Monday, July 27, 2015

"Sabotage" and "Kingsman: The Secret Service": a two-fer review



A 2014 film starring Arnold Schwarzenegger not long after the end of his term as governor of California (ended 2011), "Sabotage" is the story of an ass-kicking, name-taking Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) tactical team that lifts $10 million off a major drug bust, only to have the stolen money go missing, then to find itself hunted by someone who is picking the team members off one-by-one in a gruesome manner.

Most of the movie is a gritty whodunit, and our "heroes" are essentially thieves, even Schwarzenegger's John "Breacher" Wharton, the grizzled team leader. The money goes missing; the team members, all of whom had been in cahoots on the heist, lose faith in each other; the DEA higher-ups hammer each team member with questions to see who will break first, then things get heavy when team members start dying—presumably because the missing money came from a very powerful Mexican drug cartel, and the cartel has sent assassins to America for revenge. Once Breacher's team begins losing members, Atlanta homicide detectives become involved, with Caroline Brentwood (the veddy English Olivia Williams, with a shaky Southern accent and a butch, Ellen-style 'do) leading the charge. Brentwood butts heads with Breacher, even as her partner (Harold Perrineau) worships him, but as she learns more of Breacher's tragic back story, she predictably begins to fall for him.

About that back story: Breacher occasionally sits alone in his house at night, watching particular videos. These videos were mailed to him by a cartel he'd been hunting down; the cartel kidnaped his wife and son, then tortured and killed them, mailing body parts to Breacher every now and then, sending him videos every now and then. The cartel's final gift to Breacher: a parcel with his wife's face in it. For us viewers, some of the videos are graphic and shocking, and the story as told by Breacher is harrowing, too.

It was scenes like those that made me so want to like this movie. "Sabotage" has a lot going for it: for fully two-thirds of its length, it's a visceral tale about things falling apart, the center not holding, and everything going to shit. Everyone, including Breacher, is a thief or is corrupt in some way or another. No one can afford to trust anyone. Schwarzenegger doesn't play his usual bulletproof demigod; at the very beginning of the movie, we see him watching the video of his wife's torture—miserable, furious, and absolutely powerless. Schwarzenegger has aged into this sort of role, and he wears the gravitas well in this film. The story also gives Arnold the chance to act, for a change, instead of just to pose. I have to say: he's not terrible.

The plot contains a series of interesting twists as the mystery deepens, and the actors who play the members of the DEA tac team are all spot-on. Mireille Enos, as Lizzy, deserves special mention for so convincingly playing a flat-out hateful bitch. Enos's strongly angled jaw, flashing teeth, and slightly wandering eye all lend her an almost Joker-like aura of craziness. When people start asking each other who took the damn money, we in the audience immediately suspect Lizzy, but the movie is too smart for that.

Unfortunately, the smarts drain out very suddenly in the movie's final third, and I can even tell you the exact moment that it happens: the sniper shot that takes out Grinder (Joe Manganiello, better known as the unfortunate Flash in the first Sam Raimi "Spider-Man"). Everything beyond that moment is one huge, crushing disappointment after all we've been through. "Sabotage" is almost a smart movie for most of its running time, but once the sniper kills Grinder, the mystery of who's been behind everything gets solved; a silly car chase undermines and wastes all the tension that had built up until that point, and Breacher suddenly turns into a white-hat cowboy (no, I mean that literally—he wears a white cowboy hat for the final battle) who finally has the chance to track down his family's killers.

As I said above, I wanted to like this movie. The problem lies purely with the screenwriting, which flipped from Awesome to Suck in the blink of an eye. This could have been such an amazing film if only the writers had retained their marbles when scripting the dénouement. This could also have been a movie with a message: during the first and second reel, the tone was darkly cynical and overtly anti-government—the kind of film that American conservatives might flock to because it would reinforce their suspicions about how rotten our system is. Even more than that, though, the movie could have made a great study in paranoia and the lack of honor among thieves. As it is, we never truly understand all the villains' motivations. Worse than that, the moment we get to the sniper shot, the movie solves one major mystery by revealing the answer directly to us instead of allowing the characters to figure things out for themselves. That, to my mind, is unforgivable.

In fact, given the sharp contrast between the first two-thirds and the final third of the story, I really have to wonder whether the final third had been scripted by a completely different set of hands. I think "Sabotage" should be re-shot with a better ending. The ending we've been given leaves me feeling cheated and betrayed. None of this is the actors' fault; the onus is on the damn writers. This could have been a huge comeback film for Schwarzenegger. Instead, it turned out to be a stinker.

"Kingsman: The Secret Service"

With 2015's "Kingsman: The Secret Service," I'm tempted to say that, if you've seen the first "Kick-Ass," then you've seen "Kingsman." The stories have many parallels: youths are turned into killing machines; heroic wisdom figures reveal new vistas in crime fighting to the young protagonist; frenetic gun battles combine horrific blood spatter and comedy in a cocaine-mad jumble of Peckinpah and Tarantino; everyone's got a foul mouth.

"Kingsman" is the story of Gary "Eggsy" Unwin (heretofore unknown-to-me Taron Egerton), a twentysomething English punk and Marine Corps dropout saddled with an abusive stepfather, whose real father, Lee Unwin, died during a covert operation when Eggsy was a child. Little does Eggsy know that Lee had been a Kingsman in training—a James Bond-style secret agent operating outside of governmental authority to protect Great Britain and the wider world order. Lee Unwin's mentor is Harry Hart (Colin Firth, playing very much against type), who has been suffering from survivor's guilt because Lee had leaped onto a grenade during a mission in the Middle East, thereby saving Hart's team from certain death. Hart's code name, in the style of the Knights of the Round Table, is Galahad. After Eggsy has a run-in with the police, Galahad/Hart gets Eggsy released and confesses that he thinks Eggsy might be Kingsman material. Eggsy eventually agrees to join the Kingsman training program along with several other male and female candidates, including Roxanne "Roxy" Morton, one of the few candidates who doesn't look down on Eggsy's lower-class background.

Meanwhile, Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson, rocking a comical lisp that turns his cries of "Shit!" into "Thit!"), an eccentric tycoon—and MIT alum—who has come up with his own dastardly solution to the global-warming crisis, is giving away special SIM cards that offer forever-free phone and internet service to the world. Little does the world know, however, that the SIM cards are programmed to turn cell phones into emitters that broadcast a wave that interferes with the nervous system, causing people to become murderously aggressive while also losing all their inhibitions. Valentine, in promoting his lethal SIM cards, has been meeting with leaders and celebrities the world over; those who agree with his plan to cause a worldwide, mega-genocidal superbrawl (it's alleged that a radically reduced human population will be better for the environment) are given a chip-like neck implant that supposedly protects the human body from the aggression-waves, but which also—unbeknownst to the wearer—can be set to explode, cruelly beheading the victim. Those who disagree with Valentine are kidnaped and placed in luxury holding cells within Valentine's mountain stronghold.

The movie alternates between Eggsy's Kingsman training and Valentine's machinations, with Galahad/Hart moving between both plotlines, sometimes watching Eggsy's progress and sometimes gathering intelligence on Valentine. Eggsy's training is supervised by dour Scotsman Merlin (Englishman Mark Strong, doing a not-bad Scottish accent) while Kingsman head-honcho Arthur (Michael Caine) watches over the proceedings.

Eggsy's path in the film is the standard hero's-journey arc: a young man with heroic potential first receives the call to adventure that lifts him out of his current dreary circumstances (in Eggsy's case, the dreariness means pub crawling, car theft, and taking a thrashing from his stepdad while trying to care for his mother and little sister), meeting a threshold guardian/wisdom figure in the form of Harry Hart, receiving powerful gifts (in the form of firearms and other clever, secret-agenty devices) as well as warrior training, descending into the labyrinth/belly of the beast (Valentine's mountain fortress), and eventually returning with a boon for his people (saving the world—is this really a spoiler?).

Normally, in heroic narratives, the hero must somehow grow beyond the wisdom figure, which usually means the wisdom figure has to quit the stage. This happens in "Kingsman," but only after Galahad, this movie's wisdom figure, is given the chance to show off his martial prowess while inside a hate-group church not unlike Westboro Baptist Church. I was reminded, during this scene, of another film I have yet to review: "God Bless America," in which a man diagnosed with a brain tumor decides he's going to clean up the world by killing as many of its assholes as he can. The church-massacre scene in "Kingsman" allows director Matthew Vaughn to stretch his wings and show off some creative gunplay and unconventional hand-to-hand techniques using the sorts of objects found only in a house of worship. It's mayhem, gleefully rendered, and consistent with Vaughn's signature style.

"Kingsman" is, I think, a playful homage to the Bond films. Given Vaughn's love of blood and gore, I'm not sure that it's the sort of homage that the Bond films' makers would appreciate: receiving a cinematic tribute from Matthew Vaughn is a bit like having your lover spell out MARRY ME by draping human entrails over the railing of a freeway overpass. Still, the Bond elements are there, in the sudden screeches and yelps of the lively musical score, in the self-conscious Bond references made by Galahad and Valentine, up to and including the inevitable "hero gets the girl" moment at the very end (which comes, in true Vaughn style, hot on the heels of an anal-sex joke). My only problem with that moment was that I felt the hero should have gotten together with a different girl.

The movie did a good job of fooling some of our expectations. Dead loved ones didn't suddenly return to life unharmed. Eggsy didn't quite get the chance to take on his stepfather in the way we would have hoped. And as mentioned in the previous paragraph, Eggsy got the wrong girl—or at least, not the girl I thought he should have gotten.

Matthew Vaughn, along with having directed "Kick-Ass," also directed "X-Men: First Class." Viewers of that movie will recognize all the same directorial touches and flourishes here. Vaughn is nothing if not an action director with his own distinct and memorable style. He demands that we accept vulgarity and cartoonishly bloody, gun-driven ultraviolence as just a matter of course; at the same time, he's a director who demands that his actors act—unlike, say, Kevin Smith or Smith's idol George Lucas, neither of whom seems interested in pushing actors to their expressive limits.

When I review action movies, I normally like to talk a little about the fight choreography. One fighter in particular attracts attention here: Sofia Boutella (watch her French-language interview here; she's Algerian French, not Latina, as I'd first thought) plays Valentine's right-hand woman Gazelle, a double-amputee whose leg prostheses—all CGI—are a combination of curved, springy, Oscar Pistorius-style running blades and actual sword blades that she employs, early on in the film, to split an unsuspecting Kingsman agent completely in half from head to crotch. Later on, she uses her martial-arts skill to defeat a circle of guards protecting a Scandinavian princess, and I found myself wondering, during that scene, how she managed to run on a smooth marble floor without ever slipping. Gazelle has the honor of engaging Eggsy in a final kaleidoscopic fight inside Valentine's mountain fortress; she acquits herself impressively, although I think you can imagine who emerges the victor. The fight itself is well choreographed but not particularly original; there are shades of Zack Snyder-style slow-mo and references to any number of Hong Kong movies.

At this point, let me switch gears and throw out a little love for Mark Hamill—Luke Skywalker himself. Hamill, sporting a dubious English accent and an endearingly scruffy beard (apparently his real-life beard), has a brief role in "Kingsman" as Professor Arnold, an exponent of a "Gaia" theory of global climate and one of the first people to get sucked into Valentine's evil vortex. Looking tubby and scruffy, Hamill brings a certain bubbly humor to the proceedings, and it was good to see him on screen again. (Hamill's filmography makes clear that he's been doing more than just voice acting since his "Star Wars" days, but I personally haven't seen him in anything since the 1980s. I am, however, a bit familiar with his award-winning work voicing The Joker for Batman-related cartoons and video games.)

All in all, I found "Kingsman" to be enjoyable fluff, full of action, spectacle, suspense, and humor. The special effects were often tacky, but this was obviously a deliberate choice on the director's part. The comedy was delivered competently in both verbal and physical form. Vaughn's action choreography proved more memorable than the movie itself, most likely because "Kingsman" wasn't so much a movie that stood on its own as it was a bundle of cultural references—to the aforementioned Bond films, to the hero's-journey narrative, and even, obliquely, to the 1980s comedy "Trading Places," because one of the themes of "Kingsman" was that old classic: nature versus nurture. Eggsy proved capable of surpassing his London-punk roots and becoming a gentleman killing machine—a hero. For my money, the funniest line in this action-comedy went to Samuel Jackson. After Gazelle splits that Kingsman agent in two, she and Valentine attempt to find out whom he worked for. Unable to find out anything, the two run down a list of intelligence agencies: the CIA, MI6, and... Beijing. Valentine gripes, "Beijing. So freaky how there's no recognizable name for the Chinese Secret Service. Now that's what you call a secret, right?" I laughed.

As Sofia Boutella says in an English-language interview, "Kingsman" is a good movie to watch over the weekend if you're looking to spend a couple of fun hours at home. It's definitely fun, as Boutella says, but keep in mind that it's a Matthew Vaughn type of fun, which means you can't be squeamish or prudish or generally puckered of asshole. Vaughn is the id incarnate. It's a good thing, I suppose, that he seems so focused on violence: I shudder to imagine what a Vaughn movie centering on sex would be like.



Charles said...

I hated Kingsman, which I suppose makes me "squeamish or prudish or generally puckered of asshole." I know it was supposed to be ridiculous, but it just stepped out a little too far for me to maintain my suspension of disbelief, and at that point the whole house of cards came crashing down. I just couldn't get into it, especially the second half.

Kevin Kim said...

You prude.

Seriously, though, I wasn't trying to say that you're inevitably sphincter-puckered if you didn't like "Kingsman"—there are other reasons to dislike the movie (cf. the Cinema Sins take on it) than squeamishness about or discomfort with Matthew Vaughn's style.

I had noted, in my review of "Kick-Ass," that Vaughn had been playing rather naughtily in the field of child endangerment. Ultimately, I decided just to turn the ethics center of my brain off and enjoy a movie in which a little girl is super-violent, super-foul-mouthed, and super-abused by a grown man who delivers a reverse turning kick to her head (in the only moment that truly made me wince).

Vaughn is obviously not interested in suaveness or vérité.

Elisson said...

"...receiving a cinematic tribute from Matthew Vaughn is a bit like having your lover spell out MARRY ME by draping human entrails over the railing of a freeway overpass."

That's beautiful, that is.