Tag Archives: Chris Evans

Commando 2: Bourne Infinity Extraction Impossible 7 — “The Gray Man”

Do you remember in high school when you and your friends sat around making up worse and worse action movie one-liners? You’d laugh at all the terrible puns, and see if you could come up with something truly Schwarzenegger-worthy. We were kings and queens and dreamers then, speaking countless screenplays into the night air fueled on nothing but Swedish Fish, Root Beer, and insomnia. Memories of it are just a sensation now, every word spoken lost into the ether. That’s a shame, not because of what time makes us lose, but because every detail, every terrible impression and excruciating half-joke we came up with, was light years better than the god damn nonsense bullshit excuse for a screenplay in “The Gray Man”. Just think of the millions we could’ve made if this is what’s getting greenlit. None of us thought of bringing a notebook! None of us thought, Hey, let’s record this tripe in case some future production company just splashes money onto shit people scribble on napkins, drop in a fountain, step on, and then turn into a screenplay by using Google Translate to fill in the blanks like frog DNA in a fricking dinosaur. Cause that’s the screenplay for “The Gray Man”. Every piece of dialogue is a barrage of one-liners that thinks it’s just the cleverest shit ever written, but isn’t self-aware enough to just be bad or edit itself into a pun. It’s like they took that line from “John Wick” where the Russian mafia boss explains how badass Keanu Reeves is and were like, “Yes, but what if entire movie words just these”. Well you did it. You god damn did it.

So I disliked it, right? Oh, but the explosions are so pretty. Make it through the first 40 minutes of hackneyed fucking dross and you’re like, “I really want to turn this off, not even Billy Bob Thornton can make this dialogue work”, but then you might notice a strange thing happen. It can only be described as magical, for what else but magic could give you the one thing you want most in life in that moment, and make it even better than you could have dreamed. That’s right: Everyone in this movie finally shuts the fuck up and just starts shooting each other.

Don’t get me wrong, there are two big action sequences in those first 40 minutes. They are terrible, so terrible that you might wonder what the goddamn point of this action movie is if it can’t even get words or action right? But then, I don’t know, someone came to their senses and stopped huffing the Swedish Fish and was like, “Oh wait, we’re the Russo Brothers, the guys in charge of the MCU, didn’t we know what we’re doing at some point”? And fucking behold, once you get your nose out of the Swedish Fish, you remember what a camera does. Do we want to swing it around wildly and cut away from the fight to highlight firework cannons being shot at the camera so we can’t see anything? Or do we want to feature the actual fight choreography? Oh shit, we’re out of firework cannons, guess we should try the other thing.

Jesus Christ. Fucking what. The first two sequences are so horribly, over-the-top edited, I thought that Ryan Gosling must’ve flunked the fight choreography so hard the only choice they had left was to cut around every movement and never show a full sequence of strikes. But nope, he does fine later. They just wanted to be “Ballistic: Ecks vs. Sever” for 40 minutes. Shaky-cam is not the problem here. Cutting one punch in for every two fireworks you show blasted in the audience’s face is. This approach is junked later, but even if you do ditch the awful aspects of your film a third of the way through, it still bears the question why you didn’t just do that earlier or edit or get a script doctor, or just reshoot or hell – I would have taken a “Star Wars” style text crawl.

Having mastered every other role, Ryan Gosling now embodies an off-the-books hitman with the energy of a wet shrug. How you sap this dude of charisma is beyond me, but they Dementor the fun out of him for like, the first hour-and-a-half. We do know he’s glib since we’re told in the first scene that he’s glib. Thanks for that, otherwise I wouldn’t have known. It just seems a waste to box such a dynamic actor into an itty-bitty cage, but hey, you do you.

He’s faced with an anything-goes intelligence contractor in the form of Captain America himself, a trashy, mustache-twirling Chris Evans. Evans gives it his all. He even makes some of the one liners work because he wags his tail so hard about it you’re just like, OK, fine, Chris, you can have this one, I’ll just pretend you’re doing a TikTok. As much as I love him and lobby people to pay attention to his non-Marvel career, Evans is not up to the against-type standard set by Daniel Craig.

It’s Ana de Armas who really stands out, perhaps the only one to overcome the dialogue and realize a character who’s more than a wafer-thin caricature. Her CIA field agent Dani is the spark of quality acting and actual timing the movie desperately needs to keep it from collapsing in on itself, and she comes off as the most badass of the bunch. If you’re looking for an action hero in this movie, she’s the one with an argument for a franchise.

Billy Bob Thornton is what you expect, which is to say Billy Bob Thornton starring Billy Bob Thornton brought to you by Billy Bob Thornton. Alfre Woodard breathes some fresh air into things for five minutes. Bollywood star Dhanush brings all the charisma Gosling forgot for two extremely memorable fight scenes. Rege-Jean Page uh, he’ll have more chances, possibly even with writers next time. Jessica Henwick plays a secondary villain, but really her job’s to read you all the other characters’ biographies because a hundred years of filmmaking apparently haven’t demonstrated properly how to fold that information into the story itself.

The overriding feeling I have from “The Gray Man” is that every aspect it incorporates is done far better elsewhere by something very recent. For all its wannabe Bourne, Bond, and Mission: Impossible trappings, “The Gray Man” is really just a gussied up “Commando”, with Gosling aiming his way toward Evans’s castle and the little girl he’s kidnapped.

Gosling’s connection with the girl in their pseudo father-daughter pairing? Virtually nonexistent and shoved on us in five minutes of ineffective flashback. It’s got nothing on last year’s “Kate” and the deeply impactful work Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Miku Martineau get done in between stellar fight scenes.

Whirligig fight choreo extravaganza? “The Princess” is far more effective, and its humor far more successful, even if it shows the seams of its budget.

Super-stylized mash of action genres with an A-list of stars? “Gunpowder Milkshake” embodies the action movie as pop art in the way “The Gray Man” embodies the action movie as wait-what-were-we-doing?

Smart action borrowing from the gun ballet lessons of “John Wick”? Well, I mean there’s “John Wick” if you want it cheese, chocolate, and wine, and there’s “Extraction” if it’s a burger or pizza kind of night.

Spycraft mixed in with effective, personally consequential action? The last pair of “Mission: Impossible” movies are legitimately great films.

For a minute, I thought “The Gray Man” was going to emulate some of Indonesia’s best action thrillers, such as “The Raid” films, the gory “The Night Comes for Us”, or the suffocating but utterly, utterly exquisite “Headshot”. Yet these are martial arts films, and not just films with martial arts in them; they’re films where a fight scene can carry as much beauty, plot, and emotional change as a well-written dialogue scene – but “The Gray Man” holds later set pieces that impress, not ones that communicate much of anything.

The chief argument for “The Gray Man” is its size and budget. Everything is bigger and louder. The first two action scenes are disasters, but after this, and after the characters mostly shut up and just let Ana de Armas handle all that word stuff that’s popular these days, the whole thing cleans up, gets its shit in order, stops caring about being anything other than “Commando”, and uses its bigness and loudness the way you were expecting from the beginning. It doesn’t surprise, but it does – eventually – satisfy.

Do I like it? I mean, I kind of dislike that I don’t. That doesn’t mean I like it; it just means it’s there. It’s like noticing a rock on the ground. Sure, there are rocks in the world that are pretty and that I might like, and there are rocks in the world where I pass by and think, “Eh, you could do better”. But most rocks I pass by without thinking too much about them, since they’re rocks. That’s how I feel about “The Gray Man”. It has some sparkly bits that draw you in, but after you realize it’s otherwise just a normal rock, you might think you spent way more time on it than it needed when there’s a neat, purple swirly one over yonder.

I like certain elements in “The Gray Man”. De Armas is the action hero this should have been about. Evans is having fun, even if it amounts to little more than a shtick. If its one strength is being big and loud, it has one of the most successfully big and loud action scenes I’ve ever seen (you’ll know it when you see it). If you’re a connoisseur of action movies, it’s worth a watch.

“The Gray Man” does an exemplary job of demonstrating just how hard it is to make spy films or write dialogue for them before it finally gives up and accepts its fate as an action movie.

Huge chunks of the first half needed to be edited out. The Russo Brothers should have known to cut action scenes that serve no purpose and fail to advance character or story in any way. Hell, there’s one fight scene where the supposedly practical characters acknowledge it doesn’t need to happen but since the movie needs it to happen, they just have it anyway. That’s fine if you’re “Hudson Hawk”, but this isn’t a meta treatment, or a film looking in on itself. It’s the writers thinking you don’t even want them to try, so why should they? The fight that follows is good, but…there are a lot of fight scenes out there that are good, many of them housed inside movies that do the work to justify their need.

The spycraft dialogue is atrocious. I can’t say this enough times. It’s fucking awful. Everyone just comes off as the stereotypical asshole jock in a coming-of-age movie. The film also keeps delving into the Russos’ superhero work before remembering it doesn’t include any superheroes. There are a few times where the hero hurtles toward a fatal injury and it’s just cut around. Suddenly he’s landed safely with no explanation. No stuntwork, no CGI excuse, just a bad edit. If you’re going to do that, you have to at least acknowledge the film is self-aware of this.

And yet…. There’s been a heat wave this week, and my brain feels like that PSA about how to fry eggs after doing drugs or whatever that was about. I’m just happy to sit in one place still enough to hope the heat doesn’t notice me, and if I can get both a hatewatch and a likewatch in on two hours time, then shit, I feel pretty productive.

Ultimately, I think it comes down to something more basic about our movie-watching experience. Like many complex human quandaries, Shakespeare put it best: a “Commando” by any other name is still as sweet.

You can watch “The Gray Man” on Netflix.

If you enjoy articles like this, subscribe to Gabriel Valdez’s Patreon. It helps with the time and resources to write more like it.

AC: Why “Avengers: Age of Ultron” is a Complete Disaster

Well, technically I phrase it why it’s “impressive, fun, and a complete disaster,” but chiefly it’s about the complete disaster part. And the film’s weird obsession with slow-motion cleavage shots. It’s like Joss Whedon suddenly turned into Michael Bay.

Here’s my review over on AC.


Wednesday Collective — Films of Excess, Black Widow, & All Your Ark Are Belong To Us

The Cinema of Excess
Izzy Black

Wolf Excess lead

This article. Dear lord, this article. Last year was a banner year for characters who rejoiced in their own excess – in Spring Breakers, The Bling Ring, The Wolf of Wall Street, The Great Gatsby, and The Counselor, just to name a few. These are movies that “speak to the false, illusory, or destructive promise of the American dream,” to quote Izzy Black.

By comparing The Wolf of Wall Street to American Psycho, Black highlights the qualities that separate the new genre of excess from satire and anti-consumerism films – a lack of judgmentalism on the part of the director, a use of formal techniques to emphasize the sensory overload of debauchery over the comfort of glamor, and the use of montage and monologue voice-over as a sort of infinite accounting by sensory barrage. She even dips into music’s recent entries in the genre – covering Kanye West, Lana Del Rey, and Lorde.

Black’s article makes so many points I’ve circled around for ages but struggled to put words to. It is an insanely well-studied and comprehensive piece. Cinephiles get reading. This is one of the best pieces of film writing we’ve seen this year.

Reviewing Black Widow
Gavia Baker-Whitelaw

This Season's Underslung Grenade Launcher

I’ve made it a priority never to review a woman’s performance in a film differently than I would a man’s. There are obvious exceptions, such as when those differences are crucial to a movie’s themes, but in the case of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Scarlett Johansson could play the Captain and Chris Evans could play Black Widow and it wouldn’t make a jot of difference to the plot.

I’m not here to review a woman’s sexiness. If your eyes and your brain can’t do that much on their own, you’ve got bigger fish to fry. What Johansson is wearing ought to make as much difference to me as a critic as what Evans is. In fact, less so – his costume change gets its own scene, starring Stan Lee. Besides, I’m pretty sure Black Widow’s most notable accessories were an assault rifle and a jet plane.

So here’s where I’d take the majority of mainstream critics to task for reviewing Black Widow’s wardrobe over her function in the plot or Johansson’s excellent performance…except Gavia Baker-Whitelaw already did at The Daily Dot. I highly suggest you read her compilation and condemnation of so much of the sexist laziness and celebrity-revue-as-criticism we so regularly rail against here.

Lessons from The Wind Rises
Qina Liu

Jiro and paper airplane_out

Qina Liu has a treasure trove of deep, intelligent, heartfelt reviews. She blends a broad analytical knowledge of theatre and literature with a passion and storytelling ability that gets her reviews to that next level, where they themselves become pieces of social commentary and art.

Storytelling is about giving your reader all the information they’ll need for that one perfect sentence that hits them in the gut, without ever letting them know that’s what you’re doing. Liu has that ability in spades. She does it succinctly to make a cultural point about The Wind Rises and she draws her reading of August: Osage County into a dreamlike contemplation on family and death that reflects and expands on the themes of the film itself.

I discovered her this week and already she’s leapt to the top of my list of fellow critics.

TV’s Love of Dead Women
Sarah Marshall

Twin Peaks (ABC) 1990 - 1991 Created by David Lynch Shown: Kyle MacLachlan

This is a fascinating article that picks apart the trope of that eternal, plot-driving mystery of the murdered woman. Sarah Marshall at New Republic deconstructs its use on Twin Peaks, a TV show that used that mystery to drive its first season but plummeted into ratings obscurity once her killer was found.

Marshall juxtaposes the comfort we have in publicly mourning the loss of a dead woman – even if she’s just on a TV show – against the difficulty we have in coming to terms with details of her life that don’t match our preconceptions. By doing so, she calls out a lazy cliché relied upon far too heavily in TV storytelling, and whose time has passed.

Captain America vs. The Tyranny of “Dark”
Ross Lincoln

Captain Falcon Punch

Here’s why you should read this article: “Captain America is, at his core, someone who believes, really believes, in the potential for goodness in people, in the values America purports to represent, and in basic concepts like personal freedom, equality, and fair play. He isn’t a ‘my country, right or wrong’ kind of person, he’s a ‘my country can and should be better’ kind of person. If there’s any period from US History he embodies, it isn’t the Nixon years, it’s the New Deal.”

What Wednesday Collective Gets Wrong About Wednesdays and Collectives
Sam Adams

Noah build

A few weeks ago, I foolishly clicked on an article Huffington Post blatantly ripped off of Politico. It was titled “What Noah Gets Wrong About the Bible.” I waited eight years for Huffington Post to load 765 separate ads and finally read an article in which the writer clearly demonstrated his vast and boundless ability to not know anything about the Bible. He also didn’t know how to interpret a film any way but literally, which is your last priority when going to see an Aronofsky flick like Noah, but that’s secondary.

Critic Sam Adams isn’t a big fan of this type of article. He argues that articles about the X number of things that Y gets wrong about Z should be banished to the Seventh Circle of Hell (that’s Dante, not the Bible, for those keeping score. Please don’t interpret Dante literally, you’ll hurt yourself.) Adams argues that movies and TV shows aren’t often meant to be accurate depictions of what they cover. An article about what absurdist comedy Veep gets wrong about the vice-presidency is clearly useless.

I’d suggest these types of articles aren’t particularly factual either. They’re assigned in a day. Critics need to tell their audience when they don’t know something, not pretend they do. Informational inaccuracy in movies comes in so many forms, it needs to be treated like a disease – you need to find the right specialist in every genre.

For instance, click on Huffington Post and you’ll learn that Noah never had an adopted daughter who was barren but then later had children. What deep analysis. How dare Aronofsky and Russell Crowe make something up like that! Anger, anger, pitchforks & torches.

Click on the link of someone who’s studied the material and you may learn that the orphan is drawn from Korean flood mythology and that her barrenness is an analogue for Abraham’s wife Sarah, who in the Old Testament was barren until God gifted her with Isaac, who God then demanded Abraham sacrifice. How 10,000 critics missed that Crowe’s Noah is playing Abraham the last half of Noah is beyond me, but that’s why you find the right specialist in every genre. Let me recommend a good one:

Forget about Noah, it’s time for Russian Ark
A. E. Larsen

Russian Ark

Look at that segue. Here’s yet another stellar article from An Historian Goes to the Movies. This time, Larsen passionately implores you to see Russian Ark, an intricate movie containing 300 years of Russian history and filmed using 2,000 actors and 3 orchestras in 33 rooms across a single 96-minute take in Russia’s Winter Palace in St. Petersburg. I’m guilty of not having seen it myself, but I’m pretty sure I just got convinced.

Disfigurement Stigma and Under the Skin
Elizabeth Day

Adam Pearson

Day reports on her interview with Adam Pearson, an actor with disfiguring growths on his face. He discusses how his new film with Scarlett Johansson, Under the Skin, helps to isolate preconceptions we hold about those who look different from the norm.

Cyberpunk Masterpiece — “Captain America: The Winter Soldier”

Captain Military Industrialism 2

I always liked Captain America the best. It wasn’t his patriotism or the super-soldier serum, or even the impenetrable shield that did it. It was the fact that he’s the only superhero in Marvel’s canon who started out willing to sacrifice himself to do the right thing. He didn’t bother with the frat boy antics of Iron Man and Thor, or the rage issues of The Hulk. Captain America’s superheroics aren’t sources of egomania or painstaking angst; they’re a moral opportunity. He never needed to grow up into his role like those others; he was waiting for his role to grow up into him.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is Marvel’s best movie to-date by a huge margin. In fact, I think it’s going to be in the discussion as one of the best films of 2014. Instead of being a superhero movie, it’s a tense, man on the run, 70’s-style spy thriller. It just happens to have superheroes on the run, which means all those midnight meetings in abandoned parking garages are turned into car chases and aerial dogfights that wreck entire city blocks.

Finding himself at odds with SHIELD, the international agency in charge of all things superheroic and alien, Captain America (Chris Evans) is joined by The Avengers teammate Black Widow (Scarlett Johansson) and newcomer Falcon (Anthony Mackie). Each of the heroes gets his or her own action scene – even SHIELD director Nick Fury (Samuel L. Jackson). These sequences are intense while being more down to earth than the Captain’s previous outings.

Captain Falcon Punch

Captain America: The Winter Soldier opens with the Captain making a friend, Sam. It’s not something Captain America does easily, but Sam runs a VA group for soldiers having trouble re-adjusting to normal life. I’m sure you’ve heard the statistic that the United States spends more on our military than the next 10 countries combined spend on theirs. Yet, after they come home, it can take years for veterans to receive crucial benefits that sometimes mean the difference between sanity and agony, survival and death. Captain America promises he’ll visit Sam at the VA, and he does. In fact, he makes a couple of hospital visits that will surprise you. Later, he’s introduced to three multi-billion dollar, sub-orbital supercarriers capable of annihilating millions of lives at the touch of a button.

This is where 70’s spy thriller meets cyberpunk, science-fiction’s least-happy subgenre. The big question The Winter Soldier asks is that, in an age of targeted drone strikes, warrantless NSA phone-tapping, and supersize militaries with less human supervision, what’s the next step in that progression? There’s a messy intersection where governments and corporations meet, and where the Pentagon meets private military contractors.

Sooner or later, The Winter Soldier suggests, someone’s going to take advantage of that in an ideological fashion. Let’s not be reactionary and say that we’re at that point yet, or that George W. or Obama are those people. Neither one is the stuff of worldwide nightmares, no matter how many Hitler mustaches we can Photoshop into witty Facebook posts.

Captain 3 Days of the Condor

The Winter Soldier has a big, important message that’s worth paying attention to, and it gets there through pulse-pounding action scenes, Marvel’s trademark dose of dry comic wit, and surprisingly good acting. Robert Redford, as villain Alexander Pierce, and Johansson, who’s been getting better opportunities in films like these, stand out.

Some superheroes are escapist fantasies for those who want to be rich and famous, or exercise their anger and vengeance on those they feel deserve it. So are some political positions. I’ll admit it, sometimes those are the heroes I idolize most. Captain America, though? He’s the escapist fantasy for those who want to make the world a better place, who don’t look at that struggle as a battle, but as a decision you make every day when you wake up.

He fights like any superhero does, because an audience demands it. The Winter Soldier suggests the best way of avoiding its cyberpunk allegory of the future isn’t to pick up a gun, however. It’s to offer a helping hand to those who need it. It’s to keep manpower in our military and stomp the brakes on automation. It’s to make secrets public so that we all have a say and not to put power in the hands of the few, or the one. It’s to look at being human, and all of us together a country, as a moral opportunity. So I always liked Captain America the best. I still do.

Captain Inquiry

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is rated PG-13 for violence, gunplay, and action.