KINGSMAN: THE SECRET SERVICE (2015) Is Polished Entertaining Fluff

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Kingsman PosterMOVIE REVIEW:  KINGSMAN:  THE SECRET SERVICE (2015)

By Michael Arruda

 Matthew Vaughn wrote and directed KICK-ASS (2010) and X-MEN:  FIRST CLASS (2011), two of my favorite superhero films of recent years, so when I learned that he was writing/directing KINGSMAN:  THE SECRET SERVICE, my interest in this flick went way up.

I’ll say right now that KINGSMAN:  THE SECRET SERVICE is not as good as KICK-ASS or X-MEN:  FIRST CLASS, but it comes close.  Its action scenes look like a video game and are about as compelling, and its story is about as believable as a SPY KIDS movie.

The Kingsmen are an ultra-secret British spy organization even more mysterious than MI6.  The film opens in the late 1990s as a mission goes wrong and Kingsman Harry Hart (Colin Firth) is saved by a young protégé who gives his life to save Harry.  Harry later visits the agent’s wife and young son and tells them he owes them a debt, which years later the now young adult son Gary (Taron Egerton) collects when he finds himself in jail after stealing a car.  After Harry arranges for Gary to be released, he then goes about grooming him to become a future Kingsman.

Of course, you’re not just selected to become a Kingsman, you have to compete for it, and so Gary finds himself competing against other recruits in a series of tasks which are overseen by their trainer, who goes by the code name Merlin (Mark Strong).

Meanwhile the rich philanthropist Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson) has caught the attention of the Kingsmen because of his connection to the murder of one of their agents who had been trying to rescue a kidnapped scientist Professor Arnold (Mark Hamill).  Harry, whose code name is Galahad, is assigned to the case and begins to infiltrate the empire of Valentine in order to learn what dastardly plot he has in store for the world, and it’s a doozy.

Of course, things don’t go as planned and before you can say Sir Lancelot young Gary finds himself as the world’s best chance for survival, and suddenly it’s up to Gary to save the day, with a little help from Merlin and Gary’s friend and young Kingsman agent, Roxy (Sophie Cookson).  Wait a minute.  Shouldn’t she be a Kingswoman?

Anyway, at times I really liked KINGSMAN:  THE SECRET SERVICE, and other times not so much.  In spite of this imbalance, it’s got enough good things going for it- strong direction, a clever script, and an excellent cast to tip the scale in favor of my recommending it.

First off, the cast is the best thing about KINGSMAN:  THE SECRET SERVICE.  Colin Firth is excellent as Harry Hart/Galahad.  He’s British to the core and makes the perfect gentleman spy.  While there are plenty of James Bond references throughout this movie, Firth’s performance calls to mind another fictional English spy from the 1960s, Patrick Macnee’s Mr. Steed from the TV show THE AVENGERS (1961-69).  Firth’s suave and debonair demeanor is reminiscent of Macnee’s Mr. Steed in that classic TV show.

Samuel L. Jackson chews up the scenery as mastermind supervillain Valentine, and he’s just as good as Firth if not better.  Jackson speaks with a lisp and gets to deliver some of the best lines in the movie.  One of the funnier bits in the film is that both Jackson’s Valentine and Firth’s Galahad are movie buffs and they exchange barbs about the old James Bond movies, which are quite funny.

The film is very cognizant of its origins and how it owes a lot to the James Bond films of old.  As such, it has a good time making jokes at its own expense, poking fun at itself, its characters, and its plot.  However, this only goes so far and on its own isn’t enough to make this film an instant classic.

Mark Strong, as always, is very good as Merlin, the agent who is in charge of training the young recruits and who by the film’s end finds himself with his two newest agents in the daunting position of having to save the world.

Interestingly enough, both Strong and Firth appeared in the substandard Nicole Kidman thriller BEFORE I GO TO SLEEP (2014) last year, and while both were fine in that movie, they’re better here in KINGSMAN.

Michael Caine adds class as the Kingsman’s patriarch agent, Arthur, and in a surprise bit of casting Mark Hamill shines in a brief role as Professor Arnold.  It’s a very small role, not enough for Hamill to make much of an impact in this movie, but when he’s on screen, he’s really good, and I couldn’t help but wonder, where has he been all these years?  Yeah, I know, he’s been a very successful voice artist for animated cartoons over the years, but it sure would have been nice to see him in more movies.

But what about the young cast members?  The leads?  After all, the film is mostly about young Gary (Taron Egerton).  Egerton isn’t bad, but the problem is he’s surrounded by some excellent actors, and sorry to say, he’s outclassed by them throughout.  I found myself wishing this movie was more about Colin Firth’s character.

Sophie Cookson is also very good as Roxie, Gary’s chief rival but also his closest friend— can anyone say HUNGER GAMES?  But she too is outclassed by the veteran cast in this one.

The most interesting of the young characters is Sofia Boutella as Gazelle, Samuel L. Jackson’s right hand woman and chief assassin.  She sports a very deadly— and razor sharp— pair of metal legs that can slice a man in half, which she does in this film.

So, I enjoyed the cast, but the story not so much. The biggest problem was I never really believed any of it.  The Kingsman as a concept is believable enough, but when we see these guys in action, their fight scenes look like video game sequences.  It’s all stylish and polished, but it looks oh-so-fake.  KINGSMAN:  THE SECRET SERVICE definitely has a plot, but its action sequences pretty much all fall flat.  They look great, don’t get me wrong, but they don’t look real.

As I said earlier, there are plenty of James Bond references, especially about how outlandish the old Bond films were, but even those films had action sequences that looked believable.  They were epic and grand in nature.  There isn’t anything epic about KINGSMAN.  And when Colin Firth goes into action mode and wipes out an entire church full of people, there is nothing believable about it.  It looks fake and phony.  Pass me the controller please so I can have a turn.

Even KICK-ASS was more believable than KINGSMAN.  There was a grittiness and realism in KICK-ASS that in spite of its farfetched superhero plot worked.  That is completely gone here.

Like KICK-ASS, KINGSMAN is rated R, and so there’s plenty of blood in the action sequences, but unlike KICK-ASS, none of it looks real.  Again, with fake looking violence, the action scenes in this one were a disappointment.

It’s also rated R for language, and this is mostly because of Samuel L. Jackson’s Valentine’s colorful vocabulary.

Director Matthew Vaughn has made a movie in KINGSMAN that looks good, but it’s not quite the complete package as KICK-ASS or X-MEN:  FIRST CLASS.  Those films had pretty much everything.

The other problem I had with KINGSMAN is it never builds its suspense.  From the get-go, we see the Kingsmen in action.  There are stylish fights before we even know who we are supposed to be rooting for.  Plus, the film’s climax, while it’s certainly not a dud, isn’t overly exciting either.

The screenplay by Vaughn and Jane Goldman, who also co-wrote KICK-ASS and X-MEN:  FIRST CLASS with him, is based on the comic book “The Secret Service” by Mark Millar and Dave Gibbons, and it runs hot and cold.  For the most part, I liked it.  I enjoyed the characters and I enjoyed the film jokes, especially about the Bond films, but where it lacks is it never reaches out and grabs its audience with conviction.

The training sequences of the young agents were reminiscent of THE HUNGER GAMES where the young adults/teeny boppers have to compete against each other to make the grade, and only one of them is chosen, and oh yeah, if you fail you go home in a body bag.  You fail.  You die.  Sort of.  The film kind of cops out on this part later.

But a large chunk of the movie was about this training, and I can’t say that I liked this plot point all that much.  Every time the film dealt with the cadet training, I wished for more scenes with either Colin Firth or Samuel J. Jackson.

I never once feared for the characters’ lives, which is strange since characters do die in this film.  But I didn’t fear for them because I never really believed in what was going on, and for me, at the end of the day, if I don’t believe it, I don’t really enjoy it.  That being said, KINGSMAN has such a talented cast, as well as director and screenwriters, that the talent here actually overcomes the film’s shortcomings.  It’s just that with a credible story, this one could have been that much better.

Still, it’s all rather entertaining and is one of the more enjoyable pieces of fluff I’ve seen in a while.  I just wish it had been less fluff and more grit.

—END—

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BEFORE I GO TO SLEEP (2014) Interesting Story, Mediocre Thriller

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Before-I-Go-To-Sleep-Movie-PosterMovie Review:  BEFORE I GO TO SLEEP (2014)

By

Michael Arruda

 

Midway through BEFORE I GO TO SLEEP, the new thriller starring Nicole Kidman, Colin Firth, and Mark Strong, I found myself thinking “something better happen soon before I go to sleep!”

 Sorry.  Couldn’t help myself.

BEFORE I GO TO SLEEP is a deliberately paced thriller, on purpose no doubt, that nonetheless crawls along at a sluggish pace all the way to its standard pedestrian conclusion.

It actually has a pretty interesting story.  Nicole Kidman plays a woman named Christine who wakes up in bed with a man she doesn’t recognize.  The man (Colin Firth) tells her that he’s her husband Ben and that she suffers from a condition in which every night when she goes to bed she forgets everything that happened to her the day before.  When she awakes in the morning, she has forgotten everything about her life.  Ben tells her that her condition is a result of a car accident in which she suffered severe head injuries.

One morning Christine receives a phone call from a Dr. Nasch (Mark Strong) who tells her he has been treating her, but that obviously since she forgets everything at the end of the day she has no memory of his treating her.  He directs her to a camera she has hidden in her closet, and she discovers that under his direction she’s been making a video diary of herself in order to work towards regaining her memory.

During this process, she begins to see glimpses of memories, including one where she’s viciously attacked by an unknown assailant. This memory is corroborated by Dr. Nasch who tells her that she was indeed assaulted and that her injuries were the result of this attack and not a car accident.  This revelation makes Christine wonder why Ben has not been truthful to her about the cause of her condition.  When asked, Ben tells her in the past the truth has caused her pain and so he has chosen not to reveal it to her any longer.

It makes perfect sense to Christine and she quickly moves on.  However, as she regains more lost memories, she finds other instances where Ben has kept the truth from her.  Worse yet, certain images in her mind raise suspicions about Dr. Nasch as well.  As she struggles to regain her memory, she finds herself doubting both her husband and Dr. Nasch and doesn’t know which one to trust, especially when the things they say contradict each other.  If only she could remember the truth.

For the most part, I enjoyed BEFORE I GO TO SLEEP.  The story it tells is a good one, and it kept me guessing all the way to the end.  However, it moves along at such a sluggish pace, it really prevented me from settling in and getting completely drawn into the drama.

Director Rowan Joffe seems to have done this on purpose to give the film a quiet claustrophobic feeling— Christine spends her days alone in her home— and thoughtful self-discovery.  So, the film certainly does a good job of capturing Christine’s mood and frame of mind, as she seems to be in a perpetual mental fog, struggling to learn the truth about herself, unable to take giant steps in her search for answers because of her condition.  But the trade-off is a movie that never rises above the curious, never becomes gut-wrenchingly intense, and never really attains that next level, the one necessary to make this one a memorable thriller.  At the end of the day, it’s all rather unmemorable.  Heh heh.

Nicole Kidman is fine as Christine and does a good job making her a vulnerable character, but it’s Colin Firth who has a field day here.  He turns in a first-rate performance as Ben, coming off at first as very sincere and loving, and every time Christine doubts him and shares her doubts with him, he has a satisfying answer for her.  Time and time again, Christine finds herself questioning her husband, and each time she confronts him, he convinces her of his love and loyalty with his charm, and yet thanks to Firth’s terrific performance, there’s an underlying quality of duplicity about him, something you can’t put your finger on but you know it’s there.  Firth really does a good job keeping the audience off balance here.  Is he really in love with her and simply being secretive because he’s trying to protect her? Or is he up to something sinister?

Mark Strong is serviceable as Dr. Nasch, but I’ve seen Strong much better in other roles.  Part of the issue here is most of the screen time goes to Nicole Kidman and Colin Firth, and so Firth gets to do much more in terms of making the audience question him than Strong does.  Strong’s role is much smaller, and as a result he doesn’t get a chance to strut his stuff as effectively as the two leads.

Director Rowan Joffe wrote the screenplay based on the novel by S.J. Watson.  As such, I expected this one to be much more fleshed out than it ultimately was.  Other than Colin Firth’s character, the rest of the characters and the story itself aren’t really developed enough to make this film a rewarding and satisfying experience.  Nicole Kidman’s Christine is not supposed to be as developed since she can’t remember who she is, and this is okay since we go along for the ride with her to find out who she is and what happened to her, but because of this, the movie needs a strong cast of supporting characters.  There is really only one, Firth’s Ben.

The story did manage to hold my interest for the most part, but it never reached that next level where I was squirming in my seat.  It could have used some more thrills.

The ending was also somewhat of a letdown.  What had been a clever mystery ends in an obligatory by-the-numbers physical confrontation where Christine fights for her life against her attacker.

It also doesn’t help that there really weren’t any memorable scenes in this one.  The best part is the story itself, as I wanted to find out what really happened to Christine and who it was who attacked her, and I enjoyed the gimmick of her twenty four hour amnesia. Likewise, I wanted to know which man she should trust, her husband, her doctor, both, or neither.  These story aspects were all good.

It’s just that the movie took its sweet time finding the answers, and the amount of thrills along the way was minimal.  And once we get to the ending, the payoff was anticlimactic.

I wanted more.

BEFORE I GO TO SLEEP is a mediocre thriller that benefits from decent performances by its three leads, Nicole Kidman, Colin Firth, and Mark Strong, especially Firth, but it lacks the intensity needed to make its mark.

After twenty four hours you’re likely to forget it all.

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BODY OF LIES decent thriller from Ridley Scott – Blu-ray Review

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Body of LIes poster

Blu-ray/DVD Review:  BODY OF LIES (2008)

by

Michael Arruda

 

I caught up with BODY OF LIES (2008) on Blu-Ray the other day, Ridley Scott’s thriller from 2008 about terrorism in the Middle East.  It stars Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe, and while both actors do a fine job, DiCaprio in particular, it’s Mark Strong who steals the show as the head of Jordanian intelligence.

 Roger Ferris (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a young CIA operative working in the Middle East trying to locate the mastermind behind a series of terrorist bombings.  His superior officer, Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe) works behind the scenes back in the States and the two are in constant contact via cell phone. 

 Hoffman hooks Ferris up with the head of Jordanian security, Hani (Mark Strong) in their efforts to track down the terrorist.  Hani tells Ferris he’s happy to work with him, but under one condition:  “don’t ever lie to me.”  You know right off the bat that this is going to be a problem.

 At Hoffman’s urging, Ferris does lie to Hani, and once Hani finds out, he tells Ferris he no longer will work with him, nor will he be responsible for his safety.  As if he doesn’t have enough on his plate, Ferris finds time to befriend a young nurse Aisha (Golshifteh Farahani), and the two become romantically involved, giving Ferris’ enemies a card they can play against him.

Ferris and Hoffman devise a new plan to catch the elusive terrorist, but things don’t go as expected, and Ferris suddenly finds himself in a predicament in which there seems to be no escape. 

 BODY OF LIES is a decent thriller, but don’t expect anything as intense as the Kathryn Bigelow films THE HURT LOCKER (2008) or ZERO DARK THIRTY (2012).   It’s based on the novel by David Ignatius, and it plays more like a fictional tale than a true to life espionage account.  This isn’t necessarily the fault of the screenplay by William Monahan, which includes realistic and captivating dialogue, and likable characters, but of the story itself, a tale of elaborate plots that seem more at home in a movie than in real life.  Monahan also wrote the screenplay for THE DEPARTED (2006), a film that was actually darker than this movie.

 Although Ridley Scott does a fine job at the helm, for a thriller, the film isn’t all that suspenseful.  The most suspense the film generates comes at the end, when DiCaprio’s Ferris finds himself in the hands of the enemy, and when they start the video cameras rolling, you know exactly what they have in mind for the young CIA agent.  It’s nail biting time, and then some.  But before this, the film, while generally engrossing and entertaining, is not exactly all that intense.

 That being said, you can’t blame Leonardo DiCaprio, because he brings his usual intensity to the role of CIA agent Roger Ferris, and it’s a very similar performance though not as good as his work in THE DEPARTED (2006) and BLOOD DIAMOND (2006), two of my favorite DiCaprio roles. 

DiCaprio also shows off his softer side here, as his scenes with nurse Aisha are warm and enjoyable.  He and Golshifteh Farahani share a nice chemistry together.

And then there’s Russell Crowe. 

 It’s funny about Russell Crowe’s performance here.  He portrays Ed Hoffman as a veteran operative whose best days are behind him.  He works behind the scenes, from the safety of his own home most of the time, communicating to his agent Ferris by constantly talking into his headset while performing mundane duties, like taking his children to soccer practice and grocery shopping.

 He’s supposed to be a man who has let himself go, and the funny thing is, in recent films, that’s how Crowe has appeared.  No longer the beast of a man who was Maximus in GLADIATOR (2000), Crowe has been a rather overweight assassin in THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS (2012) and a rather ineffective Javert in LES MISERABLES (2012).  Life imitating art?

 But the two best performances in BODY OF LIES both come from supporting players.  First, in my favorite performance of the movie, it’s Mark Strong as Hani, the head of Jordanian intelligence.  Strong is one of those actors who looks different in nearly every movie he’s in, and who manages to deliver compelling performances in these films, and his work here in BODY OF LIES is no exception. 

 Strong originates from Britain, but in BODY OF LIES he seems at ease and natural portraying a Jordanian.  If you didn’t know his background, you’d never guess that he wasn’t from Jordan.  Likewise, in his performance as the villainous Frank D’Amico in KICK-ASS (2010), probably my favorite Strong performance, you’d never know he wasn’t from New York City.  Strong has appeared in SHERLOCK HOLMES (2009), GREEN LANTERN (2011), JOHN CARTER (2012) and most recently in ZERO DARK THIRTY (2012).

 As Hani, Strong is suave, confident, and ruthless.  It’s a great performance.

 The other memorable performance in BODY OF LIES belongs to Golshifteh Farahani as Aisha, Ferris’ love interest.  Farahani comes off as genuine and sincere, and she’s a breath of fresh air compared to the deceit which permeates the rest of the characters in this story.  She also projects a heartfelt sensuality not often found in female movie characters.  I absolutely bought the notion that she had feelings for Ferris and that she didn’t have ulterior motives or felt for him because she was turned on by a sense of adventure or daring.  She just genuinely seemed attracted to the guy.  Refreshing.

 BODY OF LIES didn’t blow me away, either with its story or its acting performances, didn’t have me on the edge of my seat, with the exception of the sequence where Ferris is captured by the terrorists, and this comes late in the game, but for its 128 minute running time, it held my interest and succeeded in making its point that our actions the past decade in the Middle East, for right or wrong, are a body of lies.

 —END—