Relativity Media via Everett Collection
It's easy to compare 3 Days to Kill to Luc Besson's flagship franchise Taken. The film itself practically encourages those comparisons, what with the older man who reluctantly returns to a life of killing for the good of his daughter. The hero's quest of hunting down international criminals in a stunning foreign locale is punctuated by all of the explosions and gore your heart could desire. Neither 3 Days screenwriter Besson nor director McG are attempting to blaze a trail or reinvent a wheel. They're simply attempting to create a film that will keep you entertained for two hours, and on that front, at least, they succeed.
Stepping into the Liam Neeson role this time around is Kevin Costner as Ethan Renner, who is either an assasssin or a spy that works for either the CIA or the Secret Service (it's not really all that important in the end), forced to walk away from the job after he is diagnosed with cancer (or maybe a brain tumor). In an attempt to spend his remaining months bonding with his estranged daughter Zoey (Hailee Steinfeld), he moves to Paris to settle down. Of course, that's when Vivi (Amber Heard), a CIA agent/spy/assassin arrives, along with an experimental new drug that could extend Ethan's life, which she will happily pass along... if he takes out their two most wanted criminals within three days.
From there, the film veers wildly between graphic fight sequences, with enough chaos and destruction to equal both Taken movies, and the story of Ethan and Zoey’s growing relationship. Much of the plot is confusing and barely explained – Ethan and Vivi vaguely work for the CIA, although they're unconcerned by the devastating destruction they leave in their wake. The drug is “experimental,” but how it helps or why it’s only available through a giant purple syringe is waived away by the presence of a stack of “research.” Ethan only has three days to complete his mission, but seems to hang around Paris for a lot longer. The villains are wanted by the government for being tangentially involved with a “dirty bomb.” There's a shoehorned-in subplot about family of African immigrants squatting in Ethan's apartment. But despite the fact that so many of these elements never find a way to coalesce into a coherent whole, once the body count starts to rise and the buildings start to fall, it's easy to simply ignore all of that in favor of massive explosions.
When the film works, Ethan's job and his relationship with Zoey blend together in a way that gives 3 Days to Kill some much needed heart and humor — like when he's interrupted in torturing a target by her constant phone calls — but when it doesn’t, the transitions between Ethan taking out the criminals he's hunting and his slightly cloying bonding experience with Zoey can be jarring. As Ethan, Costner is a serviceable action hero; he growls threateningly and stares fondly at Steinfeld when the script calls for it, but for the most part, he appears to be phoning it in. Of course, for this kind of film, that’s all he really needs to do, but it means that by the time the credits roll, much of his performance is already forgotten. As Zoey, Steinfeld does her best with the material, and makes some of the more emotional scenes between herself and Costner affecting. However, even she can’t save the father-daughter plot of the film from becoming trite and stale at times, and so her scenes mostly feel like a quick breather in between the rounds of graphic violence.
Relativity Media via Everett Collection
Heard feels out-of-place as Vivi, who is introduced as the buttoned-down second-in-command to the head of the CIA, but then proceeds to spend the rest of the film speeding around Paris in sports cars, and prancing about in a wardrobe of leather, corsets, and high heels. Costner is clearly in an older-man action film, but Heard is in another film entirely, one in which she’s a sexy super spy single-handedly taking down international criminals. Despite the fact that she’s mostly there to provide exposition and to look pretty, there are moments where you almost wish that she was the focus of 3 Days to Kill instead — or, at the very least, that one of the many subplots had been dropped in favor of expanding her character.
And yet, despite all of the unanswered questions and the weird disparities in tone, 3 Days to Kill is a surprisingly entertaining film. The fact that one of the best fight sequences in the film takes place in a supermarket, while Ethan and an unnamed hitman grapple behind a deli counter, means that it's ridiculous enough to keep you engaged, but it's still able to amp up the tension when it needs to. And when you need a break from watching people come perilously close to being decapitated, there's a well-timed visual gag already lined up. It hits all of the notes required of a cheesy action film, and even though it gets far too bogged down in sentiment at times, it's still got enough heart to add a little substance to the flimsy plot.
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3 Days to Kill does exactly what it needs to, and little more. It doesn't want to make you think — in fact, it actively encourages you not to — and it doesn't try to accomplish anything that will stay with you after the credits have rolled. All 3 Days to Kill wants is to keep you amused for a few hours, with a few explosions and some mindless fun. In the end, that's sometimes that's all you really need out of a movie.
Columbia Pictures via Everett Collection
Treading water at the very surface of RoboCop, there is an idea. A dense concept, ready and willing to provide no dearth of dissection for any eager student of philosophy, psychology, political science, physics — hell, any of the Ps. To simplify the idea on hand: What separates man from machine? It's a question that is not just teased by the basic premise of José Padilha's remake of the 1987 sci-fi staple, but asked outright by many of its main characters. And then never really worried about again.
We have principal parties on both sides of the ethical quandary that would place the security of our crime-ridden cities in the hands of automatons. Samuel L. Jackson plays a spitfire Bill O'Reilly who wonders why America hasn't lined its streets with high-efficiency officer droids. Zach Grenier, as a moralistic senator, gobbles his way through an opposition to the Pro-boCop movement. We hear lecture after lecture from pundits, politicians, business moguls (a money-hungry Michael Keaton heads the nefarious OmniCorp...) and scientists (...while his top doc Gary Oldman questions the nature of his assignments while poking at patients' brains and spouting diatribes about "free will"), all working their hardest to lay thematic groundwork. Each character insists that we're watching a movie about the distinction between human and artificial intelligence. That even with an active brain, no robot can understand what it means to have a heart. But when Prof. Oldman tempers his hysterical squawking and Samuel L. Hannity rolls his closing credits, we don't see these ideas taking life.
In earnest, the struggle of rehabilitated police officer Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) — nearly killed in the line of duty and turned thereafter into OmniCorp's prototype RoboCop — doesn't seem to enlist any of the questions that his aggravated peers have been asking. Murphy is transformed not just physically, but mentally — robbed of his decision-making ability and depleted of emotional brain chemicals — effectively losing himself in the process. But the journey we see take hold of Murphy is not one to reclaim his soul, although the movie touts it as such. It's really just one to become a better robot.
Columbia Pictures via Everett Collection
Meanwhile, RoboCop lays down its motives, and hard: Murphy's wife and son (Abbie Cornish and a puckish young John Paul Ruttan) lament the loss of Alex, condemning his dehumanization at the hands of Raymond Sellars' (Keaton) capitalistic experiments, and sobbing out some torrential pathos so you know just how deep this company is digging. Weaselly stooges (Jay Baruchel, Jennifer Ehle, and Jackie Earl Haley) line the OmniCorp roster with comical wickedness. Overseas, killer combat bots take down peaceful villages, unable to work empathetic judgment into their decision to destroy all deemed as "threats." And at the top, figures of power and money like Sellars and Pat Novak (Jackson) speak the loudest and harshest, literally justifying their agenda with a call for all naysayers to "stop whining." Clearly, RoboCop has something to say.
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And when it's devoted to its outrage, RoboCop is terrifically charming. The buzzing political world is just a tiny step closer to ridiculous than our own; the pitch meetings at OmniCorp are fun enough to provoke a ditching of all the material outside of the company walls. And one particular reference to The Wizard of Oz shows that the movie isn't above having fun with its admittedly silly premise. But it loses its magic when it steps away from goofy gimmicks and satirical monologues and heads back into the story. We don't see enough of Murphy grappling with the complicated balance between his conflicting organic and synthetic selves. In fact, we don't see enough "story" in Murphy at all. First, he's a dad and a cop. Then, he's a RoboCop. But can he also be a RoboDad? With all of its ranting and raving about the question, the film doesn't seem to concerned with actually figuring out the answer.
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In the 2006 animated blockbuster Happy Feet an alienated emperor penguin named Mumbles found empowerment through tap-dancing and in so doing managed to both attract a mate and stop the overfishing that imperiled his Antarctic habitat. Directed by George Mitchell – the same George Mitchell who gave us the post-apocalyptic Mad Max trilogy and the almost despairingly bleak Babe: Pig in the City – Happy Feet paired its broadly conventional narrative with a darker sensibility not often seen in talking-animal fare.
The film’s sequel Happy Feet Two finds Mitchell (co-directing with Gary Eck) both more jovial and more easily distracted. The story begins straightforwardly enough with Mumbles (Elijah Wood) now grown-up and by all appearances well-adjusted ceding the mantle of self-discovery to his son Erik (Ava Acres). Boogie fever has swept the once dance-averse penguin nation but in a cruelly ironic twist Erik has inherited none of his father’s nifty moves. But just as Happy Feet Two appears intent on recycling its predecessor’s basic storyline the film abruptly changes course and embarks on a series of detours that seemed geared more as fodder for throwaway gags and showy set pieces than anything else. The disparate narrative elements while enjoyable in isolation never quite coalesce into a meaningful whole leaving us entertained but unfulfilled.
As before Happy Feet Two features a variety of buoyant song-and-dance numbers with Alecia Moore (aka P!nk) lending her formidable pipes to spirited re-workings of “Rhythm Nation” and “Under Pressure ” among others. Robin Williams returns for double duty as both Ramon a diminutive oversexed Latin lover and Lovelace a fiery Southern-preacher type. (Lovelace later adopts a Rastafarian dialect allowing Williams to achieve the rare culture-caricature trifecta.) His voracious scenery-devouring is all the more impressive given the grandeur of the scenery. Not to be left out of the quasi-Vaudevillian comic shenanigans Hank Azaria lays on a thick Scandinavian shtick as Sven a charismatic Arctic émigré who presents himself as the only penguin in the world who can fly. Azaria is a hoot but the film’s best moments come courtesy of the cast’s highest-profile additions Matt Damon and Brad Pitt voicing Bill and Will (respectively) two tiny krill in search of meaning at the bottom of the food chain.
The first and most important thing you should know about Paramount Pictures’ Thor is that it’s not a laughably corny comic book adaptation. Though you might find it hokey to hear a bunch of muscled heroes talk like British royalty while walking around the American Southwest in LARP garb director Kenneth Branagh has condensed vast Marvel mythology to make an accessible straightforward fantasy epic. Like most films of its ilk I’ve got some issues with its internal logic aesthetic and dialogue but the flaws didn’t keep me from having fun with this extra dimensional adventure.
Taking notes from fellow Avenger Iron Man the story begins with an enthralling event that takes place in a remote desert but quickly jumps back in time to tell the prologue which introduces the audience to the shining kingdom of Asgard and its various champions. Thor (Chris Hemsworth) son of Odin is heir to the throne but is an arrogant overeager and ill-tempered rogue whose aggressive antics threaten a shaky truce between his people and the frost giants of Jotunheim one of the universe’s many realms. Odin (played with aristocratic boldness by Anthony Hopkins) enraged by his son’s blatant disregard of his orders to forgo an assault on their enemies after they attempt to reclaim a powerful artifact banishes the boy to a life among the mortals of Earth leaving Asgard defenseless against the treachery of Loki his mischievous “other son” who’s always felt inferior to Thor. Powerless and confused the disgraced Prince finds unlikely allies in a trio of scientists (Natalie Portman Stellan Skarsgard and Kat Dennings) who help him reclaim his former glory and defend our world from total destruction.
Individually the make-up visual effects CGI production design and art direction are all wondrous to behold but when fused together to create larger-than-life set pieces and action sequences the collaborative result is often unharmonious. I’m not knocking the 3D presentation; unlike 2010’s genre counterpart Clash of the Titans the filmmakers had plenty of time to perfect the third dimension and there are only a few moments that make the decision to convert look like it was a bad one. It’s the unavoidable overload of visual trickery that’s to blame for the frost giants’ icy weaponized constructs and other hybrids of the production looking noticeably artificial. Though there’s some imagery to nitpick the same can’t be said of Thor’s thunderous sound design which is amped with enough wattage to power The Avengers’ headquarters for a century.
Chock full of nods to the comics the screenplay is both a strength and weakness for the film. The story is well sequenced giving the audience enough time between action scenes to grasp the characters motivations and the plot but there are tangential narrative threads that disrupt the focus of the film. Chief amongst them is the frost giants’ fore mentioned relic which is given lots of attention in the first act but has little effect on the outcome. In addition I felt that S.H.I.E.L.D. was nearly irrelevant this time around; other than introducing Jeremy Renner’s Hawkeye the secret security faction just gets in the way of the movie’s momentum.
While most of the comedy crashes and burns there are a few laughs to be found in the film. Most come from star Hemsworth’s charismatic portrayal of the God of Thunder. He plays up the stranger-in-a-strange-land aspect of the story with his cavalier but charming attitude and by breaking all rules of diner etiquette in a particularly funny scene with the scientists whose respective roles as love interest (Portman) friendly father figure (Skarsgaard) and POV character (Dennings) are ripped right out of a screenwriters handbook.
Though he handles the humorous moments without a problem Hemsworth struggles with some of the more dramatic scenes in the movie; the result of over-acting and too much time spent on the Australian soap opera Home and Away. Luckily he’s surrounded by a stellar supporting cast that fills the void. Most impressive is Tom Hiddleston who gives a truly humanistic performance as the jealous Loki. His arc steeped in Shakespearean tragedy (like Thor’s) drums up genuine sympathy that one rarely has for a comic book movie villain.
My grievances with the technical aspects of the production aside Branagh has succeeded in further exploring the Marvel Universe with a film that works both as a standalone superhero flick and as the next chapter in the story of The Avengers. Thor is very much a comic book film and doesn’t hide from the reputation that its predecessors have given the sub-genre or the tropes that define it. Balanced pretty evenly between “serious” and “silly ” its scope is large enough to please fans well versed in the source material but its tone is light enough to make it a mainstream hit.