Posts Tagged ‘John Cena’

Once or twice in the past we have discussed the quaint phenomenon where something gets slapped with a definite article which it had not, generally speaking, possessed – at least not for a long while. This is usually done with the goal of imparting a (probably spurious) sense of maturity and gravitas to something generally regarded as quite silly. The more devoted type of fan is particularly fond of this kind of thing; and, knowing that devoted fans are more likely than normal people to buy multiple tickets and DVD releases for the same film, film producers follow suit, for sound capitalist reasons. Hence the second film about Hugh Jackman’s metal-skeletoned eviscerator was The Wolverine, the forthcoming Robert Pattinson-starring film about a billionaire with an odd hobby is The Batman, Jason Momoa’s character in the DC movie series was occasionally referred to as the Aquaman, and so on. To me it always smacks of a desperate need to be taken seriously, but I suppose it’s harmless enough.

Hence we now have the sequel to 2016’s Suicide Squad, named (you guessed it) The Suicide Squad, for which original director David Ayer has been replaced by James Gunn. Fond as I am of Gunn’s work as a director and producer, the words ‘maturity’ and ‘gravitas’ are not necessarily the first ones to spring to mind when considering his previous movies, so this may just have been the easiest way to distinguish the new film from the old one.

The premise remains the same, and is drawn from the comic series created by John Ostrander (who cameos) in 1987: imprisoned supervillains are offered a reduction in their sentence if they agree to go on insanely dangerous missions for a covert branch of the US government, with compliance ensured by the insertion of an explosive device into their skulls. It’s a good premise for a comic book, perhaps not quite such a good one for a movie – I said five years ago that choosing to make a film about a collection of second- and third-string villains from Batman and the Flash when you haven’t actually made a proper Batman or Flash film yet is a really weird choice. And that still applies – I can’t help thinking of that saying about doing the same thing repeatedly yet expecting different results.

But is this quite the same thing? On paper it seems like it is. Convicted mercenary Bloodsport (Idris Elba) is coerced into joining the Squad for a new mission: a military coup in the island nation of Corto Maltese (the shadow of The Dark Knight Returns remains inescapable, it seems) means that a dangerous research project has fallen into the hands of an unstable new junta, and the stated objective is to break into a high-security facility and shut it down.

Joining Bloodsport in this endeavour are various other characters who are also psychopathic, not to mention mostly idiots or profoundly unstable, or both: Peacemaker (John Cena), a man so dedicated to peace he will commit any atrocity to achieve it; Ratcatcher 2 (a new version of an obscure Batman character, played by Daniela Melchior); anthropomorphic selachian King Shark (voiced by Sylvester Stallone); and Polka-Dot Man (another new version of an obscure Batman character, this one played by David Dastmalchian). Reprising their roles from the original film are Viola Davis as the ruthless director of the squad, Joel Kinnaman as field commander Rick Flag, Margot Robbie as homicidal pole-dancer Harley Quinn, and Jai Courtney as absurd national stereotype Captain Boomerang, while there are also appearances from a bunch of other minor characters, most notably Michael Rooker as Savant and Nathan Filion as the Detachable Kid (don’t even ask).

Gunn owes his current profile as a director to the success of the Guardians of the Galaxy movies he made for Marvel Studios; the fact he’s done this one is mainly due to the fact that Marvel temporarily parted company with Gunn after he got twitter-mined a couple of years ago. Looking at Gunn’s record as a director, he doesn’t seem like someone particularly inclined towards repeating himself, but it seems like a safe bet that DC took him on in the hope that he would do for them exactly what he did for their competitors: take an unpromising project about a team of obscure, morally-ambiguous characters and transform it into a crowd-pleasing hit packed with off-beat humour and general weirdness.

Certainly the parallels between Gunn’s Marvel movies and the new film are many and frequently obvious: a gang of oddballs who meet in prison squabble and bicker their way through spectacular set pieces as they find themselves gradually becoming a team, before discovering a latent spark of heroism as a terrible threat emerges. There’s a comedy CGI tank with a limited vocabulary voiced by a big-name star, a rodent, Michael Rooker, and so on, and so on. People who enjoyed Guardians of the Galaxy will probably find a lot to enjoy here too, especially if they feel that Marvel movies don’t feature enough scenes in which people are graphically ripped in half.

That said, this is still a film which is as wildly inconsistent and tonally chaotic as we have come to expect when James Gunn is writing as well as scripting. Much of it is very funny, albeit in a ‘this is horrible, why am I laughing?’ kind of way, but the knowing silliness of the film means that the more emotional and serious beats, when they make their rare appearances, often fail to land. On the other hand, he gets good performances out of the leading cast members – it’s fairly obvious that Idris Elba’s character was originally written for Will Smith as Deadshot, but Elba’s underplayed mixture of exasperation and despair at the excesses of his colleagues means he makes the role his own. As for Margot Robbie, she gets shuffled off into her own subplot for much of the movie, which she carries quite well – it’s safe to say that this is the least annoying Robbie has ever been as Harley Quinn. She comes very close to being upstaged by Daniela Melchior, though.

I have to say that, once the film settled down and got into its groove, I thoroughly enjoyed it: much more than the first one. Partly this is because the jokes and action are generally very good, but also because – well, it starts off looking like this is going to be a movie channelling the essence of the gloomiest period in comic book history, the late 80s and early 90s, when homicidal cynicism ruled the world. But by its end, The Suicide Squad is celebrating the fantastical and garish excesses of the Silver Age of Comics, even as it gently pokes fun at them – the climax features an astonishingly faithful and well-staged portrayal of a classic DC comics antagonist. The film is really in its stride by this point and suddenly it seems as if Gunn has found a way to make this kind of film work without just aping the Marvel template – he makes a lot of the competition’s films look awfully strait-laced and over-cautious by comparison.

As noted, if the definite article added to the title of The Suicide Squad is meant to indicate it is a more serious and grown-up film, then this is false advertising: it’s astoundingly violent and often profane, but it also revels in its own extravagant silliness and thoroughly embraces the craziness of a lot of comic books from many years ago. It’s a bit of a mixed bag, but then that’s always going to be an issue with a Gunn script – in the end, the positives greatly outweigh the negatives. There is an awful lot to enjoy here if you can take the pace.

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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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I’m not really one for New Year resolutions – I usually end up with the same ones, along the lines of ‘get more sleep’ and ‘do more productive stuff’ – but it does seem an appropriate time to break a long-held resolution, something which is probably more of a surprise to me than anyone else. I occasionally make a big fuss about how open-minded I am, and how I’ll go and see nearly anything at the cinema, but astute readers will probably have noticed that there are a few high-profile franchises which I refuse to touch with a ten foot pole, magic free ticket card or not. When it comes to the live-action Transformers movie franchise, which has been befouling multiplexes worldwide for over a decade now, this is simply because I had such an utterly appalling experience watching the first one that I vowed not to bother with any of the others, something I have stuck to with unusual (for me) firmness.

And yet now I find myself about to write about Travis Knight’s Bumblebee, a prequel/spin-off type offshoot of the Transformers series. How come? What happened? Well, to cut a short story even shorter, the trailer looked genuinely fun and charming, and – this second fact may explain the first – Michael Bay has vacated the director’s chair. Collecting critics’ pithy lines about Bay and the Transformers films has been a bit of a hobby of mine for some years now – I particularly enjoyed Vern’s observation that watching the first movie is a bit like climbing into a tumble dryer which is then pushed down a hill, not to mention Peter Bradshaw’s insight that one of the sequels (I forget which) is essentially ‘a machine for turning your brain into soup’. Nevertheless, these films seemed to be critic-proof for years, and the fact that Bay has been forced from his dreadful throne of power is probably just due to the fact that the 2017 movie was sort of a flop, as gargantuan bombastic effects movies go, only making about six times the GDP of a small country at the box office. So, following Transformers: The Last Knight, we now have the first Knight Transformers (do you see what I did there?), and I have to say… well, where was this guy in 2007?

The movie gets underway on the machine planet Cybertron, where the heroic Autobots are taking a right pasting from the evil Decepticons. (The whys and wherefores of this conflict are not gone into; this isn’t that sort of film, although that probably goes without saying.) Stentorian Autobot leader Optimus Prime packs a bold young Autobot scout (he who will become known as Bumblebee) off to Earth in the year 1987 in order that the planet can be used as a refuge by the rest of their faction. However, Bumblebee is tracked and ends up taking the Transformer war to Earth with him, earning the hostility of a secret US government agency in the process. Having fended off his initial pursuers, a mute and amnesiac Bumblebee lapses into whatever the equivalent of a coma is for a giant robot that can turn into a car.

At this point we switch focus to the story of Charlie (Hailee Steinfeld, who’s been picking good scripts lately), a teenage girl living in California and having to cope with annoying family members, a terrible job, unresolved issues from the premature death of her beloved father, and so on. A glimmer of hope appears when she discovers a rusty old yellow VW beetle in a local scrapyard, and is allowed to take it home and try to get it running again. Yup, you are ahead of me: Charlie takes the discovery that her new ride is actually a sentient multi-form extra-terrestrial warrior remarkably well, and she and Bumblebee soon form a close bond. Which is probably for the best, as it transpires that a couple of Decepticons have detected Bumblebee’s presence on Earth and have arrived to hunt him down, with the help of the authorities…

I feel that at this point I should just clarify that my issue with the Bay Transformers films has nothing to do with the inherent absurdity of the concept. I have nothing against absurdity as a story element; many of the Marvel movies are pretty absurd, but they’re still probably my favourite current blockbuster franchise (it almost scarcely needs mentioning that the Transformers once ostensibly shared a universe with the Marvel characters, even teaming up with Spider-Man, without it feeling at all forced or tonally inconsistent). We have to bear in mind that the whole canon of Transformers fiction is basically a marketing device to shift toy robots that turn into cars or planes (or vice versa) and so it is almost inevitably going to be a bit silly. No, my issue with the Bay films is with their empty, pointless bombast, their sheer over-excitability, their shallow objectification of both human and machine, and their interminable running-times.

Knight has managed to avoid all of these things and come up with a film that is genuinely charming and likeable, and seems unlikely to inflict long-term cerebral damage on even the most enthusiastic viewer. Much of this is to the credit of Hailee Steinfeld, who essentially carries most of the movie once the prologue is out of the way – nobody else gives a substantial performance, but then nobody else really needs to, for Steinfeld gives the film warmth and heart. (John Cena plasy the chief government agent, but honestly doesn’t make much of an impression.) The whole story strand about how accidental involvement in an extra-terrestrial war helps Charlie process her personal issues is a bit clunky, and the film has some of the most spurious foreshadowing I can recall in a serious movie, but somehow this just adds to the fun.

So does the 80s setting, although I get the sense this isn’t really genuine nostalgia aimed at or made by people who actually remember the mid 80s, but more a sort of tick-list of pop culture icons from the period – ALF, Mr T, and so on. It virtually constitutes an acknowledgement that the Transformers themselves were another 80s fad as far as many people are concerned. As I say, while this element of the movie is fun, it’s also quite superficial and not thought-through – for me, the most impossible-to-believe thing in the movie was not the existence of shape-shifting alien cars but the suggestion that the same person would own a Motorhead T-shirt but also have both The Smiths and Rick Astley in their tape collection. (Maybe the tribes run differently in California.)

I have to say that part of the reason I was so unimpressed by the first Bay Transformers was because I didn’t recognise either the tone or the characters from the Transformers stories I remembered from back in the middle of the 1980s – it was all very dark, very violent, very grungy. One of the genuine pleasures of this film was being able to recognise many characters in their original form (I believe these are known as G1 Transformers) – sitting in a cinema going ‘It’s Optimus Prime! It’s Ironhide! It’s Cliffjumper! It’s Starscream! It’s Soundwave! It’s Shockwave!’ isn’t the most high-brow kind of entertainment, but entertaining it still is. The rest of the story doesn’t take itself too seriously, either – at one point one of the characters openly observes that it’s just possible aliens calling themselves Decepticons may not be entirely trustworthy – and I don’t think there’s much here to inflame the sensibilities of most reasonable-minded parents looking for something to show their children (Bumblebee is fairly unusual for a big studio franchise movie these days, in that it only has a PG certificate in the UK).

All this said, this is still a fairly goofy and obvious movie about a girl who makes friends with an alien robot car, albeit one with a lot of charm and a very enjoyable atmosphere. It’s not going to change the lives of anyone in the audience, probably, and it may indeed be that I’m predisposed to praise this one slightly more than it warrants, simply because it’s so unlike the Bay movies. But nevertheless: an extremely likeable movie; hopefully from now on all Transformers films will be like this.

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