Review by Daniel Lima
Regardless of one’s political affiliations, it’s hard to find any sympathy for police officers charged explicitly with clearing people out of their homes. The Legionnaire makes a valiant attempt to engender that sympathy through its portrait of a cop torn between his sense of duty to his badge and his roots. While the way it builds out his world is admirable, it can’t help but feel constrained by its own narrative limitations.
Germano Gentile plays an Afro-Italian riot officer — one of the jack-booted troops with shields and batons who hit protesters and clear out apartment buildings of unwanted tenants. He emigrated to Italy from Africa, and his brother and mother still live in the apartment building he lived in as a child, along with a community of squatters who have a longstanding agreement with the building’s owners. Now, the owners want them out, and Gentile has to contend with navigating a war between two sides of his life.
Some familiarity with Italian history and current events is helpful in understanding the film, and I must admit I have only cursory knowledge of any of that. The country has seen a large influx of migrants over the past several years, leading to a wave of anti-immigrant sentiment. Left-wing politics have played a large part in the nation, and the community of migrants seems to identify themselves as communists. Squatters have a decent amount of legal rights. Everything beyond that, however, was left for me to infer.
Fortunately, one of the greatest strengths of the film is how much it communicates: entirely organically. The cluttered, beleaguered apartment of the squatters is no paradise, but all that clutter is evidence of a place that has been a real home for hundreds of people for decades. The pristine settings Gentile’s cop finds himself in feel almost austere by comparison, clean and presentable but devoid of personality. The warmth and diversity of the migrants, devoted as they are to the well-being of the community, is likewise contrasted with the camaraderie of the police. Jovial and tight-knit as they are, the constant casual racism and meat-headed bravado created between the sole Black officer and his supposed brothers-in-arms begs the question: why is he even there?
The two brothers, like everyone else in the cast, give solid performances. Both Gentile and Maurizio Bousso, as the apartment-dwelling brothers, are tenacious, driven, and stubborn men, certain in their convictions, even though their parallel paths may put them against one another. That said, it does feel like a piece is missing from Gentile’s story. Considering how lived-in his former home is, it feels like a jump to then join the police force, then a special unit that might see him evicting people he grew up with. While the film does wring as much drama from that scenario as possible, that lack of definition ultimately feels like a writerly contrivance.
This is almost certainly the case; The Legionnaire is an adaptation of director Hleb Papou’s short of the same name. Expanding the scope of that earlier film invites questions that hadn’t needed answering, and at a scant eighty minutes there simply isn’t enough time to truly flesh out both sides of this story. As hard as it is to imagine having real empathy for a riot cop, just a bit more context for his motivation in joining and staying in the force would have done wonders.
Even so, The Legionnaire does a good enough job cultivating a particular feel for both sides of the world the brothers find themselves on, and the intensity in their performances carries the film even as you wish to spend more time taking in their surroundings. This is an unusually accomplished first feature for a director, and I look forward to whatever he may bring in the future.
The Legionnaire is now streaming on Film Movement Plus.
Review by Daniel Lima
Only a few years after the end of America’s longest war — the last large-scale engagement of the Global War on Terror — and amid the federal government’s culpability in Israeli war crimes, it certainly does not feel like the public is yearning for a story about the righteousness of the U.S. military. Indeed, in the past two decades, it appeared that the classic rousing war picture has fallen entirely out of fashion, even at the height of pro-war sentiments in the aftermath of 9/11. How, then, do you make a 21st-century war movie? The latest attempt, Land of Bad, is more interesting in how it navigates that question than in the form it ultimately takes.
Liam Hemsworth plays a young U.S. Air Force officer attached to a squad of special operations soldiers on a covert mission to extract an American asset from a militant compound located in Southeast Asia. When the mission goes sideways, he finds himself alone in hostile territory. His only companion is the voice of a USAF drone operator, located thousands of miles away, who attempts to guide him to safety.
Perhaps the most important detail that separates the 21st-century war film from those of decades past is the kinds of soldiers and conflicts that tend to be the focus. Gone are the grandiose, large-scale battle scenes with thousands of combatants; America has not been in a war against a uniformed adversary that could match its military might in nearly a century. Instead, the war film has evolved into both a more character- and process-focused genre, delving into the personal lives of service members and the meticulous detail of their combat missions. Often, these are stories of elite special forces carrying out specialized missions rather than regular troops.
Land of Bad follows this trend to a T. There are only a handful of named characters, all called upon to do a specific task. A good amount of attention to detail goes into getting all the military jargon correct, all the different roles the men in the squad would take, the numerous agencies that would come together for a mission like this, the approach these men would take in completing it, and of course, their emotional state and commitment to duty.
Most obviously, this results in a lean, straightforward narrative that allows for more emotional investment in these characters as people rather than representatives of an ideology of American superiority. As the men banter, we see them not merely as men in uniform but as people performing an incredibly difficult job. As they go about it, there are stakes beyond whether the government completes a task successfully.
To that end, this film is a mixed success. Hemsworth gives a surprisingly natural performance, but considering his character is largely reactive to an evolving situation, not much time is spent developing him. As the drone pilot supporting him, Russell Crowe has a much meatier role and makes the most of it. As an anti-authority figure who nevertheless is a stickler for adhering to a particular order of doing things and feels great responsibility towards the operators, he finds himself partnered with. Even though he spends most of the movie in front of a computer screen, I found myself wishing more time was spent with him than the guys with guns in the jungle.
The condensed perspective of this narrative, and the many others like it, does fulfill an ideological purpose. While focusing on these small teams is more reflective of U.S. military operations today, it also allows filmmakers to sidestep the many concerns surrounding American military activity abroad. Detailing the immediate hardship of a soldier under heavy fire with no way to retreat means the script never has to justify why that soldier had to be there in the first place.
Naturally, such is the case here. While the opening text crawl mentions that the Susu Sea is a hotbed for extremist groups, where exactly this compound is located is never specified. Going further, the film never clearly defines the actual adversary the Delta Force squad is there to combat. One antagonist is named, but what his goals are, what his activities include, his brand of politics, and his gripes with the United States are not elaborated on. The man is fully willing to kill children, which, of course, makes him a bad guy. Then again, as anyone who has been paying attention to the news in the past four months is aware, the American government is hardly one to throw stones.
This ambiguity is undeniably an effort to obfuscate the underlying assumption of all the war movies: the U.S. military agenda worldwide is inherently good, all those who support it are heroes, and all those who oppose it are villains. Of course, bad politics don’t make a bad movie, and there is no shortage of action movies doubling as propaganda that are quite enjoyable. However, with such an establishment-friendly and conventional worldview and a general lack of character development, a film like Land of Bad must deliver truly remarkable action and thrills to rise above a sea of similar works.
That, more than anything, is its greatest failure. The set pieces here are decent enough by the standards of a mid-budget American production, thankfully keeping the camera steady throughout its handful of shootouts and melees and featuring some actual practical explosions. None of it, however, is particularly memorable, lacking a sense of geography or choreography that properly utilizes the environment. Without anything to make it distinct, the action fades quickly from memory.
With it goes anything notable about Land of Bad, barring one fun performance from Russell Crowe. As run-of-the-mill as any other modern attempt at a muted, chest-thumping love letter to American imperialism, one can’t help but wish that this film took a more overtly jingoistic approach to the material if only to have something actually interesting to dissect. Sadly, the only purpose this serves is to illuminate how much times have changed.
Land of Bad arrives in theaters February 16.
Review by Daniel Lima
After centuries of Western dominance in world affairs and decades of the globalist neoliberal world order, it can be easy to fall into the mindset that all the identifiers of Western society are somehow inherently good. The economic systems, the political structures, the moral values, for those who live in the West — certainly for Americans — the idea that these represent the pinnacle of the evolution of a civilization can border on religious dogma. Part of what makes The Monk and the Gun so refreshing is it directly challenges this supposition, asking whether concepts like democracy and capitalism actually benefit people when exported and enforced.
The film is set in a rural Bhutanese village in 2006, shortly after the king's abdication. As the country prepares to hold its first national elections, small teams have been dispatched nationwide to ensure the populace understands the democratic process. As the small community responds to these changes, a foreigner and a local monk vie for possession of an antique gun, the former for profit and the latter "to make things right."
Overwhelmingly, the response of the locals is confusion or indifference. Isolated as they are from the larger world, yet still fully functional, they don't see any pressing need to reshape their own community to conform completely to "modernization." Some even worry for the health of their former ruler, less because of what he's directly done for them, but more for what he represents: a sense of continuity with generations past, something more tangible and meaningful than the creation of a parliament in a far-off capitol.
If anything, the introduction of Western-style ideas has decidedly negative repercussions. Consumer goods made accessible by the global market inflame long-standing resentments among the townspeople; the election divides them along lines that previously had not even existed. The film posits that these institutions may be inherently divisive and discordant, as optimistic as the government officials are. When one suggests to a villager that these new measures will eventually make people happy, the retort is immediate: "But we are happy." The official has no response.
Even more interesting than this political dimension is how The Monk and the Gun explores how fundamentally different the values of this insular community are from the capitalist incursion. Money has very little meaning in this community for the obvious reason that there's not much to buy. More valuable is one's social standing, the perception that one is being just and fair, and goods with practical use.
This leads to fascinating scenes where people refuse trades because they seem to disproportionately benefit or go back and forth, refusing to accept anything in return. The one foreign character seems perfectly willing to exploit this seeming kindness but is at a loss when actually brokering a deal. What he fails to understand is these aren't clueless bumpkins who don't recognize some immutable, empirical value of what they own. Rather, they operate with a different set of principles shaped by their history and culture. The failure of the Westerner to recognize that speaks to a deficiency in him, not the Bhutanese.
As high-minded and serious as all this may sound, the film is a pleasant, relaxing watch. The story unfolds slowly, these observations being made at a leisurely pace. Much humor is found in these villagers' ambivalence towards the changes happening around them, but the joke is always centered on the apparent fruitlessness of the imposition of a new order or the comedic irony created by the disconnect; the townsfolk themselves are never portrayed as merely rustic and ignorant. The film is visually gorgeous, often allowing the picturesque setting to fill the frame and give the audience a small measure of why these people would be so comfortable with their own way of life. Even without the riveting subject matter, this would be a charming, low-stakes dramedy.
There are two major missteps the movie takes. As clear as the burgeoning social strife is, the amount of times a character outright states the central conflict feels excessive. A government official coaxing a crowd to act like they want to hurt each other at a mock election is funny and full of acerbic wit. Having a woman openly question why this process requires people to be rude feels like a bridge too far.
More frustratingly, the film ultimately does not take a stand on whether the encroaching Western influence is actually a net negative. Though the preliminary effects seem only to be detrimental to social cohesion, some concessions are made to the idea that exposure to the wider world can give the villagers prospects that extend beyond the village or allow exciting new ways of thinking to develop. The climax seems to give weight to the idea that this "progress" is inevitable and maybe even beneficial, but it fails to fully articulate how that might come to pass. In introducing this possibility without reconciling it with all the evidence presented to the contrary, the film ends on a sour note.
Even so, The Monk and the Gun is a transfixing, engaging, often moving watch that captures a way of living that in 2024 may seem impossibly idyllic to those living in a hyper-capitalist society that values goods over individuals and social harmony. It may not stick the landing, but it is a worthwhile experience for anyone who laments the state of the world today.
The Monk and the Gun is now in theaters.
Review by Daniel Lima
The title Air Force One Down invokes two action films that center on the American presidency. One is the languid 1997 Harrison Ford vehicle Air Force One, featuring the president himself taking on terrorists who have taken over the titular plane. The other is White House Down, a fun buddy action-comedy that teams the president with a cop as they take out terrorists in the titular building. In referencing those films so obviously, this DTV thriller announces its own low ambitions as a brainless, disposable genre flick that seeks only to hold the audience's attention for just under ninety minutes. It fails even that, but not without earning some plaudits.
Katherine McNamara stars as a fresh recruit to the U.S. Secret Service, assigned to protect the well-heeled, silver-spooned president by her uncle and new boss. On only her second day on the job, she finds herself on board the official plane of the commander-in-chief as a group of armed Estonian dissidents takes it over. She quickly becomes the last line of defense between the insurgents and the most powerful man in the world, so she must push herself to the brink to ensure his safety.
It should come as no surprise that this is not a thought-provoking work, though the extent of the script's complete lack of intellectual rigor is surprising even by the standards of a low-budget direct-to-video action movie. Estonia, one of the most highly-developed countries in the world, having an active armed communist resistance in the 2020s is completely untethered from reality; clearly, the filmmakers just threw a dart at a list of former Soviet states. That an Estonian-American oil deal would be a hot-button political issue is even more laughable. McNamara's character is a MARSOC operator who is somehow allowed to abandon her commission for a civilian job. A thousand and one little details like these give the impression that the screenplay was just a series of mad libs.
These are just nitpicks, but there are structural issues as well. The film is halfway over by the time McNamara actually has to spend time with Ian Bohen's president. Where most films would take the obvious but effective tack of wringing some dramatic tension out of their differing personalities or McNamara's negative perception of him, Air Force One Down quickly dispels that possibility. Most of the dialogue is empty exposition, establishing the narrative stakes without ever setting up the emotional ones. The cast is given next to nothing to flesh out their characters, barring a character's name popping up in the corner of the screen that anyone watching is bound to forget. Even at this movie's short runtime, it struggles to build momentum. Things just seem to happen until they don't, each new plot development more obvious than the last.
This is obviously a resource-starved production, so it's hard to fault how cheap it all looks. Every location is clearly a set, barren white office walls sparsely and unconvincingly decorated to look like the Oval Office or Air Force One. A solid chunk of the film is lit flatly and staged with as basic a setup as possible, looking more like a commercial than a feature film. Plenty of strange cuts and VFX are off, almost certainly a casualty of lack of time.
Despite that, there are a handful of touches that are appreciated. While the more pristine interiors all look bland and fake, the grotty military facilities the villains lurk in do conjure the feel of disused buildings commandeered by a guerrilla fighting force filled with grime and shadows. Though the performers have precious little good material to work with, they do an admirable job attempting to make the afterthoughts of these characters feel like actual people.
Most impressively, the action is actually decent, even accounting for the budget. Director James Bamford has been working as a stuntman since the early 1990s, even serving as stunt coordinator on the huge Indian blockbuster Ek Tha Tiger, and he puts his experience to good use here. Though there isn't a lot of action, what's here is frenetic, claustrophobic, well-paced, and actually takes care to make use of the environment. From a couple of brutal fight scenes to a stitched-together oner that uses the jagged editing to its advantage, giving the set piece a certain threadbare flair, this action punches above its weight.
I wish I could say that was enough to make Air Force One Down a worthwhile watch. For a certain kind of person, the promise of solid action in something so otherwise unremarkable might be intriguing enough. To anyone else, I would recommend White House Down. At the very least, I can confirm this clears the low bar of Wolfgang Petersen's film.
Air Force One Down is now and theaters and will be available on digital February 9.
Review by Daniel Lima
“When you hit rock bottom, there’s nowhere to go but up.” The old adage has served as a comforting mantra for countless people in the throes of misfortune. In The Accident, the narrative feature debut of director Giuseppe Garau, that well-worn wisdom is put to the test, as the kind but foolish soul at its center manages to burrow into greater depths at every opportunity. The result is a bleak yet incredibly funny comedy, buoyed by a strong lead performance and an idiosyncratic visual style.
Giulia Mazarino plays a woman coming apart at the seams. She’s lost her job, her ex-husband has moved on with a new girlfriend and custody of their daughter, and she’s just gotten into a traffic accident. The tow truck driver who moves her wrecked car advises that she should never buy a tow truck herself, as she is not cut out for that line of work. Naturally, she does exactly that, and so begins a spiral that will test her resilience and moral boundaries.
Despite that incredibly harrowing description, this is one of the funniest movies of the past year, in no small part due to Mazarino’s performance. The put-upon person in an unsympathetic, dog-eat-dog capitalist world struggling to make ends meet is an easy character to feel empathetic about, to the point that their hardships are hard to find comic. Mazarino, however, acts with a doe-eyed, good-hearted naivety to the point it’s hard to imagine how she functions in regular society. Constantly taking people at their word and lacking any survival instinct whatsoever, she is easily pushed around and manipulated by everyone she encounters. As ludicrous as it may seem, Mazarino is so totally committed to the role that it’s easy to be fooled into thinking this is a documentary.
The result is twofold. On the one hand, her cartoonish innocence creates an emotional distance between the audience and the character, making it harder to relate personally to her tribulations. After all, many of her troubles come from blindly accepting circumstances that no one else would stand. Yet, seeing how pure and well-meaning she is, you can’t help but root for her in the hope that she may find her footing and assert herself. Even when the film takes a darker turn, forcing her to compromise her own ethics, it’s easy to understand her actions. One might even be inclined to root for, as endearing as she is.
Curiously, The Accident is not only shot on 16mm film but is entirely from the perspective of the passenger’s seat. Most of the film consists of Mazarino driving, stealing away moments to have lunch, talking to people from the car window, and occasionally stepping just outside to have these conversations within the frame. As limiting as this vantage point may seem, it goes a long way in giving the film a candid sense of intimacy, as if the audience are voyeurs in this woman’s private life. And, of course, it sets the film apart from countless other low-budget indies.
Even at sixty-six minutes, however, the film does feel like it’s straining to fill time. A few too many scenes of aimless driving and snack time give the impression of filler, and the moral quandary that Mazzarino finds herself in seems to resolve itself far too cleanly. Perhaps this is the pitfall of the same fettered visual language that makes the movie so gripping, obviating a more involving, complex conclusion. While such a finale would have been welcome, The Accident is still a wonderfully enjoyable comedy, finding laughs within the most desperate part of a gentle life. With any luck, this is the beginning of a prolific career for both its star and director.
The Accident screened at the 2024 Slamdance Film Festival, which ran from January 19-25 in-person in Park City, UT and online from January 22-28.
Review by Daniel Lima
Would you sign away your body to an otherworldly entity for a couple of days — with no evidence that it actually exists — if you get a good paycheck at the end of it? That is the question posed by The Complex Forms. That question is ripe for exploring the lengths a capitalist society will drive a desperate person to do. Instead, this is a one-location monster movie that trades contemplation for suspense and heady themes for character drama. It might be frustrating for a film not to take full advantage of such an enticing presence if it weren’t so damn good.
From the striking opening image — an upside-down drone shot of a burning car in beautiful black-and-white, set to a blaring orchestral score — it’s clear that this is the work of a director with vision. That is almost by necessity, with Fabio D’Orta serving not only as director but also as writer, DP, editor, casting director, and just about every other production role, down to creating the special effects. For one person to work so hard to bring a high concept like this to life takes passion, which is reflected in every craft element.
While a micro-budget indie utilizing black-and-white cinematography isn’t rare, making the most of it is. Much attention is paid to the film’s lighting and composition. High contrast makes both shadow and light blinding, and every frame feels deliberate and evocative. The sprawling manor that is the setting is at once grand and opulent and claustrophobic as if all the space is designed to make one restricted with no clear path of escape. Even the music, typically something I pay no mind to, goes a long way in selling the horror — a baroque wall of sound that perfectly reflects the alien nature of the strange creatures.
Yes, the entities are real, which the sharp script wisely reveals quickly. Their chitinous design is genuinely unnerving, and the absence of color helps to obscure the quality of the render in a way that makes them feel even more real. Most of the film centers on star David White and his roommates at this strange estate, uncovering the fine print of their deal and deciding how to respond to it. At barely over an hour, the film moves quickly without feeling rushed, taking time to let tension simmer and the existential horror reveal itself.
That this cast, apart from David White, is entirely made up of non-professional actors is astounding. Dialogue is kept simple and to a minimum, relying on the performances to inform the characters. Michele Venni’s affable older man, Cesare Bonomelli’s laconic brute, and Enzo Solazzi’s stern authoritarian all feel like men with long lives that have led them to this place, and their humanity gives this fantastical premise a grounded sense of stakes it otherwise would not have.
The one place that The Complex Forms falters is the landing. As rigorous and composed as the rest of the film is, the ultimate reveal is sudden and left of field, as if D’Orta wrote himself into a corner and sought to write his way out by simply surprising the audience. That the sociopolitical dimension of the narrative goes underutilized feels like a missed opportunity, as perhaps with that thematic foundation, a satisfying conclusion might be more forthcoming. Even so, this is a fantastic debut film, marking Fabio D’Orta as a filmmaker to watch.
The Complex Forms screened at the 2024 Slamdance Film Festival, which ran from January 19-25 in-person in Park City, UT and online from January 22-28.
Review by Daniel Lima
The line between a genuine portrayal of emotional honesty and heavy-handed “tell, don’t show” storytelling can be very faint. African Giants, the directorial debut of Omar Kamara, attempts to stay on the right side of that divide, delving into the unique contours of the relationship between two brothers. While it is not entirely successful, it does manage to strike some poignant notes with enviable clarity.
Dillon Daniel Mutyaba and Omete Anassi star as the two brothers, first-generation Sierra Leonean Americans. Mutyaba, the elder, is a driven and charismatic man in his late twenties, looking for his big break as an actor in Los Angeles. Anassi, far meeker and more passive, has just finished his first year of law school and has come to visit his brother for a weekend. They hang out, argue, reflect on who they are as black men and immigrants, and reveal themselves in ways that one only can with family.
Much of this film rides on the performances of Mutyaba and Anassi, and they are fortunately up to the task. The brothers have an obvious dichotomy, but rather than leaning into their different personalities to the point that they become caricatures, the leads find unspoken nuances that go beyond what is written. That they have such an easy chemistry certainly helps; one would be forgiven in assuming that the two are also brothers in real life. The naturalism they bring to their roles creates a whole history that extends beyond the screen and goes a long way in making their conversations feel organic.
Sometimes, that’s simple enough. The pair have insecurities and tumultuous parts of their lives that neither is in a hurry to litigate, even though they share an understanding that should, on paper, make them each other’s best confidante. Mutyaba puts on a brave face about his struggle as an actor and is estranged from his father for several reasons; Anassi is envious of his brother’s seemingly effortless charm and is unsure that he wants to pursue law. The tensions between them lead to a number of confrontations that run the gamut in intensity, and these are the moments the film is at its best. These aren’t merely contrived conflicts engineered by a hack screenwriter; they are the natural result of who these people are and the circumstances that have brought them there.
The same cannot be said for when the film gets didactic. Kamara is himself a Sierra Leonean American, and it’s clear that this film comes from a very personal place. There is a clear desire to grapple with the cultural identity of being a first-generation American, particularly as a Black man from Africa, even more particularly from Sierra Leone. Unfortunately, this is explored in a decidedly blunt fashion, with the brothers rehashing how they were treated as children in American schools, how African culture is treated within American culture, how distant they feel from their African roots, whether they are bad Muslims, and more.
On the one hand, these conversations do happen. As a child of immigrants, I’ve certainly found myself having many a talk with friends who are also children of immigrants, or immigrants themselves, about how our identities have complicated our relationship with the world around us. It’s not unusual to imagine two family members of a similar age having these open dialogues. However, next to the remarkably lived-in moments the duo share, within the decidedly conventional visual style of the film, these broad chats reduce the characters to mouthpieces of the filmmaker — clumsily exploring contentious parts of his own upbringing.
Despite that, the cultural specificity of African Giants does set it apart from a sea of similar dialogue-driven indie debuts. Beyond the obvious addressing of an experience that isn’t often represented, it provides the two leads with a solid, idiosyncratic foundation to root their powerful performances. Hopefully, Kamara will be able to draw on his own experiences to even greater effect in the future.
African Giants screened at the 2024 Slamdance Film Festival, which ran from January 19-25 in-person in Park City, UT and online from January 22-28.
Review by Daniel Lima
“Who is Agent Argylle?” It was the artificially manufactured question on everyone’s lips as we all came under the spell of the ubiquitous ad campaign of Argylle. Is it Taylor Swift? Mayhaps it’s the cat in the trailer? Perchance the illustrious Warren Beatty has been coaxed out of retirement? That the reveal is far less exciting than even the least fanciful speculation is unsurprising. What is surprising is how utterly smug, self-absorbed, inept, lazy, and agonizing this movie is — at least, unless you’ve seen director Matthew Vaughn’s other work.
Bryce Dallas Howard plays a successful spy fiction author, addled with writer’s block as she attempts to complete the next novel in her Argylle series. Taking a train ride to her parent’s house, she meets an actual secret agent who reveals that everything in her novels is true, the rogue intelligence agency is real, and they want to use her prophetic artistic instincts for their nefarious purposes. Now thrust into a life she had only ever imagined, Howard must overcome her mental roadblock to save the world.
At least, one would assume. What exactly the goal of this evil organization is is never made clear.
The premise of an ordinary person forced into the high-stakes world of international espionage is a ripe conceit for an action-comedy. It’s already been the premise of countless action comedies. Matthew Vaughn’s own commercially successful (but creatively and morally bankrupt) Kingsman franchise comes within spitting distance of these waters. In creating Argylle, however, writer Jason Fuchs seems to be under the impression he’s the first person to have ever thought of the idea, and so blunders his way through the script, vigorously grabbing at all the lowest-hanging fruit he comes across.
It should go without saying that this movie is deeply unfunny. Vaughn’s sense of humor has never been well-developed, and that is reflected in both the hack jokes and the way he attempts to sell it as a director. Fuchs’s script is constantly mugging for the audience, taking tired and worn-out material like “lonely woman loves her cat too much” and “man who hates cat is rude to the cat,” playing it entirely straight, then acknowledging how tired and worn-out the material is as if that passes for wit. It’s the post-ironic, self-referential style that has become de facto for all lighthearted blockbusters today, and it is no less aggravating here. The ensemble does an admirable job trying to sell this garbage, but they are only human.
Worse still, however, is the narrative structure. Like all other espionage films, this is a globetrotting affair full of MacGuffins, villains, double-crosses, and twists. Unsurprisingly, it all amounts to naught, both because so little time is spent establishing the stakes of this world and because all the jokes meant to make these characters likable fall flat. By the time the third wild twist arrives, as obviously telegraphed as all of the comedy, it’s impossible for it to land with any weight. If anything, most of these twists undermine any dramatic complications the film flirts with, eliminating any sense of friction and reducing what could have been at least an airy romp to a tedious, predictable slog. That this experience is somehow stretched over almost two and a half hours is all the more excruciating.
As bad as the script is, one might expect that Vaughn’s penchant for energetic set pieces and visual dynamism might give the film some worth, at least as a vehicle for action scenes. Unfortunately, it seems that without the likes of action director Brad Allen for him to defer to, all of Vaughn’s worst instincts are indulged. Most of the fights are annoyingly edited, cut up, and lacking any sense of momentum (albeit in service of a narrative thread, but one that adds nothing to the action or the story). The biggest set pieces rely on truly horrible CGI that further removes any sense of actual danger or physicality from what should be the most crowd-pleasing moments of the film. That they indulge in limp comedy themselves (a shootout with incongruous musical cues... how original) further robs them of any impact. It’s enough to leave anyone praying for another mirthless riff session or exposition dump.
Who is Argylle for? It can’t be for some who has ever seen a movie that dares to toy with spy genre conventions because there is no novelty to be found. Nor can it be for someone who wants to laugh or be thrilled, for there is nothing funny or exciting at any point in the movie. As annoying, taxing, juvenile, and nauseatingly full of itself as it is, this film should only be experienced by IRS agents conducting an audit on the $200 million it cost to bring this dud to life.
Aryglle arrives in theaters February 2.
Review by Daniel Lima
The first Alienoid film was a raucous mess of historical martial arts fantasy and modern science fiction action. The bouncing between timelines, the amount of depth in its worldbuilding, and the vast number of characters make for an incredibly ambitious high-concept blockbuster that, as fun as it is, becomes absolutely overwhelming. Almost two years later, Alienoid: Return to the Future picks up right where the last one ends, with a far more streamlined plot and comparatively little time spent recapping the story so far. The result is an engaging, madcap genre pile-up that is a satisfying conclusion to one of the most unique projects of the decade.
Wisely, this does not linger so much on reminding the audience of what happened in the first film, as a thorough explanation would be as long and difficult to follow as the film itself. Essentially, a pair of sentient AIs serving as jailers of alien criminals attempted to stop a dangerous convict from terraforming the Earth into a habitat for its species. Chasing it from modern Seoul to late 14th century Korea, the duo ended up inadvertently recruiting numerous people to the cause: a young girl thrust into their care, a variety of sorcerers, a modern customs officer, and a pair of men who are also cats. The sequel begins with a simple goal: find the energy source that will take our heroes back to the future and end the villainous plot.
I cannot overstate how much that summary leaves out.
Considering the breadth of the story and how nonsensical it all was to begin with, spending only the first couple of minutes refreshing the audience’s memory is a wise decision. Though it never becomes easy to separate what we should know from the original and what we’re learning now (the two movies were shot simultaneously), it quickly becomes simple enough to understand the web of character relationships through context. Unburdened by the need to set up the world all over again, the narrative is free to move quickly, burning through a mountain of story at a pace that laps the lethargic predecessor.
It helps that most of the runtime is spent in the past. One of the most exhilarating elements of Alienoid is how it incorporates futuristic technology — from alien superweapons to a 9mm Glock — into the fantastic Joseon period setting, marrying these with Daoist magicians and high-flying wirework perfectly at home in classic wuxia (or its Korean equivalent, Muhyeop). There is an undeniable thrill to watching someone leap through the air, firing a semiautomatic pistol at an alien creature in an ornately decorated pre-modern inn.
Return to the Future continues to deliver stellar action, particularly since this one spends far less time on weightless CG-driven set pieces. Every battle has a tactile quality, with characters moving through the space, tearing it apart, and using every tool at their disposal in exciting ways. When effects are used, they are rooted in reality, shown to have an actual physical impact on the world around them, and shot with such deliberate intention that it’s clear that the director had a real vision of how the scene would ultimately look, not leaving it up to others to piece together in post. From classic martial arts brawls with a sci-fi twist to a train fight that mixes magic and technology with wild abandon, this is the kind of filmmaking that makes the most of every tool at its disposal.
The one area in which the film comes up a bit short is emotion. This doesn’t feel like a movie about anything in particular, lacking a clear animating idea beyond sheer spectacle. In part one, that, combined with the vast ensemble of characters, made it feel unfocused, with many scenes feeling like pure filler. That the comedy was very broad — and one can imagine much of it untranslatable — certainly made these moments less tolerable.
While Return to the Future fails to find the heart of this story, the more concise narrative means that the protagonists are forced to be more proactive, making them far more interesting to follow. Without the constant exposition dumps elucidating the premise, the cast is given more room to find the humanity within their performances, and they are all charming and delightful heroes. The villains don’t get as much to do here, but when in human guise, they are suitably intimidating. If this cast wasn’t as lively as they were, it might be easy to mentally check out, but by the climax, you just can’t help but hope for a happy ending for everyone.
It’s always surprising to find a sequel superior to the original, especially when they were a product of the same production. Yet such is the case with Alienoid: Return to the Future; unencumbered by the bloat of the first part, this finale is allowed to revel in the thrilling possibilities that this genre mash-up allows. Honestly, this movie is so much fun it had me wondering if the first deserves a reevaluation. Anything to spend more time in this world.
Alienoid: Return to the Future is now in theaters.
Review by Daniel Lima
How would humanity survive in a world that has faced an apocalyptic event? This question has fascinated people for as long as it could be raised, and in the aftermath of the worldwide societal disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic, it has gained a new resonance. The post-apocalyptic action film Badland Hunters focuses little on how the world saw its end or the societies that formed in its wake. Instead, it adopts a simple narrative that happens to be set in such a world and so fails to distinguish itself from countless other works.
Technically a sequel to last year’s Concrete Utopia (though set years after and never referencing its events), the film stars Ma Dong-seok as… a hunter in the badlands of South Korea, years after an apocalyptic earthquake, working with a young partner and exchanging meat for goods within the small village he’s made home. When a local girl is spirited away to a mysterious apartment building in Seoul run by a scientist who may not be all that he seems, the two set out to get her back.
One of the appeals of this subgenre is the particular vision of a society rebuilding itself from the ashes, the strange new social dynamics and structures that arise when the old order disappears. Alternatively, you can just make the entire thing look like Mad Max and call it a day, which is the approach taken here. The world has an appropriately cobbled-together look: homes made from broken-down old buses and corrugated sheet metal, utilitarian costuming, and even the seemingly utopian apartment shows the wear of many hard years.
Unfortunately, the facade of a disused, grimy future is just that: a facade. The clothes are too clean, the stains on the walls too fresh. There’s an obvious artifice to every setting, a sheen that shatters the illusion of a fringe wasteland. Beyond that, the visual language of the film is comparable to any number of slick, polished, but anonymous Netflix releases. As gritty and desperate as this future is on paper, it is not reflected at all in how it is captured.
Compounding this is the lack of depth in the characters. Each is an archetype better summed up in how they figure into the story than any unique personality traits. Ma Dong-seok is the gruff tough guy who bulldozes through everything, his assistant is the plucky excitable apprentice meant to serve as his foil, the village girl is a living MacGuffin who loves her grandma. With no time spent elaborating on the setting and so much time spent with a small number of characters, one would hope that any of them would be easy to root for — or at least pleasant to be around. This is not the case.
Structurally, this movie is flawed from the start. Spoiling the plot is impossible, not only because it’s so familiar, but because the very first scene telegraphs the situation the protagonists will find themselves in. It’s a truly baffling decision because it robs the entire first hour of any mystery. Instead of the audience putting the pieces together along with the characters, the audience must wait for the characters to catch up — a premise inherently devoid of any dramatic tension. Taken with the blandness of both the setting and the people that populate it, this is an arduous task.
The sole saving grace is the action. Director Heo Myung-haeng has been working as a stuntman and action director for decades, even serving as Ma Dong-seok’s stunt double in the past, and he puts that experience to good use here. There is an impressive scale to the fights here, many juggling multiple combatants that move around and use their environment organically. The intensity of some of these scenes and the creativity and complexity in the choreography are the only times the film truly comes to life. And, of course, it’s hard not to cheer whenever the former boxer Ma Dong-seok punches someone. That man might be the single greatest puncher in action film history.
It’s to the benefit of Badland Hunters that so much of the action is back-ended. If left to linger on the limp, unambitious drama set in a paper-thin world, this would be a difficult film to recommend. While it’s still not an easy recommendation, anyone interested in seeing wildly powerful haymakers demolish bad guys left and right will have that urge satisfied. Whether that’s worth how lackluster the rest of the movie is... well, they really are great punches.
Badland Hunters hits Netflix January 26.