Archive for the ‘action/adventure’ category

Deadpool 2

August 19, 2018

deadpool-negasonic-teenage-warhead-girlfriendThe Deadpool movies are more or less the only superhero films I’ll sit still for these days. Filthy and irreverent, splattering the camera lens arterially with great gusto, these are not remotely elegant examples of what the medium can do, nor are they conceived as such. They’re parties, all winks and grins and farts and jostling elbows. Somehow, despite (or maybe because of) their raunch and gore and in-jokey tone, the movies occasionally achieve real pathos, as in Deadpool 2, when the eponymous anti-hero (Ryan Reynolds) mopes around suicidally after his girlfriend Vanessa (Morena Baccarin) exits the picture early on, or when new antagonist Cable (Josh Brolin), a grim ass-kicker from the future, reveals his true motivation for trying to kill burgeoning, unhappy mutant teen Russell (Julian Dennison).

Some deaths and agonies are a lark; others are to be mourned or avoided. Hypocritical? I prefer to think that Deadpool 2, despite its meta clownishness, has a grasp of conflicting priorities. The plot demands that a bad character not be murdered by a character poised on the line between good and evil; however, there’s nothing saying the bad character can’t die some other way, preferably abruptly and hilariously. That’s not really a spoiler, because at a Deadpool film you know anyone who deserves an ignoble reduction to a fine red mist will get one. Because nothing in the movie is actually real, and because the moviemakers (Reynolds gets a cowriting credit along with original Deadpool scripters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick) know this, there’s a freedom to play, to bend reality.

Director David Leitch (John Wick, Atomic Blonde) uses the CG palette to turn the movie into a roughhouse live-action Looney Tunes romp. It’s easy to create amusing chaos with a character cursed with bad luck, but how about a hero — Domino (Zazie Beetz) — whose superpower is good luck? An entire concussive sequence follows Domino as she casually sidesteps certain death at multiple turns, and it’s a lot funnier than misfortune plaguing someone relentlessly. (Unless it’s the lottery winner in Final Destination 2. Nothing will ever be funnier than that.) Deadpool himself has a healing power that renders him pretty well unkillable, though the same can’t be said for other members of Deadpool’s team X-Force, including regular guy Peter (Rob Delaney) — whose function here is similar to the comically bland human Stu in What We Do in the Shadows — and an invisible hero called the Vanisher, who brings us one of the film’s many cameos, references, and gags. (A subtle one is Deadpool’s fixation on a song from Yentl, a musical by Barbra Streisand, who’s married to Josh Brolin’s dad.) I’m sure I didn’t catch all of them, and Deadpool 2 may well be funnier for viewers who get the joke about “a guy who can’t draw feet” (a common fan complaint about Rob Liefeld, the original Deadpool’s co-creator). But as in Spielberg’s Ready Player One, the fun here doesn’t depend on a grounding in nerd trivia.

Famously, Reynolds hungered for years to play Deadpool, even settling for playing a ridiculously muted version of the character in X-Men Origins: Wolverine. Now that he’s on his second outing with the preferred iteration of Deadpool, Reynolds still seems grateful and happy to be a part of this unexpectedly lucrative franchise, which, being a 20th Century Fox enterprise and not helmed by Marvel/Disney (well, until this past July, when Disney slurped up Fox), is off to the side with the X-Men, playing in a goofball backyard far away from Iron Man, Spider-Man, Captain America and the rest. Deadpool seems to take place in a reality where people watch the Marvel Cinematic Universe movies and the DC Universe movies, or maybe it’s just Deadpool, whose powers might include the ability to comment on all entertainment, including that which features himself — or features Ryan Reynolds. (Keep watching through the end credits.)

The movie spreads its fun around; not only white hetero males get to bring the pain. Aside from Domino, there’s the very welcome return of the deadpan-hostile Negasonic Teenage Warhead (Brianna Hildebrand), who turns up with her new girlfriend Yukio (I assume a variation on Yukio from The Wolverine). The casual and, dare I say, mature way the movie handles NTW’s sexuality — there are neither jokes nor hubba-hubba leering — is refreshing and good-hearted. And despite all its hip mayhem, directed both at anonymous thugs and at well-thumbed pulp tropes, Deadpool 2 is also good-hearted. It doesn’t strike me as nihilistic or even cynical (the way some parts of the Kick-Ass movies and, God knows, their source comics did). It doesn’t want to punish you for enjoying the boomies and the splats and such spectacles as an enormous prisoner-transport vehicle tearing through cars like a bullet through wet Kleenex. It just wants to have a disreputable doofus good time and share it with us.

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Ready Player One

July 29, 2018

rpoI lasted about two pages into Ernest Cline’s geek-friendly novel Ready Player One. The book’s voice was just too obnoxiously steeped in trivia, with nothing really to say about the pop-culture landmarks it referenced and/or used. I remember thinking “There are so many good or great books yet to read, and I’m going to spend my dwindling sentient time on this?,” and back to the library it went. The movie version, directed by Steven Spielberg, promised to be the same only flashier and louder, yet Spielberg has performed an act of alchemy similar to the upgrade he administered to Peter Benchley’s Jaws. The voice is still there, but here it just serves to help Spielberg move the story along. As with the Jaws novel, Spielberg keeps what works and circular-files what doesn’t.

The result is a juicy wad of bubblegum entertainment, visually antic and immersive without feeling assaultive, fast-paced without feeling rushed. If Spielberg is using the pace so as to deny us time to think about the flaws, he certainly does it successfully. The many pop references from the ‘80s (and some from later, like the Iron Giant) are merely part of the background fabric; you can conceivably not be familiar with any of the cameos, callbacks and in-jokes at all and still follow the basic throughline, which is that young protagonist Wade Watts (Tye Sheridan) seeks to win a contest that can buy him out of his poverty and prove he’s somebody. Reading that description, you wouldn’t know that the story is set in 2045 or that much of the action takes place in a virtual-reality game world.

Ernest Cline might be high on the underarm fumes of his childhood, but he lucked into one of the basic satisfying narratives, and Spielberg zeroes in on it. Of course, Spielberg is part of the pop culture that Ready Player One and most of its characters lionize. His perhaps unavoidable acknowledgments of this fact are limited to eyeblink images. Wade, aka Parzival in the game world OASIS, must find three keys relevant to the sad past of the late game designer James Halliday (Mark Rylance), the cocreator of OASIS and author of the contest. Rylance files yet another ace performance as a man who speaks haltingly and has complex emotions and feelings of guilt and waste. Some have read Spielberg’s friend George Lucas into Halliday. I don’t disagree.

Most of what we’re looking at in Ready Player One is computer-generated animation mapped onto greenscreened bare sets, but Spielberg manages to suggest it all exists physically and gives it heft, the sound of weight. Editor Michael Kahn (assisted, as on Spielberg’s The Post, by Sarah Broshar) gets the constantly moving images and compositions to click together into action sequences with momentum and even poetry; cinematographer Janusz Kaminski drops his usual desaturated muck and helps the movie look like one of the sleeker examples of the ‘80s blockbusters it wants to be. I’m a sap, but Ready Player One won me over right out of the gate — Van Halen’s “Jump” ushered me back to the summer of 1984, to an age (thirteen passing into fourteen) at which I would most have appreciated the movie. (’84 was also the summer of Gremlins and Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom.) The soundtrack is a mix of I-love-the-’80s Spotify playlist and Alan Silvestri’s sweeping score — Silvestri was around back then and knows what an ’80s fantasy should sound like.

Can nostalgia be trusted? It’s as valid an emotional response as any other, and you’re free to take or leave it. Steven Spielberg is still probably the most powerful director in Hollywood, but he’s lost a step or two — he almost couldn’t get Lincoln made. So Ready Player One is partly a trip back to the era where Spielberg was truly master of the universe. Back then, not many people questioned why the hero should be a white male and not a female (Olivia Cooke as Wade’s teammate and love interest Art3mis) or a black lesbian (Lena Waithe as Wade’s best friend Aich) or Asian (Daito and Sho). That aspect of the narrative makes the movie feel retro in annoying ways, but that’s also the cost of watching actual ‘80s movies.

Aich, Daito and Sho almost seem like Spielberg’s stab at atoning for The Color Purple (a movie he would not get to make today, and rightly so¹) and Short Round. Look at the movie long enough and close enough and you might start to imagine it’s as much about apology as celebration. The director who shot Jaws in the ocean because a studio tank would be too fake now makes movies almost entirely on a digital canvas like every other blockbuster director, and he’s partly responsible for why we’ve wound up in a place where our eyes no longer believe reality in movies. Tom Cruise risks his neck doing stunts, and we shrug now because it can just as easily be faked with CG. It’s really him, it’s not really him — who cares? This movie’s message, “Reality is real” (to be fair, a Cline-ism), comes to seem less a bromide than a plea.

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¹But in 1985 it could hardly have been made by a Cheryl Dunye or even an Ava DuVernay, so Spielberg at the height of his powers got the thing made, to the joy of some and the dismay of others, and he didn’t do all that bad of a job of it, considering he was not many readers’ first or hundredth choice to adapt it. But in 2018 there’d be no excuse not to give a new film based on the Alice Walker novel to a gay woman of color to direct.

Die Hard

July 1, 2018

diehard2Die Hard, which turns thirty on July 12, is a big, beautiful, excessive action machine with a thousand moving parts. It’s a jumbo platter; it was somewhat unusual at the time for a summer action film that was relatively real-world grounded — i.e., didn’t involve spaceships or superheroes — to run north of two hours, and somewhere in the third act, when the hero John McClane (Bruce Willis) has that desolate moment in the bathroom picking shards of glass out of his bare feet, the movie begins to feel its length. For a couple of minutes, the film goes soft, as we witness that hoary exchange “Tell my wife I’m sorry”/“You can tell her yourself.” But it’s only one scene, and soon the tension ratchets up again.

Directed by the ill-starred John McTiernan (probably his peak) from a Swiss-watch script by Steven E. de Souza and Jeb Stuart, Die Hard feels loaded with high points — it’s as though the filmmakers approached each scene (aside from the aforementioned one) by asking themselves how entertaining they could make it. So many little bits of business have later payoffs (the Rolex! fists with your toes!) that the movie has inspired tons of internet theories (why does McClane pause so long on the line “These guys are mostly European judging by their clothing labels and their [eternal pause] …cigarettes”?). Almost every character with dialogue has something to add to the overall tapestry — Die Hard is full of strictly unnecessary but wholly enjoyable personality.

It helps, of course, that the movie offers Willis (in only his third movie, aside from a couple of early bit parts) at his most vulnerable, relatable, and hungry. Willis has something to prove, that he can be a credible action hero while keeping sight of McClane’s humanity. In opposition to McClane, the meat-and-potatoes cop from New York, Die Hard gives us a cosmopolitan villain — Alan Rickman in his first film, as failed terrorist turned “exceptional thief” Hans Gruber. I generally preferred Rickman when he was able to shoot other, gentler arrows in his quiver, as in Sense and Sensibility or Truly, Madly, Deeply; but there’s no denying the craft, wit, and sheer fun of this, his unofficial Bond villain, a cold-blooded reptile except for when he smiles disdainfully to himself. One of those grins, a quiet response to a bit of snark by team member Theo (Clarence Gilyard), almost seems like a tribute rendered generously by Rickman — if Theo can make this suave scorpion chuckle on the job, he must be funny.

And that’s how it is with everyone in the cast; people constantly pair off and grouse or commiserate. (For a movie with such a rep for brutal action, it derives a lot of its juice from little actor moments.) At times, Die Hard is an L.A. movie the way, say, Taking of Pelham 123 is a New York movie, in that it expresses the soul of the city — many of the supporting characters are out for themselves, capitalizing on the growing crisis at Nakatomi Plaza, where Hans and his polyglot posse invade and take hostages as a cover for stealing hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of bearer bonds. The movie features not one but two iconic ‘80s assholes, William Atherton as a jackal TV reporter and Paul Gleason as a deputy police chief who stomps onto the scene and immediately gets everything wrong. In the middle of all this is the moron cokehead Ellis (the great Hart Bochner), who swaggers into a meeting with Gruber thinking he’s gonna set all this Eurotrash straight. He won’t. Essentially it’s all down to McClane, the working stiff in a dirty tank top.

The FBI are represented by two combative idiots both named Johnson. The Huey Lewis lookalike on Gruber’s team has the same bland L.A. look as the Nakatomi front desk receptionist he’s replacing. McClane’s estranged wife, Holly Gennaro (Bonnie Bedelia), is written and played as a strong woman who doesn’t scare easily (even though the ending strips her of her Rolex and reasserts her identity as wife). Die Hard has so many little throwaways it could qualify as a comedy as easily as an action bonanza or, as many fans insist, a Christmas movie. It generously writes a redemption-through-violence for desk cop Al Powell (Reginald VelJohnson), but also includes a smaller one for good ol’ limo driver Argyle (De’voreaux White). I’ve used the word “generously” twice now, and that seems to sum up Die Hard as much as any word can. It’s larger than it needs to be (considering it’s practically a one-location thriller), funnier, louder (Michael Kamen’s score bites off big chunks of Beethoven), more human, and sometimes more painful. People get shot and blown up all over the place here and it’s spectacle, nothing to do with us, but we all know what a piece of glass in our flesh feels like.

Black Panther

May 13, 2018

blackpantherThe entire bloated, interlinked, resource-eating Marvel Cinematic Universe may have justified itself by having made possible Black Panther. It’s a rich and shining tapestry, in deep African reds and golds and purples. Being a Marvel movie, it is unavoidably corporate and Manichean — might makes right in the eternal war of Good and Evil. Fortunately, the artists behind Black Panther are interested in how one defines good and evil. Is it that hard to be good if you’re a royal, a member of the warrior elite of a technologically advanced society (Wakanda)? And if you grow up the resentful, brutal product of living in a much poorer society that resents and brutalizes you, can you truly be described as “evil”?

Director Ryan Coogler and his co-writer Joe Robert Cole make Black Panther a battleground of philosophies — isolationism vs. generosity, revenge vs. justice, even vibranium (the element that gives Wakanda its power) vs. Jabari wood. It is never at any point black vs. white, or African vs. Caucasian, even though one of the villains is white (he is shown to be an equal-opportunity slimeball who will ally with and then betray whoever can most benefit him in the moment). Unlike the unredeemable adversaries of the DC universe — the unreachable anarch the Joker, the megalomaniacal Lex Luthor — the rogues’ gallery at Marvel tend to have some shading, some humanity, even if appalling humanity. And the heroes are often impeded by guilt, doubt, hubris. Thus, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), newly crowned king of Wakanda, represents a kind of naïvete born of privilege; his opposite, Erik Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan), came up outside Wakanda’s embrace and has a more bitter view of the world. Erik often makes good points, and T’Challa sometimes sounds fatuous.

Wakanda represents what the whole of Africa might have been without colonizers — an African-American’s warming daydream of a black Shangri-La, unmutilated by whites. It’s a dream of superiority, too; Coogler and his artists take command of a medium that has spent far more of its history demeaning people of color than not, and they make sure this example of the medium gives us people of color who are demonstrably smarter and tougher than anyone else. (There’s a white CIA agent, played by Martin Freeman, who is generously made a brave and competent fighter.) That an empowerment fable on this level — a $200+ million sci-fi fantasy opening in 4,000 theaters nationwide — is only thinkable due to its association with a larger, otherwise pretty pale-skinned corporate concern is probably not the sort of irony Marvel fans would appreciate. Yet Black Panther may ultimately stand apart from its wider mythos the same way Wonder Woman did.

Considering the strain he must have been under — here you go, a massive blockbuster all your own; try not to disappoint Marvel or the black audience; no pressure or anything! — it might be too much to have expected Chadwick Boseman to manage anything other than a noble performance, with occasional brushstrokes of rage and grief and one or two fleeting bits of humor. (I look for the sequels — don’t worry, there’ll be some — to let T’Challa and Boseman have more fun.) Michael B. Jordan, on the other hand, knows he has a juicy wounded-martyr role and rips into it with gusto, thoroughly enjoying playing a large-scale villain on an enormous canvas. Boseman more or less gives the movie to Jordan and to the many beautiful, brilliant women surrounding him: Lupita Nyong’o, Angela Bassett, Danai Gurira, Letitia Wright. The Dora Milaje, Wakanda’s all-female special forces, could give the Amazons in Wonder Woman a rough time of it.

Wakanda is heaven, a dream of unity and equality of all kinds — though I imagine we’d have to wait for Black Panther 3 or 4 to find out how LGBTQ people or the disabled are treated there. Wakanda feels like the perfect land we all should have had, a utopia (though one ruled by a techno-warrior class). The place has great beauty, but it doesn’t look like much fun, truth to tell; it looks like a stolid land of solemn traditions and tests of strength, its loyal subjects pledging to defend its borders from the outside world. (And a benevolent monarchy is still a monarchy, no?) In a much-discussed quote at the end, T’Challa tells the United Nations, “In times of crisis the wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers.” It’s hard not to hear in that a rebuke to … well, you know. Somebody.

 

Star Wars: The Last Jedi

April 1, 2018

jediSo much happens in these new Star Wars films, and at such a ferocious clip, you’d think Lucasfilm had enough material for another whole trilogy. (Many stand-alone “Star Wars stories” are planned, including Solo in May.) Star Wars: The Last Jedi is also, at two hours and thirty-two minutes, the longest of the nine movies thus far, and deep into the second hour it can feel a little draining. There’s some stuff that feels extraneous (the whole Canto Bight sequence, which seems to exist to set up a new Lando-like character played by Benicio del Toro), and the cycle of attack and retreat — mostly retreat — gets a bit monotonous. But writer/director Rian Johnson pulls it together for the finale, unfolding on a planet with white salt coating red soil. The tracks of vehicles and feet scoring out crimson marks in the ground, as if slicing and drawing blood, has a poetry that matches the binary sunset of Tatooine, an image stirringly echoed here.

In The Last Jedi, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) returns, only to tell us and his student Rey (Daisy Ridley) that he and everything he once stood for deserve to die. This is a real “there are no heroes” movie, although not in a nihilistic way. I was amused to see that Luke, all these years later, is excoriating himself for the hubris — the smugness, really — he showed in Return of the Jedi. Hero myths of the sort that fed Star Wars in the first place, we are informed, are lies. There are only flawed people (or aliens, whatever) trying to resist tyranny. Luke says to us, in effect, “You grew up looking up to me. You were wrong, but I was more wrong to accept that reverence. The fact is that I am a failure.” He’s wrong there, too — one of the movie’s gentler points is that someone who fails (meaning all of us) is not a failure. A failure is a failure, and victory proceeds by small and not always satisfying degrees.

The plot has what’s left of the Resistance, led by General Leia (Carrie Fisher in a moving swan song), running from the relentless forces of the First Order, led by Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) and his soul-divided apprentice Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), son of Leia and Han Solo, one-time student of Luke. There’s an awful lot of back and forth, people hopping into ships and revving off for here and there, a good amount of pew pew and lightsaber hum, but the meat of the movie is a young man torn between good and evil, a young woman who feels he can turn to the good side, and an old man who has been there, done that, and takes a lot of convincing that any of it means anything. Johnson and his team (cinematographer Steve Yedlin, editor Bob Ducsay) stage the action cleanly and sometimes with a cathartic swoop of exhilaration, but a good deal of it is the same pew pew and hum we’ve been seeing for forty years.

The currency here is the people. Hotshot pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) taunting First Order General Hux (“Hi, I’m holding for a General Hugs”) is a risky but gratifying way to open the movie; returning stormtrooper-turned-rebel Finn (John Boyega) and newcomer Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), zipping around trying to crack into a tracking device, make a fun team in perpetual motion. The Vietnamese-American Tran is one of many women and/or people of color taking their places at the foreground of these new Star Wars movies, upsetting racist fanboys but pleasing everyone else. A most welcome addition is Laura Dern as purple-haired Vice Admiral Holdo, whose command is gentle but firm — she bats away the indignation of hothead Poe without raising her voice. Whoever decided to bring the warmhearted, levelheaded Dern into the Star Wars universe deserves a good cigar.

Ultimately, The Last Jedi speaks for the strength of a united front against imperial aggression, and forget about elevating a few people to godhood — and that includes the villains, too. The final image leaves us with the assurance that young people tired of injustice will pick up the ball their elders dropped; the movie was filmed and released before the Parkland shooting and its subsequent students’ movement, but seems to anticipate it. The Star Wars universe is starting to mirror our own in that it is re-evaluating its holy trinity of heroes — Luke, Leia and Han — and advising their worshipers to look to themselves for rescue, redemption, and faith. The Force (whose power no longer seems to depend on the “midichlorians” of George Lucas’ doofus prequels) shares with Zen Buddhism a cleansing disregard for icons (foreshadowed when Rey hands Luke his father’s lightsaber and he tosses it over his shoulder): If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.

Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets

November 19, 2017

Valerian-and-the-City-of-a-Thousand-Planets-(France)-1-FullI can’t quite bring myself to convince you that the entire two hours and seventeen minutes of Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets are worth sitting through for Rihanna’s appearance some eighty minutes in. Soon enough, she becomes a blue blob and later turns to dust. But she’s fun while she lasts, as a shape-shifting performer named Bubble who helps the titular hero, Major Valerian (Dane DeHaan), rescue his captured partner Sergeant Laureline (Cara Delevingne). For twenty minutes or so, Rihanna is a suavely fierce nonactress adding some welcome grit and personality to a mix that includes far too many aliens and special effects, far too little humanity.

Valerian is great-looking but awful, a combination that has sadly become the stock in trade of the once-impressive Luc Besson (Leon, The Fifth Element, Lucy). Those who found The Fifth Element a jocular piece of futuristic excess but a bit on the empty-calorie side won’t find much to plug into here; the meaning of the movie is simply to get Valerian and Laureline from one hectic, shiny set piece to the next, barely stopping for a breath or even a scenery-chewing villain performance from the likes of Gary Oldman (who brightened Leon and Fifth Element). Here we get only the grouchy Clive Owen as our heroes’ commander, who gives orders to wipe out an entire species of alien pearl farmers, one of whom stows away in Valerian’s body after dying.

Look, I could go on discussing plot points to prove I saw the film, but you’ll just have to trust me. Valerian has tons of plot but no real story to speak of; our heroes hurtle to and fro to get justice for the aliens, and that’s all there is to it. The movie is so pointlessly eventful and convoluted, though, that it feels more complicated than it is. It doesn’t help than DeHaan and Delevingne have zero chemistry or presence; DeHaan has a gruff dudebro voice like Keanu Reeves’, only without Keanu’s soulfulness, and Delevingne often just seems vaguely inconvenienced, glassy-eyed with indifference for the material. (The two have matching hollow pouts, and they both have arrogantly unmusical voices.) DeHaan does bestir himself when trading lines with Rihanna, though that just serves to prove he has a pulse. Her boss, called Jolly the Pimp, is given a naughty twinkle by Ethan Hawke, but he’s not around for long, either. (I tend to think Hawke opened the script, saw his character’s name, and signed on just on the strength of being able to play a character called Jolly the Pimp.)

What we get here instead of interesting humans is a flock of CGI aliens (the one voiced by John Goodman is amusingly stern) and various scenes of the heroes’ spaceship streaking heedlessly through space, or through trippy environments, and for minutes at a time we might as well be watching animation demo footage unconnected to any context of any interest. Valerian may be welcomed as eye candy by kids and by aficionados of controlled substances, but it offers nothing for someone who merely buckles in for a good time at the movies. Besson also no longer knows what to do with interesting humans when he has them. Rutger Hauer is tossed aside after punching his time card for what our British actor friends call a cough and a spit role; Herbie Hancock is in it, mostly seen as a hologram scolding the heroes. An international cast mumbles stale dialogue in person or as the voices of aliens.

The overstuffed yet empty Valerian is nothing new, of course; we’ve been getting this sort of flatulent, pricey “entertainment” for decades, and it’s not going to end any time soon. Every so often a Get Out or a Wonder breaks out, because it scratches a previously neglected itch, or it speaks to people. Valerian and its ilk speak to no one, although they are engineered to appeal across continents, languages, cultures. Everyone understands things blowing up. Yet you have to drive out of your way for an hour to see, say, a French film for grown-ups (Valerian is based on French comics), while plastic junk like this blurts onto 3,500 screens in America — then slinks off after nine weeks having made back a fraction of its cost. Its failure in America (and in general, worldwide) would be encouraging if we didn’t still get a hundred movies like it every year.

Brawl in Cell Block 99

October 29, 2017

Brawl-In-Cell-Block-99-TrailerIn the first shot of Brawl in Cell Block 99, the heavy tire of a truck flattens a can of lite beer. This, I imagine, is a signal that you’re about to get a shot of the hard stuff. You may have read about how ferally brutal Brawl is, and what a change of pace it is for its star, Vince Vaughn, but the truly shocking thing about it is how tender much of it is, how much humanity even briefly seen supporting players are apportioned. The movie is hushed, almost meditative, as it lays the groundwork for a grand finale involving crushed skulls, faces scraped against concrete. The audience for the film may fall within a very tiny Venn diagram of those who can sit with subtly emotional, drawn-out scenes and those who can hang with the bone-cracking and bloodletting.

It is also some kind of grim masterpiece, fully delivering on the promise of writer/director S. Craig Zahler’s 2015 debut, Bone Tomahawk. In that Peckinpah-meets-Deodato epic, Kurt Russell and a small posse delve into hell — land of hulking cannibals — to save a woman from a fate worse than death. Here, Vaughn, as recovering alcoholic with a side order of rage issues Bradley Thomas, must descend level by level into a dungeon of horrors to rescue his pregnant wife Lauren (Jennifer Carpenter) and their unborn daughter from an equally ghastly end. There’s a heaping helping of white-knightism in both films, but it doesn’t go unchallenged, nor do easy notions of manhood or machismo. Violence in these films is not to be relished, but to be engaged in with sorrow that it had to play out this way — without sadism but also without mercy. They are portraits of men in extremis, grotesque but fully alive and human.

After being laid off from his auto-mechanic gig, Bradley comes home to discover that Lauren has been cheating on him. He tells her to go into the house, then uses his fists on her car, finally ripping the hood off. We don’t need to be told that he is inflicting damage that he can easily fix; the same would not be true of wounds dealt to Lauren. And then a wondrous thing happens: after punishing the car, Bradley steps inside and faces Lauren, and they talk. They talk like adults in a movie for adults. This, too, is shocking. Everyone who meets Bradley seems to sense that he has, as a detective puts it, a moral compass. They can also see in his eyes that he would rather not hurt people, but is exceptionally capable of doing so if his hand is forced. Well, his hand is forced, in an odyssey that takes him from a minimum to a maximum security prison, and finally to “the prison within the prison,” ruled by the sportive cigarillo-puffing sadist Warden Tuggs (Don Johnson).

Brawl in Cell Block 99, like Zahler’s Bone Tomahawk, doesn’t use brutality for a kick or a tickle. It’s lumbering, terrible, thudding stuff, with the fights often filmed in long takes so we can see that, yes, that is indeed Vince Vaughn and not a stunt double distributing pain like Halloween candy. Bradley is a bad-ass, but Vaughn isn’t interested in that aspect of him (nor is Zahler). You’re not meant to go “whoo!” when the fists fly and arms are splintered, the way you were at something like Sylvester Stallone’s back-to-basics 2008 Rambo. You’re meant to wince, avert your eyes. Vaughn brings an intelligent wit and vulnerability that play against his six-foot-five frame. Bradley is a man who could easily be a hero, except that fate has made him a villain.

He does it all for his woman and his unborn child. As with Bone Tomahawk, I couldn’t be less interested in unpacking the story’s politics (avoiding spoilers, but some of the plot hinges on a hot-button issue). A great many effective pulp fantasies of the past, of course, would not pass today’s ideological purity tests. I’m as lefty as they come, and whatever right-wing skeleton may be rattling around inside Brawl concerns me not in the slightest. There’s no agenda being pressed here, just a cracking story with across-the-board fine performances (it’s predictable that Udo Kier is in perfect creepy form as a crime associate, but how about the surprisingly authoritative work from Marc Blucas — the most boring presence on Buffy the Vampire Slayer — as Bradley’s racist drug-dealer friend?). I don’t know how S. Craig Zahler votes, but I have seen how he writes and directs, and I’m ready to say he’s the most exciting filmmaker working in the violent genres since Tarantino raised his flag 25 years ago. Watch him.