Hitman: Agent 47 (2015)

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three star

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Just as I found myself oddly won over by the generic action movie cheapness of 2007’s video game adaptation Hitman, I was equally tickled with its seven years late sequel. Almost more of a reboot than a proper sequential follow-up, Htman: Agent 47 makes no perceptible reference to the first Hitman film either in its narrative or in its much more stylish visual palette of crisp white walls & television static blues. The first Hitman film was amusing in its lack of its ambition or specificity. It kept its superhuman assassin protagonist’s origins vague, attributing his existence to some blanket collective called The Organization, a super-secret conglomerate with “ties to every government”. As a follow-up, Hitman: Agent 47 seemingly tries to correct the perceived wrongs of the past, bending over backwards to nail down the details of its titular assassin’s origins & to please the action movie marks in the audience with its ludicrous CGI spectacle. Struggle as it might for legitimacy, it’s just as much of a cheap action movie romp as the first film, just with a bigger budget as well as more of a willingness to go big & go silly. As with the first go-round, it kinda works.

Choosing to go the dreaded Origin Story route, Hitman: Agent 47 explains that The Organization’s assassin farm where they raised, balded, and barcoded trained killers has been shut down for moral grounds, even though the assassins are still assigned missions, presumably also by the very same Organization. Or maybe it was The Organization’s evil twin company Syndicate International that ran the assassin farm. The details are a little fuzzy, but I do know that Syndicate International is supposed to be bad & they’re looking to start creating “Agents” again, which is also supposed to be very, very bad. But, don’t worry, our titular killing machine assassin, simply named 47, is very, very good. Along with the daughter of the scientist who spearheaded the Agents program, 47 looks to put a stop to Syndicate International’s evil plan to reinstate a program that “engineered human beings by selecting & enhancing certain genes” & “eliminating” weaknesses like pain & love. Along the way, 47 helps release the methodical murderer inside of his newfound Scientist’s Daughter partner & also battles a seemingly invincible Zachary Quinto (who you can tell is bad news from the get go, thanks to his diabolical eyebrows), playing a kind of Wolverine knock-off who has been, I swear to God, reinforced with “subdermal titanium body armor” that makes him impervious to stab wounds & bullets. When that bit of silliness is first revealed, even Quinto has to call for a time out and ask, “Pretty crazy, huh?”

You know what? Forget everything I just told you, because absolutely none of it matters. Hitman: Agent 47 survives solely on the strength of its ludicrous action sequences, which are admittedly a half step above the adequate proceedings of the 2007 original. Sure, 47 falls back on the mechanical choreography of the first film where he calmly spins in circles and shoots a slew of targets (mostly faceless baddies not even worthy of his glance) one at a time, never missing. That aspect hasn’t changed much (despite 47 been switched out for a second bald-headed actor for unexplained reasons between films), but it has been enhanced by an even sillier set of action movie stunts. Characters bounce off the top of a speeding train without wincing, then duck under the next one as it passes, safely nestled between the tracks. The Agent-in-training Scientist’s Daughter is tested for her survival skills by being tied up in front of a running jet engine to see how quickly she can Houdini herself to safety. Later, a few faceless goons are thrown into the engine just for a sense of completion. 47 also beats down some goons with a hotel Bible & crashes a helicopter into an office building without starting a fire, the blades still spinning long after they’ve collided with desks, walls, and ceilings. Each action set piece is more laughably preposterous than the last, like something you’d expect in, say, a video game. By the time Agent 47 & Scientist’s Daughter are killing in unison to a surf rock soundtrack in a moment of borrowed Tarantino cool, the film has pretty much exhausted every possible way it could acheive a cheap action movie dreck aesthetic (complete with the CGI-aided POV of a flying bullet straight out of that one KoRn video). Enjoying the film for the trashy fluff that it is will depend on your personal mileage for those kinds of shenanigans. I found myself a little dumbstruck, but thoroughly amused.

Bonus points: As I mentioned with the first film, I think one of the more unique aspects of this franchise is that it sticks to the lead’s asexuality as a central character trait. Lesser action movie fare certainly would’ve abandoned that peculiarity in favor of a romance plot. It was a detail tested a lot more strongly in the first film considering that 47’s female sidekick was a runaway sex worker instead of the sequel’s choice to negate the issue by giving its central pair a familial tie (Her Scientist Dad is basically his dad too? In a weird way?), but it’s still a striking choice for a franchise so generic & so silly in almost every other way.

-Brandon Ledet

Terminator Genisys (2015)

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threehalfstar

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In the recent flood of reboots, remakes, reimaginings and good, old-fashioned sequels that have effectively taken over Hollywood, there’s been an occasional uproar about what these films are doing to the credibility of the films they’re resurrecting. A few rehashes of long-dead properties have been lauded as critical darlings (such as the fever dream action monster Mad Max: Fury Road), but a lot of them have been met with aploplectic rage, such as Paul Feig’s not-even-released-yet take on Ghostbusters. Part of what Feig is getting flack for is tampering with the original formula, trying his damnedest to give his reboot its own reason to exist, and being met with a resounding opposition that claims he’s “ruining their childhood.” It’s sort of a damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t endeavor, creatively speaking, since studios are pouring so much money into these retreads instead of fresh material, but it’d also be entirely pointless to just remake the original film faithfully, except with temporal markers like smart phones & drone-operated cameras to provide modern context (like in the utterly useless Poltergeist remake).

Terminator Genisys has a fun time not only acknowledging the fact that reboots & sequels have a tendency to tarnish the memory of the films that came before them (according to a hypersensitive few), but it revels in the idea. Using the time travel paradox theme from the first couple films in the series, Genisys tinkers with & dismantles its predecessors in a dismissive, disrespectful way that feels alarmingly bold for a film that eventually amounts to a long string of chase scenes. The first hour of the film features a jumble of timelines that interact not only with the 1984 & 1991 stories told in The Terminator & T-2: Judgement Day, but also fleshes out some of the 2024 revolution, makes a pitstop in 1972 that changes the whole game of the first film, and sets up an entirely new Skynet timeline that needs to be dismantled in 2017. It’s a doozy of an opening sequence that features cheap, literal imitations of exact scenes from the earlier movies & repurposes them for its own ends, the implications of how it unravels the first two films be damned. I respect its moxy in this respect, even if the execution was far from flawless.

There’s a televised news report in Terminator Genisys that features the hilariously self-aware headline “Has Genisys gone too far?” This plays like a direct nod to how the film is not only disrespectful to its audience as Terminator fans, but also calls them out as a bunch of technology-obsessed dolts who would allow a computer program to end human existence as long as it promised to make their lives easier. The idea of a killer app that links all of the world’s smartphone technology into one conveniently vulnerable control is far from unique. At the very least, I’ve already seen that concept play out twice this year in Furious 7 & Avengers: Age of Ultron. It’s still interesting to see it tie into an action movie’s larger overriding idea that its own audience is worth disdain. There are so many shots of people emptily gazing into their smart phones as a doomsday scenario swirls around them that even Arnold Schwarzenegger’s give-the-people-what-they-want one-liners like “I’ll be back” feel like a dig at the audience’s expectations. It’s so weird to see a film both fulfil movie-goer’s desire to see an old scenario play out yet again & subvert that desire by tearing apart the timelines of the original films by making them irrelevant, or as Schwarzenegger’s cyborg says of himself in this film, obsolete.

Speaking of Arnold, he’s the only enjoyable member of the film’s cast, performing with a weary, but endearing charm that says both “I’m too old for this shit” & “This is all I know how to do”. As a lifelong fan, I’m delighted by the idea of Arnold stretching himself to try new things, but if that means more snoozers like Maggie instead of the one-liner-fueled killing machine performances like in Genisys & the surprisingly enjoyable The Last Stand, I’m also more than happy to just see him filling this role for the rest of his life. No one else in the cast makes much of an impression at all, which (along with a who-cares 2017 climax sequence) tampers my enthusiasm for the film a bit, but that’s okay too.

Look, this is a franchise that’s already been dragged through the mud. Its first two entries are undeniable classics, but Terminator 3 & worse yet, Salvation weren’t exactly memorable cinema. Although I admire Terminator Genisys‘ mission to go back in time & effectively murder its predecessors, it’s an impossible mission. No matter what, those movies still exist & they’re still great. You can revisit your un-ruined childhood anytime you want through Netflix or blu-Rays or murderous smart phone apps or whatever you like, really. They’re still there. We just now also have a serviceable sequel that jumbles the timelines of those films into a barely-coherent mess just to watch its audience squirm under the pressure. I happen to find that tactic pretty hilarious, even if it did have trouble sticking the landing.

-Brandon Ledet

Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (2014)

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fourstar

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One of the best aspects of the ancient art of recording television on VHS tapes was the commercials that you’d incidentally gather as a byproduct. A VHS recording of an old Sifl & Olly episode or Lifetime Original Movie may have been made irrelevant by the advent of YouTube, but the much trashier, more disposable art of a television ad is for the most part lost in the process. There’s a reason websites like Everything Is Terrible go back and dig up this garbage. An advertisement can serve as a time capsule of the era in which it was made. Even something as mundane as a car commercial feels strangely foreign 20 years later. A VHS recording of a pan & scan Jurassic Park isn’t particularly useful in 2015, but if you read between the dinosaurs there’s some useful glimpses into the world that was watching it: what the people were wearing, what hacky jokes they halfheartedly chuckled at, what bullshit later haunted their attics & dumps. Advertising is a low form of art, but it’s art that can later serve as a cultural relic.

Bad movies can work the same way. Mac & Me has just as much to say about where our culture was in 1988 as Cinema Paradiso, if not more. What kind of a sense of 1959 would you get if you only watched North by Northwest & The 400 Blows and completely avoided the likes of Attack of the Giant Leeches & Plan 9 from Outer Space? An incomplete one. We are not sophisticated people at heart. Our garbage has a lot more to say about who we are than our fine art ever will. When we create fine art we transcend our true natures and achieve greatness beyond our limitations. When we create garbage we’re being honest about the ridiculous fools we are at heart. A bad movie is a mirror to our worst, most banal impulses. A great bad movie makes us love those impulses. A great bad movie makes us love being a dumb, simple people.

I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Michael Bay’s production of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles was The Best Bad Movie of 2014. It deserves to have great longevity as a cultural relic, as it somehow captures the entire zeitgeist of our worst cinematic impulses in one ridiculous package. I’m talking lens flairs, found footage, product placement, inclusion of viral videos, over-reliance on CGI, shaky cam, action confused by quick cuts, large-scale destruction of a major city, a phony third act death crisis, and a dubstep beat for the rap song that plays over the credits. The film itself is an example our greatest, most frequent sin of recent years: the reboot. More specifically, it’s a gritty reboot, the most ludicrous gritty reboot of the post-Dark Knight era (although the peculiarly humorless I, Frankenstein certainly gave it a run for its money there). To top it all off, it boasts an above-it-all sense of irony that compels the movie to periodically point out how inherently silly its premise is. Characters poke fun at one another for “doing the Batman voice” and frequently mock the idea of talking humanoid turtles. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is the last five years of bad taste in a nutshell. Or, if you will, on a half shell.

Despite its self-aware irony, there are still glorious moments when the film loses itself in its own ridiculousness. A few action set pieces, particularly a downhill slide and a rooftop battle, are the kind of far-fetched, detached-from-physics kind of fun that you’d expect in franchises like Fast & Furious and, less effectively, Transformers. The movie’s villains, a mech soldier Shredder & a corporate prick William Fichtner, are genuinely terrifying figures worthy of the film’s dark tone. There’s a “beating up the bad guys” vibe in the way the villains are dealt with that feels more like a sincere kids-playing-with-action-figures kind of storytelling than some of the film’s more ironic detachment. The found footage sequence briefly mentioned above, however, finds the film losing itself in its own ridiculousness more than any other. In this scene investigative reporter April O’Neil is digging through her childhood camcorder recordings only to discover that she herself raised the Ninja Turtles as pets in her father’s laboratory. April O’Neil is the source of the Turtles’ affinity for Pizza Hut® pizza; she is the one who named them after Renaissance painters; she is the one that saved their lives by casting them to the sewer. It’s a highly unlikely connection that the film makes & one I greatly appreciate for its lunacy.

There’s even a sense of purpose to the film’s hideous creature design. After April saves the infant Turtles by sending them underground they go through a strange transformation. Through a brief stop-animation effect & training montage, the cute-as-a-button Turtles morph into the ugly, alien-looking things that have been derided since the movie was first advertised. It was only until actually watching the film (as opposed to the ads) that I realized their ugliness had a purpose (even if it wasn’t intentional): puberty. The “Teenage” part of the characters’ namesake is stressed heavily in this incarnation. Their awkward, not-at-all-right appearance is only the tip of the pubescent iceberg. The teenage Turtles are hormonally violent, potentially dangerous young men who dream about running away from home as soon as they’re old enough and spend way too much money on their vehicle in the meantime. They struggle with creaky voices, fart openly, listen to loud music, get coked out on high doses of adrenalin, and have to answer to an angry rodent father figure when they miss their curfew. The most off-putting detail of all is the way they constantly hit on a nonplussed April O’Neil, calling “dibs” on her & whispering “She’s so hot I can feel my shell tightening” in moments of unearned, unseemly bravado, but also excitedly freaking out when she actually responds to them, bragging “I totally talked to a girl!” The Turtles are just as much teenagers as they are ninjas in the film and it’s just as awkward & disgusting as teenagers are in real life.

There are a few other bright spots to praise, like a legitimately cool animation effect that opens & closes the film (in a look that tips its hat to the characters’ comic book roots) as well as the decision to shroud the iffy CGI in darkness, which I think always benefits the format (as opposed to brighter looks like Avatar’s). The casting also shines here. Faces like Whoopi Goldberg, Taran Killam, and Will Arnett keep the mood light as physical reminders not to take the film too seriously. Arnett’s particularly funny as the flustered butt of throwaway gags, like when a Turtle calls him a “human nerd” or when he’s cooking alone to “Careless Whisper” in his apartment. Megan Fox is serviceable, not too distracting in her portrayal of April O’Neil, but not adding much either. I like to think of her here as the human Michael Bay calling card, as if the superfluous explosions weren’t enough on their own. As mentioned above, William Fichtner’s villain is as chilling as always; it’s a performance that honestly feels like it belongs in a much better film. The movie’s tone may be self-contradictory in places, but it ultimately is successful in being both a cheap thrills type of fun at face value as well as a comprehensive cultural relic when considered in the context of its place in time.

The worst part about Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is that I have so much fun watching it. I eat this garbage up. I first saw the film alone in a theater on a Friday night, drunk, and lightly surrounded exclusively by groupings of young dads & sons. I felt like a total goofball to be the only one chuckling as they watched in respectful (or bored) silence. C’mon, dads! It’s a fun movie! Tony Shalhoub totally plays a gigantic, scrotum-esque rat! C’mon kids! Shredder totally has badass knives for hands! My enthusiasm was unreciprocated long after I left the theater as well. No one was interested in even talking about the movie, much less watching it. I still can’t convince people to watch it, even for a goof. My love for 2014’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles is a dirty secret only because no one cares to hear it. I believe the problem is that my timing is too soon. That 1993 Chrysler commercial incidentally archived on a VHS cassette during an X-Files episode wasn’t culturally significant until at least 2000. In a few more years the gritty Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles reboot will cease being a fresh, undistinguished wound and earn its rightful status as a precious artifact, a prime specimen of our modern blunders, a more valuable cultural marker than all of the Boyhoods & Birdmans in the world. As a shoddy product so distinctly of its time, its value will only increase as the years soldier on.

-Brandon Ledet