Movie Review: ‘Shazam!’ is a Blast of Kinetic and Frequently Disturbing Superhero Fun

1 Comment

CREDIT: Warner Bros.

Starring: Zachary Levi, Asher Angel, Mark Strong, Jack Dylan Grazer, Djimon Hounsou, Grace Fulton, Ian Chen, Jovan Armand, Faithe Herman, Cooper Andrews, Marta Milans

Director: David F. Sandberg

Running Time: 132 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Surprisingly Intense, Decently Scary Superhero Violence

Release Date: April 5, 2019

Shazam! harkens back to an era when superhero flicks, and the action-adventure generally, were legitimately scary. This is a movie in which a fair amount of people disintegrate, or get eaten by gargoyle-esque monsters, or get thrown out of windows hundreds of stories up. Seriously, this might set a record for most defenestrations in a PG-13 movie. I don’t mean to imply that the ostensibly family-friendly segment of the superhero genre has become otherwise toothless. The injuries and collateral damage are acknowledged in the likes of The Avengers (and overly fetishized in the likes of Man of Steel), but they are rarely this tangibly visceral. It’s been a while since the Penguin bit off someone’s nose in Batman Returns, but Shazam! has plenty of moments that are shocking on the same level, and that is mostly a good thing.

Those violent, sudden deaths hit as hard as they do because Shazam! is at first glance the height of boundless fun and bright colors. Its wish-fulfillment premise is that teenage boy Billy Batson (Asher Angel) is given the superpowers of an ancient wizard, which he accesses by shouting the title exclamation. This turns him into Zachary Levi in full-on beefcake form dressed in the most vibrant red and yellow with a lighting bolt on the front of his ensemble. Like most kids his age, Billy is nowhere near responsible enough to handle the weight of superherodom, which lends his adventures a “With great power comes great responsibility” vibe, but it’s a lot messier than the template set by Spider-Man. In his quest to exploit his powers for fame and fortune, Billy nearly kills a busful of people and panics so much in response that it is genuinely unclear if he can manage to fix his mistake and save them.

Lending a layer of tragedy to Shazam! is the fact that Billy and his main nemesis are both driven by an origin story of familial rejection. Billy was accidentally separated at a young age from his mother at a carnival, and he has spent the ensuing years running away from foster homes in an attempt to reunite with her. Meanwhile, Thaddeus Sivana (Mark Strong) grew up an emotionally abused outcast in his wealthy family. He was once considered a candidate to receive the Shazam powers, and he has spent decades attempting to rediscover the wizardly realm, primarily so that he can exact some extremely disproportionate revenge. It’s not too hard to imagine that in a parallel universe, Billy could grow up to be as terrifying as Thaddeus, but luckily he has the strength of his newest foster family to help carry him along. Amidst all the very real danger, Shazam! would very much likely us to recognize the importance of a loving support system no matter what our level of superpowers.

Shazam! is Recommended If You Like: Spider-Man, Batman Returns, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Finger Lightning Bolts

This Is a Movie Review: ‘Den of Thieves’ is a Warmed-Over, Mush-Mouthed Michael Mann Impersonation

Leave a comment

CREDIT: STX

This review was originally published on News Cult in January 2018.

Starring: Gerard Butler, Pablo Schreiber, O’Shea Jackson Jr., Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson, Evan Jones, Cooper Andrews, Dawn Olivieri

Director: Christian Gudegast

Running Time: 140 Minutes

Rating: R for Cacophonous Continuous Gunfire, a Strip Club Detour, and Way Too Many F-Bombs

Release Date: January 19, 2018

According to the opening titles of Den of Thieves, Los Angeles is the “bank robbery capital of the world.” I do not know if that title is actually true, partly because this movie does not make me care enough to confirm or debunk the claim. Besides, it is essentially immaterial to the plot. This is not about an epidemic of robberies, but one specific crew, who could be pulling off their big heist anywhere so long as the cash is present and an escape route is available. As for Gerard Butler’s performance as the cop doggedly tracking them, it does not scream “L.A.” so much as “nutso actor sheds any semblance of sanity.”

Den of Thieves is the directorial debut of Christian Gudegast, who previously scripted the likes of London Has Fallen (which I have not seen, but I have heard it is just as dreadful as its predecessor Olympus Has Fallen). Michael Mann’s influence on him is obvious, but not fruitful. Gudegast clearly wants this to be a sprawling crime saga on the same level as Heat or Miami Vice, but that would require characters who deliver personality instead of an endless string of groan-inducing f-bombs.

As Merriman, the leader of the den, Pablo Schreiber mostly relies on bulging out his facial muscles. As his right-hand man, Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson basically stands off to the side and looks vaguely threatening. O’Shea Jackson Jr., as the team’s driver and newest recruit, is able to infuse the proceedings with a few amusing moments. (There is a running gag with a couple of randy female customers when he moonlights delivering Chinese food.) Meanwhile, the rest of the guys in the den are either too beefy or too masked to convey any tangible emotion.

But for better and for worse, this is the Gerard Butler show. His “Big Nick” is not so much corrupt or “flying off the handle” so much as he is filled with constant, fidgety, bizarre tics that do not resemble any sort of recognizable human behavior I am familiar with. I cannot say that any of his performance adds up to anything “good,” but I must admit that I could not look away.

Ultimately, the scheme wraps up with a series of twists that mostly serve to frustrate, not because they cheat with any internal logic, but because they require a great deal of patience to sit around before anything meaningful happens. At nearly two and a half hours, there is precious little to make that journey bearable. To be fair, the crowd I saw it was hooting and hollering throughout, so there clearly is an audience for this sort of muscled-up, unsubtle affair. But from my perspective, this is a dithering cacophony that drives me batty.

Den of Thieves is Recommended If You Like: Michael Mann’s crime sagas but without the visual and formal experimentalism, Training Day but with an unfathomable amount of scenery-chewing

Grade: 2 out of 5 Automatic Rounds