The Kid Who Would Be King (2019)

A director couldn’t ask for a much more successful debut feature than the one Joe Cornish had with Attack the Block in 2011. Produced by nerd mascot Edgar Wright and introducing the world to future Star Wars lead John Boyega as a baby-faced teen, that small-budget creature feature has gradually transformed into a cult classic over the last eight years, drumming up a lot of anticipation for Cornish’s much-delayed follow-up. Of course, that kind of early success is a blessing and a curse, as it put a lot of pressure on Cornish’s sophomore effort to deliver something remarkable – an expectation it never truly lives up to. There’s nothing especially horrendous about Joe Cornish’s King Arthur modernization The Kid Who Would Be King. It’s occasionally charming & overall harmless, but also overlong & minor in a way that undercuts its potential. The excellence of Attack the Block weighs heavily on it in terms of expectation & anticipation, but also in highlighting how The Kid Who Would Be King underutilizes its urban London setting. We’ve seen Cornish stage an excellent modern fantasy horror in city streets before, so it’s hard to reconcile why he fails to repeat the formula on this second round.

Story-wise, there isn’t much deviation from the traditional Arthurian legend here besides the modern setting & the age of the players. After an opening illustration of the Arthurian template as told in a child’s picture book, we meet a pair of young, bullied kids who feel the weight of an increasingly grim world but are helpless against it. Newspapers declare “GLOOM,” “WAR,” “FEAR,” and “CRISIS” in bold headlines, and schoolyard bullies shake them down for chump change, recalling the curse of modern negativity that sets the table for Brad Bird’s Tomorrowland. Sensing that the world has become leaderless, heartless, and unprincipled, King Arthur’s long-dormant half-dragon/half-sister Morgana wakes from her underground brooding hole to attack London with her flaming skeleton army. It’s up to the bullied, gloomy kids (led by Andy Serkis’s offspring, Louis Ashbourne Serkis) to save London from serving Morgana as slaves in Hell, a destiny triggered by the discovery of a sword in a stone at a nearby construction site. A shapeshifting Merlin soon arrives to provide guidance & (much-needed) comic relief and the rest of the story essentially tells itself. The humor is cute but not hilarious. The action is decent but not spectacular. The modernization of Arthurian lore is consistent but not adventurous. The entire exercise is pleasantly executed, but not distinct enough to justify the effort of its sprawling runtime.

The inconsistency of The Kid Who Would be King’s success depends entirely on when it fully utilizes its urban London surroundings and when it gets lost in the rural wilderness. In the film’s best moments, kids slay demons on horseback in city streets & middle school hallways – action set pieces that fully realize the modernized Arthurian lore promised in the premise. The problem is that a large portion of the film wanders far away from the city and often feels like any other fantasy epic from the last forty years of cinema – just one with a modern budget & kids’ film sensibilities. Patrick Stewart is even featured in a recurring cameo as one of Merlin’s many forms, directly referencing the 1981 feature Excalibur, a cornerstone of the genre. The Kid Who Would Be King also shoots itself in the foot by namechecking the protagonists of more successful modernized fantasy genre exercises like Luke Skywalker, Harry Potter, and Percy Jackson (or, in the bullies’ parlance and one of the film’s only successful one-liners, Percy Jockstrap), each of which did a much more convincing job bringing ancient fantasy elements to the city streets instead of the other way around. That’s not even to mention the more low-budget, artsy-fartsy examples the film could have emulated like A Monster Calls, I Kill Giants, and appropriately enough, Attack the Block. Too much of The Kid Who Would Be King loses sight of the modern, urban allure of its premise and drifts hundreds of miles away from London streets – and every minute wasted in that wilderness is a bore.

I can’t come down on this movie too harshly. There’s plenty of minor pleasures to enjoy throughout, even if those flashes of joy are buried under a lumbering runtime. Angus Imrie is adorable as the teenage version of Merlin and feels like the arrival of a fresh comic presence. The synthy score provided by Electric Wave Bureau recalls the golden age of 80s fantasy cheese of films like Ladyhawke & Legend in just the right way. I’ll even admit that the inherent Britishness of Arthurian lore and the unfair expectation set by the excellence of Attack the Block might have been preventing me from enjoying what’s ultimately a harmless, competently staged children’s adventure film. Still, I was outright bored by any sequence that took place outside the streets of London, which made up for an alarming portion of a film that did not need to be two hours long to begin with. The benefit of retelling stories like The King Arthur legend is that audiences are already familiar with the template, which frees you up to play with the details. If you only modernize the story halfway, you can only expect the result to be halfway interesting, and we’ve already seen Joe Cornish achieve something much more substantial than that with a comparable setting & budget.

-Brandon Ledet

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Bumblebee (2018)

It is exceedingly rare for me to ever abandon a movie-watching project. I will occasionally drag my feet on some of my more daunting endeavors (for instance, it’s been five months since my last entry in my eternally ongoing Roger Ebert Film School series), but fully abandoning something once I’ve started is against my character as a self-flagellating completist. There is one major exception I can think of that contradicts this personal ethos, however: Michael Bay’s Transformers series. After catching a brief glimpse of a giant robot fighting a robo-dinosaur with an enormous sword (or some such exciting frivolity) in the trailer for a late-franchise sequel to Michael Bay’s Transformers, I decided to run through all five films in the series to see what I had been “missing out” on. I abandoned the project after just one movie, genuinely unable to continue. Between the soul-deadening CGI action, Shia LaBeouf’s “Ain’t I a stinker?” mugging, and the endless shots of Michael Bay drooling over Megan Fox’s exposed midriff, the 2007 film Transformers defeated me like no other cinematic monstrosity I can recall. I’m recounting this here to explain why the spin-off Bumblebee is such an unfathomably effective rehabilitation for the Transformers series. I can’t think of a big-budget franchise with a more drastic tonal turnaround that this wholesome, adorable spin-off to a series previously defined by broad, obnoxious machismo & cynical commercialism. I went into Bumblebee defeated by & disgusted with the Transformers; I left wanting to adopt one as a pet & a bestie.

A major factor of this turnaround is the change in creative voices in front of & behind the camera. Michael Bay is still writing (and cashing) checks as a producer on Bumblebee, but directing duties have been passed off to Laika mastermind Travis Knight, whose previous film Kubo and the Two Strings was one of Swampflix’s favorite movies of 2016. Knight’s expertise in animated storytelling is extremely useful in the CGI action sequences of the Transformers brand. The complexity of a sentient robot unfolding & rearranging its various parts to reassemble as a common automobile in these movies is usually sidestepped by making the visual display so bewildering that it’s impossible to coherently nitpick (or even observe) what’s on display. Not only does Knight clear up this visual clutter (once described as a “Cubist” use of CGI by an overzealous critic) with a clarity & simplicity in Bumblebee‘s action sequences; he also enhances them with the heartfelt emotional core that informs Laika’s consistently endearing output. That shift from horny leering & macho fist-pumping to genuine emotional investment in the film’s characters is likely also somewhat due to something never before seen in the Transformers franchise: a female screenwriter, Christina Hodson. Between Hodson’s writing & Knight’s emotive eye, Bumblebee doesn’t even take the time to salivate over the young, exposed body of its main female character (a teenage loner played by The Edge of Seventeen‘s Hailee Steinfeld). That’s a depressingly low bar to clear, but given Transformers‘s track record it’s remarkable all the same. Bumblebee even goes a step further by making that female character the POV-commanding protagonist, so that we care about her thoughts, her emotions, and her personal growth. Go figure.

Steinfeld stars in Bumblebee as an amateur car mechanic in 1980s California whose hobbies include working on a half-finished sports car her father left behind when he passed away & brooding alone to The Smiths instead of engaging with her surviving family. This teenage-brooding crisis turns around when she discovers and fixes up a VW Beetle abandoned in her uncle’s junkyard. What she doesn’t know (but the audience does) is that the Beetle in question is actually an alien transforming robo-species from a distant planet who is damaged & scared. This mismatched pair, the alien robot & the teenage mechanic who adopts it, teach each other strength, confidence, and familial love in a relatively small, contained story that happens to also include a bloodthirsty Cold War American government & a warring alien robo-species who want nothing but to tear them apart & destroy them. The story that unfolds from there is heavily informed by 80s & 90s kids’ movies clichés: resentment over a single-parent’s ability to move on; the big bad government’s stubborn insistence on destroying an adorable creature it doesn’t understand; the same-old 80s high school bully archetypes we’ve seen echoed & parodied into oblivion over the decades, etc. It’s a nostalgic 80s lens that naturally derives from the film’s Spielbergian schmaltz in its story about an E.T.-esque naive creature who needs help from an Earth child to find strength & find a path home. It’s a template that’s been repeated in titles as beloved as The Iron Giant & as lowly as Monster Trucks because, on a basic level, it just works. Even without this franchise’s origins as an adaptation of 80s Hasbro action figures, Bumblebee’s indulgence in 1980s Spielbergian nostalgia (along with tossed-off references to pop culture touchstones like Alf & The Breakfast Club) would still be more than justified, as it’s reinforced with a surprisingly genuine emotional core.

There are plenty of smaller details to praise about Bumblebee: John Cena’s turn as the broad The Marine-esque villain, the endearingly playful 80s pop soundtrack, the oversized emotions conveyed by the titular robot’s gigantic anime eyes, etc. Mostly, though, this film is remarkable for finding such an adorable & heartfelt angle on something that was initially so obnoxiously nasty it appeared fundamentally flawed & irredeemable. When Bumblebee crash-lands into this wholesome 80s kids’ adventure movie from his home planet, it feels like he’s fleeing the intergalactic clutches of Michael Bay’s libido & garishly rendered CGI. We’re as lucky to have him as the teenage loner who discovers him & fixes him up. It’s just too bad we can’t also hug him through the screen ourselves to show proper thanks.

-Brandon Ledet

Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse (2018)

In the abstract, the concept of a 2010s CG animation Spider-Man origin story sounds dreadful. In practice, prankster screenwriter Phil Lord explodes the concept into a wild cosmic comedy by making a movie about the world’s over-abundance of Spider-Man origin stories (and about the art of CG animation at large). Into the Spider-Verse is a shockingly imaginative, beautiful, and hilarious take on a story & medium combo that should be a total drag, but instead is bursting with energetic life & psychedelic creativity. I wouldn’t believe it myself if I hadn’t seen the feat achieved onscreen with my own two eyes – which are still sore from the vibrant, hyperactive swirl of interdimensional colors & spider-people that assaulted them in gloriously uninhibited 3D animation.

Even if Into-the Spider-Verse had stuck to a single, straightforward Spider-Man origin story, it chose the exact one that could have kept the formula fresh for a modern audience. Afro-Latino teen dweeb Miles Morales is a welcome deviation in representation from the countless white-boy Peter Parkers who have swung across the screen over the years. Miles inhabits a hip-hop centric version of NYC that’s largely missing from the rest of the Spider-Man canon- represented in graffiti bombing, boomboxes, earbuds blaring legitimate radio-rap tunes, and a social pressure to code-switch when attending a predominately white school for the gifted. It’s a refreshing perspective for a Spider-Man universe NYC . . . until the obligatory machinations of the Spider-Man origin story take over the plot. When Miles is bitten by a radioactive spider, the audience has an all-too-clear idea of where his story will & should go as he transforms into an unlikely, geeky superhero. Except, Phil Lord immediately dislodges this story from that well-established groove to chase something much more unpredictable & self-aware.

Two distinct narrative deviations disrupt the typical Spider-Man origin story trajectory once Miles is bitten by that spider. First, he becomes aware that he’s living in a comic book. His inner thoughts become deafening narration he cannot escape, and his world is suddenly contained in Ben Day Dots and sectioned-off panels. Second, he becomes aware that his is not the only Spider-Man comic book. In fact, there are countless variations on the Spider-Man origin story that exist in a vast multiverse that begins to perilously overlap with his own. These variations include novelty spider-people like Spider-Man Noir (Nic Cage) & Spider-Ham (John Mulaney), whose outlandishness could not be further from Miles’s grounded hip-hop version of reality. Miles’s first-act run-in with a radioactive spider (and subsequent heartbreak with the tragic death of a family member) may be as consistent with Spider-Man lore as the NYC setting, but the comic book environments & quest to reconstruct the multiverse in proper order that result form that bite feel wildly imaginative for the material.

Those comic book environments & psychedelic multiverse overlaps do more than just open the Spider-Man origin story to exiting new avenues; they also allow for experimentation in CG animation that feels like a huge creative breakthrough for the medium. Where most modern animation pictures feel flat & unimaginative in their design, Spider-Verse is overflowing with ideas. The Ben Day Dots, panel divisions, and deliberately off-set screen-printing effect of its comic book design afford it a distinctly retro visual style, one enhanced by the claymation effect of its off-kilter frame rate. The endless possibilities of its collapsing multiverse also invite a total surreal meltdown of psychedelic colors & shapes, transforming Miles’s grounded NYC into a melted-candy nightmare. I usually dread CG animated kids’ movies even more than I dread the latest needless reboot of Spider-Man. Both of those well-worn mediums subverted & exploded my expectations for what they could achieve in this out-of-nowhere visual stunner, often multiple times in a single scene.

The only arena in which Into the Spider-Verse falls a little short is in eliciting a genuine emotional response for Miles’s journey from geek to hero. It’s a little difficult to lose yourself in his story when the visual language of the film is so (literally) flashy, and when other Spider-Men are on-hand to make self-aware, Deadpool-lite references to things like the character having “an excellent theme song & a so-so popsicle.” Every time a new, outlandish spider-person appears to announce, “Let’s start from the beginning one last time,” it’s an amusing joke at the expense of the character’s endless parade of reboots. However, by extension that also means it’s at the expense of Miles Morales, who likely deserved to have a straight-forward, gimmick-free Spider-Man origin story more than any other version of the character we’ve seen in the countless live action adaptations before him—one that’s likely to never arrive now.

The most emotional I got in Into the Spider-Verse was in an end-credits acknowledgement of the character’s creators – Steve Ditko & Stan Lee, who both died last year. Whether or not its boundless creativity left room for genuine pathos, Into the Spider-Verse feels like as perfect of an encapsulation of everything that collaboration inspired as you’ll ever see – both in its scramble to gather every variation of the character it can and in its vivid graphic artistry. I went into Spider-Verse expecting a humorous, satisfactory reboot of a character who’s been through the ringer too many times to yield any true surprises. I was frequently surprised and more than merely satisfied by the psychedelic, playfully meta spectacle that unfolded, then imploded before me instead. By the end of the film I could only cite one unturned stone that felt like a true missed opportunity, and then that exact gag ended up being a standalone scene after the end credits. The movie is that good.

-Brandon Ledet

Venom (2018)

The latest cinematic dispatch from the Spider-Verse, Venom, is paradoxically one of the blandest superhero movies of the year and one of the year’s best comedies. These two conflicting modes mix like water & oil, with at least the first half hour of the film treading water as a C-grade superhero origin story before it then mutates into an A+ slapstick body-horror comedy. If those two halves arrived in reverse order, it’d be understandable to walk away from Venom dejected & exhausted, feeling as if you’d finally been ground into dust by the oft-cited affliction of superhero fatigue, maintaining no interest in the future of the genre. As is, the resulting effect is much more enjoyably bizarre. The origin story doldrums of Venom’s first hour lull you into a false complacency. The film’s macho leather-and-guitar-riffs aesthetic feels like it’s been rotting in stasis on the big screen at least since the gritty genre cinema that arrived in the wake of The Dark Knight a decade ago. Then, once its sci-fi body horror hijinks finally get started, it transforms into something much goofier, much rarer, and (most surprisingly) much queerer than what we’ve come to expect from mainstream superhero blockbusters. It arrives cumbersome, but it leaves you in a great mood.

Tom Hardy stars in Venom as Eddie Brock, an unemployed loser who once worked for a VICE News-type media outlet before ruining his engagement to Michelle Williams by incurring the wrath of an Elon Musk-type (Riz Ahmed) with a boneheaded act of gotcha journalism. I could recount in mundane detail how Eddie’s feud with Not Elon Musk results in him gaining superpowers through a parasitic alien creature (named Venom) that effectively snatches his body & causes city-wide havoc, but it’s those exact origin story checkpoints that risk tanking the entire film’s entertainment value in familiar, leaden plot machinery. That’s not really what’s important about Venom; what matters here is how fully committed Tom Hardy is to the role once the parasite (or, in the movie’s parlance, “symbiote”) infects his body and the movie decides to become fun. Hardy gives a downright Nic Cagian performance in Venom, dialing the intensity to a constant 11 in a movie where everything else is set to a comfortable 7. Hardy sweats, pukes, gnaws on live crustaceans, and rants at top volume throughout Venom as if he were in a modern big-budget remake of an 80s Henenlotter body-horror comedy instead of a run-of-the-mill superhero picture. He singlehandedly elevates the movie through stubborn force of will; it’s a performance that demands awe and rewards it with increasingly grotesque, uncomfortable laughs.

The only aspect of Venom that matches the absurdly committed, manic-comic energy of Hardy’s physical performance in his own vocal work as the titular space alien symbiote, who he banters with telepathically throughout the movie (once it gets fun, anyway). Venom’s voice falls somewhere between Scooby-Doo, Audrey II, and Tim Curry’s performance as Hexxus (the toxic ooze from FernGully), so it’s a blessing upon us all that the film does not ask you to take the voice seriously. When Venom and his fellow space alien symbiotes ooze around the ground as sentient collections of grotesque, black goo, they’re appropriately horrific. As a voice in Eddie’s head, however, Venom is a laugh riot. He admits to Eddie, “I’m kind of a loser on my planet,” so it makes sense that all his menacing threats come across as embarrassingly dorky, such as when he promises to rip off a criminal’s limbs so that they roll around “like a turd in the wind.” He’s also got a Scooby-Doo appetite to match the voice, driving Eddie to eat straight-up trash & copious amounts of tater tots (always frozen or burnt, never the proper temperature). Their relationship as parasite & host even becomes oddly sweet, if not outright romantic, over the course of the picture – with Venom inventing an elaborate scheme to win Eddie back after a passionate separation by making out with him through Michelle Williams’s surrogate. Hardy does an excellent job of portraying both losers – Eddie & Venom – as separate, distinct goofballs who often share one absurd body so that neither is ever alone again. It’d almost be beautiful if it weren’t so goddamn silly.

Full disclosure: there was already a comedic body-horror this year where a Tom Hardy type (Logan Marshall-Green) transformed into a superhero via an implanted sci-fi parasite that telepathically struck up humorous banter with its host and helped them wage war on an Elon Musk archetype. Upgrade is a smarter, grittier, more satirically pointed version of Venom, a superior film on every count. Still, and this pains me to admit, Venom’s highs are much funnier. It’s a Herculean task on Tom Hardy’s part that this otherwise drab, by-the-numbers superhero pic is even watchable, but his dual performance as Venom & Eddie is so weirdly, consistently funny that the movie achieves legitimate comedic greatness once it gets its genre requirements out of the way. The back half of Venom is so thoroughly absurd that the grim, guitar-riffing machismo of the first half almost plays like parody in retrospect. Upgrade wastes no time getting into the comedic genre payoffs of its premise and is one of the best films of the year for it. Still, the surprise of the delayed buffoonery of Venom almost bests that film in genuine laughs, likely because there’s so much tension built up & relieved in the contrast between its warring halves. It’s a dumb, misshapen, big-budget beast that doesn’t deserve to be half as entertaining as Tom Hardy makes it. Yet, it would fit just as well on any midnight-movie docket as Upgrade would, even with frozen tater tots as a built-in, themed snack that could be thrown at the screen Rocky Horror style in drunken excess. It just requires a little patience before those bizarre, comedic payoffs arrive.

-Brandon Ledet

 

The Predator (2018)

Everything about The Predator makes it sound like it’s exactly My Thing. Director Shane Black’s most recent feature, The Nice Guys, is one of my favorite comedies in recent memory. His 1987 collaboration with screenwriter Frank Dekker, The Monster Squad, was a personally formative introduction to classic horror tropes & monsters for me as a young child. The original Predator film (in which Black appeared as an actor in a minor role) isn’t exactly my favorite Arnold Schwarzenegger classic, but is still a wonderfully tense, over-the-top sci-fi creature feature with an incredible monster design. Black’s latest sequel to that action-horror milestone even participates in a suburban-invasion monster movie trope that I’m always a sucker for, making me far more forgiving than most audiences for little-loved films like The Lost World: Jurassic Park, Strange Invaders, and even Alien vs. Predator: Requiem. That’s why it’s so baffling that The Predator is likely the worst experience I’ve had with a movie all year, a total letdown.

After the laugh-a-minute slapstick violence of The Nice Guys, the last thing I expected from The Predator was to relive my discomfort watching the Deadpool movies. The same performatively #edgy, coldly sarcastic, Gen-X throwback humor that makes Deadpool so exhaustingly unfunny is rampant here, with Black & Dekker indulging in their worst impulses as provocateur humorists who believe they’re pushing the envelope of Political Incorrectness but at this point are only reinforcing the status quo. The difference is that watching Deadpool with a live audience is an alienating experience where everyone in the room Gets The Joke but you, whereas The Predator’s humor falls flat with the entire room. Jokes about “Assburgers,” Tourette’s, “loonies,” and men named Gaylord play to laughless, stony silence. An extensive bit where Olivia Munn must strip naked to escape death is only made more uncomfortable by extratextual reports of the actor’s anger over been tricked into working with an undisclosed sexual predator in the cast (in a since-deleted scene). The problem isn’t that this style of juvenile shock humor is too offensive or tasteless to be enjoyed in public. It’s that it has become so old-fashioned that it’s too hacky to be funny.

A UFO crashes, releasing a Predator at the edge of the suburbs. The government attempts to cover it up. Escaped mental patients feebly attempt to kill it. A precocious child (played by Jacob Tremblay, who might need the talent agent equivalent of Child Protective Services at this point of his career) saves the day through his autistic superbrain. It’s all wacky, disconnected nonsense barely edited together with any sense of linear coherence in service of franchise-minded worldbuilding. Some of the franchise set-up is admittedly fun – namely in the film’s conceit that the Predators are intergalactic travelers that purposefully merge their DNA with various species, leading to hybrid specimens like dog-Predators & gigantic mega-Predators. Mostly, though, it makes The Predator feel like an inconsequential episode in a franchise looking to reinvigorate itself for future follow-ups. In true Deadpool fashion, Black & Dekker even joke about that franchise-wide storytelling style in the dialogue, having a government goon explain that the Predators have arrived on Earth before in ’87 & ’97, “but lately visits have been increasing in frequency,” a blatant dig at projects like the Alien vs. Predator crossovers and 2011’s (totally fine, but mostly forgotten) Predators. The problem is, though, that like most of the film’s humor, the joke falls flat and only serves to question what we’re even doing here, why we’re even bothering – both as creators and as audience.

Not everything about The Predator is horrendous. Olivia Munn & Trevante Rhodes mostly escape with their reputations intact. Sterling K Brown is, despite the material, genuinely fun to watch as a scenery-gnawing government goon, making even the emptiest phrases like “Fuck yeah,” land with surprisingly satisfying humor. Jacob Tremblay & Keegan-Michael Key fare the worst, but can’t be blamed for the idiocy they were employed to recite, dialogue where phrases like “Shut the fuck up!” are considered the pinnacle of verbal quipping. Some of that failed humor is softened by the cheap-thrills payoffs of the film’s hard-R gore & creature feature delights, which are admirably dedicated to practical effects. Speaking as a shameless gore hound & a lover of over-the-top monster movies, though, there’s no amount of practical splatter or space alien badassery that can fully cover up the stink of a comedy that fails this disastrously to be funny. The jokes are plentiful here, but plenty unamusing – sucking all of the fun out of the room with each #edgy punchline. There have likely been worse releases this year, but none I would have seen on purpose, none with this amount of unfulfilled promise.

-Brandon Ledet

Fuck, Marry, Kill – Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018)

The general, perhaps hyperbolic consensus about Mission: Impossible – Fallout is that it’s the best action blockbuster to hit the big screen since Mad Max: Fury Road. The two films don’t seem to have much in common beyond being late-in-the-franchise sequels that shrewdly exploit the basic thrills of their shared genre by stringing together a nonstop onslaught of chase sequences through extravagant set pieces. However, they are two pictures that the Swampflix crew was a little too late to the table to add anything substantial to in our coverage. Mission: Impossible – Fallout is a great action pic, matching even its predecessor Rogue Nation as one of the best entries in the franchise. As the film was initially released well over a month ago, however, you’ve likely already heard variations of that praise ad nauseam, so instead of properly reviewing the film we’re attempting to avoid excessive critical redundancy by having some late-summer fun objectifying the film’s Hollywood-handsome cast. The series-arcing plot of Mission: Impossible is effectively resettable & amnesia-inducing from film to film; its stunts are technically impressive, but like all amusement park rides are more fun in experience than in description or critique. The only questions we can answer here, then, are which hunky members of the cast we would fuck, which we would marry, and which we would kill.

Brandon

Fuck Henry Cavill – This choice seems self-explanatory to me. Henry Cavill looks like he crawled directly out of a Tom of Finland illustration in this picture; he’s just oozing sex. This is easily the most fun he’s been to watch on-screen since The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (my non-apologies to DCEU die-hards who found a way to look past his digitally “removed” mustache in Justice League to see his true inner hunk), but I doubt he’s ever looked sexier, even in U.N.C.L.E.’s swanky 60s garb. Mustachioed meathead brute is a great look for him, one that turns even the nastier close-quarters fist fights into a homoerotic pleasure.

Marry Ving Rhames – This also seems obvious to me, as Rhames is already costumed like your middle-age husband, ready to barbeque a backyard meal while you & The Kids enjoy a swim. Beyond his Cuban button-ups & Target-brand brimmed hats, he’s also the most sensitive member of Ethan Hunt’s crew, shedding a giant man-love tear for his boss/bestie in one of the film’s defining dramatic moments. Rhames is an adorable middle-age teddy bear in Fallout, which promises a more long-lasting love than what Cavill’s mustachioed fuck-monster can likely offer.

Kill Tom Cruise – In deciding who to kill, I think you have to look past what these Hollywood Hunks are offering onscreen here to examine what they’re doing beyond the scenes. Not only is Tom Cruise a high-level operator of a dangerous global cult, but he’s also risking his life with each Mission: Impossible entry by performing a large percentage of his own increasingly dangerous stunts. It’s highly likely that the real-life Tom Cruise is going to die trying to distract his audience from his key role in Scientology through these over-the-top, life-risking stunts, so he might as well be sacrificed to the hypothetical consequences of this frivolous game. If you need that choice to be justified by the text of Fallout, consider that the film asks you to choose sides against anti-institutional anarchists in the favor of international government agents with free reign to interpret & execute the law, most significantly represented by Cruise as Ethan Hunt. It’s a political philosophy that’s tolerable enough in-film, but ultimately ACAB, so Cruise must die no matter the context.

CC

Fuck Henry Cavill – I mean, pretty much everything Brandon says. It’s not quite a full-blown fetish, but I definitely give extra (sexual) points to a man with a decent mustache*. In a Fuck/Marry/Kill scenario, who wouldn’t take the chance to shag a real-life Tom of Finland illustration?

*The pencil-thin pervert’s mustache and the thick-boi Henry Cavill-style mustache are the only two acceptable styles, however. Walruses, Fu Manchus, and handlebars need not apply.

Marry Simon Peg – He seems like a guy who is good with gadgets and can do a large portion of household maintenance. Even though he’s useless in a fight and lacks the raw sex appeal of pretty much every other guy in this film (background extras included), he seems like he’d be open to some pretty kinky stuff. At the end of the day, a useful pervert is more my speed than a sex idiot (even if it is King Sex Idiot).

Kill Tom Cruise (after fucking him too) – Oh yeah, I’d definitely kill Tom Cruise, but, like, there’s no sense wasting the opportunity to have sex with an ageless cult leader/god. Who knows, maybe magic is real? Let’s be optimistic during the impending End Times.

Adopt Ving Rhames – Ving Rhames and the character he plays in Mission: Impossible both seem like guys who LOVE their mama. I’ve never experienced that level of truly unconditional love and I feel like the intensity of its pure, wholesome light would burn a hole right through my soul – worth it, both for the release from the inescapable ennui of modern life and for how cozy & warm it sounds.

Start a book (wine) club with Michelle Monaghan & Rebecca Ferguson – In the Mission: Impossible movies, these ladies have to put up with so much shit from the men around them. Patriarchy, am I right? Even though one plays a human rights activist/medical doctor, the other plays a super spy, and both are real-life (probably?) wealthy, semi-famous white actresses, I still feel like we’d all have a lot to gab about, like how Henry Cavill is the raw-steak-eaten-while-still-warm-from-the-animal of men and Tom Cruise is a pretty lie we have chosen to believe for far too long. But to make sure we still pass the Bechdel Test when we’re not discussing the Patriarchy, we’d also have books, wine, and the never-ending depths of our existential despair to consider.

-Brandon Ledet & CC Chapman

A Touch of Zen (1971)

I’m not the most patient of audiences; while I may be impressed by the technical achievements of a three-hour epic from a David Lean or Stanley Kubrick or Andrei Tarkovsky, it’s unlikely that type of grand-scale exhibition of auteurist hubris will ever fully steal my heart. My favorite films are often low-budget, D.I.Y. outsider art projects that could comfortably fit on a drive-in double bill, less than half the length of what anyone would considered an epic. That impatience keeps me at a fearsome distance from the wuxia genre, a subset of martial arts cinema that adapts action movie payoffs to Chinese historical epic narratives. Until recently, I’d only ever seen the Hollywood bastardizations of the wuxia aesthetic that arrived in the early 2000s: Hero & Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Crouching Tiger was the more transcendently beautiful of the pair, but Hero was much closer to a speed I could easily keep up with in my hyperactive, cheap thrills-craving mind. What I didn’t realize at the time is that the goofier, trashier genre payoffs of Hero were not at all uncommon with the classic Chinese wuxia epics that preceded it. Wuxia films can be long, reflective, and overly patient, but they can also be wildly goofy in their isolated genre thrills. I recently took a rare opportunity to see one of the defining films of the genre, King Hu’s 200min epic A Touch of Zen, in digital restoration on the big screen and was surprised to discover how much over-the-top, delirious fun it was willing to have with its martial arts payoffs, as patiently as they arrived. A Touch of Zen was basically the goofiness of Hero at the austere pace of Crouching Tiger, giving me a much better understanding of what the wuxia genre can offer, as long as you’re willing to afford it over three hours’ running time.

Oddly, my impatience with A Touch of Zen mostly manifested in its first hour, which is largely expository & action-free. The opening beats of the film are a slow-motion sinking into Nature, patiently observing the mountainside greenery & nighttime spiderwebs of Japanese provinces in an establishment of the film’s upcoming dichotomy in settings. This Nature photography serves as the film’s overture (there would be no intermission, unfortunately), the exact kind of mood-setter you’d typically expect from an overlong epic. The story it serves is an episodic journey that begins with a small-town artist living frugally with his overbearing mother in an abandoned temple. With no ambitions outside painting portraits & surviving the ghosts he’s superstitious of in their spooky squat, he dodges all pressures from his mother to marry & to become a respectable government bureaucrat. This changes with the arrival of a mysterious woman who takes residence in a neighboring squat, whom he initially mistakes for a ghost before taking her as a lover. The woman proves to be a fugitive from the Empire who, while in hiding, builds a small militia of martial arts masters to challenge the tyranny of encroaching government goons. In a gender-reversal of the typical damsel in distress dichotomy, she protects the artist from Empirical harm as their affair puts him at risk, fighting off entire armies with her physics-defying fighting skills while he cowers in awe. The affair eventually drags the artist away from the comfort of his “haunted” squat into a treacherous, spiritual journey in the wild mountainside terrain. The resulting battles are shockingly violent, spiritually transcendent, and often unashamedly silly, but require a patience with a quiet, darkly lit exposition that nearly constitutes the typical runtime of the smaller-scale genre gems I’m more used to watching. It’s the kind of slow-moving pleasure that’s greatly benefited by being experienced in the distraction-free environment of a theatrical screening; I just didn’t expect that its first act would be the most difficult to remain awake for.

A Touch of Zen is most impressive for its extravagant set pieces. Like the two most recent American action films to receive near-unanimous critical praise, Mission: Impossible – Fallout & Mad Max: Fury Road, the film is for the most part an episodic sequence of successive set pieces; it just happens to start with an hour of pre-action exposition that affords it the shape of a historical epic. The same gravity-defying, physics-transcending martial arts spectacle that’s become synonymous with the wuxia genre because of Crouching Tiger (at least in America) is on full display in A Touch of Zen. Warriors hop over roofs & take their swordfights to the impossible heights of treetops, lightly traveling across flimsy branches that could not support their weight short of an act of magic. The two most remarkable set pieces are an elaborate haunted house-themed prank involving mannequins & a cliffside confrontation with monks who can trigger forced enlightenment in their opponents with a strike to the skull. In isolation, they’re beautiful, admirably humorous achievements in pure cinema bliss. The question is whether they fully serve the needs of a larger epic when considered in sequence, of which I’m not so convinced. I’m always going to be on the hook for a story about a badass female warrior who takes on an entire empirical government, as ACAB. When considered as a whole, however, the sequencing of A Touch of Zen’s set pieces doesn’t appear to achieve a clear, fully satisfied narrative arc, but rather feels like a couple isolated pages torn from a much longer book. That’s a lot to ask for a film with a 200min runtime, no matter how occasionally transcendent. Maybe a greater familiarity with Chinese history referenced in the film would reshape how I think about how the episodic set pieces come together as a whole. As a trash-gobbling genre film enthusiast with an embarrassingly short attention span, however, I found the film’s payoffs to be a little too spread out & mired in mood-setting Nature photography to full convince me that I need to sink further into the niche cinema of wuxia epics. The film did initiate me to the full beauty & unashamed goofiness that the genre is capable of in a way I wasn’t previously aware, which is almost enough to convince me to push through my childish impatience to pursue this subject further.

-Brandon Ledet

Red Heat (1988)

Every year for my birthday I treat myself to a movie starring Arnold Schwarzenegger, the greatest action star who ever lived. Along with Arnie’s award-winning physique and willingness to commit, I’ve always appreciated that he approached his action roles with a cartoonish sense of humor, often using the emotionless affect of his thick Austrian accent to deliver over-written one-liners in pitch-perfect deadpan. Because I’m watching these movies in self-indulgent celebration, I often choose pictures with a deliberately comedic bent: Twins, Junior, The Last Action Hero, etc. That’s likely why my expectations of this year’s indulgence, Red Heat, were way off from the tone of the actual picture, which steers away from Arnold’s deadpan goofball humor to achieve something much nastier & less fun than his usual mode. With a premise that pairs Arnold as a Soviet Moscow police officer with Jim Belushi’s red-blooded Chicago Cop, I expected Red Heat to be a fish-out-of-water buddy cop comedy along the lines of a Rush Hour, or at least a Lethal Weapon. Admittedly, there are a couple stray moments of that buddy cop action humor spread throughout Red Heat. For instance, when Arnold’s Soviet officer first arrives at his shitty Chicago hotel, he slips a quarter into a coin-operated television only for porn to appear on the screen. He shakes head in disgust and mutters in his traditional deadpan, “Capitalism.” For the most part, though, Red Heat trades in Arnold’s usual deadpan humor for a much more straightforward slice of jingoistic Cold War action schlock than what I knew to expect.

What Red Heat lacks in comic relief, it more than makes up for in shameless brutality & sleaze. Cult genre director Walter Hill (The Warriors, Streets of Fire, The Driver) brings his usual knack for style-over-taste schlock cinema sensibilities to what could have just as easily been a Shane Black-style yuck-em-up. There’s a novelty to that tonal shift, especially if you’ve seen one too many tough-guy Arnold performances before; you just have to know to expect it. The film sets the table early on for the cold, brutal sleaze it’s going to deliver throughout with a Moscow-set fight scene in a public sauna. A lurid exercise in culture-gazing, Hill shoots the scene with immense interest in the Soviet comrade’s mixed-gender nudity in the sauna, fixated particularly on Arnold’s naked ass & all nearby tits. This sexual leering quickly erupts into a violent display as Arnold attacks some drug dealing baddies, smashing them through windows into the cold Northern snow. There’s a vicious, mostly naked fistfight against that snow-white backdrop, followed by a second location shootout that leaves multiple cops dead and a drug kingpin on the run to Chicago. Arnold is tasked to escort the drug dealer back to Moscow for trial, paired with Belushi’s street-wise Chicago cop to keep tabs on his collateral damage. That chaperone duty is all for naught; a blood-soaked trail of bullet-riddled bodies is left behind in Arnold’s wake as he fights his way towards a violent showdown involving Greyhound buses at the film’s climax. There’s also a McGuffin locker key that the two factions fight for possession of throughout, but it’s an object that could easily be circumvented with a crowbar & some elbow grease. The real prize this film is chasing is cheap sex & cold-blooded violence.

Although Red Heat is not a buddy cop comedy, it does extensively play with the tropes of one, almost to the point of subversion. Belushi plays the Rob Schneider to Arnold’s Sly Stallone, functioning as the useless, wiseass sidekick no one finds especially funny. It’s difficult to gauge, but it seems the movie doesn’t find him amusing either, often playing his jokes & general demeanor as macho grotesqueries. Belushi is introduced ogling sex workers form the distant safety of his squad car, to his coworkers’ vocal disgust. He commences to hit on every woman in his path with all the charm of your average misogynist slob, only for every flirtation to be immediately shut down with fervor. When he sexually harasses a citizen on the street with a slimy “How ya doin’?,” she immediately retorts, “Blow yourself,” which the movie posits as a reasonable response. This macho blowhard caricature is in direct opposition to Arnold’s stand-up professional gentlemen of a Soviet officer who, despite having the same depth of humanity as his performance in the original The Terminator, is the film’s de facto protagonist. It’s difficult to tell how much of this cultural reversal was intended by Hill, but Red Heat often portrays Arnold’s Soviet, straight-laced demeanor as being much more palatable than Belushi’s sleaze-ball American counterpart. Then again, there’s a villainous crossdressing gag in the film that feels like an early warning shot for Hill’s most recent, flagrantly transphobic film (Re)Assignment, so I may be reading the film’s politics the wrong way. Either this is a total anomaly in the Cold War action cheapie genre in the way it contrasts Soviet & American sensibilities or my own POV is so far outside Hill’s eternal sleaze that I saw a comic relief character he meant to be charming as an irredeemable scumbag on my own volition. I know which scenario is more likely, but I also know that I found Arnold’s character vastly more tolerable than Belushi’s.

Outside the Walter Hill-level brutality of its violence, there’s nothing especially significant about Red Heat as an action cheapie. Any interest I had in its subversions of buddy cop tropes & Soviet-American cultural contrasts are so personally subjective and out of character with Hill’s larger catalog that their merit is questionable at best. The only minor historical significance achieved by Red Heat is that it was the first American production allowed to film in The Red Square in Moscow. The film only puts that location to significant use for police-marching background imagery in the opening credits (which does include the beautiful image of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s name in cyrillic typeface). The majority of its Moscow-set sequences were instead filmed in Hungary. Likewise, the film boasts an incredible cast of supporting characters (Laurence Fishburne, Gina Gershon, Peter Boyle, Kurt Fuller), but all are relegated to little impact in bit roles. The best chance anyone has to enjoying Red Heat is for the cheap thrills of a straightforward, hyperviolent action thriller, one where dead cops, naked flesh, and jazzercise all mix together in schlocky 1980s excess. That excess is not at all boosted by the typical Arnold humor the way you’d see in classics like Commando & The Running Man, which is a large part of why it’s a more middling entry into the affable muscle-man’s canon, even if a remarkably sleazy one.

-Brandon Ledet

Ant-Man and the Wasp (2018)

On July 20, 2015, my first Swampflix contribution was published: a review of the Peyton Reed by-way-of Edgar Wright Marvel flick Ant-Man, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Since then, I’ve written 102 solo reviews, participated in 35 Movie of the Month roundtables, and written or contributed 27 additional articles – including eight under the Late Great Planet Mirth label alone and thirteen collaborations with Brandon as an Agent of S.W.A.M.P.F.L.I.X. Now, three years later, Marvel has released the first direct follow-up to that film that was my first review, and, hey, it’s pretty great! Not perfect, but great!

As the film opens, we find Scott “Ant-Man” Lang (Paul Rudd) under house arrest following his participation in (and pursuant violation of the Sikovia Accords as a result of) the events of Civil War. He’s only three days away from being a free man, but his situation is jeopardized when he finds himself once again embroiled in the activities of former Ant-Man, Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), and his daughter Hope “The Wasp” van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly). The two believe that Scott’s trip into and return from the “Quantum Realm” at the end of the first film means that there is a possibility that the previous generation’s Wasp, Janet (Michelle Pfeiffer), may still have a chance to be rescued, 30 years after her disappearance. Their efforts are complicated by the Pym family’s own fugitive status, as well as opposition from Sonny Burch (Walter Goggins), a crime lord who wants to capitalize on Pym’s technology, and Ava “Ghost” Starr (Hannah John-Kamen of Killjoys), a former SHIELD asset who exists in a state of molecular instability as the result of the accident that killed her parents as a child and who hopes the secrets of the Quantum Realm can restore her to a state of stability. Along for the ride are old friends like Scott’s fellow ex-con Luis (Michael Peña) and his crew and Scott’s daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Forston), as well as new allies/antagonists like Bill Foster (Laurence Fishburne), a former colleague and professional frenemy of Pym’s, and Jimmy Woo (Randall Park), the FBI agent tasked with overseeing Scott’s “rehabilitation,” which in practice means trying to catch the Ant-Man in his extramural exploits.

Like the first film, Ant-Man and the Wasp prioritizes fun shenanigans over the more superheroics of its MCU brethren. 2015’s Ant-Man was following in the footsteps of what was arguably the franchise’s first true comedy outing in Guardians of the Galaxy, but by foresaking that film’s space operatics for the more terrestrial mundanity of a heist film, it cemented a move that has come to be one of the motivating forces of why people love these movies and keep forking over money for them: humor, plain and simple. This is not a heist film, however, and unlike other outright comedic entries in the MCU (Thor: Ragnarok = synth-heavy 80s-style gladiator opera, Guardians 2 = manchild coming-of-age narrative, Spider-Man: Homecoming = John Hughes-style eighties high school flick), there’s not an easily-identifiable genre or style that director Reed has grafted the Ant-Man team onto this time around. There’s a little bit of Ferris Bueller energy floating around here, especially with Scott constantly having to return home before the FBI (herein acting with the same vaguely-menacing but largely bumbling inefficiency as Ferris’s principal), and while that’s central to the narrative, it’s not the central plot.

There are flaws here, but they’re small, and you have to go down to the nitty-gritty to find them. My largest issue here is that there are several points that feel uneven, the largest of which is anything involving of the Quantum Realm, which is a weirder concept than anything in the first film and feels out-of-place here, all things considered. The idea that our characters could go so microcosmic that they enter another dimension is fine, but some plot points are glossed over too quickly: How does Janet know how long her family has to find her? How does she know that if they don’t find her within that time limit that it’ll be another century before there’s another chance to attempt a rescue? What makes Ghost so certain that the Quantum Realm will repair her damaged body/cells? Why did the Pyms get mixed up in working with Burch in the first place, given that Wasp could easily get the parts they need for the quantum tunnel without having to ally with, essentially, a thug? I’m not one to get a bee in my bonnet about plot holes that are generally minor, but the cumulative effect of them in this film makes it feel sloppy in comparison to its predecessor, which was as trim and tight as a comedy that was equal parts origin story and episode of Leverage could possibly be.

Recently, Reed joined some of the ScreenJunkies boys for a commentary on their Honest Trailer for the original Ant-Man, wherein he confirmed that the idea that the film should be a heist movie was always Edgar Wright’s. This comes as no surprise to fans of Wright’s: you may be able to criticize him for being self-indulgent or esoteric in his references (not that I do or would; I adore his work), but you could never accuse him of being anything less than a ruthlessly efficient artist when it comes to writing and directing. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: I adore Hot Fuzz not just because it’s hilarious (which it definitely is), but because it’s a crime mystery whose detective protagonist come to a logically sound and reasonable conclusion based upon available evidence, but which also happens to be completely incorrect. Although I wrote at the time that we would never know how much of the first Ant-Man was an invention of Wright’s and not Reed’s, I feel like this movie proves there was more Wright in the film than one would have initially thought, given that once Reed had free reign he made a film that lacked the tight cohesion and plotting of its antecedent.

Not that this isn’t still a delightful movie. Some disappointment is understandable given that, even more than other films in the MCU, each of this film’s major action beats was included in the trailer in some way. The marketing for Civil War did a great job of hiding the fact that Scott was going to go “big” in that film, which made for an exciting reveal in the film proper, but no such luck here. The giant PEZ dispenser, Wasp running along a knife, re-enlarging a tiny vehicle to crash another, etc.: there’s a cool moment in every one of the action sequences that was already shown in the previews, which makes some of them feel underwhelming, but rejecting the film outright on these grounds is absurd as they’re still lots of fun, kinetic, and really make the small-big-small-big roundabout work. There’s also a new Luis-explains-things montage, which is again delightful, and the chemistry between Team Ant-Man (and the Wasp!) has grown in an organic way, which makes the film a delight to watch.

Ghost is a bit of an underwhelming villain, but I’ll also go out on a limb here (mild spoilers through the end of this paragraph) and say that, although the character isn’t terribly interesting, her arc certainly is. Discounting the fact that you, dear reader, are one of those people who loves Tom Hiddleston so much that you forgive Loki all his sins, then this is the first film in which the primary antagonist is not defeated (or in the case of Thanos, is the victor). The conflict here has nothing to do with the end of the world or even stopping a villain from stealing a bunch of weapons. Instead, for the first time, Marvel has given us a film in which our heroes win not by trouncing their enemies, but by redeeming them. It’s a lovely sentiment, and I enjoyed it.

Overall, despite being less cohesive than the first film, this sequel is still a lot of fun and definitely worth the cost of admission. Just maybe be prepared for an uplifting ending followed immediately by despair. It’s great!

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

SuperFly (2018)

Like with all remakes & years-late sequels, there was a lot of pressure on SuperFly to justify its own existence. A modernized retooling of one of the most iconic titles in the blaxploitation canon, this low-budget, high-fashion action thriller sets itself up for comparisons that jeopardize its chance to stand out on its own from the outset. The soundtrack may have been updated from Curtis Mayfield funk to Future trap, and some of the nihilism from the original may have been supplanted with wish-fulfillment fantasy, but it is still largely the same story of an ambitious hustler with beautifully over-treated hair struggling to get out of the cocaine business with one big, final score. Oddly, though, as much as I enjoy the 1972 Super Fly, it wasn’t the biggest compassion point that weighed on this 2018 update for me. Because of the subject and the involvement of prolific music video auteur Director X, I mostly found myself comparing it to Hype Williams’s weirdo art piece Belly, which has a cinematic eye unmatched by any two seconds of Nu SuperFly. Director X shoots the film with the flat digi-cinematography of a South Korean soap opera, which is especially noticeable in larger action set pieces involving drive-bys & car chases. It’s no matter, because SuperFly isn’t trying to be the new Belly any more than it’s trying to relive its source material beat for beat. This is a gleefully trashy, hyperviolent action cheapie with more of an eye for fashion & brutality than any technical concerns in its visual craft or its debt to stories told onscreen in the past. It’s entirely enjoyable for being just that, completely divorced from the expectations set by its most immediate comparison points.

My favorite detail in the entirety of the original Super Fly is a shot of the slick-haired anti-hero Priest laughing maniacally in the mirror while cash surreally rains down on him from the ceiling. The modern SuperFly adopts that surreal excess of wealth at feature-length, sending Nu Priest through a neon-lit labyrinth of underground-Atlanta party scenes (not too different from the Georgian strip club palace featured in Magic Mike XXL) where money rains from the heavens in a constant, steady trickle. Some of Priest’s moral ambiguity as an antihero is missing from the original as he’s shown to be an intelligent, deeply kind man well-respected in his community (of drug dealers & hustlers). His intimate, long-running familiarity with the streets he serves makes him successful beyond belief, so much so that even rival drug dealers have no desire to bully him out of the business. This wealth-showered reverie is interrupted by a drunken fight outside a nightclub that shakes Priest so much that he wants to pull off a big enough score to get out of the game for good. Of course, going big makes him much more conspicuous to a wide range of people invested in him staying exactly where he’s at in the drug-dealing hierarchy, as well as people who wish to exploit his newfound kingpin status. Suddenly, a well-loved, low-level drug pusher finds himself dangerously in conflict with everyone around him: his mentor (Michael K Williams), his suppliers, his two polyamorous girlfriends, crooked white cops, a rival gang that dresses in all-white and calls themselves Snow Patrol, etc. Because Priest is the sharpest mind in the game, however, the joy of the film is largely in watching him puzzle his way out of those individual binds as the walls close in on him from all sides and money continues to rain down with increasing menace. Successfully getting out of drug dealing alive seems more impossible by the minute, but he’s always an easy hero to root for, something that feels remarkably different from the 1972 original.

Whatever SuperFly might be missing in visual craft, taste, or tact, it easily makes up for in its willingness to be a little cheesy, a little sleazy, and more than a little greasy. Priest tends to pontificate in voice-over, seemingly even when he’s talking to other characters in lines like “All the power in the world never stopped a bullet; no car can outrun Fate,” & “God is all-knowing and that’s what makes him scary as shit.” These philosophical ponderings clash wonderfully with the film’s over-indulgences in gratuitous nudity & bullet-riddled hyperviolence. A sensual threesome in a shower extends into pure softcore titillation for minutes of tangential excess. Stage blood squibs explode in great bursts of automatic gunfire spectacle. The movie is also admirable in reaching just beyond its means in more action-heavy set pieces, leaving a trail of blood, explosions, and naked breasts all over the city of Atlanta. The Atlantan drug-dealing & strip club scene is more than just a convenient visual backdrop here. Future (the film’s producer and one of the “elder” statesmen of trap music) soundtracks its nighttime Atlanta drives with the exact sounds you’d likely hear pouring out of car windows in recent years (give or take a Migos update). OutKast’s Big Boi represents Atlanta’s hip-hop past as a preacherly mayoral figure who runs just as much game as Priest, just in a different arena. SuperFly also does right by its context as a continuation of a blaxploitation cinema past, incorporating the martial arts obsessions shared by titans of the genre like the Original Priest and Dolemite. The jujitsu choreography is much more convincingly staged here than the genre’s Kung-Fu ever was in the 1970s, though, landing with bone-crunching thuds that match the lethal violence of its many, many gunshots. The eternally naked strippers, over-the-top hyperviolence, and ungodly piles of cash that provide SuperFly its tonal foundation all feel at home with its Atlantan hip-hop & vintage blaxploitation influences. The only thing that’s really changed is the haute fashion update, wonderfully so.

Early in SuperFly, there’s a scene set in a Chinese restaurant that reminded me so much of the Migos video for “Stir Fry” that I had to check to make sure Director X didn’t also film that one himself. No matter how distracting the cheapness of its digi-cinematography could be in spectacle set pieces that admirably reach just beyond the film’s resources, I was consistently aware throughout that X had captured a very particular, current moment in black crime pop culture media. That’s the exact accomplishment that made Belly & the original Super Fly remarkable in their own respective eras. I had a lot of fun with this continuation of those traditions once I let go of its debt to past works and accepted its own merits as over-the-top action cheapie excess with a nice soundtrack, cool clothes, and neon cross-lighting. That’s more than most modern remakes offer, even the ones with 10x SuperFly’s budget.

-Brandon Ledet