It took 8-years to get to Captain America: Civil War and everyone involved in Marvel went out of their way to ensure the payoff was worth it.
The Purge was a surprise hit last summer thanks to a pretty ingenious (in a gloriously stupid way) central concept. Unfortunately, the movie failed to actually show the promised night of anarchy known as the purge, instead merely delivering a mediocre home invasion movie anchored by Ethan Hawke being Ethan Hawke. This rushed-to-release sequel rights the original film’s most egregious wrong by at least actually setting a story within the purge, but then manages to get absolutely everything that the first film got right completely wrong. Sure, the setting is terrifying, but the characters a little more than one-note potential corpses, so it’s impossible to care one way or another if they die. Ironically, this film that preaches an anti-violence message ad nauseam serves up heaping doses of violence as its only pleasure. It’s a mess, but you get to finally see the purge this time… so I guess that’s something.
For anyone who missed the first movie or the trailers for either movie, the purge is a night of government sanctioned anarchy in the US in which no laws apply. Somehow, letting the country cut loose for a 12 hours of glorious violence once a year has managed to lower crime and unemployment rates substantially, so it’s become a beloved institution. This movie obviously takes place on purge night, following a boring couple (Zach Gilford and Kiele Sanchez) and an equally boring mother/daughter duo (Carmen Ejogo and Zoe Soul) who end up trapped in the middle of the purge for reasons too stupid to mention here. Thankfully, they both end up protected by a kindly killing machine played by Frank Grillo. He dresses like the Punisher, acts like the Punisher, has a similar backstory to the Punisher, shares the Punisher’s perverse sense of justice, and drives Mad Max’s car. Grillo’s Marvel lawsuit baiting semi-Punisher is out for revenge on purge night, but sets that aside to save the four characters who are the protagonists for some reason. Plus Michael K. White appears in a few scenes as an anti-purge leader of a militant revolutionary group and it appears as though government agents kill citizens on purge night as well. Why, you ask? Well, to set up the next sequel silly! This is a franchise, don’t ya know!
So good news first: the purge is finally depicted in its bloodsoaked glory and delivers a handful of insane set pieces (especially those depicting how the wealthy celebrate the purge). The bad news is that everything else in the movie is either mediocre or garbage. None of the characters have much personality or reason for being and as a result none of the performances are particularly memorable. It’s impossible to care whether or not anyone lives, so you watch the movie secretly hoping they’ll all die. Then the movie makes you feel guilty for that bloodlust by preaching an anti-violence message that feels pretty antithetical to the violence-shilling movie that contains it. The script also boasts some of the worst dialogue of a mainstream film in recent memory. Yet it’s not even quotably bad, just dull and per functionary. The only thing the movie has to offer is its anarchistic violence and even that is nearly impossible to see through all the mindless shakycam cinematography and rapid-fire editing. In other words, the whole thing is a big stinky mess. It’s a shame that the concept wasn’t used for a videogame instead, because that seems like a medium more suited to depicting/critiquing the concept of The Purge. But that didn’t happen. It’s a movie franchise now and an increasingly crap one too.
More than anything else, the film feels rushed. No one expected The Purge to win it’s opening weekend last summer, so this sequel was shot-gunned into production to hit screens barely 13 months after the original. Writer/director James DeMonaco clearly had to scramble to make that happen, so all of the wafer-thin characters and tin-eared dialogue were probably first draft placeholders that he never got a chance to develop. That doesn’t excuse a movie this sloppy getting a prime summer opening weekend, but at least explains it. I suppose if you’re desperate to see the purge in action then the movie offers a certain level of satisfaction. However, if you’re looking for any of the other qualities that one traditionally associates with a good movie, it’s probably best to skip this flick entirely. There’s nothing here but empty violence and tedious rhetoric.
Before getting into my review of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, a confession is in order. Back in my snotty-nosed and comic-clutching youth, I hated Captain America. “Too boring,” said I. Later I used words like “propagandistic” and “passé” both before and after I knew what they meant. When Kevin Feige and Marvel announced their Avengers cinematic roll out, it was the Captain America film series that I dreaded the most. Then the unexpected happened. Somehow, the Captain America turned out to be the most consistently entertaining and unpredictable non-Iron Man Marvel franchise. Feige and co. have approached the series with an understanding of the characters’ pitfalls as much as his strengths. The first Captain America movie openly satirized Cap’s propaganda origin and silly costume. The Avengers turned his dated ideals into a running gag. Now Captain America: The Winter Soldier has not only pitted Cap against America, but transformed the series into a 70s-style paranoid political thriller a la Three Days Of The Condor (that Robert Redford stunt casting is no accident). It’s as if Kevin Feige knew how much I hated the character and went out of his way to make me love Steve Rogers. Of course, I’m not nearly narcissistic enough to believe that or consider myself the only person with Cap skepticism. It’s just been a pleasant surprise to suddenly find myself desperately anticipating the next cinematic adventure of a character that I mocked mercilessly as a teenager.
Things kick off with some good old-fashioned butt kicking as Captain America (Chris Evans) and Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) break up a big boat hostage situation with fists, guns, and a certain iconic shield. However, the fact that Widow had a secret info-grabbing mission that Cap didn’t know about concerns our trusty hero. So the man with the shield demands some answers from the man who runs SHIELD, good ol’ Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson). Turns out that Fury is supervising a new international defense initiative that involves a fleet of heli-carriers floating around the planet to monitor and analyze every citizen without them noticing and taking machine gun action to prevent crimes/terrorism before they happen. It’s a Watergate-era paranoid fantasy with Edward Snowden contemporary cred, organized by Robert Redford in slimy liberal politician mode. Cap doesn’t take to kindly to the idea and rather quickly, SHIELD doesn’t take too kindly to him. Soon Cap n’ Widow are on the run, pursued by a fleet of government operatives and a super-powered masked missionary named The Winter Soldier. If you’ve read the comics or pay attention to the face-slap foreshadowing, you’ll know who that Winter Soldier is and will also smirk out a smile once the words “Hail Hydra” are uttered. The movie is just as littered with comic book in-jokes and references as every previous title shot out of the Marvel Movie canon, but this time the action feels more gritty, ground level, and “realistic” with little brooding.
As always, Kevin Feige hired unexpected filmmakers to helm this sequel and they ended up being the perfect choice. The sibling-directing duo of Anthony and Joe Russo previously worked exclusively in comedy on films like Welcome To Collingwood and TV shows like Arrested Development and Community. Yet, despite sprinkling in liberal doses of humor, their focus is on relentless paranoia, suspense, and action that never lets up. The political commentary at the film’s center is well handled (pitching exaggerated contemporary US surveillance issues against the old timey values of Captain America was pretty ingenious) and Redford classes up the picture a notch by doing all the heavy lifting in that area. However, that element never consumes the movie. It’s merely backdrop. This is primarily a rip-roaring action movie with Cap and the Widow at the center. The Russos’ focus on foot chases, choreographed fights, and car carnage that work like gangbusters. If the first Captain America movie offered wartime hero nostalgia, this one hinges on spy and paranoia thriller nostalgia in just as satisfying a way. The cast is strong and it’s a bullet train of entertainment even with a saggy 138 minute running time. Weirdly, the film’s primary weaknesses arrive when the movie serves the Marvel Movie Universe rather than its own needs.
Much of The Winter Soldier’s running time is dedicated to establishing new franchise regulars and removing (or at least temporarily derailing) one of the lynchpins of the first phase of the Marvel Movie Universe. Thankfully, this isn’t as distracting as it was in Iron Man 2, but definitely slows things down. Oddly, the titular Winter Soldier is the least developed central plot thread. It’s clearly all been left vague to leave open doors for sequels, and that’s fine. But why make that the title if it’s not the focus? Still, these complaints and any others (like some distracting Scarlett stunt doubling or the useless post-conversion 3D) qualify as piddling and nitpicking at best. It might not be perfect, but Captain America: The Winter Soldier ranks in the top tier of Marvel productions and thus far is the finest hour of Phase 2. The blockbuster is smart, funny, dramatic, relentlessly action-packed, and moves the grand Marvel narrative forward in a few key steps. To satisfy all those threads requires a lot of juggling that the Russos pull off with an ease that deserves applause. This is a big win for Feige and Marvel that proves not only is their production conveyer belt still working, but the team still has quite a few surprises up their sleeves. My teenage self would be disgusted to learn that Captain America is now one of my favorite movie superheroes. This tricky franchise has been handled brilliantly so far, and at this point I’ll be approaching the initially head-scratching Guardians Of The Galaxy movie with giddy excitement. What once felt like a risky project now feels like brilliantly ballsy one and it’s hard to imagine that Marvel is going to drop the ball any time soon. Certainly not with the next Avengers movie coming next, anyways.
Lock up your daughters and hide your hair clippers, Jason Statham is back. Arguably the last pure action star (although the Rock is making a good case for himself lately), Statham continues to crank out solid B-movie entertainment at an impressive clip and at times is keeping the old school action movie alive all by himself. This week Statham returns in Homefront, a film that feels like a blast from the 80s/90s action movie past; kind of a given since the project started as an old Sylvester Stallone screenplay that he wrote for himself. Stallone stayed on the project as writer/producer after the Statham transition and it very much feels like one of the nutso gems Sly wrote for himself back in the day (though sadly, it’s not as completely insane as Cobra). Judged in any straightforward way, it’s not a particularly good movie given that it’s filled with plot holes, idiotic leaps in logic, cheesy dialogue, and cardboard character types. However, if you’re a fan of the genre that Stallone helped create and Statham continues to carry a torch for, the cheese is part of the fun. Even the best examples of this genre are films that must be laughed at as much as enjoyed straight, and Homefront is just endearingly ridiculous enough to qualify as a guilty pleasure.
The story opens in flashback with Statham as an undercover DEA agent in a biker gang (complete with a RIDICULOUS long-hair wig that looks like it came out of Nicolas Cage’s closest). Rather quickly, his cover is blown and a biker is gunned down by the cops. The biker boss wants revenge, so Statham must retire into a witness protection program lifestyle. Flash forward a few years and Statham is now a single dad who moves to a small town hoping for a peaceful existence. Unfortunately, he’s still Jason Statham, so he gets in a few fights with locals who “don’t take too kindly to his type.” That draws the attention of the local police (embodied in the great Clancy Brown) as well as local meth-manufacturer James Franco (yep, that James Franco). Because Statham, for some reason, kept all of the information about his secret past in barely hidden boxes in his barn, Franco learns of his true identity and soon trouble is afoot. Now, you’d think the meth dealing Franco would be the “trouble” in question. However, that guy doesn’t know who Jason Statham is and in fact, he’s the one who is in trouble!
So, it’s all pretty stock stuff. The plot is predictable for the most part and unpredictable only when it makes ludicrous leaps in logic that only the insane could see coming. However, the film still succeeds for two reasons. First off, no one turns stupid screenwriting into unintentional comedy quite like Sly Stallone, so the worse the film gets, the funnier it becomes. Secondly, the cast for the flick is uncommonly good. Statham is underrated as an actor. His range might only extend from cockney cocky to stoic rage, but that’s all you need for an action hero and he delivers surprisingly grounded work in context. There’s a reason the guy is a movie star and Homefront is suited to his unique talents. James Franco delivers a deliriously over-the-top performance with a few hilarious improvised lines. He’s clearly just as shocked that he’s playing the bad guy in a Jason Statham movie as anyone else and delights in the overacting possibilities presented to him. When Franco tries, he’s an engaging screen presence. When he’s bored he’s as absent from films as he was hosting the Oscars. Thankfully, Homefront falls into the former category for Franco. Toss in talented folks on the sidelines like Clancy Brown and Winona Ryder and you’ve got yourself a cast that is far too good for the material. They make every scene compelling no matter how daft the script and more importantly, everyone is clearly having a good time.
Directing duties were assigned to Gary Fleder, who has been responsible for generic Hollywood thrillers like Kiss The Girls and Runaway Jury. He’s not a filmmaker with personality, so he really adds nothing to the proceedings. However, he shoots the whole thing effectively, lets the actors run the show, and has a couple delightfully silly action scenes to stage thanks to Stallone’s script. On a technical level, the film is very average. Were it not for the cast and ludicrous writing, it would be forgettable bargain bin trash. With those qualities it’s still bargain bin trash, but at least memorably cheesy, stupid, and undeniably entertaining. Homefront won’t win any awards or break box office records, but it will provide dumb action movie fans with a fresh hit of their drug of choice. That’s really all the movie had to do, so at least it delivers as promised. In the grand scheme of Jason Statham movies, Homefront probably lands somewhere under The Mechanic and The Bank Job. It’s not a self-conscious slice of B-movie bliss like a Crank or Transporter movie, but it’s far from a dull failure like say last year’s Parker. At this point, you know whether or not you enjoy Jason Statham movies and this is an above average entry in his bald-head-bad-ass canon. If you don’t like dumb action movies, you’ll hate it. But, if you’ve got a sweet tooth for that particular brand of B-movie trash, it’s a delightfully brainless break from the onslaught of awards-bait movies clogging up theaters these days. Now let’s just hope that he finally gets around to making Crank 3 sometime soon.
I’m not sure at one point in his career that Liam Neeson transitioned into a grizzled action star, but I’m glad it happened. I suppose Taken was the big movie that kicked off his ass-kicking career, but early warning signs can be traced all the way back to his heavily scarred work in the underrated 1990 faux comic book movie Darkman.