‘Bad Boys for Life’ Finds the Heart That Was Always Lurking Beneath the Carnage

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CREDIT: Kyle Kaplan/Sony Pictures

Starring: Will Smith, Martin Lawrence, Vanessa Hudgens, Alexander Ludwig, Charles Melton, Paola Núñez, Kate del Castillo, Jacob Scipio, Joe Pantoliano, Nicky Jam, Theresa Randle

Director: Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah

Running Time: 124 Minutes

Rating: R for Execution-Style Gunfire, A Fiery Climax, and Motormouth Profanity

Release Date: January 17, 2020

Bad Boys II came out in July 2003, a month after 2 Fast 2 Furious. The former is perhaps the apex at which Michael Bay fully embraced his destiny as a director of baroque extremes. Its signature chase scene, in which cars pop out of other cars and massive vehicular destruction is ultimately essentially shrugged off, is perhaps the most sublimely over-the-top sequence ever committed to celluloid. In the years since, the Fast and Furious flicks have trended more and more towards such defying of physics and logic, while Bad Boys has remained dormant … until now. As Detectives Marcus Bennett and Mike Lowrey return (and Bay retreats to just producing, with Belgian duo Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah taking over directing duties), Bad Boys for Life in turn finds inspiration from the other signature element of the F&F franchise, embracing the heart and brotherhood at its core that was always waiting to be explored.

The pairing of Martin Lawrence and Will Smith in the first two Bad Boys leaned hard (dangerously hard) into their odd couple nature. Marcus (Lawrence) and Mike (Smith) are not only partners, but also lifelong friends, which is evident but also a little disheartening in terms of how much they constantly get on each others’ nerves. But Bad Boys for Life surprisingly, but wisely, embraces the genuine love between the two men. One running thread in the series that continues here is Marcus’ desperation to just retire and spend time with his family. That was previously played mostly for laughs, but now it is much more serious, as Mike survives a brush with death and Marcus becomes fully convinced that they have served long and well enough. But Mike has revenge on his mind, and he wants his partner to be right alongside him as always. Marcus initially refuses, and even though we know he is eventually going to come around, the moment when he stands his ground is killer, with both actors asked to reach new levels of investment and emotional gut-wrenching.

The other gratifying innovation on display is a new set of teammates to render Marcus and Mike much less of the uncontrollable cowboys they’ve always been. It may be fun to see them constantly give Captain Joe Pantoliano conniptions, but at a certain point, it’s a little too hard to accept that someone wouldn’t step in and put a firm stop to their antics. That check comes in the form of AMMO, a new division of Miami PD focused on surveillance and drones more so than going in guns blazing. It’s headed up by a former flame of Mike’s (Paola Núñez) and a trio of youngsters (Vanessa Hudgens, Alexander Ludwig, Charles Melton) who all admire Mike while simultaneously laughing at him and saving his ass when he gets into trouble. These bad boys indeed are still riding together to the end, but there’s plenty of space to hop in alongside them.

Bad Boys for Life is Recommended If You Like: The previous Bad Boys but wish they had more heart, the Fast & Furious series

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Rides Together

‘Spies in Disguise’ Preaches Weirdness, But It Could Stand to Be Weirder

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CREDIT: Blue Sky Studios/Twentieth Century Fox.

Starring: Will Smith, Tom Holland, Rashida Jones, Ben Mendelsohn, Reba McEntire, Rachel Brosnahan, Karen Gillan, DJ Khaled, Masi Oka

Directors: Troy Quane and Nick Bruno

Running Time: 102 Minutes

Rating: PG for A Pigeon Eating a Band-Aid, and the Like

Release Date: December 25, 2019

Spies in Disguise has two credited directors and two credited screenwriters (and a third writer with a “story by” credit), and it’s based on a 2009 short film made by someone who is none of the aforementioned writers or directors. Yet it feels like a very singular, personal vision, as though it were willed into existence by someone who really loves pigeons and wanted the world to know that they’re not just rats with wings, but rather, dignified and eminently capable creatures. The world of animated children’s films is filled with plenty of talking animals, so this isn’t out of the ordinary in that regard. But I haven’t gotten the sense that movie-going tykes have been clamoring for the pigeon niche to be filled in this genre. And yet that’s what has happened, with about as triumphant a premise as possible, as the fate of the world hinges upon what super-awesome spy Lance Sterling (Will Smith) can accomplish when he turns into a pigeon.

If there are any pigeon aficionados out there, you will certainly be pleased by how lovingly they’re treated in this film. For everyone else, you’ll probably be floored by how out of time Spies in Disguise comes across. It feels like something that should have come out twenty years ago, when CGI animation was in its infancy and Smith was known primarily as a Man in Black. I actually appreciate some of its musty style, as it commits to a full-on opening credits sequence (a rarity in this era) that follows not one, but two, cold opening scenes.But the rest of my reaction to this film is basically being flummoxed by its outdated, non-specific definition of “weird.”

The other main character is socially inept young gadget guy Walter Beckett (Tom Holland), who is the one who accidentally turns Sterling into a bird. He’s spent his whole life believing that the world needs more weird, just like his mom assured him when he was a boy. But the thing is, while he may be a little awkward, I find it hard to believe that his line of work wouldn’t consider him weird so much as technologically essential. And while a man becoming a pigeon may be unusual in our world, it’s standard practice in this sort of movie. Spies in Disguise, you need to follow your own advice and be more weird.

Spies in Disguise is Recommended If You Like: Therianthropy

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Spies in Da Skies

‘Gemini Man’ Review: Will Smith is the Clone Daddy, and I Feel Fine

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CREDIT: Paramount Pictures/Skydance/Jerry Bruckheimer Films

Starring: Will Smith, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Clive Owen, Benedict Wong

Director: Ang Lee

Running Time: 117 Minutes

Rating: PG-13 for Scrapes and Bruises from a Variety of Guns and Errant Motorcyles

Release Date: October 11, 2019

Gemini Man is about Will Smith confronting a younger version of himself, so naturally enough, while watching Gemini Man, I found myself confronting my memories of earlier films that it reminded me of. Smith plays Henry Brogan, a sharpshooting government assassin who’s got retirement on the mind. In his own way, he’s as remarkable a human specimen as Nelson Mandela, except that, as one character helpfully informs us, “Nelson Mandela couldn’t kill a man on a moving train two miles away.” Smith also plays what appears to be a younger version of himself sent to kill Henry, which obviously calls to mind Looper (which I dare say is way up there among the best sci-fi movies of this century). It turns out that that young’un (who goes by Jackson, or more often “Junior”) is actually a clone, which puts me in the mind of Never Let Me Go or even the MST3K-spoofed Parts: The Clonus Horror. Henry and Junior’s well-choreographed fight scenes feature them anticipating each other’s every move, and their subsequent description of each other as a “ghost” had me thinking about Mario Kart‘s Time Trial mode. Even Henry’s choice of dockside retirement locale is strangely evocative of this year’s bizarre head-spinner Serenity.

While at first (and second and third) glance, Gemini Man appears rather derivative, it’s got a big idea on its mind that’s significantly different than its forebears. Although oddly enough, the reason why Henry has been cloned and Junior’s been sent to kill him isn’t revealed until the end, so I guess it counts as a spoiler. I’ll keep it a secret then, but it would have made sense to reveal it earlier and allow the movie a chance to really dig into the ethical conundrums it suggests. Because without the clarity of that thematic schematic, Gemini Man is an oddly limp storytelling endeavor in which globetrotting and lethal situations feel like no big deal when they should feel like kind of a big deal. Furthermore, the script features some stunningly unnatural dialogue, but honestly, those moments are the highlights of the film because that’s when personality (unintentionally [?] offbeat as it may be) shines through. Gemini Man‘s premise and the talent involved suggest the height of ambition, but the execution offers the counter-narrative that this is actually just a goofy little lark.

Note: The screening I attended was projected in the high frame rate of 120 frames per second, five times film’s usual 24 FPS. This is how the film was shot, though only 14 theaters in America will be showing it in 120 FPS. The major noticeable difference between 120 and 24 is the level of detail on human skin (in 120, you can pretty much see every pore and sweat gland). It’s slightly surreal, though I don’t think it’s because 24 is more natural, but rather because that’s what we’re used to, and anything different is going to feel odd.

Gemini Man is Recommended If You Like: Feeling Ever So Slightly Off

Grade: 2.5 out of 5 Clone Ghosts

Movie Review: ‘Aladdin’ Grants Our Wish for an Illuminating Disney Remake

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CREDIT: Daniel Smith/Disney

Starring: Mena Massoud, Will Smith, Naomi Scott, Marwin Kenzari, Navid Negahban, Nasim Pedrad, Numan Acar, Billy Magnussen

Director: Guy Ritchie

Running Time: 128 Minutes

Rating: PG for Vividly Fantastical Wish Fulfillment

Release Date: May 24, 2019

One of the best possible values of Disney’s recent spate of remakes is something typically associated with theatrical revivals, i.e., the space to illuminate and expand upon the messages of the original. With that in mind, Guy Ritchie’s rendition of Aladdin is one of the best entries in this trend because of how much it emphasizes what worked about the original and how successful it is with its new elements. Both versions are clear, thorough, and simple about explaining their character motivations, which sounds like it should be a basic tenet of storytelling, and it is (except when you want to be ambiguous), but sometimes filmmakers get distracted by the bells and whistles.

While the details are fun and fancy, the main ideas are what keep Aladdin flying along. We know that Aladdin and Jasmine are smitten each other, we know that Genie wants his freedom, we know that Jafar is power-hungry, and we know that the Sultan wants what is best for his kingdom and his daughter. The circumstances that frustrate or reward these desires are understandable and internally consistent, which adds up to a formula for a satisfying story.

So Ritchie and his co-screenwriter John August know what clicks about the meat of what they’ve got here – how about the fresh flavors they add? Casting is key here, and that is a success across the board. Mena Massoud (Aladdin), Naomi Scott (Jasmine), and Marwin Kenzari (Jafar) are mainly playing variations of what came before, while Navid Negahban’s Sultan is much sterner than, though just as lovable as, Douglas Seale’s goofball version. Nasim Pedrad and Billy Magnussen provide a good chunk of the comic relief as a couple of new characters, a saucy handmaiden to Jasmine who can totally get it and a very sweet, but way-of-his-depth, Scandinavian-ish suitor, respectively.

Of course, the question everyone is parroting is: does Genie Will Smith grant audiences their wishes? There were plenty of concerns after trailer footage suggested that a blue Fresh Prince was maybe a little too creepy for comfort. Frankly, though, I have spent this whole time believing that any weirdness is this movie’s biggest asset. And ultimately anyway, I believe that the CGI threads the needle between off-putting and palatable. (Although I’m not sure how necessary his jacked torso is.) Smith is reverent to Robin Williams’ iconic performance, but his Genie is just as unique. He’s operating at the height of Big Willie style, the sort of confidante who knows just how to swag out confidence and perception to everyone’s advantage. We have had a friend like him before, but we could always use another.

Aladdin is Recommended If You Like: Aladdin (1992), Big Willie Style, Willennium, Sitcom episodes with Nasim Pedrad guest appearances

Grade: 3.5 out of 5 Magic Carpets