16th 05 - 2016 | no comment »

Push (2009)

Director: Paul McGuigan

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By Roderick Heath

More or less ignored when not reviled upon release in 2009, Paul McGuigan’s Push has become one of the very few movies of recent years I can watch any time, in any mood, and enjoy. McGuigan, a talented Scots director, caught my eye in the late ’90s with the grimier, more authentically punkish answer to Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting (1995), The Acid House (1996), and the tougher-minded, more authentically maniacal retort to Guy Ritchie’s gimmicky gangster movies with Gangster No. 1 (2000). His work since going Hollywood, Wicker Park (2004) and Lucky Number Slevin (2006), failed to find wide audiences or critical favour, but have located some after-the-fact fandom. After a spell doing TV work, he just recently re-emerged as a feature director, only to have another jarring flop with Victor Frankenstein (2015). Push, his best work to date, is a hugely entertaining concoction in desperate need of some appreciation. It’s colourful, clever, and serious enough to compel, but sufficiently light-footed to evoke the kind of pulp novel adventure and comic book mind-bending its story evokes. Push is hypermodern in its approach and aesthetics, but also has the charm of a cult object slightly out of its time, as McGuigan’s stylish filmmaking blends diverse strands of contemporary cinema that someone ought to remix more often in service of a gleefully tricky narrative that riffs on the superhero genre with more poise and artistry than any actual recent superhero movie.

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Push was also perhaps a little too obviously hoping to be the cornerstone of an original cinematic franchise. McGuigan lays the basic pillars of its plot through the opening credits, as protagonist Cassie Holmes (Dakota Fanning) explains a secret history rooted in the efforts of Nazis to discover and exploit paranormal abilities. This programme eventually evolved into an ostensibly U.S. government-sponsored, but almost lawless and stateless organisation called Division, which specialises in collecting and employing an array of individuals given great psychic and telekinetic powers. These people have been sorted into several basic types, each with an unofficial, but pithy sobriquet. Movers can manipulate, repel, or direct objects. Sniffs have an extraordinary sense of smell and can track people’s movements through the smallest residual traces. Watchers have the power to foretell the future. Pushers can distort other people’s sense of reality. Shadows can mask people and objects from the powers of other breeds. Shifters can mask the true appearance of something. Stitches wield startling healing powers. Bleeders can pulverise with their vocal sounds. A prologue sequence sees young Nick Gant (Colin Ford) and his Mover father Jonah (Joel Gretsch) on the run from Division. Taking momentary refuge in a hotel room, Jonah forces Nick to leave him, as he intends to do battle with Division’s heavies, but tells him before their split that one day a girl will give him a flower, and this girl will give him the key to changing his life. Jonah dies moments later in battle with Division agents, led by the forbidding Carver (Djimon Hounsou), a battle Nick witnesses obliquely from a hiding place before he scurries away and gets on with the business of surviving on his own.

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A decade later, Kira (Camilla Belle), a captive of Division, is seen receiving an experimental drug Division has cooked up to boost the powers of superhumans. Everyone who’s taken the drug before this has died, but Kira survives and escapes with a sample of the drug thanks to a marble dropped by another captive which spins by seemingly random luck across the floor and jams a door. Meanwhile Nick has grown into the stubbly, sad-eyed form of Chris Evans, and is living in Hong Kong, a popular refuge for unaligned superhumans because the dense population makes it difficult for Division’s goons to track them. Nick has inherited his father’s Mover powers, but has neglected to master them for fear he might meet the same fate. Nonetheless, driven by lack of cash, he tries to use his powers to cheat in a craps game, but fouls up and finishes up having to outrun gangsters bent on beating him up. Retreating into his apartment, he’s soon visited by two Sniffs, Agent Mack (Corey Stoll) and Agent Holden (Scott Michael Campbell), who have finally managed to track him down. They’re looking for Kira, Nick’s former girlfriend, but don’t let him know that, leaving Nick bewildered. Once they leave, Nick gets a phone call from 13-year-old Watcher Cassie, who is standing outside waiting for him to open the door so she can raid his refrigerator and enlist him in a search for a large sum of missing money.

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Nick quickly sees through this ruse and declares he doesn’t want to get involved in whatever Cassie’s up to. But he soon finds that he and the girl have already been targeted by a Triad crime family headed up by a kingpin (Haruhiko Yamanouchi) who wants to get hold of the drug and make his mob a rival to Division. All of his children have powers—he and his two sons are Bleeders and his daughter (Xiao Lu Li) is a talented Watcher with a fondness not just for sweets but also a sadistic proclivity for taunting her enemies, particularly precocious Cassie, whose mother is a legend in the paranormal community for her Watcher gifts. The clan are dubbed the “Pops” because of the daughter’s habit of sucking on lollypops. The crime family attack Nick and Cassie in a marketplace. The Bleeders cause havoc with their deadly screams—a touch that recalls Jerzy Skolimowski’s The Shout (1978)—as they chase the duo, causing fish in tanks to explode and finally leaving Nick badly mangled. He escapes death only because the Pop girl warns her brothers that they need him to obtain the drug. Cassie takes Nick to a Stitch, Teresa Stowe (Maggie Siff), who reshapes Nick’s body: Teresa is a haughty S&M priestess who can take away pain, but also return it, and who perversely enjoys not healing, but bringing agony. Then Cassie performs the totemic act of handing Nick a flower, signalling to Nick the time to take a stand has come.

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Push’s conceptual similarity to the X-Men films was widely noted on release, but that is misleading to a certain extent, as the plot encompasses a rather different take on the relationship of its gifted outsider heroes to authority at large (there’s also a notable influence by Stephen King’s Firestarter). There’s less emphasis on spectacular powers than on subtler brands demanding mental discipline and wit. In the company of Push’s cast of superhumans, time and reality are in a constant state of flux to a point where even they can’t necessarily keep up. Push actually hews closer to an honourable update of one of the source texts for the more ambitious and sophisticated strand of superhuman fantasy works, A.E. Van Vogt’s Slan, with its Byzantine sense of paranoia in confronting a posthuman landscape amidst the shell of the hitherto dominant civilisation. As filmmaking, Push unfolds like a Fritz Lang movie reset in Wong Kar-Wai’s kaleidoscopic modern Hong Kong and jammed in a blender with Tom Tykwer’s Run Lola Run (1999). McGuigan’s strong visuals, alive to the colour and teeming liveliness of the locale, borrows from the aesthetics more usually associated with artier filmmakers, like Wong, Sofia Coppola, Michael Mann, and Olivier Assayas. Like several of those directors, McGuigan finds in Hong Kong the perfect hyperkinetic muse to survey the modern world, a place where urban life takes on a venturesome romanticism because it’s a frontier where cultures are meeting and ricocheting in manifold new forms.

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McGuigan and screenwriter David Boursa are able to dramatize this idea precisely through the mechanics of their story, which hinges on people with all their differing gifts and traits working against or in conjunction with each other. Each power tends to complement another, but can also jam things up. The setting and the essential theme are noirish, the nature of fate unfolding in an urban labyrinth. But the mood is far too ebullient to nudge noir fatalism, and besides, Hong Kong is also a setting of action films, and the thematic lexicon can skew close to the traditions of manga and anime radiating from Japan—one of the Pop brothers has Astro Boy tattooed on his arm—and genre fusion mimics cultural fusion.

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Appropriately for a film where a jostling breadth of humanity bestrides the landscape and the many modes of sensing evinced in the storyline, McGuigan’s trippy, tricky fantasia is a filtered, audio-visually layered experience laced with the jazziness of experimental films and music videos, but always plied with measured effect: freaky lensing, uses of contrasting film stocks and grains, careful use of décor and subdivisions of the frame that recall Wong’s assimilation of Matisselike visual textures and putting them into a more dynamic context, judicious slow-motion and time-lapse photography courtesy of DP David Sova. These flourishes are used with particular vividness in sequences illustrating the superhumans’ powers, like the fast-forward visions the Sniffs have when fondling Nick’s cup, visualising their analysis in reducing months of Nick’s life to a blur of action, and vertiginously edited fantasies the Pushers install in people’s heads.

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Nick and Cassie, trying to work out where Cassie’s visions are leading, enlist the help of some other paranormal ronin, including Shifter Hook Waters (Cliff Curtis), Sniff Emily Hu (Ming Na Wen), and Shadow Pinkie Stein (Nate Mooney), who all have their reasons for hating Division and joining the fight even if their good sense tells them to stay out of the way of Carver and his hand-picked goon squad. Meanwhile Kira awakens on a boat in Hong Kong harbour with no memory of how she got there, looked over by the gaunt stranger who owns the boat and a message written with her own lipstick on a mirror simply spelling out Nick’s name and a number: Kira has had her memory of the recent past erased by the boatman, Wo Chiang (Paul Car). She’s soon captured by the two Sniffs but is able to push Agent Mack into killing his partner by convincing him that he murdered his brother, creating an entire alternative existence for Mack in a few blinks of her black-swelling eyes. Kira then manages to defeat Mack in a scrambling melee in a rest stop toilet and flees back to Hong Kong. Following clues given by both Cassie’s visions and Emily’s detection, Nick tries to rendezvous with the mysterious girl who everyone’s looking for. It proves to be Kira, who first response is to take a few potshots at him with Mack’s appropriated gun. Turns out Nick and Kira were lovers back in the States, a romance that ended suddenly when Kira was kidnapped by Division, leaving Nick clueless as to her whereabouts. Or were they? Believing they have to keep Kira out of Carver’s hands and find where she’s stashed the drug, they hole up in a hotel room using Pinkie’s gifts to hide Kira.

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Another good quality of Push is the strength of its cast and the sharpness of its characters. Evans, post-Fantastic Four, first got to move away from Johnny Storm’s dude-bro tediousness and work out the charmingly chilled-out, white bread hero he’d soon purvey to much more money and popularity as Captain America, but also with a scruffy, more asocial quality, anticipating his next foray into Asiatic scifi, Snowpiercer (2013). Hounsou, always a great screen presence, makes for a formidable opponent, one who wears Division’s imperial arrogance like a suit: it feels like a manifestation of McGuigan’s raspy wit that the one-time oppressed hero of Amistad (1997) is now the ultimate manipulator of destinies and identities. Belle, who gained notice in Rebecca Miller’s The Ballad of Jack and Rose (2004), has an oddly delicate screen presence that helps draw out the contradictions of her character, who is at once powerful and near-fatally malleable.

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One of screenwriter Boula’s better tweaks of the familiar plot pattern here is the way Nick is presented less as a singular hero than merely one in a group of pan-ethnic characters. Nick’s neglect of his talents means that he’s nearly constantly outmatched in his various encounters throughout the film, ending up battered, tormented, and tossed about like a plaything, as when he tries to confront Carver and his Mover bodyguard Victor (Neil Jackson). His lack of savvy as a hero recalls one of the film’s influences, Big Trouble in Little China (1986), though his lacks aren’t played for as many laughs as Jack Burton’s. His essential decency is noted early on when, whilst being tortured by Bleeders, he uses his powers to push Cassie to safety, and he does finally start to bring his real talents to the fore as the story unfolds. Chief amongst these is not his telekinetic gifts, but his mind for strategy, with which he works out a way to avoid the seemingly unstoppable fate barrelling down on him and his pals.

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Young Fanning, though, taking her first step from child star to adult actor, is the one who walks off with the proceedings, playing Cassie as a precocious punkette with dashes of delirious pink dye in her hair (“Lose a bet with your hairdresser?” Nick prods her) and who draws pictures illustrating her visions in an art book, despite her complete lack of artistic ability: her pictures of the futures she sees are essays in childish style, all too crudely contrasting her precocious projections. Cassie is, in many ways, the film’s proper protagonist, as she’s desperate to save her mother from Division’s clutches. She is partially wizened beyond her years by her gift and also trying to play the grown-up living in her mother’s near-legendary shadow, a person who has touched the lives of almost everyone in the narrative with reverberations that eventually prove anything but accidental. Rattled by her own constant premonitions of death and the taunts of her lollypop-sucking sister-adversary, Cassie tries to focus her gifts and see her way through to another future by trying her mother’s favourite device to improve her seer powers—alcohol. Cassie, roaring drunk, bursts into the hotel room where the ragtag gang are holed up and accosts Kira as the one who’ll get them all killed: “I’m 13, and I’m powering my use!” she declares with truculent bravado.

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Her encounters with Pop Girl are charged with peculiarly personal antipathy as well as a sense of their similarities, both prodigies competing directly on the behalf of family with the obligation to use the prodigal gifts they possess to further the ends of their kin, but with very different ultimate purposes. Where Cassie’s mother lives in a tranquilised void in Division’s headquarter—she’s only briefly glimpsed being led around by guards and dropping the fateful marble that helps Kira escape—and becomes something like a younger sister to Nick, Pop Girl represents a vicious and egomaniacal patriarch and a clan of carefully groomed thugs. When Pop Girl reports a failure to her father, he slaps her around. Later, when she presents her brothers with a more successful insight, it prompts them to ask whether that will make their father love them.

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Push vibrates with unexpected fragments of emotional and thematic depth like these, decorating McGuigan’s framework like the neon that blazes over Hong Kong, never overplayed to bog things down. The emotional tenor here is wound together with the way the Watchers predict the future, becoming, in essence, like film viewers anticipating certain outcomes: “I like how this future ends,” Carver tells Cassie at one point when fate seems to be dooming the outsiders’ revolt to a grim end. The film’s audience, meanwhile, have their expectations constantly switched around, holding fast to the faith certain things will come out right even in the face of mounting contradictions and seemingly impossible knots of fate. Push’s approach to fate is one of its cleverest aspects. The idea that precognition is an ability affected by choices and potentials rather than being perfect insight into the inevitable isn’t a new one—Frank Herbert’s Dune posited a similar concept—and Push presents it as a psychic gift derived from people’s trains of thought, which means it’s vulnerable to temporary disruption. Kira took advantage of this by having her own memory wiped, and Nick eventually formulates a way to outwit the enemy Watchers by piecing together a plan and then having his own mind wiped by Wo Chiang, his instructions written down and parcelled out to his comrades in arms. I’m not sure if all this holds water logically, but it’s damn fun to watch play out. Nick is forced to take such drastic measures after Kira falls sick from the drug she was injected with and has to be handed over to Carver to save her life. This makes her vulnerable to Carver’s Pusher talents: he convinces her that she’s an agent in his employ who is suffering from amnesia.

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Nick’s ploy works, sending both Carver and the Pops scrambling to keep up with the seemingly random twists and turns of their quarries, whilst they follow a chain of clues to locate the suitcase containing the drug sample in a skyscraper under construction, with a super-talented Shadow hired to mask the location. Our heroes still have run a gauntlet of challenges and dangers. The Pops try to zero in on the drug, but are instead fooled by a substitute Nick contrives to deliver to them. He then has a literally bruising encounter with Teresa, who has sided with Carver and has a sadistic streak her healing gifts are weirdly wound in with: she can restore injuries she fixes, and does just this to Nick, planning to torment him further, but his rapidly evolving Mover gifts allows him to outwit her. Cassie, constantly dogged throughout the film by visions of herself dead with a tiger above her, lets herself be bounced randomly around the Hong Kong underground, but still seems doomed to meet her ordained fate when she’s cornered by Pop Girl in a storeroom. But it turns out to be Pop Girl’s body splayed under one of the tiger symbol-emblazoned shipping boxes, her mind wiped by the lurking Wo Chiang. With Kira’s Pusher abilities magnified, Carver keeps her under his control once she’s stabilised and uses her take on the Pop clan’s army of gunmen, leading to a climactic battle within the half-finished skyscraper between the three vying factions.

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I suspect that if Push had been made a decade earlier, it would have been a major cult hit, and not because superpowers weren’t so common on screen then. McGuigan’s sensibility cuts against the increasingly parochial and bombastic flavour of a lot of similar filmmaking, with its focus on international drifters in a polycultural nexus fighting the powers that be harking back to the ’90s milieu, rather than the post-9/11 mindset that rewarded Michael Bay’s fascist chic with big bucks, and the far more conventional and baggy filmmaking of the now exhaustingly dominant superhero movie. McGuigan signals a deliberate note of needling satire about the dark side of Bush-era politics, as he has Carver note, “We’re not ones for diplomacy anymore.” The final battle is a terrifically organised free-for-all during which Carver and Kira turn enemies on each other, Kira orchestrating a battery of killers under her influence like a particularly freaky line-dance choreographer, whilst Nick battles Victor, their powers becoming so well-balanced that they’re essentially reduced to a fist-fight, at least until the Pop Bleeder boys try to squelch them both. McGuigan tips another nod to Big Trouble in Little China when the Pop patriarch releases his Bleeder scream in uncontrolled furore after one of his sons dies, bringing down a heap of scaffolding on him and Victor.

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Nick finishes up carrying the elaborate triple-bluff through to its end when he injects himself with the drug, which by this time has been substituted for soy sauce, and pretends to die under Carver’s contemptuous gaze. The very last few moments confirm that an even more elaborate plot than anyone except Cassie had originally realised has just been pulled off, and though Kira is still in Carver’s clutches, Nick has arranged for her to recover the truth, setting the scene for a most satisfying blackout moment of poetic justice. I’m inclined to call Push a kind of pop masterpiece, but too few heard this tree fall in the woods. A few months after its release, many of the same people who dissed it were calling the equally tricky but comparatively dour and pompous Inception (2010) a major event, which goes to show what a funny world we live in.


25th 09 - 2011 | 2 comments »

CIFF 2011: Madame X (2010)

Director: Lucky Kuswandi

2011 Chicago International Film Festival

By Marilyn Ferdinand

If you’re looking for a pick-me-up after taking in some of the somber fare at this year’s festival, or if you want to add a genuinely funny satire to your DVD collection, Madame X is the movie for you. This Indonesian comedy based on a character created by its star, comedian Amink, pits a would-be transsexual hairdresser against the forces of puritanical morality, taking every cliché of the spy/superhero genre and tailoring them to the clichés of drag life. Unlike the title character of the 1966 American women’s film of the same name, this Madame X doesn’t suffer in silence—she kicks ass!

The film opens with a disheveled drag queen named Adam (Amink), her falsies popping out of her mini-dress, getting screamed at by a truck driver who found her sprawled in the bed of his truck. He calls her names and then reluctantly decides to give her a ride back to the capital city. Once inside the truck, he demands that she give him a blow job, but tosses her out when she puts a little too much tooth into it. The film flashes back to show us how she ended up in the back of the truck and sets up what will happen for the rest of the film.

Adam is working in a hair salon, celebrating her birthday, and dishing about the news blaring from the TV. Aline (Joko Anwar), a large and sassy drag queen, worships a Paris Hilton knock-off, Kinky Amalia (Shanty), who has been married 11 times in her alleged 22 years on earth; Adam, on the other hand, thinks she’s a skank and uses magic to maintain her youthful looks. She doesn’t know how right she is. Kinky and Bunda Lilas (Sarah Sechan), two wives of Dr. Storm (Marcell), the mysterious leader of a morality party, are driving around looking for a homosexual hairdresser who is celebrating a birthday; Bunda Lilas, a second-rate psychic, thinks this person is a danger to their diabolical plans. When she finds Adam, Bunda Lilas blows some animated red dust from her magic ring on Adam and her birthday cake, which looks cool and vaguely evil, but doesn’t seem to do much of anything.

When Adam, Aline, and the rest of the gang go out to celebrate her birthday at a gay disco, they are raided by the paramilitary gay-bashing organization BOGEM, and herded into the back of a truck. Aline escapes, does a victory dance in the street, and is promptly run over by a truck. Adam, infuriated, attacks her attackers and is thrown over a viaduct, which is how she landed in the bed of her rapist’s pick-up and eventually ends up in hiding at a dance studio run by former special ops fighter Uncle Rudi (Robby Tumewu) and his transsexual wife Auntie Yanje (Ria Irawan). (Note that despite the subtitles, Auntie Yanje is the only transsexual character in the film.) They teach Tari Lenggok, a martial arts dance form they invented, and Adam, learning of their secret spy operations, becomes their chosen crusader for the forces of freedom and equality when Mr. Storm and his wives kidnap the female dancers to be used as sex slaves in Thailand. Adam dons their black-leather, cone bra superhero suit, takes up their modified curling iron, blow dryer, hat pin weaponry, and becomes Madame X.

The trajectory of the plot is standard action hero stuff, circa 1965, mixed with special effects that are minimal and played for laughs, vaguely tracking with those that can be found in Big Trouble in Little China (1986). The film is also liberally sprinkled with entertaining musical numbers that add to the enjoyment of this buoyant film. Two things make this film stand out as more than a cheap parody—the troubles it addresses are real, and its drag queens have none of the hyperflamboyant hostility found in so many American films. Gay bashing and the gay community’s fear and rebellion as depicted in the film are real; Madame X offers a positive, if lighthearted attitude to fighting the powers of conservatism. These strengths are a tribute to the writing, which provides character touches without exaggerating them, and the acting, which dignifies each character with a well-realized interpretation, no matter how cartoonish some of their behaviors may be.

The set pieces in the film are brilliantly executed without resort to 3D, CGI, casts of thousands, or any of the other extravagances of modern action films. It was a kick to watch Madame X wail on the baddies with cartoon starbursts saying POW and BAM in Indonesian. Adam’s showdown with the three wives—one played by pop singer Titi DJ is an opera star with, of course, a concussive high C—allows each of these characters to be broadly comic women, not robots who are pure evil because the script doesn’t want to deal with their humanity, arguing for dominance and jumping to their deaths in pursuit of a real crocodile designer handbag Madame X has thrown over the railing. In a hilarious scene, Adam is running on a beach when a vision of Aline rises over the horizon, illuminated with an angelic halo. The pair chitchats a bit before Aline gives the obligatory “avenge my death” order and then sinks with a quick slurp back into the sea. I can’t commend Joko Anwar enough for his comic panache in this role.

Adam is an incredibly appealing character—sweet with just a bit of sass, sincere, and for a drag queen, amazingly free of affectation. She is who she is, moving from a part-time whore for her worthless boyfriend to someone who finds the heroine within and a cause worth fighting for. Flashbacks to her childhood show her wearing a dress in the bedroom of her boyhood friend Hamar, who received a beating and an “x” marked with a machete on his chest by his homophobic father. Hamar breaks with Adam, blaming him for the abuse that will go on to warp and wreck his life. Sweetly, however, the film ends with a memory of the two youngsters sitting on a roof and enjoying each other’s company, a good feeling the film generates about the homosexual community that makes Madame X’s crusade one we hope will succeed.

Madame X will screen Wednesday, October 12, 1:45 p.m., Friday, October 14, 10:15 p.m., and Sunday, October 16, 4:10 p.m. All screenings take place at the AMC River East 21 Theatres, 322 E. Illinois St.

Previous coverage

Southwest: A haunting, beautifully photographed journey of discovery, as a young woman who dies in childbirth gets a second chance to live to old age, but only one day in which to live it. (Brazil)

On the Bridge: Moving documentary about the torments of posttraumatic stress disorder suffered by Iraq veterans and the failure of the VA medical establishment to help them. (France/USA)


16th 06 - 2011 | 5 comments »

X-Men (2000)/X2 (2003)/X-Men: The Last Stand (2006)

Directors: Bryan Singer/Brett Ratner

By Roderick Heath

The recent release of Matthew Vaughan’s X-Men: First Class has tried to capitalize on not just the 50-year-old comic book source, but also the intricate allure of the franchise first built by Bryan Singer. Aficionado as I am of fantastic cinema, willing to take a bet on most any example of it, I still avoided the series at first. That’s partly because I had little investment in the source material, and I also because I was uneasy at Singer’s premature canonisation as director because of The Usual Suspects (1995), a fine film that nonetheless seems to have kicked off an insufferable Hollywood obsession with trick narratives, and to a certain extent the feeling I had that Singer was essentially a slick professional with a thin veneer of post-Tarantino indie chic has been proven essentially true over the years. But when I finally did sit down and watch the X-Men films, I was pleasantly surprised at how much character and class Singer managed to transfer to them.

The first two films were imbued by Singer with a definitively chic, minimalist visual style and a correspondingly nimble sense of their characters and ideas. They were also exceptionally well-cast, possessing a balance of both character-based and satiric humour, and emotive and symbolic awareness. Moreover, since I caught up with Singer’s debut, the little-seen, interesting and curiously affecting, if pretty slapdash parable Public Access (1992), I started appreciating his growth, which is both obvious and coherent. His consistent interests are apparent in the effervescent frosting of elegance and abstraction in the visual design, his acute thematic awareness of outsider angst and interest in political diatribes that mask hidden agendas, and his fondness for vividly chiselled leading men. As such, the X-Men films are one of the most successful examples of a former independent director negotiating his way through broad-appeal fare.

Moreover, Singer and screenwriter David Hayter established a series rather unique among comic book adaptations, by taking them seriously as worlds unto themselves, in which the powers of the heroes are not merely devices used in otherwise relatively conventional action, but as intrinsic to the story on all levels: the question of mutation is both the starting point and the consistent motivator. This makes the films close to legitimate science fiction. Another challenge for Singer and McQuarrie was to develop a coherent and intimate story out of the over-busy Marvel comic book series they were adapting. They did it chiefly by focusing on characters, and the series is essentially driven by three of them, Magneto (Ian McKellen), Wolverine (Hugh Jackman), and Jean Grey (Famke Janssen), around who swirl other interesting personas whose gifts and faults complement and contrast each other.

X-Men commences portentously with a nadir of humanity: Jewish victims being led into the gas chamber at Auschwitz. One of the young men panics as he’s separated from his parents, and, as he’s wrestling with guards in a screaming frenzy, the gates of the camp seem to buckle spontaneously in obedience to his gestures. The boy is Eric Lensherr, who survives and grows into Magneto, a ferociously talented and brilliant manipulator of metal, and one of the emerging class of mutant people with the so-called X gene that gives them extraordinary, but unpredictably diverse, powers. In “the not too distant future,” Magneto determines to resist a growing push to track down and register mutants. He believes, not without some good cause, that a war is brewing, and he decides to push it along. He’s opposed by his former colleague and fellow defender of the oft-abused and outcast mutant population, Professor Xavier (Patrick Stewart), who runs a school that takes in mutants to educate them and train them to master their powers.

Some were offended by the use of the Holocaust for grounding this free-flowing fantasy, but can such fantasies be easily separated from the intense, real-world anxieties that fuel them? In any event, Singer and McQuarrie obviously stress such realistic likenesses for the material, apt considering the series was begun as a parable for the Civil Rights movement, and evolved to take in any disaffected social faction, including the gay experience. Such a point is repeatedly stressed by the need for rejected youths with problems that first manifest at puberty to find a home with den father Professor X and his understanding community.

Into that community stumble two new figures. Marie (Anna Paquin) finds herself afflicted with a particularly alienating mutation, the capacity to draw energy from anyone who touches her; she can absorb the gifts of any mutant, but if she touches them for too long they die, meaning she can’t have any kind of physical relationship. As per mutant custom, she gives herself a new name, Rogue, and flees from her suburban home to Canada, where she falls into the company of Logan, or Wolverine, a bristling tough guy who makes money winning cage fights. Wolverine and Rogue are attacked by a fearsome mutant, Sabretooth (Tyler Mane), who seems to want to capture one of them, but they are saved by two of Xavier’s teachers, Jean, a potentially powerful but fretful, unstable telepath and psychic, and her boyfriend Scott “Cyclops” Summers (James Marsden), whose eyes emit powerful rays that have to be controlled with special glasses. The mutant school’s staff is rounded out by Ororo “Storm” Munro (Halle Berry), who can control weather.

The asocial Wolverine flits about the edges of this stable world: he possesses incredible healing capacities and an artificial metal skeleton with deadly claws that spring from his hands for battle, but no memory of how he got these claws. The story of their origin is crucial to X2, where Magneto’s worst nightmare is embodied by William Stryker (Brian Cox), an army bigwig who has sought to control and utilize mutants. He exploited Wolverine’s healing gifts to try to create a perfect soldier, and lobotomised his own mutant son, who killed his mother with psychic projections. Stryker blames the mutation for this, but father and son are both cut from the same psychopathic cloth. Magneto’s efforts in the first film mirror Stryker’s in the second—to exterminate the species they fear and detest with electronic augmentation. Stryker gains traction for his extermination plans by brainwashing lone German mutant Kurt “Nightcrawler” Wagner (Alan Cumming) into attacking the U.S. President (Cotter Smith).

The running confrontation of ideals, perspectives, and methods between Magneto and Xavier, backed up by the relish the two stalwarts bring to their parts, is a great part of the fun of the films, which put surprisingly little emphasis on spectacle and special effects except in controlled bursts. The emphasis on Xavier and Magneto’s former friendship and shared ideals lends a proper dramatic tension to their conflict, rather existing for simple generic necessity. Both possess the same traits in different mixtures, as Magneto’s genuine, empathetic angst is immediately established, underpinning his rage and contempt for the human world, and Xavier’s expedient choices in regards to Jean eventually lead to a grandiose tragedy. McKellen’s knowing, yet fierce playing of Magneto’s dramatic self-importance, which is entirely justified by his increasingly godlike powers, sees the actor transfer his persona from Richard III (1995) intact into a blockbuster.

The good casting extends right down the line, as various subplots and percolating themes evolve, such as Wolverine’s attraction to Jean, and hers to his hunky bad-boy appeal, in spite of her relationship with the cool, but too well-adjusted team player Cyclops. Jackman and Marsden’s mutual loathing is nearly as good as Stewart and McKellen’s, enacted in tossed-off insults and catty confrontations. Interestingly, and rare in such fare, it’s the female characters who keep the drama grounded, thanks largely to the restrained, mature performances, particularly Janssen, who makes her difficult character work well. Storm, signalled eventually as Xavier’s successor, maintains an intense slow burn that counterbalances Jean’s unsure brilliance. Berry’s Storm possesses a subtle, but noticeable African accent in the first film, as per the character’s Kenyan origin in the comics, but Berry drops this as well as Storm’s early glaze of weirdness in the second film, and her characterisation consequentially becomes less original. Still, I was more persuaded as to Berry’s acting talents by her here than by all the sweaty acrobatics of Monster’s Ball (2001).

On the opposite side of the camp is Rebecca Romijn’s lithesome Mystique, a shape-shifter and Magneto’s perpetual aide-cum-concubine who constantly overwhelms and surprises opponents with her capacity to change appearance and kick ass. As Brian de Palma did with Romijn in Femme Fatale (2002), Singer amusingly exploits her ability to imbue a sinuous wet-dream-incarnate sexuality with potent anger and predatory grace. It’s Mystique who really throws down the gauntlet of outsider rage when she kidnaps pompous Senator Kelly (Bruce Davison), the main proponent of the Mutant Registration Act in the first film, spitting, “It’s people like you who made me afraid to go to school,” before knocking him out with her talented feet.

Simultaneously, the younger generation is developing its own hang-ups. Although the series never really works out what to do with her, Paquin’s Rogue is the character who seems most mythic (at least until Jean turns into a goddess of wrath), and reminiscent of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Dr. Rappacini’s Daughter in possessing a physique that is inimical to all erotic experience. Like a gorgon, her cursed nature is suggested by her hair, as is Storm’s. Rogue’s relationship with Bobby “Iceman” Drake (Shawn Ashmore), who can freeze anything, is inevitably frigid, and he seems to fall under the sway of Kitty “Shadowcat” Pryde (well-played by Ellen Page in the third film, after brief appearances of other actresses in the first two films). Meanwhile, their mutual friend John “Pyro” Allerdyce, who, naturally, wields fire, eventually gives into his aggressive streak and joins Magneto’s team.

If there’s a problem with Singer’s X-Men diptych, it’s curiously indivisible from its strengths: Singer’s too-cool handling and spare action means he never approaches the overheated delights of Guillermo del Toro’s glorious Hellboy films, and doesn’t quite possess the personal warmth that lit up Sam Raimi’s erratic Spider-Man series. None of the episodes is entirely satisfying on its own, demanding to be watched in close proximity with the others. On the other hand, this franchise was more complex and dramatically integrated than its many rivals, and where Raimi’s studied naiveté eventually grew excessive and repetitive, here the characters and their interactions grow more interesting the more familiar they become. It helps that the series went back to the original comic books for their best storylines. The chief source for the third film, X-Men: The Last Stand was the Phoenix cycle of the late ’70s, regarded as one of the greatest in comic book history. X-Men, on the other hand, feels limited by its very standard save-the-prestigious-event climax: the first film falls into the trap of basically setting things up to be knocked into the hole later.

Fittingly, X2 is the series highpoint, introducing the likeable, if fierce-looking Nightcrawler, and building to a lengthy, well-sustained finale, as the heroes try to save Professor Xavier from Stryker’s plot to fool him into psychically killing every mutant on Earth. X2 is full of excellent little set-pieces, particularly Magneto’s escape from his all-plastic prison, accomplished because Mystique injected tiny metal fragments into one of his guards during what he thought was a drunken hook-up, which Magneto is then able to suck out of his body and use to smash his cell. Wolverine’s discovery of his origin as part of a grotesque experiment and his shady personal history lead him into a battle with Stryker’s second, more obedient super-warrior, Yuriko “Lady Deathstrike” Oyama (Kelly Hu). Lady Deathstrike sprouts long, mandarinlike fingernails of steel, and the two well-matched animals slash and hack each other in a mean tussle that could theoretically last forever.

Singer sets up an elegant visual contrast for Stryker’s son, now a crippled, obedient, yet still obscene monster, with the little girl he projects into people’s heads to get them to do what he wants, and switches between reality and false vision. The episode concludes with Jean sacrificing herself to save her friends from being washed away by the waters of a collapsed dam; Singer pays obvious stylistic and thematic tributes to Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (1982), including having the familiar introductory quote by Xavier read by Jean before the final fade-out. Jean is reborn in X-Men: The Last Stand as a schizoid monster called “Phoenix,” an escapee from Xavier’s attempt to compartmentalise the unstable part of her personality and its awesome power. She returns from her watery grave at the mercy of this alternate personality and kills Cyclops in a lover’s embrace, a moment that finally fulfils the theme of deadly intimacy introduced by Rogue.

Singer’s interest in excoriating demagogues, rhetorical fear-mongers, false visionaries, and his penchant for wandering antiheroes, in evidence since Public Access, likewise recurs through the series, though no longer all packed into the same person. The series is worth comparing to the thematically similar Harry Potter series: in the latter, the unusually talented kids are accepted into a school that disciplines them and immediately normalises them, at least on a social level, whereas in the former, the emphasis remains clearly on the consequences and the immutable nature of their exceptionalism. Even the most successful and open-minded adults, like Storm and Hank McCoy (Kelsey Grammer), are beset by a gnawing mix of resentment and alienation, even when trying their best to be proactive. One of the series’ best sequences comes in X2 when Stryker’s goons invade the school, shattering the cosiness of that environment, falling foul of some unusual mutant gifts, and forcing Wolverine to take up the mantle of defending the children in lieu of the absent teachers. As predictable as it is, the evolution of Wolverine from a fierce, somewhat masochistic, crude and brutal rebel into a functioning, responsible, but still lovably gruff member of the team, is an affecting and amusing strand throughout the films, until the unhinged Phoenix can taunt him with the observation that Xavier has tamed him.

Singer jumped ship on the franchise after this to try his hand at reviving another great superhero franchise with Superman Returns (2005), with very mixed results: whilst his ability to handle the infrastructure of a big action series had grown, his sense of what he wanted to achieve seemed to have disappeared. The third X-Men film was handed first to Matthew Vaughan, who, distressed by the studio’s rush to production, passed it on to Brett Ratner, whose name was already supplanting that of Joel Schumacher as an emblematic Hollywood hack. Ratner had made that claim for himself with his Rush Hour films and his unnecessary (and how!) remake of Manhunter (1987), Red Dragon (2002). Ratner kept most of the cast together however much some of them seemed to be going through the motions in virtual cameos, and did a passable job of sustaining Singer’s style. The result is somewhat better than it’s often regarded, but it’s hard not to notice that Ratner swapped Singer’s visual concision and ear for dry dialogue for a lot of clichéd bombast, trailer-ready dialogue, and a much less refined sense of pace and style. X-Men: The Last Stand also casually tosses away some of its by-now iconic characters, which does at least give it an unpredictable edge, and sports some overly obvious in-jokes.

Whereas Singer employed his outsider parable adroitly, here Ratner embraces it with cartoonish obviousness by introducing a young mutant, “Angel” (Ben Foster), who sports wings. His father, Warren Worthington II (Michael Murphy), has developed a “mutant cure” with his pharmaceutical company, hoping to save his son. Angel is glimpsed in a prologue as a kid, desperately trying to saw off his wings in the bathroom whilst his father bangs on the door, an admittedly cunning conflation of the theme of protean adolescent shame with the fantastic. But Angel finishes up flying away in a tribute to Tony Kushner by way of Melissa Etheridge.

The third film does, at least, accomplish the job of bringing the many strands of the first two episodes to a head and leading to a suitably epic showdown. Jean/Phoenix falls under Magneto’s sway as he leads resistance to Worthington’s cure made possible by culling the genes of a young mutant, Leech (Cameron Bright), whose immediate presence completely nullifies mutations. Both Leech and the infrastructure for making the cure are housed on Alcatraz Island. Magneto, after putting together an army of disaffected mutants, decides to assault the island, and pulls off the trick, impressive by any standard, of levitating the Golden Gate Bridge and planting it between the island and San Francisco. This sequence is fun to watch, but less impressive than an earlier one in which Phoenix, enraged, turns her powers on Xavier when he and Magneto track her to her family house. She causes the entire structure to levitate, and, amidst a blizzard of debris and with Wolverine crawling across the ceiling, Xavier disintegrates, and the house crashes back to earth. It’s one of the most exciting and dramatic special-effects set-pieces of recent years.

Indeed, for all his bad choices, I can’t help but feel Ratner wielded his effects with more confidence than Singer. The big action climax, for once, delivers, too, as Iceman and Pyro duel, Magneto falls prey to the cure and faces (horror!) life as a normal human, and Kitty saves Leech from one of Magneto’s goons, the Juggernaut (Vinnie Jones), in a very funny little vignette that finishes up with the iron-clad villain, taunted by Kitty, knocking himself out cold when he tries to bash his way through a wall in the vicinity of Leech. Finally, Phoenix is let off the leash by a suddenly regretful Magneto, who bleatingly quotes Alec Guinness in Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) as Phoenix starts annihilating everything in sight. Wolverine has to shoulder the duty of taking on Phoenix, being the only one who can survive her pulverising telekinetic powers long enough to kill her, a coup de grace that Jean, momentarily back in control of her psyche, begs for. This ending offers proof that delirious melodrama and extraordinary colour aren’t only the province of Hong Kong cinema.


11th 09 - 2010 | 7 comments »

Kick-Ass (2010)

Director/Coscreenwriter: Matthew Vaughn

By Roderick Heath

Like last year’s Watchmen, Matthew Vaughn’s adaptation of Mark Millar and John Romita, Jr.’s graphic novel series is a weird hybrid of the awkwardly self-critical and the exhilaratingly anarchic in bringing the familiar tropes of the comic book superhero into a more demonstrably real world. Vaughn, who debuted with the entertaining Layer Cake (2004) and stretched his muscles with the underrated Stardust (2007), has been maturing into a mainstream talent who can balance the absurd and the outré with the emotionally authentic. Kick-Ass suffers from trying to be two or three different kinds of movie at once. It commences by paying a series of backhanded compliments chiefly to Sam Raimi’s first Spider-Man film in describing the life of nerdy Dave Lizewski (Aaron Johnson, who, after this and Nowhere Boy, proves himself versatile by any standards), a comic book junkie and chronic masturbator who’s recently lost his mother to a stroke at the breakfast table, and whose life is the familiar purgatory of the nothing-special teen male.

Dave ponders in all seriousness just why nobody’s ever actually attempted to enact the fantasy of being a superhero. His unfortunate notion is to attempt it himself, in spite of the fact that he has no fighting skills or survival and detecting abilities whatsoever. So, of course, in his first attempt—facing down a pair of carjackers—he gets knifed in the stomach and hit by a passing car. He makes a full recovery, except that he now has so many severed nerve endings he can barely feel pain. This gives him, funnily enough, something like a superpower. He can now intervene in street brawls without feeling all the blows being landed on him, and his sheer gumption accomplishes the rest. He soon becomes an internet sensation in his signature outfit—a sea-green wetsuit—with a legion of fans and media attention following hard upon.

But Dave soon finds himself up to his neck in a new kind of trouble. The chief object of his affection at school, Katie Deauxma (Lyndsy Fonseca), pleas for Kick-Ass’s aid in getting rid of a thug who’s been harassing her in her volunteer job; he proves to be a drug dealer, Rasul (Kofi Natei), with a posse of fellow bad-asses. Dave proceeds heedlessly and faces a situation in which he’ll inevitably die after zapping Rasul in the forehead with a taser, but then he’s rescued by the most unlikely of saviours: an utterly deadly 12-year-old who calls herself Hit-Girl (Chloe Moretz). She devastates Rasul’s crew in a whirlwind of bloody mayhem to the tune of The Dickies’ cover of the “The Banana Splits” theme. Hit-Girl is really Mindy Macready, daughter of former policeman Damon Macready (Nicolas Cage), who goes by the sobriquet of Big Daddy and dresses like a sort of sawn-off Batman. As a comic book fan himself, he’s developed these guises to help him and Mindy prosecute their long and ruthless campaign to destroy the criminal empire of Frank D’Amico (Mark Strong), who, to get Damon out of his hair back when he was a policeman, framed him on drugs charges. The set-up resulted in Big Daddy’s imprisonment and caused the eventual suicide of his wife, Mindy’s mother. D’Amico, increasingly enraged by the impact on his business by the Macreadys, comes to believe that Kick-Ass is actually the source of his troubles. D’Amico’s son Chris (Christopher Mintz-Plasse), who happens to be a schoolmate of Dave’s, comes up with idea of ensnaring Kick-Ass by pretending to be another superhero wannabe, calling himself Red Mist and driving a shit-cool sports car.

Kick-Ass takes a long time to find its groove in trying to fit together the shabby charm of Dave’s crime-fighting campaign, his normal life, the askew depiction of the D’Amicos’ dim-witted but effectively brutal crime family, and the almost operatically perverse revenge drama that the Macreadys are driving along. Vaughn and cowriter Jane Goldman softened some of the most cynical aspects of Millar and Romita’s creation, lending the tale a more familiar, but also more rigorous drama. There’s already the deliberately provocative spectacle of a foul-mouthed killer angel facing down a roomful of gangsters with the challenge, “Okay you cunts, let’s see what you can do now!” It’s impossible to doubt the film’s chief joke is the way it carelessly assaults all suburban pieties about safety and security, as well as more profoundly ingrained ones about just who can deal out violence to whom. But rather than being a trope merely provided to piss off people, Damon and Mindy’s relationship is actually one of the most uniquely loving between a father and daughter that’s made it on screen; their subplot seems inspired by the Lone Wolf and Cub series of manga and films from the early ’70s, with Damon as Itto Ogami and Mindy as Daigoro. Damon’s brought Mindy up to regard her violent abilities as the greatest game in the world, promising her ice cream after she’s proven she can stand up and face a bullet in her body-armour-clad chest, and Mindy’s take-no-shit, take-no-prisoners attitude proves a not unhelpful one as the heat turns up. Damon’s unusual fathering technique is based on an unshakeable love of his child and of the shattered family life they’ve lost, and as reprehensible as the notion is, it finally proves both a brilliant inversion of the usual images of strength and capability, and a most unexpected paean to family values.

Simultaneously, the gay panic that’s often dealt with more tangentially in these sorts of things, with all the romantic befuddlement of young men assuming secret identities, bubbles to the service. Dave finds himself drawn into a close relationship with Katie, who, because of the fact he was found with no clothes on when he was stabbed (he begged the ambulance man to hide his wetsuit) has been popularly assumed to have been the victim of a gay bashing. Katie latches onto him then as the platonic friend she’s always wished she had, all the while worshipping Kick-Ass. When Dave finally attempts to approach her in a romantic fashion, it’s in the Kick-Ass character—only to have her wheel on him in fright and beat him until he unmasks himself. It’s a subplot that reminded me, funnily enough, of the roots this type of story has in the Shakespearean pastoral, with all the gender-bending disguises and cross-purpose affection, with the added cravenness of Dave having followed the advice of his comic-nerd friends Marty and Todd (Clark Duke and Evan Peters) in going along with his absurd subterfuge. Meanwhile his friendship with Chris’s Red Mist alter-ego seems like a meeting of unexpected soul mates, at least at first, as in a delightful throwaway moment when they team up to bop geekily in Red Mist’s car to the strains of Gnarls Barkley’s “Crazy”; once Red Mist realises Kick-Ass’ essential harmlessness, he tries to keep the boy out of his father’s sights. That’s impossible, however, as Frank’s been so angered by the damage to his outfit that he attacks and shoots dead a Kick-Ass impersonator whom he believes is the real thing.

The problem with Kick-Ass is that the variegated aspects in its first half don’t mesh: the seriousness of the Macreadys’ tale, and the exaggerated black humour that bobs up throughout (for example, D’Amico’s goons jamming a guy in an industrial microwave to interrogate him only to have him explode before he can answer a question) hardly gels with the anti-romance of Dave and Katie and the affectionate feel for teenage straits. And yet it’s a part of the film’s appeal, for me, that it refuses to limit its scope. It’s Moretz, who takes to her pint-sized hellion like a duck to water (after likewise stealing (500) Days of Summer from the adults around her), who galvanises the film whenever she appears, like when she momentarily horrifies her father with a professed desire for a pony for her birthday, before revealing her real wish is a butterfly knife to slice and dice opponents with psychopathic bravura. She speaks with a Clint Eastwood lilt when in character as Hit-Girl.

Vaughn’s greatest strength as a director so far has been part and parcel with his most awkward trait. His feel for character interaction, skill with actors, and odd mix of killer instinct and sentimentality, give his movies a lopsided, unhurried kind of charm, which unfortunately, tended to render his climaxes generally much less interesting than the journey getting to them. He conquers at least that trait here, as Kick-Ass improves exponentially as the dramatic stakes heighten, and where the film’s crazy gambit seems to promise garish, pop-art momentum, Vaughn takes a longer way around to an emotional weight that’s defiantly quirky: when he appropriates Ennio Morricone’s theme for For A Few Dollars More (1966) for Mindy’s date-with-destiny penetration of D’Amico’s apartment building, it isn’t just movie-brat quote, but an appropriate one. His film doesn’t degenerate into a series of weightless sketches like Robert Rodriguez’s adaptation of Frank Miller’s Sin City (2005), not does it turn bland like so many recent superhero movies, and it’s willing to ruffle feathers in a way certain overrated hits I could name couldn’t imagine. Vaughn instead wins his way through to ragged glory with two actions scenes in the last third that manage to be at once hair-raising, appalling, and hilarious.

The first comes when Red Mist’s plots work to ensnare Damon, and he and Dave are held in a basement by D’Amico’s thugs; the unexpected discovery that Dave made that everyone was hungry for a world in which superheroes really exist has found its bitter codicil in people all too willing to play supervillains, too. D’Amico’s thugs unleash hellish violence on their captives, beating them to bloody messes as a precursor to setting them on fire, with a colossal internet and TV audience watching in horror as their new heroes as turned nearly into mincemeat before their eyes. This sequence captures something oddly acute about our real-time world not far from what Brian de Palma managed with Redacted. Vaughn builds beautifully to the inevitable, but still sweat-inducingly delayed moment when Hit-Girl, presumed dead after being shot by Red Mist, makes mincemeat of the goons, but not in time to save her father in what’s definitely the most emotionally intense action scene I’ve seen in ages.

As ludicrous and indecent as it is, it’s impossible not to relish Mindy’s subsequent rampage through D’Amico’s penthouse and Dave’s haphazard efforts to aid her: a dizzying ballet with kitchen knifes, gatling guns, bazookas, and jet packs ensues, with the useless, yet vehement Dave and Chris battling each other to a mutual knock-out whilst Mindy and D’Amico match martial arts skills with the fury of real antagonists. As well as Moretz, I also enjoyed Strong’s villainy, and Cage, who’s found an interesting recent sideline playing crazy cops, sports a frazzled sleazestache and slight air of seaminess that remined me of Stanley Tucci’s murderer in last year’s The Lovely Bones, only with his obsessive sociopathy channelled to slightly more positive ends. If the whole project then doesn’t live up to all its promise, and at halfway point, I didn’t really know what movie I was watching, by the end, I knew I’d had the most stirring ride I’ve had in a movie so far this year—which, admittedly, hasn’t been a huge task.

And remember kids: don’t try this at home. l


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