Spy

Genre: Action/Comedy

Director: Paul Feig

Screenplay: Paul Feig

Cast: Melissa McCarthy, Jason Statham, Rose Byrne, Miranda Hart, Bobby Cannavale, Allison Janney, Peter Serafinowicz, Morena Baccarin, Jude Law

Running Length: 120 minutes

Synopsis: Susan Cooper (Melissa McCarthy), a shy deskbound CIA analyst, goes on a mission to help a field agent in trouble. Employing not-so-outrageous identities and not-so-fancy spy gadgets, she attempts to infiltrate the shadowy world of an alluring but dangerous weapons dealer. She leaves a trail of mayhem crisscrossing Europe, utilizing deception and false bravado to try and outwit her quarry and locate a stolen nuke.

Review: No one has managed to make Melissa McCarthy shine like Paul Feig has (and that includes McCarthy’s husband, who directed her in the mediocre Tammy), and in Spy they have left everything else (so far) in the McCarthy canon in the dust. Spy is undeniably the best Feig-Mccarthy pairing in the three films they have worked together on (the breakout hit Bridesmaids and the equally successful The Heat), and despite it being positioned firstly as a comedy, Spy is also a totally legit espionage action film, and I foresee it scoring great success at the box office despite a pretty packed Summer roster.

The most impressive thing about Spy is how it manages to meld the comedy and action genres together so well, without diminishing either aspect. This is in large part due to the how deftly Melissa McCarthy balances between the two – her comic timing is impeccable here, but she also manages to pull off the action and physical comedy sequences with equal aplomb (though there are some scenes where a body double was quite clearly used). Not many actors can lay claim to such an achievement, and it firmly establishes McCarthy as the reigning queen of comedy with a few tricks up her sleeve.

Paul Feig’s script does the same – it’s filled with excellent zingers and visual gags, so rich in material that one can easily watch the film a second time round and find even more to belly laugh at, and yet the spy story is equally engaging, with twists and turns that would surprise even the most jaded moviegoers. All the things that make a good spy movie are present here: exotic locations, over-the-top action sequences, a doomsday device and yes, even the classic Bond-style opening sequence makes an appearance.

Both McCarthy and the script are also bolstered greatly by a uniformly excellent supporting cast, almost all playing against type (and obviously having a great time doing it). The most notable are Rose Byrne, who is fantastic as the cruel but vapid villainess with a ridiculous accent and even more ridiculous coiffure, and Jason Statham, gleefully sending up his usual tough guy routine as a British spy who is all bark and no bite. Spy is possibly the most fun that will be had this Summer season, and is an easy recommendation to make to virtually any moviegoer.

Rating: * * * ½ (out of four stars)

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The Green Hornet * *

Genre: Action Comedy

Director: Michel Gondry

Writers: Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg, based on the radio series by George W. Trendle

Cast: Seth Rogen, Jay Chou, Cameron Diaz, Tom Wilkinson, Christoph Waltz

Running Length: 119 minutes

Synopsis: Britt Reid (Seth Rogen) is the son of a wealthy and recently deceased media mogul who seems to be the epitome of badly behaving moneyed offspring. However, Britt and his sidekick Kato (Jay Chou) transform into masked superheroes at night, posing as criminals and pitting themselves against corrupt District Attorney Scanlon (David Harbour) and crime lord Chudnofsky (Christoph Waltz). However, because they are pretending to be criminals, the police are also hot on the masked duo’s trail. Apart from Kato, Reid’s only other ally is his personal assistant Lenore Case (Cameron Diaz). Eventually, the conflict between Reid and Chudnofsky come to a head, and a battle of wits and brute force (more of the latter, though) ensues.  

Review: Other than a number of sequels, the past couple of years have been pretty quiet for the superhero movie genre. This is set to change in 2011 with a deluge of superhero movies, and the first salvo is that of Michel Gondry’s re-imagining of The Green Hornet. Given the unconventional release date of January, it’s quite obvious that this particular superhero movie doesn’t pack big guns. And while that is true, The Green Hornet still offers up some decent entertainment, but suffers from an overlong running time and a lack of focus.  

Unsurprisingly, The Green Hornet will be viewed very differently in Hollywood compared to here in Asia – after all, Jay Chou can be considered one of the most well-known celebrities in this part of the world, and The Green Hornet will very much be seen as a star vehicle for him. This actually bodes well for the film because Jay Chou is the best thing in the movie. Seth Rogen’s Green Hornet is simply put, Seth Rogen wearing a mask, and as a central protagonist he is so annoying at times that I occasionally found myself rooting for the villains. This allows Jay Chou’s Kato to stand out as the more sympathetic character, and simply put, Jay Chou just does more with his role and characterization, poor English enunciation notwithstanding.

The biggest issue with The Green Hornet is that it’s just too unfocused throughout its too-long 2 hour running time. The screenplay cannot decide if it wants to be a superhero movie or a spoof of a superhero movie. While it’s not necessarily a negative to have a little bit of everything, this is only true when the proceedings are interesting. This could be one of the most boring superhero origins stories of all time (basically it’s two people deciding to put on costumes while performing vigilante work), and to spend almost half of the movie on this aspect doesn’t work.

It’s also a pity that the usually visually inventive Michel Gondry limited himself to just a couple of sequences – there is an absolutely brilliant telephone montage that employed split screens like I’ve never seen before.  However, the usage of 3D in the film (apart from the end credits) is very minimal, and Gondry, who is an expert in employing visual tricks, does not make use of the third dimension at all.  There is a good possibility that if given freer rein and a tighter script, The Green Hornet could have been a good, if not great, superhero movie, but now it’s merely passable entertainment, especially so for fans of Jay Chou. 

Rating: * * (out of four stars)

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RED * * *

Genre: Action Comedy

Director: Robert Schwentke

Writers: Jon Hoeber and Eric Hoeber, based on the graphic novels by Warren Ellis and Cully Hammer

Cast: Bruce Willis, Mary-Louise Parker, Morgan Freeman, John Malkovich, Helen Mirren, Brian Cox

Running Length: 111 minutes

Synopsis: The film opens with Frank Morse (Bruce Willis) in Cleveland, where he is engineering flirty conversations with his pensions claim officer Sarah Ross (Mary-Louise Parker), situated in Kansas City. Frank is no ordinary pensioner, however, and when a team of hit men infiltrates his house one night, he realizes his past is catching up with him in a rather unpleasant manner. After travelling to Kansas to “kidnap” Sarah, Frank begins to round up his old team: 80-year old Joe Matheson (Morgan Freeman), who has been diagnosed with Stage 4 liver cancer but hasn’t lost his edge; the paranoid Marvin Boggs (John Malkovich) who is suspicious of everyone and everything; KGB agent Ivan Simanov (Brian Cox), who is eager to get back in the game even if it’s in collaboration with his former enemies; and Victoria (Helen Mirren), a former MI6 agent who still misses her old life as an operative. The team has to figure out who is out for their lives, but are also being pursued doggedly by CIA agent William Cooper (Karl Urban), who doesn’t really understand what RED (Retired, Extremely Dangerous) means until he goes mano a mano with the team.

Review: RED is a movie that requires a healthy serving of suspension of disbelief – Helen Mirren toting a huge-ass gun? John Malkovich being a superb marksman? It sounds more than a little unbelievable (okay, maybe excepting Bruce Willis), and yet once said suspension is in place, the film becomes a rather enjoyable romp, albeit a film that has more cheeky moments that true blue action.

Much of this has to be credited to the stellar cast. These are all old hands in the industry, and many have shown their thespian talents in previous films. Even in RED, where no one is truly taken seriously, the level of commitment each veteran has in their character is clearly visible. It’s very impressive that the producers have managed to put together such an epic ensemble cast, and the star power alone is likely to contribute to a large component of the box office takings. And unlike many other movies, in this case it’s deservedly so.

It’s very easy to tell that the actors had a ball of a time filming RED, and there’s an easy chemistry between all the main characters. Bruce Willis remains surprisingly charming even in his mid fifties, and the trio of John Malkovich, Brian Cox and Morgan Freeman hold their own as supporting characters without much scenery chewing. Far and away my favourite, however, is Helen Mirren. There’s a perverse pleasure in seeing the Queen of England handling big guns like a pro, and Mirren really milks it for all it’s worth while staying very classy. It’s a wonderful, fun performance that on its own is already worth the price of admission. 

Apart from the inspired casting and performances, the action sequences are actually rather entertaining in their own right, although obviously for a cast in this age bracket the action is pretty dialed down. Schwentke compensates for this by employing wit and humour, planting tongue firmly in cheek in many scenes. It all comes together pretty well, and RED is a rather entertaining two hours – not a groundbreaking film by any measure, but fun and easy to sit through.

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)

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Date Night * * *

Genre: Action Comedy

Director:  Shawn Levy

Writers: Josh Klausner

Cast: Steve Carell, Tina Fey, Mark Wahlberg, Taraji P. Henson, Jimmi Simpson, Common, William Fichtner

Running Length: 98 minutes

Synopsis: Phil and Claire Foster (Steve Carell and Tina Fey) are a happily married couple, but like so many couples in real life, the romance in their lives have given way to work and parenting duties. They schedule occasional “date nights” but even that has become rather routine. On one such date night, Phil decides to break out of the mould and go for something different – he takes Claire to a trendy new Manhattan restaurant, but because they had no reservations made, he also steals the table of “the Tripplehorns”, who seem to have skipped their dinner. However, it soon becomes apparent why – a pair of thugs, Armstrong (Jimmi Simpson) and Collins (Common) arrives at the restaurant to retrieve an item from the Fosters, which obviously is not in their possession. So begins a manic night across town where the Fosters have to use all their resources to outwit the thugs, obtain the item from the real Tripplehorns (James Franco and Mila Kunis), and maybe even strike a deal with the current mob boss (Ray Liotta). The Fosters also seek help from a laid-back ex-military secret ops guy called Holbrooke (Mark Wahlberg) who seems to have an aversion to wearing shirts and have somewhat of a history with Claire.

Review: Date Night is a very good example of how a movie can work without a good script – the plot for the film ranks about 9.5 on the cliché scale, but Steve Carell and Tina Fey perform so well in their roles that all is forgiven. Both are great comedians and are already proven veterans on both the small and big screen, but together their chemistry and comic timing are truly impeccable and a force to be reckoned with. The action sequences may be a little pedestrian, and (of course) not every joke works, but when Date Night works, it does so very well, and makes for a very entertaining film that doesn’t outlive its welcome.

Just like a romcom, an action comedy film like Date Night is very dependent on the chemistry between the lead characters, and the Steve Carell and Tina Fey pairing is simply one of the best I have seen this year. They are totally believable in their roles – many audience members will see a little (or a lot) of themselves in the Fosters, which makes the emotional connection stronger. There’s a great little scene in between the action where the couple stop and contemplate the state of their marriage, and it’s this scene that really sealed the deal for me. Of course, most of what they go through is nothing short of unbelievable, but at least the audience has a vested interest in seeing them triumph.

There are a great lot of laughs to be had in Date Night, most of them delivered with impeccable comic timing by Carell and Fey. Although both actors are not known for physical comedy, there is a scene involving the duo late in the film that shows that they can rise to that particular challenge. In the outtakes featured during the end credits (stay till the end to catch them all), it’s clear to see that Shawn Levy had given the two actors a lot of free play, and even the improvs that didn’t make the final cut are quite hilarious.

Credit also goes to the supporting cast for their comedic efforts, in particular James Franco and Mila Kunis for a very memorable scene as the real Tripplehorns, and Mark Wahlberg for being game enough to do nothing much but bare his (still very fit) upper torso. Although the additional “hook” in an action comedy is ostensibly the action sequences, these scenes in Date Night are actually the weakest in the show. Shawn Levy is not the most adept at directing action set-pieces, and it shows. However, such transgressions are forgivable given the strength of the lead pairing, and Date Night makes for an excellent date night movie.

Rating:  * * * (out of four stars)

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