I should’ve just written the reviews in Word and posted them once I got my connection back. I had an elaborate double review of Hercules and Lucy called “Demi-God & Goddess” all planned. Instead, I put it off–abetted, perhaps, by the sense of burnout I’d previously alluded to. Not that these are films that demand extensive analysis–even A Most Wanted Man is, all things considered, not especially provocative. But three of these are very good films, and one is often fascinating, even when it is maddening and rather dismaying in some of the choices it makes.
Three of them are also rather easy to summarize:
- Lucy is about the titular student in Taipei (Scarlett Johansson) who’s forced to serve as a drug mule for a crime boss (Choi Min-Sik), carrying a drug which is the synthetic version of a chemical produced by pregnant women to stimulate fetal development. A blow to the stomach ruptures the container of drugs, causing Lucy to undergo a physical and mental transformation which allows her to use more and more of her brain capacity. Soon she acquires control over matter, and teams up with a neuroscientist (Morgan Freeman) to apply her rapidly increasing intelligence, while fending off the boss and his gang, who want…something.
- Hercules is about the titular demigod (or is he?) (Dwayne Johnson), who has occupied himself with various battles while coping with the murder of his family, which he is rumored to have committed. The Thracian leader Lord Cotys (John Hurt) hires Hercules and his army to defeat Rheseus (Tobias Santelmann), who’s supposedly a threat to the people of Thrace…but the truth is rather different.
- Get On Up is the life story of James Brown (Chadwick Boseman), from his impoverished childhood in rural Georgia, to his time in juvenile prison, to his beginnings in gospel, and finally his development of the funk, which made him a legend. But his artistic drive and self-interest, while making him a great success, alienated those around him.
As for A Most Wanted Man, it’s a little more complicated, though by John Le Carré’s convoluted standard, its story isn’t too hard to parse out. Issa Karpov (Griogriy Dobrygin), a Chechen refugee, comes to Hamburg illegally. He’s the son of a deceased Russian general, and he wants to give his father’s money away–to Dr. Faisal Abdullah (Homayoun Ershadi), who donates to various Islamic charities, but who is suspected of having links to terrorism. Gunther Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman), a veteran agent for German intelligence laboring under the burden of a vaguely-explained past catastrophe, is trying to track Karpov’s movements and prove Abdullah’s ties to terrorism, and forces Annabel Richter (Rachel McAdams), a lawyer who specializes in helping refugees and has been hired to help Karpov, to maneuver him to their ends.
But matters are complicated by the intrusion not only of rival German agents, but also of American intelligence, represented by Martha Sullivan (Robin Wright), whose own goals may render Bachmann a mere delivery boy. This being a John Le Carré story, a bright and cheerful ending is not in store.
So what I say about these films? I guess I’ll start with Lucy, which has been a rather bafflingly large hit ($110 million and counting). Certainly, it has its strengths. The premise, while scientifically absurd, is certainly grabby. And Scarlett Johansson gives a top-notch performance as someone being removed farther and farther from human nature as we know it–she’s kind of like Dr. Manhattan in that regard. A scene where Lucy talks to her mother and remembers even the most insignificant details of her infancy (and even her time in the womb) is superbly played by Johansson, and throughout she strikes the right balance of fear, awe, and finally, transcendence.
The final sequence of the film, without giving too much away, has Lucy transcending not only matter but time, and the sheer audacity of this sequence, which culminates in her coming face to face with Lucy from Olduvai Gorge herself, is honestly rather stunning. The special effects are certainly up to par, and Morgan Freeman, while not doing anything he hasn’t done before, does a fine job.
It’s a shame, then, that the film takes its premise and burdens it with so much crap. Before it came out, the trailer occasioned concerns that the film would be rather racist in content, and if Besson was not being intentionally racist, he truly does not do his film any favors. Why the film had to start in Taipei at all is a little baffling, but that we have at least two white Americans living and working there, neither of whom speak Chinese–and in one especially painful moment, Lucy’s American roommate (Analeigh Tipton), asks “Who speaks Chinese?”–goes beyond reason.
That all of our antagonists are Chinese (as far as I can tell), and almost every Chinese character is antagonistic, often to a grotesque degree, is fairly upsetting. Choi Min-Sik (best known as the protagonist of Oldboy) is pretty wasted as the vengeful boss; all he does is look angry and yell, and neither he nor his henchmen ever seem to catch on that Lucy is developing powers beyond their ability to defeat, thus subjecting us to lengthy gunfights and car chases which do little but secure the film’s feature-length status (more on that in a second).
And the means by which the packet of drugs in Lucy’s stomach is ruptured is equally offensive; one of the boss’ henchmen actually kicks Lucy in the stomach–did no one tell him why she was there? And then she escapes from confinement by luring a guard towards her by opening up her legs–how stupid is this guy? Oh, and as the boss’ agents are approaching Lucy, about to abduct her for the first time, the sequence is intercut with Discovery Channel footage of a gazelle being hunted by cheetahs (or something like that)–yeah, way to equate Asian men and a white woman with predators and prey, Besson.
The use of stock footage brings up another issue: this film is horribly padded. There’s a ton of stock footage in the first third, most of illustrating the characters’ actions or remarks, such as what Freeman says during a lecture he gives throughout the first act. Honestly, drop the pointless fight scenes, chases, and stock footage, and Lucy would maybe be 70, 75 minutes long; as it is, it’s just shy of 90.
Compare that to Hercules, which at maybe 10 minutes longer is much leaner and sharper. Hercules manages a pretty impressive feat: it tells a mythological story and toys around with the question of whether or not the supernatural is actually involved, yet doesn’t cheapen the material by it. It also manages to be exciting and funny without being crass or hollow–something Disney’s Hercules couldn’t quite accomplish.
If there isn’t a great deal to say about Hercules, it’s because it manages to be just what it should be: a fun time at the movies. That it manages to be an exceptionally solid fun time is due to the sheer professionalism on display. Brett Ratner’s direction might be the best of his career (Red Dragon is the only other serious contender); he keeps the film brisk, exciting, and witty, with a nice layer of badass poured on top. The script by Ryan Condal and Evan Spiliotopoulos (based on Steven Moore’s graphic novel) is efficient and sharp.
And the cast is strong as well. Dwayne Johnson is about as good as Hercules as I could imagine from anyone these days; he’s got the right sort of sympathetic weariness and sense of camaraderie for Hercules at this point in his life. As the shifty Cotys, John Hurt has a ball, relishing the chance to play a real son-of-a-bitch. While Snowpiercer was definitely the better film, I actually like Hurt’s performance here more. And you’ve got Ian McShane, who’s just great as the seer Amphiaraus, who constantly foresees his own death, which never does come; he’s also part of the film’s best moment, which I’ll mention in a moment. Ingrid Bolsø Berdal is quite good as Atalanta; a strong female character who is truly believable as a warrior and whose gender is not obsessed over. And as the silent, traumatized Tydeus, Aksel Hennie (who was great in the great Norwegian thriller Headhunters) has just the right nervy energy. (Also, Joseph Fiennes pops up in a nice little sleazy role; God knows what he’s been up to lately.)
The production values are great and the action sequences are entertaining, but for me it all comes down to that great moment from the trailers, with Amphiaraus challenging the enchained Hercules, goading him to glory:
Amphiaraus: Are you only the legend? Or are you the truth behind the legend? Now, tell me–WHO ARE YOU?!
Made the hairs on my neck stand on end.
Now, it’s not a perfect film–the trailers implied Hercules’ wife Megara (Irina Shayk) would play a much larger role. As it is, she’s only a fleeting presence, and the film doesn’t pack the emotional punch it could have. But I still enjoyed it more than a great many people seem to have; it’s made only $69 million to date, joining Edge of Tomorrow on the list of high-quality blockbusters that didn’t really connect with audiences. So give this one a shot. You might be surprised.
Get On Up, for its part, surprised me. Tate Taylor’s direction for The Help hadn’t impressed me, less still did it its portrayal of progressivism. What it did have was top-notch acting, and Octavia Spencer was certainly a reasonable choice for the Oscar. Get On Up doesn’t have the same level of acting–aside from Chadwick Boseman’s tour de force, no one gets that much to do–but Taylor’s direction is miles better, from the brilliantly energetic musical numbers to the impressive shifting between the decades, between glitzy showbiz and penurious rural life, between traditional storytelling and fourth-wall breaking.
Get On Up starts out being relatively non-linear, leaping about from Brown’s 1988 arrest (he accidentally fires off a gun while talking to a woman about her using the bathroom at one of his businesses–yes, that happens), to his tour of Vietnam (where he nearly gets shot down), to his poverty-stricken childhood in 30s Georgia, with an ultimately absent mother (Viola Davis) and a hard-bitten father (Lennie James), and so on. It eventually follows his life in more or less linear fashion from the 50s to the 70s, but it’s still not structured in the expected manner.
Which I’m all for. It keeps things fresh. And the sheer scope of the film (I’m shocked it only cost around $30 million) helps. The period detail and costumes are stunning, the music (both Brown’s classics and some other greats, including “Tutti Fruitt”) is wonderful, and at the center of it is Boseman’s terrific performance. I’ve long had mixed feelings about performances which essentially mimic celebrities, but I can’t deny how good Boseman is. He gets the voice down perfectly (to the point where I honestly had trouble understanding him), but he also brings Brown to life, evoking all the drive (“The Hardest Working Man in Show Business”), anger, and unabashed self-interest (“I look out for James Brown“) that made him who he was. It’s a stellar performance, and I hope the awards groups don’t forget him.
But the script by Jez and John-Henry Butterworth is another matter. Much of it is perfectly solid. Scene by scene, it’s good. But as a whole, it doesn’t go as deep as I’d like. We see Brown strike one of his wives (for supposedly behaving flirtatiously¹), but we get no other insight into his own domestic troubles. We see his parents’ dysfunction, but some of the more troubled aspects of Brown’s character are smoothed over in the writing. Boseman’s performance manages to make up for most of these gaps, but they keep a very good film from becoming a great one.
I also do wish the supporting cast had more to do. Davis, as a troubled woman who admits she was not cut out to be a mother, is quite effective in her fairly small role. Octavia Spencer, however, is mostly wasted as the aunt who takes young James in. Nelsan Ellis’ Bobby Byrd–who stuck by Brown long after other collaborators had left–is easily the strongest supporting presence, and Ellis is quite good as the man who realizes, however much he craves the limelight, that Brown is a real and iconic talent. Dan Aykroyd isn’t bad as Ben Bart, Brown’s early agent; Brandon Mychal Smith is a perfect Little Richard (there’s a biopic I’d like to see); Craig Robinson and Fred Melamed are welcome, if underused; James is appropriately gruff.
But in the end, it’s Boseman’s show, and he delivers.
Lastly, there’s A Most Wanted Man, which has received a fair amount of attention as the last leading role of Hoffman’s tragically curtailed career. It’s not the best performance he ever gave, to be fair, but he does a perfectly fine job as a weary man trying to survive in a shadowy world. The whole cast does fine; there are no real standouts (I did like Willem Dafoe as a sleazy banker), but it’s a solid ensemble. I’m especially glad to see Robin Wright making something of a comeback. (Also, who put Daniel Brühl in here? He does fuck-all here. Is that any way to treat Fredrick Zoller?)
It’s just fine, though. It’s not really that memorable, especially compared to, say, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy (Gunther Bachmann is no George Smiley). Anton Corbijn’s direction is adequate, but not really memorable, and the story feels pretty been-there-done-that. Really, it should have been told more from Karpov’s vantage; as it is, it doesn’t bring that much new to the realistic-spy-film genre. But I gave it ***½ for a reason. It is well made and it holds the attention. It is well-acted by a good cast. It’s a lower-end ***½, but it’s certainly worth checking out. Just don’t expect a masterpiece (whatever impression the critics give).
There. I’m caught up. Next up: Sin City. Because I feel like bitching.
Get On Up: 82/100
A Most Wanted Man: 79/100
¹Wikipedia; her “Santa’s Helper” outfit was, as I recall, too revealing for his standards.