War (2019)

In his (excellent) collection of essays on Hawaiian-born schlockteur Albert Pyun, Radioactive Dreams, Torontonian film critic Justin Decloux speculates on why a cult-ready filmmaker he loves dearly never found their proper audience. Decloux laments, “There’s no major genre community for action films like there is for horror.” That quote has been rattling around in my head recently while watching big-budget Indian action spectacles like War, Saaho, and 2.0 on the big screen with relatively sparse audiences. Of course, the main difference there is that these Bollywood & Tollywood productions do draw sizeable crowds in their home country; they just aren’t drumming up much enthusiasm in America – unless you count “Get a load of this! LOL” viral videos of out-of-context clips being shared on social media platforms for cheap mockery. They should be getting the same attention & admiration Hong Kong martial arts films earned through VHS circulation in the 80s & 90s, as they’re pushing a corner of cinema built on pure excess to more of a delirious extreme than any Fast & Furious, Mission: Impossible, or John Wick-type American franchises could dare to claim. I mean, those doesn’t even have built-in dance breaks between the gunfights.

Speaking of American action cinema and the 1990s, the latest in American-exported action offerings from Bollywood is essentially a beefcake calendar as directed by Michael Bay. War is 70% abs & pecs, 20% stadium-size guitar riffs, 10% homoerotic eye contact, and I guess somewhere in there is a plot about a super-soldier’s mentor who’s “gone rogue.” If Saaho played like a pastiche of 2010s action franchises of the Fast & Furious variety, this ultra-patriotic, muscled-out brodown between two secretly-in-love soldiers is very much modeled after the post-Bruckheimer 90s blockbuster. Its fetishization of missiles, biceps, and allegiance to the flag feels like a return to a bygone era of action spectacle – except now its embellished with You’ve Got Served-style dance competitions and a full-on Busby Berkeley synchronized swimming stage show. Action movies are a cinema of excess, so the mainstream Indian sensibility of mixing all genres & tones into every three-hour flood of wall-to-wall entertainment fits the genre perfectly. Intricately choregraphed martial arts sequences & acrobatic parkour chase scenes mix with handheld cinematography, incrementally preposterous plot twists, and double bass-pedal stadium rock to create a truly overwhelming wallop of action movie excess. And then the usual genre-blending touches of Bollywood Musical fantasy & romance pile on to make the whole thing feel just that much more gargantuan. It’s a wonder to behold, even as something that follows a vintage story template.

Homoeroticism always simmers under the surface in this kind of militaristic beefcake, but it really does feel like War is on the verge of vocalizing that tension outright. Its assassination stakeouts are bathed in bisexual lighting. When the younger soldier’s ability to track down his mentor without losing his cool is called into question, the commanding officer protests “You love him.” The soldier responds, “Not more than I love my country.” When he finally faces off against this rogue superior, he complains, in hurt, “You were like a god to me.” And then there’s all the staring. Whenever our two competing super-soldiers share the screen, their eyes lock with an intense, electric bond no distraction can break. When a female romantic love interest is introduced halfway into the massive runtime, she’s quickly fridged and swept out of the way – but not until after she playfully suggests her soldier beau is distracted as a lover because she has a “Wife? Girlfriend? Boyfriend?” back home. If only she knew. In all honesty, this palpable man-on-man desire isn’t that out of the ordinary for big, muscled-up action movies of this ilk. It only stands out more here because, unlike in the 90s Michael Bay vehicles it echoes, it doesn’t waste any time pretending that femme bodies are the eye candy on display. Its two dueling stars, Hrithik Roshan & Tiger Shroff, are carefully torn out of their clothes in nearly every action sequence to display the perfectly sculpted masc physiques underneath. Equally bare bikini babes are in short order and are quickly disregarded to get to the main course: abs & pecs, and everyone’s invited to dig in.

Whether or not American audiences ever catch onto how deliriously fun these Indian action blockbusters can be doesn’t matter all that much; they’re doing just find without us. If you ever find yourself wishing that a Fast & Furious sequel were just a little more excessive or that Tom Cruise would take a break from jumping out of planes to sing & dance for your entertainment, however, just know that the perfect action blockbusters are already out there – and they’re likely playing at a nearby megaplex (AMC Elmwood, if you’re reading this in New Orleans). You’re just not going to hear much American fanfare about them, because action cinema is for some reason lacking the same communal enthusiasm we afford other genre novelties like horror & sci-fi. They can also be wonderfully gay if you squint at them the right way, which is a plus for any genre.

-Brandon Ledet

Gemini Man (2019)

After earning major critical accolades as the director of cinematic triumphs like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Brokeback Mountain, one-time filmmaker Ang Lee is now considering a secondary career as an absolute madman. Ever since Life of Pi, Lee has been sinking further & further into the abyss of tech obsession in his maniacal, one-sided pursuit of Perfection in craft – periodically emerging from his haunted laboratory with feature “films” no one wants nor cares for: first Billy Lynn’s Halftime Walk in 2016 and now 2019’s Gemini Man. Specifically, Lee has become fixated on the merits of ultra-motion-smoothing High Frame Rate tech usually reserved for video games and sports broadcasts. Scoffing at the cowardly 48fps & 60fps rates that make the Hobbit movies and your parents’ factory-setting TVs look like absolute dogshit, Lee has bravely shouted “Double it!” in the face of God & good taste. Not a single commercial movie theater in America is currently equipped to screen Gemini Man in its intended, diabolical format: 3D, 4k, 120fps. Fourteen theaters in the country did secure a version of the film in that roided-out motion-smoothing 120fps rate, though, settling for a wimpy 2k 3D scan so their equipment could handle the projection. One of them happened to be AMC Elmwood just outside New Orleans, which is one of my weekly movie-watching spots.

Gemini Man’s light sci-fi plot about a retired super-soldier who must defend his decades-younger clone—both played by Will Smith—is about as generic of an action blockbuster premise that you’ll find outside a 1990s Bruckheimer flick. It’s probably for the best that this killer clones story template is something we’ve already seen repeated too many times before, though, since there isn’t a single second of this monstrous HFR experiment when you aren’t thinking about how absolutely fucking bizarre everything looks, so there’s no real room to care about the story. Will Smith acts his heart out in his dual roles, selling both the unembarrassed cheese of his older self’s Dad Jokes and the deep pain of the younger clone’s identity crisis with full commitment as the two super-soldiers battle it out in a “hyper real” screen space. There’s nothing Smith can to distract from the visual spectacle of the film’s format, though, since that’s where all of Lee’s efforts were poured. Applying all this HFR and mo-cap clone tech to such a pedestrian nothing of a story is a bold, deliberate choice on Lee’s part; it makes the movie about the technology as if it were a convention-floor demo reel. There’s nothing Smith can do with the so-so dialogue that will overpower the spectacle of him drinking from a crisply detailed soda can or swatting a distinctly visible fly with his baseball cap. There’s no semblance of depth in the film’s screenplay, but there’s miles-long depth of field in Lee’s camera; the distance between those two effects continually calls attention to itself to the point where there’s room for nothing else.

Overall, I’m more tickled with Ang Lee’s madman passion for tech no one else cares for than I am pleased with the results. It’s confounding to me that the very week this film was released there was a Twitter hive-mind discussion about the difference between cinema and theme parks—sparked by Martin Scorsese flippantly dismissing the artistic merits of the MCU—and somehow this wasn’t the movie being discussed. Usually, in action movies there’s a level of forget-your-troubles escapism in the stunts & explosions on display, but those payoffs here look more akin to attending a live practical effects demonstration at a Universal Studios amusement park than they do cinema. Every spark, flame, bullet, and speck of shrapnel on the screen was distinctly visible and textured in detail, but the HFR motion-smoothing often cheapened the look of the action so that it resembled a behind-the-scenes featurette instead of the Feature Presentation. The most delight I found in the results of Lee’s experiment were the kind of gimmick demonstrations that were popular the first time 3D tech was imported into movie theaters: gun barrels, motorcycles, explosions, and—I kid you not—kernels of popcorn protruding past the 2D plane to “leap” off the screen. Gemini Man might have worked better as a Movie if it were nonstop stunts & chases in that way, with an assortment of 3D objects constantly flying at the screen in unrelenting Will-Smith-on-Will-Smith mayhem, but making a better movie was never Ang Lee’s goal. It was just as important to the madman that he exhibit what the HFR tech can do in dramatic, low-key moments of (consistently non-consequential) dialogue – the kind of attraction you’d find at a techie convention, or inside a carnival tent.

There are flashes of interesting images that result from Gemini Man’s formal experiment, most notably in the super-soldier’s underwater nightmares and, appropriately, the 1st-person-shooter video game action sequences. Mostly, though, this feels like an accomplished director who got bored with making movies reaching for an unattainable goal with equipment & an audience that aren’t quite there yet. At one point, a character describing a failed military mission explains it perfectly, saying “It’s like watching the Hindenburg crash into the Titanic.” You have to appreciate the hubris that leads to that kind of spectacle, even when the results are this disastrous. I do believe that some near-future nature documentary or surreal animation experiment will make better use of this tech, and that success will be largely due to Ang Lee’s willingness to fail in such a spectacular fashion. He’s wearing himself out to the point of madness trying to normalize something no one else seems to want. The weird thing is that it might already be working, however subtly. My opening-night audience didn’t seem to notice anything peculiar about the film’s presentation, to the point where I felt like running around the theater shouting “Don’t y’all see how fucking weird this all is???” Maybe they did, maybe they didn’t. Either way, they didn’t seem to care – which is the exact indifference that is snapping Ang Lee’s brain in half, like so many duplicated Will Smiths.

-Brandon Ledet

Silent Trigger (1996)

It’s tempting to root for the mid-90s Dolph Lundgren action cheapie Silent Trigger as a lost gem. Directed by Australian genre nerd Russell Mulcahy (the mastermind behind the absurd action-fantasy series Highlander), Silent Trigger is at the very least crafted with a distinct sensibility. Couched in an introspective flashback structure and frequently interrupted by time-elapsed nature footage set to Enya-style New Age 90s jams, it’s something of a novelty within its action cinema context, which tends to favor explosions & guitar riffs over those softer touches. It also initially pairs its muscly macho star, Lundgren, with a female partner equal to his skill level (Gina Bellman) instead of relegating women to mere damsel-in-distress roles, which is even more of a novelty in its specific era of action cinema. Unfortunately, I can’t heap too much praise on Silent Trigger for those deviations from the 90s action movie template, however, since it eventually shits the bed in its male-female duo dynamic by relying on the laziest, least appealing go-to for easy genre film tension around: the threat of rape.

On its face, this is one of the many, many Die Hard knockoffs that cropped up throughout the 90s. It’s initially difficult to recognize it as such, though, since the film’s structure is so unusual for the genre. Lundgren & Bellman co-star as a pair of trained mercenary assassins who are tasked to set up for a long-distance kill at the top of an unfinished skyscraper. There’s more time piddled away on waiting for the kill than there is on the fight to reach that pinnacle, emphasizing the quiet hangout energy of a traditional stakeout. In this pre-assassination wait time, the killer pair reflect back on a botched mission where they previously met years earlier, suggesting a conspiracy among their employers in hiring them for the skyscraper job. The introspective quiet of piecing this puzzle together in flashbacks is unusual for the action genre, especially since it’s accentuated with the surreal time-elapse Nature imagery Mulcahy also experimented with in the first two Highlander movies. Almost as if afraid that indulgence would test the audience’s patience, however, the film stirs up an in-the-moment threat to buy time until the conspiracy plot reaches its boiling point. That’s not a fatal mistake in itself, but the particular villain it opts for is a violent rapist creep, a choice that entirely sours the mood of a film otherwise notable for its quiet sensitivity.

The rapist in question is a slimy security guard who’s tasked with monitoring the tower while it’s under construction. As soon as he spots the female assassin in his building, he immediate starts salivating at the prospect of assaulting her. Once she lies about being a computer programmer contracted for building maintenance and pulls a gun on him to neutralize his threat, he only doubles down on his singular, repugnant mission. That escalation of the guard’s rapist fervor could be read as thematic commentary on the dangerous fragility of the male ego, since he absolutely cannot handle being bested by a woman. It’s not nearly thoughtful enough to justify the endless, unrelenting presence of this vile character, however, whose threats to “fuck” our female lead “to death” makes Silent Trigger a thoroughly miserable watch, especially since he has no direct influence on the film’s overall plot. Besides providing an in-the-moment conflict while the actual plot quietly hums in the background, all he accomplishes is reducing the female star of the film to a whimpering damsel to be rescued by Lundgren. In other words, he actively ruins one of the few aspects of Silent Trigger that makes it special within its genre. The film has no time to recover from that fall from grace because he will not go away, no matter how loudly you shout “Fuck you!” at the screen.

With the security guard rapist plot removed, Silent Trigger might satisfy as a decent-enough action cinema oddity. As quietly introspective as the film can feel, it’s often punctuated by bizarre genre spectacle touches like a slow-motion helicopter crash that Lundgren simply leaps out of the way of, an order to assassinate a politician while she’s holding a baby, and a hallucinatory attack of CGI spiders that appear virtually out of nowhere. The dialogue dabbles in almost enough action genre mumbo jumbo like “Target approaching kill zone,” & “The war ended, but the hunt didn’t” to convince you that this is a totally normal, run-of-the-mill 90s action cheapie. Still, Mulcahy’s New Age nature footage and quiet stakeout introspection clearly distinguish it as more of an outlier than a business-as-usual rubber stamp. It’s a total shame, then, that so much energy & screentime is squandered on a mood-ruining sexual assault subplot that suggests a total lack of imagination & self-awareness. It’s a frustrating, prolonged act of self-sabotage that tanks the entire enterprise.

-Brandon Ledet

Cellular (2004)

There was a time recently when British action star Jason Statham started poking fun at his onscreen persona in projects like The Expendables, Fast & Furious, and Spy and I realized that, despite his rapidly growing fame, I had no real idea who he is. Statham was already a brand worthy of self-satire by the time he registered on my radar at all. I obviously didn’t need to be too familiar with his oeuvre for those jokes to land (any passing knowledge of post-80s Tough Guy action stars of any stripe would do), but I still felt like I was missing out on something. It turns out that the gaps in my Statham knowledge were mostly a string of mid-00s action vehicles like The Transporter, The Bank Job, and Crank, which I’ve been gradually catching up on in recent months while parsing out the persona of this muscly mystery man. Oddly, it wasn’t any of these starring roles for Statham that solidified my understanding of his screen presence. It was instead his minor role as a Tough Guy villain in the 2004 action goof-em-around Cellular that brought home my introspective search for who Jason Statham really is.

It turns out that Jason Statham is a dick, at least onscreen. He even looks like a penis, considering his closely shaved head’s throbbing veins and his penchant for mod-style turtlenecks. Once you grasp that he’s hired to be instantly detestable as screenwriting shorthand, his typecasting become so much clearer in retrospect. In The Transporter, he’s a selfish brute of a nerd who allows his heartless, rules-obsessed professionalism to prevent him from doing the right thing (until a victim of his thuggish clients melts his icy heart). In Spy, he’s a self-aggrandizing blowhard who steamrolls women in conversation and in the workplace. In the Fast & Furious franchise he’s a self-serving, cold-hearted killer who doesn’t know the first thing about Family (until, again, his heart is melted over time). It’s a tradition that stretches back to his bit roles as a growling toughie in Guy Ritchie’s early movies. The brilliant thing about Statham’s casting in Cellular is that he’s only there because of his instant hateability as a total dick. The movie’s plot contrivances are so absurdly over the top that it has no time to invest in fleshing out the character of its central villain, so Statham’s instantly recognizable dickholery is meant to serve as a shortcut. And it mostly works.

Based on a story outline from legendary schlockteur Larry Cohen (who dared to ask, “What if I wrote Phone Booth again, but this time with cellphones?”), Cellular is the exact kind of obnoxious, high-concept nonsense that action cinema junkies are always looking for at the movies. Statham and his army of similarly dickish baddies kidnap a suburban high school biology teacher played by Kim Basinger and terrorize her in an attic for some reason or another. Desperate to call for help, Basinger uses her Science Knowledge to operate the only means of communication left in her newfound prison: a landline phone that Statham smashed to pieces. By tapping the wires of the broken device together to dial random numbers, Basinger miraculously connects to a nearby Nokia brick cellphone helmed by Chris Evans (in total bimbo dude-bro mode here). The original Cohen script was meant as a bitterly cynical social satire about the early days of cellphone obsession, but the version that actually got made is a goofball swashbuckling adventure in which Evans overcomes his carefree Beach Jock life of selfish hedonism to do something heroic for a change. As he gets involved in a series of escalating car chases, gun fights, and kidnapping crises in an effort to save a helpless stranger he has one clear mission: Don’t let the cellphone call drop or she’ll die. That’s quite a premise; classic Cohen.

I wouldn’t necessarily call this a great movie, but it can be a lot of fun as a gimmicky time capsule of quickly outdated tech. The early scenes where Evans is bragging that his brick phone can take pictures is especially amusing, as are later action set pieces where he has to rob an electronics store for a charger or hijacks a stranger’s phone when his all-important call is transferred via a cross-connection mishap. There’s also a very amusing moment where William H. Macy, playing a one-day-from-retirement cop, gets to be heroic in full slow-motion splendor, which is a rare look for him. Even if this is the least interesting execution of a deliriously fun premise possible, it’s still got that Larry Cohen touch of a fully committed gimmick that could just about carry any dead weight you pile on top of it. That might explain why a movie this culturally insignificant somehow inspired international remakes in Bollywood, Tollywood, and Hong Kong. The “Drop the cellphone call and she’ll die!” premise is just that strong. Besides, it has the added lagniappe of seeing Jason Statham’s instantly detestable dickishness being employed for its full villainous potential, which I apparently needed to see to fully understand his deal in general, even if he usually channels that persona into gruff anti-heroes.

-Brandon Ledet

Saaho (2019)

One of my favorite excursions to the theater in the last couple years was a blind-watch of the Indian sci-fi action spectacle 2.0, which I didn’t even realize was a sequel to a much bigger hit film until almost a half-hour into its runtime. The three hour onslaught of shapeshifting machines, music video interludes, and CGI-aided slapstick farce that followed was the exact kind of brain-melting spectacle I always hope for in over-the-top action blockbusters, but rarely see satisfied. The closest parallel in American cinema to the gleefully excessive cartoon lunacy of 2.0 (and its equally ludicrous predecessor Enthiran) is the ongoing Fast & Furious series, which long ago started as a street-racing flavored Point Break rip-off but at this point is a full-on Looney Tunes-scale middle finger to logic, good taste, and physics – bless its big stupid heart. That’s why it makes a lot of sense to me that the next Indian action blockbuster I’d catch in theaters would be a clear . . . homage to the Fast & Furious series’ global appeal as an obnoxious American export. The first hour of Saaho is a relatively well-behaved Telugu-language bastardization of the Fast & Furious formula, adapting the American series’ hyperactive game of cops & robbers to a different cultural backdrop while maintaining the exact look & tone of its earliest, least remarkable entries. Luckily, there are two more hours of runtime after that initial third, and that’s where that old 2.0 feeling flooded back into my theater and the movie rapidly transformed into its own beautifully ludicrous novelty – miles past its Fast & Furious starting line.

Almost as if purposefully restraining itself to American action cinema’s more conservative sensibilities for its first hour, Saaho waits until a third of the way into its colossal runtime to reveal its opening credits title card – “SAAHO” in massive block letters. That delayed announcement is then followed up with the warning “It’s showtime!,” as if the entire preceding hour were just a preamble warmup to the feature attraction. It’s not like the film shifts gears from there into being something other than a heightened Fast & Furious riff into something entirely novel, either. Instead, it tosses that series into a blender with Mission: Impossible, The Matrix, John Wick, Iron Man, Mad Max: Fury Road, and practically every other action blockbuster in recent memory you can name, all with a go-big-forget-going-home James Cameron maximalism fueling its engine. It’s fairly blatant about this post-modern collect-them-all amalgamation of American pop culture touchstones too. There’s a fictional courier company in the film named Fast & Furious Delivery Service. A key shootout tears up a living room where T2: Judgement Day is playing on a background TV. When a suspect in a heist is pressured to spill the beans on his fellow thieves, he retorts “Jon Snow, I know nothing.” Still, the film transcends merely feeling like a collection of familiar pop culture references to become its own beautifully absurd post-modern object – partly through unifying its blatant influences with a consistent hip hop music video aesthetic, partly by translating them through the highly specific cultural filter of an Indian blockbuster template, and partly by signaling its second-hour gear shift with a rules-changing character reveal that I’ve never seen in the action genre before, American or otherwise.

I wouldn’t dare spoil the genre-subverting Twist that prompts the “It’s showtime!” announcement at the top of the second hour, at least not in a proper review. It’s not like plot or characterization are the main draw for over-the-top action blockbusters on this scale anyway. Saaho doesn’t have much on its mind narrative-wise other than pulling the rug from under its audience in a constant parade of double/triple/quadruple crossings between its warring factions of corrupt cops & ambitious thieves. The thieves need a “black box” MacGuffin key to unlock a vault full of gold (that has a vague connection to a nationally beneficial Hydro Electric Power Plant project they’re embezzling from). The cops monitoring their activities need to catch them in the act of the robbery to prove that a crime is even taking place, since most of their illegal activities appear to be above board as a privately-owned corporation that does good deeds for the national public. Both sides of the cops & robbers divide have undercover operatives sabotaging the other’s missions and much of the fun of the film’s plot is trying to keep track of who’s really working for whom among the many, many characters onscreen. If all these good vs. evil espionage and secret identities shenanigans add up to any central theme, it’s that thieves are always a few steps ahead of the police, which affords them an anti-hero underdog status in the film’s hierarchy (in true Fast & Furious tradition). I’m not sure that it does add up to much thematically, though, since narrative was always going to take a back seat to the film’s value as a vehicle for over-the-top action spectacle.

Ludicrous, delirious, cartoon-level action is never in short supply here, not even in the film’s relatively well-behaved first hour. Body-mounted cameras spice up multi-level fistfights where muscle heads are beaten to a pulp with their own gym weights. Characters fly across the screen wuxia-style to emphasize the impact of a thunderous punch or kick. Slow-motion frame rates dwell on explosions & car wrecks so you can fully soak in their violent splendor. Because of the expectations of the Indian audience, these action cinema payoffs are often disrupted by romantic excursions & music video dance breaks for minutes on end. It’s not as if American action movies are devoid of extraneous romantic subplots or commercially-minded needle drops. It’s just that dispatches from Indian production hubs like Bollywood & Tollywood afford those touches extended, isolated screentime to fully play out. This can lead to some sublimely surreal cinematic moments, like when the film’s romantic leads slow-dance in a choreographed gunfight & flirt over an intense game of foosball, or when the film exaggerates action blockbusters’ propensity for product placement into a feature-length music video advertisement for Red Bull energy drinks. There is nothing subtle or nuanced about Saaho. Its boardroom of criminal thieves all look like Dick Tracey villains. Its bombshell lead’s hair is always glamorously blowing in the breeze, even when she’s indoors. It name-checks Fast & Furious in the first ten minutes to signal exactly what it’s up to. Once it’s officially “showtime,” though, and the film fully exploits its opportunities for action-packed, copyright-infringing chaos, their total disregard for subtlety becomes its greatest virtue. If you’re going to be a Big Dumb Loud action flick, you might as well be the biggest, dumbest, and loudest. I can’t help but respect these Indian action spectacles’ full-on commitment to their own emptyheaded extremity, since they make their American counterparts (and apparent sources of inspiration) seem relatively tame by comparison.

-Brandon Ledet

Episode #91 of The Swampflix Podcast: The Bank Job (2008) & Who Is Jason Statham?

Welcome to Episode #91 of The Swampflix Podcast. For our ninety-first episode, James & Brandon attempt to answer the age-old question “Just who, exactly, is Jason Statham?” To solve this complex puzzle, they look back to the supposed action star’s early-aughts rise to fame[?] in films like The Transporter (2002), Crank (2006), and The Bank Job (2008). Enjoy!

You can stay up to date with our podcast through SoundCloudSpotifyiTunesStitcherTuneIn, or by following the links on this page.

-Brandon Ledet & James Cohn

Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw (2019)

“Pinhead.” “She-Hulk.” “Sumbitch.” “Wanker.” “Bulldog Balls.” “Asshole.”

These are just a few of the lovely pet names the double-ampersand stars of Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw call each other throughout what unexpectedly turned out to be a deeply, deeply unpleasant trip to the movies. Of course, a little misguided machismo is always to be expected when venturing out to a Fast & Furious movie, but there’s usually an underlying sweetness & sincerity to the series that’s sorely missing from this scaled-down spinoff. Director David Leitch is unfortunately operating here in his Deadpool 2 shock humor mode rater than continuing the over-the-top action cinema slickness he brought to John Wick or Atomic Blonde. Fast & Furious is an absurdly melodramatic series in which global-scale action set pieces are flimsily glued together with teary-eyed speeches about what it means to be Family. It’s understandable why a spinoff from the series would operate with a smaller scale & budget in its action, but once you also substitute its Sappy Bro messaging for winking-at-the-camera meta humor there’s nothing left that feels Fast or Furious at all. It also doesn’t help that this film’s approach to “jokes” is to have its two absurdly muscly stars, The Rock & Jason Statham, insult each other for two solid hours about the size and/or existence of each other’s dicks. It’s as exhausting as it is repugnant.

The best way to encapsulate what’s so wrong-headed about this deviation from Fast & Furious tradition is to point to the godawful stunt-casting choices the movie floats as potential new members of the Family: Kevin Hart & Ryan Reynolds, two absolute clowns who believe any #haters don’t find them as funny as they believe themselves to be are #triggered #snowflakes. Their above-it-all, insincere Family Guy snark humor seeps into the rest of the film’s DNA like a fast-acting poison. In fact, the literal, potentially world-ending poison that Hobbs & Shaw are tasked to contain in this single-conflict plot is called Snowflake as a reflection of that #edgy sense of humor. You can hear it echo in a subplot wherein Hobbs & Shaw are wrongly reported by the Fake New media to be criminals instead of heroes. Worse, you’re strangled by it in every over-written one-liner insult they bitterly trade throughout, like when one describes hearing the other’s voice as feeling “like dragging my balls against shattered glass” and the other retorts, “Oh yeah, well, looking at your face is like having God projectile vomit right in my eyes.” Shut the fuck up, you cruel, unpleasant goons. The only satisfactory line of dialogue from either knucklehead is when they simultaneously point at each other and complain “This guy’s a real asshole!” I couldn’t agree more, but I don’t understand why that should entice anyone to spend 137 minutes with either of them, much less both at once.

Not everything about Hobbs & Shaw is a misstep. The third act of the film, in which our titular Heroic Assholes attend a family reunion in Samoa to overthrow their heavily armed enemies Ewok-style, is sincerely cheesy & melodramatic in a way that actually feels at home with Fast & Furious pathos. The earlier action sequences in urban spaces like London & Moscow are more aesthetically similar to the series’ past but aren’t nearly distinct enough in their goofball stunts to make much of an impression (give or take a shapeshifting motorcycle that hilariously defies all laws of physics, Transformers style). Hobbs & Shaw really finds itself in its Samoa stretch once its stars decide to get along for a common good and cool the insults for a much-needed breather. It’s too little too late, though, as the bitter taste of them flipping each other off & calling in false alarms so that security guards anally probe each other (har, har) has already poisoned the mood beyond repair. Vanessa Kirby & Idris Elba are also welcome additions to the cast who somehow shine through the winking snark humor as a badass hero and a futuristic supervillain, respectively, but both performances deserve to be in a real Fast & Furious movie instead of this Deadpool-flavored knockoff.

A lot of people complained when Statham’s character made the jump from villain to Family in this series, even starting a #JusticeForHan hashtag campaign to protest the decision. It was never really a complaint that registered with me, since the only consistent thing about the Fast & Furious series from the beginning has been its total disregard for consistency in favor of in-the-moment thrills & novelty. By the time the series had forgotten its allegiance to Coronas at its Family cookouts for crew to instead toast each other with Bud Lights or some other such blasphemy, it was clear that nothing is sacred. Apparently, that includes the one thing that has been consistent to this series up until this point: its big, stupid, dorkily sincere heart, which contrasts wonderfully with its over-the-top action. That’s a damn shame; the series is nothing special without it.

-Brandon Ledet

The Dragon Lives Again (1977)

There is almost no way to describe what happens in the public domain martial arts cheapie The Dragon Lives Again without overselling its low-key charm. Part of the 1970s wave of “Brucesploitation” pictures that capitalized on the untimely death of rising action star Bruce Lee by casting less talented knockoff performers like Bruce Le, Bruce Li, and Bruce Leong in his place, this is the kind of dime-a-dozen schlock that really has to swing for the fences in its basic premise if it’s going to stand out in any way. The filmmakers may have gotten a little overzealous in that effort here, making a deeply, deeply strange film by any standard while merely attempting to stand out among their Brucesplotiation peers. In The Dragon Lives Again, “Bruce Lee” teams up with Popeye the Sailor Man to beat up James Bond, Dracula, The Exorcist, “Clint Eastwood,” and a Party City-costumed skeleton army in Hell. I’m not exaggerating. If anything, I’m holding back other post-modern, copyright-infringing character inclusions (like soft-core porno icon Emmanuelle) in an attempt to simplify the concept. I also hesitate to hook anyone into watching the film based on that synopsis alone, since it promises a surrealist action spectacle that The Dragon Lives Again is not interested in delivering. There are certainly bursts of exciting fight choreography to be found here or there, but for the most part this is a weirdly low-energy hangout film where Bruce Lee chills in Hell with his newfound friends & enemies from pop culture royalty of past & present. The premise does little to prepare you for how lackadaisical the tone & pacing can be.

You may find the idea of a film “dedicated to the millions who love Bruce Lee” that opens with the beloved, deceased actor (played here by Bruce Leong) waking up in Hell a little distasteful. Would it help if I told you that most of the film’s commentary on Lee’s real-life persona revolves around his reputation as a lady-killer and, frankly, a slut? Or that he’s eventually successful in his war against The Emperor of the Underworld’s gang of pop culture misfits and earns his life back on Earth through his combat skills (a chance obviously never afforded to Lee in the “real“ afterlife)? Probably not. It’s as if The Dagon Lives Again’s major contribution to the “Brucesploitation” genre was to really lean into the ”exploitation” half of the portmanteau. This an R-rated picture with lengthy, nudity-filled trips the Emperor’s royal bathhouses. “Bruce” spends a lot of his screen time (when he’s not hanging out with Popeye or teaching gambling addicts how to shed their vice) either seducing women or turning down their offers to seduce him. When he arrives in Hell as a fresh corpse in the opening scene his nunchucks are mistaken by the Emperor’s harem as a bulging erection. The movie makes sure to pack the screen with just enough horned-up sleaze to fill the time between its occasional sequences of “Bruce” beating up famous pop culture characters & their nameless ghoul-goons in bursts of chaotic martial arts spectacle. And just in case you forget that the figure you’re watching onscreen is “Bruce Lee” himself, he goads his opponents with self-referential taunts like “Now enter the dragon!” before punctuating the joke with a punch to drive it home. The film is almost as sleazy as it is silly – no small feat considering its premise.

A lot of what helps The Dagon Lives Again go down smoothly despite its low-energy hangout vibe and weakness for exploitative sleaze is its self-awareness in just how silly it’s being from scene to scene. Of course, the film could not afford to animate Popeye the Sailor Man à la Roger Rabbit nor to hire the real-life Clint Eastwood to appear onscreen next to its knockoff Bruce Lee, so it only puts in the bare minimum effort for the audience to recognize those pop culture figures through their Spirit Halloween Store costuming. It directly acknowledges that visual discrepancy, though, with Bruce Lee’s unconvincing appearance as Bruce Leong being explained in a throwaway line about how when you die your face & body change in the afterlife. More importantly, the movie deploys classic Looney Tunes gags (like opponents being tickled mid-battle or a pistol firing a red flag instead of a bullet), joke needle drops for the Carl Douglas disco hit “Kung Fu Fighting,” and a credits-length spoof of the James Bond series’ iconic intros just to signal that nothing in the film should be taken too seriously (least of all Bruce Lee’s legacy). It’s almost less of a genuine artifact of Brucesploitation than it is a ZAZ-style spoof of the genre – just with a significantly less zany energy level. Besides, even if you did have a chip on your shoulder about the film’s careless handling of Bruce Lee’s legacy, you’ve already won the battle. Because of the film’s shaky-at-best rights issues, it’s currently only available in hideous, crudely cropped public domain transfers that frequently cut entire characters out of the frame while they’re talking. It’s already been banished to the hellish dregs of YouTube & PutoTV where only weirdos who are awake at 3am will stumble into it, perplexed– the only delirious, low-stakes state where this movie stands a chance to fully satisfy its audience anyway.

-Brandon Ledet

The End of Evangelion (1997)

As someone who only casually watches the most surface-level specimens of anime, I’m likely the least qualified person to register an opinion on Neon Genesis Evangelion. The show was a major reinvigorating boon for anime as an industry in the mid-90s and has maintained a strong cult following in America in the decades since, to the point where I remember at least 50% of all non-porn Tumblr posts being dedicated to the show’s meaning & legacy. I am one of the many, many Americans who didn’t bother seeking out Neon Genesis Evangelion until it became conveniently available to stream on Netflix earlier this year, though, running through all 26 of the episodes that fans have been obsessing over since the 90s in just a week’s time. It was a trip. The show starts off as a proto-Pacific Rim kaiju vs. mech suits action series, but then rapidly transforms into a psychedelic, philosophical crisis in which Humanity must escape the consequences of playing god by finding unexpected refuge in The Singularity. That is, if I understand even a tenth of what was happening in the defiantly convoluted & unconventionally structured story – an intricate web of conspiracy theories, flashbacks, Biblical references, and intense psychological breakdowns. It’s a show I should probably sit with over several years and a few rewatches before I speak on anything it’s attempting to accomplish, outside praising the artistry of its gorgeous, intricately detailed 2-D animation style. And yet, I still feel compelled to talk about a major aspect of the show’s legacy that I find outright fascinating: its ending(s).

The conclusion of Neon Genesis Evangelion is somehow even more difficult to parse out in words than the show’s perplexing premise. Most of the series details a government program that militarizes young children by psychologically linking them to organic mech suits to fight invading kaiju threats to their city. Mysteries about the government’s intent with the program, the origins of both the mech suits & the monsters, and the psychological effect of weaponizing children open the show up to sprawling obfuscation & subjective interpretations, but for the most part its story fits into a genre template we’ve become familiar with in the decades since its initial run. I was stunned, then, when the final two episodes in the series abandoned the mech suit program entirely to stage a psychedelic breaking down of each character’s individual identities, so that the world can be saved through reaching The Singularity rather than through battle. I loved this swerve. It reminded me a lot of the “How are you connected to yourself?” philosophical crises of Sion Sono’s Suicide Club, except interpreted through psychedelic animation instead of the gory payoffs of early-aughts J-horror. Apparently, contemporary fans of the show did not feel the same way. They complained violently, for years, that the series creator Hideaki Anno (who later directed the brilliant bureaucracy satire Shin Godzilla) ruined something truly special with this esoteric conclusion, to the point where they sent him death threats for the offense. Eventually, Hideaki Anno responded to this fandom bullying the way many modern pop culture creators find themselves doing these days: caving in to deliver more of the show, promising fans the ending they believed they deserved. Things only got weirder from there.

Reconstructing a proper ending for Neon Genesis Evangelion took two whole feature films to pull off. The first, titled Death & Rebirth, was mostly an incomprehensible editing room nightmare meant to refresh fans’ memory of the series arc in a glorified clip show. Anything new it added to series lore (besides a flimsy wraparound in which the weaponized children form a string quartet) has since been removed and added to the front end of the proper movie sequel The End of Evangelion – thanks to a series of revisions that’s too convoluted to be worth explaining. That puts all the weight of sending off Neon Genesis Evangelion with a fandom-satisfying ending on a single 90min feature film, which is structured as a three-episode arc of the show. What I love about The End of Evangelion in its final edit (at least the one that’s conveniently streaming on Netflix) is that it only pretends to play nice in satisfying the fandom for so long. The film rewinds the clock to before the Singularity experiments of the final two episodes (known as The Instrumentality Project in series lore) to provide a more linear, logical conclusion where the government base is under militaristic attack and each character gets a proper send-off in the fray (mostly through onscreen deaths). I initially hated this choice, as it seemed to be caving to fans’ demands entirely by reorienting the plot to be more of a conventional story of traditional character arcs rather than a grand philosophical statement on the nature of Existence. Then, with time, The End of Evangelion transforms into its own confounding monstrosity that’s just as bizarrely esoteric & inscrutable as the original conclusion to the show that pissed off fans in the first place. It’s the anime equivalent of an “Up high, down low, too slow!” prank, and I love it for that fandom-satisfying fake-out.

I don’t think it would be especially useful (or even possible) to describe what happens in The End of Evangelion here. If the series it’s wrapping up is to be understood as a warped, nightmarish Biblical allegory, this is certainly the Book of Revelations portion of the text. Images of The Rapture, in which characters pop like balloons or swell to the size of celestial gods, mix with Donald Hertzfeldtian animation that assaults the viewer in psychedelic mixed-media collage. It’s just as horny, grotesque, and stupefying as the best episodes of the show ever were, except that it’s now set free to melt down the confines of reality on a global scale, whereas the original ending of the show was more of an internalized crisis. What I love most about it, though, is how it resets the narrative of The Instrumentality Project only to ultimately reach the same conclusion: a psychedelic visual essay on humanity reaching The Singularity. The End of Evangelion calls for “Death to God, man, and all life so that we may become One.” I’m still not convinced that the movie sequels to the show ever needed to exist in the first place, but I greatly respect them for promising a more logical, linear result to the narrative only to backslide right into the same confounding breakdowns of reality, except now on a bigger scale. To make that prank on the fandom even more satisfying, Hideaki Anno even included images of the death-threat emails he received after the original finale as part of the multi-media collage. He might as well have appeared on camera himself to give his audience the finger.

Honestly, I wish more modern creators would have this openly hostile of a relationship with their own fandoms. Watching people like Rebecca Sugar, Rian Johnson, and the Game of Thrones dorks suffer nonstop hyperbolic complaints from the entitled brats they’re only trying to entertain has been insufferable in recent years, so it’s wonderful to look back to what Hideaki Anno­­ accomplished in The End of Evangelion as an anti-audience pushback. He pretended to cave into his most abusive fans’ demands of a “proper” conclusion to his series, only to double down in a grand, grotesque spectacle. I wish more creators could get away with letting their “fans” squirm this way. It’s just as much of a dying art as traditional animation (as evidenced by the fact that even Hideaki Anno­­ himself is working on more Neon Genesis Evangelion sequels as I type this, so that his own victory over his fans was somewhat short-lived).

-Brandon Ledet

Eraser (1996)

One of my all-time favorite movie subgenres is the The Internet is Trying to Kill Us thriller, in which mundane online user-interface tech is transformed into a horrific menace that’s aiming to destroy us all. The genre was still in its infancy in the mid-90s at a time when The Internet was just starting to invade our homes, which gave early specimens like The Net a growing-pains conundrum on how to translate online imagery & lingo into traditional studio thriller beats. As a result, that film spends a lot of time following Sandra Bullock around irl as baddies erase her identity online – a compromise between the cyberthriller and the traditional action film (as opposed to more recent, fully-immersed Internet Thrillers like Unfriended). Looking back on the Arnold Schwarzenegger action flick Eraser now, over two decades after its release, it’s a film that feels equally paranoid about the advancement of 90s computer tech and the flimsiness of personal identity in the Information Age as The Net, but it makes even less of an effort to translate that Luddite unease into new cinematic language. Eraser turns the fears surrounding computer tech’s intrusion into American homes into a villainous threat by manifesting it as a big scary future-gun. It’s the most direct, literal approach to the topic possible, and it’s charmingly boneheaded as a result.

The future-gun in Eraser doesn’t shoot bullets, but rather electromagnetic impulses. Its viewfinder display is designed like the sickly green MS DOS grids that decorated far too many cyberthrillers in the 90s, most notably The Matrix. Instead of merely offering the gun operator night vision, this feature allows them to see through walls & bodies like a digital X-ray machine. The gun is designed for military use (and, naturally, falls into the hands of international terrorists), but it’s almost exclusively deployed in domestic settings throughout the film. Characters who threaten to expose the government’s mishandling of the gun’s development and sale are shot at with “electromagnetic impulses” through the walls of their own homes in the Washington D.C. suburbs, so that computerized technology is literally invading their domestic spaces to destroy therm. Vanessa Williams stars as a military-weapons detractor who steals the designs for this future-gun on a miniature CDR, so she is pursued for the disc in the exact way Bullock is pursued for her own forbidden floppy disc in The Net. The only difference here is that Arnold Schwarzenegger is heroic for erasing her identity online as a way of protecting her as a witness. The tagline even boasts, “He will erase your past to protect your future.” Sill, the flimsiness of identity in the digital age is a premise the film banks on to hook the audience, and the film shares a lot of thematic & aesthetic preoccupations with The Net even if it replaces the ethereal qualities of The Internet with a physical “electromagnetic” gun.

Eraser only has one foot in the future of Internet Age techno thrillers. Everything about the film besides the future-gun and the erasure of online identity records is very much rooted in the familiar tropes & imagery of the Schwarzenegger action canon. The film opens with a suiting-up montage (one of many) where Arnold loads down his muscly body with superfluous weaponry. He dresses in almost the exact leather jacket outfits he already self-parodied himself for in The Last Action Hero four years prior. Every time he enters the frame he’s accompanied by guitar-solo theme music announcing his heroism. Most dialogue consists of 90s-era action movie one-liners as Schwarzenegger goes about the business of saving the world from terrorists & cyberguns, including the title-riffing quip “Smile. You’ve just been erased.” Within this familiar framework, Eraser can only stand out on the strength of its individual set pieces, of which ether are two absolute stunners: one where Arnie jumps out of an airplane without a parachute and one where he kills a room full of baddies by releasing CG alligators at the zoo. The gators sequence stuck with me in particular as a kid, being the only detail I vividly remembered about the film besides the cybergun. I was glad to confirm on revisit that the gator stunt is extensive, featuring far more CG chomping action than necessary to get its point across. If only they could’ve found a way to arm the gators with their own cyberguns to tie the sequence into the film’s larger themes of technophobia . . .

I wouldn’t vouch for Eraser’s excellence as an especially exceptional example of Arnold Schwarzenegger action cinema, nor as a clear early entry in the Evil Internet canon. The evil-clone movie The Sixth Day might even be a more calcified example of an Arnie film that directly engages with the technophobia of the early Internet Era. Still, there’s a kind of distinctly 90s anxiety about computerized technology invading suburban homes in Eraser that makes it just as fun of a dated watch as more explicitly Internet-dreading thrillers like The Net. Besides, it really does have some of the best gator-flavored mayhem you’re likely to see in a big budget action movie of its ilk, a novelty that cannot be undervalued.

-Brandon Ledet