Kingsman: The Secret Service

Posted on February 12, 2015 at 5:55 pm

Copyright 2015 20th Century Fox
Copyright 2015 20th Century Fox

“James Bond? Jason Bourne?” Our hero is being asked for the inspiration for naming his dog JB. “No,” he explains, “Jack Bauer.”

This is a cheeky, nasty, meta, po-mo update of the spy genre, self-aware enough to name-check not just Bond, Bourne, and “24,” but also “Nikita,” “Trading Places,” “Pretty Woman,” and “My Fair Lady.” I also caught a reference to the 60’s television show “The Man from UNCLE,” about to get its own big-screen reboot later this year.

Some of the core elements of the sophisticated spy story are here, from the elegant suits to the very specific cocktail order, as well as the super-cool weapons and gadgets we will have the fun of seeing deployed later on. And the villain has an assassin/sidekick who goes one, or maybe two better than iconic characters like Oddjob and Jaws. Spanish dancer Sofia Boutella plays the acrobatic Gazelle, who runs on Oscar Pistorius-style blades as sharp as scalpels.  She can slice a man in half lengthwise with one slash of her leg. And does.

Other aspects of the usual spy story are tweaked or outright upended. That old favorite, the talking villain, who has such a profound need to explain the genius of his nefarious plan that it gives Our Hero time to thwart him, is explicitly disposed of. The look of the film is as sleek and sophisticated as the score from Henry Jackman and Matthew Margeson.

Colin Firth is sleekly perfect as Harry, also known as Galahad, part of an elegant, upper-class cadre of international gentleman spies operating in total secrecy and using pseudonyms based on King Arthur and his knights.  Their made to order suits are both exquisitely tailored and bulletproof.

He points to a wall of framed newspaper headlines about triviality — political squabbles and celebrity scandals — explaining that while these things were going on, he and his fellow Kingsmen were repeatedly saving the world. The person he is explaining it to is Eggsy (Taron Egerton), a possible new recruit. Eggsy is a smart, tough, brash kid who grew up in what the British call council houses and we call the projects, the son of a widow whose second husband is an abusive thug. Eggsy’s late father sacrificed himself to save Harry and other members of the team, so Harry feels a sense of responsibility — and a suspicion that Eggsy might have inherited his father’s courage and sense of honor.

While they had previously limited themselves to the wealthy upper class, Harry persuades the Kingsman’s leader (Michael Caine as Arthur) to allow Eggsy to compete for a spot on the team. The competition is tough and the tasks are tougher, the most imaginative and entertaining section of the movie. Then of course comes our supervillain, Samuel L. Jackson as Valentine, a lisping technology billionaire whose frustration with the failure of the world to reckon with global warming has led him to devise some drastic plans.  Once he gets involved, the self-aware air quotes get less interesting and so does the storyline.  “Bond films are only as good as the villain,” he says.  True, and he is no Goldfinger.

In the last half hour, things really go off the rails.  The carnage is balletic and portrayed as darkly comic but it is still disturbing, particularly the involvement of a specific real-life world leader.  The humor is not just dark; it is crude for the sake of being crude and seems rather desperate.  A film that began with a confident sense of sophistication, wit, and edge knows what it is not (“This is not that kind of movie”)  but not what it is.

Parents should know that this movie is extremely violent, with hundreds of characters injured and killed and many exploding heads.  Characters use very strong language and drink alcohol. There are explicit and crude sexual references and brief nudity.

Family discussion: Which of the tests would have been the hardest for you?  What did they prove about the candidates?

If you like this, try: the James Bond films

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Comedy Comic book/Comic Strip/Graphic Novel Drama Scene After the Credits Spies

The November Man

Posted on August 27, 2014 at 10:57 am

Pierce Brosnan knows what it is like to play a spy in a big-budget, glamorous, blockbuster. He was the most urbane of Bonds in four movies. He knows what it is to play a seedier spy in a prestige, mildly meta movie, the 2001 film “The Tailor of Panama” (with Daniel Radcliffe in a pre-Potter role). So perhaps he thought it was a good idea to produce and star in “The November Man,” a spy story set mostly in Eastern Europe, based on There Are No Spies by Bill Granger. It was not. “The November Man” barely reaches the standard of a generic throw-away thriller, with a sub-par storyline and painfully tiresome dialog.

Copyright 2014 Relativity Media
Copyright 2014 Relativity Media

It begins in 2008 Montenegro, as a venerable CIA operative named Peter Devereaux (Brosnan) sees his young padawan smooching with a pretty girl at an outdoor cafe and harshly explains that personal relationships are out of the question in their line of work. He indicates a guy with a telephoto lens at a nearby table. “Us or them?” the spy-in-training asks. “How the F should I know? Does it really matter?” the world-weary sensei responds. This brief exchange tells you pretty much everything you need to know, or, rather, will find out whether you want to know it or not. Do you think that Devereaux will have some personal entanglement of his own? Do you think the question of who is “us” and who is “them” will provide the twist so unsurprising that even the idiot with the roller bag who wanders out of the hotel elevator without noticing that everyone around him has guns could figure it out? Are the answers to these two rhetorical questions obvious? Well, so is the movie.

Obvious, that is, when it isn’t just being stupid. Throughout the film, shoot-outs, car chases, and explosions occur almost constantly and yet none of the extras ever seem to notice and no one ever calls the police.

The sidekick trainee is David Mason, played by Australian actor Luke Bracey with a blankness that may explain why he was cast as Johnny Utah in the unnecessary upcoming remake of “Point Break.” Bill Smitrovich is, as always, just fine as Dvereaux’s spy boss.  Brosnan, even with all of his movie star charisma, cannot make this tired storyline or pedestrian action scenes hold our interest. It is all as pointless as the explanation for the title — a character explains that was Devereaux’s office nickname because after him, there’s nothing left. Huh? After November is, well, December, and Christmas, and then a whole new year. Pondering the meaning of the nickname, though, was much more entertaining than the film.

Parents should know that this film has extensive spy-style peril and violence including some graphic and disturbing scenes, guns, explosions, chases, torture, with many characters injured and killed, also rape, child prostitution, terrorism, drinking, smoking, drugs, sexual references and situation, and very strong, offensive, and crude language.

Family discussion: How can we balance the need for national security with the need for accountability? How did Mason decide who to trust? What does the reveal about the villain tells us about contemporary geopolitics?

If you like this, try: Pierce Brosnan’s James Bond films and “The Matador”

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Action/Adventure Spies Thriller
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Red

Posted on January 25, 2011 at 8:00 am

Give me Dame Helen Mirren with a semi-automatic weapon and Morgan Freeman smiling, “We’re getting the band back together,” and I will happily settle back and enjoy the popcorn.

“RED” stands for “Retired Extremely Dangerous,” and this is the designation applied to a group of former CIA and other operatives. They find it difficult to adjust to a peaceful life and are as relieved as they are energized when it turns out that they have been targeted by the same kinds of hit squads they used to run. Game on.

The graphic novel by Warren Ellis and Cully Hamner is a bit more grim than this high-spirited adaptation with Oscar-winners Mirren and Freeman having a literal and metaphoric blast doing just what their characters are doing — showing the young folks how it’s done.

Bruce Willis plays Frank Moses, who lives in a house with all of the personality of an airport motel and whose only pleasure is in talking to Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker) the woman at the call center about why he isn’t receiving his retirement checks — which he is receiving and tearing up to give him an excuse to talk to her. Masked assassins try to take him down. Not hard to find — his is the only house on the block with no Christmas decorations. But apparently they don’t realize he is Bruce Willis so they are quickly dispatched. He grabs his go bag and is off to pick up Sarah, for her own protection of course, and, well, get the band back together to figure out who’s after them this time and what they need to do about it. That includes former MI-5 agent Victoria (Mirren), nursing home resident Joe (Freeman), and Marvin (John Malcovich), a survivor of the CIA’s LSD experiments who exemplifies the truism that just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean that they’re not out to get you.

The sharp, witty script is expertly presented by top performers with great action scenes, a little romance, and surprise appearances by two more Oscar-winners, likely to mow down the competition at the cineplex with as much elan as they go after the bad guys.

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Action/Adventure Based on a book Comic book/Comic Strip/Graphic Novel Spies

Killers

Posted on September 7, 2010 at 8:59 am

This is not just a bad movie. It is three bad movies. “Killers” is trying to be a romantic action comedy and it fails all three times.

Katherine Heigl plays Jen, on vacation in the French Riviera with her overprotective father (Tom Selleck) and over-drinking mother (a wasted — in both senses of the word — Catherine O’Hara) in after being dumped by her boyfriend. She meets Spencer, played by Ashton Kutcher, who also co-produced, thus explaining the cameo appearance of the camera he sells on TV as well as the loving attention the camera pays to his chest. We know what Jen does not: Spencer is a spy. He kills bad guys but longs for a quiet “normal” life in the suburbs. And Jen, with Heigl delivering a generic “I may be stunningly beautiful but I am insecure and immature so that makes me accessible,” seems just what normal looks like. A little banter and then three years later, they are living happily in a suburban neighborhood, commuting to the office, attending block parties, and making peach cobbler.

And then Spencer’s past catches up with him again when he hears from his old boss and finds out there is a $20 million bounty for anyone who kills him. Spencer and Jen have to go on the run, bickering along the way as though being married to an international assassin was somewhere around the threat level of forgetting to take out the garbage.

The banter is leaden but the bickering is worse. Heigl and Kutcher have anti-chemistry. They seem to repel each other. And then there are the action scenes, soggily staged and with a way over-the-top body count for the movie’s attempt at a light-hearted tone. There’s a flicker of interest in the idea of a complacent suburban community hosting a battalion of killers, but the script fails to take advantage of it. And the ending is so haphazard it seems to have been arrived at by dartboard and so sour it seems contemptuous of its characters and its audience.

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Action/Adventure Comedy Romance Spies

Salt

Posted on July 27, 2010 at 10:24 pm

B-
Lowest Recommended Age: High School
MPAA Rating: Rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence and action
Profanity: Brief strong language
Alcohol/ Drugs: None
Violence/ Scariness: Constant peril and violence, shooting, fighting, explosions, torture, some graphic images, many characters injured and killed
Diversity Issues: Very strong female character
Date Released to Theaters: July 23, 2010

“Salt” is the story of a CIA agent with an exemplary record who is accused by a mole of being a Russian spy, part of a cadre trained as children to infiltrate America by living normal lives until ordered into action. Angelina Jolie plays the title character, Evelyn Salt, bringing all of her Angelina Jolie-ness with her, for better and worse. She continues to explore the fearless action star stunt daredevil side she showed in the “Tomb Raider” movies and “Wanted” and the intensity of a wronged but fierce and fearless woman she showed in “The Changeling” and “A Mighty Heart.” And there’s the inevitability of her real tabloid-fodder life spilling over into the story as well, the wild child with her knives and épater le bourgeouis attitude evolving into the glowing madonna working tirelessly for the world’s children and happily devoted to her own highly photogenic six.

And so, when the movie opens, showing us Salt/Jolie being tortured by North Koreans, wearing nothing but her scanties, all of that comes along with whatever we are learning about her character. She is fierce and brave and will do anything it takes to protect her home. Once she is rescued, she holds it together until she sees who it was who insisted on getting her out, not the CIA, which has strict procedures for calculating the greater good, but her German boyfriend Mike (August Diehl), a scientist specializing in spiders.

Five years later, she has a desk job at a CIA cover organization and is getting ready to celebrate her wedding anniversary when a Russian guy shows up with an offer to provide information. He says that Salt is a Russian spy and is about to kill the Russian president (yes, I know that does not seem to make much sense). Her long-time colleague Ted (Liev Schreiber) believes she is telling the truth when she says she is loyal to America. But another official named Peabody (Chiwetel Ejiofor) wants her investigated. Salt runs. It could be because she thinks Mike is in danger or because she does not trust Peabody. Or it could be that the Russian was right.

The chase and fight scenes are well staged, especially when Salt leaps across the tops of trucks as they race along a highway. But the absurdity of the plot is made even harder to accept because Jolie’s dignified diligence seems so out of step with the film’s tone. The Jolie of “Tomb Raider” and even “Gone in 60 Seconds” knew how to have fun on screen. But the wild child era is over, and even in film these days, Jolie seems to want to go for the gravitas. If so, this is the wrong movie.

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