Dir: Timur Bekmambetov
Russian fabulist Timur Bekmambetov (Nightwatch, Daywatch) must have spent a lot of time watching the Matrix films before embarking on this action caper. James McAvoy is a nervy, stifled office lackey who is one day asked to join a secret fraternity of assassins by Angelina Jolie. Why? Because he possesses the innate ability to curve bullets with his mind, of course.
Based in the back room of a textile factory, the team receive orders to kill via the coded weavings of a magical loom. So far-fetched is all this (the threat of an army of exploding rats has already been made) that when overseer Morgan Freeman delivers the line ‘We call this… the Loom of Fate’, you won’t bat an eyelid. It’s already the lingua franca.
This is cinema for people who slow down at car wrecks: Bekmambetov takes pleasure in showing us a bullet slowly boring in or out of the cranium while taking great care in sculpting the resultant swirl of CG blood. McAvoy is reasonable in his first action lead, but offers a tin-eared approximation of the US accent that comes across less like the middle-class salaryman he is and more Jewish New York cab driver (think Bob Hoskins).
There’s an eccentric otherness to the film which just manages to sustain the interest, but whether Bekmambetov’s talents lie in film-making rather than gaming or comics is debatable.
Clearly relishing a return to his bumbling, likeable 40 Year Old Virgin persona after four years as the equally bumbling but distinctly unlikeable Michael Scott in The Office, Steve Carell seems to be enjoying himself as tech-nerd-turned-secret agent Maxwell Smart. Adapted from the popular spoof TV series created by Mel Brooks and Buck Henry, the movie follows Smart and his leggy sidekick Agent 99 (Anne Hathaway) as they hunt down terrorist forces that are attempting to infiltrate the secret government agency Control.
With its roots firmly planted in the ’60s spy-pastiche genre, it’s perhaps unavoidable that Get Smart has a whiff of Austin Powers about it. But, in fact, that over-familiarity extends to the whole enterprise, from the knockabout violence and slapstick pratfalls to obvious gags about aeroplane toilets and fat women. The overlong script takes no risks: its globetrotting plot is replete with signposted twists – the big last-act reveal will astonish no one over the age of six. Nutty Professor II director Peter Segal consistently substitutes big bangs for big laughs – in the age of low-budget joys such as Knocked Up, this kind of overblown effects bonanza is beginning to feel decidedly outdated.
Some moments work. Bill Murray makes a welcome, if rather perfunctory, cameo as an agent trapped inside a tree, and the climactic car chase is exciting and remarkably well constructed. But overall this is a limp parade of recycled gags and gadgets: an action movie with no surprises and a comedy with nothing like enough laughs.
Kung Fu Panda
Dir: Mark Osborne, John Stevenson
Kung-Fu Panda is one of those movies where one assumes the title came first and the entire plot was then extrapolated by committee. Rotund, noodle-selling bear Po (voiced by Jack Black) discovers that he is the living embodiment of an ancient Shaolin legend, which drives him to train as a martial arts expert and confront psychotic snow leopard Tai-Lung. He’s aided on his quest by crotchety Zen master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) and his menagerie of high-flying wire-fu legends, the Furious Five.
There’s no chop-socky cliché too hackneyed for the filmmakers to make meat of. Inscrutable, riddle-spouting guru, check. Ancient mystical jade temple, check. Uptempo training montage, check. The setting is a sort of Disneyland version of ancient China, all fast-running waterfalls, snapping chopsticks and spiralling bamboo parasols. The script is as thin as rice paper and the characters, though likeable, are simply too plentiful, and too many of them feel short-changed.
The ending was extensively rewritten and it shows, limping to an underwhelming conclusion from which many of the best characters are inexplicably absent. But for all its faults, there’s something inescapably likeable about Kung-Fu Panda. Po is a winning hero, engagingly silly and offbeat, particularly in his workout scenes with the frustrated, irascible Shifu. Villain Tai-Lung, voiced with fearsome dignity by Ian McShane, is one of the best cartoon baddies since Shere Khan, and his prison-escape set piece is the standout here, explosive and enthralling.
This is where the movie comes into its own. The action sequences are often astounding, the high-octane animated choreography superbly executed. There’s nothing radical about the visuals themselves – the character and landscape design is entirely by-the-numbers. But we’ve never seen a cartoon move this fast before, the ‘camera’ leaping and swooping along with its gravity-proof protagonists.
As the credits roll, the film’s many flaws come sharply into focus. But while it lasts, Kung-Fu Panda is something of a guilty treat.