapiens). Given the size of some of the performances elsewhere in the movie (and the size of some of the performers, come to that), it’s hard to make a big impression as the bad guy in Fast and Furious Land, but she has a good go, helped by the fact that Cipher steers the series into some properly dark territory – something genuinely shocking and serious befalls a regular character partway through this film, threatening to tilt it all over into the realms of bad taste.

The casual way in which the film recovers its absurd, freewheeling tone is just another sign of the genuine deftness and skill with which these films are made (although this one does seem to score a bit higher on the mindless slaughter scale than most of the others). I do get mocked for my sincere enthusiasm for this series, but it is simply supremely well-made entertainment, and if the combination of stunts, jokes, fighting, and sentimentality is a bit preposterous, so what? With the Bond movies seemingly locked in ‘glum’ mode for the duration, there’s a gap in the market for something so knowing and fun. At one point in this movie, Jason Statham launches himself into battle with a squad of goons, gun in one hand, baby-carrier in the other, and what follows is both a terrific action sequence and genuinely very funny, with all the craziness you’d hope for in one of Mr Statham’s own movies. I do hope they keep Deckard (and his own fam-er-lee) around for the next one.

If Fast and Furious 8 is silly or ridiculous (and it really is), I would suggest it is silly and ridiculous in an entirely intentional way. And underlying all this is a script that regular writer Chris Morgan genuinely seems to have thought about – he doesn’t quite do his usual chronology-fu, but nevertheless he’s locked onto the fact that ever since the first one, the best of these films have all been about the camaraderie and sense of belonging you get from being part of a gang, or a family, and this informs the plot of this one in a fundamental way – that’s the thread linking the new film to the original one. Silly is not the same as stupid.

So I suppose it’s possible to genuinely dislike Fast and Furious 8, in the same way it’s possible to dislike any movie – but that doesn’t make it any less successful in hitting the targets it has set for itself, or indeed any less entertaining for the rest of us. If every film were made with this degree of skill and attention to detail, then the world would be a happier place.

 

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After well over a month of viral post-apocalyptic gloom, I find that I want to make it clear that not all genre TV from the 1970s was cut from the same depressing cloth. When I find myself in the mood for this sort of change of pace, more often than not I find myself reaching for an episode of either The Avengers or its bell-bottomed progeny The New Avengers, and so it proves this time too. The episode my gaze fell upon on this occasion was Sleeper, written (like most episodes of this show) by Brian Clemens.

A demonstration of a new knockout gas, S-95, is scheduled, and so a gathering of top scientific and intelligence boffins is in progress in London. Unfortunately, no sooner has one of these boffins arrived at London Heliport than he is bundled into a cupboard and beaten senseless with his own briefcase by this week’s villain, Brady (Keith Buckley). Brady goes on to observe the demonstration, along with Steed, Purdey, and Gambit, and they all (pay attention, this is a plot point) receive injections granting them temporary immunity to S-95.

One of the more notable revelations which Sleeper treats us to is the news that the British security services have sunk serious R&D money into – and there’s no other way of describing it – magic, because that’s what S-95 seems to be. It’s not a gas, because someone says it isn’t, being more a sort of cloud of magic dust. If you breathe in the magic dust you go to sleep for six hours, unless you’ve had the antidote of course. The dust doesn’t blow away or dissipate or anything like that; it remains just as potent (for, presumably, the six hours previously mentioned).

Oh, who am I kidding, it’s a preposterous plot device that works the way it does solely to enable the episode to function. Much the same is true of the way in which Brady manages not only to impersonate the boffin without anyone suspecting it, but also single-handedly steal a couple of cannisters of S-95 and a supply of the antidote, again without the alarm being raised. They should probably have spent less money on magic plot device secret weapons and more on padlocks and burglar alarms.

Anyway, Brady has assembled a rather suspect squad of ne’er-do-wells who have penetrated to the heart of London by the cunning ruse of pretending to be a coachload of tourists. Everyone on the coach is a bad guy, but they still go through the motions of listening to the guide’s spiel (the guide is a bad’un too), simply in order to preserve the surprise of their true identity for the viewer.

The plan, of course, is to dump a load of S-95 on central London just after dawn on a Sunday morning, putting the whole city to sleep and allowing Brady and his gang of ruffians to knock over every bank in the affected area. What they have not reckoned on is the fact that their operation has been infiltrated by an associate of Steed’s, not to mention that Steed, Purdey, and Gambit are still immune to the S-95 and will be up and about and able to throw a spanner in the slightly ridiculous works.

This is one of those episodes where it’s fairly clear that the main idea – the trio of protagonists contending with a much larger group of enemies in an effectively deserted London – came first, and the rest of the episode was written to facilitate it, no matter how absurd the necessary narrative gymnastics became. Most of the episode is a series of gently comic set-pieces as Steed and Gambit (who are paired up this week) and Purdey deal with various opposing parties.

The scenes with Steed and Gambit are fairly humdrum – the two of them exposit to each other a lot before deciding to go to the pub – but Purdey’s adventures are given an odd little twist by the fact she gets locked out of her flat and spends most of the episode in a fetching set of turquoise silk pyjamas. I first saw this episode early in 1991 on a late-night repeat (showing just before Mike Raven in Crucible of Terror, fact fans) and I have to say my teenaged self found many of Purdey’s scenes to have a subtle erotic charge to them (at one point she has to pretend to be a shop mannequin, and of course her pyjama bottoms start falling down). Nothing very much comes of this except a fairly absurd fight between Joanna Lumley and Prentis Hancock (ah, Prentis Hancock, one of the unsung heroes of 70s genre TV).

(Other before-they-were-famous members of Brady’s gang include David Schofield, who’s been in everything from An American Werewolf in London to a couple of the Pirates of the Caribbean films, and Gavin Campbell, who was briefly an actor but these days is best known as a presenter of That’s Life and a celebrity marathon runner. One of the pleasures of watching these old TV shows again is spotting these incongruous faces in the minor roles.)

There are some quite well-mounted action sequences in the deserted city streets, especially a car chase with Purdey at the wheel of a commandeered mini, but on the whole it’s not nearly witty or entertaining enough to justify the sheer level of contrivance and preposterousness involved. Being knowingly silly is pretty much the sine qua non of Avengers and New Avengers episodes, but this one is a bit too silly and not nearly knowing enough. Still kind of memorable in that 70s New Avengers way, though.

 

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Quite a few years ago, I saw Shekhar Kapur’s adaptation of The Four Feathers, which was one of those films that almost dropped through the net completely – it didn’t get much of a release, received lukewarm reviews, and didn’t recover its budget. The reason why, I suspect, is that The Four Feathers is a stirring tale of imperial bravery, whereas Kapur’s movie was intended as a deconstruction and critique of colonial attitudes – almost a wilful subversion of the source material.

This sort of approach is very difficult to pull off. Unless you are Paul Verhoeven, apparently, for he does something very similar in his 1997 adaptation of Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. Over ten years earlier Verhoeven had made one of the best SF films of the 1980s in RoboCop, and while I’m not sure I’d make the same kind of claim about Starship Troopers, it’s still a typically provocative and accomplished piece of work.

Some time in the future, Earth has become a gleaming utopia; rather Americanised too, it seems, for even Buenos Aires looks like somewhere in California. Here we find Johnny Rico (Casper Van Dien), handsome high-school jock, his more academic girlfriend Carmen (Denise Richards), and Diz (Dina Meyer), a girl who has a bit of a thing for him. Carmen wants to fly spaceships, so she enlists in the military of the Terran Federation, as this is her best chance of doing so. Johnny follows her into the service, largely to impress her, and Diz joins up to stay close to him.

Carmen gets her wish and ends up in the space fleet, while Johnny and Diz become members of the infantry. Their training proceeds, with only a moderate level of maiming and crippling amongst the recruits, but events are progressing in the wider world, with tensions growing between the Terran Federation and the Arachnids, an arthropod race from the other side of the galaxy. A devastating Arachnid attack on Earth results in Johnny and the others going to war with the invertebrate menace…

Starship Troopers, the movie, has a very strange relationship with its source novel, but this becomes a bit more understandable once you learn that it started existence as a wholly separate entity entitled Bug Hunt at Outpost Nine. When various similarities with Heinlein’s book were noticed, the decision was made to buy the rights to it and retrofit the script to be even closer to the story.

If nothing else, this explains one of the most noticeable differences in the substance of the movie – the novel’s most lasting SF innovation was the invention of powered armour battle-suits, as worn by Rico and the others as they take on the Bugs. Power armour is completely absent from the film, which mainly concerns foot infantry carrying automatic rifles and rocket launchers.

The more significant change is subtler and arguably more interesting. Heinlein’s novel is largely a vehicle for the author’s political views, and as a result the book is very right-wing, to the point where some have accused it of open militarism (written as a piece of SF for younger readers, the original publisher refused to accept it for this reason). However, what is sincerely and seriously presented in the novel is outrageously satirised in the movie – the movie is to some extent parodying the book it is based on.

As a result, Verhoeven and his scriptwriter Ed Neumeier have been criticised for wilfully misrepresenting Heinlein. The movie depicts an implicitly totalitarian, arguably fascist society, where public executions are broadcast live on TV and having a child requires a license, and one of the key points of the book is that its world is still a democratic one. There’s something to this, but on the other hand the book does contain a sequence in which Heinlein argues the case for aggressive war as a moral imperative, on apparently racial grounds.

The important thing is that whatever political commentary Verhoeven is making, it’s entirely implicit: it’s possible to watch Starship Troopers and just come away thinking you’ve watched a lavish SF action-adventure with a somewhat hackneyed story, and this does in fact seem to be what happened on the film’s original release, given the extent to which it apparently baffled audiences and divided critics. Personally I find the nature of the film as another piece of stupendously violent SF satire impossible to miss, no matter how tongue-in-cheek it is (and it is extremely tongue-in-cheek in places) – I’ve even heard it argued that the casting of Denise Richards, an actress whose dramatic range means she is really best qualified to appear in shampoo commercials, is a flag to the audience that this is not meant to be taken seriously.

The difference between RoboCop and Starship Troopers, I suppose, is that at the heart of RoboCop is a genuine and powerful human story, which Verhoeven surrounds with various elements of topical satire, whereas the story of Starship Troopers is a deliberately superficial and corny tale, solely intended as a delivery system for the satire which is what the film is really about. One striking thing about Starship Troopers is the eerie way in which it seems to anticipate American politics and foreign policy, and media coverage of them, in the years immediately after the September 11th attacks. Watching the movie now, it seems resonant and relevant in a way it didn’t at the time it was released.

That said, of course, while the movie may only superficially be an SF action movie, it’s still an extremely accomplished one – Verhoeven knows when to play it straight and pull out a superb set-piece action sequence, and does so at various points in the movie – the Them!-meets-Zulu battle at the outpost is as good as anything in Aliens. He’s helped, of course, by a score from Basil Poledouris, the best composer in the Hollywood if you want to make bombast sound fun (also the only one to play a redshirt in Star Trek), and special effects which still stand up well today. In terms of the casting, Verhoeven seems to have been actively searching for blandly good-looking young actors (see comments on Denise Richards above), but he also finds a chunky role for veteran genre actor Michael Ironside, who delivers a perfectly-pitched performance – I can’t imagine anyone else delivering a line like ‘His brain has been sucked out!’ with quite the same degree of ambiguity – is he playing it absolutely straight or engaged in a deadpan send-up of the whole thing? It’s impossible to tell. Perhaps he’s doing both.

Then again, the same is true of all of Starship Troopers – it’s both an exploitation movie and a vicious parody of exploitation movies, a lavish war film and a parody of war films – apparently hugely excessive and dumb, but at the same time very subtle and clever. The one thing it’s not, except on the most superficial level, is a genuine attempt at an adaptation of Heinlein’s novel. No-one else has made SF movies with the same level of wit and sense of gleeful mischief than Paul Verhoeven, and few people have matched his level of technical ability as a storyteller. Starship Troopers requires you to engage your brain in a way that few other Hollywood SF action movies do, but that’s hardly a criticism, especially when this is what makes it such a rewarding piece of entertainment.

 

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It occurs to me that two of the most demanding forms of fiction to attempt are comedy and horror, mainly because the criteria for success are just so non-negotiable – it doesn’t matter how good the acting, dialogue, or direction are in a film, if people aren’t laughing at it, then it’s not a very good comedy. The same arguably applies in more general ways too – there’s a sense in which setting out to make a niche, art-housey kind of film is less challenging than attempting to make a whopping mainstream hit, simply because the former are primarily judged on their critical success (always subjective and open to dispute), whereas with the latter it’s just the case of the bottom line and the box office take, which you can attach a figure to.

And it’s not even as if going mainstream and commercial is necessarily easy – some people just aren’t built that way. The director John Singleton started his career making hard-edged issue-based dramas like Boyz N The Hood, which received acclaim and made him the youngest ever Oscar-nominated director, but his transformation into a maker of popcorn action movies just produced a stream of completely undistinguished films (the most notable probably being 2 Fast 2 Furious, and that’s only because it’s the only completely Diesel-free installment of the franchise).

Which brings us to Ben Wheatley’s new movie, Free Fire.  Wheatley’s career has been growing in prominence, if not commerciality, for a good few years now, and his latest project sees him working with Martin Scorsese (credited as exec on the new film) – now there’s a name with a bit of a cachet to it. The movie also features a rather strange juxtaposition of currently-hot star names with the more marginal type of performer Wheatley has made good use of in the past.

 

The setting is Boston, in the late 1970s, and criminality is afoot. A major arms deal is about to take place. On one side are Chris (Cillian Murphy) and Frank (Michael Smiley), two Northern Irish gentlemen with strong political views, intent on buying a load of M16s from South African arms dealer Vern (Sharlto Copley). Facilitating the deal are Ord (Armie Hammer) and Justine (Brie Larson). Everyone convenes in an abandoned warehouse and things proceed to get very tense indeed, not least because a couple of the participants are clearly somewhat unhinged. Trust is in short supply, and the fact that Vern has turned up with a van full of ArmaLites rather than M16s does not help matters much. Still, a deal of sorts is on the cards, until it transpires that one of Vern’s hired hands (Jack Reynor) has a serious bone to pick with one of the Irishmens’ (Sam Riley).

Things degenerate, shots are inevitably fired, and then… well, the rest of the movie depicts, essentially, an hour-long gun battle, moving between various different parts of the warehouse as the different participants try to outmanoeuvre each other or reach particular locations. Matters are complicated by the appearance of a mysterious third group of shooters, whose allegiance is unclear, and also by the fact that this isn’t the kind of film where it’s straightforward to just kill someone with a single shot.

There is something slightly computer-gamey about the set-up for Free Fire, in that virtually everyone in it gets shot multiple times and usually just carries on with what they were doing, albeit slightly more slowly and uncomfortably. I’ve played in team games of Quake and other first-person-shooters which were a little bit like this movie; it also feels a bit like a particularly weird game of the RPG Fiasco which has gotten completely out of hand. However, the cultural reference point a normal person is probably going to reach for is accompanied by the adjective ‘Tarantino-esque’ and I can see where they’re coming from.

This is, obviously, a very violent film – there’s a consistent ongoing level of violence through practically the entire last two thirds of it – and the language is not really that usually heard at the annual church picnic. When you add the criminal milieu, the generally foggy morality, and some interesting soundtrack-based gags, it does almost look like Ben Wheatley has decided to go commercial by making a Tarantino pastiche, albeit one with the kind of off-the-wall black comedy which has featured in his other films.

Does it really work, though? Well – the idea of a film mainly consisting of a roughly 60 minute gun battle, when I first heard of it, put me rather in mind of the Fast Show sketch The Long Big Punch up, in which Charlie Higson and Paul Whitehouse just take it in terms to thump each other at very great length. How can you possibly get a story out of something like that?

Well, the secret, of course, lies in the first act of the film, which features the characters standing up and talking to one another, rather than crouching behind cover, shouting, and trading gunfire: a lot of quite subtle set-up and establishment of characters and relationships goes on here, which provides the fuel for the rest of the movie. It helps that Wheatley has primarily cast performers who are character actors rather than juvenile leads – this always remains a film about individual characters interacting with each other, not just ciphers blazing away. It doesn’t hurt that the film is frequently very funny, too – Sharlto Copley produces another one of his comic grotesques in the form of his leisure-suited highlight-haired ‘former Rhodesian commando’ – ‘Africa’s no place for sissies,’ he declares at one point. But this is a great ensemble performance overall.

As I’ve been suggesting, it seems that Free Fire was intended to be Ben Wheatley’s ‘commercial’ movie after supposedly less-accessible works like Sightseers, High-Rise, and (especially) A Field in England, and yet it looks unlikely to match High-Rise‘s box office take despite hefty promotion and the appeal to Tarantino’s audience. Does this make it Wheatley’s first big failure as a director? (Not counting Into the Dalek, of course.)

Well… I still think this is an engaging, fun film, and the weird nature of the premise gives it a certain novelty value as a sort of formal experiment. You could argue the pace of the film flags a bit near the end, as Wheatley and his regular co-writer Amy Jump run out of complications to throw into the mix (‘I can’t remember which side I’m on!’ wails a minor character at one point), but it’s inevitably slightly static all the way through, and the nature of the piece really doesn’t lend itself to huge, kinetic action set-pieces. In the end this is a distinctly odd film, but by no means a bad one at all – inventively scripted, with moments of great black humour, and well-played throughout. I doubt it’s going to be Ben Wheatley’s ticket to the heart of the mainstream, though.

 

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It’s strange how ignorance can sometimes be a source of shame and sometimes a badge of honour: just the other day I was slightly embarrassed to have to admit to a friend that I’d never actually seen, read, or otherwise experienced any version of Ghost in the Shell prior to seeing the new movie, whereas in another conversation I happily informed anyone who’d listen that I had only the scantiest knowledge of the original Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers.

This is possibly just an age thing, as the Rangers were aimed at an audience at least one generation younger than me when they were first unleashed upon the world in the 1990s. We are basically talking about a TV show with an attached line of toys (or possibly vice versa, I suppose), all concerning a team of superheroes (if doing karate while being a different primary colour from the person next to you is enough to qualify as a superhero these days) fighting unlikely monsters. Needless to say, it had its origins in a Japanese TV show entitled Kyoryu Sentai Zyuranger, and the US adaptation went on to be terribly successful. And as we are now living in 2017, where nothing which was once popular is ever allowed the luxury of a quiet and dignified death, the whole concept has now been revived and generally polished up for a movie, directed by Dean Israelite.

Things get going on prehistoric Earth, where Power Ranger Zordon (which is a fine name for a pulp SF character) has just received a whupping from the evil Rita Repulsa (which, um, isn’t). Zordon and Rita are played by Bryan Cranston and Elizabeth Banks, who are both very capable and respected artists and thus presumably either being extremely well remunerated or forced to perform at gunpoint. Zordon cops it, but not before putting Rita’s plans on hold, in the hope that a new team of upstanding Power Rangers can be assembled in the meantime.

We then skip forward to present day California and the town of Angel Grove, where a quintet of disparate (and, of course, carefully diverse) teenage misfits find themselves coming together seemingly at random. (They all have various relatable teenage issues, of course.) The location for this is an old quarry, where they eventually discover some multi-coloured ‘power coins’ stashed there by Zordon 65 million years earlier, at the start of the film. Odd things start to happen, such as them finding themselves suddenly able to jump over houses in a single bound.

Another visit to the quarry leads them to Zordon’s old spaceship, which is in remarkably good nick, and a comedy-relief robot. Together the robot (Bill Hader) and Zordon’s CGI head handle the necessary exposition – buried under Angel Grove is the ‘Zeo Crystal’ (uh-huh) a semi-mystical object intrinsic to the existence of life on Earth (uh-huh) and Rita Repulsa’s target. As chance (and the demands of the plot) would have it, Rita is back in the area (uh-huh) and planning on building a giant robot out of tooth fillings (uh-huh) to dig the Zeo Crystal up, with horrible consequences for everyone (uh-huh). Our troubled teens have been selected to take on the roles of the Power Rangers, provided they can master the necessary skills. ‘Tell me, have you ever morphed before?’ enquires Zordon, gravely. ‘Only in the shower,’ replies Black Power Ranger (Ludi Lin). (In case you’re wondering, our teenage heroes are played by actors who are 20, 22, 22, 23, and 29.)

Well, I tell you, folks, despite hearing a generally positive buzz about this film, I spent quite a few happy minutes thinking of some zingy put-downs to sling its way if it turned out to be a load of gruelling old rubbish: ‘don’t go-go anywhere near it’ for one; ‘only watchable under the influence of morphine’ was another. I share these with you now, because I can’t actually use them – Power Rangers is, um, surprisingly non-terrible. Well, that’s not quite true, but it’s terrible in the best sort of way.

Can I even call it terrible? Some of it is actually pretty good, particularly the playing of the young cast, who do have chemistry together. Seeing the trailer for this movie, my first thought was ‘This looks rather like Chronicle‘ (a 2012 superhero-SF movie), and this does carry through into much of the actual film (Max Landis, who wrote Chronicle and worked on this one for a bit before being fired, felt the same way, apparently): this has a bit more heart and a bit more grit than you might expect, all things considered.

Then again, this is a Power Rangers movie, and you do have to worry about things like tonal appropriacy – I saw this film in the ‘family matinee’ strand down the local multiplex, with the rest of the audience made up entirely of very young boys and their fathers. This may be the core audience for Power Rangers, in which case you have to question the appropriacy of the 12A UK certificate, the inclusion of jokes about lamb-shanking bulls, a subplot about sexting, and so on. Despite the premise, this often feels like a film aimed at a young-adult (or maybe even older) audience, with lots of hot-button topic issues being touched upon – Yellow Power Ranger (Becky G) has a minority orientation, Blue Power Ranger (RJ Cyler) is somewhat autistic (‘I’m on the spectrum,’ he declares – ‘Is that a workout programme?’ asks Red Power Ranger (Dacre Montgomery), who’s a bit of a jock), and so on. Pink Power Ranger (Naomi Scott) is still a girl, though.

This emphasis on characterisation (and, as you can perhaps see, some decent jokes) means that Power Rangers doesn’t quite feel like a traditional superhero origin movie (which is basically what it is) for most of its running time. All the mighty morphin’ is held back until the third act, at which point the film basically turns into a massive advert for toys, but by this point you should be interested enough to stick with it until the end regardless.

The film has been somewhat tongue-in-cheek prior to this point, and Elizabeth Banks has clearly figured out that hers is a role that requires the kind of performance which registers on the Richter scale, but… ‘Tell me where the Zeo Crystal is!’ demands Rita, threatening to kill one of our heroes. ‘It’s under Krispy Kreme Doughnuts!’ squeaks Blue Power Ranger, who has somehow figured this out. ‘What is this… Krispy Kreme Doughnuts?’ hisses Rita, before setting off to activate her tooth-filling robot. ‘Guys, we have to stop her before she reaches the Krispy Kreme Doughnuts store!’ cries Red Power Ranger. (Things go on in a similar vein at surprising length.)

Now, I love doughnuts as much as the next person – actually, that’s a lie, I love doughnuts to the extent that my dietician is constantly in a strop with me – but the sheer brazenness of the product placement for Krispy Kreme in this film is utterly jaw-dropping. The film even pauses for a moment so Rita Repulsa can eat a Krispy Kreme doughnut within the store itself. I have no idea what percentage of the budget of Power Rangers Krispy Kreme stumped up for, but putting the brand at the very centre of the plot in this way is… either it’s an inspired bit of insanity that probably means this film is guaranteed to become a campy cult classic, or it topples the whole thing over into absolute absurdity.

Power Rangers’ heady mixture of teen angst, dubious jokes, plastic karate, epic over-acting, and blatant product placement really should not result in a functioning movie. And yet somehow it does, because this is consistently entertaining all the way through. Certainly, much of the film does not make any sense whatsoever, and the rest of it only makes sense in a way which is completely ridiculous, but you are carried along by some winning performances and clever direction, not to mention just how knowing most of it is. I imagine some people will sneer about this film on principle, but if this was a new property released under the auspices of Marvel Studios or even DC, I suspect it would have smash hit written all over it. All things considered I’m very glad I went-went to see it.

 

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How much do I really know about you, Constant Reader? What are the chances you know anything of me, beyond the confines of this screen? Pretty good, I suppose. Beyond that – I’m guessing there’s a good chance you’re bored and have nothing better to do, have at least a passing interest in and knowledge of movies… but that’s about it. So I’m going to assume you’re not necessarily completely au fait with SF subgenres, which is why we’re going to talk about cyberpunk for a bit, or that if you are, you’re a considerate sort and won’t begrudge me going on about things you already know. Okay? Glad we got that sorted out.

Cyberpunk has had mixed fortunes when it comes to the movies. The subgenre concerns itself with the nature and impact of mass information systems in a dystopian futuristic world, featuring characters of dubious personal morality and counter-cultural inclination. Themes of the porous boundary between human and machine are also common. The term itself dates back to about 1980 (although books with strong cyberpunk themes go back a bit further), which makes it slightly surprising that the first big movie in the subgenre, Blade Runner, came out only a couple of years later. After that, though, it was very much up and down – mostly down, in fact, with the likes of Freejack and especially Johnny Mnemonic leading one commentator to declare that putting all your money in a box and throwing it off a cliff was a safer bet than investing in a cyberpunk movie. Then along came The Matrix and everything changed again, for a couple of years at least. If nothing else, the Wachowskis gave the subgenre a significant mainstream profile.

I mention all this because it seems pertinent to any discussion of Rupert Sanders’ Ghost in the Shell, an adaptation of a seminal Japanese cyberpunk comic series. There have been a number of other movies of this name in the past, all of them animated; I think this too is relevant. Significant amounts of money and talent have been directed at the new movie, the production of which has not been without controversy.

The film is set in an unspecified corporate future where cybernetic prostheses have become common, but something wholly new is afoot: the insertion of a living human brain into a wholly synthetic body. We see this happening during the opening credits, and as the resulting cyborg entity takes shape, we recognise the shape as being that of Scarlett Johansson.

One year on and Johansson’s character, Mira, is a member of an elite security force known as Section Nine, under the command of fearsome old coot Aramaki (Takeshi Kitano). When there is a series of murders of prominent cyberneticists and robotics scientists, the team goes into action, but as the case develops Mira begins to find herself troubled by hallucinations and long-buried memories. She has believed herself to be the orphaned survivor of a terrorist attack – but is there more to her past and origins than her manufacturers have told her…?

Before we go any further… Scarlett Johansson is an extremely attractive woman. I know that. You know that. She knows that. The makers of this film definitely know that, too, and if in the course of this review I ever seem to be (ahem) dwelling on the more striking elements of Johansson’s physiognomy, it’s only because the movie does so too. I have no interest in making prurient innuendos about, well, Scarlett’s bod. Well, very little interest, anyway.

So – where were we? Oh yeah. I went to see Ghost in the Shell with a colleague of a similar vintage, and as the end credits rolled, we looked at each other. ‘RoboCop but with a much more resplendent set of -‘ I began, and he cut me off by making a big thumbs down gesture, which was not a comment on my rapid response review but one on the movie itself (I presume). I would go further and say that Ghost in the Shell doesn’t just recall RoboCop, it also reminded me rather strongly of The Bourne Identity and even the 1995 version of Judge Dredd, in that these are all films wherein a fearsome, artificially enhanced enforcer discovers the truth about their own past and is forced to confront their own humanity.

And this isn’t necessarily a criticism, because (as I was saying just the other day, about Life) being derivative doesn’t automatically result in a bad movie, as long as you approach your subject honestly and take the trouble to focus on the story and telling it your own way. Unfortunately, something has gone a bit wrong with Ghost in the Shell, and while this isn’t a flat-out bad film, it’s much more of a generic action movie than you would expect given this property’s reputation.

After the film we came out and discussed the idea of personality being something that can be copied, modified, transmitted, and reproduced, and the implications of this for the concept of identity. By the time we had walked up the street to the traffic lights we had discussed what it would mean to be the ‘real’ you in a world where this was possible, and come up with several interesting twists and variations on the notion. So at least the film made us think. The problem is that our three-minute conversation had more philosophical depth and complexity to it than the whole of Ghost in the Shell, which is getting on for two hours long. What does it mean to be You, if your memories and body are both entirely artificial? is the question the film probably thinks it’s reflecting upon. Well, that’s a good start, but it doesn’t really take it anywhere, it just presents the question. You get a terrible sense that the film thinks it is being very profound indeed – you are practically beaten about the head by the profundity of it all, the profundity is rammed down your throat. If the film had concentrated on doing something more original with its SF procedural/action movie plot and left the audience to figure out the philosophical angles for themselves, it would have been more rewarding for everyone, I suspect.

I suppose the film also has as a theme the way in which modern society treats human beings as property: Mira is reduced to an object, a corporate possession, in the same way as Murphy in RoboCop. The key difference is that while the makers of RoboCop merely depicted Murphy’s objectification, here the film-makers are complicit in it: the film’s most indicative (not to mention absurd) moment comes when the bad guys open up at Johansson with the heavy artillery, and the only result seems to be that literally all her clothes are blown off. There’s a very good reason why Johansson spends an appreciable amount of time in a skin-tight flesh-coloured body stocking, and while the results are undeniably spectacular, you can’t help feeling that the film comes across as slightly leery too.

Is this the juncture to discuss the tizzy that some people have got into about the way that an originally Japanese character has been turned into a Caucasian for film marketing purposes? Well, maybe. My default answer is that it doesn’t really have to be a big deal: the entire cast of Seven Samurai changed ethnicity when it was remade as The Magnificent Seven, after all, and no-one ever complains about that. It gets a little more complex here, partly for reasons I am reluctant to go into as they constitute a mild spoiler, but also because the film goes to great lengths to present a world which is a non-specific amalgam of western and Asian cultures, without ever making it quite clear what country we’re actually in. I think this is another problem, actually, as it results in a less grounded narrative, and (again) all the art direction almost starts to get in the way of the story. We end up with a sort of cyberpunk soup, full of elements that we have already encountered many times before in other movies, and not redeployed with any great originality here. Maybe this is a faithful adaptation of a truly groundbreaking piece of SF – but the problem is that it was a groundbreaking piece of SF over twenty years ago, and nothing dates faster than SF innovations. Too many genuinely bad films have already pre-emptively ripped this one off.

That said, the look of the thing, while not ground-breaking, is comfortably lavish, and this is obviously a movie with serious studio backing behind it. No film with Takeshi Kitano unleashing his special brand of stone-faced bad-assery can be wholly a waste of time, either, and to her credit Scarlett Johansson also gives a fully committed performance. And, as I say, this isn’t exactly a bad film, but it feels curiously leaden and lifeless – neither the action nor the ideas sparkle or truly excite. Perhaps too many other films covering this kind of territory have already been made. Identity may indeed be replicable, because I feel like I’ve seen most of this movie before in other places.

 

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