The Review: I was a little worried, after the untimely death of Tony Scott, that Denzel Washington may not have a suitable outlet for his more flamboyant tendencies. Sure, the likes of Antoine Fuqua and Spike Lee have made effective use of Denzel’s gravitas for a variety of purposes over the years, but the world’s most famous black actor who isn’t Will Smith has typically veered between Oscar bothering dramatic roles and more lightweight fluff that Washington managed to take to a higher level, and the likes of Crimson Tide, Man On Fire and Unstoppable were all big entertainments that pushed the right buttons. Step forward Icelandic director Baltasar Kormakur to see if the void in the lighter side of Denzel’s CV can be filled, and he’s brought with him the star of his previous film Contraband, Mark Wahlberg, for a throwback action movie that feels very much like the kind of film Hot Fuzz would have been paying homage to had 2 Guns been made in the Eighties.
The idea of two mismatched cops or criminals thrown together isn’t going to win any awards for originality, although it’s surprising that no one’s come up with this particular wrinkle before. Denzel is Bobby Beans, a criminal attempting to set up a exchange of dodgy passports for cocaine with Mexican criminal Papi (Edward James Olmos), but when Papi won’t play ball, Bobby schemes with his new partner in crime Stig (Wahlberg) to rob a bank north of the border in order to rip off Papi to the tune of three million dollars. What Bobby’s not telling is that he’s actually undercover DEA agent Robert Trench, scheming with his lover Deb (Paula Patton) to trap Papi for money laundering. What Stig’s not telling Bobby is that he’s also an undercover officer, working at the instruction of his commanding officer Quince (James Marsden) to secure the money for covert ops for their Navy unit. What none of them know is what’s actually in the bank, which will soon see the shady Earl (Bill Paxton) on their trails to get back what’s rightfully his, by any means at his disposal.
Don’t panic if that sounds like a lot of plot; while it’s about a sixth of a Wikipedia synopsis, so there’s plenty more twists and turns left to play out in Blake Masters’ screenplay, it’s well structured and at all times easy to keep track of. Between Olmos and Paxton there’s a lot of evil going on (and you’ll not be surprised to hear a few of the other characters have some moral ambiguity) but never to the point where 2 Guns feels overloaded. It might be a comment on these trying economic times that everyone seems more concerned about the money than they are about the morality, but the characters all remain true to themselves to the bitter end. The tone varies slightly around the middle as desperation kicks in, but that same variation can be found in antecedents of the likes of the Lethal Weapon films, reinforcing the feel of familiarity that grips much of proceedings.
What keeps it alive, by and large, is the pairing of Washington and Wahlberg who put many married couples to shame in terms of their easy chemistry and improvised banter. Clearly having a ball, the movie sings whenever they’re on screen together and it’s become a pattern that Wahlberg’s best work seems to coincide with him seeming comfortable in his role. Kormakur keeps the action flowing, and while he’s no Tony Scott in terms of visual flourish the action is clean, efficient and in keeping with the generally relaxed mood. As an antidote to so many of the stupidly plotted blockbusters inflicted on us this summer, the clarity of purpose and undemanding nature of 2 Guns is extremely welcome. It’s not going to win any awards; indeed, you probably won’t remember much of it a week later but in the moment, it’s breezily entertaining and perfect for a Friday night with a few like-minded friends, all looking for the kind of film that low-brow purists like myself were worried they’d stopped making. If nothing else, it’s kept Denzel Washington off the streets until his next awards juggernaut rolls around.
Why see it at the cinema: The action is decent without ever been over the top and there’s a good amount of communal laughs to get the benefit from if you see it in company. See it on a weekend evening with the largest crowd possible.
What about the rating: Rated 15 for strong language and violence. 20th Century Fox, please take note: you can still make action movies at 15 and get a decent audience out to watch them if you make them well.
My cinema experience: Arriving in the screen at Cineworld Bury St. Edmunds for their Unlimited members’ preview just after the start of the adverts, the screening was already pretty full, with just the front row and the odd dotted seat spare. With rows of six on the left of the cinema, I spotted one seat at the end of a row and then failed to attract the attention of the person next to it. I then attempted to signal to the person next to the spare in the row behind, at which point the entirety of both rows stood up to let me in. I kept a low profile for the rest of the screening. The film itself got a good response from the sell-out crowd, and no issues on sound or vision. Only one jerk using their mobile on full brightness to report.
The Score: 8/10
The Review: The rise and fall – and then stratospheric rise again – of Seth MacFarlane is one of the 21st century’s more surprising success stories. MacFarlane is practically a brand in his own right, with everything from the hour and a half of animation that now airs with his name on every Sunday night in the US to his acting career in the likes of Enterprise and Flash Forward to even his music career which has seen him singing at the Proms series and releasing a swing album. (Not many would have predicted that when Family Guy was originally cancelled after two seasons.) So a move into features seemed almost inevitable, but the subject he’s chosen a little less so, moving away from the family template that’s served him so well on each of his animated sitcoms and instead looking at the almost Peter Pan-esque story of a boy who couldn’t quite grow up. While the prologue shows us how Ted is magically wished to life, we’re quickly into adulthood, where Ted is still sharing a flat with his buddy John (Mark Wahlberg) and starting to become a thorn in the relationship of John and his long term girlfriend Lori (Mila Kunis). What will it take for John and Ted to finally grow up?
While he’s moved away from the character template to establish a modern day fairy tale, Ted is still closer to the Family Guy template than is practically useful. If you’ve never sampled Family Guy, then the template consists of a thinly stretched narrative, with repeated uses of cutaways to non-sequitur gags which actually provide the vast majority of the laughs. While these cutaways were often broad analogies of the main plot in earlier seasons, as time has gone on the random gags have gotten progressively less relevant, and also less funny, leaving Family Guy feeling even more tired than The Simpsons. (By contrast, another of the McFarlane stable, American Dad, doesn’t have any insert gags, so has to rely on the plot and the characters to drive the humour; it has gone from strength to strength in later seasons.) While Ted starts on the straight and narrow, it has increasing difficulty staying with the plot as the running time elapses, and there’s a faint whiff of desperation setting in by the final third.
If you have your Family Guy bingo card with you, though, expect to score big. Jaunty show-tune style score (from regular FG composer Walter Murphy)? Check? Procession of random celebrity cameos, only a couple of which actually work and one of which heavily outstays its welcome? Check. Extended violent fight scene between two characters that resolves nothing? Check. A smattering of laugh out loud moments surrounded by a collection of tired and predictable gags? Bingo. Ted does get credit for coming up with an original idea and seeing it through, but while it’s not an episode stretched to feature length, neither does it ever truly justify the running time.
What Ted does get right is the casting of its leads; Wahlberg and Kunis both have proven comedy chops and are a perfect match for the material and each other. MacFarlane has three main comedy voices and it’s the Peter Griffin variant in play here; all the fancy motion capture in the world can’t cover up the tired in-jokes (one of which, predictably, references Peter Griffin). It wouldn’t be fair to say that all of the laughs are in the trailer, but it would be fair to say that probably half of them are, and only a wordless cameo from a big name, Patrick Stewart’s shameless voiceover and a couple of jokes that successfully push the boundaries of taste will generate big laughs. If you’ve seen a lot of Seth MacFarlane’s other work, then Ted will feel as old as an antique teddy bear, and not half as loveable.
Why see it at the cinema: You might get lucky and see it with an audience that’s never seen Family Guy, or American Dad, or The Cleveland Show, or most modern, better, comedies. In which case they might well laugh, and that should help stimulate your funny bone.
The Score: 5/10
The Review: Boxing movies have a lot to live up to when it comes to covering new ground, with both the fictional (such the “Rocky” series) and the biographical (including “Raging Bull”) giving this particular sub-genre an incredibly strong pedigree. There is, of course, a part of the audience who will be judging on the realism of the fights themselves, while others are looking for satisfying drama between the punches, and to be successful a boxing movie really needs to score on both counts. Given the depth and breadth of the history of the sport, it’s not surprising that you can still find true stories worth telling but, as a philosopher once said, “it’s the way ya tell ‘em.”
The first thing that The Fighter has in its corner is a story with a strong array of characters, strong enough that the cast were showered with awards and nominations. Christian Bale’s performance is the most obvious, and he does push his portrayal of Dicky, the once successful elder brother who lives off his moment of glory as he slides ever downwards, as far as he can – anyone who’s a fan of Christian Bale will know that’s pretty far. By contrast, Mark Wahlberg’s Micky is the polar opposite, quiet, reserved and unwilling to challenge his mother and manager, Alice (Melissa Leo), at least until he begins a relationshop the similarly reserved but more defiant barmaid Charlene (Amy Adams). The family is rounded out by Micky and Dicky’s father and seven sisters, and the influence of both becomes increasingly crucial as Micky attempts to further his career while Dicky begins to make promises he can’t keep.
Bale has stated that he couldn’t have given such a performance without Wahlberg to counterbalance it, and it’s hard to disagree, the quieter moments of Bale and Adams’ relationship providing a needed contrast to the family dramas that populate the rest of the film. Occasionally picking out humorous moments, the main body of the drama is driven by Dicky’s behaviour and its ramifications for all of those around him; themes of family and loyalty come up repeatedly, and also the impact that both the highs and lows of the brothers’ actions on the local community, but the drama eventually boils down to the actions of the two brothers. While Bale got all of the attention, Wahlberg’s contribution as both actor and producer shouldn’t be underestimated, having trained for four years (and made six other films in the mean time), working to turn himself into a believable physical specimen for a world championship fighter.
The fights themselves are maybe the weak link, having neither the poetic beauty of a Raging Bull or the physical intensity of the Rocky movies. Director David O. Russell has chosen to portray much of the footage as if seen through a TV screen, which serves to distance the audience slightly from the experience, although the punches still land with a certain amount of weight. That style does succeed in capturing the shiny glamour of the Vegas lifestyle and why it would be so aspirational to a couple of fighters from the poor end of Massachusetts. There is a tension as to the eventual outcome throughout proceedings, and this is despite the fact that the general structure doesn’t really deviate all that much from the majority of other sports movies ever made, never mind boxing movies. Russell manages his actors well enough, but the film lacks any truly standout moments to elevate it to true greatness. Still, it’s a fascinating story and the family dynamics give it a certain feeling of freshness, but by the time the final bell rings we’re left with a film that doesn’t quite site at the top of the genre.
Why see it at the cinema: You’ll need a big screen to be able to differentiate between all of the seven sisters and their mother, but the cinema is also the best place to take in the razzmatazz of the fight scenes.
The Score: 8/10
The Review: Another year, another Will Ferrell comedy. The best of these have been his collaborations with director Adam McKay, although I say that with reservations. Anchorman remains, in this reviewer’s opinion at least, one of the most consistent and funniest comedies of the Noughties, Talladega Nights was great, but Step Brothers was resolutely average, and most of Ferrell’s other comedies in the last few years have been patchy at best. Part of the problem here is over-exposure; Ferrell used up most of his supply of funny man-child shouting idiocy in Anchorman, and ever since the subtle variations on the character have worn increasingly thin.
Much of the enjoyment has come from the supporting characters in these movies, and The Other Guys certainly doesn’t skimp on the other talent. Sharing top billing this time is Mark Wahlberg, who doesn’t have much of a track record as far as comedy is concerned (as long as you exclude the unintentional hilarity of The Happening), but in the same way as John C. Reilly in Talladega Nights, his interplay with Ferrell is one of the highlights and the two form an uneasy partnership that allows both to have moments to shine. Samuel L. Jackson and Duane Johnson are an all too brief highlight at the beginning, and Michael Keaton reminds us why he was so great in the comedies of yesteryear, but on this occasion too few others make an impression.
In terms of the plot itself, there is a curious mix of the slightly serious (Steve Coogan plays a Bernie Madoff-style character almost straight) and the outlandishly humourous (the movie is littered with sub-plots, such as the use of Ferrell’s character’s Prius as a hang-out spot for homeless guys), and takes an awfully long time to feel as if it’s heading anywhere interesting. Not a problem for previous Ferrell / Mckay movies, but there’s more plot attempted here and McKay suggests attempts at more narrative thrust than in previous efforts but somehow allows things to meander a little too much.
The big question, of course, is “Is it funny?”, and the answer is, “To a point.” Wahlberg is great, especially in his reactions to Ferrell’s unlikely wife (Eva Mendes), Ferrell is a little more dialled-down than in his last couple which kind of works, there’s a few cracking set pieces and the way in which our heroes slowly rise to prominence does generate laughs along the way, but there’s few standout moments that are the equivalent of the earlier efforts by Ferrell and McKay, and some of the jokes (Keaton’s inexplicable TLC references) are stretched rather too thin, having not been that funny in the first place. In an odd way, it almost works better as a Lethal Weapon 3-style buddy action comedy, with the emphasis on the action rather than the comedy, but there a feeling of missed opportunity here. Shame.
Why see it at the cinema: McKay actually does at least a comparable job of shooting action as most of this year’s major action movies, so those scenes alone deserve a big screen viewing, and there are a few big belly laughs to share. If you like your statistics, then the end credits will also be worth seeing, as The Other Guys turns into a bizarrely serious Michael Moore film once the names start to roll.
The Score: 6/10