“Kingsman: The Golden Circle”

Given how the kinetic and talented Matthew Vaughn (Kingsman: The Secret Service) directed Kingsman: The Golden Circle, it’s no wonder he doesn’t like doing sequels.

Set a year after Eggsy (Taron Egerton) thwarted the apocalypse in The Secret Service, a new diabolical villain named Poppy Adams (Julianne Moore) surfaces with a plot to legalize drugs. Poppy destroys the Kingsman headquarters and kills several agents, forcing Eggsy and Merlin (Mark Strong) to partner with the Statesman, their American counterpart. They also find Harry (Colin Firth) alive, who joins them on their mission.

Kingsman: The Golden Circle was one of my most anticipated movies since I was a big fan of its predecessor and Vaughn stayed committed to the sequel. While The Golden Circle has its moments, Vaughn still commits the biggest sequel sin: he tries too hard to top the first one. The Secret Service is a thrilling spy movie tribute that was an even balance of hardcore violence, political satire, and heart. The Golden Circle has some of its predecessor’s heart and satirical elements, but disappointingly focuses on violence and juvenile humor.

The action is undeniably impressive in The Golden Circle and Vaughn wastes no time throwing us in the middle of it. The opening car chase/fist fight in Eggsy’s cab is a fun, frenetic action sequence; the climactic gun fight at Poppy’s headquarters is a gadget-filled fact-paced spectacle reminiscent of the infamous church scene in The Secret Service (not as good, though).

There were complaints about the level of violence in The Secret Service, but I personally felt the gore was used sparingly and had greater impact; the film still focused on interrogation, covert ops, and surveillance with action thrown in the middle. The Golden Circle uses violence nonstop and there’s almost no spy sequences, save for one that’s a prolonged, offensive rape joke.

It’s great seeing Firth back as Harry; he’s once again a fun, competent action hero. Watching Harry struggle with coordination made his sequences exciting to watch. Egerton is once again likable as the underdog Eggsy. Some viewers will hate that the film focuses on his relationship, but I felt it was refreshing since Eggsy was growing up.

Like Samuel L. Jackson’s Valentine, Julianne Moore is a great blend of scary and funny as Poppy. Her plot to control drug distribution is a sharp political commentary on the War on Drugs.

I could have done without most of the Statesman characters. Jeff Bridges, Halle Berry, and Channing Tatum play the American agents, but they’re only on screen for a few minutes each. If you saw the trailers, you saw all of their scenes. On the other hand, the great Pedro Pascal (Oberyn Martel from Game of Thrones) is a blast as rogue Statesman, Whiskey.

The Golden Circle excels when it focuses on the Kingsman and their character arcs. Had Vaughn just focused on Harry and Eggsy and kept the new characters and their screen time to a minimum, The Golden Circle could have been as good as its predecessor.

Grade: C+

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“Atomic Blonde”

If any movie hasn’t already claimed action sequence of the year, I think David Leitch’s (“John Wick,” the upcoming “Deadpool” sequel) spy thriller “Atomic Blonde” will. A six-minute-long shot featuring a barbaric fist fight, shootout, and car chase has to be worthy, right?

MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) is called to Berlin to obtain a mysterious list. Like most spy movies, this list contains information on undercover agents. She has a buddy cop dynamic with a debauched rock star-like operative, David Percival (James McAvoy) and the two race against time to find the list.

“Atomic Blonde” excels in genre splicing. It has the wide frames, slow pace, and convoluted narrative you’d find in a spy thriller, as well as the neon visuals, brutal violence, and cynical anti-hero found in Neo-Noir. Leitch is somewhat unrestrained in his direction, but “Atomic Blonde” is a blast regardless.

The neon visuals suit the film well due to its setting. “Atomic Blonde” takes place near the end of the Cold War during the collapse of the Berlin Wall, so there’s a strong 80’s aesthetic. Each song is used appropriately (New Order’s “Blue Monday” and George Michael’s “Father Figure”) and we get a brief history lesson on East Berlin. We don’t often see Berlin Wall-related movies, so it’s a refreshing change of setting.

Theron and McAvoy  both deliver fun-yet-committed performances. Between Theron’s stuntwork, dialect, English accent, and expressive moments of silence, she’s the perfect action heroine. Between McAvoy’s charisma, line delivery, and sense of humor, he steals nearly every scene from Theron.

I mentioned “Atomic Blonde” is convoluted and I’m not kidding. By the end, my friend and I were both struggling to figure out the twist ending. Does a spy movie with a cliched list plot need to be this difficult? As I’ve said in past reviews, a confusing ending is enough to warrant a sequel. “Atomic Blonde” is based on a comic book, so it’s bound to happen.

Grade: B

“Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets”

I’m pretty sure after watching Luc Besson’s “Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” that Dane DeHaan is the 2010’s Keanu Reeves. But no one can replace Keanu Reeves!

Set in the distant future, the International Space Station has evolved into an extraordinary intergalactic city called Alpha. It’s home to millions of species and called the city of a thousand planets. When secret agents Valerian (DeHaan) and Laureline (Cara Delevinge) are called to Alpha, they uncover a secret that puts Alpha and a mysterious species in grave danger.

“Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets” is the closest we’ll get to a “Fifth Element” sequel since both are quirky sci-fi adventures. Besson is once again kinetic, imaginative, and ambitious; unfortunately, “Thousand Planets” is more on par with the Wachowskis’ 2015 failure, “Jupiter Ascending.”

For a film about space-and-time-traveling agents that encounter various alien species and criminals, Besson’s content focusing on Valerian and Laureline’s awkward romance. It’s not cute, charming, or funny; it’s plain irritating. We spend more time watching Valerian propose to Laureline than we do learning about their agency or their characters.

DeHaan and Delevinge are both miscast in their respective roles. DeHaan spends the movie practicing his best Keanu Reeves impression while Delevinge delivers every line with little-to-no enthusiasm. Their chemistry is nonexistent. Furthermore, the movie is based on a comic called “Valerian and Laureline.” Why is it Laureline is hardly involved in the action and is constantly a damsel-in-distress?

Besson has some innovative sequences, including one that blends “TRON”-style visuals into a 1st-person POV shootout. “Valerian” is a dumb practice of style-over-substance with meta references to Besson’s previous films (keep your ear open for a “Taken” reference). I admire Besson’s ambition, but he should focus on storytelling that isn’t overstuffed with sexism and exposition.

Grade: D+

“Spider-Man: Homecoming”

Spider-Man…. Spider-Man…. Does what “The Amazing Spider-Man” can’t! That’s right, “Spider-Man: Homecoming” is a return to form for the iconic Marvel character.

The self-aware titled “Spider-Man: Homecoming” takes place eight months after Peter Parker (Tom Holland) was introduced in “Civil War.” Since then, he’s hungry for more action. He’s flaking on his friends and beloved Aunt May (Marisa Tomei), he’s dropped out of various clubs, and he’s beyond high school.

Tony Stark (Robert Downey, Jr.) takes on a father-figure role to Peter and wants him to be patient and focus on being a friendly neighborhood Spider-Man. Peter ignores his advice when he crosses paths with a heavily armed thief called The Vulture (Michael Keaton); their battles cause Peter to learn some valuable lessons the hard way.

“Spider-Man: Homecoming” is a lighthearted and fun MCU movie that’s more a coming-of-age tale than standard origin story. Director Jon Watts (the solid B-movie “Cop Car”) gives Spidey the John Hughes treatment. Peter loves being Spider-Man, but often has to choose between his superhero addiction and being a kid. This sets up some comedic and dramatic moments for Peter.

The 21-year-old Holland does an amazing job playing Peter. He isn’t brooding like Maguire or arrogant like Garfield; he perfectly captures the angst, excitement, ambition, and recklessness of being a teen. Keaton and Downey both are great in their respective supporting roles. Keaton makes a menacing-albeit-sympathetic villain while Downey portrays Stark in a more humanized fashion.

The Vulture and Stark play important roles in teaching the naïve Parker the harsh ways of the world and are perfect foils to each other, despite no screen time together. “Homecoming” excels in fleshing out each character and making them grounded and empathetic. Though I was rooting for Spider-Man, I also wanted The Vulture to win occasionally.

“Homecoming” isn’t perfect due to a redundant narrative. Throughout the whole movie, Peter tends an event, conveniently notices The Vulture in action nearby, apologizes to his friends, ditches them, fights the baddy, then apologizes again. I would have preferred each action sequence setting up confrontation differently.

The redundant narrative is forgivable due to the performances and a couple of harrowing action sequences that capture both Spider-Man’s noble and destructive nature. He isn’t destructive like Zack Snyder’s Superman  and not take responsibility; he’s a powerful kid who doesn’t realize that his actions have consequences. “Homecoming” is a fun time and I’m looking forward to Spider-Man’s return in 2019.

Grade: B+

Ranking of all “Spider-Man” movies favorite-to-least:

  1. “Spider-Man 2” (2004)
  2. “Spider-Man: Homecoming” (2017)
  3. “Spider-Man” (2002)
  4. “The Amazing Spider-Man” (2012)
  5. “Spider-Man 3” (2007)
  6. “The Amazing Spider-Man 2” (2014)

“Logan”

Hearing a drunken Logan (Hugh Jackman) utter “Fuck” in the opening of “Logan” is a clear warning that this isn’t a kid-friendly “X-Men” film. “Logan” is a grim, bloody, and depressing character study.

Set years after Logan saved the future in “Days of Future Past,” the X-Men are no more and Logan is a has-been. He’s a limo driver and drug dealer caring for a senile Professor X (Patrick Stewart). When Logan is offered a large sum of money to drive a young girl named Laura (Dafne Keen) to North Dakota, he finds that she has a lot in common with him. For example, they both have a group of cyborg mercenaries led by Donald Pierce (Boyd Holbrook) on their tale.

“Logan” is an unconventional superhero film. It has more in common with the Western and Apocalyptic Sci-Fi genre films like “Unforgiven” and “Children of Men” than it does with “X-Men.” Director James Mangold (who also directed “The Wolverine”) depicts the world of “Logan” as a sad, hopeless, and violent world that no one wishes to live in.

The journey of Logan throughout the films has been him surviving horror and war, hoping to find peace. Here, Logan’s accepted that peace is out of the question, and that he’s destined to live a never-ending life of carnage. Jackman plays the part perfectly, and it’s been an honor watching him for seventeen years.

Patrick Stewart deserves serious award recognition for his work as Charles. Whether he monologues about family or his guilt, or manically rambles about Taco Bell, Stewart is both heartbreaking and sincere, providing much-needed light to a bleak film.

The supporting cast is fine, with Boyd Holbrook playing Pierce as a fanboy who wants to be buddies with Logan, and Stephen Merchant as a mutant ally of Logan’s, but they’re mostly exposition tools. Their talent is no match for newcomer Dafne Keen, who’s the most badass on-screen kid since Eleven in “Stranger Things.”

Hugh Jackman has stated that “Logan” is his last run as Wolverine. Given it’s his ninth time playing the part, does he have to stop now? Because we can use more R-rated Wolverine movies.

Grade: A-

Ranking of the “X-Men” Films (excluding “Deadpool”):

  1. “X-Men: First Class”
  2. “X-Men: Days of Future Past”
  3. “Logan”
  4. “X2: X-Men United”
  5. “X-Men”
  6. “The Wolverine”
  7. “X-Men: Apocalypse”
  8. “X-Men: The Last Stand”
  9. “X-Men Origins: Wolverine”

“Suicide Squad”

Props to the trailer editors of “Suicide Squad” for getting me pumped enough to see it on opening weekend. Props to the producers for screwing up “Suicide Squad” with their interference.

“Suicide Squad” takes place in the DC universe and government agent Amanda Waller (Viola Davis) assembles a group of criminal meta-humans together for Black Ops missions. She enlists expert hitman Deadshot (Will Smith), The Joker’s (Jared Leto) main squeeze Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie), a hooligan-type thief Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney), a crocodile/human hybrid named Killer Croc (Adwele Akinnuoye-Agbaje), master climber Slipknot (Adam Beach), and a fire-powered gangster named El Diablo (Jay Hernandez).

They’re led by a hot shot special forces operative named Rick Flagg (Joel Kinnaman) and his swordswoman body guard, Katana (Karen Fukuhara). Meanwhile, The Joker has his own plan, and there’s a witch named Enchantress (Cara Delevingne) who wants world domination!

When writer/director David Ayer (“End of Watch,” “Fury”) announced he was directing “Suicide Squad,” I was excited because Ayer writes compelling anti-heroes and directs visceral action sequences. His writing flare is present in the first 20 minutes with some entertaining character introductions and solid development for Deadshot. Then it fades away once the characters are recruited.

There are moments throughout “Suicide Squad” where Ayer wants to make a hardcore violent dark comedy, but then there are overly serious and formulaic scenes that lack Ayer’s passion. I don’t blame Ayer, specifically. I blame the producers’ interference.

“Suicide Squad” underwent serious reshoots/re-edits six months before the film’s release to make it “more fun” after fans responded positively to the “Bohemian Rhapsody” trailer. The reshoots aren’t well-covered because certain scenes don’t flow well together.

SPOILERS AHEAD!

In the first act, Waller and Flagg recruit their team and Flagg seems willing to go along with the plan. After recruiting Deadshot, the next scene shows Flagg arguing with Waller over recruiting the Suicide Squad. The argument scene should have either been before the recruitments or not in it at all.

In the bar scene from the trailer where the team drinks together, this scene is no longer the charmingly funny scene. It’s instead a dramatic self-reflection; none of the humorous moments are present in this scene. In fact, the movie is nearly humorless *after* the first act.

The film’s tone is wildly uneven, and presents itself at times as a dark comedy, and a mindless Michael Bay-style action movie at other times. The action is lackluster and features CGI on par with Sci-Fi channel movies, and last year’s “Fant4stic.” With the exception of the first battle, the action is underwhelming.

Ayer also seems too focused on Deadshot and didn’t bother developing his other characters. Killer Croc and Captain Boomerang are comic relief, Enchantress has no development to make her a compelling villain, and sadly, neither does The Joker.

The Joker is primarily in “Suicide Squad” as part of Harley’s arc. She has to choose between him and helping the Suicide Squad. That’s fine, but it would have been far more compelling if Joker was the main villain and not just a secondary antagonist.

Acting wise, everyone is fine. Will Smith is charismatic and fun as always, Margot Robbie is a blast to watch as Harley Quinn (even if her story is redundant), Viola Davis is a badass, Jai Courtney is surprisingly fun as Captain Boomerang, and Leto is fun as The Joker. The actors are the best part of “Suicide Squad.”

I was hating on “Batman v. Superman” hardcore last March, but “Suicide Squad” makes that look like a masterpiece. I may have not agreed with the dark tone, but I at least knew what it was trying to be. “Suicide Squad” was simply lost in translation due to an overstuffed script and a lack of vision.

Grade: D+

“Batman: The Killing Joke”

This is one of those times where I need to restrain myself on being a fanboy. The first 30 minutes of “The Killing Joke” is everything wrong with “Batman v. Superman,” while the latter 30 is everything great about the Batman mythology.

“The Killing Joke” is an adaptation of Alan Moore’s brilliant graphic novel. Batman (Kevin Conroy) and The Joker (Mark Hamill) have their ultimate standoff after The Joker goes too far with his latest crime. We finally understand why they won’t kill each other while seeing an origin story of The Joker.

“The Killing Joke” has a lot of hype since it’s Hamill’s last appearance as The Joker, an adaptation of what’s considered one of the greatest graphic novels, and the first R-rated DC-animated film. Does it live up to the hype? Eh, yes and no.

HEAVY SPOILERS AHEAD! STOP READING IF YOU DON’T WANT SPOILERS!

The opening 30 minutes is a prologue that focuses on Batman’s relationship with Batgirl (Tara Strong), as they’re hunting for a psychotic criminal named Paris (Maury Sterling). While the action is reminiscent of the great 1992 animated series (the animation is reminiscent, as well), it’s riddled with pacing and tone inconsistencies, as well as a screenwriter’s bizarre character-shipping.

Batgirl is the object of Paris’s affection, Batgirl is also in love with Batman, and then Batman and Batgirl have a one-night stand after a heated argument? This is nothing but creepy since Batgirl is more like a niece to Batman. I get changes happen, but this change makes the story’s sole female character a sex object, which doesn’t fly with me.

Another issue is “Killing Joke” is Batman and Joker’s story, but with this unnecessary prologue, it should almost be Batgirl’s story entirely.

Once The Joker is introduced after the prologue, “Killing Joke” takes off. We dive into a dark, nightmarish psychological stand-off between two broken men that goes from physical, to personal, to finally an understanding.

Hamill is more subdued as The Joker this time, portraying him as more self-aware and burned out on his own crimes, which is a fascinating take. Conroy voices Batman as a broken man that feels he has nothing left but being Batman, which is heartbreaking. Strong does well as Batgirl, but again, it’s the writing that weighs down her character.

The last scene is haunting on many levels with Batman finally laughing, but it’s missing a couple key aspects that made it powerful in the comic. Overall, I’m happy to see “The Killing Joke” adapted, but this isn’t the adaptation we deserve.

Grade: C+