While we continue to wait for theaters to reopen with movies we actually want to pay for, streaming services are still pumping out plenty of content for us to chew on. Three weeks ago, Without Remorse dropped on Amazon Prime and I finally found some time to sneak it in. And I was looking forward to it. Amazon’s Jack Ryan series has been solid, and Tom Clancy movies are typically fun, twisty, intrigue-filled, action thrillers worth watching at least once. Unfortunately, Without Remorse has a disadvantage the other Clancy films lacked – no Jack Ryan. As hurdles go, Without Remorse ran face first into it.
(Very mild SPOILER ALERT – If we had to actually pay for this, I’d really be spoiling this clunker.)
The film starts out in typical soldier movie fashion with Kelly leading a team tasked with rescuing a hostage in Aleppo, Syria, as part of a joint CIA operation. Our new Tom Clancy lead is Navy SEAL Senior Chief John Kelly (Michael B. Jordan), who has all the charisma of a kitchen sink. During the mission briefing, Kelly says “Wow. That was a good talk.” CIA agent Robert Ritter (Jamie Bell) responds with “You a comedian? Is that it?” Another SEAL responds with another dud of a retort and we’ve just witnessed a bunch of actors proving why they were cast in a dead-serious action flick and not a comedy. Especially Jordan, but we’ll come back to that later.
During the mission, Kelly discovers that the soldiers holding the hostage are not Syrian, but Russian, and this is supposed to be some big revelation. It was an open secret that both the United States and Russia had troops on the ground in Syria. So, why doesn’t Ritter just tell them? It’s not like the Navy SEALS are under the impression that Russia is just there for the nightlife. Because CIA. If Ritter told them he’d have to kill them. Right, Hollywood?
Fast forward three months and our SEALS are enjoying not being on a mission. Suddenly, Russian assassins are everywhere, killing the SEALS in revenge. Kelly manages to survive several gunshot wounds, but his pregnant wife Pam (Lauren London) is gunned down in her sleep before Kelly is able to kill all but one of the assassins in his home. After recovering, Kelly’s only goal left in life is to hunt down the escaped assassin to avenge his family’s death. Unlike Wrath of Man and John Wick, this movie isn’t putting the viewer into a fantastical mob or hitman landscape that at least have inklings of creativity to keep the viewer engaged. Kelly is just a blunt instrument sent on his way by his commanding officer, Lieutenant Commander Greer (Jodie Turner-Smith) who has the gall to be upset that Kelly goes on a murder spree and ends up having to get him out of prison. If this were a stupid 80’s action flick (and let’s be honest, it is), Greer definitely checks the box for this movie having a stupid chief.
Meanwhile, Secretary of Defense Thomas Clay (Guy Pearce) wants to send Russia a message that killing American soldiers on American soil is a no-no. During Kelly’s murder spree, Kelly acquired the name of the escaped assassin and Clay greenlights a mission to track down the assassin and kill him. To recap the plot of this movie so far, it’s: hostage rescue and dead Russians, revenge, revenge, revenge. This is followed by a reveal that makes zero sense, followed by the final reveal that makes the first reveal somehow even more nonsensical (plus, the motivation explaining it is mind-numbingly banal), followed by more revenge. It wouldn’t be so bad if it at least featured amazing choreography or wasn’t dripping in wildly outdated political Cold War intrigue.
Speaking of which, I am not seeing what other people see in Jordan. I was not impressed with his performances in Creed or Black Panther (or Fahrenheit 451, for that matter) and his performance as Kelly did nothing to change my mind. Not that the script did him any favors. There is an attempt to make him seem like a thinker early in the film. Once when he discovers the Russian soldiers by looking at the cell phone of one of the dead soldiers and later when he is walking by his kids playing chess and stops to make a move for one of the kids. Oh, and since I have the power to pause this movie, I rewatched the move he made and it wasn’t even legal! He moved a bishop like it was a knight. Not only is he the asshole who butted into a game of chess (which would get said person stabbed with a pawn), but he doesn’t even know how to play chess. No wonder the idiot’s revenge plan included ramming a car in the departures area of Dulles, then setting the car on fire, all while dozens of people watched (and in real life, would have captured the video of on their phones).
Despite all that, this film might have been tolerable had Jordan shown the slightest amount of interest in his character. Jordan’s Kelly is a flat, boring character with whom you sympathize only by default, due to his dead wife. The only point in the movie where his character comes to life is when he fights off a bunch of prison guards in his cell. And don’t think I’m letting the rest of the cast off the hook. Turner-Smith somehow manages negative charisma, Pearce seems just as confused by the plot and his lines as the audience is, and Bell is clearly trying to convince us that Ritter is not trustworthy purely because CIA. Turns out London was the only winner since all she had to do was die in her sleep as pregnant Pam. And I do mean only winner because running into that hurdle hurts.
Rating: You didn’t pay for this movie and you should still ask for eight dollars back.
For the first 114 minutes of its 134-minute running time, Black Panther is a really good movie. Those 114 minutes are exactly what we’ve come to expect from a Marvel Studios movie – fun, witty, and visually excellent, with memorable characters you cannot wait to see more of in future movies. It even manages to tackle a couple of social issues without stepping on itself. So, what the hell was the last twenty minutes all about? It was like watching Hamilton, but getting hit in the face with a pie during the final act. Since the rest of the movie is good, you’ll forgive the pie, but not cool bro.
(SPOILERS – I am going to describe that pie.)
There is a lot to like in this movie, so that is where I am going to spend most of this review. The film begins with a quick back story of the fictional African country of Wakanda – a country filled with vibranium and magic herbs delivered by a meteor strike centuries ago. Using those two things, the Wakandans developed super-advanced technology, including imbuing their ruler with super powers (making that person the Black Panther), flying in anti-gravity, UFO-like aircraft, and healing all manner of disease and injury. It also begs the question “where were these jerks when aliens invaded the planet in The Avengers?” I’m guessing the Avengers would have appreciated the help, considering Wakandan technology makes Tony Stark’s tech look like he’s playing with Duplos.
That would have been helpful against the Chitauri. Or Ultron.
Incidentally, this refusal to help others or share their technology is the driving conflict between the main characters of the film. King T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman), his mother Ramonda (Angela Bassett), and wiseman/priest Zuri (Forest Whitaker) want to keep Wakanda’s secrets hidden from the world (like their civilization has always done), while special operative/former lover Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), T’Challa’s best friend W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya), and the exiled Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan) want to reveal the hidden secret of Wakanda to the world and help people. Like in Captain America: Civil War, both sides make really arguments, so it is tough to decide which side to root for. I mean, you’ll root for T’Challa because he’s the Black Panther, but you’ll question him while you’re doing it.
For most of the film, it feels like we’re watching a James Bond flick. T’Challa and a couple of warriors, Nakia and Okoye (Danai Gurira), embark on missions to stop people from smuggling vibranium out of the country. They are repeatedly seen inside a command area and they even have a gadget maker in T’Challa’s 16-year old sister, Shuri (Letitia Wright). When they learn of a museum heist involving an artifact that was actually vibranium, they determine the perpetrator is Ulysses Klaue (Andy Serkis). I know – I thought Klaue was dead too and this confused me for a while. Also, I think Serkis was ecstatic to play a character that didn’t involve motion-capture because he was visibly having as much fun in his role as Cate Blanchett had in Thor: Ragnarok. Anyway, they hatch a plan to catch Klaue by undercover to a casino where Klaue plans to sell the artifact to a CIA agent, Everett Ross (Martin Freeman). And, just in case you don’t think I’ve sold the case of this film being James Bond: Marvel Edition, they stage a car chase scene with a high-tech luxury car. The only thing missing was British accents.
I made these.
While I was really into the spy-esque thriller feel of the film, I also couldn’t help marveling at a couple of the characters and the performances being delivered. As good as Boseman is in the title role, the sneaky good performances come from Serkis, Wright, and most especially, Gurira. Wright attacks her part with an earnestness that endears her to the audience immediately. Serkis revels in a villain role where we can actually see his face and invokes glimpses of Joker-level crazy/genius. But Gurira steals nearly every scene she is in, combining her tough-as-nails Walking Dead persona (Michonne) with a patient and wise advisor to create a character every bit as powerful and charismatic as Black Panther. Watching her admonish T’Challa as if he were nothing more than her pupil made me wonder who was the real leader of Wakanda.
So there I was, minding my own business and enjoying a really good movie when, out of nowhere, Klaue is unceremoniously replaced as the villain by Killmonger. Aside from the fact that Killmonger is a terrible villain name, his character is woefully underdeveloped. In fact, Killmonger is such a thin character that agent Ross (who is also laughably underdeveloped) is forced to monologue Killmonger’s backstory for the Wakandan leaders, as well as the audience. Turns out, Killmonger wants revenge for his father’s death and I lost interest in anything he did or said after that. Apparently, the writers also recognized this so, after about a five-minute digression where the movie becomes The Lion King, they wrote in a Lord of the Rings-style, epic, battle royale where Wakandans fight other Wakandans for no reason while dodging armored rhinos. *SPLAT!!*
Can you see me now?
What’s so frustrating about this climax is that the movie goes to great lengths to detail Wakandan culture and tradition, featuring the succession ceremonies and fierce loyalty, then tosses it out the window because rmored rhinos dammit! Plus, half of the Wakandan warriors decide to fight T’Challa after discovering he is still alive, meaning Killmonger isn’t technically isn’t their king (after besting T’Challa earlier). Even if you enjoy such battles in your movies, the tonal shift in the film to get there was so jarring it felt like it came from a whole different movie. It was like watching a baseball manager bring in his worst relief pitcher when the starter was throwing a shutout.
Despite the uninspiring climax and dull (second) villain, the rest of the movie was so strong that I would still rank it in the top tier of the Marvel Cinematic Universe (Black Panther being the eighteenth film in the franchise). I’m very interested to see where they go from here with Wakanda, their technology, and Tony Stark realizing he isn’t the smartest person on the planet. I can’t wait to see how Okoye plays into the larger picture and no actor is more satisfying to watch than Boseman as Black Panther. In other words, Black Panther is well worth watching and a great final lead-in to Avengers: Infinity War. Mmmm…pie?
Rating: Don’t ask for any money back unless that pie ruined your shirt.
Here’s a little insight into predicting whether a movie will be good or not – if the production studio (20th Century Fox) puts an embargo on releasing reviews until two days before a movie (Fantastic Four) opens, and does not allow advanced screenings until two days before that same movie opens, it’s a pretty sure bet that the movie is going to be bad. And I don’t mean an entertaining kind of bad; I mean the kind of bad that makes kittens cry. I wouldn’t say the reboot of Fantastic Four is so bad you’d find it playing on the IMAX in hell’s theater (tonight, double-featuring Bridesmaids and After Earth and you have to walk through the uncleaned aisles barefoot to get to your seat), but there are definitely going to be some sniffling felines in your alley Friday on night.
In case you were wondering, “Didn’t they just make Fantastic Four a couple years ago?” the answer is yes, ten years ago (eight years ago for the sequel) and that is most definitely not enough time for people to forget how lousy both of them were (for the record, I liked Rise of the Silver Surfer, but yes, it was lousy). Like Spider-Man, a remake was done not because they thought they could do better, but because they had to do it within a certain number of years since Surfer or lose the movie rights back to Marvel. You’d think eight years would be enough time to write a decent script, especially given that there are 54 years worth of source material to mine from, but you’d be wrong. Really, really, really wrong.
(Note: From here out, the 2015 version will be referred to by title. Also, this movie was as rotten as the bottom of a dumpster, so SPOILERS!)
Simon Kinberg, Jeremy Slater, and Josh Trank are the credited writers of this offense to pens, pencils, and paper, but I’m going to focus on Trank because he doubled as director. You’re probably wondering where you’ve heard his name before, but you should stop trying because you probably haven’t. His only other movie directing/writing credit is for Chronicle (2012), and while it was a very good/successful movie, it wasn’t in theaters all that long (February releases will do that). And, I’m guessing you won’t hear from him again after this movie releases and bombs (and if I’m wrong, the terrorists have won).
In the technical sense of the word – plot – Fantastic Four has one. Five people get super powers, one turns evil, the other four fight him to save the Earth. Unfortunately, that plot takes up roughly ten minutes (which contains 100% of the action scenes) of a ninety minute movie. The other eighty minutes are filled with exposition and some of the worst character development you will ever see (and not just in movies). Incidentally, it might be the shortest superhero movie ever made while simultaneously feeling longer than a three-day cricket test match in Calcutta in August.
You can tell right off the bat that the movie is going to suck because it starts with eleven-year old Reed Richards building a teleporter in his garage after basically being called an idiot by his teacher. Seven years later (it’s now 2014 in the film) and eighteen-year old Reed (Miles Teller) has improved the design and is showing it off at his high school’s science fair. For contrivance’s sake, Franklin Storm (Reg E. Cathey) and his eighteen-year old adopted daughter, Sue (Kate Mara) – who just happen to be working on a government-sponsored, industrial-size version of the same device – chat with Miles and offer him a scholarship to the Baxter Institute to help them finish the device. As it turns out, Franklin runs the project, primarily employing teenage geniuses. This is where the movie obliterates your sense of disbelief because (a) why must they be teenagers and not just twenty-somethings? and (b) Teller is twenty-eight and Mara is thirty-two. I know casting choices do that all the time, but it’s impossible to believe Mara as a teenager after watching her get naked with Kevin Spacey in House of Cards.
The writing gets worse as the machine turns out to be a teleporter to a planet in another dimension rather than to somewhere else on Earth. Enter THE BIG, BAD GOVERNMENT and BIG, BAD BUSINESS EXECUTIVE (Tim Blake Nelson) who want to exploit Planet Zero (oh my god, is that really the best name Trank could come up with?!) for its resources (at least they don’t refer to them as Unobtanium). Reed, Sue’s brother, Johnny (Michael B. Jordan), and Victor von Doom (Toby Kebbell) decide to take a secret trip after being told they couldn’t, bringing along Reed’s childhood friend Ben Grimm (Jamie Bell) because, why not?
(Note: The project is government-backed and almost assuredly classified, yet Ben is allowed to waltz into the facility and laboratories because “he’s with Reed.” I’ve seen better security at a Starbucks.)
While on Zero, Victor stirs up a green energy cloud, it chases them, Victor falls in, and the rest barely escape, though all are mutated, including Sue, who was trying to bring them back to Earth. Keep in mind, this all happens around the one hour mark of the film. At this point, the movie shows us their powers, Reed wakes up and escapes the secret facility they were transferred to (Area 57, in another fit of creativity), but is captured a year later, rendering the seven minutes in between completely pointless. With the exception of Ben, Sue and Johnny aren’t even mad at him for leaving, and Ben gets over it quickly. Plus, Reed literally does nothing during that year except globe trot, so why bother having him leave at all?
The film winds down with the machine being rebuilt and an expedition bringing Victor back to Earth, where he immediately starts killing people. Victor goes back to Zero, opens a new portal to Earth, and starts sucking the matter from Earth to convert to energy on Zero. Why does Victor do this? I swear to you I’m not making this up – because humans are destroying the Earth and don’t deserve it, so he’s just going to destroy it all the way. I told you this was shitty writing.
The sad thing is just about anything would be better than what Trank and team shat out as their screenplay. First, they should have ditched the terrible opening with the children and just started with the team in the lab as actual grown-ups who have been of legal drinking age for more than a year (and give Ben an honest reason to be there for chrissakes). After the accident, it would have been more interesting to keep the four of them together, have them learn their powers and be used by the government as a tool, but have them all become resentful of being exploited. Then, in the climax, have them go on their final mission when something goes awry and Victor leaves the group. Wrap it up; end of movie. No big showdown between Victor and the others – that’s for another movie. FYI – it took me roughly three minutes to come up with that; they had EIGHT years.
Now, I want to go back to how poorly developed the characters were. In eighty minutes, we learn that Reed is really smart. Ben is not. Johnny is black and races crappy cars. Sue is white and does not race crappy cars (she also recognizes patterns; ooooooh). And Victor started the project as a child (apparently, only children are capable of inventing trans-dimensional wormhole machines) and gets mad at Reed for having a laugh with Sue. That’s it. No development of a relationship between Sue and Reed, an extremely weak relationship between Reed and Ben, and definitely no chemistry between any of them, especially between Sue and Johnny who are supposed to be siblings. Forget about the fact that she is white and he is black (a certain radio personality in Atlanta couldn’t); I’ve seen jurors act more familiar with each other than these two characters.
It should be obvious now that I thought this movie was full-on crap. Even with the red flags of the review embargos and eleventh hour screenings providing ample warning, going into the film my main thought was that it shouldn’t be too hard to improve upon the 2005 version; that it would at least be entertaining. I just didn’t think it would be possible to make a Fantastic Four movie with less action than Sister Act. But I was wrong. Really, really, really wrong.
Rating: The one thing I’m sure I’m not wrong about is that you should definitely ask for all of your money back and hope that Trank is never allowed near a summer blockbuster again.