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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fourstar

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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

D.E.B.S. (2004)

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three star

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I wish that I could have really, really loved this movie. D.E.B.S. is a perennial IFC favorite, and even though there was a period of time where this movie seemed to be on several times a week, I never managed to catch it. It’s a quirky movie with a great cast and a smart concept, and although it has a great stride once it hits it, it takes so long to get there that I can’t give it 4 stars based on the last act alone.

The premise of the film is that there is a secret test within the SATs that measures a person’s aptitude for espionage. Women who pass the hidden aptitude test are recruited into the D.E.B.S. (Discipline, Energy, Beauty, Strength), a clandestine spy academy where everyone dresses like Catholic schoolgirls and learn to be superheroes. Amy Bradshaw (Sara Foster) is the posterchild of the D.E.B.S., as she made the “perfect score” on the D.E.B.S. test, but she dreams of going to art school in Barcelona. Max Brewer (Meagan Good) is the trigger-happy leader of their quartet, joined by chain-smoking French sexpot Dominique (Devon Aoki) and perpetually ditzy Janet, who has yet to earn her stripes. Amy has recently broken up with her boyfriend, Homeland Security agent Bobby (Geoff Stults), a bro who refuses to accept that it’s over, when the D.E.B.S.’s handler Mr. Phipps (Michael Clarke Duncan) assigns the squad to surveil notorious supervillain Lucy Diamond (Jordana Brewster), in whom Amy has an academic interest.

Lucy is a criminal mastermind, the last scion of a syndicate family who loves to steal, with diamonds, naturally, being her speciality. She’s back in the states and meeting with “former KGB” assassin Ninotchka Kaprova (Jessica Cauffiel); unbeknownst to the federal agencies tracking her, Lucy’s rendezvous is actually a blind date engineered by her bodyguard and adorably-devoted BFF Scud (Jimmi Simpson). When Bobby’s pettiness accidentally reveals the D.E.B.S. and other agencies to Lucy, a shootout ensues and she escapes, running into a warehouse where she and Amy have a pistol standoff/meet cute. Amy lets Lucy get away, and the latter realizes she’s falling for the enemy. After a few more encounters, Lucy stages a bank heist to meet Amy again, and the two abscond to be together. The rest of the D.E.B.S. organization (minus Janet, who knows Amy went willingly and begins a cyber-friendship with Scud) goes into scorched earth mode scouring the world for Amy, who’s happily shacked up; when they eventually discover the two and retrieve Amy, the D.E.B.S. Boss (Holland Taylor) agrees to cover up the incident to maintain the agency’s reputation, forcing Amy to denounce Lucy publicly at the senior prom, er, “Endgame.” Meanwhile, Lucy realizes she would rather live without crime than Amy, and sets to righting her wrongs and winning her back.

D.E.B.S. is often described as a spoof of Charlie’s Angels, but that comparison doesn’t track very well for me. The Angels were more like private detectives than spies, for one thing (at least in the original show). D.E.B.S. has more in common with Austin Powers than either the 70s Angels TV series or the godawful 2000 film adaptation (or its somehow-worse 2003 sequel) and, despite having a cast full of beautiful women, never feels like it was made with the male gaze in mind. The relationship between Amy and Lucy feels organic, if a little corny, and is never played for titillation or exploitation. There’s also a little bit of Josie and the Pussycats thrown in for good measure, with lots of colorful visuals and the third-act-squad-breakup plot development that was so popular from roughly the mid-nineties through the early-aughts, although it lacks that film’s subtlety and social commentary. As much as I enjoyed the movie once the romantic plot got rolling, overall, the film is ultimately too inconsistent to really leave a mark. As it turns out, combining clunky gags (there’s a callback joke about what Max and Amy said to each other on the first day of training as well that really thuds, as well as a one-liner about Amy going off book in her final speech) with sublime ones (Lucy and Scud lip-synching to Erasure’s “A Little Respect” over a montage of them returning stolen goods is a treasure, and the D.E.B.S.’s house’s security field having the same tartan pattern as their uniforms is a good visual joke) doesn’t work. And that’s not even getting into the inexplicably odd things that happen in this movie. Why do the D.E.B.S. top brass teleport in and out of every scene? Are they teleporting, or are they holograms?

The movie performed abysmally, making less at the box office than the average twentysomething owes in student loans. It didn’t even break six figures! But what can you really expect when you release a film that’s this uneven? Still, it’s definitely worth a watch. The soundtrack is great (there’s even a Postal Service track playing when Lucy decides to give up her life of diamond theft and doomsday lasering), which is always a plus. Brewster and Simpson make a really great on-screen pair with believable chemistry and comic timing, even if the D.E.B.S. (Amy included) are one-dimensional and kind of bleh. If you can get past some of the worst CGI gun sparks ever committed to film, this is a refreshing twist on the indie-tinged lesbian love story that was such a big draw ten years ago, just make sure you see it through to the cliché but cute conclusion.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

American Ultra (2015)

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fourstar

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It’s not exactly accurate to say that the bloody stoner action comedy American Ultra is completely without precedent. It’s at the very least possible to see echoes of the film telegraphed in properties as wide in range as Pineapple Express, Hot Fuzz, Hitman, Spy, Clerks, MacGruber, and the Borne franchise. What we have here instead of a wildly idiosyncratic picture without predecessor is the distinct sense that director Nima Nourizadeh & writer Max Landis have a deep love & appreciation for movies, especially for the violent action comedy as a genre. American Ultra currently isn’t doing so hot in terms of ticket sales or critical reception, but it has the makings of a future cult classic (like a Near Dark or a John Dies at the End) written all over it, because that love for irreverent action cinema shines through so brightly. Although Landis has been recently been making an ass of himself on Twitter complaining about the lack of immediate returns on a screenplay he’s obviously proud of, he can at least take solace in the fact that future blood-thirsty stoners will be greedily streaming his film on loop as they reach for the nearest bong & nod off in their respective piles of empty two liter bottles & Cheetos.

Plotted over just three event-filled days, American Ultra follows the panic attack stricken stoner/amateur cartoonist Mike Howell as he transforms from a pathetic loser to an inhumanly capable killing machine assassin. Played by Jesse Eisenberg with the exact neurotic fragility you’d expect from a performance from Jesse Eisenberg, Mike is a pitiable weakling who relies on the emotional strength of his partner-in-crime stoner girlfriend Phoebe Larson (played by Kristen Stewart, of whom I’m becoming a not-so-secret dedicated fan) for any & all basic life functions. What Mike doesn’t know is that his frailty is actually a safeguard invented by the government to protect his well-being (and potential danger to others) as a discarded “asset” (read: killing machine assassin). Once Mike is re-activated by a well-meaning CIA agent gone rogue he finds himself capable of killing even the most menacing of threats (including other “assets”) with items as ordinary as dust pans, cookware, extension chords, and spoons, when he was just minutes ago not capable of doing much more than rolling joints & tending a corner store cash register.

What’s so unique about American Ultra is its ability to avoid the more pedestrian lines of thought you’d expect from that kind of plot. For instance, Phoebe is much, much more than the girlfriend accessory you’d expect from a male-helmed action film. Her role is constantly active & vital to the surprisingly layered plot, making for a deeply engaging love story once the full details of her relationship with Mike is revealed. Besides Phoebe’s active role & the satisfying romance narrative, the film also surprises in its distinct style of comedy. Although there’s no shortage of glib jokes on hand, most of the successful humor is anchored in its over-the-top violence. American Ultra is shockingly violent, completely giddy in its comic blood lust. It’s likely that audiences’ mileage may vary depending on the viewer’s love of action movie gore, but I personally had a really fun time with the film’s outrageous brutality.

The movie’s standard action movie palette of G-men, satellite surveillance, and drone strikes may not scream the height of creativity, but there’s plenty to play with between the lines to make it a unique property (besides propensity for violence & an active female lead). American Ultra‘s very specific world of CGI pot smoke, black light dungeons, illegal fireworks, bruised & beaten leads (despite action films’ tendency to show their battered heroes with only the lightest of scratches), and refreshing ability to shoot extended sequences in grocery stores without succumbing to grotesque product placement all pose it as the kind of distinctive property destined to gain a cult audience likely to overshadow the narrative of its lackluster theater run. Max Landis might be squirming (or, more accurately, throwing a temper tantrum) over what’s currently perceived as a commercial (and critically middling) failure, but I believe a little patience will eventually lead to American Ultra finding its proper (drug-addled, gore-loving) audience, who are perhaps currently a little too intoxicated to make the trek to the cinema.

-Brandon Ledet

Shanghai Noon (2000)

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threehalfstar

(Viewed 8/15/2015, available on Netflix)

Shanghai Noon is an entertaining buddy romp that presents the Wild West through a unique lens. The main character is neither white nor American. I’d say that Shanghai Noon makes for a post-modern Western movie that deconstructs the genre, though I would hesitate to say that this is an intentional subtext, even as the movie delves into the treatment of Chinese laborers on the Intercontinental Railroad. Jackie Chan stars as Chon Wang (say it out loud . . .), trying to rescue the damsel in distress, and Owen Wilson sidekicks as Roy O’Bannon, an outlaw with an image problem.

It’s a funny and energetic movie. I trust Jackie Chan implicitly with action and humor, and he delivers. Owen Wilson brings his regular brand of self-aware goofiness and performs solidly here. The main humorous setup is along the vein of Culture Clash at the OK Corral with a side helping of Buddy Comedy, and I think that it works out well as Chon Wang explores the tropes and narratives of the cinematic Old West and Roy O’Bannon tries his hardest to not learn anything about himself.

Shanghai Noon utilizes Jackie Chan’s kinetic brand of physical humor to great effect, leaving you both impressed and laughing. He and Owen Wilson make a successful odd couple, and their relationship is the most important one in the movie. It’s clear that O’Bannon thinks that he’s the protagonist, and it’s important to his characterization that he keeps this perspective even in the face of massive evidence that he is indeed the sidekick. I wonder if there is subtext here that captures the feelings of non-Americans in a wider sense, that Americans think that everything is about them.

The romantic relationships fall weirdly flat though, as Chon Wang accidentally marries a nameless Native American woman (while blackout drunk, not ok, all right?) who silently follows the boys around and keeps them out of trouble, then eventually takes up with O’Bannon. At the end of the movie, Princess Pei Pei inexplicably falls in love with Chon Wang and presumably gives up her life of royalty to live in a frontier town as a sheriff’s wife. This romantic side is so strange to me because the women are presented as powerful on their own, and then just seem link up with the men because it makes for tidy ending. The Native woman takes on the classical Western roll of the Man with No Name and saves the day time after time as Chon Wang and O’Bannon bumble along. Princess Pei Pei is noble, strong, courageous and self determined as she tries to balance her own desires and her role as a leader. Were the romantic subplots really necessary?

I’d recommend this movie on its own merits as fun and entertaining, perfect for a bowl of popcorn and not having to think about anything. I think that you could also work it into any list of Jackie Chan movies since it’s a good example of an American production that fully utilizes his skills in both action and comedy. It would also be of particular interest to anyone looking at deconstructive or post-modern Westerns, or looking at comic Westerns as a genre.

-Erin Kinchen