Underworld: Evolution (2006)

Evolution is glossier, gorier, and even goofier than the first Underworld film. The improvements are almost entirely surface-level, but that’s all that one realistically hope for in a movie like this. This is the kind of franchise where switching from oppressive blue color grading to oppressive teal-and-orange color grading not only signifies an aesthetic improvement, but passes for emotional resonance.

underworld-evolution-2006-poster

This flashback-heavy sequel jettisons or retcons many of the specific details of the Underworld mythology while going even deeper down the lore rabbit-hole. The emphasis on mythology (and a noticeably higher budget) lets Evolution pilfer from the fantasy/horror of Peter Jackson in addition to the usual post-Matrix action movies. Like the creatures at the center of its plot, the film is a hybrid that swipes inspiration and power from multiple sources, seemingly makes up its own rules as it goes along, and doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. It’s admittedly ludicrous, and even more self-serious than last time around, but I have a healthy tolerance—or, possibly, a fatal weakness—for exactly this sort of thing.

The action is notably improved, at least if you can accept heavy use of wire-fu, CGI-fu, and just-go-with-it-because-it-looks-cool-fu. Everyone involved seems to have figured out how to block and cut around the awkward moments far more successfully than in the first film.

underworld-evolution-2006-artThe overall level of acting is more even: fewer highlights and bright spots, but at least this time the supporting and bit players aren’t quite so distractingly wooden. Beckinsale takes full advantage of the greater (if still shallow) emotional depth and expressive latitude afforded to her. Speedman continues to look great with his shirt off, even in full makeup as The Incredible Uruk-Bro.

To be sure, this is not a good movie, but it’s much more in line with the sort of disposable entertainment I was hoping for from this franchise. Onward to Rise of the Lycans!

[Originally posted on Letterboxd.]

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Fantastic Four (2015)

★★ / 👎

The most fun I had with Fantastic Four was when a sepia-toned, mass-murdering Thing skulking in the shadows made me realize that this film could accurately be called a Grimmdark reboot.

It’s difficult to tell which parts are bad because of the obvious reshoots—Kate Mara’s fluctuating hairstyle is the true fifth member of the team—and which parts are bad due to a fundamentally flawed approach to the material. Even if we assume the abrupt and disastrous third act is solely due to executive meddling, that only made a bad film worse.

I wonder if those canon-obsessed reactionaries who were so angry at the casting of Michael B. Jordan as Johnny Storm will be just as pissed by a script that gives him nothing to do, sidelines Sue Storm in a way I wouldn’t have dreamed possible, and turns Ben Grimm’s powers into a mere externalization of a cycle of abuse.

Maybe Fox really was like the military-industrial complex in this film, trying to stifle and channel impulses it couldn’t really understand to retain control and power. And maybe Josh Trank really is boy genius Reed Richards, who just needs to be given the space and resources to do his work in peace, with no obligations to his backers. But then, as comic book fans know (and this film acknowledges) Reed Richards is also kind of a dick.

Terminator Genisys (2015)

★★ / 👎

Terminator Genisys tries to smuggle a reboot inside the skin of a sequel, and compromises both functions as a result. As a reboot, it fails to perform efficiently due to reliance on antiquated designs from an earlier era. As a fan-service sequel, it’s about as convincing as the rubber skin on the 600-series Terminators.

Viewers whose attention spans survive the film’s opening salvo of flashbacks and droning exposition are promptly targeted by an interminable dialogue scene that feels like a pick-up or reshoot. Seemingly shot in an unlit hallway, and exemplifying everything wrong with the flat, on-the-nose dialogue that permeates this film, the scene consists of Jason Clarke and Jai Courtney’s characters having a tête-à-tête about what they plan to do When This Cruel War Is Over. (This isn’t the only scene between these two actors in which the “comrades in arms” dynamic could be read as having a queer undertone. In a just universe, Terminator Genisys’s only lasting impact on the world would be a dramatic uptick in the number of John/Kyle fanfics in the Terminator fandom.)

Having declined to provide a fully-realized vision of the post-apocalyptic future, Terminator Genisis jumps back into the past, and fully off the rails. A significant chunk of this section of the film is taken up by tweaked reenactments of scenes from the first Terminator that add no value for new viewers and compare poorly with the originals. Yes, the original scene with the newly-arrived naked T-800 encountering some literal punks is goofy as hell, but the new version doesn’t fix that problem: it only recreates it, badly.

And, well, the film just sort of tools along from there, without any particular sense of urgency, for another 90 minutes or so. As Terminator Genisys putters down the freeway, you can occasionally catch a glimpse in the rearview mirror of a leaner, smarter, modern sci-fi thriller about time travel in the vein of Looper. Every time that happens, though, the film immediately does its best to distract the viewer by shouting nonsense at the top of its lungs, and veering directly into oncoming traffic. The ensuing crash inevitably turns out to be awkwardly framed and poorly rendered, consisting of inconsequential digital fireballs and a meaningless series of thuds on the soundtrack.

This is one of those movies where the supporting actors and bit players fare rather better than the leads. Byung-hun Lee out-Robert-Patricks Robert Patrick as a liquid metal T-1000 whose cheekbones are at least as sharp as his arm-blades. J. K. Simmons more than earns his paycheck in a comic relief role whose antics actually feel less obtrusive than most of the clunkers the the main cast is forced to deliver.

Of the main, “franchise character” roles in Terminator Genisys, Emilia Clarke is the only actor who manages to give a performance that rises above the level of mere cosplay. The script smartly retains a core element of the Sarah Connor character: a woman actively fighting to reclaim agency over her own life, refusing to be a damsel defined solely by her biological functions.

By contrast, the new version of Kyle Reese is a dud. Partly, of course, because Jai Courtney is no Michael Biehn. (Hell, Jai Courtney is no Sam Worthington.) But I don’t think the blame lies entirely with casting, either; it’s a fundamental script problem. Turning Kyle Reese from an archetype into an everyman proves disastrous for the character. Every new piece of information we learn about this version of Kyle Reese is designed to make him more relatable, but actually makes his character less interesting, or less plausible. The same could be said of Jason Clarke or Arnold Schwarzenegger here: they are performing at the top of their (vastly differing) abilities, but what they’re being asked to do simply isn’t very interesting.

Kingsman: The Secret Service (2015)

★★ / 👎

Right, so Layer Cake was definitely just a fluke, then. Pity, that.

Maybe the classic Roger Moore era Bond film really is overdue for a comeback, but Vaugn’s off-the-peg Tarantino / Ritchie knockoff isn’t really the film to make that case. All Kingsman does is double down on the vapid self-parody, empty violence, and pointless misogyny that led to the self-serious reboots this film decries. I thought Skyfall was actually pretty terrible as a Bond movie, but it’s miles ahead of this in every way.

The November Man (2014)

★★ / 👎

The November Man (2014) poster

The notion of seeing Pierce Brosnan’s charm filtered through a contemporary ruthlessness has a certain appeal—finally, Bond can really go rogue!—but The November Man is as old-fashioned as thrillers get. The Russkies and the CIA are up to their old tricks. Only Brosnan’s character can set things right, by…um, mostly by assaulting or murdering every CIA and FSB officer who gets in his way, while two competent women actually assemble the evidence he needs? Okay, so it’s not entirely a throwback, but I’m not sure The November Man learned the right lessons from the Bourne and Taken franchises it’s so obviously trying to mimic.

There’s a brief feint at a cat and mouse game, with Brosnan’s protégé-turned-antagonist Luke Bracey as the CIA operative with surrogate daddy issues. Thankfully, this plot thread mostly dies out before it turns into a stealth remake of Roger Donaldson’s own The Recruit. (Whatever his merits may be—few are evident from his unconvincing performance in an underwritten role—Luke Bracey is no Colin Farrell.)