Bad Boys for Life

48/100
Martin Lawrence and Will Smith in Bad Boys for Life

Will Smith and Martin Lawrence are definitely too old for this shit, which doesn’t stop them from trying to reclaim their 1990s buddy-cop swagger in Bad Boys for Life, a belated threequel that trades in outrageous mayhem for the more street-smart brand of personal combat apparently favored by Belgian directors Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah, aka Adil and Bilall. The bones of the story are pretty familiar: aging cop Marcus Burnett (Lawrence) is looking forward to retirement, a fate worse than death for his cocky partner Mike Lowrey (Smith), who mocks Burnett’s increasingly grandfatherly vibes. Just as the two men agree to arbitrate Burnett’s retirement date via the results of an impromptu foot race on the streets of Miami, Lowrey is gunned down by an assassin on a black motorcycle. Once Lowrey recovers, he’s bent on revenge, but his faithful sidekick Burnett wants out of the game entirely. What will it take to bring these bad boys back together … for life?

There’s plenty of plotline here and a solid helping of action, but for a too-long proportion of its running time, Bad Boys for Life is surprisingly … plain. Smith and Lawrence are coasting into their fifth decades on a cushy bed of audience goodwill — I don’t mind that; they’ve earned it — but their verbal sparring has lost a lot of its snap. In his quieter moments Lawrence turns in an impressive, genuinely touching performance as a man torn between duties to his family and his friend, but Smith is more reliant on a constant feed of mild one-liners. Fortunately, the cooler-than-thou young actors playing members of the Ammo squad, an elite task force inside the police department (Vanessa Hudgens, Alexander Ludwig, Charles Melton’s, Paola Nuñez) keep Smith on his toes. 

Adil and Bilall rev things up substantially by deploying a brutal array of stabs and slashes, using deep crimson pools of blood as set dressing; those fight scenes can get vicious. Ace stunt coordinator Spiro Razatos helps put bigger action on the screen, but the set pieces are dim echoes of that old Michael Bay bellicosity, or better or worse. While the directors do take advantage of an undercover mission in a nightclub to establish that Smith and Lawrence’s younger co-stars look good wearing very little clothing, they have ditched Bay’s signature leering camera moves in favor of hanging back respectfully from the bodies — and they seem every bit as impressed by Alexander Ludwig’s hulking physique and Charles Melton’s impeccably cocky charm as they are by the bodies of Paola Nuñez and Vanessa Hudgens. That’s a nice touch.

What For Life really gets right about the Bad Boys ethos is its insensitivity: When Captain Howard (Joe Pantoliano) asks Lowrey if he shot anyone during a surveillance mission gone horribly wrong, he’s unperturbed: “C’mon, captain, you know I shot some people.” (It’s a great line reading from Smith.) In another scene, a body drops unexpectedly from the sky and smashes into Burnett’s parked Nissan Quest, occasioning loud complaints as he imagines only his wife’s displeasure at the wrecked roof and windshield, all speckled with blood and, presumably, other bits of human tissue. This callous disregard for human life is definitely a joke held over from the earlier films; I don’t want to be the guy complaining that a Bad Boys movie isn’t leftie enough for my taste. Still, a decade of hard reflection on Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and hands-up-don’t-shoot has made it a little harder for me to cheer for trigger-happy heroes in uniform.

Then again, there’s a lightness to Arbi and Fallah’s unadorned approach that’s hard to resist entirely. The film turns pleasantly silly as we head into its third act, which involves a Mexico City bruja and the emergence of a skeleton from Mike Lowrey’s closet. The film’s production design and color palette turn things up one step from the look favored by Bay, if such a thing is even possible. Daylight exteriors (and some interiors) are lit with harsh Miami sunlight that shows up as saturated yellow verging on orange on screen; if you don’t care for that look, wait for the glorious purples and pinks of evening skies, nightclubs and more. There’s even a scene where Pantoliano’s shirt is the same shade as his Pepto-Bismol. Now that’s production design! 

 

Bad Times at the El Royale

34/100
Photo Credit: Kimberley French.

At least Cabin in the Woods had the sense to call it a day after misrepresenting the horror genre for 95 minutes. Bad Times at the El Royale misunderstands Quentin Tarantino for two hours and 20 and doesn’t stop fêting its own cleverness until the moment the credits roll. Writer-director Drew Goddard brings on the bursts of unexpected violence, ostentatious tracking shots, nonlinear narrative elements, and heavy-handed allusions to faith and salvation, sets them all to a soundtrack peppered with period soul and R&B and some ostensibly sassy dialogue, mixes it up, and strains it into a cocktail glass instead of serving it up in the red Solo cup it deserves.


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Brimstone

45/100
Guy Pearce in Brimstone

In a country where Paul Verhoeven represents cinéma du papa, it makes sense that a younger generation of filmmakers would produce something like Brimstone. Calling back to Verhoeven’s earthy, sex-drenched cinema of the 1970s, but updating it with the gory sensibilities of a contemporary horror movie, Brimstone is a spectacularly lurid melodrama that seeks to excuse indulgences both bloody and lewd by catching them up in a lecture about runaway misogyny, which is used as a stick with which to beat its heroine nearly to death over and over again. Brimstone is the kind of movie where a bullet wound is rarely just a bullet wound — generally it’s the goo-slick remnants of a head shot, with blood spatter plus a little puddle, and a few gobbets of brain matter sprinkled around the scene like so much sea salt on a plate of raw meat. It’s the kind of movie where a child is not only placed in peril, but is outright tortured on screen. And it’s the kind of movie where a woman absolutely, positively cannot catch a goddamned break. Continue reading

Elle

71/100
Isabelle Huppert in Elle

The first thing that happens in Elle is something that’s heard but not seen — the sounds of heavy breathing and bodies in motion, rubbing against each other. It’s almost certainly the sound of a sex scene, but there’s an aggression to it that suggests either exceptionally good sex or really, really bad sex — an act of violence. The smash of breaking glass is inconclusive, and the quick gasps and grunts don’t clarify a thing; divorced from visual context, they are uncommunicative, inconclusive fragments of expression. It’s an unnerving way to stage what is eventually revealed as a horrifying scene — a woman is brutally raped by a masked intruder — and of course Paul Verhoeven knows it.  The director’s first major film in 10 years is as sensational a crime drama as you’d expect from the director of Basic Instinct and Showgirls, a cutting psychological study anchored by ugly, explicit rape scenes. Its restrained look and feel are a far cry from the gleeful chaos favored by the Verhoeven of the 1970s, the poster boy for Dutch auteurism on the international scene. That filmmaker all but vanished during the director’s stay in Hollywood, only to resurface with the pulpy and absorbing Nazi resistance drama Black Book. But as lurid as Elle is, Verhoeven’s style is resolutely low-key. I suspect he’s deliberately channeling the austere Euro-drama of Michael Haneke, couching his irrepressible mischievousness in the international language of the arthouse. Continue reading

The Neon Demon

61/100
Elle Fanning in The Neon Demon

Jesse’s gonna die. From The Neon Demon‘s opening scene, a staged tableaux that has the aspiring model (Elle Fanning) slumped on a settee, head back, covered in a rush of blood as if her throat’s been cut, it’s clear that she’s doomed. Her demeanor in front of the camera is compared to a “deer in the headlights.” She has no family, no friends, and nobody keeping tabs on her after her arrival in L.A. She has full lips, big eyes, and a delightful nose. She is 16 years old, and everyone she meets comments on her beauty. She may as well be wearing a sign on her back: “Kill me.” Continue reading

The Gift

25/100
Rebecca Hall in The Gift

The two meatheads sitting next to us at The Gift last night were having a hard time with the movie. They talked. They fidgeted and twitched. One of them checked the time on his Apple Watch a half-dozen times over the course of 30 minutes. Eventually, one of them fell dead asleep. I don’t think he made it to the halfway mark. His buddy roused him and they split with about a half-hour to go in the picture. I sort of envied them. Like I said, these guys were meatheads. But I got where they were coming from. Continue reading

Kingsman: The Secret Service

58/100
Colin Firth in Kingsman: The Secret Service

I’m on board with this in principle — scrappy council-house kid gives stuffy old-rich-gentlemen’s club a kick in the ass is a solid enough baseline for the old-fashioned secret-agents-save-the-world story, and scenes of over-the-top, balletic violence provide an enticing hook. This is also an origin story — the jumping-off point for an obviously hoped-for franchise turning the film’s unknown Welsh star, Taron Egerton, into a street-smart action hero — and so we spend much of the film stuck in spy-school, where director Matthew Vaughn and co-screenwriter Jane Goldman spit up a range of pre-chewed chestnuts from the history of elite-training narratives on film to show how fatherless protag “Eggsy” Unwin (Egerton) earns his super-spy status under the mentorship of the ever-dapper veteran Harry (Colin Firth). It’s not unpleasant, but it doesn’t go anywhere new.

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A Most Violent Year

58/100
Oscar Isaac and Jessica Chastain in A Most Violent Year

A Most Violent Year doesn’t give viewers much to chew on, which is a shame given the film’s deliberately retro palette, recalling the glory days of New York filmmaking in the 1970s. Thing is, while movies by Scorsese and Coppola hummed with what felt like a novelistic depth and intensity, A Most Violent Year just sort of scoots along the surface of its milieu — heating oil distribution in greater New York City, circa 1981. And the violence of the title isn’t Scorsese violence, or even Coppola violence. Literally, it refers to the high crime rates in New York in the 1980s. Figuratively, it’s a metaphor for the pain caused by the unpleasant ethical dilemmas that are the film’s subject. Expect lots of terse exchanges and meaningful looks, not so much gunplay and fistfights.
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