F9: The Fast Saga (2021)

Ten films into the “The Fast Saga“, I have no idea how to evaluate individual movies in the franchise beyond noting how much fun I had while watching them.  During the last entry, Fast and Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw, I didn’t have any fun at all despite seeing it in a theater full of braying strangers; the mood was sour & off-brand.  During its pandemic era follow-up, F9, I had a moderate amount of fun watching a borrowed public-library DVD alone on my couch.  F9 mostly offers more of the same from the decades-running action franchise, which has ballooned from street racing heist films to superhero fantasy epics that just happen have car engines revving in the background.  In this outing, Dom’s gang/family drive over landmines, through weaponized magnetic fields and, inevitably, into outer space.  I can’t tell how much my enthusiasm for these stunts was dampened by watching the film at home vs. how much it was dampened by feeling like I’ve seen it all before.  All I know is that after the bitter taste left by Hobbs & Shaw‘s aggro-bro sense of humor, I’m now way more conscious of how these films generate their moodsetting comedy. As it turns out, it’s a lot more difficult to have fun when you’re thinking about whether or not you’re having it.

A lot of the straightforward, dialogue-based humor in F9 is pretty dire, but at least it’s delivered in a better spirit than Jason Statham & The Rock’s play-hateful banter.  Its verbal comedy is typified by Ludacris’s computer nerd side-character making lazy pop culture references to fellow IP giants like Harry Potter, or by Michelle Rodriguez’s A-team hero quipping “Well, that was new” after Vin Diesel swings a sports car off a cliffside rope like an automotive Tarzan.  Most of the fun to be had in these films relies on the visual absurdism of those impossible car stunts, which has gotten exponentially self-aware since the skyscraper jump in Furious 7 (my personal favorite in the series).  They want to clearly signal that they realize it’s all in good fun by adding MCU-style one-liners to the script, but the series’ internal humor’s just not there yet.  In that respect, F9‘s biggest blunder was in casting John Cena in a dead-serious villain role despite him being the funniest member of the cast (judging by his recent string of R-rated raunch comedies) while feeding its proper Jokes to dead-behind-the-eyes action stars like Vin Diesel.  All longtime fans really want out of these movies is for Diesel to mumble the word “family” with outsized gravitas in-between Looney Tunes-level car stunts; he doesn’t need to land any bon mots.

To F9‘s credit, it does find a way to push its hack “Well, that just happened” MCU humor to new, absurd places.  Roman (Tyrese Gibson) escalates that self-awareness of the improbability of his family/gang’s superheroism by pausing to remark “We should all be dead.”  After dodging machine-gun fire, landmine explosions, and physics-defying car wrecks, he desperately tries to spread his self-aware epiphany to the rest of the crew.  He points out how out of control the street racing gang’s “insane missions” have gotten, declaring their continued existence on Earth “damn near impossible”.  I wish he had pushed that line of thinking a little further beyond “We are not normal” to realizing that he must be a fictional character in a Hollywood action franchise.  At least that post-Last Action Hero meta narrative would’ve landed as a novelty in a series where the only other frontiers they haven’t yet explored are time travel & dinosaurs.  Give them enough time, and I’m sure they’ll get there.  After all, launching Ludacris & Tyrese into space is already lightyears away from the gang’s first-movie mission of stealing DVD players out of 18-wheelers.

If I had to narrow down Roman’s “We’re invincible” epiphany to a more specific observation, it’s that the Fast & Furious family appear to be invincible as long as they fall on a car instead of the ground.  There are multiple stunts in this film in which an actor (or a CG blur standing in for an actor) flies through the air while their partner rushes towards them in a car, making sure they land on the hood instead of the concrete below.  Apparently, that three-foot difference is enough to save the day in this loopy-logic action series (and even if it weren’t, fan-favorite characters frequently return from the dead anyway).  That’s the kind of inane bullshit that makes this series fun, and the more you can focus on those cheap thrills instead of the halfhearted one-liners the happier you can drive away.  I do think it helps to watch these films in the theater, where the rumble of car engines helps drown out the whimpers of dialogue, but Hobbs & Shaw is proof that watching these action blockbusters big & loud isn’t enough to cover up their worst attempts at straightforward humor.  Thankfully, F9 is still a lot of goofball fun when it lets the cars do the talking.

-Brandon Ledet

Nobody (2021)

I’ve lost track of how we’re supposed to react to Bob Odenkirk as a screen presence.  After all the obsessive rewatches of Mr. Show DVD sets in my college years I’m trained to receive Odenkirk as a sight gag, where his very presence is meant to read as a joke.  Given the barely stifled laughter that echoed his titular line reading of “My little women!” in my theater screening of Gerwig’s Little Women, I assume I’m not the only one who reacts to him that way.  Bob Odenkirk is synonymous with sketch comedy in my mind, making any scene he’s in inherently feel like a bit.  What’s confusing about that association is that Odenkirk has been much busier and more widely popular in recent years in a medium I know very little about: Prestige Television.  His roles on shows like Breaking Bad, Better Call Saul, and Fargo appear to be occasionally comedic in the way most TV dramas dabble in dark humor from time to time, but for the most part they’re played straight.  Bob Odenkirk is just as much of a legitimate actor now as he was a visual punchline in the past, and it’s up to the audience’s personal familiarity with specific pockets of his work to determine how he’s going to register onscreen (the same way I can’t watch Toby Huss in a serious dramatic role without first thinking of Artie, The Strongest Man in the World for at least a half-second). 

That muddled screen persona makes for an initially confusing experience in Odenkirk’s post-John Wick action vehicle Nobody.  At first glance, it’s absolutely absurd that Odenkirk would be starring in any kind of action movie at all, much less one styled after the bone-crunching ultraviolence of John Wick.  You’re not immediately invited to laugh at that casting choice, though, since Nobody plays its John Wick in the Suburbs premise entirely straight.  Odenkirk plays a self-identified “nobody”: a suburban dad with severe home invasion anxieties and an exponentially distanced relationship with his nuclear family, who’re bored by his stability.  The only early wink towards the absurdism of Odenkirk’s casting is in the brutality of its close-quarters violence.  Once a bloodlust is awakened in the milquetoast suburban dad, he over-commits to his role as a macho protector, and it’s absolutely bizarre to see Odenkirk smashing windows and crushing throats as if he were a retired, middle-age Rambo.  As that violence escalates and the suburban-America nobody’s list of enemies grows to include the entire Russian mafia, it’s clear that this is very much an intentional action-comedy; it’s just one that’s incredibly patient in paying off the set-up to the punchline.  Odenkirk starts the film in his Prestige TV Drama mode but by the end he’s a full-on sketch comedy player.

I had a lot of fun with Nobody once it fully sketched out what it’s doing.  Based on its marketing (and the involvement of producer David Leitch), I expected it to be a fish-out-of-water action comedy about suburban dad stumbling into a John Wick plot.  By the end, I was more convinced it was a direct parody of every post-Taken Liam Neeson thriller about a dad on the verge.  All the signs were there if I had known to look for them.  My borrowed library DVD started with a Liam Neeson trailer; Odenkirk grimly refers to his secretive military past, hinting at a “very particular set of skills” that could be deployed to save his family; he breaks into thieves’ apartment to retrieve his daughter’s beloved kittycat bracelet instead of, you know, his entire daughter; etc.  The opening montage is even a direct spoof of the morning-routine sequence from The Commuter (aka Taken on a Train, not to be confused with Non-Stop, aka Taken on a Plane).  The only way the Neeson spoofing could’ve been more obvious is if Odenkirk were speaking in a gravelly Irish accent, and I still didn’t catch onto what it was doing until about halfway into the runtime.  Nobody is a Mr. Show level parody of the post-Taken dad thriller; it just doesn’t make that satirical target immediately apparent.

The tonal confusion of what eventually turns out to be an over-the-top action comedy here feels both purposeful and effective.  Odenkirk’s mid-life macho fantasy of being an untapped protector of his household just waiting for a threat to quash is already funny enough when it’s played straight in the opening act.  Watching that fantasy meet the harsh reality of a suburban dad bod being pummeled by Russian mobsters mid-film is even funnier.  Then, the whole thing farcically escalates into live-action cartoon mayhem by the finale, boldly underlining the absurdism of its premise to the point where it’s unignorable.  If I were more confident on where Odenkirk is in his acting career (basically, if I watched more cable TV dramas) I might’ve caught onto that parodic sense of humor a lot sooner, but it took me a minute to get my footing on the film’s tone.  In retrospect, that makes it the perfect Bob Odenkirk vehicle despite the unlikeliness of its genre: a comedy where you’re not initially sure whether you’re supposed to treat the actor as a joke but it’s funny either way.

-Brandon Ledet

Crazy World (2020)

I’ve finally had my first Wakaliwood experience, thanks to the pandemic-inspired We Are One: A Global Film Festival charity event that ran for free on YouTube earlier this month. The D.I.Y. African movie studio has been operated out of the home of self-taught filmmaker Isaac Godfrey Geoffrey Nabwana (self-credited as Nabwana IGG) for a full decade now. It seems to be little more than a few laptops & cameras in the hands of amateur action-movie buffs in Kampala, Uganda, but its acclaim in Midnight Movie circles has been emphatically spreading for years now. Where most outsider-art cult movies of recent years have earned their notoriety through so-bad-it’s-good mockery from tragically insincere Film Bros (think Tommy Wiseau or Neil Breen or whoever’s responsible for the Birdemic Cinematic Universe), Wakaliwood pictures sidestep that pitfall entirely by having fun with the audience, allowing little room for anyone to mock them from a distance. There’s no way these micro-budget action thrillers could compete with the over-the-top spectacles of Hollywood franchises like Mission: Impossible or The Fast and the Furious, at least not in terms of resources or scale. Instead, they aim for a deliberate action-comedy bent, verbally acknowledging their quality as a bootleg version of Hollywood action franchises and inviting the audience to laugh along with them instead of mocking them from afar. When Tommy Wiseau was let in on The Joke, his schtick was ruined, and he hasn’t done anything genuinely interesting since The Room. By contrast, Wakaliwood was already having fun with their outsider-art oddities before a worldwide audience arrived to the party, so all anyone could do was join in the fun. I’m grateful that We Are One finally sent along my invite (courtesy of the Midnight Madness programmers at TIFF).

A lot of Wakaliwood’s unique it’s-all-a-party vibe is due to its in-house hype-man narrator, Emmie. Emmie is billed as the films’ VJ (“Video Joker”), a master of ceremonies who excitedly talks over the movies to explain their onscreen action (as if he were Silent Era title cards) and to keep the audience’s blood pumping. It’s as if the films had built in their own MST3k commentary team, except will all the show’s above-it-all Gen-X snark replaced with unembarrassed movie-nerd joy. Sometimes, the VJ interjects to establish characters’ motivations or to remind the audience who’s fighting on which side. More often, he’s just shouting energizing catchphrases like an exercise class instructor, keeping our heartrate up with gloriously redundant outbursts of “Supa!”, “Commando!”, and “Movie, movie, movie!” Nabwana IGG’s hyperactive editing style is similarly geared towards keeping the mood light & the audience constantly wired, cutting out all breathing room between cuts so all that’s onscreen is action & jokes alternating in dizzingly rapid succession. Curiously, the characters themselves seem to be aware of this constant need to push onto the next action sequence, as if they are aware they’re in a movie. When a husband is about to find his wife in bed with another man or an evil gang is about to clash with the film’s heroes, there’s usually an excited observer on hand to comment about how good of a movie we’re about to see, sometimes doing the VJ’s job for him before he gets to weigh in. It all plays into the communal, regional filmmaking vibe Nabwana IGG establishes with his hyperlocal Ugandan crew and his exponentially international audience at home. Everyone’s on the same footing, whether narrator, actor, or outside observer; we’re all invited to party.

In Crazy World, a Ugandan gang of kidnappers are thwarted by the unexpected Kung Fu skills of their pint-sized captives & the children’s enraged parents. In the 80s & 90s action movies Nabwana IGG is emulating (Commando, Cobra, Hard Target, etc.), the crooked network of child abductors would normally be taken down by a lone ex-military musclehead who is mysteriously unable to be struck by the bullets fired by dozens of enemies. Nabwana IGG opens up the playing field to allow as many of his local community actors to have their heroic Schwarzenegger moment as possible: returning characters from past Wakaliwood classics, a new crop of ”Kung Fu”-trained neighborhood children called The Waka Starz, and a random assortment of revenge-seeking parental figures who just want their kids back. The most notable of which is a once-reputable local man who becomes communally ignored as a homeless lunatic once his son is abducted by the evil gang. As the Video Joker solemnly explains, “He lost his child, then he lost his mind.” The title of the film is borrowed from the homeless man’s self-built shanty town, a reconstructed pile of trash from where he observes the comings & goings of the wicked kidnapping gang until he finds the right time to strike, using societal dismissal of mentally ill vagrants to hide in plain sight. None of this matters too much once the gang is actively overthrown by the community they terrorize, though, as he’s only one hero of many. It seems Nabwana IGG & his VJ mouthpiece especially want the Waka Starz to steal some of the homeless vigilante’s spotlight, repeatedly asserting that Crazy World is “The Greatest Kidz Movie Eva” despite the fact that it’s drenched in gunfire & bloodshed. The kids are adorably tough in their own moments of collective heroism, though, which really accentuates the movie’s charms as a document of hyperlocal communal filmmaking.

I can’t speak to how Crazy World compares to other films in the Wakaliwood canon, but it worked exceedingly well as an introduction to Nabwana IGG’s output for me. That often came across as a deliberate intention of the piece, as the movie periodically stops dead to promote the trailers for past & future Wakaliwood productions the audience should get hyped for. It worked too, as I was jotting down titles like Bad Black & Who Killed Captain Alex? as necessary homework assignments I needed to catch up with. Unfortunately, a documentary titled Once Upon a Time in Uganda was supposed to premiere at this year’s SXSW fest to help further spread the good word of Wakaliwood’s output but was preempted by our current COVID-19 pandemic. In what had to be my favorite aspect of Crazy World’s presentation on the We Are One platform, Nabwana IGG directly acknowledges that bizarre circumstance, interrupting the film’s action to deploy “anti-piracy enforcers” to online bootleggers’ homes across the globe via CG helicopters to apprehend them for stealing his movie. There is no shyness around self-promotion or copyright protection here. Characters will directly ask bootleggers onscreen “Do you know how hard it is to make a movie?” as a plea for compassion (as well as a for-its-own-sake comedic gag). It is damn hard to make a movie, something that makes Nabwana IGG’s growing media empire look even more enticing as a newcomer who’s far behind the curve. He has so many titles under his name, yet so few resources behind their production or distribution. In that way, he’s a true D.I.Y. filmmaking success story, and I’m incredibly excited to have finally stumbled into his crazy world.

-Brandon Ledet

Birds of Prey (2020)

It took me over a thousand rambling words to defend the much-reviled DC supervillain team-up Suicide Squad as Passably Okay back when it was first released in 2016. It was an ugly mess of a film when considered in its comic-book worldbuilding context, but as an outsider to that end of nerdom I found it amusing as a Hot Topic-costumed shoot-em-up action flick. Where I was really out of step with the critical consensus on that film was believing that it was saved, not ruined, by its studio tinkering. Suicide Squad was edited to Hell and back, removing as much of meathead director David Ayer’s personal vision and footage of Jared Leto’s meth clinic Joker as the studio could manage with while still walking away with a “coherent” picture. The genius of this post-production tinkering is that it highlighted the two sole items of interest in Suicide Squad’s arsenal: its mall-goth flavored gun violence and Margot Robbie’s electric performance as the Joker’s anarchic moll, Harley Quinn (mostly through Robbie’s already-established chemistry with Will Smith, sans Leto). Brilliantly, Suicide Squad’s spinoff sequel Birds of Prey (produced by Robbie herself) has further isolated & extrapolated those two morsels of entertainment value to the point where my moderate enjoyment of the previous picture is now obsolete. In fact, most superhero media of the past couple decades (or at least since Joel Schumacher transformed Batman into a gay cartoon) now feels obsolete in a post-Birds of Prey world. This is exactly what I’m looking for in modern superhero pictures but rarely, if ever, receive.

Birds of Prey is just as narratively messy as Suicide Squad, but this time it’s an intentional result of its protagonist’s loopy POV rather than a toxic-waste byproduct of studio interference. Its “story” mimics a Pulp Fiction-style scrambled timeline assemblage, but only because its narrator is too far detached from reality to relay a linear tale. As a result, nothing about its diamond heist MacGuffin plot or running-from-the-law dramatic tension registers as especially important. This is more of a bubblegum pop breakup song than it is a feature film, catching up with the violent-crime clownstress Harley Quinn in the immediate hours after being dumped by her abusive, manipulative boyfriend The Joker. Devastated but liberated, Harley lashes out at the world at large in grand displays of heartbreak: getting blackout drunk at the local gangster bar; exploding the chemical refinery where she used to loiter with her boo; forming a titular girl gang with fellow violent eccentrics; and shotgunning entre cans of Cheese Wiz directly into her mouth. Those grand displays of heartache announce to the local crime world that she’s no longer under the Joker’s “protection,” making it open season for any and all dirtbag men she’s wronged over the years to seek revenge for past grievances. As her road to self-fulfilling singledom and her clashes with every scummy bro in Gotham pile up, the movie ultimately becomes a thin excuse to watch Margot Robbie kick the shit out of nameless men, model sparkly costumes, and mug directly at the camera. What I’m saying is it’s a delight.

The slapstick action-comedy of this grim, R-rated novelty is as hyperviolent as it is hyperfemme. Harley Quinn smashes men’s faces & kneecaps with wild abandon, but she’s most likely to do so with a canon-fired glitter bomb or a bejeweled baseball bat. She commands the same anarchic, glammed-up energy as Bugs Bunny in drag, and the entire movie around her has no choice but to warp itself around that Looney sensibility. I struggle to explain exactly why that “Ain’t I a stinker?“ pranksterism works for me here when I found it brutally unfunny in the Deadpool movies, except maybe in that the wardrobe is more exciting and Robbie, unlike Ryan Reynolds, can actually land a joke. It might just be that it’s more of a refreshing novelty to watch women behave badly than men, as they so rarely get the chance. When asked why she’s such a self-absorbed, explosively violent monster in the film’s third act, Harley muses, “I guess I’m just not a good person.” It’s likely that freedom to misbehave so flagrantly is what drew Robbie back in to revive the role despite the avalanche of negative Suicide Squad critiques (this time with a female creative team – director Cathy Yan & writer Christina Hodson). Whatever the case, the devious humor she finds in this mayhem absolutely lights up the screen, and the only times the movie momentarily stumbles are in the occasional scenes where anyone who’s not Harley highjacks the POV. I can apparently watch her tear through sequin outfits & broken bones for hours without flagging in enthusiasm. Every minute she’s onscreen is pure, chaotic joy.

More superhero movies could stand to be this excessive in their violence, this shamelessly broad in their humor, and this fabulous in their costuming. We’d all be better off.

-Brandon Ledet

The Spy Who Dumped Me (2018)

I have not yet seen the latest entry in the Mission: Impossible franchise despite its soaring critical consensus, which posits the film as the greatest action epic since Fury Road. This is more a result of scheduling & MoviePass-related mishaps than it is indicative of a lack of interest, as the previous entry in the Tom Cruise series, Rogue Nation, was my favorite episode to date. Even though I’ve somehow missed out on Mission: Impossible – Fallout in its first few weeks on the big screen, it has been on my mind, something the Mila Kunis/Kate McKinnon buddy comedy The Spy Who Dumped Me was banking on as clownish mockbuster counterprogramming. Despite the Bond reference in its title, the timing of The Spy Who Dumped Me’s release is deliberately in tandem with the guaranteed Tom Cruise money-maker, possibly in hopes of offering lighter fare for audiences already in the mood for its spy thriller genre territory. This tactic is unmistakably clear in the very first sequence, where a handsome American spy (Justin Theroux) fights off an undercover contingent of international baddies in a Lithuanian open-air market, a blatant knockoff of the iconic Mission: Impossible theme music soundtracking the affair. There’s no real comedy to this mise-en-scène action set piece opening, just a violent chase through European settings that’s meant to feel like just another spy mission in a long series of international exploits that we’re joining midstream. The sequence concludes with the bang of a makeshift microwave explosive, a violent burst that propels popcorn into the frame for the title card, just to let the audience know this is an escapist summertime version of the serious stuff: a literal popcorn flick. The Spy Who Dumped Me is the light action comedy counterprogramming to Mission: Impossible’s more self-serious espionage thriller offering, and it’s totally charming for that.

As the parodic, less-than-serious version of the modern espionage thriller, The Spy Who Dumped Me doesn’t have to do much to distinguish itself from the Mission: Impossible franchise to avoid direct mockbuster territory. That hurdle it clears with ease. The more difficult task it stumbles over is distinguishing itself from the Melissa McCarthy/Paul Feig team-up Spy. In both works, everyday women are inducted into international espionage missions when the action-hero men in their lives (Theroux & Jude Law, respectively) are taken out of commission. The Spy Who Dumped Me only differs from the Spy template by affording its nobody-turned-international-spy protagonist (Mil Kumis) a lifelong bestie sidekick (Kate McKinnon). After being dumped via text message by her undercover spy boyfriend (ostensibly for her own safety), Kunis finds herself in desperate need of an adventurous shake-up to spice up her milquetoast lifestyle. The more free-wheeling McKinnon encourages this new thirst for adventurism with every opportunity she can. When the spy boyfriend is taken out of action and their own safety is compromised, she pushes Kunis to turn this opportunity into a besties’ European vacation. Instead of the usual sight-seeing, selfies, and clubbing exploits of American women traversing Europe, the pair indulge in shoot-outs, car chases, and elaborate heists. They kill people. They’re almost killed. It’s all in good fun. The overall set-up & individual gags are all very similar to Feig’s Spy picture, but the emotional core is less rooted in Kunis’s need to break out of her shell (as was the case with McCarthy’s) than it is in her friendship with McKinnon. The pair push, encourage, challenge, and genuinely love each other enough for the story to distinguish itself from Spy in its central character dynamics, even if all the background detail & overriding genre structure render the two films unavoidably comparable.

The Spy Who Dumped Me is so comfortable with admitting to its Mission: Impossible parallels that it includes the line “Your mission, should you choose to accept it . . .” in an early scene of tiki bar flirtation. I assume its parallels to Spy were much less intentional, a byproduct of the film’s overall adherence to mainstream comedy tropes (including go-to modern comedy gross-outs like flaccid male nudity & extended diarrhea gags). Formulaic comedy foundations have led to plenty enjoyable pictures in the past, tough, typically dependent on the strength of the performers involved. McKinnon does most of the heavy-lifting there are as the film’s de facto clown (a role she eventually takes very literally in a climactic Cirque du Soleil sequence). Her over-the-top SNL energy keeps the mood light & affable, even in scenes where baddies & bystanders are being torn to shreds by bullets. She’s even afforded plenty of room to bring her real-life personality quirks into the role, teaching grotesque bros about feminism & loudly broadcasting her life-long love of Gillian Anderson (playing a fantasy version of Dana Scully who eventually climbed the FBI ranks to head her own espionage bureau). Even if the excitement around Mission: Impossible – Fallout hasn’t ignited an immediate thirst for more (and sillier) espionage thriller content or the memory of Spy is too vivid for you to enjoy its comedically inferior echo, Kate McKinnon alone is well worth the price of admission for The Spy Who Dumped Me. This early in her career it’s still rare to see her afforded extensive, front & center screentime, so this movie cannot be overvalued as a McKinnon showcase. The lagniappe delight in that indulgence is that she gets to participate in a sweet, endearing action comedy about female friendship, one where the action & the friendship dynamic are both surprisingly convincing & well-staged. With that comedic & emotional core, any adherence to genre formula or parallels to more substantial works are beside the point of this self-proclaimed popcorn flick’s in-the-moment entertainment value, which is rich & plentiful throughout.

-Brandon Ledet

Cross-Promotion: Knock Off (1998) on Crushed Celluloid’s Jean-Pod Van Damme Podcast

I was recently invited back to join in on another episode of Jean-Pod Van Damme, a podcast that, as you’d likely guess, is solely dedicated to the cinematic wonders of the Muscles from Brussels, JCVD. Hosted by Marcus Jones of the movie blog Crushed Celluloid (which has an eponymous flagship podcast as well), Jean-Pod Van Damme is a irony-free celebration of one of action cinema’s more unlikely stars, a meathead European martial arts expert who stumbles in convincingly delivering his laugh lines. In this specific episode of JPVD, Marcus & I discussed the 1998 Van Damme/Rob Schneider team-up action comedy Knock Off. Directed by Tsui Hark (the same Hong Kong legend who directed JCVD’s team-up with Dennis Rodman, Double Team), Knock Off is a kind of spiritual sequel to the film I discussed with Marcus the last time I guested on his show.

Give a listen to Jean-Pod Van Damme’s episode on Knock Off below! And if you like what you hear, you can find Crushed Celluloid on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and their regular ol’ homepage for more enthusiastic takes on fringe genre cinema.

-Brandon Ledet

Double Team (1997)

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Try to think back to a time before he started making baffling political affiliations with North Korea & Donald Trump; Dennis Rodman was a pretty cool dude. For a high profile athlete, Rodman was a striking pop culture presence in his gender-fluid fashion choices. Belly rings, make-up, wedding dresses, brightly-dyed hair: these aren’t exactly the typical hallmarks of an NBA superstar’s wardrobe and I think we shouldn’t take for granted how cool it was that Rodman was blurring gender lines in his personal style choices in the 90s, even if he’s revealed himself to be an ass in the decades since. Where there’s novelty, there’s always money to be made, too. It turns out that action movie producers at the time were inexplicably interested in cashing in on Rodman’s striking visual presence & converting that gender fluidity into box office dollars through some kind of shoot-em-up cinema alchemy. The first title in Rodman’s very short career as an action hero found him teaming up with genre mainstay Jean-Claude Van Damme. He is in no way natural to the terrain, feeling like a cameo role that somehow got conflated to second-bill in a buddy picture and his strange presence elevates what would be a standard issue action film into a chaotic mess of loosely connected set pieces & glorious inanity. Double Team would’ve been a decent genre picture without Rodman, but it gets excitingly, memorably dumb when he kinks up the works, both literally & figuratively.

Double Team plays like two distinct movies smashed together into an incoherent mess. One film is your standard JCVD vehicle where the Muscles from Brussels must retrieve his pregnant wife from the treacherous clutches of a before-he-got-gross Mickey Rourke. In this half, Rodman sort of makes sense in what seems like a single-scene cameo as a kooky arms dealer who hangs out in a pansexual, S&M themed nightclub. The film’s other half is a technofuture fantasy about an island of highly skilled assassins being held prisoner (with the help of underwater lasers, of course) because they’ve “gone soft” and forced to work as an espionage think tank. Because Rodman’s role as a wise-cracking sidekick was needlessly expanded to last throughout the entire length of the film, neither of Double Team‘s dueling plots ever feel like they have enough room to breathe. Either a whole movie about escaping the futuristic assassin island or one about taking down a wickedly cruel Rourke could’ve worked coherently on its own, but when smashed together & elbowed into the corners of the frame by Rodman’s ball-hogging screen presence, it’s mostly just a ludicrous mess (and all the more memorable for it). By the time Double Team‘s parade of cartoonish set-pieces (which include carnivals, infirmaries, fetish clubs, and fantasy islands) culminate in a climactic martial arts showdown in an ancient coliseum loaded with landmines and a bloodthirsty tiger, none of these plot concerns matter. At all. You just passively watch Rodman & JCVD duck for cover behind some convenient ad placement Coke machines as the coliseum explodes and the credits bring on a club hit featuring Rodman’s rhythmic mumblings & a pulsing gay 90s beat. Double Team is gloriously half-cooked in this way and I’m not sure I would have preferred a version of the film that followed through on any of its loosely-connected storylines any more carefully or thoroughly than it already did. That attention was much better spent on crafting & presenting Dennis Rodman’s wide range of distinct looks & flatly-delivered one-liners, no question.

There is really only one scene in Double Team where Dennis Rodman’s involvement makes sense. Van Damme is in need of some high tech gear early in the film to take out Rourke’s trecherous terrorist and he finds his perfect weapons dealer in Rodman. For his part, the basketball star is holed up in a massive, queer nightclub loaded with drag queens, club kids, and SCUBA-themed S&M models. Rodman’s most natural involvement in this film would’ve been to sell JCVD some cool future-guns and exchange a couple sarcastic quips before being on his merry way, never to return. Indeed, Van Damme asks Rodman, “Who does your hair, Siegfried or Roy?” Rodman shoots back, “The last guy who insulted my hair is still pulling his head out of his ass,” to which Van Damme responds, “I don’t want to hear about your sex life.” In a movie where that was the end of their transaction, this scene would have played as casually homophobic, but since Rodman & Van Damme are burgeoning buddies at the start of a feature-length bromance, it somehow comes off as light, harmless teasing. Rodman shoehorns himself into the rest of the film’s plot to make room for sore thumb basketball references (“The best defense is a good offense,” “Oops! Airball,”) & a wide range of gender-defiant wardrobe choices, with no further reference made to his sexuality in the script before his gay 90s club hit plays over the end credits. It’s an oddly progressive choice for something that’s mostly a by-the-books action flick and although Rodman’s sore thumb presence & subpar line deliveries disrupt Double Team‘s narrative structure & pacing, they also elevate the film into a more memorable camp spectacle status.

Double Team is the American debut of Chinese action director Tsui Hark, whose most recognizable credits might be a stray Jet Li or Jackie Chan production among his sea of titles like A Chinese Ghost Story, Once Upon a Time in China, and Flying Swords of Dragon Gate. The filmmaker is well-respected in his martial arts cinema genre of choice and I think Double Team might’ve worked a little better if its narrative were allowed to stretch out to a standard Chinese action film’s runtime, which tend to be a little lengthier than American genre pictures. Compressing the disparate storylines of Double Team into a brisk 90min package made each story beat feel inconsequential & frivolous, especially since so much of the film was dedicated to the lofty goal of making Dennis Rodman seem funny & tough. Tsui Hark seems a tad overqualified for such a generic action vehicle in the first place, but his sense of scale & brutality makes for memorable action cinema moments, especially once the tigers & hospitals full of newborn babies get involved. Rodman’s blinding distraction of a presence makes sure that the film’s action sequences and hodgepodge plot are in no danger of dominating discussion surrounding the film, however. This is a mid-90s camp relic most notable for its inclusion of a gender-defiant fashion prankster with some highly questionable political affiliations who apparently used to play basketball or something. I can’t say for sure if Rodman’s strange presence was enough to carry a lead role in his other action vehicle, Simon Sez, and I’m honestly a little afraid to find out. However, as a comic relief sidekick with an attitude problem airdropped into an action vehicle where he doesn’t belong (like so many Poochies of X-treme 90s past), he’s a delightfully off-putting novelty that makes Double Team way more fun & noteworthy than it has right to be.

-Brandon Ledet

The Nice Guys (2016)

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fourhalfstar

For as long as Shane Black has been writing stylistically strong cult classics in Hollywood (three decades), it’s incredible to think that he only has three feature credits to his name as a director. Black penned two childhood favorites of mine, The Monster Squad & Last Action Hero, along with major commercial successes like Iron Man 3 & the entire Lethal Weapon franchise, but he still stands as a kind of Hollywood underdog story, seemingly struggling to get his due as an auteur. The Nice Guys, a Ryan Gosling/Russell Crowe action comedy that’s currently struggling to earn back its relatively slim $50 million budget, may not be the runaway commercial success Black has been searching for as a director, but it does find him operating beautifully & efficiently on an artistic level. All of the hallmarks that make a Shane Black film distinct — witty dialogue, slapstick violence, children involved in activities way above their age range, stale genre tropes made to feel fresh — are on wild, brilliant display in The Nice Guys. This is the pinnacle achievement of a wickedly funny storyteller that sadly serves as yet another just-short-of-success story in a summer that’s been surprisingly lackluster in ticket sales, but immensely rich in hidden gems.

It’s difficult to discuss The Nice Guys‘s merits without comparing it to other works, as if it were a miracle of Frankensteined genre science. Its young girls braving the nasty waters of 1970s sexuality felt like a shoot-em-up action comedy version of The Diary of a Teenage Girl, something I never thought I’d want to see, but was giddy to experience. Its general aesthetic lies somewhere between Lethal Weapon & Boogie Nights, another unlikely genre mashup resulting from its cartoonishly violent detective work set against a 1970s California porn industry backdrop. Its precocious, smart-mouthed kid detective dynamic plays like Veronica Mars, except with an even younger protagonist & an even more adult/dangerous mystery to unravel. The list of similar titles the film might remind you of is virtually unending: Pulp Fiction, Bored to Death, Taxi Driver, The Big Lebowski, etc., etc., etc. And yet Shane Black juggles all of these pre-existing aesthetics without ever feeling rote or derivative. He understands exactly what genre toys he’s playing with, but retools them all to create his own distinct work with an incredibly strong, idiosyncratic comedic voice. This is a movie made by a passionate nerd who loves watching movies and that affection is immediately obvious in every scene. The call is coming from inside the audience.

Due to The Nice Guys‘s mystery plot structure it’s difficult to describe too much of its basic story without spoiling its rewards. At heart it’s a mismatched partners buddy cop flick where neither of the leads are cops, exactly. Russell Crowe plays a mercenary muscle, a hired goon with heart of severely tarnished gold. He teams with Ryan Gosling, a con-artist private detective who doubles as an alcoholic buffoon, to find a missing teen with ties to California’s thriving porn industry. Our team of in-over-their-heads antiheroes is rounded out by the single father private eye’s young daughter, who is never invited on missions, but often proves herself the most competent member of the crew. I would say this crack team of violent fuckups fall down the rabbit hole of the seedy side of 1970s Los Angeles, but since all sides of 1970s Los Angeles were likely seedy, that descriptor is more than a little redundant. Either way, they’re far from prepared for the political conspiracies, mass murders, life-threatening pollution, and hedonistic porn industry parties that complicate what should prove to be a cut & dry missing person’s case, but snowballs into something much larger.

If I had to assign The Nice Guys an exact genre I’d be tempted to classify it as “sleaze noir,” but that would greatly overlook what largely makes the film feel special: slapstick violence. Shane Black has an adept way of portraying violence that both shocks & amuses. There are certain violent displays in the films that had me gasping in their realistic & sudden brutality and others that had me struggling to breathe between laughs. A lot of what makes The Nice Guys funny is the matter-of-fact dialogue of phrases like, “Dad, there’s like whores here & stuff,” but much of the film’s entertainment value is in its violent physical comedy. Alternating between slapstick cruelty & genuinely devastating displays of brutality is a dangerously fun & wicked mode of entertainment that I’m not sure Black has ever topped before. It’s a solid, accessible base that even leaves room for more surreal inclusions like unicorns, mermaids, and gigantic insects. Seriously. The Nice Guys might be dying at the box office but the packed theater I saw it with last weekend was eating it up, wholly engaged with every weirdly cruel & surreally funny place the film decided to take them. Hopefully someone will take notice & help Shane Black bring more works this weirdly pleasing to the big screen. He’s surely earned a few more leaps of faith.

-Brandon Ledet

Keanu (2016)

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fourstar

It’s been a good while since I’ve seen a film in theaters and actually laughed out loud (at least for films that are actually meant to be comedies). I can’t even remember the last time I saw a comedy that would be considered a new release. I guess it would be Krampus, but Krampus is considered to be a horror-comedy and not just a straight up comedy. Recent funny films that have hit theaters would be The Boss, The Brothers Grimsby, and Meet the Blacks, just to name a few. Maybe the movie trailers and reviews didn’t do these films justice, but nothing about these films made me want to make my way to a theater and drop ten bucks to see them. Keanu was a different story. Knowing my love for cats, a friend of mine sent me the movie trailer for Keanu via text message. At first, I thought this was a silly trailer for a fake movie that was part of the Key and Peele sketch comedy show. Well, I just about exploded with joy when I found out that this was going to be a real movie. A real movie that was going to actually be in real movie theaters. A film about an adorable kitten mixed up in a drug cartel that included tunes from music legend George Michael was something I wouldn’t miss for the world. Yes, I definitely shelled out ten bucks for this one.

Keanu has a strong, action-packed start. Two assassins, known throughout the film as the Allentown Brothers (actually played by Jordan Peele and Keegan-Michael Key), massacre a buttload of people in a drug lair housed by a church. A cute little kitten that goes by the name of Iglesias escapes the madness and ends up on the doorstep of Rell (Jordan Peele), who is going through a terrible breakup. Iglesias, renamed Keanu by Rell, brings Rell out of his depression and becomes the most important thing in his life. His world falls apart again when Keanu is kidnapped from his home. With the help of his straight-laced cousin Clarence, Rell sets out to find Keanu. The two end up going undercover as the infamous Allentown Brothers to get Keanu back with the nicknames of Tectonic (Peele) and Shark Tank (Key). Tectonic and Shark Tank join a gang with a leader that goes by the name of Cheddar (Method Man) as part of their plan to get Keanu back. The duo quickly finds themselves teaching teambuilding exercises to gang members and selling drugs to The House Bunny actress Anna Faris, among other things.

What I found to be very interesting about this film was that it was actually very violent and gory. The shooting scenes are brutal but funny at the same time. It’s a strange feeling for sure. Key and Peele really pushed the envelope by having all that violence in a comedy starring a super cute kitten. Also, one part the really stuck out to me was towards the end of the film when Clarence and Rell actually get arrested after taking down a major drug operation. It was so surprising because it was so realistic. Usually when the good guys in movies steal cars and deal drugs to ultimately take down the bad guys, they’re let off the hook and the film concludes to a silly happy ending.  In Keanu, our main comic stars go straight to jail after they save the day because, well, they actually broke a ton of laws throughout the movie.

Peele is by far the star of the show. He was absolutely hilarious consistently throughout the film, and I was laughing during just about every moment he was on the screen. He gets especially funny when he takes on the role of Techtonic. Unlike Key, he doesn’t rely on overacting and ridiculous Dane Cook-like humor to have a funny performance. I know that it sounds like I’m being harsh on Key, and I don’t really mean to be. He did bring a good bit of humor to Keanu, and he starred in one of my favorite scenes in the movie: while on a drug trip, he imagined himself in the video of George Michael’s “Faith,” tight jeans included. Clarence, like myself, is a huge George Michael fan, and there are some insanely hilarious parts in the film (other than the “Faith” drug trip) which involve his love for George Michael that I completely adored. Key’s style of comedy just doesn’t a-Peele to me as much as Peele’s, so I can’t help but compare the two.

Once the film was over, my cheekbones were sore from laughing so much, but then a more serious feeling came over me. I realized that I would probably do the same thing Rell did if my cat was in Keanu’s situation. Keanu’s adorable little kitten meow tugged at all my heart strings, and hopefully, other viewers had the same reaction. Keanu was like an Air Bud for adults. In a world filled with animal abuse and abandonment, it’s nice to see a film that promotes human/animal bonds. Give your fur babies lots of kisses and hugs and catch Keanu before it leaves theaters!

-Britnee Lombas

Brannigan (1975)

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fourstar

When you bring up John Wayne, it’s inevitable that his name will conjure images of old-fashioned Westerns. He’s synonymous with the genre, an in-the-flesh embodiment of cowboy cinema. That’s why I was surprised when I sat down at a Christmas party with my grandfather to watch one of his favorite John Wayne pictures to find that it wasn’t a Western at all. It’s not even set in America, let alone the Old West. Brannigan is a fish-out-of-water action comedy about a hard-boiled Chicago detective brandishing pistols in a stuffy, crime-ridden 1970s London. Of course, John Wayne plays the titular police detective with the same worlds-away-from-Chicago cowboy swagger he’s most closely associated with, but the setting is still jarring. In some ways, though, it makes you appreciate Wayne’s screen presence even  more to watching him operate outside of his element.

Besides casting a Western cinema legend in a non-Western role, Brannigan hosts several other glaring self-contradictions. Tonally, its mix of severed-finger, bullethole-ridden, sexual assault-threatening violence pairs ridiculously with its sarcastic, seen-it-all-before humor. This contrast can be best observed in an over-the-top pub brawl when Brannigan punches a goon so hard that he slides across the entire length of a bartop in a surprise tangent into Looney Tunes physics. Genre-wise, the film can’t decide if it wants to be a suspenseful heist film or an outright comedy. It can’t even decide which storyline is its main concern: the plot that has Brannigan chasing after a notorious crime boss being held for ransom or the plot that has Brannigan being chased himself by an assassin prone to using bomb & shotgun booby traps like an especially vicious Kevin McCallister. Or are both of these stories merely a backdrop for a blood-soaked comedy about Old World stuffiness vs. New World cavalier?

My favorite aspect of Brannigan‘s self-contradicting nature is where it sits on exploitation cinema’s temporal landscape. Although it’s a major studio film, it feels like it’s caught somewhere between the welcome-to-the-real-world harshness of New Hollywood, the righteously funky world of blaxploitaion (except with a white man as the lead, of course), and the as-yet-created humorously violent world of 80s action cinema. John Wayne establishes himself here as an early action star. His super-sarcastic, know-it-all one-liners play like a precursor to characters that would later be played by folks like Arnold Schwarzenegger & Sly Stallone. Brannigan doesn’t just burst into a room; he bursts into a room & dryly intones “Knock, knock” while brandishing a pistol. Then there’s the fact that every criminal in the world apparently knows legendary supercop Jim Brannigan by name, even though he works for Chicago’s municipal police department. That detail would be later repeated in every Commando, Cobra, and Hard to Kill to follow. He’s even provided a cute, tiny, foreign sidekick, another staple of the 80s action genre, although this time she’s never threatened to become a love interest despite all of Brannigan’s incessant leering. She does, however, spontaneously reward him with a kiss on the cheek over a dinner for two. Why? She explains, “You’re just so damn solid.” Indeed.

John Wayne badassery aside, Brannigan is a well put together action flick. Its lush shots of drive-bys, gun holsters, and sexy workers showing leg – all the leg – are all surprisingly intricate enough for a film that didn’t have to try too hard to succeed. John Wayne is entertaining enough on his own to carry the film, but a lot of effort still goes into detailing the organized crime end of London’s underbelly. Pubs, saunas, brothels, and late night stakeouts provide a nicely detailed background for Wayne to perform against and the car chases & counterfeit money production play like a precursor to Friedkin’s masterful To Live & Die in L.A.. Even without Wayne, Brannigan would still be a decent, humorous action flick with a great villain & hero, and a satisfying (albeit slow-moving) plot. Wayne’s hard-drinking, gun-toting supercop who calls everyone within earshot “Partner” is 1000% more cowboy than he is Chicago detective, but his performance is still what makes the movie special instead of merely decent. I’m far from a Western fanatic, so this oddly humorous & wildly violent action pic ended up being my favorite performance I’ve ever seen from Wayne. It’s easy to see why my grandfather holds it in such high regard despite it being far outside headlining star’s wheelhouse & being generally regarded as trash.

-Brandon Ledet