Kingsman: The Secret Service

Genre: Action

Director: Matthew Vaughn

Screenplay: Jane Goldman, Matthew Vaughn, based on the comic book “The Secret Service” by Mark Milar, Dave Gibbons

Cast: Colin Firth, Samuel L. Jackson, Mark Strong, Taron Egerton, Sophie Cookson, Jack Davenport, Mark Hamill, Sofia Boutella, Edward Holcroft, Jack Cutmore-Scott, Geoff Bell, Samantha Womack, Michael Caine

Running Length: 129 minutes

Synopsis: Based upon the acclaimed comic book and directed by Matthew Vaughn (Kick-Ass, X-Men: First Class), the film tells the story of a suave, old-school British superspy who recruits an unrefined but promising street kid into his agency’s ultra-competitive training program just as a global threat emerges from a twisted American entrepreneur.

Review: For those who think that James Bond is too stuffy for them, Kingsman is here to the rescue. Taking the British spy thriller genre and spinning it on its head, Vaughn has managed to create one of the most entertaining comic book adaptations and spy movies I have seen in a while. Yes, the plot is absurd and stretches plausibility to breaking point, but it’s a very enjoyable movie to sit through (with a caveat – more on that later), with slick, polished visuals and a great sense of style and humour. It also establishes Colin Firth – surprise, surprise – as a bona fide action movie star, reminiscent of what Taken managed to do for Liam Neeson’s career.

Kingsman does not pretend to be anything else than a glossily packaged spy movie parody, but unlike many parodies, it is a top notch production while wearing its intentions proudly on its immaculately tailored sleeve. Newcomer Taron Egerton is highly charismatic and likably cocky, a perfect fit as the fledging spy-in-training under Colin Firth’s wing. Firth manages to show off a hitherto unseen action hero skill set while remaining impeccably coiffed in his suit. They are ably complemented by a strong ensemble cast, with Samuel L. Jackson stealing the limelight (as he’s prone to do) as a lisping megalomaniac with a strange aversion to blood, and special mention going to Algerian dancer Sophie Boutella as an updated Oddjob (known aptly as Gazelle here), brandishing the coolest killer prosthetic legs I’ve ever seen.

Audiences who have seen Vaughn’s Kick-Ass would be aware that he is not one to shy away from violence, and there is certainly a lot of near-gratuitous violence to be found in Kingsman. The hyperviolence is not for all audiences, and there will be some viewers who may feel it’s a bit too much (the church sequence – no spoilers – can particularly be rather disturbing, even if one takes it purely at face value). The plot makes no sense whatsoever, more at home in the Austin Powers franchise than the Bond franchise, but if one is willing to go along for the ride and not take things too seriously, it is a thrilling, highly entertaining movie well worth its price of admission.

Rating: * * * (out of four stars)


Skyfall * * * 1/2

Genre: Action Thriller

Director: Sam Mendes

Writers: John Logan, Neal Purvis and Robert Wade

Cast: Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Javier Bardem, Ralph Fiennes, Naomie Harris, Berenice Marlohe, Albert Finney

Running Length: 143 minutes

Synopsis: In Skyfall, Bond’s (Daniel Craig) loyalty to M (Judi Dench) is tested as her past comes back to haunt her. As MI6 comes under attack, 007 must track down and destroy the threat, no matter how personal the cost.

Review: This was the Bond film that almost never came to be – given MGM’s financial woes, production was suspended on Skyfall for a year, but thankfully things turned around and the film managed to be released in time for Bond’s 50th anniversary. This fact alone is due cause for celebration, because after the somewhat disappointing Quantum of Solace, Skyfall is a return to form for the franchise, and immediately ranks amongst the best Bond films (though still falling slightly short of the seminal Casino Royale). Perhaps it’s the sensibilities of a director like Sam Mendes, or that Daniel Craig, Judi Dench and Javier Bardem is possibly the best combination of Bond, M and Bond villain in the franchise’s 50-year history, but everything just falls into place beautifully, resulting in not just a great Bond film, but an excellent action thriller as a whole.

The film opens with a huge bang, with an excellent chase sequence that sets the tone of the film action-wise. Seguing into a classic Bond credit sequence with a theme song (sung by Adele) that is definitely the best in recent years, Skyfall makes no pretense about its intentions – this is meant to be a throwback to the best years of the Bond franchise, and it does so with great aplomb.
Great action sequences are almost a given nowadays, and Skyfall more than delivers in this aspect. What Sam Mendes brings is an added dimension to Skyfall, an emotional engagement that is rare in the franchise. Daniel Craig masterfully peels back the layers of Bond cool, and displays a scarred vulnerability that makes Bond more three-dimensional and accessible than ever before. This iteration of Bond can be hurt physically and emotionally, and it’s not hard to see the parallel between Craig’s James Bond and Christopher Bale’s Batman. Javier Bardem plays the fey yet menacing antagonist Silva, and although Bardem puts forth a most impressive performance, Craig never feels like he’s being outdone or overshadowed.

However, the most memorable performance in the film has to go to what must be the oldest “Bond girl” ever – Judi Dench’s M is a pivotal character in the movie and her role in Skyfall outweighs her previous six outings combined. From the grittier moments to the most introspective portions of the film, Dame Judi Dench doesn’t ever falter, and much like Daniel Craig, she has become the most iconic M in the franchise’s history. Bond films are not known for thespian quality, but since the Casino Royale reboot this has been turned on its head.

Skyfall boasts incredible visuals, and is a very handsome film from start to end – kudos to Roger Deakins, who may just get a nod at the Academy Awards for the fine work he’s put in here. In particular, the skyscraper scene set in Shanghai really ups the game, presenting an action sequence in a breathtakingly new light (both literally and figuratively). Thomas Newman, Mendes’ longtime collaborator, merges old and new together in his scoring of the film, and that familiar guitar riff makes an undeniable impression multiple times in the show (as compared to the two previous films scored by David Arnold, which pretty much eschewed the classic theme from a majority of the proceedings).

It’s hard to innovate in a film franchise which has been around for half a century, but that’s exactly what Mendes and crew have managed to achieve. It’s an interesting dichotomy – on the one hand James Bond has been further updated for modern times, yet it’s the callback to the classic Bond that makes the movie stand out.  The only more tangible flaw that Skyfall has is the need for a tighter edit, yet even this doesn’t really detract significantly from the cinematic spectacle that the rest of the film is.
Rating: * * * ½ (out of four stars)


In Time * * 1/2

Genre: Action Thriller

Director: Andrew Niccol

Writer: Andrew Niccol

Cast: Justin Timberlake, Amanda Seyfried, Cilian Murphy, Olivia Wilde, Vincent Kartheiser

Running Length: 110 minutes

Synopsis: In Time is set in a world where time has replaced money as the universal currency. The wealthy have accumulated thousands of years, allowing them to live forever, while the poor beg, borrow, and steal enough minutes to make it through the day. In this world, Will Salas (Justin Timberlake) is one of the unlucky ones, waking up every morning with 23 hours left on his ticking clock, and the knowledge that if he doesn't earn enough time, he won't live to see tomorrow. But Will's fortune takes an unexpected turn when a wealthy stranger turns up dead, and Will finds himself 100 years richer. Now the prime suspect for the man's murder, Will is on the run, with the help of a beautiful young woman (Amanda Seyfried), who is the only one who believes he is innocent.

Review: It’s a fascinating concept – what if time is the only currency we trade in? Andrew Niccol takes this idea to an extreme in In Time, and whilst this is a slick, entertaining action thriller that’s extremely apt for this era we’re in (pardon the pun but the timing could not be better, given the growing disparity between the haves and the have-nots), it does eventually slightly wear down the viewer because it’s a very singular concept that doesn’t offer much wiggle room. Once the idea has been presented, there’s only that much that can be done before it starts to feel repetitive. The fact that the movie runs almost 2 hours long, with an extremely heavy handed use of time-related metaphors (and more time puns than you can shake a stick at), only serves to exacerbate this issue.

However, there are a lot of things going on for the movie that help to elevate the film above mediocrity. Justin Timberlake and Amanda Seyfried make a good looking couple, and the duo share an easy chemistry though they never really light up the screen. They are more like a pair of fun-loving, sharp-dressing BFFs, but this isn’t really a downside since the pairing still works in principle. The rest of the cast are also quite effective, and it’s clear that Niccol spent some effort in casting actors that are somewhat ageless in appearance.  

Where In Time truly shines is in its impeccable production values. Not only is the cinematography breathtaking, thanks to seasoned cinematographer Roger Deakins, the art direction is near flawless, starting with multiple Oscar-winning Colleen Atwoods’ gorgeous costumes to the amazing set and prop designs. It’s clear that much thought has been put into even the littlest details, and In Time is a superlative effort when it comes to aesthetics. 

Look past some little niggles in the plot (it’s never explained why humans stop aging at 25, and why everyone’s lifespan is limited to just an extra year, for example), and In Time manages to function very well as an eye candy film, extending beyond the actors and into the look and feel of the film itself. For an action film released in the “off season”, one could certainly do worse than what has been accomplished here.          

Rating: ** ½ (out of four stars)


Killer Elite * * 1/2

Genre: Action Thriller

Director: Gary McKendry

Writers: Gary McKendry & Matt Schering, based on the novel The Feather Men by Ranulph Fiennes

Cast: Jason Statham, Clive Owen, Robert De Niro

Running Length: 118 minutes

Synopsis: Inspired by true events, Killer Elite follows the exploits of Danny (Jason Statham), one of the world's most skilled special-ops agents. Lured out of self-imposed exile, Danny reassembles his crack team of operatives to execute a near-impossible mission of retribution – to rescue his former mentor and partner Hunter (Robert De Niro). Together they must penetrate the highly feared and respected military unit, the British Special Air Service (SAS), to take down a rogue cell of soldier assassins and their leader Spike (Clive Owen) before their actions create a global crisis.

Review: On the surface, Killer Elite seems to feature a perfect cast – tough guys Jason Statham and Clive Owen facing off each other, and with Robert De Niro to boot – but the picture is not that rosy in reality. This is a classic case of “too much of a good thing”: Killer Elite simply throws too much at the audience, with a very complex plot structure that many viewers would simply give up trying to follow eventually. Thankfully, the action in the film is very well executed, so the film somewhat balances out into an action thriller that stakes its place in the middle of the pack.

One of the biggest problems with Killer Elite is that the plot threads come thick and heavy, and much of it really makes no sense at all even if you are paying close attention. In fact, much of the movie feels disjointed and the flow from one segment to the next is usually quite jarring. This could be because the book The Feather Men, the inspiration behind the film, has been accused of factual inaccuracies and even outright untruths, and so adapting the source into a film turns into a clumsy dance around the facts. One of the worst-developed subplots is the romantic angle between Statham and his beau (Yvonne Strahovski – who is probably getting more screen time than needed because of her fame on the small screen as the femme fatale in Chuck) which is never convincing and feels particularly tacked onto the proceedings.

Although the promo for the film tries to suggest that Killer Elite features the three actors evenly, the truth is that it’s simply a Jason Statham movie, with Clive Owen and Robert De Niro as guest stars. In fact, De Niro is pretty much out of the picture throughout the whole film except the first and last reels. There’s actually nothing wrong with Killer Elite being all about Jason Statham, because like most of his movies, Killer Elite is chock full of hard-hitting action, high-adrenaline car chases and more shootouts than you can shake a stick at. It’s highly visceral and highly entertaining, provided you are in the right mindset. One does wish that with stars of such caliber like Owens and De Niro on board, something more could have been done with them than just being impressive window dressing.   

Rating: ** ½ (out of four stars)


Rise of the Planet of the Apes * * * *

Genre: Action Thriller

Director: Rupert Wyatt

Writers: Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver, suggested by the novel La Planete des Singes by Pierre Boulle

Cast: James Franco, Andy Serkis, Frieda Pinto, John Lithgow

Running Length: 106 minutes

Synopsis: Set in present day San Francisco, Rise of the Planet of the Apes deals with the aftermath of experiments in genetic engineering that leads to the creation of apes with super intelligence, beginning with Caesar (Andy Serkis), who is adopted by Will Rodman (James Franco), one of the lead scientists in the project. Will has a vested interest in the success of the project because his father (John Lithgow) is afflicted with Alzheimer’s, but Will doesn’t realize how he will eventually play a crucial role in the war between the humans and the apes.

Review: Perhaps this is a new formula for success in Hollywood – instead of tackling the remake of an old movie, creating a prequel to a familiar franchise seems to work extremely well. Cases in point: Batman Begins, Casino Royale and Star Trek. 20th Century Fox has managed to strike gold twice in the same movie season with this formula, first with the seminal X-Men: First Class, and now with Rise of the Planet of the Apes. To be honest, after the disappointing Tim Burton remake a decade back, my expectations of Rise of the Planet of the Apes were not high. Confounding my expectations, this film has turned out to be a late summer season surprise, and is now for me as one of the best films released this year so far.

Much of why Rise of the Planet of the Apes makes such a deep impression is because of the depth of emotion it plumbs. The modern day setting means this is the closest to reality the Apes franchise has been (not factoring in the Burton remake), and hence it’s far easier to identify with the events that unfold on screen. This is also the first time that the apes are not human actors in cheesy costumes and prosthetics, and the CGI is so lifelike there really are only a small number of scenes where the primates look artificial. No surprise that the visual effects are handled by Weta Digital, the company who were behind the effects of the Lord of the Rings franchise and more tellingly, the King Kong remake in 2005.

Most importantly, Andy Serkis seems to have gotten performance capture acting down to an art, and his portrayal of Caesar is so expressive and so believable that he becomes the most sympathetic and fully fleshed out character in the whole film, overshadowing the human actors (who all put in decent performances). Coupled with the fact that a good portion of the film is centred around Caesar and his growth and change, and this strong emotional connection with the central protagonist (and surprisingly, some of the other primate performers) is what pushes the film from being simply good to great. I don’t recall many other movies in recent years that have moved me to such an extent, much less one that is populated at times entirely only by CG characters.

Although there are few classic action set pieces in Rise of the Planet of the Apes, every minute of the film is compellingly building towards the denouement, and nothing feels superfluous. The final showdown on the Golden Gate Bridge is breathtakingly executed, guaranteed to leave audiences on the edge of their seats yet while still being emotionally powerful. Viewers familiar with the original films will find references here and there, but the film is self-contained and accessible to newcomers and veterans alike. Rise of the Planet of the Apes concludes with a setup that leaves the door open for future films, but if they can be as outstanding as this one, it will definitely be a series to look out for.

Rating: * * * * (out of four stars)


Inception * * * *

Genre: Science Fiction / Thriller

Director: Christopher Nolan

Writer: Christopher Nolan

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Ellen Page, Tom Hardy, Ken Watanabe, Dileep Rao, Cilian Murphy, Marion Cotillard, Michael Caine

Running Length: 148 minutes

Synopsis: The less one knows about the plot of Inception, the better – so I will be brief. Set in a world when humans are able to enter the dreams of others, information that has been hidden away in the mind is no longer safe from prying hands. These thieves of dreams are known as “extractors”, and Cobb (Leonardo DiCaprio) is one of the best in the field. However, when corporate magnate Saito (Ken Watanabe) contacts Cobb and partner Arthur (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), he is not looking for extraction but “inception” – the planting of an idea in one’s head. Cobb is convinced to take on the job, and has to assemble a motley crew, each fulfilling a specific purpose, to try to successfully attempt inception.

Review: Can Christopher Nolan do no wrong? First noticed for the exceptional mind bender that was Memento, Nolan has moved on to create two of the best superhero movies of all time (namely Batman Begins and The Dark Knight), and now Inception – his 10-year old project – has finally made it to the big screens. I’m happy to say that Inception continues Nolan’s winning streak, and it’s very simply the best live-action film I’ve seen this year.

Inception has an amazingly detailed story, working on multiple levels at one go, augmented by exceptional action sequences, good performances from its leads, some stunning camerawork and stuntwork, a great score and has been edited faultlessly. Seems like a lot of superlatives in one sentence, but Inception really manages to tick off almost every check box – to say that it’s an instant classic isn’t an overstatement.

Inception is a film that demands your undivided attention – it’s a long movie (almost two and a half hours), and the storyline is so complex that even a quick toilet break may mean a gap in comprehension. Make no mistake, this is a film that stands up to repeat viewings, and practically demands it. The concept may not be very new – there are shades of The Matrix, Dark City, Minority Report and more in Inception, but much like the best of these films, Inception presents it in a new light. The multi-layered narrative structure – at one point in the movie, four narrative layers were unfolding at the same time – could have been extremely confusing, but Nolan manages to weave the narratives together seamlessly, augmented by some excellent editing, and surrounds it with a watertight internal logic that helps with audience immersion.

Intellectual stimulation aside, Inception is also very accomplished as an action movie. A number of action set pieces are very thrilling and high-octane, rivaling any big budget actioner out there for adrenaline kicks. Visual effects do not overpower the raw action, and it’s very encouraging to note that Nolan had used physical sets in a fair number of scenes instead of relying solely on green screen wizadry. One particularly impressive scene involves Joseph Gordon-Levitt careening through a hotel corridor with varying levels of gravity, and it’s an extremely well-choreographed action sequence that truly excites the mind. This level of accomplishment comes as no surprise, since Nolan has managed to put together equally impressive action set pieces in the Batman movies. This is, to use a clichéd but apt phrase, truly a thinking man’s action movie. 

This is Leonardo DiCaprio’s second outing in a psychological thriller this year, the first being Scorsese’s Shutter Island. His performance here is more subdued and not quite so over the top (read: less “crazy eyes”) than in Shutter Island, which makes Cobb a fair bit more believable as a character and serves as a good emotional anchor in the film. Ellen Page is saddled with the unenviable task of delivering almost all the expository lines in the film, but still manages to do a pretty decent job as Cobb’s muse (of sorts). Amongst the rest of the strong supporting cast, Marion Cotillard’s performance is the standout – although she appears in a mere handful of scenes, they are impactful and memorable, and Mal easily becomes a central character despite having the least screen time.  

Inception bucks the trend of remakes, retreads, sequels and mindless action films that have overwhelmingly populated cinemas in recent years, and is a fresh, new piece of cinema that excites the senses and the mind. With the commercial success of the Batman movies, Nolan could have churned out cookie-cutter action films with guaranteed box office returns, but with Inception it’s clear he was willing to make a gamble for a project that’s close to his heart. Inception succeeds on many levels and is testament to Nolan’s talent, and is the first live-action film this year that I can recommend to any moviegoer without any reservation.

Rating: * * * * (out of four stars)


Law Abiding Citizen * 1/2

Genre: Action Thriller

Director:  F. Gary Gray

Writer: Kurt Wimmer

Cast: Jamie Foxx, Gerard Butler, Colm Meaney, Bruce McGill, Leslie Bibb

Running Length: 108 minutes

Synopsis: Engineer Clyde Shelton’s (Gerard Butler) wife and young daughter are brutally raped and murdered before his eyes when burglars break into their home. However, the assistant DA assigned to the case, Nick Rice (Jamie Foxx), decides to preserve his 96% conviction rate and makes a deal with one of the two burglars – testify against his partner in crime and he gets a much reduced sentence. Clyde is enraged at this miscarriage of justice, but he patiently plots for the next ten years, setting up an epic revenge on everyone involved – be it the burglars, the judge, the DA and Nick himself. Surprisingly, even though Clyde is quickly incarcerated, the revenge killings continue unabated…

Review: Verisimilitude has never been a very important criterion for rating movies in my book, but I draw the line when suspension of disbelief becomes impossible, and the sheer stupidity of the script overshadows everything else that make up the movie. Law Abiding Citizen is one such film.

Law Abiding Citizen starts out quite well, and even though the “justice kills” are quite graphic and feel almost at home with the Final Destination series, there’s some (admittedly twisted) pleasure in seeing the “bad guys” get their comeuppance in these convoluted, unorthodox ways.

However, these machinations become increasingly preposterous, and it is simply impossible to believe that a single man, even if not incarcerated, could have been capable of setting everything up with such precision. It is also frustrating to see a character like Shelton, who is supposed to be extremely intelligent, behave stupidly just to advance the plot.

The denouement, in particular, feels very unsatisfactory because it hinges on Shelton being particularly dumb, and I for one found it impossible to accept the turn of events (no spoilers for what happens, even though a scene in the trailer actually gives part of the conclusion away).

The exchanges between Jamie Foxx and Gerard Butler are also rather insipid, and Jamie Foxx’s character seems to be a cop first then a DA, probably as an attempt to beef up the action sequences in the film. However, this leaves Law Abiding Citizen in a state of limbo, as the action sequences still aren’t all that exciting, and yet the supposed intellectual exchanges aren’t very interesting either. This is a movie that would have probably been better if it tried to do less, but as it is, Law Abiding Citizen simply isn’t a very compelling movie in any way.

Rating: * ½ (out of four stars)