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.

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The Equalizer (2014)

★★★ / 👎

The Equalizer (2014) poster

Former “Agency” operative and widower finds peace in civilian life through a combination of bibliotherapy, community engagement, and vigilantism.

This version of Robert McCall—bearing virtually no similarities to the Edward Woodward television series—eschews firearms, instead employing a variety of improvised weapons to carry out his many kills. By the climax, the movie effectively becomes a slasher film, with Washington as the offscreen-teleporting remorseless killer, picking off doomed Russian mobsters one by one. (He contemplates a man he’s just hanged with razor wire as dispassionately as The Shape admired his handiwork in Halloween.)

The film is absurdly overlong for its thin premise, but it only really drags when Fuqua overindulges in the slow-motion power walks. All the actors, from Washington on down, give better performances than the material deserves.

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.)

Whiplash (2014)

★★★½ / 👎

Whiplash (2014) poster

A live-action cartoon that champions abusive relationships as long as they’re co-dependent ones. Wonderful performances and thrilling musical sequences, but I never, ever for a single moment accepted the reality of this filmic universe, which makes All That Jazz and The Red Shoes seem like documentaries by comparison.

American Sniper (2014)

★★½ / 👎

American Sniper (2014) poster

One of my favorite things about Clint Eastwood as a filmmaker is the line he tries to walk (not always successfully) between giving us the violence and certitude we want, and critiquing those desires, often in the same film. American Sniper is no Unforgiven, but it’s also no Heartbreak Ridge.

The film sketches Chris Kyle as someone raised to believe that violence in defense and support of others is both righteous and a moral imperative. Despite the lionizing—oh, sorry, sheepdogging—it’s quite possible to watch American Sniper and come away with the impression that Kyle was a selfish, self-righteous asshole long before he ever became a hero. That the very mental outlook that allowed him to nobly serve his country meant he faced great difficulty in being a husband and father. That his four tours in combat permanently ruined his psychological health and warped his already low sense of empathy. And that the “cowboy” culture that shaped the course of his life led directly to the manner of his death. (There’s a “playful” scene built around a jarring violation of basic firearm safety which is entirely typical of Eastwood’s career-long ambivalence about The Way of the Gun.)

Which is not to say that the film doesn’t whitewash Kyle. It does. The film portrays Kyle as unfailingly modest about his kill count and status as “The Legend,” which does not seem to accord with reality. It also makes no reference to any of the “tall tales” he seems to have told, including some in the memoir that serves as the film’s source material. It also shows a pre-Navy Kyle casually using violence during a domestic dispute that could easily have resulted in an assault charge—if he hadn’t been a white male rodeo rider in shit-kicker territory—but the scene is played mostly for laughs, complete with a joke to button the scene.

Last, but not least, American Sniper does feature one literally incredible prop infant, which is as lethal to a pivotal emotional scene as a sniper round from 2,100 meters. It’s a shocking lapse that genuinely hurts the pacing and experience of the film, at least with a crowd.

Blackhat (2015)

★★★/ 👎

Blackhat (2015) poster

A number of tools are on a table, arranged in a row by size. A hand reaches into frame, and adjusts one of the tools into perfect alignment. That’s Blackhat in a nutshell: a Michael Mann pastiche by Michael Mann, enjoyable in direct proportion to how endearing you find his pet obsessions and stylistic quirks. The plot is a hot mess. The video aesthetic is as smeary and ugly as Mann’s other digital productions, only partially redeemed by striking night-time scenes lit solely by practical fluorescents, open flames, and the inner fires of stoicism.

Limiting myself to just the stuff I thought of while I was watching the film, Blackhat reminded me of:

• The jailhouse philosophy and the obsessive-compulsive treatment of tools, from—well, from damn near everything Mann’s ever directed, but particularly from Thief.

• The tedious romance between a brooding hunk with an iffy American accent and a largely wasted Chinese actress, last seen in Miami Vice.

• The battle of wits and tactics between professional criminals and mostly-competent law enforcement, punctuated by moments of sudden lethality and realistically loud small-arms combat. (Heat, Collateral.)

• The Eureka! moment where our hero pieces together the villain’s methodology set to a swelling synth score, cribbed directly from Manhunter (down to actual dialogue).

Casual audiences seeking light escapism with Chris Hemsworth will be baffled and put off by the style of the film; Mann completists have seen it all done before, and better, in other Mann films.

To end on a positive note, the “hacking” is vastly better than in most cyber thrillers. There’s a worrying CGI macro-visualization of silicon front-loaded for the “computers are magic” rubes, but after that it’s mostly command lines and social engineering around sloppy procedures. (The more egregious Hollywood OS stuff appears in connection with the NSA; in a post-PRISM/Boundless Informant world it practically seems realistic.)

One Body Too Many (1944)

★★½ / 👎

One Body Too Many (1944) poster

Undistinguished comedy/thriller that drags despite its brief length, but is worth a look for Lugosi completists and aficionados of the Old Dark House subgenre.

Jack Haley stars as an insurance salesman who calls on an eccentric millionaire, only to find that his prospective client has already died. Mistaken for a private detective, the wisecracking but cowardly salesman becomes caught up in the antics of the dysfunctional group gathered for the reading of the will.

Haley does what he can with some very familiar material—some of the film’s funniest bits occur when he’s the only one onscreen—but Bob Hope he ain’t. Bela Lugosi makes the most of his small comic role as a sinister butler whose annoyance at the grasping relatives and hangers-on might actually be homicidal.

There’s slightly more effort expended in justifying the farce than might be expected in such an obvious programmer. The patter is relatively snappy, and it’s neat to see Lugosi have the chance to earn some legitimate laughs (such as they are) while still retaining his dignity.