Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)

Every year I watch an Arnold Schwarzenegger movie on my birthday as a gift to myself.  This year I caught up with the latest installment in the action star’s career-defining franchise, something I probably should’ve watched on the big screen when that was an option.  For the first half of Terminator: Dark Fate, I was worried that I had goofed up in my programming choice, as Unkie Arnie is nowhere to be seen in what’s mostly a star-making vehicle for Mackenzie Davis, the new badass in town.  Then, the film reunites Schwarzenegger with Linda Hamilton as longtime human/Terminator frenemies and all is right in the world again.  As a pair, their sharply acidic comedic rapport and stone-faced action heroism feel like they haven’t missed a beat since Judgement Day in 1992, even if the world has drastically changed around them.  Because I’m rapidly becoming an old man, that latter half’s familiar callbacks to the series’ James Cameron era are what really hooked me as a viewer here.  Still, Mackenzie Davis’s intrusion in the series as a self-described “augmented supersoldier from the future” provides some much-needed momentum to keep that throwback from feeling like stagnant nostalgia bait, and the movie generally does a good job of maintaining a balance between the old & the new.

Because of its self-fulfilling time travel plots and vague references to many “possible futures”, the Terminator series is free to blaspheme its own internal lore.  The last film in the saga, Genisys, was jeered for its own overwriting of past events in the Terminator timeline (wrongly, in my opinion), while Dark Fate was celebrated for the same disregard for series continuity (rightly so, imo).  In this “possible present” timeline, all Terminator films post-Judgement Day have been wiped from the series, positioning Dark Fate as an alternate Terminator 3.  Sarah Connor (Hamilton) has successfully stopped the Skynet apocalypse, but Terminator-assassins are still created in variations of the future that have nothing to do with Skynet at all.  One of these first-generation T-800 assassins has successfully murdered her son (whose services as a Human Resistance leader are no longer needed anyway), inspiring her to dedicate the rest of her life stamping out time-traveling Terminator bots whenever and wherever they crossover into her timeline.  This particular episode finds her joining forces with a human-machine hybrid from “the” future (Davis) to protect their own timeline’s version of a John-Connor-to-be from another shape-shifting T-1000.  To her horror, this mission must also enlist the help of the original-flavor Terminator who killed her son (Arnie).  Bitter banter, uneasy alliances, and money-torching chase sequences ensue.

Structurally, Dark Fate is smart in the way it gradually highlights each of its four main players as action-hero badasses in distinct layers.  We start with Mackenzie Davis as a fully-formed hero with no patience for Linda Hamilton to pass off the torch as her obvious successor.  Hamilton then forcefully wedges herself into the main action despite Davis’s protests, righteously announcing to the future-soldier and the moviegoers of the world that she’s still a formidable screen presence – complete with aviator sunglasses and a severe haircut.  Schwarzenegger is late to the party, but provides essential monotone humor and retro machismo to authentically tie this new chapter into the series’ decades-old origins.  Newcomer Natalia Reyes has the least to do as the damsel-turned-rebel these muscular brutes circle to protect, but by the end of the film her personality and her place in the future emerge convincingly enough for her to be more than just a human MacGuffin.  At the very least, it’s her character arc that provides the self-fulfilling-timeline tomfoolery that makes this franchise such a fun, resettable time travel playground to begin with.  The movie wouldn’t be anything special without Hamilton & Schwarzenegger growling at each other in reluctant collaboration, but Davis & Reyes do a decent job of refreshing that dynamic for our alternate present.

As a standalone action blockbuster, divorced from its long-running IP, Dark Fate is nothing exceptional.  Even so, it probably is the best sequel in its series since Judgement Day, which I’m saying as someone who has some affection for all Terminator movies – minus McG’s Salvation.  I’ll never enjoy these action-heavy sequels as much as the grimy Roger Corman sci-fi noir of the original The Terminator (Judgement Day included), but Dark Fate understands the exact balance between quippy humor & Hollywood spectacle needed to make them worthwhile.  I miss the tactile effects work that distinguished the original Terminator, and there’s a lot of modern-TV backstory plotting that weighs this thing down; but again, those are the grumblings of an old man who misses the old world.  Dark Fate includes just enough throwback Hamilton & Schwarzenegger rivalry to keep old grumps like me smiling, while also injecting some much-needed fresh blood to keep this machine running into “the” future.

-Brandon Ledet

Wrath of Man (2021)

I’ve been warming up to Jason Statham’s appeal as a post-90s Action Star in recent years, starting with his self-parodic roles in films like Spy and then doubling back to catch up with his more sincerely over-the-top schlock in titles like The Transporter 2 (a personal fav).  In all that belated good will for the barroom brawling brute, I had forgotten why I was so behind on the Statham action canon in the first place: his collaborations with Guy Ritchie.  Snatch & Lock, Stock were dual star-makers for both Statham & Richie (with the help of already-established celebrities like Brad Pitt), but they never held much appeal for me as overly gruff, self-serious muscle mags in motion.  I like the idea of Statham continuing the tradition of the Stallone/Van Damme/Schwarzenegger action hero archetype into the 21st Century, but his star vehicles always lose that Old World luster whenever Richie’s at the wheel (or whenever similar snoozers like The Bank Job ape Ritchie’s style). 

2021’s Wrath of Man is a harsh reminder of just how efficiently Guy Richie can drain the fun out of a Jason Statham action vehicle by focusing on style & posturing instead of the action itself.  It starts with an excellent meathead action cinema premise, with Statham taking a job far beneath his mysterious supersolider skills as a driver for an armored cash truck company.  After thwarting several cash-delivery heist jobs with shocking tact & brutality, it becomes apparent that he’s hiding major details from his past & his motives for taking such a nondescript job.  The movie loses all momentum when Richie doubles back to fill in those missing details, scrambling the chapters of its story like so many half-assed Pulp Fiction knockoffs that littered video store shelves in the 1990s.  What should be a half-paragraph of dialogue in which Statham confesses the twisted path that landed him behind the steering wheel & gun trigger instead eats up two-thirds of the runtime, often removing Statham from the story entirely to detail the lives & motives of his crime-world enemies.  Ritchie thinks he’s being clever by chopping up & re-arranging the story this way, but I guarantee Wrath of Man would’ve been 100x more exciting as straightforward, Transporter-style action schlock about an undercover badass with a dangerous day job.

I had high hopes for Wrath of Man as a mean, oblivious action flick in its opening act, as Statham is getting acquainted with his instantly, insanely hostile coworkers.  The film starts off as the kind of quippy, aggro muscle show that’s so homophobic it’s blatantly homoerotic – wherein real tough guys with nicknames like “Boy Sweat” and “Sticky John” constantly make threatening jokes about each other’s dicks & buttholes.  It’s a miscalculated attempt at “witty” Shane Black-style dialogue, but that kind of homoerotic homophobia banter plays like a relic from an earlier, worse era that’s somehow adorably quaint in a modern context. The film works best when it completely lacks self-awareness of its own cultural obsoletion in that way.  The opening credits look like concept art for a late-90s Godsmack album, proudly displaying illustrations of flames, wolves, and fallen angels that you’d expect to find in the flash-art binders of your city’s worst tattoo shop.  Statham is introduced to his coworkers with the codename “H, like the bomb or Jesus H.”  A spooky Johnny Cash remix haunts the soundtrack as if it’s somehow still 2004.  This is a dour, self-serious film from the start, but at least there’s a shamelessness & authenticity to it in its earliest stretch.  Then Ritchie ruins the vibe by pretending what he’s making is cleverer than it is (or ever needed to be).

Wrath of Man is neither great, nor terrible, nor much of anything at all.  I still have yet to see a Jason Statham action vehicle that satisfies like the first two Transporter films (nor a cash-truck heist film more fun than The Lavender Hill Mob), but I don’t think it’s the actor’s fault.  We’ve gotten to the point where American movie studios don’t make genuine Action Star Showcases anymore, so we have to settle for jokey, self-aware “subversions” of the format like Spy, Hobbs & Shaw, Crank, etc.  It’s unlikely that this era of mainstream filmmaking could ever produce something purely, obliviously schlocky enough to register as Statham’s Commando, his Hard Target, his First Blood Part II: Rambo.  The worst thing Wrath of Man does is briefly teasing that possibility, then devolving into just Another Guy Ritchie Movie.

-Brandon Ledet

Karnan (2021)

On a recent lagniappe episode of the podcast, we returned to one of our collective favorite films of 2020: Bacurau, the ultimate “Fuck Around and Find Out” sci-fi parable.  I was happy to revisit the film to discuss it in greater detail, since it’s such a deceptively complex tale of political resistance and communal solidarity.  The patiently delayed payoffs to its “Most Dangerous Game” genre subversions, the total disinterest in raising one sole hero over the heroism of the community as a unit, and the truly liberated sexual & gender dynamics among the citizenry all feel purposeful and well considered in a way that only gets more impressive on rewatch and in post-credits discussion among friends.  Perversely, it’s the total absence of exactly those thoughtful, nuanced elements that makes Bacurau‘s mainstream Kollywood equivalent Karnan such a hoot.  Karnan‘s own tale of communal uprising against would-be outside oppressors starts with flashy music video pizazz, elevates a singular folk hero above the power of communal bravery, and is morally conservative to the point of censoring tobacco consumption and stick-figure graffiti of boobies in real time.  Karnan is the absurdly reductive, shamelessly melodramatic version of Bacurau, telling a very similar story without any of the nuance or restraint that made Bacurau so remarkable in the first place.  It’s also a delight.

While the fictional town of Bacurau stages its violent political rebellion in a near-future science fiction Brazil, the fictional town of Podiyankulam in Karnan stages its own in 1990s Southern India, loosely referring to actual historical uprisings of the era.  The titular Karnan is an explosively angry young man who feels hobbled by his remote, impoverished village’s status at the bottom of the regional food chain.  His journey is in learning to channel that anger into something useful, starting the film as an aimless hothead and ending it as a radical political advocate for the wellbeing of Podiyankulam at large.  First, he protests to establish a bus stop connecting Podiyankulam to the rest of the world (mostly so local women can travel to college).  When that demand is met with incredulous anger from the wealthier communities nearby—particularly their bully-staffed police departments—he then organizes his community in a literal battle against crooked cops.  And even though this is set in the 1990s, he rides into that battle on horseback wielding “the village sword” like a maniac, hunting down the vilest pig among his enemies for and old-fashioned smiting.  There’s also a spiritual component to the rebellion at hand, represented by dreamworld visits from the dead who whisper words of encouragement behind their painted plaster masks.  And because this is an Indian blockbuster, there’s also plenty of singing, dancing, and romancing to help fill out the three-hour runtime between all the ultraviolent bloodshed.

Of the two over-the-top Tamil-language action flicks I’ve seen so far this year, I slightly prefer the Dangerous Minds throwback Master, but Karnan is still 158 solidly entertaining minutes of cinematic excess.  Seeking out Kollywood & Tollywood action blockbusters over the past few years is the closest I’ve ever come to experiencing how video store nerds must’ve felt discovering Hong Kong martial arts flicks in the 1980s.  It’s outright baffling that these movies aren’t earning a more vocal, enthusiastic audience in the West, considering that they regularly exceed the supposed benchmark for modern delirious action in the Fast & Furious franchise.  Karnan may not launch any “streetracing” cars into outer space, but it’s the only movie I can remember where a populist folk hero earns his legacy by slicing down a cop with “the village sword”.  That’s not to say that its appeal is tied to its novelty as exported Indian pop culture.  It’s just genuinely badass to see someone kill cops with a giant sword, and it happens no other film industry is making mainstream action movies with that kind of climactic payoff right now.  The great thing about Kollywood action films is that their sprawling runtimes immerse you in their over-the-top, frenzied tones to the point where you stop gawking at the films’ audacity and simply become invested in their stories.  I really needed to see that sword slice into some cop flesh, and Karnan delivered.

The meditative, politically poignant vision of near-future communal rebellion in Bacurau is exquisitely realized.  By contrast, the brash, chaotic action movie version of that story template in Karnan is pure mayhem.  Watching both films in close proximity is like hearing a Philosophy lecture re-interpreted as a belligerent scream.  I found both experiences to be worthwhile, especially in tandem.

-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

Black Widow (2021)

About every 1.6 weeks, someone gets on Twitter and asks some variation of “What’s the best tweet of all time?” There is always of course, the trotting out of the greats, like this one, this one, this classic, this jab, this burn, this zing, mockery of the New York Post, a personal favorite, someone who presumed the universality of a ludicrous idiosyncratic belief and chooses to dickishly ignore that they’re completely wrong, and of course, the truly greatest tweet of all time (and these two, which go out to my friends back home). But what’s “best” anyway? For me, all of these pale in comparison to this tweet, which I think about at least once a week: 

It came to mind again most recently yesterday, as I sat in a movie theater for the first time since Emma., watching Scarlett Johansson and Florence Pugh engage in a car/motorcycle/tank chase through the streets of Budapest and into the city’s subway, exchanging quippy dialogue all the while. In that moment, I flashed back to the similar car chase sequences in Berlin in Civil War, Seoul in Black Panther, San Francisco in Ant-Man and the Wasp, and [Cleveland as D.C.] in Winter Soldier, as well as probably others that I’m forgetting. And although this was another movie that largely stuck to the tried-and-true Marvel formula, I thought to myself, Why must a movie be “novel’? Is it not enough to sit somewhere dark and see a thrilling car chase through a metropolitan area, huge? After all, although this isn’t the first MCU film all about one of our lady heroes, it’s leaps and bounds better than Captain Marvel, which I gave a high star rating to upon release but was largely tepid about it in the review proper (I literally wrote “I’m hot and cold on this one”) and which I look back on now mostly with contempt, as its imperial Yvan eht Nioj underpinnings have only become clearer with the passing of time. 

I’ll admit here that, by and large, it’s pretty easy for a film to manipulate me emotionally (the people would like to enter into evidence my likewise high star rating for 2016’s Ghostbusters), and it’s also not just films that do it. The Alamo Drafthouse has, for the past few years, used the same simple animated introduction before new releases where several colored circles appear, then overlap, then space out to mimic planets orbiting a star, then come back together to embody the six circular cut-outs of the classic film reel canister. My description is overselling the complexity, I think, but I can’t find it online anywhere so forgive me. The sound design of it is fairly simple as well, but this time, after the theater darkened and the traditional Alamo font appeared on screen saying “We missed you,” the pre-show included a montage of clips of characters from the movies at the movies: Amélie, Taxi Driver, Cinema Paradiso, etc., and then the bonging tones of that intro came together, and I was overcome. It felt like coming home, and if I’m warmer to Black Widow than it truly deserves because of it, well, maybe the people will have to enter this review into evidence one day, too, but for now, I have to say, I really liked it. Even my best friend, who is generally apathetic to Marvel movies, thoroughly enjoyed it; immediately afterward, she said she would be willing to pay to see it again, and when we were considering watching another movie back home last night, she said she’d rather just watch television than another movie because she enjoyed Black Widow so thoroughly that she wanted to “marinate” in it a while before another cinematic experience watered it down. Take from that what you will. 

We open in Ohio in 1995, where a young Natasha (Ever Anderson, daughter of Milla Jovovich and Paul W. S. Anderson) rides her bike through suburban streets and into her backyard, where she plays with her younger sister, Yelena (Violet McGraw). When Yelena skins her knee, their mother Melina (Rachel Weisz) attends to her, and there appears to be some tension between Natasha and dear old mom. As night falls, Yelena notes the appearance of fireflies in their backyard, and Melina gives her daughters a little science lesson about bioluminescence. While they set the table, father Alexei (David Harbour) returns home, agitated. He shows Melina a 3.5’’ floppy and notes that “it” is “finally happening.” As Melina whispers a meaningful apology to Natasha at the dinner table, Alexei grabs a rifle and the entire family hops into their SUV and makes haste toward a small airstrip, with S.H.I.E.L.D. agents in pursuit shortly. After a tense shootout, the family manages to make their getaway in a prop plane and land in Cuba, where we learn that the “family” is comprised entirely of Russian agents, even the two children, and that the past three years in America have been part of a long term operation at a secret S.H.I.E.L.D. facility. Natasha attempts to prevent her separation from Yelena, citing that the younger girl is only six years old and too young for training, but Alexei notes that Natasha herself was even younger when she first began, and the two of them are forced apart on the orders of General Dreykov (Ray Winstone). 

After an opening montage (set to a downbeat cover of “Smells Like Teen Spirit”) gives us the general impression of what constitutes a Black Widow’s training in the “Red Room” (it’s not fun!) we move forward to 2016. The rest of the film is set parallel to the events of the aforementioned Captain America: Civil War, following Natasha (Johansson) in hiding after siding with Cap against Tony re: The Sokovia Accords. Elsewhere, Yelena (Pugh) and a team of fellow Black Widows tracks down and ultimately kills a rogue Widow, but not before her former ally exposes her to a red dust that acts as a counteragent to Yelena’s Black Widow programming, which we learn has grown beyond conditioning and brutal training to literal mind control. Natasha makes her way to a safe house in Norway with help from her friend Mason (O-T Fagbenle), who also delivers some things left behind at her last safe house in Budapest, which includes a package from Yelena that contains several vials of the red dust; the dust, in turn ends up drawing the attention of Taskmaster, Dreykov’s right hand killer, who has the ability to mimic the fighting styles of anyone from merely watching a video. Yelena and Natasha reunite and decide to destroy the Red Room once and for all. In order to do so, they must first rescue their “father” from the Siberian gulag to which he has been sent; the former “Red Guardian,” the only successful supersoldier equivalent of Captain America who was produced by the Soviet Union not relives his glory days in stories told to his fellow inmates and is mocked by his guards. He, in turn, leads them to their “mother,” who reveals that she was the scientist who worked on the beginnings of the mind control project. But can any members of this reunited not-really-a-family trust one another long enough to stop Dreykov? 

Look, this is a Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe consumable product. You’ve already decided if you’re going to see it or not, and if you’re going to see it, whether you’ll do so on a big screen, fork over an exorbitant amount of money to watch it on Disney+, or wait for a more affordable at-home option. It exists to sell toys, costumes, and trips to theme parks while continuing to build the Disney monopoly that we should all be more worried about since the overseers of antitrust laws are asleep at the wheel, and probably would be more worried about if we weren’t all (a) contemplating our insignificance and powerlessness to stave off the climate disaster that will boil, drown, bury, burn, smother, etc. us all alive, or (b) living in a state of denial of said looming extinction event. Its emotional beats are rote, its storytelling checkpoints are familiar, and the forward thrust of its characters is largely moot considering that, as of 2019, Natasha Romanoff is dead. For what it’s worth, at least Disney isn’t trying to insultingly push Black Widow as “empowering for girls/women” (one can read the text that way, but it’s not part of the metatext for once, and the film itself calls attention to the fact that Natasha’s dark past as an assassin renders her “hero” status among “little girls” problematic, to say the least). This film is also decidedly Not For Children, given its use of the visual language we associate with human trafficking to illustrate the horrors of the Red Room as well as the higher-than-normal profanity and a fairly graphic verbal description of the Red Room’s sterilization procedure. 

I’m sure that there will be some reviews that cite the film’s “heart,” although I would warn readers to take that with a grain of salt. The “reunited family that was really composed of spies but who could be a found family” element is present, and all of the cast (Pugh in particular) sell this angle in their performances, but how much it will resonate with you as a viewer will depend on a lot of factors that are external to the film proper. I wasn’t sold on it, but I still had a blast, and the setpieces here are some of the best that this franchise has brought to the table. Pugh is great in this first entry for her into the MCU, and Harbour brings an effortlessly comedic touch to the proceedings. Weisz has never given a bad performance ever, and her Russian accent here is a delight. It’s a shame that Johansson is finally given a vehicle in this series that is hers and hers alone and it must be an interquel due to the choices made in other films, but she’s been carrying films on her back since she was a literal child, so it’s no surprise that she delivers here in her postscript swan song. If you’re going to see it, see it, before we’re all dead.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Mortal Kombat (2021)

Must every cinematic property receive the extended-universe Marvel treatment now?  It’s getting exhausting.  The new movie adaptation of the Mortal Kombat video game is absolutely doused in the stink of the MCU, functioning more as a desperate franchise starter than a standalone film.  This is a near two-hour shared origin story for longtime Mortal Kombat characters like Scorpion, Jax, and Sonya Blade (as well as the entirely new, entirely forgettable protagonist Cole Young).  They spend the entire runtime learning to summon & hone their personal superpowers for the titular fight tournament, which never actually occurs; you have to wait until the next film for a proper payoff.  Meanwhile, the cyborg jackass Kano sarcastically quips his way throughout the entire process to constantly remind the audience to not take its supernatural martial arts genre tropes too seriously, distancing itself from any potential for genuine nerdiness.  It’s all explained-to-death and relentlessly undercut with corny “That’s so random!” humor to the point where you never really feel like the movie has actually started in earnest; it’s only the first piece in a planned 20+ film franchise, more concerned with justifying its sequels than satisfying its audience in the moment.  The only MCU touchstones it’s missing are a post-credits teaser and a Stan Lee cameo.

It’s especially difficult to not look at the new Mortal Kombat film as an example of everything wrong with contemporary franchise filmmaking, since we have a clear example of how much better this same property would’ve been treated just a couple decades ago.  Paul WS Anderson’s Mortal Kombat movie from 1995 only briefly introduces its central Human cast before diving headfirst into its titular fight tournament, working its story beats & character moments into the structure of a supernatural combat competition instead of delaying that payoff for another film.  The 2021 version can’t help but over-explain every single step of its characters’ journey towards that competition, as if it were cowering from hack YouTube critics’ inevitable critiques of its “plot holes.”  As a result, all of the film’s fun genre payoffs feel delayed & rushed, pushed out of the way to make room for the downplayed, normalizing drudgery of post-MCU franchise filmmaking.  To put it in pro wrestling terms, it’s like watching an hour of promos followed by a few quick squash matches – the kind of lopsided booking that can drain a Pay-Per-View of all potential excitement no matter how may fun, crowd-pleasing payoffs are crammed into the final half-hour.

Despite the MCUification of its tone & plot structure, there were just enough over-the-top gore gags scattered throughout Mortal Kombat to make the film passably okay as dumb-fun entertainment.  The film would’ve been a total disaster had it not leaned into the hyperviolence that made its arcade game source material controversial to begin with in the early 1990s, but it gets by okay.  Combatants are disemboweled, sawed in half, stabbed in the skull, frozen & shattered, and just generally separated from their blood & vital organs in every way the 12-year-old hedonist still lurking in the back of your brain can imagine.  It’s fun to watch.  Too bad the film appears to be embarrassed of its source material’s more out-there details, so that it has to go out of its way to explain the practical reason for Scorpion’s chain-spear weapon or to have a character joke that Mortal Kombat is “spelled wrong.”  By the time all that normalizing groundwork is laid out, there’s very little space left for the actual climactic fight scenes, which are edited together in a simultaneous, overlapping flood of violence that would’ve been much better served as individual action set pieces. 

Maybe now that all the plot-obsessed foundational work is out of the way, the second film in this series will be able to just jump right into the ultraviolence fantasy fight tournament promised here without wasting any valuable time.  It’s just a shame that we used to be able to pull that off in a single 100min goofball action movie without any concerns for appearing level-headed or respectable; now you’ve got to put up with at least an hour of eating your vegetables before you get even a small taste of the good stuff.

-Brandon Ledet

Godzilla vs. Kong (2021)

Finally, I can say I enthusiastically enjoyed an American Godzilla film.  Weirdly, it happened to be the one that stars King Kong.

The ongoing MonsterVerse franchise has been building up to this moment since 2014, ever since Godzilla re-emerged from the ocean waves with a chonky, dour make-over.  Every entry in that franchise so far has tread in varying shades of mediocrity while trying to offer an MCU-scale franchise to the King of the Monsters: 2014’s Godzilla in its tedious attempts at self-serious majesty, 2017’s Kong: Skull Island in its goofball aping of Vietnam War Movie tropes, and 2019’s Godzilla: King of the Monsters in its muddled, belabored kaiju fight choreography.  Even though those films have been on a steady incline in terms of pure entertainment value, I did not expect the quality to shoot so high in Adam Wingard’s contribution to the series.  Godzilla vs Kong is just incredibly fun to watch in a way previous MonsterVerse films haven’t been.  Its monster action is constantly inventive, surprising, tactile, and gross – majorly exceeding the expectations set by its more cautious, middling predecessors.

Director Gareth Edwards was widely mocked for describing his 2014 Godzilla film as a “post-human blockbuster,” but I feel like this years-later sequel actually makes that phrase mean something.  In Godzilla vs Kong, the titular monsters are the main characters of their shared film (with Kong playing Lead and Godzilla settling for Supporting).  The humans on the ground level merely orbit around the kaiju like satellites around a planet or flies around a picnic spread, adding nothing consequential to the narrative.  Each monster is paired with a young child who believes in their respective Good Nature: King Kong with a deaf cutie who teaches him American Sign Language and Godzilla with returning-player Millie Bobby Brown, who’s gotten really into conspiracy podcasts since her last appearance (making this the second film in the very niche genre of Big-Budget Horror Sequels You Would Not Expect To Be About Podcasting, after 2018’s Halloween).  They’re both adorable but make very little impact. The bulk of the storytelling is illustrated through the kaiju fights themselves, the same way that broad soap opera narratives are conveyed in the wrestling ring.

Wingard’s major accomplishment here is in punching up the action choreography in the film’s fight sequences.  Although both creatures are CGI, the impact of their blows hits with genuine force & resistance.  Wingard simulates the body-mounted camera trickery, jaw-crunching jabs, and earth-shaking thuds that make human-on-human fight choreography in modern action cinema feel tactile & “real”.  When Godzilla wrestles Kong under the ocean, the ape emerges to puke up the water he’s inhaled.  When Kong rips off the head of a lesser beast, he drinks blood from its corpse in ecstatic victory.  This may be the cinematic equivalent of a young child smashing their action figures together in a sandbox, but it’s at least a child with a sense of humor & spatial reasoning.  By the time our two sky-high combatants are squaring off in the neon lights & smoke of a half-smashed Hong Kong, I can’t imagine having any other response to this film other than an enthusiastic “Fuck yeah!”

I understand the argument that a Godzilla film shouldn’t be this gleefully hollow.  Considering the creature’s grim-as-fuck origins in the 1954 original, I totally see how treating this property like another (better) adaptation of the Rampage arcade game could come across as artistic blasphemy. There are plenty of Japanese sequels to Godzilla that are equally, deliberately goofy, though, and Wingard’s film feels true enough to their smash-em-up spirit.  Godzilla vs. Kong cannot compete with the best of its Japanese predecessors, especially not all-time classic titles like Godzilla (1954), Godzilla vs. Hedorah (1971), or even the recent satirical reboot Shin Godzilla (2017).  As far as American takes on this character go, however, I believe this is by far the best to date.  When Gareth Edwards attempted to make a dead-serious Godzilla film respectful to the monster’s roots, he inspired far more boredom than awe.  Respectful or not, Godzilla vs Kong is not at all boring.  It’s fun as hell.

-Brandon Ledet

Crazy Samurai: 400 vs 1 (2021)

I love a shameless gimmick, and few films are as up-front about theirs as the martial arts mini-epic Crazy Samurai: 400 vs. 1. It was originally called Crazy Samurai Musashi in its film festival run, but its marketing has since doubled down on highlighting its overriding gimmick right there in the title. Even official posters that stick to the original Musashi subtitle declare in large block letters “400 VS. 1 IN A SINGLE TAKE” just so you know what you’re paying for: a 90min movie with a continuous 77min shot of a samurai swordfighting 400 opponents to the death. Unfortunately, Crazy Samurai cannot live up to the movie you imagine in your head when you read that premise. It’s basically an SOV backyard movie with an exceptionally large cast, not a feature-length action set piece with an endless parade of expertly choreographed kills. Bummer.

Crazy Samurai starts at the climax of a three-hour samurai epic that was never filmed, assuming that the audience is already familiar with samurai Miyamoto Musashi’s reputation and his legendary battle with 400 fallen swordsmen. Fair enough; maybe we should be. If you aren’t, there’s no reason to show up for this single-gimmick movie except to see the hour-long swordfight, so why waste time. Unfortunately, despite the length of that battle, there isn’t much to see. Musashi is surrounded by a never-ending supply of swordsmen who take turns lunging at him and dying monotonous deaths – dispensed of with a quick swipe of his blade and a uniform spurt of CGI blood. If you watch the first five minutes of the fight you know exactly what the last five minutes will look like, as the sword violence never really escalates in any satisfying way. It’s more of a video game tutorial than a movie.

Crazy Samurai does for sword violence what Free Fire does for guns: making you numb with relentless repetition to the point where you never want to see the weapon again, like a concerned parent making you smoke an entire carton of cigarettes until you puke. Free Fire was a lot more fun to watch, though. The only hook that kept my attention in this one was the impressive physicality of actor Tak Sakaguchi as the (sometimes) titular samurai. Watching him swing his sword at literal hundreds of nameless goons for over an hour, I thought back to how sore I am after 15min of shoveling garden soil in my own backyard; he looks genuinely broken down by the end of the film, and you feel that exhaustion in your bones. Unfortunately, that’s the only thing that changes as the fight drags on, and it’s too gradual of an arc to hold your attention even at this short length.

In a best-case scenario, Crazy Samurai is a proof-of-concept prototype of a much better film that’s still to be made. There’s a brief epilogue obviously filmed years after the long-take centerpiece that delivers exactly what I wanted out of this movie, but it only lasts a couple minutes. You can practically hear director (and well-respected fight choreographer) Yûji Shimomura explaining “Here’s what I could’ve done with this premise now that I have access to better resources”, which makes me wonder why he didn’t just start over. There honestly isn’t much worth salvaging in this version except proof that it could be done. Maybe it was preserved & distributed out of respect for Tak Sakaguchi’s endurance-test performance, which is sweet, but the film’s in obvious need of a better-funded revision with more varied, harder-hitting kills.

-Brandon Ledet

Master (2021)

It has officially been a full calendar year since I saw Blumhouse’s The Invisible Man at AMC Westbank, which was the last time I watched any movie in a proper indoor theater. There hasn’t exactly been a cinematic drought in the year since the pandemic started, since plenty of delayed-distribution festival releases (and filmed-in-lockdown experiments like Host) have rushed in to fill the void left by the major players who’re still waiting out this never-ending shitstorm. As much as I love a good low-budget arthouse provocation, I’ve come to miss seeing large-scale blockbusters at the local megaplex over the past year, especially as another dreary summer season approaches. Of the big-budget action spectacles that have been missing from my movie diet, I most miss the sprawling Indian blockbusters that play at AMC Elmwood, often to sparse, weirdly unenthused audiences. Catching over-the-top action movies like 2.0, War, and Saaho on the big screen has made for some of my most satisfying cinematic experiences of the past few years, as they’re often far more daring & entertaining than their timid American equivalents – including supposedly eccentric franchises like Fast & Furious and Mission: Impossible. It was a wonderful gift, then, that the recent Tamil-language blockbuster Master appeared on Amazon Prime mere weeks after its theatrical run. I’m still nowhere near comfortable with returning to the megaplex even as our local vaccine rollout escalates, so I very much appreciated getting a small taste of the over-the-top action spectacles I’ve been missing over the past year.

Master is a Kollywood action blockbuster throwback to 90s American thrillers like Dangerous Minds where real Tough Cookie teachers fight to save impoverished, overlooked students from lives of petty street crime. In this variation, an alcoholic college professor quickly sobers up when he is assigned to teach troubled youth at a juvenile correctional facility, only to discover that the kids are being preyed upon by a local gangster (and corrupt union organizer) who frames them for crimes committed by his adult underlings. Even as a sloppy drunk in the first act, the Badass Teacher is treated with the wide-eyed hero worship afforded action stars like Schwarzenegger, Van Damme, and Stallone in their 1990s heyday. He wears his sunglasses inside, wields his pocket flask as a weapon, has several badass theme songs that refer to him as “Master the Blaster” (including a reggae diddy that eventually becomes his ringtone), and periodically winks at the camera to remind you to have fun. Meanwhile, his union-gangster nemesis is an ice-cold sociopath who’s so freakishly strong he can murder his victims with a single punch (including, it should be said, small children on several occasions). Their head-to-head battlegrounds are stereotypical action locales like warehouses, construction sites, and meat lockers, but most of the drama unfolds in classrooms where they compete for control of the neighborhood children’s minds & freedom. Really, the only thing that’s missing is the titular Master going full Michelle Pfeiffer by turning his chair backwards to appear tough & cool to the youths, accompanied—of course—by the Tamil equivalent of Coolio. There are plenty of Gully Boy-style rap songs on the soundtrack, though, so it’s not exactly an opportunity missed.

I genuinely believe India’s various, disparate movie industries are currently making the best big-budget action flicks in the world, the same way that Hong Kong martial arts thrillers hit an unmatched creative high in the 1980s. Admittedly, Master is not my favorite example of this trend. I wish its action set pieces & lengthy dance breaks had escalated more drastically post-intermission to push its premise into full-blown delirium, but for the most part it’s still three hours well spent. The combat is brutal, the melodrama is wonderfully saccharine, and there’s a song with the lyrics “Problems will come & go/Chill a bit, bro” that legit unclenched my jaw. I also can’t discount the instant rush of pleasure I got just by having access to this kind of cinema again, something I usually only encounter at the megaplex. As soon as the endless production cards & multiple-language health warnings (about the dangers of drinking in this case, of course) kicked off the minutes-long opening credits I knew I was about to be spoiled with some Grade A action entertainment. I hope that when my community is sufficiently vaccinated and I feel comfortable with the moviegoing ritual again, these films will still be on the menu at 20-screen monstrosities like AMC Elmwood. I miss them very much.

-Brandon Ledet

Space Sweepers (2021)

There haven’t been any new releases during this neverending pandemic that have made me miss the big-budget blockbuster experience. Maybe it’s because titles like Tenet, Mulan, and Wonder Woman ’84 have been locked behind exorbitantly expensive paywalls, followed by a mile-high wave of tepid reviews. There have been plenty of mind-melting arthouse experiments released straight to VOD in the last year that I would have loved to have seen in a proper theater, but it feels as if the bigger studios have been holding back The Good Stuff when it comes to their money-making popcorn movies. Space Sweepers is the definitive end to that drought. The straight-to-Netflix Korean blockbuster is the exact kind of sci-fi pulp entertainment I miss seeing on the big screen with easily pleased opening-weekend crowds and buckets of overpriced snacks. It’s doubtful that Netflix would have ever released Space Sweepers to giant-screen multiplexes even in “Normal” times, but all the same it’s the first film released in the past year that truly made me miss the summer blockbuster ritual.

Like with all multiplex blockbusters, the action sequences in Space Sweepers are a confounding CGI cacophony, just as difficult to remember after the credits as they are to comprehend in the moment. I was genuinely lost during the opening set piece, in which rival crews of space-junk scavengers race for possession of a malfunctioning satellite or cargo vessel or whatever. It’s the character beats between those blurred-CG action sequences that distinguish these monster-budget sci-fi spectacles anyway. In this case, the audience plays stowaway with a motley crew of intergalactic junkyard scavengers captained by The Handmaiden‘s Kim Tae-ri. Their go-nowhere routine of working their way deeper & deeper into debt is disrupted when they accidentally scoop up a dangerous bomb disguised as the most adorable child in the universe. That pricey, lethal, cute-as-a-button cargo puts them at odds with an evil white capitalist who runs what’s remaining of humanity as a technocratic megacorporation. The resulting conflict is essentially The Guardians of the Galaxy vs. Elon Musk, with all the money-torching glut & irreverent, character-based humor that descriptor implies.

Space Sweepers works best as an intergalactic hangout film. Any scene that doesn’t involve the ragtag space crew interacting with their adorable kid/bomb cargo can only feel generic by comparison, including all the laser shoot-outs & space-chase action sequences that eat up most of the budget. The more you get to know the crew the easier it is to be charmed by the film at large. From the tough-guy lone wolves learning to care for a defenseless child-bomb to the transgender android scrounging spare credits to purchase their ideal body (a much more explicit version of the allegory teased in Alita: Battle Angel), it’s a pure joy getting to know these reformed reprobates. I also cannot stress enough how cute the kid-bomb they’re debating whether to sell is. The cutest. It’s the exact effect I get from most big-budget crowdpleasers at the multiplex: I may forget everything that happens to them, but if the characters are likeable enough than I don’t really care. These characters are very, very likeable, and I’d happily pay money to see their adventures continue with an in-the-flesh crowd on the other side of this eternal hell year.

-Brandon Ledet