Tag: dwayne johnson

Jumanji: The Next Level

Jumanji: The Next Level (2019)
★ / ★★★★

There is nothing next level in this sequel to the surprisingly enjoyable “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle,” the first direct follow-up of the 1995 classic, unless you count mediocrity as a positive trait. It is try-hard in just about every aspect: its humor, characterizations of already hyperbolic characters, vague references to video games, and utilization of bad CGI in order to create a semblance of thrill and excitement. I was bored by its rotten offerings; halfway through I felt embarrassed for everyone on screen and wondered which projects they refused in order to appear in this misfire of an action-comedy.

It begins with potential because there is some form of human drama. Spencer (Alex Wolff), now a college student in New York City, the nerdy kid who we assumed would thrive in a college setting back when we met him as a high school senior in the preceding picture, appears to be experiencing college blues. He returns home for the holidays and, in order to escape, chooses to go back into the game and recapture that feeling of being strong, unstoppable, special.

But instead of really honing in on this character’s psychology or state of mind, the screenplay by Jake Kasdan (who directs), Jeff Pinkner, and Scott Rosenberg, merely introduces elements why he might be feeling depressed: a recent break-up, a thankless part-time job, feeling deeply insecure from having seen Instagram posts of all the adventures his friends are having, and the like. Once Spencer gets sucked into the game, all humanity goes out the window and never seen again. Naturally, when he is found everything is all right again. The movie is over, right? Unfortunately, no.

Instead, we are introduced to a number of eccentric characters both old and new. Particularly enjoyable are Eddy, Spencer’s grandfather who is recovering from hip surgery played by the inimitable Danny DeVito, and Milo, Eddie’s former restaurant co-owner played by the scene-stealer Danny Glover. Notice that no matter how familiar or connected we are to Spencer and his friends (Morgan Turner, Madison Iseman, Ser’Darius Blain), not one of them is interesting by comparison when in a scene with the highly experienced DeVito and Glover. When the two character actors speak or simply be, our attention goes straight to them. At one point, I wondered why these young folks are required to appear in this next chapter since they are given nothing new to say or do. For easy continuity, I guess. Convenience.

And that’s the problem. This film has grown comfortable taking the easy route one too many times—whether it be the safe jokes (sometimes the exact same jokes we’ve already encountered in the previous movie which makes the expository scenes drag like no tomorrow), how characters tend to yell over one another which is often mistaken for humor, the way in which the action is presented in a chaotic and unappealing way, to the lame, surface-level nudges to video games, especially role-playing games. While understandable that the screenwriters try to strive for accessibility, it is a family picture after all, must the material be so consistently devoid of originality, creativity, and ability to take risks? This movie tastes like it was made in a factory.

You can tell that “Jumanji: The Next Level” is made too soon and too quickly. The central villain named Jurgen the Brutal (Rory McCann) is bland and the mountaintop castle he resides in is without personality. In the end, of course, our heroes must break into the castle and obtain an artifact. Anybody who has played a video game can tell you that final bosses must be challenging. In this film, it is like a walk in the park. There is no sense of danger or mortality. No one even gets wounded. When our characters’ remaining lives dwindle down to one, there is no tension at all. You know what would have been next level? To discover what happens when a character’s final life gets used up. Because the film is so safe, we never get an answer.

Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw

Fast & Furious Presents: Hobbs & Shaw (2019)
★ / ★★★★

Intelligent people will most likely get bored of “Hobbs & Shaw” about twenty minutes in because it reveals its hand too early. Instead of consistently finding new or creative ways to entertain, it offers only two tricks: loud and busy action set pieces and rapid-fire banter between the titular characters (Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham, respectively) who despise each other. The strategy suffers from diminishing returns and by the end one cannot be blamed for finding any excuse to get up from his seat without the intention coming back. I stayed all the way through and regretted it. I could have spent one hundred thirty-five minutes enjoying the outdoors.

The bombastic action film is directed by David Leitch and his penchant for complex sequences shows, whether it be a car-motorcycle chase across the busy streets London or hand-to-hand combat in a sanitized Russian underground laboratory. He proves to have an eye for what looks good during wide shots or, by contrast, shots that are up close and personal. However, it is surprising that there are screenwriters at all (Chris Morgan, Drew Pearce). Because for every well-lit and marginally impressive choreography, there is at least three cringe-worthy dialogue to go with them. It feels as though the script is written by people without imagination or at least an inkling of how people actually talk in every day conversations. Action movies must be grounded in some way; not everything must be elevated.

This is most problematic during the occasional dramatic moments, particularly when Luke Hobbs (Johnson), a federal agent, and Hattie (Vanessa Kirby), an M16 agent who also happens to be Deckard Shaw’s (Statham) younger sibling, find similarities in each other. These exchanges are forced and superficial—awkward and uncomfortable at best. The dialogue also fails to work when the subject of family, particularly being estranged, is broached. These would-be personal moments lodged between action sequences are worthy of the biggest eye rolls. To say the quality is television-like would be an insult to good television with well-written dialogue.

Even the action scenes fail to command a high level of excitement despite increasingly elaborate skirmishes. Here we have a villain named Brixton (Idris Elba) who is part-human and part-machine. Despite all the talk surrounding Brixton being a formidable enemy, notice how he and his team loses in every key confrontation. As a result, especially during the second half, he becomes significantly less intimidating. Introducing science-fiction elements in the “Fast & Furious” franchise is not the problem; the issue lies in the lack of more profound or intriguing ideas behind them. Due to this shortcoming, the work comes across as just another lazy cash grab.

“Hobbs & Shaw” fires blanks. Although it is loud, busy, and appears to look expensive on the surface, it offers an empty, nearly joyless experience. It does nothing to push Johnson, Statham, Kirby, and Elba as performers. The work rests on the actors turning on their charisma and nothing else. At least they are getting a paycheck to sleepwalk though a subpar film. We, on the other hand, must pay money and put in the time to sit through it.


Skyscraper (2018)
★★★ / ★★★★

Those who may try to dissuade others from seeing the action-thriller “Skyscraper” may claim that its offerings have been done bigger, better, and more realistically in other films—and they are not wrong. Yet despite combined familiar templates of one-man missions and disaster flicks, it does not take away the fact that the highly energetic work, written and directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber, is entertaining, ludicrous, and highly watchable. This is big summer blockbuster that is not a superhero picture done just right.

The action sequences are surprisingly meticulous despite chaos and violence unfolding inside and outside the burning building in Hong Kong. Fistfights, for instance, are well-choreographed; they last long enough so that we appreciate every bone-crunching hit; and they are edited sharply but precisely so that the viewer always has a complete idea when it comes to what is happening to whom. Because the material bothers with the details, although the story is standard and uninspiring, it creates an impression that is worth investing our time and attention on it.

Although the dialogue is not its strong point, it goes out of its way to provide details about the tallest building on the planet, named The Pearl, such as its capability to generate and sustain its own energy, that it is three times as tall as the Empire State Building, the complex security and safety systems, its exact number of floors, how it is divided in half—its upper floors for residents while the lower floors for sightseeing and shopping. The script could have gotten away with simply stating—or showing a simple graphic—that the fictional building is the tallest man-made structure and no one would blink an eye. And so it is fresh, then, on two fronts: that it bothers with details and it uses some of these attributes to reward those who paid attention with words and graphics during the expository sequences.

Dwayne Johnson plays Will Sawyer who is hired to assess The Pearl’s various levels of security before the owner (Chin Han) opens the upper-half for public residence. A stolen bag while on his way to an off-site facility escalates to an explosion, which appears to be a terrorist attack from the outside, on the floor where Will’s family (Neve Campbell, Noah Cottrell, McKenna Roberts) is staying. The security assessor must find his way back to the building to rescue them after his face is shown on television for being the prime suspect.

A misstep lies in the utilization of amusing one-liners—there simply isn’t enough of them. This could have been easily solved by having another pass at the script and noticing that they are so sporadic, when it is time to deliver the chuckles, it disturbs the tension in a negative way rather than giving us a chance to inhale while laughing at the silliness. While it is not meant to be an action-comedy, spacing moments of relief in action-thrillers is also critical. John McTiernan’s “Die Hard” is a classic because comedy and tension depend on one another that is almost a balancing act on a tightrope.

“Skyscraper” functions on a lower level than the best of the genre, but it gets the job done. Its special and visual effects are convincing; particularly suspenseful are action sequences that unfold at great heights, especially when Will—prosthetic left leg and all—attempts to break into the burning building with the help of a construction crane’s hook. It’s preposterous and you can’t look away.


Rampage (2018)
★★ / ★★★★

It is too bad that Brad Peyton’s “Rampage” does not aspire to become anything more than a brainless giant monster movie. While it does deliver the expected destruction that the title promises, those who have experienced the sheer madness and imagination of modern monster films such as “Shin Godzilla” and “Pacific Rim” are likely to walk away disappointed, for its numerous generic images escape the mind like trash to be taken out by the end of the day in order to make room for healthier, better alternatives. The screenplay is helmed by four individuals—Ryan Engle, Carlton Cuse, Ryan J. Condal, and Adam Sztykiel—but not one of them bothers to steer the story, the source material being a video game, toward more daring and interesting directions.

The opening title card mentions the acronym CRISPR, a genetic editing tool that can be utilized with a certain level of precision. While not perfect, generally speaking, it is better than current alternatives when it comes to price and efficiency. Because I work with this technology, the title card excited me. I thought that the picture just might take the opportunity by the horns, despite being a sci-fi action picture first and foremost, to communicate the power and implications of this gene editing tool for the mainstream public. Because let’s be honest: Most scientists, especially scientific articles, do not do a good enough job when it comes to putting scientific information in layman’s terms. But just as quickly all hope is lost; the succeeding scenes show that it is not at all interested in science. And that is all right. However, as a popcorn flick, the film is not that entertaining either.

And so the movie must be evaluated based on what it is interested in achieving: escapism in the form of devastation and loud noises. On some level, it delivers. Special and visual effects are first-rate; when one does not look at them closely, they are passable and occasionally impressive. However, squint just a little and notice how, for example, George the gorilla does not interact with any of the people visiting the zoo as he makes a desperate escape. For a nine-foot agitated primate—that grew a shocking two inches overnight after having been exposed to a man-made pathogen that crashed in the enclosure the night before—it is quite unbelievable that not one person is nudged a little, knocked down, or hurt during his getaway. This is a symptom of a problem.

In other words, the material plays it too safe—preposterous because it is a monster movie after all and everything should be laid out on the table. Its brightest spots are actually instances when, for instance, a gargantuan monster eats a person and the camera shows it front and center, in delicious slow motion. Why not show more of this type of gallows humor so that viewers are constantly surprised? Skyscrapers falling, tanks and planes exploding, and shooting monsters to no avail suffer from diminishing returns. At least thirty minutes is dedicated to this exercise of increasing boredom.

Dwayne Johnson plays primatologist Davis Okoye and it is shown that he has a friendship, a special bond, with the albino gorilla. While Johnson, as expected, is able to deliver his signature charm and swagger, the problematic screenplay fails to develop their relationship in a meaningful way. After the initial fifteen minutes, the expressive CGI gorilla is reduced to another monster that goes wild and people having to run away from it. Meanwhile, Naomie Harris’ scientist character serves as decoration. She is so talented and it pains me that she ends up playing these thankless roles.

“Rampage” could have used a whole lot of ambition in order to become more memorable. The aforementioned “Shin Godzilla” criticizes the role of self-imposed red tape that the government ends up tripping itself over in the face of national emergencies. “Rampage” could have sharpened its screenplay by aiming to criticize how promising science is eventually perverted by hawk-eyed businesspeople—a subject that concerns every person in our modern world of today. Sometimes it makes more sense for a monster movie to not just be another forgettable monster movie—sometimes a monster movie is a statement piece.

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017)
★★★ / ★★★★

Anyone who has played role-playing video games from the ‘90s is likely to be entertained by “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle,” a clever, self-aware adventure-comedy propelled by charismatic and energetic performances. Credit to the team of screenwriters for making the smart decision to depart from the beloved 1995 classic in nearly every way, from the setting of the story to the overall tone, mood, and characterization. With a twenty-year gap between the original and its sequel, it is critical for the latter to come across contemporary while remaining tethered to the spirit of its predecessor. It is a welcome evolution.

Casting directors Nicole Abellera and Jeanne McCarthy deserve a pat on the back for selecting four performers (Dwayne Johnson, Jack Black, Kevin Hart, Karen Gillan) who are more than up to the task in embodying in-game characters, or avatars, playing out-of-game characters (Alex Wolff, Madison Iseman, Ser’Darius Blain, Morgan Turner) who just so happen to be high school students, teenage baggage and all, on top of being complete opposites of how they look like. It is a winsome twist in body-switching teen archetypes.

For example, Black must play a female teen, the popular princess type who thinks the world revolves around her and her selfies. But Black’s character, the avatar, is obviously male, and one who has more on his mind than taking pretty “no filter” pictures for likes on social media. Rarely does a movie make me want to watch the outtakes because the actors seem willing to do anything for a laugh. Perhaps their near-hits or misses are pretty funny, too. Each finds a way to have fun in his or her respective role without relying on being campy or loud all the time. I enjoyed moments when the film manages to sneak up on the viewer and makes us realize how much we care that the four teens in adult bodies make it out of the game with the lessons they learned, about themselves and one another, intact.

The special and visual effects are not particularly impressive. For instance, by comparison, I find the wildlife stampede in the original “Jumanji” picture to be more visceral, exciting even though the chaos is unfolding in a suburban area. In fact, here, some set pieces look rather fake, clearly shot in a studio. Movies shot in actual jungles, particularly war films set in Vietnam and other countries by the Pacific, tend to capture the looks of vegetation and sounds in a matter-of-fact, occasionally haunting way. Here, at times plants look as though they have been purchased at a dollar store, clearly dummies, plastic.

Still, the energy of the film is so infectious, I believe most viewers will overlook such details. A shortcoming not easily ignored, however, is a lack of a great villain with strong presence. Van Pelt (Bobby Cannavale) is a recognizable name in the “Jumanji” universe, but the writers neglect to create an interesting character who has more to him than looking mean with bugs crawling all over his face. Had there been something else to the antagonist, a self-awareness perhaps, even a sense of humor, Van Pelt might have been a formidable opponent.

Because Jake Kasdan’s “Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle” succeeds in modernizing a brand, it is possible that a new franchise is born. Surely box office numbers will tell, but the real question is, if it does continue, would the screenwriters be able to tap into a wellspring of new ideas and put them together in such a way that is focused and relevant? Time will tell. But hopefully not another two decades will pass.


Baywatch (2017)
★★ / ★★★★

Fans of sophomoric comedy are likely to walk away somewhat satiated by Seth Gordon’s “Baywatch,” but those hoping for a range of comedy equal to the talent of the cast are certain to be disappointed. There is a reason why comedies are usually only about ninety minutes and this film, which is about two hours, wears out its welcome by repeating one too many jokes. Here is a picture that suffers from diminishing returns.

The plot is simple and has potential to entertain. Three potential lifeguards (Zac Efron, Jon Bass, Alexandra Daddario) are recruited to be a part of Baywatch, an elite team of lifeguards (Dwayne Johnson, Ilfenesh Hadera, Kelly Rohrbach) who do more than save drowning people in Emerald Bay, Florida. Being a part of Baywatch is a lifestyle, being a family, doing other people’s jobs before the official professionals arrive at the scene. It is most unfortunate that the plot revolves around catching a drug dealer (Priyanka Chopra).

At times it turns into an action film instead of focusing on being a comedy. The chases are self-serious, usually manically edited, and there is little to no tension behind them. Part of the problem is because the screenplay by Damian Shannon and Mark Swift is so empty that it uses action as a crutch, attempting to pass whatever is on screen as entertainment. But there is no entertainment value created when not for a second do we believe that the protagonists are in any real danger. Notice how the material’s structure is quite episodic. Divide it into three parts and a three-episode arc is revealed. Still, many television shows nowadays are better than what this film has to offer.

I enjoyed all six members of the Baywatch team because the performers are wiling to make fun of themselves. It is apparent that the actors were encouraged to ad-lib. It works occasionally, especially when Johnson and Efron exchange barbs, but it would have been preferred if the material is able to support its performers. There is only so much an actor can do or say; they certainly do not have control over the freshness of the plot, how characters are developed individually as well as a part of a team, and the range of jokes provided given a particular situation. Filmmakers cannot depend on actors to carry the work.

The film, in a way, is about new beginnings and so it is curious—and a missed opportunity—that the material does not capitalize on this. It is about new beginnings in two ways: introducing “Baywatch” to a new generation (while satisfying the fans of the original television series) and introducing trainees to a particular lifestyle. Pertaining the latter, we do not learn much about what the job entails outside of the obvious, the personal characteristics necessary to excel at it, and some of the surprises one might encounter on the job. And with the former, the writing fails to capture a certain level of excitement. The filmmakers probably assumed that just because they cast actors who are physically appealing, audiences would inevitably follow.

In a nutshell, “Baywatch” is hampered by laziness. If a sequel were to follow, it would be wise to hire writers who do not depend on the usual tropes, writers who are aware of how interesting comedies work, writers who have something to say about how it is really like to hold a job even though this particular universe is tongue-in-cheek. Contrasts and variations are interesting; regurgitation and recycling of ideas is death to comedy.

Central Intelligence

Central Intelligence (2016)
★★★ / ★★★★

Although a silly and an inconsequential buddy action-comedy, “Central Intelligence” delivers big laughs and expected, sometimes surprising, level of entertainment because of the energy put forth by the effortlessly charismatic Dwayne Johnson and fast-talking funnyman Kevin Hart. Casting two actors who look very different physically is a common strategy in buddy comedies, but it works because the duo here are able to find a magnetic rhythm despite their different approaches on how bring out laughter from the audience.

The picture starts strong but the weakness is its plot involving bank account transactions. In a comedy like this, dragging out the conflict is a mistake because it takes away precious time from what it showcases best: the quick banters between Bob Stone (Johnson) and Calvin Joyner (Hart), a CIA agent suspected by the government of someone who had gone rogue and an accountant who feels disappointed with how his life has turned out, respectively. The picture runs close to two hours; it might have been stronger if it were closer to ninety minutes because there are a handful of slow moments between the action where not much happens.

It offers a surprising amount of heart. Bob was a fat high school student and was consistently bullied for it while Calvin was deemed to be someone who would do great things given that he was very smart, athletic, and personable. Scenes that stand out between the running and flying bullets involve Bob, well-built and strong as an adult, having moments where he still sees himself as the fat kid in school and Calvin admitting to himself, and his wife (Danielle Nicolet), that he could have been so much more. Many viewers are likely to find themselves able to relate, not to these characters specifically but to the overall thoughts and feelings of sometimes not being good enough because the past has made a considerable stamp in one’s identity—and it cannot be undone.

The gun battles and hand-to-hand combat are nothing special, but they are entertaining and amusing because it is apparent that everyone is having fun. We encounter ad-libbed moments from time to time; while the jokes do not always land, they are delivered with verve and conviction that I found myself chuckling anyway. And when they do land hard and right on target, they are funny, clever, and never repeated exactly again. Credit to the screenwriters—Ike Barinholtz, David Stassen, and Rawson Marshall Thurber—for striving to give the audience more than just scraps. Numerous comedies within the sub-genre tend to bring up the same jokes without any kind of twist or not coming from a different perspective and so they inevitably suffer from diminishing returns.

Directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber, “Central Intelligence” balances comedy and action in such a way that potentially trite and hackneyed material is turned into a highly watchable romp. Hart and Johnson share strong chemistry. We believe their characters can be friends not because they share similar interests—in fact, one of the running gags is that they are so different, one of them is actually into unicorns and fannypacks—but because they are good guys as teenagers and they are still good guys twenty years later.

San Andreas

San Andreas (2015)
★★★ / ★★★★

There are two major elements that determine whether a disaster flick is successful. First is whether the special and visual effects coupled with sound effects force us to have a visceral response—an out-of-body experience, if you will, while watching the picture unfold. Second, whether the characters that we follow are creative, resourceful, strong, or smart enough to make their way out of prickly or downright unlucky situations. It is very necessary that they justify making it all the way to the end. No one wants to see a weak or unlikable character make it through the incredible trials.

“San Andreas” then, based on the screenplay by Carlton Cuse and directed by Brad Peyton, is a successful disaster film. It is entertaining, has some moments of humor, and is genuinely terrifying once the ground begins to shake relentlessly. It is limited, however, by too many conversations during the middle section between a couple (Dwayne Johnson, Carla Gugino) on the verge of signing the divorce papers. Right from their first interaction during the first act, we are able to tell immediately that they still have remaining feelings for one another. If they had been written more sharply, with more differing thoughts in their minds, these exchanges might have been necessary. Alas, it is not a character-driven picture—and it does not need to be.

The action pieces are stunning. The first earthquake in Nevada, as we follow two seismologists (Paul Giamatti, Will Yun Lee) on the precipice of making a potentially game-changing discovery, is very nicely executed. The camera is active, the score is carefully modulated, and one can believe the two performers as genuine scientists who work at Cal Tech. Giamatti is not a stranger to playing somewhat eccentric, really smart, ordinary-looking men but he surprised me here. When he looks directly to camera, I felt that his character really cared about the people about to lose their lives in the series of massive quakes—“the swarm effect.” With the few scenes he is given, he is able to inject some heart, as well as a bit of camp, into the science of tectonic shifts.

Most central is the annihilation of San Francisco Bay Area. The aforementioned couple’s daughter, Blake (Alexandra Daddario) meets two British brothers (Hugo Johnstone-Burt, Art Parkinson) prior to the first earthquake in the city and they team up eventually in order to survive. They are young and a romantic connection is established so one might expect that this strand of the story would be at least somewhat annoying.

It is a breath of fresh air that it isn’t. The key, I think, is that there is a sweetness in the relationship between the brothers and also a sweetness between the eldest and Blake. It would have been so easy to make the brothers be somewhat combative or embarrassed by one another. Instead, there is a real bond to them that is relatable without being sitcom-like or boring. I would have liked to have seen more threats toward the well-being of all three because when one ended up injured or on the verge of dying, I found myself wondering if he or she could make it—and if they did somehow then I wondered how much further.

Although “San Andreas” does not redefine the sub-genre, it has a lot to offer when it comes to entertainment value. Appropriately, it is highly driven by astonishing visuals and sound work that really puts the viewer into the situation. Test this by closing your eyes for a few seconds when an earthquake is unfolding. Lastly, compare the performances here against lesser modern disaster flicks and one can really notice the difference. Thus, what we have here is a piece of work that can hold its own against similar movies released during the 1970s, the golden age of disaster films.

Furious 6

Furious 6 (2013)
★★★ / ★★★★

Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) is in a pinch: desperate to capture the group responsible for taking down an entire military convoy in Russia, he seeks help from Toretto (Vin Diesel), leader of a successful multimillion dollar heist in Rio, now a retired international criminal. The main suspect is Owen Shaw (Luke Evans), believed to be assembling a tech bomb that can blind a country for twenty-four hours. But Toretto needs a good reason to give aid. Hobbs is one step ahead: inside a manila envelope is a photo of Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), Toretto’s former girlfriend, who is long believed to be dead.

“The Fast and the Furious” franchise enjoys a luxury that many other franchises do not possess: as each installment gets crazier, the more entertaining it becomes. More than ever, the chemistry among the actors feel exactly right, the action sequences are so out of this world—but well-executed—that its defiance against adhering to the laws of physics is not only welcome but expected, and it is a hell of a good time.

The wow factor is clearly present. Director Justin Lin has an eye for creating the most ridiculous chase scenes. A standout involves a chase after a botched Interpol mission in London. Though its sleek style is clearly inspired by Christopher Nolan’s “The Dark Knight,” it does not settle for being a cheap carbon copy. The inspiration is in spirit but the presentation is signature: fast and ridiculously expensive cars crashing against each other and whatever is in the way. Pair these elements with a high-spirited score and sound effects as well as well-timed jokes and a sinking sensation that the good guys have little to no chance of coming out on top, a suspenseful action picture results.

The villain is interesting because Evans plays him quietly. The less he speaks, the more I wished to know more about him. His actions communicate a lot on their own. Thus, it is somewhat of a surprise that one scene rings completely false: Owen telling Toretto about his code. The former discusses the value of precision in their line of work. The entire scene feels too scripted—like it is designed solely to spell everything out for the audience.

A little detour in the US involving O’Conner (Paul Walker) cripples the pacing of the film just before the halfway point. I began to wonder if the material is creating some padding. If so, why? If the point was to enhance the story or the character, it does not succeed in either. This is usually a problem with the majority of movies that are over two hours long.

But once the action picks up again, it is difficult to look away: hand-to-hand battles that climax in a subway station, a chase involving a tank that weighs thirty tons (and demolishing everything in its path), and a plane being prevented from taking off. Each one is highly entertaining. I even caught myself saying “Ooh!” (“That’s got to hurt.”) and gasping out of sheer horror or disbelief.

The script may not be the film’s strongest point—there are a few corny lines—but the visuals more than make up for it. I came out of the movie wanting to drive my car really, really fast. That’s how I know it has done its job.

Fast Five

Fast Five (2011)
★★ / ★★★★

On the way to being transferred to another prison, Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel), who formerly led the FBI wanted list, is rescued by Brian O’Conner (Paul Walker), an ex-cop, along with Mia Toretto (Jordana Brewster), his girlfriend. In order to settle a score, the trio hatch a plan to steal over a hundred million dollars from the most influential man in Rio de Janeiro.

“Fast Five,” directed by Justin Lin, comes out of its cage in full throttle. The cars are shiny and beautiful, make powerful vroom-vroom noises, and fly past the camera like lightning. It creates a fantasy: when cars violently hit a bus or a truck, the drivers are left without a scratch. After a successful mission, they yell in celebration, grin from ear to ear, and the camera capture the twinkle in their eyes right before the scene ends. It is enjoyable to watch the complicated and expensive action sequences.

However, the film’s rapid, heart-pounding pace comes to screeching halt somewhere in the middle. In order for Dominic, Brian, and Mia to pull off their biggest steal, they need help from specialists (Tyrese Gibson, Ludacris, Sung Kang, Gal Gadot, Tego Calderon, Don Omar), most of them familiar faces from “The Fast & the Furious” franchise. Initially, it seems promising. Gibson’s character is funny mainly because he talked a lot; his verbal sparring with Ludacris’ character shows brotherly affection. But it grows stale rather quickly because the familiar faces are not given much to do other than to hang out in the garage. Naturally, they have to put on their serious faces while they plan the heist. There are far too many speeches, outward (and awkward) promulgations of what is at stake, and somewhat predictable revelations.

I was more interested in FBI Agent Luke Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) and his determination to catch Toretto and company. He grabs my attention immediately because he seems like a real threat to the gang with giant muscles bulging (and glistening) in almost every scene he is in. The tired middle portion only shows promise when Hobbs and Toretto occupy the same frame as they trade nasty snarls and looks of disdain.

There is a subplot involving Toretto falling for a woman, Agent Elena Neves (Elsa Pataky), in Hobbs’ task force which does not make sense whatsoever. There are suggestions that Elena’s husband is killed by Toretto, so how can she suddenly fall for the very same man who killed her spouse? Did she dislike her husband for any reason? We are not given this information. If anything, she should have been hungry for revenge.

The picture picks up in its last thirty minutes. When the two cars speed away with the giant metallic vault from the heavily guarded police station (never mind the physics), it is chaos in a good way. We are back to the fantasy: most cars are flattened like pancakes and a select few fly like birds, buildings are demolished by the extremely dense vault, and not one civilian is hurt. It is even mentioned that all of the cops who happen to be chasing our protagonists are corrupt. Therefore, it is okay for them to get hurt, implying that they deserve what is coming to them.

“Fast Five” could have been solid good fun if it isn’t painfully over two hours long. Take the first and last thirty minutes, add a more interesting middle section, preferably around twenty minutes, and there is a fantastic movie to be found in the wreckage.

Journey 2: The Mysterious Island

Journey 2: The Mysterious Island (2012)
★★ / ★★★★

Sean (Josh Hutcherson) had broken into a satellite facility which got him in trouble with the authorities. Naturally, Mom (Kristin Davis) was upset but Sean resented his stepfather, Hank (Dwayne Johnson), for caring because the teen believed it wasn’t Hank’s place to act as a parent. However, Sean’s animosity toward his stepdad seemed to dissipate considerably when the former Navy broke the code which mentioned that “The Mysterious Island” in Jules Verne’s novel existed somewhere in the Pacific Ocean. Sean felt compelled to visit the island because he was convinced that his grandfather, Alexander (Michael Caine), was the one who sent the code. Based on the screenplay by Brian Gunn and Mark Gunn, listening to the dialogue of “Journey 2: The Mysterious Island” was like enduring nails scraping on a chalkboard for an hour and a half. While it was understandable that some of the jokes were cheesy because the bulk of the material was intended for young children, there weren’t enough witticisms for adults to remain interested divorced from the impressive chase sequences, full of vibrant colors and striptease of danger, between the gargantuan animals on the island and our protagonists. The sequence which involved the characters jumping from one giant but fragile lizard egg to another managed to balance comedy and suspense. Although the balancing act wasn’t quite consistent, it was fun because we knew that it was only a matter of time until the maternal lizard woke up and attacked. The same applied to the scene where the characters rode bees and hungry birds hunted for their lunch. Sometimes it was quite easy to tell which stunts were performed in front of a green screen, but I imagine children wouldn’t be as discerning. For me, what mattered was the energy of the scene and the risks the filmmakers were willing to take for the sake of entertainment. There were some risks that were taken here. Some paid off but others did not. Speaking of the latter, Sean and Hank hired Gabato (Luis Guzmán), a pilot, and his daughter, Kailani (Vanessa Hudgens), to take them to the island of interest. While Guzmán provided some laughs on the level of physical humor, Hudgens was not given anything special. Hudgens, in my opinion, is not a very expressive actor in the first place and not giving her something to work with only highlighted her lack of versatility. While it made sense that Sean became immediately attracted to Kailani because she looked pretty in her figure-hugging shirt and short shorts, it didn’t make sense that he continued to yearn for her affections because she acted like a brat, a nicer word that starts with a letter B, toward him, a feeling almost similar to how a stereotypical popular girl treated a stereotypical brainiac. Their so-called romance was one of the most insufferable aspects of the film. Every time Kailani battered her eyelashes, Sean stopped thinking with his brain and proceeded to think with his other head. Meanwhile, my level of exasperation intensified. As a movie designed for kids, I didn’t think it sent a very good message about self-reliance and self-esteem. Would it have been too much of a creative leap for the writers to make Kailani and Sean equally smart so that they were able to bounce ideas off each other and then, when or if it felt right, perhaps explore their underlying romantic feelings? Directed by Brad Peyton, considering that half of “Journey 2: The Mysterious Island” involved walking and the characters talking, it was a bore. It might have been better as a short film with nothing but epinephrine-fueled stunts.

The Other Guys

The Other Guys (2010)
★★ / ★★★★

Detectives Danson (Dwayne Johnson) and Highsmith (Samuel L. Jackson) were the kinds of cops we often see in action movies. They were tough, hard-bodied, and unaffected by explosions and flying bullets around them. Not necessarily likable, they were considered as heroes. But when they jumped to their death, Detective Hoitz (Mark Wahlberg), dragging reluctant Detective Gamble (Will Ferrell) along, aimed to take the celebrated detectives’ place. Much of the humor of “The Other Guys” stemmed from exaggerations. Whether it be a character quirk, a stylized action sequence, or just an embarrassingly awkward situation, the picture milked a scene for all its worth. It worked in some ways, but it didn’t work in others. I laughed at the scenes when Hoitz would always yell at his partner, but Gamble was like a wall of sound. Great partnerships often have opposite temperaments; the latter was happy with his safe desk job but the former craved more excitement and danger. One particularly hilarious scene was the lion versus tuna tidbit. It was creative, strange, and had a sense of manic energy which gave Ferrell a chance to show how funny he could be given the right material. A few scenes that aimed to satirize C-level action movies fell completely flat. When our protagonists were about to enter an accounting office only to have seen it blow up in front of them, the scene felt forced because the one of the characters kept going on about how–in the movies–characters don’t flinch when something explodes behind them, how he needed to go to the hospital, that perhaps he had gone deaf, and so on. It wasn’t any better than the projects they wished to tease. There was a case in which Hoitz and Gamble aimed to stop a multibillion fraud involving a capitalist named David Ershon (Steve Coogan). Other than the scene in which the criminals used a giant wrecking ball to break into a jewelry store, possibly a spoof of hyperbolic superhero villains’ plans, it failed to keep me interested. Instead, I wished there were more scenes with the underappreciated Michael Keaton as the captain of the police force with a penchant for quoting TLC, referencing to his bisexual son, and holding a second job at Bed Bath & Beyond. Out of all the actors, I thought he was the only one who was funny every time he was on screen. Directed by Adam McKay, “The Other Guys” had a good sense of humor but it felt too bloated. It needed to know when to pull back and let the audiences decide which scenes were worthy of laugh-out-loud funny instead of always throwing the jokes in our faces. It trusted us to spot its allusions, but it didn’t treat us like we were smart.

Planet 51

Planet 51 (2009)
★ / ★★★★

“Planet 51” was about an astronaut (voiced by Dwayne Johnson) who landed on a planet with green people living it what it seemed like 1950s suburbia. What was neat about it was that it captured the times because an extraterrestrial paranoia was in the air–aliens were in the movies, the comic books and daily conversations. Unfortunately, this animated film, directed by Jorge Blanco, Javier Abad and Marcos Martínez, only really had one joke and it wasn’t enough to sustain its campiness, vivaciousness and cuteness until the end. It was sad because the premise had so much potential and it had so many jokes it could have pulled from. Too bad it got stuck with the whole issue involving the astronaut needing to return to his ship with the help of green creatures named Lem (Justin Long), Neera (Jessica Biel) and Skiff (Seann William Scott). While it was colorful and there were a lot of action scenes, it lacked tension and I wasn’t convinced that children (especially those who have short attention spans) would be able sit through it. After the thirty-minute mark, I was bored and I kept wishing that the writer, Joe Stillman, would inject something new to the screen other than throwing random pop culture references such as iPods, Facebook, and the macarena. I did, however, enjoy the references to alien pictures such as “War of the Worlds,” “Aliens,” “E.T.: The Extraterrestrial” and the like. I thought those references and the small jokes that came with them worked because they had something to do with the universe where this animated movie was taking place. What “Planet 51” desperately needed was that sense of real danger during the action scenes to keep its audiences invested. Pixar movies, especially in “The Incredibles,” were good templates because although their movies are designed for children, they are not afraid to hint at the darkness and really put their characters in peril. In this movie, this feeling of everyone turning out to be safe at the end of the day was way too obvious. Sidequests such as the romance between Neera and Lem was a distracting appendage that didn’t really need to be there. Maybe younger children such as five- or six-year-olds might enjoy this flick but definitely not nine- or ten-year-olds. I was very disappointed because the trailer looked very promising.