The Review: Pop quiz, hot shot. Jack Black and Dustin Hoffman were the leads in the original Kung Fu Panda, but there was also a Furious Five made up of other animals. Can you name the actors that portrayed Tigress, Mantis, Monkey, Viper and Crane? No real prizes for Angelina Jolie or Seth Rogen, but give yourself a point if you got Jackie Chan as Monkey or Lucy Liu and frankly, if you managed to identify David Cross as Crane, then you don’t get out much, do you? But this is the way of the Dreamworks animation. The likes of Shrek, Madagascar and Monsters vs Aliens have relied on famous voice casts where the characters are a thin reflection of the voice actors playing them, to the point you could almost believe it was the actors themselves in an animal suit were the characters not so convincingly portrayed by the CGI. So when you pay for Jack Black, he might look black and white and be even tubbier than in real life, but it’s basically still the same Jack Black you’re getting.
Which might make you wonder how it would be possible to spin a sequel out of the material already woven by the original? Kung Fu Panda tread some familiar Dreamworks ground, the consistent moral in their material being that you should be true to yourself, and one that Po the Dragon Warrior had learned quite well by the end of the first film. But there were some obvious seeds planted in the original, not least the fact that Po the panda’s dad is, well, a goose. When Po starts having flashbacks mid-fight, there’s obviously a need for closure, but little does he realise how wrapped up that will be with new enemy Lord Shen (Gary Oldman)?
If there’s one thing that’s been largely absent from most of the Dreamworks animations, then it’s the depth of emotion that their contemporaries such as Pixar manage to work in so effortlessly, and while the Shrek movies have made a few attempts, they’re generally pale imitations. Not any more, though, as Kung Fu Panda 2 succeeds admirably in expanding upon the original story but in the process adds further layers of depth and pathos to the story. Somehow, it also manages to drop in even more famous voices – as well as the major players from the original mentioned above, the likes of Dennis Haysbert, Michelle Yeoh and even Jean Claude Van-Damme all get their moment in the spotlight. Jack Black does well, but once again the weak link is Angelina Jolie; more effective here than in the original, she’s still the most anonymous of the voice cast, but there’s enough good work here that you don’t feel let down and Oldman is especially enjoyable as the petulant peacock bent on world domination.
So a good meaty story, with plenty of feeling, but the other think that made the original Kung Fu panda such a standout was just that – the kung fu. Thankfully, this sequel lives up to the standard set by the original and features scene after scene of top quality family-friendly fighting – enough to get the kids imitating on the playground but not enough to get them taking each other’s heads off. The quality of the animation and the direction is also easily the equal, if not an improvement, on the original, and the flashback sequences are especially well handled and distinct. All in all, this second instalment is easily a match for the first and maintains a high standard, so late scenes potentially setting up a second sequel excite rather than disappointing. Let’s hope the standard maintained by these first two Pandas can be maintained by those that follow.
Why see it at the cinema: There’s a fantastic sense of scale and both the set-pieces and the fights don’t disappoint. This will delight kids of all ages, even those into their mid-to-late thirties, and there’s enough for any age range to ensure they don’t get too fidgety.
Why I didn’t see it in 3D: A scheduling conflict meant that the only way I could squeeze three films into an afternoon was to forego the 3D option for this film and stick to 2D instead. Based on what I know of 3D and its inability to carry darkly lit films with lots of cutting and fast paced action sequences, you have my sympathy if you end up at the 3D version.
The Score: 8/10
The Pitch: There’s No Way Out for Angelina.
The Review: The Cold War cast a terrible cloud over the world for a long time – unless you were a moviemaker, of course. The end of hostilities saw a changing landscape in action blockbusters, with one of the two superpowers not only reduced to a shadow of their former selves, but also no longer a threat. But those sneaky Ruskies, they’re slippery, y’see? They were just biding their time, waiting for the right moment to strike. Arbitrarily waiting nearly twenty years for the right moment, a Russian agent reveals himself and a surprising plan to strike against… the Russian president. (Don’t worry, that doesn’t make any more sense by the end of the movie.)
As with many blockbusters, the lead is effectively interchangeable, so much so that the difference between Tom Cruise (originally mooted) and Angelina Jolie (actually cast) is simply a gender – there’s even a bit of Mission: Impossible style mask silliness in the final act. The cast has been rounded out with generally capable actors, Liev Schreiber and Chiwetel Ejiofor being the most prominent, but for the majority of the running time pretty much everyone else is there on the sidelines to pass comment on the latest twist in the plot. When I say twist, that may be overstating the case a little – the plot, played out against that backdrop of escalating terror attempts, simply challenges you to work out, “who is Salt?” Consequently there are only so many ways that can be spun before you run out of patience, and Salt will test just how far your personal limit is on that level.
As with any good blockbuster, though, if the action is good enough it can distract from any slight implausibilities in the plot. Director Phillip Noyce has form in this area, having done well with two Jack Ryan adaptations on his CV, but while other action has moved on, this feels slightly retrograde. Sure, there’s the POV shots from within a vehicle and some wanton destruction that wouldn’t look out of place in a Bourne movie, but the overall effect is pedestrian, rather than pulse-pounding. Jolie employs a few trademark moves when things go hand-to-hand, not least running up the nearest wall whenever she’s about to kick someone, but while you believe thoroughly that she could be capable of these actions, there’s nothing that will linger long in the memory.
Consequently, you are left enough time to dwell on the various improbabilities, such as Salt being able to assemble a rocket launcher in a confined space without any preparation, planning or assessment of the situation whatsoever, or that a building organised enough to install giant bulletproof shutters has massive blind spots on their security camera coverage. You’ll overlook the clichés, not least Liev Schreiber asking for a zoom into video footage for no other reason than so he can ask the freeze-frame what it’s up to. But this is just an early sample – moments like this continue, as you test your disbelief’s suspension. The final test comes at the end, with of a coincidence of such shuddering implausibility which triggers the final face-off that you should count yourself lucky to ever believe anything again. Salt has just enough to keep you interested, but if this was all the Cold War had to offer, maybe it’s a good job things have defrosted.
Why see it at the cinema: If you have a fear of heights and / or suffer from vertigo, then the shots of Angelina precariously climbing round a high ledge will successfully give you the willies. And if you like average action movies, you really should be seeing them on the big screen.
The Score: 5/10