Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

By: Kevin Jordan

A trophy for trying.

I’m not sure there was any movie in 2017 for which I had lower expectations than Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle.  Well, maybe Justice League.  And Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.  And Transformers: The Last Knight.  And Kong: Skull Island.  Ok, so there were many movies to be seriously pessimistic about this year and Jumanji was one of them.  I also assumed that Welcome to the Jungle was a remake of the 1995 original and I loved the original.  So, yeah – expectations, meet toilet water.

(Last SPOILER ALERT of the year.)

Five minutes into Welcome to the Jungle, I thought my expectations were going to be fulfilled.  The film literally picks up where the 1995 film left off – the game is half-buried in the sand on a beach somewhere and someone stumbles across it and picks it up.  This person gives the game to seventeen-year old Alex, who opens it, dismisses it with “who plays board games anymore,” sets it on a nearby shelf in his room, and goes back to playing an Atari-like console video game (the console being located on the other side of the room).  During the night, a green glow lights up his room and, the next morning, Alex finds the console and controllers stacked on top of the Jumanji box.  Thinking this is only mildly odd, he opens the Jumanji box and finds there is now a game cartridge for his console.  Without batting an eye at this bizarre occurrence, Alex stuffs the cartridge into the console and is sucked into the game.  Seriously?!  That is how the board game becomes a video game?  You didn’t even try.  Why have the kid open the box at all?  Or why not have him put it under the console himself?  It took me less time to come up with several ridiculously simple ways to fix this scene than it did to write this paragraph.

Things really didn’t get better over the next ten minutes as we jumped to 2017 and met the other four kids (all five kids are teenagers), but at least we got something rational.  For various reasons, nerdy-and-weak-Spencer (Alex Wolff), large-football-player-and-homework-cheat Fridge (Ser’Darius Blain), hot-and-self-absorbed Bethany (Madison Iseman), and awkward-and-anti-social Martha (Morgan Turner) end up in detention together.  They are made to clean out an old storage area where they come across the old console, which inexplicably ended up in a high school.  Just…uuuuggghhghh.  They decide to play and are immediately sucked into the world of Jumanji where they are transformed into the characters they chose, which just happen to be the exact opposite of their real selves.  Spencer becomes Dwayne Johnson (hot and huge), Fridge becomes Kevin Hart (short and annoying), Bethany becomes Jack Black (Jack Black), and Martha becomes Karen Gillan (sizzling hot ninja).  Get it?  Uuuuuggggghhhgh.

They really recover from the bad start.

Then, something weird happened.  The film became enjoyable.  One of the things I love about the original is how nothing in the game is skipped over, including each turn.  The rules are followed until the end and everything happens for a reason.  Welcome to the Jungle pulls off the exact same feat, albeit with far less subtlety and cleverness, by showing us the entire game played out on screen.  Sure, there are apparently only three or four levels in this game and the threats they face are far fewer and include Mad Max motorcycle extras (don’t ask), but they never warp forward or cheat their way through the game.  Each player has three lines on their arm, denoting their number of lives within the game.  And we get to see how every one of them is lost.  Just like in the original, our new players must finish the game if they want to escape, though this time they have to actually accomplish something besides not dying (they have to put a MacGuffin in another MacGuffin).  The film even takes the time to define the strengths and weaknesses of each player and utilizes all those things through the course of the game.  I am stunned that the same writers (all six of them) that wrote such an atrocious opening scene also pulled the rest of this script out of their PlayStations.

It works because they can all see the box too.

I was also expecting really flat characters, based on such obvious jokes as their avatars being shoved down our throats, but I was wrong there too.  With the exception of Kevin Hart Kevin-Harting it up, Johnson, Black, and Gillan acted their butts off to do their best impressions of their younger counterparts doing impressions of themselves.  Even more impressive is they kept it up for the entire film (kudos to director Jake Kasdan on this as well), Jack Black really selling being a ditzy girl trapped in a hobo’s body.  Perhaps the best trick of the entire film was Black managing to make a couple dick jokes not come off like, well, dick jokes.  When Bethany has to pee, she asks the guys to explain to her how to use a penis and the result is genius.  Even an obvious boner gag came off as poignant.

She was never the cause of a boner joke and it would have been so easy.

As much as I ended up enjoying the movie, there were some glaring misses.  Nick Jonas (playing adult Alex) has a looooong way to go as an actor, but he wasn’t terrible.  The villain (Bobby Cannavale) was almost non-existent, as well as being exactly what you would expect in a crappy video game.  The tone of the film ditched anything even remotely frightening, which is one of the things that made the original so good.  They remembered to include a cut-scene at the beginning of their adventure in the game (which was brilliant), then forgot to do any more cut scenes.  Fridge had the backpack of weapons as a trait, but they rarely ever pulled anything out of the pack, which was a huge missed nod at what video game characters are able to carry in games.  And, as good a job as they did to close out the characters’ arcs and individual growth, they completely forgot to do the same with Fridge (who never learns his lesson about abusing his friendship with Spencer by having Spencer do all his homework for him).  And, again, Kevin Hart playing himself.  Again.

When we walked out of the theater to give our opinions, mine was “that was alright” (voice inflection rising through the sentence).  The agency rep asked “just alright?” to which I replied “yes, but said in the same tone as – ‘I thought it was going to be garbage’ (voice inflection rising through the sentence).”  And that is all I wanted from this movie.  A mindless two hours of silly entertainment that didn’t insult my intelligence.  That’s worth a trophy accomplishment in my book.

Rating: Don’t ask for any money back (I’m as surprised as you).

Central Intelligence

By: Kevin Jordan

Is it?

We all find some comedians funny and others not so much.  Personally, I don’t find comedians funny whose main shtick is yelling/screaming at the audience.  Sam Kinison, Chris Tucker, Gilbert Gottfried, and Kevin Hart are examples of guys who find it necessary to scream their humor at people and if their jokes are actually funny, I wouldn’t know because I’m bleeding from the ears.  So, you can probably guess at my preconceived opinion of Central Intelligence, starring Kevin Hart (and Dwayne Johnson, aka The Rock).

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Judging by the audience’s reaction to the film, we were watching a comedy classic unfold before our eyes.  Listening to comments after the movie, I realized that I’m probably going to be in the minority on this movie – people who did not think it was a particularly good or funny movie.  And that’s okay because sometimes movies, no matter how good or bad, can sometimes just rub a person the wrong way.  In other words, this movie chaffed the hell out of me.  Surprisingly, it had very little to do with Kevin Hart, though he did spend a fair amount of the movie screaming.

I may have liked the movie better had it not started off the way it did.  Flashback to 1996 where Calvin “The Golden Jet” Joyner (Hart) is giving a speech at a senior pep rally.  You read that right and to make it goofier, he’s also a track star, football star, drama star, valedictorian, and other accolades.  Meanwhile, Robbie Weirdick (Johnson in a CGI fat suit and, yes, that’s his character’s actual name at first – he changes it to Bob Stone after that) is showering in the locker room when five kids decide to execute their senior prank – by throwing Robbie into the middle of the gym floor during the pep rally, still naked and wet.  As hilarious as assault and a sex crime sounds, it’s made worse by the reaction that follows.  The pranksters don’t run away after their toss, the entire senior class is laughing uproariously, and the principal just stands there, not reacting at all.  Calvin is the only person horrified at what’s happening and quickly runs over to Robbie and gives him his letter jacket to cover up.  Robbie runs away and the principal turns to Calvin and simply says “no coming back from that one.”  Har, har, har – fuck you.  I was a junior in high school in 1996 and had this happened, I can guarantee that you would have been able to hear a mouse fart in the gym from the dead silence that would have ensued, the pranksters would have been arrested and expelled from school, and more than one person would have gone to the victim’s aid.  Considering the entire point of this scene was to set up Robbie worshipping Calvin for the next twenty years (and establish an anti-bullying theme), there are a hundred different things they could have done to achieve the same goal without stooping to something so unfunny.

That set the tone for me for the rest of the movie.  Back to the present time, Calvin is an accountant disappointed in the way his life turned out, even though he’s married to an extremely hot woman (Danielle Nicolet) and makes plenty of money.  One day at work, he gets a Facebook friend request from Bob Stone and agrees to meet Bob for drinks.  Bob is now actual “The Rock” – CGI not required for the muscles.  They catch up, Bob beats up some dudes for being rude to Calvin and him, then convinces Calvin to use his “international forensic accounting skills” (I wish I was making that up) to hack into a website and decrypt an auction site for Bob.  You see, the real plot of this movie is that Bob is a CIA agent trying to find out who stole all of the encryption keys to the United States’ spy satellites.  Plus, the CIA thinks he killed his former partner, Phil (Aaron Paul), so he’s a rogue agent being pursued by a team led by Agent Harris (Amy Ryan).  That’s the movie and it’s not nearly as smart as its title thinks it is.

To be fair, I was laughing at certain points of the movie because it does have some humor that tickled me.  Most of that comes from Johnson, who is definitely getting better as his filmography grows, and there is some slap-sticky humor that hits its mark.  The problem is that Johnson’s character sucks.  While having drinks with Calvin, he essentially explains that he completely changed his life after the senior prank.  Except, Bob still behaves like a 14-year old dork except when he’s fighting.  He’s constantly referring to Calvin as The Jet, wears a fanny pack that holds one single flash grenade, wears unicorn shirts, and can’t stop talking about wanting to be Molly Ringwald in Sixteen Candles.  I spent most of the movie waiting for him to snap into the tough guy he was supposed to have become, but it never happens.  Why not just have him revert back when they confront one of the bullies from high school or snap out of dork mode once he reveals that he is an agent?  The tone of the character completely ruined the movie for me, but, again, much of the audience either liked it or didn’t care.

My other issue with the comedy is with the some of the racial jokes.  I find the humor, irony, and point in what Kevin Rock (and comics like Chris Rock) discuss in their routines, but that kind of joke in this kind of movie loses its punch when the punchline is just “because I’m black,” especially because race isn’t one of the themes of this film.  This happens several times throughout the movie – Bob will say something like “you want to wear a fanny pack too?” and Calvin will respond with “because I’m black.”  How is that funny?  The joke is that a giant man like Dwayne Johnson is wearing a fanny pack and likes Sixteen Candles (though this would have worked far better if he was playing a tough guy instead of acting like a complete nerd), not that a black man is wearing a fanny pack.

The biggest problem with this movie is that it never decides what it’s trying to do.  It should have been a buddy-cop, action movie with comedic relief, but comes off like a comedy with action relief.  Muddying the water is the anti-bullying social message that is so poorly executed, Michelle Obama will probably punch them for it.  The three writers handle the message with all the care of a toddler wielding hammers in a glass store.  In its entirety: high school bullies commit serious crime and principal does nothing, newly reformed bullying victim beats the crap out of men in bar for being rude over a chair, original high school bully bullies newly reformed victim again (when they go to him for help), victim punches original high school bully in the face at high school reunion.  So, the message is fight bullies with violence and bullying?  I guess that kind of laziness makes sense, considering the “because I’m black” jokes.

As I reread everything I just wrote, it occurs to me that that was a pretty negative review.  When I left the theater and heard all of the positive responses, I thought maybe I was missing something and thinking on the movie for a couple of days would help me see what they saw.  Nope.  As it turns out, my biggest problem was that the tone of the film was all wrong for me and dampened down a lot of the entertainment value of the comedy and action.  But, if I learned anything from the film it’s that I can make it through a Kevin Hart movie without wanting to scream back at him.

Rating: I’d ask for nine dollars back, but maybe the movie will rub you the right way.