HANCOCK * * *
Cert 12A, 92 mins
Will Smith may no longer be the king of the July 4 weekend blockbuster, but all eight of the films he’s made in the past seven years have broken the $100 million mark, his last, I Am Legend, twice that. Arguably Hollywood’s most bankable star, there’s no reason why, despite its flaws, this won’t follow suit.
A spin on the superhero genre, it’s a high concept comedy about a guy with super powers and a bad attitude to go with them. First seen sleeping off a hangover on a street bench, John Hancock may stop crime, but he has no regard for the damage he causes in the process.
Flying off to stop a freeway shoot-out, swigging from a whiskey bottle as he goes, his latest good deed left $9 million worth of destroyed property in its wake. No wonder the authorities and the rest of the good folk of LA are calling him an asshole (a word guaranteed to bring out his worst side) rather than singing his praises.
A boozing, bad mouthing dysfunctional slob, what he needs is an image makeover. Which, after being saved from an oncoming train (racking up yet more destruction in his wake in the process), is exactly what Ray Embrey (Jason Bateman), quite possibly the most idealistic do-gooder PR man in the world, offers to give him.
The plan being that Hancock surrenders himself to the cops (who have a warrant out for him), grudgingly goes to jail and waits for the city to start missing him as the crime rate soars. With some anger-management techniques, a little more civility to others and a tight fighting leather costume, when they call for his help, he can be sure this time they’ll be cheering rather than booing. Which, is just what a guy with self-esteem and loneliness issues needs.
So far, so clever. But then the screenplay seems to lose patience with itself as the plot veers off into a twist involving Ray’s wife, Mary (Charlie Theron), her coolness to Hancock, his amnesiac past (he only remembers being mugged and waking up in hospital 80 years ago with super powers and two tickets to a Bela Legosi movie) and some never really properly explained backstory about immortal couples that seems to have strayed in from M Night Shyamalan’s never made sequel to Unbreakable.
It also throws in a half-hearted revenge scenario involving a perfunctorily written Eddie Marsan as a bank robber Hancock put away, but which really exists only to facilitate getting the plot mechanics from fallibility and redemption (something that’s occupied Smith’s recent films) to notions of mortality, sacrifice and the power of love. It’s a more intriguing narrative than the satirical first half, but, thanks to poor, confused writing, ultimately less interesting, a fact it seem to acknowledge by amping up the special effects action.
However, while director Peter Berg’s hand-held camera and obsession with close ups can become wearing and Hancock shoving one inmate’s head up another’s backside is gratuitously gross, Smith’s against type edginess, an emotionally subtle turn from Theron and the mix of smart humour and dark undercurrents provide an entertaining enough stopgap between the Hulk and the Dark Knight.
KUNG FU PANDA (PG) * * *
Cert PG 92 mins
The title says it all, really. Do you really need to know more than the title? Riffing on the recent crop of martial arts movies, the latest from Dreamworks Animation has already stormed the US box office, approaching the $200 million mark in just three weeks, and is pretty much assured of taking pole position here too.
It’s also Jack Black’s best film since School Of Rock, largely because he doesn’t actually appear on screen so you’re not distracting by his increasingly irritating mugging. He’s the voice and personality for Po, an underachieving, self-deprecating pudgy Panda who works for his father’s noodle business (dad’s actually a goose, which gives rise to one of the film’s best gags) but dreams of being a martial arts warrior like his action-figure heroes, the Furious Five, Monkey (Jackie Chan), Tigress (Angelina Jolie), Mantis (Seth Rogen), Viper (Lucy Liu) and Crane (David Cross).
When news comes that leopard Tai Lung (current villain of choice Ian McShane), a former team member who went bad through rejection, has escaped from his maximum security mountain prison and is en route to destroy the Village of Peace, temple master turtle Oogway (Randall Duk Kim) charges wise old kung fu master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman), once Tai Lung’s foster father, to gather his pupils for a ceremony at which he’ll choose The Dragon Warrior, the ultimate champion.
Too fat to climb the steps in time to get in, Po improvises an entrance and, much to Shifu’s protests, winds up being selected for the job. As Oogway insists, ‘there are no accidents’. So, when his best efforts to make him quit fail, Shifu has no option to accept fate’s hand and use his food addiction to turn this slothful slacker into the prophesied hero of legend.
Cheerfully embracing all the cultural and genre cliches with a knowing wink, the story’s a predictable against-all-odds tale (one reprised in almost identical context with next week’s The Forbidden Kingdom) about finding your inner hero. It’s no animated classic and it takes a while to get to the punch, but packed with energy, action, humour mercifully not too much slapstick) and some solid CGI, (that looks marvellous on the IMAX screen) it is entertaining fun.
The Furious Five’s stellar supporting cast aren’t given a great deal to do, only Jolie’s feisty Tigress really having much character to spare, but Hoffman brings both deadpan comic delivery and a world-weary disappointment to his conflicted guru while Black, reigning in his wisecracking excesses, is genuinely very funny and likeable as the bumbling, insecure but ultimately courageous Po. And the scene as he and Shifu cross chopsticks in a battle for the last dumpling in the bowl is worthy of the very best of Chan’s own kung fu comedies.
THE MIST * * *
Cert 15 126 mins
Originally making his name as screenwriter of Nightmare On Elm Street 3, The Blob and The Fly II before turning director, Frank Darabont returns to horror with his adaptation of Stephen King’s novella, reworked to embrace the climate of fear engendered by the Bush administration post 9/11.
The set-up is simple enough. Following a freak storm, the inhabitants of a lakeside Maine town see a strange mist rolling in off the waters. They give it no more thought amd go about addressing the damage and replenishing supplies down at the local supermarket. Then one of the townsfolk bursts in, bloodied and screaming that there’s something in the mist.
Panic isn’t immediate and even when artist David Drayton (Thomas Jane), there shopping with his young son, and store manager Ollie (Toby Jones) relate the horror that’s just taken place in the loading bay as tentacles snaked in and dragged away one of the staff, no one takes them seriously. Indeed, Norton (Andre Braugher), Drayton’s querulous lawyer neighbour reckons it’s all a wind -up directed at him personally.
Scepticism is banished however when, first Norton and a few others, go into the mist and screams follow, and then, in a clear nod to The Birds, the store’s attacked by huge alien-looking bugs.
Those trapped inside set up barricades, but it soon becomes clear there’s another danger to their survival already among them; religious fanatic Mrs Carmody (Marcia Gay Harden) who declares this to be a sign from God about the impending apocalypse and that those who don’t repent are all going to die.
As hysteria mounts and many begin to come over to her side, she even demands a ritual sacrifice.
Shot on a small budget and short schedule, with some clunky dialogue, uneven acting and some dodgy CGI, it’s no masterpiece while the explanation to the monsters, which shifts into the realms of sci-fi and rips off HP Lovecraft without any acknowledgement, somehwat undermines the film’s metaphysical concerns. Nor, as a study of how times of fear and crisis can unleash the monsters within, does it begin to compare with Michael Haneke’s The Hour of the Wolf.
But, it does sustain your attention and offer an uncomfortable pessimism about human nature before hitting you with a bitterly ironic, nihilistic ending that is one of the darkest things you’ll see this year.
HELL ON WHEELS * * *
Cert 18 90 mins
Invented in Chicago in the mid-30s and swiftly transforming from simple race to full contact competitive sport, come 1970 roller derby had peaked and died.
But then, in 2001, a huckster with big ideas and little application breezed into Austin, Texas looking to put together all-women roller derby. Several hard living, and frequently heavily tattooed, girls were keen to get involved and when he proved the king of empty promises, decided to take things into their own hands.
Thus was born the Bad Girl, Good Woman league, a paradoxical grassroots mix of sexy feminism and male fantasy (especially in the notion of the Spank Alley penalty) determined to prove women could work together without any help from men.
Adopting such colourful stage names as Iron Maiden, Tinkerhell, and Miss Conduct, the league soon attracted enough players to form four teams, overcoming any number of obstacles to get the sport back on its feet.
Public response was good, but within a couple of years arguments about ownership and control saw a split between the (well-intentioned but somewhat naive) council and those in the ranks who wanted more say. Eventually, 80 members quit to form the rival breakaway skater-run league, Texas Rollergirls.
As such, while there’s plenty of footage of the sport in all its skimpy uniforms and fullblooded aggression, roller derby itself is actually incidental to this absorbing documentary.
Unlike, say, Hoop Dreams, it’s much more about women in the tough world of business politics where ambitions and egos don’t always sit well with dreams and ideals. Even handed in allowing all sides to have their say with a steady succession of interviews mixed between the archive footage, it’s a fascinating and surprisingly inspirational piece of work, with as much appeal to The Apprentice audience as skate fanatics.
The Electric Cinema, in Station Road, Birmingham, hosts the film’s UK premiere with a matinee and late night screening this Saturday, proceeds going to benefit the Birmingham Blitz Derby Dames roller derby league.