MALIGNANT – an Alternative Lens review

Starring: Annabelle Wallis (The Mummy), Maddie Hasson (Impulse), George Young (Containment), Michole Briana White (Songbird), Jacqueline McKenzie (Deep Blue Sea), Jake Abel (The Host), Ingrid Bisu (The Conjuring: The Devil Made Me Do It), Mckenna Grace (Gifted)

Director: James Wan (Aquaman)

Writer: Akela Cooper (Hell Fest)

Runtime: 1 hour 51 minutes

Release Date: 10th September (US/HBO Max, UK)

When a low-budget director finally gets their shot at the big leagues, one of two things usually happens: they either stay there indefinitely, or go back to their roots once their time in the spotlight is over. However, there is a third option that some take and is probably the best of both worlds: make smaller, more personal projects in between the giant blockbusters. James Wan has already done this once before, returning to his horror stomping grounds by making the comparably small The Conjuring 2 in between Furious 7 and Aquaman, and now he’s done it again before embarking on his second underwater adventure with the DC superhero. Malignant (which, to clarify, is totally unrelated to Wan’s 2011 graphic novel Malignant Man) is in some ways a return to Wan’s grungier Saw origins, but it’s an entirely different beast in other. It’s a film that the marketing has quite rightly been coy about, selling itself as a more traditional paranormal chiller, and to some viewers they will likely be disappointed or completely revulsed once they realised its true nature. However, if you’re willing to jump on board, Malignant is easily one of the most thrilling, idiosyncratic and utterly batsh*t mainstream horror movies in recent memory.

(I don’t usually do this in my reviews, as I generally don’t discuss narrative in beat-by-beat detail, but even mentioning the slightest details of Malignant’s story threatens to ruin the experience. Most films are best enjoyed knowing as little as possible going in, and this one has been specifically marketed that way. So, without further ado: POTENTIAL SPOILER WARNING! If you are interested in seeing Malignant, especially if you’re a huge horror fan, stop reading now and just go see it! If you’re still undecided and need a little more info to know if it’s your cup of tea, I will try to be as sensitive to potential giveaways in my critique as possible, but there are just some thoughts that have to be said that may give away the game. You have been warned.)

Malignant (2021) - IMDb

By all intents and purposes, Malignant shouldn’t work. Unlike Wan’s previous horror films that pick a style and mostly sticks with it, this one is like a bag of pick-and-mix, but with various styles and subgenres rather than sugary treats. The first two acts are mostly comparable to the Insidious franchise, especially in how it blurs the lines of perception and reality, but with a slightly more heightened, almost comic book tone. However, it throughout draws stylistic influence from all eras and types of horror: it has the suspense and mystery of Psycho and Rosemary’s Baby, the psychological eeriness of Repulsion and Don’t Look Now, and the gruesome imagery of Possession and The Evil Dead. As wild as all these influences sound, they merge together fairly well because the film stays consistent on a story level. There is a compelling whodunnit narrative as we learn more about the characters in drips and drabs and, whilst the final revelations do seemingly come out of nowhere, the pieces are all there and certainly solvable with an open mind. There is some clunky expositional dialogue and unsubtle foreshadowing, but it moves at such a brisk pace and with a knowing sense of self-deprecation that it’s easy to forget about the niggles and get swept up in the mystery.

That said, where the moviesimultaneously comes alive and goes off the rails is in its third act. In possibly the biggest mid-film shift since From Dusk till Dawn, Malignant finally reveals its trump card, drops all pretentions of subtlety, and proudly comes out as a tribute to 1980s exploitation movies. It still has the slick sheen of a mid-budget Hollywood film, but at its core this is absolutely the kind of gonzo high-concept horror flick you’d stumble across at the video store or on late-night TV. It’s a massive and risky swing that will likely turn off many, and even for those willing to go with it won’t find it an easy transition. There are logic holes left that even the biggest suspension of disbelief won’t account for and, whilst its nice to see a horror film be self-contained, it does leave plenty of unanswered questions. However, if you can get past the growing pains and accept the movie for what it is, you will find one of the most visceral, insane and flat-out fun horror movies since The Cabin in the Woods. Again, it’s hard to describe without giving it all away, but here’s a final litmus test: if the works of Larry Cohen and Frank Henenlotter mean anything to you, go see this movie immediately!

James Wan's Horror Movie 'Malignant' Will Release This September; Check Out  a New Teaser Image! - Bloody Disgusting
Annabelle Wallis as Madison “Maddie” Lake-Mitchell in MALIGNANT (2021, d. James Wan)

One does not usually go to horror movies looking for high-calibre acting, but there are exceptions…and Malignant isn’t one of them. That’s not to say the performances or characters here are bad in any way, but it’s hard to say to say that any of them are particularly exemplary. Annabelle Wallis takes the lead as the meek and disturbed Maddie, and she does a pretty solid job of portraying a character who has clearly been through a lot of abuse. However, her performance kind of begins and ends with that emotion, and we don’t really get much time with her before the plot kicks in to understand what she’s like outside of these supernatural circumstances. We actually get a much better sense of who her sister Sydney (Maddie Hasson) is through little incidental details that flesh her out, and she excels at emotionally grounding the film and providing some earnest comic relief. George Young is likable but a bit bland as Detective Kekoa Shaw, whilst his partner Regina (Michole Briana White) is mostly saddled with the typical “sceptic who immediately suspects and gaslights the protagonist” routine. Jake Abel and Susanna Thompson have mostly perfunctory roles as Maddie’s husband and mother respectively, whilst Ingrid Bisu (who also co-wrote the story with Wan and Akela Cooper) has a small but memorable role as a forensic officer that evokes Leigh Whannel’s role in the Insidious movies. However, the real unsung stars of the film are voice actor Ray Chase and stunt performer Marina Mazepa as the elusive shadow that is Gabriel. That’s all I can really say about them. See the movie for yourself, and you’ll understand why these two have together created a potential cult horror icon.

James Wan has proven himself time and again as a director willing to make bold and brazen choices, and Malignant is easily his most visually distinctive film yet. Yes, even more so than his movie with the giant octopus playing drums. Its use of harsh reds and midnight blues in its lighting is incredibly 70s, bringing to mind Dario Argento, but then the bombastic camera work is more in line with that of Wan’s blockbusters. There are some incredible tracking shots throughout the film that would make David Fincher blush, like an intense overhead sequence that follows Maddie up, down, and around the house. This frenetic shooting style then works perfectly into the movie’s action sequences. Yes, you read that right: action sequences! There’s an absolutely relentless chase through the streets of Seattle that keeps finding ways to up the ante, and the third act blow-out is best described as “What John Wick was a Cenobite?”, which are only made more visceral by the copious amounts of gore; it more than earns its 18 certificate from the BBFC. The entire aesthetic experience is then further enhanced by the excellent sound mixing and Joseph Bishara’s haunting score, which sounds like the disturbed love child of Bernard Hermann and John Carpenter. The only odd musical choice is its use of an instrumental cover of “Where Is My Mind” by Pixies as a recurring leitmotif; it’s a decent enough cover on its own, but it sticks out a little amongst the film’s mostly older cultural references.

Apple MacBook Laptop Used By George Young As Kekoa Shaw In Malignant (2021)
George Young as Detective Kekoa Shaw in MALIGNANT (2021, d. James Wan)

Malignant simply isn’t the kind of movie that gets made anymore, especially by a major studio, and most other directors would have watered it down into something far more generic. In the hands of James Wan though, who both loves the horror genre and is willing to turn things up to eleven, it makes it an experience hard to forget whether you end up enjoying it or not. It’s easily the most distinctive movie he’s made since the original Saw, and reimagines a long-dormant subgenre on a scale its influences could only dream of. Seriously, the fact Warner Bros. even agreed to fund this is frankly unbelievable, and likely only did because of Wan’s track record…and the fact he just handed them a billion-dollar juggernaut in Aquaman. To make a long review short, Malignant is B-movie schlock dolled up in blockbuster drag, and destined to become a cult favourite amongst horror aficionados.

FINAL VERDICT: 8.5/10

SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS – an Alternative Lens review

Starring: Simu Liu (Kim’s Convenience), Awkwafina (Raya and the Last Dragon), Meng’er Zhang, Fala Chen (Turning Point), Florian Munteanu (Creed II), Benedict Wong (The Martian), Michelle Yeoh (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), Tony Leung (Chungking Express)

Director: Destin Daniel Cretton (Short Term 12)

Writers: Dave Callaham (Wonder Woman 1984) & Destin Daniel Cretton and Andrew Lanham (Just Mercy)

Runtime: 2 hours 11 minutes

Release Date: 3rd September (US, UK)

Some people are sick of superhero origin stories; they think they’re tired and samey, and that more movies should just skip to the good stuff. Whilst this makes sense with characters whose histories are not only simple but ingrained in pop culture (Batman, Spider-Man, Hulk, etc), origins are vital to those who sit outside the trodden grounds of dead parents and/or freak accidents. Shang-Chi is a venerable but oft-forgotten Marvel hero whose story has potential that even the comics never fully tapped into, with not only his martial arts prowess and mystical connection to Chinese folklore, but as a superhero descended from a supervillain. Now is a better time than any to put him in the spotlight, and Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings rises to the occasion in every aspect. It’s not only the best Marvel solo movie since Black Panther, but an engaging and beautifully put-together blockbuster that meshes western and eastern influences seamlessly.

Shang-Chi and The Legend of The Ten Rings: New Poster and Clip

Shang-Chi immediately sets itself apart from the other MCU origin stories by following the Batman Begins structure, switching between past and present as we witness both our hero’s sinister past and his ascendancy to the light. The story is simple but well-told and filled with theatrical heft, putting far more focus on character dynamics and thematic resonance than furthering the MCU canon (though it has its fair share of that too). On balance it is certainly classic Marvel tone-wise, but it does swing pretty far to both sides of that spectrum. It unexpectedly goes to some incredibly dark places, especially when showing Shang’s upbringing and his contentious relationship with his father, which help emotionally ground it in a way very few Marvel films do. At the same time, it’s an incredibly bright and funny movie, injecting a lot of self-aware humour and imaginative worlds that feel pulled from animation more than reality. It’d be easy for these clashing vibes to muddy the emotional timbre, but for the most part Shang-Chi doesn’t undercut itself where it counts and shows restraint even when it has an easy opportunity to chuck in a joke. I can’t speak fully to its authenticity (being a white European and all), but the film’s use of its Asian cast, setting and cultural influences is outstanding by Hollywood standards. Roughly 20% of the film, including the entire prologue, is in Mandarin and fluidly switches between it and English to great effect. Aside from a solid jab at the racist undertones of naming a character “The Mandarin”, it’s not exactly a thematically weighty film with something deep to say about Asian culture like Black Panther did for the African experience, but there is certainly a similar level of respect and a revelling joy from the filmmakers getting to tell this kind of story on such a huge canvas. That said, what it does do is tell a story with a core conflict that speaks to Asian experiences but that audiences of all backgrounds will relate to in one way or another. This is ultimately a family drama about legacy and nature vs. nurture told through the lens of an action fantasy epic, and it doesn’t have to be any deeper than that.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings' Review: House of Hidden Dragons  - The New York Times
(from left to right) Meng’er Xhang as Xu Xialing, Simu Liu as Xu Shang-Chi, and Awkwafina as Katy in SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS (2021, d. Destin Daniel Cretton)

There are so many great portrayals of superheroes on screen both past and present, but only a few are so iconic that the actor and character become the definitive version in your head; Christopher Reeve, Hugh Jackman, Robert Downey Jr, Gal Gadot, and Margot Robbie are just a few that come to mind. Simu Liu certainly has an advantage stepping into the role of Shang-Chi, as the character has no major prior appearances outside the comics, and yet he manages to make the character iconic entirely by his own skill. Liu is an immediately likable leading man with a natural wit and strong physicality, but what truly sets the character apart is his internal conflict. We’ve seen plenty of heroes who don’t want the power or responsibility of saving the world, but Shang-Chi stands apart as someone whose abilities are irreconcilable to them from their childhood trauma and inner demons, and their journey overcoming this block could prove inspirational to those struggling with their own dark side. Awkwafina does what she does best as Shang’s best friend Katy, but they thankfully avoid making her just comic relief and make sure she has her own satisfying arc and relationships. Her chemistry with Liu is absolutely top-notch, more than selling these two as long-time buds who are there for each other in both good times and bad, and hopefully the MCU finds plenty more room for both of them.

Meng’er Zhang is fantastically stoic as Shang’s sister Xialing, getting across a lot with very little dialogue and selling herself as a stone-cold badass throughout; whenever she has an action sequence, it’s hard to take your eyes off her. Michelle Yeoh is as gracious and excellent as you’d expect her to be as Shang’s aunt Ying Nan, Florian Munteanu manages to bring forward depth and humour in what could be a stock henchman role as Razorfist, and there’s a fantastic redemptive return from an old MCU character I won’t spoil here (no, it’s not Wong, whose role is little more than a fun extended cameo). All that said, anyone who’s a fan of Chinese cinema will be here for Tony Leung as archvillain Wenwu, and he absolutely owns the movie from the moment he appears until the end. He is a far cry from the racist stereotyping of both The Mandarin and Fu Manchu, incorporating the better aspects of both into a new composite character that utterly destroys those dated expectations. He has all the trappings you’d expect of a supervillain, from the mountaintop lair and army of henchmen to his unyielding lust for power, but he’s also incredibly grounded and his motivations come from a completely human pain. Leung absolutely sells both sides of the character without ever undermining the other, and the father-son dynamic he has with Shang-Chi is relatable yet tragic; they both clearly want the best for each other, but know their paths cannot cross. He’s not only one of the MCU’s best villains yet, but possibly the first performance I’ve seen in one worthy of awards consideration.

Shang-Chi: Tony Leung's Wenwu Is 'Not The Mandarin In The Way People Are  Expecting' – Exclusive | Movies | Empire
Tony Leung as Xu Wenwu in SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS (2021, d. Destin Daniel Cretton)

Destin Daniel Cretton is a fantastic director of intimate drama, and that experience is absolutely key to why the story and characters work so well. That said, he finds himself at the helm of a martial arts movie despite having no experience in directing action of any scale but, like any good director knows how to do, he’s surrounded himself with the best in the business. I mean, he has the late Brad Allan, veteran of multiple Jackie Chan films, as his stunt co-ordinator, and Bill Pope, cinematographer of the first three Matrix movies, behind the camera. If the final result wasn’t some of the best hand-to-hand action sequences in MCU history, you’d want your money back, and thankfully Shang-Chi delivers on all that and more. This is a visually stunning movie on every level, from its gorgeous environments (both realistic and mystical) to its spectacular special effects, but of course the fight choreography is the real showstopper. It’s not quite on par with classic Hong Kong cinema, especially considering it can’t get too brutal for the kids in the audience, but it comes as close as it can and melds surprisingly seamlessly with the expected Marvel flair. This is further bolstered by the film’s music, with both Joel P. West’s gallant score and the great selection of rap and EDM tracks on the soundtrack perfectly symbolising the east-meets-west nature of the entire production.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings' Film Review: Marvel's  Martial-Arts Saga Nails the Characters and the Kicks
Tony Leung as Xu Wenwu and Simu Liu as Xu Shang-Chi in SHANG-CHI AND THE LEGEND OF THE TEN RINGS (2021, d. Destin Daniel Cretton)

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is an absolute blast from start-to-finish and a wonderful way to truly kick off the Phase Four films. Even after over a decade of storytelling, Marvel Studios shows no signs of slowing down and continues to find new ways to keep their output fresh, diverse, and of quality. Simu Liu is a superstar in the making, ably taking on the title role with the confidence of a veteran of ten blockbusters, and holds his own against a cinema legend like Tony Leung. It feels like another cohesive piece of the Marvel universe, but it stands up better on its own than most and has gallons of potential as a franchise in its own right, and hopefully it finds an audience craving more. Whether you’re a diehard MCU fan, an action junkie wanting something with a little Hong Kong flavour, or you just appreciate good storytelling and imagination, you cannot go wrong with Shang-Chi.

FINAL VERDICT: 9.5/10

CANDYMAN – an Alternative Lens review

Starring: Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (Aquaman), Teyonah Parris (WandaVision), Nathan Stewart-Jarrett (Misfits), Colman Domingo (Selma), Kyle Kaminsky, Vanessa Williams (New Jack City)

Director: Nia DaCosta (Little Woods [AKA Crossing the Line])

Writers: Jordan Peele (Get Out) & Win Rosenfield (The Twilight Zone) and Nia DeCosta

Runtime: 1 hour 31 minutes

Release Date: 27th August (US, UK)

1992’s Candyman, as far as I’m concerned, is a modern classic. It was a perfect update of the gothic horror story, transposing it to contemporary urban Chicago and telling an ahead-of-its-time story that touched on gentrification and racial bias. It turned Tony Todd into a horror icon, delivered something fresh to a genre stagnated by mindless slashers, and propagated the classic mirror game still played by easily-scared kids everywhere. However, its legacy somewhat stopped there and its underlying themes never quite stayed in the popular conscience, no doubt muddied by its two direct-to-video sequels that dropped much of the depth that made the original so special. Now thirty years later, who more apt to reboot Candyman and bring those racial messages to the forefront than Jordan Peele? Unfortunately, whilst this reimagining certainly has all the right ideas, the execution is about as messy as the blood-drenched crime scenes Candyman leaves in his wake.

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As 2021’s Candyman begins, it seems like it knows exactly what it’s doing. It clearly not only loves the original but fully understands its significance and wants to expand on its ideas. Hearing how the events of the first film have warped over time and become their own legend much like the story of the Candyman, it makes it feel like a true sequel but one that opens the door to new possibilities. The story is metaphorically and, by the end, literally about the recontextualization of the Candyman mythos in the modern era, taking some interesting swings with the material whilst ultimately still being a natural evolution of the original’s intentions. It not only expands upon the racial undertones discussed in the first film but brings in modern ideas too, such as the commodification of Black struggles for the entertainment of predominantly white audiences, which certainly brings a slight meta element to the narrative. The subplot surrounding the modern art world occasionally seem self-indulgent, often distracting from the narrative core so that the filmmakers can air their frustrations about critics, but the overall point it makes is valid and a natural evolution of ideas from the first film.

All of the right pieces are there and it’s easy to see the picture that the filmmakers were trying to create, but great intentions simply aren’t enough to carry it across the line. Its ambition is ultimately cut short by its top-heavy and scatter-brained storytelling, doing a solid job of building tension and intrigue for the first two acts before rushing through its climax so fast that it lacks the desired impact. Character motivations flip on a dime, several subplots and supporting characters are simply forgotten about, all subtlety gets chucked out the window, and the result is a finale that’s more confusing than it is scary or thought-provoking. It reeks of a screenplay in need of major restructuring, dropping certain ideas and focusing in on its core goals. Failing that, simply let the film run longer and flesh out the third act so that it doesn’t feel like such a rush job at the end. It’s such a shame that, for the first two thirds, Candyman was shaping up to be a more-than-worthy successor to the original. Instead, what we’ve ended up is two or three promising but unfinished ideas for a Candyman sequel squashed into ninety minutes whilst Jordan Peele reads aloud a copy of “Media Analysis for Dummies”.

Candyman review: "A sequel/reboot hybrid that never entirely hooks you" |  GamesRadar+
Yahya Abdul-Mateen II as Anthony McCoy in CANDYMAN (2021, d. Nia DaCosta)

Much of the same issues carry over into the film’s characterisation, but at least the cast they’ve assembled is able to deliver it all with gusto. Yahya Abdul-Mateen II makes for a charismatic but unnerving lead as struggling artist Anthony McCoy, with his descent into obsession mirroring that of Virginia Madsen’s Helen Lyle but taking it in an unexpected direction. He does a fantastic job of making you like this guy whilst also showing his flaws and more unsettling tendencies; his reaction to the film’s first major kill is an absolutely priceless moment that shows Anthony for who he really is. Unfortunately, where the writing fails him is that he makes some awfully stupid decisions that even his addled mental state can’t really account for. With Helen, the goading and gaslighting Candyman put her through explained her more rash decisions, but with Anthony there isn’t really that driving force. He’s far too passive a protagonist, allowing his situation to get out of hand and yet not fighting back once even as he starts to put the pieces together. By the end, the story just kind of unceremoniously shoves his character development to its obvious conclusion, and yet it ends up feeling vastly unearned.

Teyonah Parris is fantastic as Anthony’s curator girlfriend Brianna and is easily the most relatable character, reacting naturally to the insanity growing around her and keeping us grounded in reality. The only issue is that she’s mostly a supporting player through much of the story, dealing with several subplots about her art career and her deceased father that end up going nowhere, before being pushed into the spotlight of a central plot she had very little impact on prior to that point. Nathan Stewart-Jarrett makes for some fun comic relief as Brianna’s flamboyant brother Troy, and ably balanced out by his more modest boyfriend Grady (Kyle Kaminsky), but the story basically forgets about them once the blood starts really hitting the fan. Colman Domingo is always great, even when simply handled exposition, and he does a fantastic job going deep into the mythos as the perennial neighbourhood resident Burke. It’s hard to discuss the character in depth without getting into spoiler territory, but what happens to him in the third act is one of the greater tragedies of the rushed pacing; it really just comes out of nowhere. Vanessa Williams’ part as Anthony’s mother Anne-Marie, the only significant returning character from the original, is small but pivotal and she delivers it so well; it’s easily where the film comes closest to capturing the emotional heft of the original.

Teyonah Parris: “The story behind Candyman is still relevant” - Metro  Philadelphia
Teyonah Parris as Brianna Cartwright in CANDYMAN (2021, d. Nia DaCosta)

Whilst the script certainly leaves a lot to be desired, the film’s direction and technical prowess certainly do their best to make up for the lacklustre material. Nia DaCosta has a wonderful eye and stages certain sequences in imaginative ways that translate the tone and emotion of a scene with very little dialogue. John Guleserian’s cinematography is haunting in all the right ways, building off of visual ideas from the original whilst giving them a modern twist, and the use of shadow puppets to visualize the various myths surrounding Candyman is an especially welcome touch. The way the film handles its gory moments is also especially refreshing, showing you just enough to satisfy your bloodlust but not revelling in it; like a great horror movie should, it leads the scariest stuff to your imagination. The film visually looks a lot cleaner than the first film, which makes sense considering the gentrification of Cabrini-Green since then, but even the sets that are meant to be rundown don’t have that same level of grime and filth as they should. Also, whilst it’s certainly an unreasonable ask to expect any composer to match up to the iconic Phillip Glass, the film’s score is still pretty unmemorable and lacks that same eerie fairy-tale quality of Glass’ compositions.

Candyman Expands Upon a '90s Horror Classic | Time
Colman Domingo as William Burke in CANDYMAN (2021, d. Nia DaCosta)

There’s nothing worse than seeing a film’s potential so clearly on display and yet failing to make it work, but the new Candyman is an undercooked mistake and easily this summer’s biggest disappointment. The story and themes are brimming with potential, all of the actors put in their best, and DaCosta’s direction elevates the film beyond horror conventions in much the same way as Bernard Rose’s original; I can’t wait to see what she does with The Marvels. Much of the blame here must be put on the narrative itself, which feels overstuffed at best and outright unfinished at worst. It has the flow of an essay that waffles on too much early on, eating up the word count with frivolous tangents, before running out of time and rushing to the conclusion instead of simply going back and cutting out the fluff. Whether this was an issue at script level or something that happening during editing, I can’t say, but it reeks of much the same issues with Peele’s Us: it gets so caught up in its metaphors that it forgets to tell a satisfying story in its own right. In terms of horror sequels and reboots, I’ll certainly take an ambitious but failed new take like this over yet another unimaginative rehash, but it’s squandered potential nonetheless.

FINAL VERDICT: 5.5/10

SNAKE EYES: G.I. JOE ORIGINS – an Alternative Lens review

Starring: Henry Golding (Crazy Rich Asians), Andrew Koji (Warrior), Úrsula Corberó (Money Heist), Samara Weaving (Ready of Not), Iko Uwais (The Raid), Haruka Abe (Cruella), Takehiro Hira (Ace Attorney), Peter Mensah (300)

Director: Robert Schwentke (Red)

Writers: Evan Spiliotopoulos (The Huntsman: Winter’s War) and Joe Shrapnel & Anna Waterhouse (Race)

Runtime: 2 hours 1 minute

Release Date: 23rd July (US), 18th August (UK)

The question really has to be asked: is G.I. Joe even relevant anymore? Sure, it’s an important part of toy history and its 80s incarnation still has its retro appeal, but it hasn’t managed to stay in the modern zeitgeist like Transformers or Masters of the Universe have. There hasn’t been an animated series in a decade to keep it fresh in the heads of today’s kids, and whilst the prior attempts at live action adaptation The Rise of Cobra and Retaliation are guilty pleasures for some (i.e. me), neither proved as popular as even the worst-performing Bayformer film. Still, Paramount and Hasbro still see something of worth in the property and have opted to give the franchise a new lease in much the same way they did with Bumblebee: making a prequel focusing on the origin of a popular character to act as a springboard into a full reboot. Unfortunately, whilst Bumblebee was the upbeat breath of fresh air Transformers needed, Snake Eyes rarely feels like anything more than brand management.

Snake Eyes Picture 13

As I’m sure many a diehard fan will let you know, G.I. Joe has an overwhelmingly in-depth mythology mainly thanks to the efforts of comics legend Larry Hama. Whilst a lot of that original backstory has been jettisoned here, it does have a tonal reverence for his work and treats the material with far more weight than the previous film incarnations. For a good chunk of its runtime, Snake Eyes is a grounded and strait-laced action thriller, mixing in elements of classic ninja and yakuza movies that make it stand out a little from the usual blockbuster fare. If it weren’t for the inclusion of its recognisable characters, it’s easy to forget that it’s a G.I. Joe movie at all until the expected Joes vs. Cobra elements start seeping into the plot. It’s also at this point the more fantastical elements get rolled in to, and soon this mostly boilerplate actioner is busting out giant anacondas and magical fire gems like they’re no big deal. This all leads to a drawn-out but otherwise satisfying finale that brings the OTT spectacle you’d hope for and hypes up the full G.I. Joe epic they clearly want to make. The problem is that not only does the script do a poor job of integrating those franchise building blocks into its core narrative, but the first two acts simply aren’t engaging enough on their own. The pacing is numbingly slow at points, with huge portions of the film bereft of extended action, to the point that any children in the audience will likely get restless as they await the next ninja bout. This film may have more respect for its source material on an intellectual level, but the 2009/2013 movies at least understood that G.I. Joe should be fun; I mean, it’s literally based on action figures. Snake Eyes, meanwhile, is like reading a dry fan wiki whilst watching a supercut of 80s ninja movies and edited-for-TV Takeshi Miike flicks.

SNAKE EYES: GI JOE ORIGINS Is an 80s Movie Trapped in 2021 - Nerdist
Henry Golding as Snake Eyes and Andrew Koji as Tommy Arashikage/Storm Shadow in SNAKE EYES: G.I. JOE ORIGINS (2021, d. Robert Schwentke)

The cast of G.I. Joe is pretty vast and full of quirky characters, but Snake Eyes has proved the most popular ever since the 80s relaunch; amazing for a character who was a throwaway they literally left as an unpainted black mould to save on manufacturing costs. On first thought, it’s only natural they chose the dark-garbed ninja to be the focus of a spin-off, but at the same time he doesn’t lend himself much to leading man status. In most incarnations, he rarely takes off his mask or even talks, so what is there to work with? Well, this is where Snake Eyes plays loose with the established mythology and gives the character the typical tragic backstory and quest for revenge, turning a character whose appeal lied in his mysteriousness into just another generic anti-hero. Henry Golding has proven himself an incredibly charismatic presence from his roles in Crazy Rich Asians and A Simple Favour, but he seems woefully out of depth as an action star here. Snakes Eyes is a role that simply doesn’t play to Golding’s strengths, requiring him to be constantly brooding and contemplative, and he ends up coming off like a preppy kid trying to be a bad boy rather than the downbeat street rat he’s written as. It’s clear that the man is trying, and with further refinement he has the potential to be a blockbuster leading man, but he’s simply not there yet. Henry Golding reminds me a lot of a young George Clooney and the comparison couldn’t be more apt here, as Snake Eyes is to Golding as what Batman was to Clooney; not inherently bad casting, but clearly out of their depth and lacking the material they needed to make it work.

Thankfully, Andrew Koji picks up a lot the slack as Tommy Arashikage, the man soon to be known as Storm Shadow. He immediately brings a lot of screen presence, has strong chemistry with Golding, and believably evolves over the course of the story from the trusted ally to the bitter rival of Snake Eyes fans know him to be. Also acting as a foil to both Golding and Koji is Haruka Abe as Akiko, the Arashikage clan’s head of security, but she’s fairly one-note and really only there to keep Golding on his toes until the third act. Iko Uwais and Peter Mensah are on hand as the clan’s teachers Hard Master and Blind Master respectively, and whilst both are welcome presences (and of course Uwais is easily the action standout) they are relegated to the background for much of the plot. The film’s primary antagonist is Takehiro Hira as Kenta, Tommy’s cousin and rival, but he’s no more than a stock yakuza bad guy with very little depth beyond what we are told about his past with the Arashikage clan. Whilst all this ninja intrigue is going on, the only representatives of the Joes vs. Cobra conflict are Samara Weaving as Scarlett and Úrsula Corberó as Baroness. Whilst Weaving makes the most of her limited screen time and once again cements herself as a superstar in the making, Corberó fails to make such an impact. Baroness is meant to be one of the most iconic villains in the G.I. Joe franchise, a Bond femme fatale turned up to 11 whose ruthlessness is only outmatched by Cobra Commander, but here she comes off more like a naughty librarian in a catsuit. At least she has her Eastern European accent this time around?

How Úrsula Corberó Became The Baroness In Snake Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins -  Exclusive Interview
Úrsula Corberó as Baroness in SNAKE EYES: G.I. JOE ORIGINS (2021, d. Robert Schwentke)

As said prior, Snake Eyes is pretty bereft of action compared to most blockbusters of its type, and unfortunately it fails to leave much impact even when it does arrive. Much in the same vein as this year’s Mortal Kombat, it’s unfortunately yet another example of solid choreography being ruined by sloppy editing that cuts on every impact; if this is the trend for Eastern-inspired action movies in 2021, I hope next month’s Shang-Chi doesn’t fall victim to it. Luckily, the third act is mostly an exception to this, especially an incredible Matrix Reloaded-inspired highway chase that finally brings in the ridiculous spectacle you’d expect from a G.I. Joe movie. Snake Eyes is also a surprisingly pretty movie to look at, especially in how it contrasts the neon-drenched streets of Tokyo at night with the calming serenity of the Arashikage compound, but some of the other visual presentation comes off cheap (e.g. the fiery orange subtitles that look like a WordArt template). Finally, Martin Todsharow’s score is an understated but unique fusion of electronica and traditional Japanese music, creating a soundscape that compliments the film’s old-meets-new aesthetic astutely.

International Trailer for SNAKE EYES: G.I. JOE ORIGINS Offers Cool New  Footage — GeekTyrant
(from left to right) Andrew Koji as Tommy Arashikage/Storm Shadow, Henry Golding as Snake Eyes, Samara Weaving as Scarlett, Eri Ishida as Sen, Haruka Abe as Akiko, Iko Uwais as Hard Master, and Peter Mensah as Blind Master in SNAKE EYES: G.I. JOE ORIGINS (2021, d. Robert Schwentke)

Snakes Eyes: G.I. Joe Origins isn’t a terrible film, but it is a thoroughly unremarkable one that will likely fade from public memory before the year is out. The cast and crew are clearly trying to make the best of it, and it has fleeting moments that show the potential for a great G.I. Joe movie within, but it simply cannot get over the fact that its mere premise is a foolish gamble. When you get down to it, G.I. Joe just isn’t a property that has the fandom to support a spin-off/prequel in the same way as Marvel or DC or even Transformers; it certainly has a deep-enough mythology to, but until general audiences are as familiar with Duke and Cobra Commander as they are with Iron Man and Thanos, it ain’t happening. If they plan on following up on this with a proper Joes vs. Cobra story, they’ve built just enough of a promising foundation to have me mildly curious. However, given its box office performance so far has been dire even by post-COVID standards, it’s looking doubtful that audiences will be cheering “Yo, Joe!” again any time soon.

FINAL VERDICT: 4.5/10

FREE GUY – an Alternative Lens review

Starring: Ryan Reynolds (Deadpool), Jodie Comer (Killing Eve), Lil Rel Howrey (Get Out), Utkarsh Ambudkar (Pitch Perfect), Joe Keery (Stranger Things), Taika Waititi (Jojo Rabbit)

Director: Shawn Levy (Real Steel)

Writers: Matt Lieberman (Scoob!) and Zak Penn (Ready Player One)

Runtime: 1 hour 55 minutes

Release Date: 13th August (US, UK)

It’s often a cliché to sum up a film as “_______ meets _______”, but whether pitching to a room of executives, trying to convince your friends to go see it, or just a lazy critic looking for a catchy pull-quote (self-deprecating wink), it’s an easy catch-all to sell a movie’s premise and overall tone. Sometimes, a film is far more than just a mash-up of two things, and Free Guy is a prime example of a movie concept smorgasbord. It’s Ready Player One mixed with The Matrix mixed with They Live mixed with The Truman Show mixed with Wreck-It Ralph mixed with…you get the idea. An idea-packed movie like that can end up two ways: a sloppy mess of popular ideas shoved together with reckless abandon, or a rich stew where the flavours of every ingredient compliment each other to create something new. Thankfully, Free Guy falls into the latter category, and may end up being the biggest surprise of the summer.

Free Guy (2021) - IMDb

Watching the trailers and certain scenes out of context, it’s easy to assume Free Guy is a fun but mindless blockbuster mostly selling itself on video game references and Ryan Reynolds’ charisma. However, much in the same vein as Reynolds’ Deadpool films, what they haven’t shown is its startling emotional depth and timely satirical edge. It takes the well-worn idea of someone realising they’re living in a false reality and uses it to explore existential questions about artificial intelligence, free will and what it means to be alive, but in such a breezy and uplifting manner that it avoids being overpowering. Unlike the broadly uncritical stance of Ready Player One, Free Guy isn’t afraid to lambast the more toxic sides of the video game industry. It frames its crime sandbox setting not as some fun-loving utopia, but a wretched hive full of players with sociopathic tendencies and casual bigotry, with Guy (Reynolds) as the optimistic antidote encouraging people to be better both in the game and real life. If that wasn’t enough, the film is an exaggerated but long-overdue critique of triple-A game development, depicting the toxic work environment, how employees are taken advantage of, the lies and broken promises made before launch, and just general corporate greed that the industry has become known for. Seriously, there are scenes that might as well have been written by James Stephanie Sterling themself and, given the recent scandals at places like Ubisoft and Activision, it’s especially cathartic to watch a stand-in for such companies get its just desserts.

That said, as much fun as the film is, the story’s internal logic doesn’t always add up. It’s hard to go into without spoiling, but there’s this big “all is lost” moment around the end of the second act that not only gets solved super quickly with little hassle, but literally contradicts itself in explaining how and why it worked. It’s a frustrating plot cul-de-sac that adds very little, only really serving to reinforce some exposition that could’ve been explained without stopping the movie dead for ten minutes. That’s also on top of the often-unclear rules of the game itself, which will likely confuse anyone who doesn’t have a decent understanding of online gaming. It’s refreshing that the film mostly avoids doing cheap reference humour, instead focusing its jokes on more universal video game observations like AI behaviour, glitches and streaming culture. Unfortunately, the third act suddenly shoves in about a dozen pop culture shout-outs in rapid succession; the first one is a big laugh because it takes you off guard, but then it keeps going and it starts to feel more like corporate synergy than genuine comedy. In the grand scheme of things though, these issues are easily overshadowed when Free Guy is such an infectiously joyful ride that manages to celebrate gaming culture whilst also justly criticising it.

Free Guy' clip sees Ryan Reynolds struggle with gamer lingo: Watch
Ryan Reynolds as Guy and Lil Rel Howrey as Buddy in FREE GUY (2021, d. Shawn Levy)

After his career resurgence about five years ago, Ryan Reynolds has mostly been happy to recycle the sarcastic, self-aware persona that made Deadpool a hit. Whether it be 6 Underground, The Hitman’s Bodyguard, Hobbs & Shaw or even Detective Pikachu, his performances have remained consistently funny but also consistently samey. It’s a shame, because Reynolds is a more versatile actor than I think even he gives himself credit for; go watch criminally underseen gems like The Voices and Mississippi Grind for evidence of that. Thankfully, whilst he hasn’t abandoned that sense of humour, our protagonist Guy is at least a slightly different flavour of Reynolds. The character is bluntly compared in the film to a four-year-old, and that certainly sells in his wide-eyed naivety and chipper attitude, gradually turning him into a fish-out-of-water in his own reality. What sells the performance, and ultimately prevents the confused innocent routine from wearing thin, is how Guy develops across the story as his awareness of his predicament evolves. When the film eventually reaches that moment of existential crisis, Reynolds’ otherwise-hidden acting chops come out to play and Guy changes from a comedic foil into a character with actual humanity. It’s easily his best performance since his return to A-list status, and I hope he continues to refine and diversify his roles going forward.

Of course, a comedy is nothing without a great supporting cast, and Free Guy has a stellar crew to fill out its roster. Jodie Comer makes for a fantastic foil for Guy as both embittered indie game designer Millie and her in-game avatar Molotov Girl, bringing a grounded presence to the game world’s otherwise surreal characters and internal logic, and her evolving relationship with Guy strikes that fine balance between heartfelt and hilarious. Lil Rel Howrey continues to be a low-key secret weapon as Guy’s best friend and co-worker Buddy, leading the rest of the NPCs of Free City who all quickly become familiar faces with their own running gags and moments to shine. Joe Keery is mainly saddled with a lot of exposition as beleaguered tester and Comer’s former partner Keys but he makes the most of the role, whilst Utkarsh Ambudkar easily gets the shortest stick as Keery’s co-worker Mouser but gets in some killer lines. Of course, as you might expect, Taika Waititi ends up stealing the show as the douchebro head game designer Antwan, elevating a fairly stock villain into a chaotic whirlwind of slimy internet culture regurgitated as a person. Sure, the more realistic head of this kind of company would be a boring CEO in a grey suit who doesn’t even like video games, but that wouldn’t be nearly as fun as watching an egomaniacal Waititi dressed like Kanye West at a sci-fi convention, would it?

Free Guy review: as entertaining — and as empty — as a AAA game - The Verge
Jodie Comer as Millie and Joe Keery as Keys in FREE GUY (2021, d. Shawn Levy)

Translating a video game into a live-action space is a tricky prospect, and Free Guy manages to be a more faithful translation made with a passion for the medium than prior Hollywood attempts like Stay Alive or Gamer. The world of Free City itself certainly captures the heightened and madness-filled world of the likes of Grand Theft Auto, makes clever use of gaming staples like hub areas, hidden out-of-bounds geometry, leftovers from prior builds, and God Mode hacking, and incorporates the world of streamers and fan communities into the story’s background in a positive way. The sets and costume design are spot on, with the player characters dressed in ridiculous custom outfits contrasting with the non-descript looks of Guy and his fellow NPCs, and the visual effects fittingly fluctuate in quality based on how unreal and game-like the situation is. Christophe Beck’s score is an appropriate mix of traditional blockbuster score and action game bombast, and there’s some wonderfully pleasing soundtrack choices for both emotional and comedic effect; you will definitely walk out with Mariah Carey’s “Fantasy” stuck in your head.

However, there are some odd inconsistencies in how the game world is presented that muddy the waters. Just for one prominent example, the game uses sunglasses to distinguish real players from NPCs, with said glasses providing players with their head-ups display (HUD). This would lead one to assume Free City is a first-person game, and this is reinforced by cutting to Guy’s POV where we see expected HUD elements (health, weapon selection, mission markers, etc). However, we most often see the game depicted in the real world through gameplay shown from a cinematic, photo mode-like perspective rather than placing the camera inside or behind the player character; I guess Free City uses some kind of revolutionary second-person camera? Yes, it’s something of a nitpick, but this and other inconsistent details do threaten to break the authenticity of a film that otherwise is a loving and faithful translation of video game tropes.

20th Century Studios Archives - ComingSoon.net
Taika Waititi as Antwan in FREE GUY (2021, d. Shawn Levy)

Free Guy may look like a glossy big-budget studio comedy, but under the hood it’s a mix of anti-capitalist catharsis and sincere humanist optimism. Rather than being just a movie about video games, it uses the medium as a backdrop to tell a story about identity, self-worth and defining life by more than wealth and fame. Despite its numerous celebrity cameos, endorsements by Twitch streamers and being distributed by a subsidiary of Disney, it is far more a takedown of the corporatisation and gluttony of video game culture than an unquestioning celebration of it, and it couldn’t be timelier in that respect. It has a similar vibrancy and wit to Phil Lord & Chris Miller’s work on 21 Jump Street or The Lego Movie, and to find it was actually made by a journeyman like Shawn Levy makes its thesis-worthy depth especially surprising; this is easily his best directorial effort yet, by the way. Whether you’re into video games or not, Free Guy is a delightfully engaging slice of summer fun that’s smarter and more prescient than it has any right to be.

FINAL VERDICT: 9/10

JUNGLE CRUISE – an Alternative Lens review

Starring: Dwayne Johnson (Rampage), Emily Blunt (Mary Poppins Returns), Edgar Ramírez (Deliver Us from Evil), Jack Whitehall (The Nutcracker and the Four Realms), Jesse Plemons (Game Night), Paul Giamatti (Sideways)

Director: Jaume Collet-Serra (The Commuter)

Writers: Michael Green (Logan) and Glenn Ficarra & John Requa (I Love You Phillip Morris)

Runtime: 2 hours 7 minutes

Release Date: 30th July (US, UK, Disney+)

Ever since Pirates of the Caribbean became a surprise hit back in 2003, Disney have tried multiple times to strike that same gold again to mostly unsatisfying results. We had The Haunted Mansion, Prince of Persia, The Lone Ranger, the National Treasure movies, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, and of course four Pirates sequels, but none ever captured that same blend of adventure, comedy and fantasy quite the same as the Gore Verbinski original. One such project that’s been in development pretty much since the success of The Curse of the Black Pearl was a film version of another classic Disney theme park ride: Jungle Cruise…which has even less to base a movie around. It was no epic plot or iconic characters or even much of a unique setting; it’s just a boat ride full of animatronics and dated references to colonialism. Then again, that lack of concrete source material has given the filmmakers much greater reign to do what they want, and the final result is a dumb fun movie that’s a lot better than it has any right to be.

Beyond the basic concept of a boat journey down a jungle river and some cute lamp-shading references early on, Jungle Cruise is completely its own thing and doesn’t feel the need to be so beholden to the ride. The story is straight out of a classic 1950s movie serial and comes with all the tropes you’d expect from the genre, but it has a more modern edge that keeps it fresh and sets it apart from obvious Indiana Jones comparisons. Along with Pirates of the Caribbean, 1999’s The Mummy is an obvious reference point for the kind of tone and spirit it’s going for, especially in how it incorporates fantasy and horror elements into the swashbuckling adventure. For the first two acts, Jungle Cruise is pretty content to paddle along and play the beats you’d expect, but it does so with such exuberance and canny wit that it’s easy to forget how cliché everything is and just have fun.

However, the story takes a firm whip around into uncharted territory with its end of second act reveal, which will either snap you right out of the movie or make you finally fall in love with it despite yourself. It is a genuinely solid twist that changes the stakes and opens up loads of new possibilities, though it unfortunately doesn’t take as much advantage of it as one might like. Unless you’re the kind of person still surprised by the idea of a female scientist, there’s no real hidden depth or themes to speak of in Jungle Cruise, but it’s so obviously not trying to be anything more than what it is: simple blockbuster fluff. It’s well-made, self-aware, and infectiously charming blockbuster fluff, and sometimes that’s exactly what you need. Its only real flaw (other than being about twenty minutes too long) is that it doesn’t take enough chances. If it really took advantage of the few unique ideas it has, it could have set it apart from its inspirations more rather than just being a solid tribute act to them.

(from left to right) Emily Blunt as Dr Lily Houghton, Dwayne Johnson as Frank Wolff, and Jack Whitehall as MacGregor Houghton in JUNGLE CRUISE (2021, d. Jaume Collet-Serra)

Hollywood at this point is basically letting Dwayne Johnson do anything and everything he wants, but I’ve never seen a role so suited to him and yet so miscast in as Frank Wolff in Jungle Cruise. Johnson excels at two, and only two, things: action and comedy. In those facets, he fits the mould of the dashing adventure serial hero so well that he’s basically a movie poster that wished they were a real boy. He’s as charming and goofy and all-around likable as ever, but this type of role also demands the hero to be a romantic and, sadly, that’s just not in Johnson’s wheelhouse. Emily Blunt is as fantastic as you’d expect her to be in this type of role, even if she is simply stepping into the shoes of Rachel Weisz from The Mummy, and whilst she and Johnson have fantastic comedic chemistry and play off each other well in the action sequences, there is nothing romantic about their relationship other than what the script says. For the longest time, it seemed like the movie was going to skip a romance subplot and it was refreshing to have a mixed-gender duo not fall in love, but then it happens and Johnson simply cannot sell himself as a romantic lead. This kind of role really calls for someone more sensuous and smooth, like Pedro Pascal or 90s-era Antonio Banderas, and Johnson doesn’t have that quality…at least not yet. If he ever does acquire it, then he’ll be truly unstoppable.

In a surprising turn of events, this is easily the least annoying Jack Whitehall has ever been in anything, managing to turn a mostly thankless comic relief character as Blunt’s brother into something a little more evolved. He’s delicate and pompous but he’s not without bravery, getting in on the action by the end and having more of a noticeable character arc than either Johnson or Blunt. As has happened often with recent Disney productions, much has been made of Whitehall’s character being openly gay and, whilst still not a fully realised representation and done in a way easily excisable for homophobic foreign markets, it’s the most tasteful queer character in a Disney movie so far. It’s not some throwaway background gag or an exaggerated caricature defined only by queerness, but a brief and touching character moment that adds much-needed depth to the role, and Whitehall plays it with restraint and even a little pathos. Jungle Cruise also features three villains of varying import, but it seems one of them didn’t get the memo on what kind of movie this is. Whilst Jesse Plemons and Paul Giamatti are absolutely hamming it up to the gods with ridiculous accents as a moustache-twirling German aristocrat and a money-grubbing Italian harbourmaster respectively, Edgar Ramírez plays it completely straight as undead conquistador Aguirre. It’s a role that demands a performance as high-energy as Geoffrey Rush’s similar antagonist in the Pirates franchise but, even with all of the ripe potential of his character’s backstory and abilities, Ramírez feels as unable to play camp as Johnson is at playing amorous. At least Aguirre’s henchmen understood the assignment and get in on the humour occasionally.

Jungle Cruise Trailer Reveals Jesse Plemons' German Villain
Jesse Plemons as Prince Joachim in JUNGLE CRUISE (2021, d. Jaume Collet-Serra)

As usual, Disney have spared no expense on Jungle Cruise and their $200 million investment has paid off with a vibrant and impeccable-looking movie…for the most part. More than even the plot and character archetypes, this movie screams adventure so much that it’s essentially a Drew Struzan painting come to life, constantly hitting the audience with saturated colours and joyously-designed iconography. Flavio Labiano’s cinematography is pure pulp, brimming with bright, streaming lighting and sweeping camera motions that captures old-fashioned filmmaking style but exaggerated to modern effect. The sets and costumes have that embellished, too-perfect quality of a theme park attraction, but they only add to the heightened reality the film is going for. James Newton Howard’s score is one of the best imitations of John Williams-style fanfare I’ve heard in ages, perfectly accentuating every scene with the right tones of whimsy and excitement, though it somewhat goes off the rails in a sequence detailing Johnson’s backstory by bringing in hard electric guitars out of nowhere. Unfortunately, the film’s major technical shortcoming is its CGI, which the film highly relies on and just isn’t up to snuff most of the time. It’s decent enough when used to create environments or anything unreal, like the various undead afflictions of Aguirre and his minions, but the CG animals are all uniformly bad-looking. This is especially pertinent as Proxima, Frank’s pet jaguar, is a major character throughout the story and, whilst her animation work is decent and she’s an endearing character, she never quite steps out of the uncanny valley.

Jungle Cruise's Paul Giamatti Wrote A Lot Of His Own Dialogue
Paul Giamatti as Nilo Nemolato in JUNGLE CRUISE (2021, d. Jaume Collet-Serra)

Jungle Cruise is a welcome throwback to the family adventure movies of the 80s and 90s, and easily the best attempt by Disney to emulate Pirates of the Caribbean‘s success yet. It understands the core appeal of its premise exactly and doubles down on being unabashedly broad, with its main shortcomings coming from trying too hard in some places and not enough in others. Kids will likely be unbothered by these issues and just go along for the ride, but there’s enough humour and camp fun here for parents to enjoy themselves too. It may be the kind of film that you enjoy more whilst watching it but lacks much impact afterwards, but sometimes that’s all you need. Not every movie needs to be a solid gold masterpiece, and Jungle Cruise knows exactly what kind of movie it is. It’s a slightly bloated and messy example of that kind of movie, but it gets away with a lot on pure charm and enthusiasm.

FINAL VERDICT: 7/10

THE SUICIDE SQUAD – an Alternative Lens review

Starring: Margot Robbie (I, Tonya), Idris Elba (Beasts of No Nation), John Cena (Bumblebee), Joel Kinnaman (RoboCop), Sylvester Stallone (Creed), Viola Davis (Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom), Jai Courtenay (Jack Reacher), Peter Capaldi (Doctor Who), David Dastmalchian (Ant-Man), Daniela Melchior (The Black Book), Michael Rooker (Slither), Alice Braga (The New Mutants), Pete Davidson (The King of Staten Island), Nathan Fillion (Serenity), Sean Gunn (The Belko Experiment), Flula Borg (Pitch Perfect 2), Mayling Ng, Storm Reid (A Wrinkle in Time), Taika Waititi (Jojo Rabbit)

Writer/Director: James Gunn (Guardians of the Galaxy)

Runtime: 2 hours 12 minutes

Release Date: 30th July (UK), 6th August (US/HBO Max)

Just to preface this as I did with my Birds of Prey review: there is no rating I regret more than giving 2016’s Suicide Squad a 7.5/10. On further viewing, it has only gotten worse with time and I would delete my old review if not to serve as a reminder never to make that same mistake again; if I were to rate it now, I’d give it a 4 or 5 at best. That said, that first attempt was not without its merits, and it seems Warner Bros felt the same, keeping what worked and revamping everything else in this sequel/reboot. Of all the directors they could pick to give the franchise the jumpstart it needed, they couldn’t have made a better (or luckier) choice than James Gunn. I mean, the first Suicide Squad suffered because the studio tried to take a brooding David Ayer movie and retrofit it into a Guardians of the Galaxy-style romp, so why not just hire the guy who made Guardians of the Galaxy? However, The Suicide Squad (that The is very important) is far more than just Gunn repeating his same tricks but for a new team and with gore. It’s a celebration of every disparate facet of the DC Universe, taking all the bonkers characters and concepts of this world and throwing them into a bloody blender of entertaining excess. You aren’t going to find a bolder, bloodier, or more utterly bonkers summer movie than this.

Whilst it generally stands on its own, The Suicide Squad is functional as a follow-up to the 2016 film and even opens in a similar fashion: a motley crew of characters introduced in prison as they assemble for a mission whilst a classic rock song plays. However, this worrying sense of déjà vu is quickly thrown on its head as Gunn subverts your expectations and reminds you that this is a Suicide Squad movie: no character is sacred, and the odds are stacked against them, so don’t get too attached. It’s a brilliant opening that gets us into the action efficiently and pushes the reset button without completely tossing everything Ayer contributed. The plot itself is simple and straightforward at first, allowing us to focus more on the disparate characters of Task Force X and their contentious relationships, but it grows in scope as the film progresses before reaching an epic finale that delivers what James Gunn does best: high-concept action combined with irreverent humour and a healthy dose of heart. The pacing is taught in all the right places, there are some wonderful references and call-backs to the DC Universe that will please diehard fans, and the tone is so wonderfully balanced that not a single emotional shift feels too jarring. The first film posited itself as a story about bad guys turned good but only paid lip service to the idea, but The Suicide Squad actually delivers on that and more. This is a story about the scum of society learning that they have value, that they don’t have to be the villains that society paints them as, and that the supposed “good guys” aren’t always so noble themselves.

(from left to right) David Dastmalchian as Abner Krill/Polka-Dot Man, John Cena as Christopher Smith/Peacemaker, Idris Elba as Robert DuBois/Bloodsport, and Daniela Melchior as Cleo Cazo/Ratcatcher 2 in THE SUICIDE SQUAD (2021, d. James Gunn)

It’s hard to talk about the cast of The Suicide Squad because not only are there a lot of characters, but how much I talk about them may give away how long they survive. Rest assured though: nobody turns in a bad performance, and they all get at least one glorious moment to shine. Margot Robbie is as captivating as always as Harley Quinn and, whilst she mostly takes a backseat to the new cast, she gets some of her best moments so far here. While never outright mentioned, the script takes into account her character development in Birds of Prey, delivering a more self-assured and capable Harley but without losing her wicked charm. Idris Elba ably takes on the straight man role as Bloodsport, grounding the film whenever it goes off the rails and reminding the audience that real people exist in this fantastical world. That said, it is still fairly obvious Elba’s part was originally written with Will Smith’s Deadshot in mind, and I wish the film did a better job of differentiating the two characters. John Cena is an absolute delight as the deluded Peacemaker, ably making use of both his physicality and comedic abilities to craft a truly unpredictable character; F9, this is how you make good use of your John Cena. The real surprise of the movie ends up being Daniela Melchior as Ratcatcher 2, taking a very obscure character and turning her into the emotional heart of the story, and the relationship she forms with Elba’s character brings home the film’s themes of redemption and hope.

There are so many great characters to talk about that I’d honestly be raving for another thousand words if I talked about them all in detail, so I’m going to have to bring up the rest in rapid succession and leave the rest for you to discover:

  • David Dastmalchian’s Polka-Dot Man is delightfully creepy and the recurring gag with his mother never stops being funny
  • Everything that comes out of King Shark’s mouth is hilarious, and the fact he has Sylvester Stallone’s voice makes it even funnier
  • Jai Courtenay as Captain Boomerang is still the best performance he’s ever given
  • Rick Flagg actually has something to do besides spout exposition this time, and Joel Kinnaman’s po-faced delivery is used for more comedic effect.
  • It wouldn’t be a James Gunn movie without Michael Rooker, and of course he’s as great as you’d expect playing Savant
  • Pete Davidson as Blackguard? Yeah, it’s exactly as ridiculous and funny as you’d expect
  • Taika Waititi’s role is barely more than a one-line cameo, but that one line made me shed a tear; it’s a really well-placed emotional moment
  • Weasel is a wonderfully revolting addition to the team, and Sean Gunn is great as both him and a certain other DC villain in a quick appearance
  • Nathan Fillion mines a lot of great gags out of such a disposable and ridiculous character as TDK
  • Peter Capaldi doesn’t get a whole lot to do as Thinker, but he has a great speech with Flagg that delivers a real gut punch
  • Viola Davis truly embodies the spirit of Amanda Waller this time around and goes to some truly despicable places; she is that character you love to hate
  • Alice Braga is a bit wasted as freedom fighter Sol Soria, and the human villains themselves are pretty generic bad guys right out of a schlocky 80s action movie, but they have their moments
  • I know the real villain is spoiled in the trailers, but just in case you’ve managed to stay dark…OMG, they really do this character justice and simply seeing them brought to life in a live-action movie is a wondrous feat in and of itself!
Mayling Ng as Mongal and Margot Robbie as Dr Harleen Quinzel/Harley Quinn in THE SUICIDE SQUAD (2021, d. James Gunn)

The first Suicide Squad had a lot of problems, but on a technical level it was an absolutely unredeemable mess; a clusterf*ck of horrendous editing, monotonous action, ugly cinematography, and a disgusting use of obvious soundtrack choices that just scream of studio meddling and trend chasing. Looking at its successor, however, the difference is night-and-day. This truly is a DC comic brought to life, smashing together bright colours and fantastical visuals with the most cartoonish violence this side of an Itchy & Scratchy episode. Special commiserations must go to costume designer Judianna Makovsky, who has translated some incredibly ridiculous outfits from the comics to the screen with nary a change and yet it simply works; the days when X-Men had to make self-deprecating jokes about yellow spandex are truly over. The action sequences make full use of its diverse characters’ unique skillsets to both bloody and comedic effect, making every encounter feel special and surprising. There are a lot of standout moments but, besides the larger-than-life climax, the best sequence is easily Harley’s escape from the clutches of a Corto Malteasean dictator; it takes what worked so wonderfully about the action in Birds of Prey, turns it up to 11, and delivers something as viscerally satisfying as that legendary hallway fight from Oldboy. John Murphy’s score is subdued but wonderfully carries the action along, and the soundtrack this time is far more tastefully curated and don’t overwhelm every scene; it’s not quite Awesome Mix-levelsof catchy tunes, but there are some nice deep cuts in there.

Idris Elba as Robert DuBois/Bloodsport and Viola Davis as Amanda Waller in THE SUICIDE SQUAD (2021, d. James Gunn)

The Suicide Squad is everything you could want from a DC movie and more, improving on every aspect of the first film and setting a new standard for the franchise going forward. There are certainly echoes of Guardians of the Galaxy within its DNA, but Gunn equally embraces his earlier, more gruesome filmography to craft what is essentially a $100 million Troma movie. After his career was so very nearly torpedoed by his hasty (and eventually retracted) firing by Disney, it’s so satisfying to see Gunn continue to succeed and have as much fun in the DC sandbox as he did in Marvel’s. The fact he’s going to able to continue playing in both sets of toys, with the upcoming Peacemaker streaming series and the long-awaited Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3, shows there is no better time to be a fan of both comic book universes.

FINAL VERDICT: 9.5/10

SPACE JAM: A NEW LEGACY – an Alternative Lens review

Starring: LeBron James (Trainwreck), Don Cheadle (Iron Man 3), Cedric Joe, Khris Davis (Atlanta), Sonequa Martin-Green (Star Trek: Discovery), Jeff Bergman (New Looney Tunes), Eric Bauza (DuckTales), Zendaya (Spider-Man: Far From Home)

Director: Malcolm D. Lee (Girls Trip)

Writers: Juel Taylor (Creed II) & John Rettenmaier (Cabarete) & Keenan Coogler & Terence Nance (Random Acts of Flyness) and Jesse Gordon (Rise of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles) and Celeste Ballard (Wrecked)

Runtime: 2 hours

Release Date: 16th July (US/HBO Max, UK)

Certain members of my generation are going to call blasphemy, but it needs to be said: Space Jam is not a good movie, and anyone saying it is unironically either haven’t seen it in years or are wearing the chunkiest nostalgia goggles in the world. I say that as a kid of the late 90s who grew up loving it, but its twenty-five years later now and I’m sorry, but the movie simply has not aged well. It’s tacky, nonsensical and nothing but a feature-length version of the shoe commercials that inspired it; a cinematic artefact of all the worst aspects of its generation. Still, it was a massive hit at the time and Warner Bros. has spent over two decades trying and failing to cash in on it. There were several aborted attempts at a successor, with pitches that teamed up the Looney Tunes with the likes of Jackie Chan, Jeff Gordon, Tiger Woods and Tony Hawk before eventually making the much-improved Looney Tunes: Back in Action…which was a box office flop that effectively ended their status as pop culture icons. But even after all that, the love for Space Jam has remained and fans continued to clamour for a true sequel. Those 90s kids have finally gotten their wish in the form of A New Legacy, and I can confidently say it is a very faithful sequel…in that it is also a tacky and nonsensical feature-length commercial.

Space Jam: A New Legacy (2021) - Rotten Tomatoes

If you start explaining the plot of Space Jam out loud, you quickly realised how utterly insane and haphazard the whole story is; it’s basically a MadLibs written by a nine-year-old on a sugar high that someone spent $80 million turning into a movie. In that respect, A New Legacy carries on the tradition with its own equally bizarre narrative but at least tries to mine some depth out of it. At its core, it’s a basic father-and-son story that you’ve seen play out in dozens of sitcoms, and the resulting tension and resolution goes exactly how you’d think with no major twists. There are hints at something deeper, like how LeBron James takes out his childhood insecurities on his family and teammates, or Bugs Bunny’s implied depression and desperation to reunite with his friends, but none of these ever really develop into anything important.

I will give the film some points for at least trying to have a coherent message and emotional sincerity compared to the original, but it’s ultimately far more concerned with cramming in as much iconography from the Warner Bros. catalogue as possible. Some of the cameos are chuckle-worthy and have some logic to what they’ve been mashed-up with, but most are just the same tired jokes and references you’ve heard a million times before, whilst others are totally random and there simply because they can be; trust me, there are some truly bonkers appearances that will make your jaw drop in confusion. A New Legacy is often a film too shameless and surreal not to be entertaining on some morbid level, but the corporatisation of the entire production always scuppers every chance it has to be harmless dumb fun.

ODEON - Space Jam 2 – LeBron James' Space Jam: A New Legacy trailer  breakdown
LeBron James as himself and Bugs Bunny (voiced by Jeff Bergman) in SPACE JAM: A NEW LEGACY (2021, d. Malcolm D. Lee)

It’s a well-worn adage that the film even remarks upon that athletes don’t tend to make good actors (and no, professional wrestlers don’t count, because they’re already essentially actors). Michael Jordan certainly didn’t break that streak in the original Space Jam, and whilst LeBron James showed promise with his debut performance in Trainwreck, A New Legacy proves that was likely just good direction and writing. James certainly doesn’t lack charisma and at least seems like he’s having a good time, but his performance often feels mechanical and simulated in much the same way athletes are in promos or adverts. On the opposite end, Don Cheadle goes full tilt as the villainous computer program Al-G Rhythm and ends up acting more like a cartoon than the actual Looney Tunes. It’s a performance lacking in any subtlety and seems almost bad on purpose, as if Cheadle signed on under the belief this was a FunnyOrDie skit and never realised his mistake. It’s a performance as incoherent and confusing as the character’s evil plan itself, which makes the first film’s “kidnap cartoon characters to be slaves at my theme park” scheme seem logical by comparison. Cedric Joe is decent by child actor standards as James’ neglected son Dom, but Sonequa Martin-Green and Khris Davis are practically afterthoughts as his wife and best friend respectively. There are a few other celebrity cameos sprinkled throughout and they end up giving some of the best performances in the movie, though none are quite as shocking and unreal as Bill Murray showing up out-of-nowhere in the fourth quarter.

One of the biggest criticisms of the original Space Jam was that it was unfaithful to a lot of the core tenants of the Looney Tunes, turning them from icons of slapstick animation into yet more pop culture-quoting mascots with bad 90s “attitude”. A New Legacy at first seems to rectify this, bringing the characters back to their roots and treating the characters with the respect they deserve. However, by the time the basketball game comes around, all that quickly goes out the window as we’re treated to the likes of Granny shouting modern slang or the Tunes engaging in a rap battle (yes, seriously, this is an extended sequence that comes out of nowhere and serves no real purpose). The voice acting is at least solid for the majority of the characters, even if it never quite matches the original vocals of Mel Blanc and company. There are again a few cameos from other cartoon characters (some who speak and other who don’t), but the only major celebrity member of the animated cast is Zendaya as the new voice of Lola Bunny. Whilst the filmmakers certainly made the right call dialling back the sexist fan-service nature of the character, it leaves Lola as something of an empty vessel with no looniness to speak of and little purpose in the plot other than to be the Tune Squad’s lone decent player besides James. Zendaya may be a delightful and talented actress, but she alone cannot turn such a nothing character into something memorable.

Space Jam: A New Legacy Reveals First Details About Don Cheadle's Villain
Cedric Joe as Dominic “Dom” James and Don Cheadle as Al-G Rhythm in SPACE JAM: A NEW LEGACY (2021, d. Malcolm D. Lee)

There is a lot about the original Space Jam that’s dated badly, but none more so than its effects. For some it was their first experience of a live-action/animation hybrid, but one only has to look at Who Framed Roger Rabbit from eight years prior to see it was subpar even at the time. Visual effects have obviously improved massively in the twenty-five years since, and A New Legacy will likely have a longer technical lifespan that its forebearer, but aesthetically it’s even more of a treacly mess. The entire film is an over-saturated, high-contrast eye sore packed to the brim with endless references to Warner Bros. IP that only makes the film look like even more of a commercial. This might have been OK if this colour grading was a way to visually differentiate between the Server-Verse and reality, but even the scenes set in the real world have the same garish palette.

It’s nice to see a solid chunk of the film is entirely 2D animated, even if the animation itself is barely a grade above TV quality, but it at least retains the energy of the original cartoons. However, the Tunes’ 3D counterparts are far less pleasing and have little of the charm of their traditional designs; they would have been far better off sticking to 2D throughout. Another iconic aspect of the original was its soundtrack packed with hits from Seal, Coolio, Salt-N-Pepa and *groan followed by facepalm* R. Kelly that still define the 90s for many. In contrast, there isn’t a single track in New Legacy that stands out within the film, and the score from Kris Bowers isn’t particularly memorable either. Scrolling through the track list and its solid collection of artists, some of the songs are decent, but none of them are intrinsically connected to scenes from the movie in the way “Fly Like an Eagle” or “Hit ‘Em High” are in the original. I mean, c’mon, not even a horrible techno-rap cover of the original Quad City DJs theme or something? At least I might remember that.

Space Jam: A New Legacy is an irritating ode to corporate synergy and  profit margins
LeBron James with Lola Bunny (voiced by Zendaya) and Daffy Duck (voiced by Eric Bauza) in SPACE JAM: A NEW LEGACY (2021, d. Malcolm D. Lee)

If Space Jam is a cringey encapsulation of 90s Hollywood excess, A New Legacy is the 2021 remix that will be looked on by future generations with similar derision. Essentially a two-hour HBO Max commercial that makes Ready Player One look like classic literature, only those with the strongest of sweet tooths will find anything flavourful or nutritious here. There are brief flashes of promise that demonstrate the filmmakers were at least attempting to tell a story, but none of it matters when every frame is just product placement. It is a film that needs to be seen to be believed, and I’d almost recommend watching it simply so others can witness its baffling glory, but otherwise there isn’t anything of value here. Now please, kids of today: don’t fall in love with this movie like my generation did with the first one and, if you do, please don’t make me watch a third one another quarter-century from now.

FINAL VERDICT: 3.5/10

ESCAPE ROOM: TOURNAMENT OF CHAMPIONS – an Alternative Lens review

Starring: Taylor Russell (Lost in Space), Logan Miller (Love, Simon), Indya Moore (Pose), Holland Roden (Teen Wolf), Thomas Cocquerel (In Like Flynn), Carlito Olivero (Step Up: High Water)

Director: Adam Robitel (Insidious: The Last Key)

Writer: Will Honley (Bloodline) and Maria Melnik (Escape Room) & Daniel Tuch and Oren Uziel (The Cloverfield Paradox)

Runtime: 1 hour 28 minutes

Release Date: 16th July (US, UK)

The original Escape Room was the textbook definition of a serviceable movie. It did nothing egregiously badly (OK, the ADR in that film was truly awful), but it didn’t do anything spectacularly well either. It was just a mildly entertaining roller coaster horror that moved from one sequence to the next, slowly stacking up the body count as each new frightening puzzle played out. It followed in much the same formula as Final Destination or Saw, and now the sequel Tournament of Champions takes another cue from those franchises by making a sequel that is essentially the exact same but bigger. In this case that sometimes means better, sometimes means worse, and sometimes doesn’t mean much at all.

Escape Room: Tournament of Champions': Official Poster Teases the New Rooms  We'll Be Entering This Summer - Bloody Disgusting

Tournament of Champions is an extremely quick and efficient movie, clocking in at under 90 minutes including both end credits and a lengthy “previously on…” prologue. There is nary a second wasted, getting into the meat and potatoes of the action much quicker thanks to expedience of now knowing the basic scenario, but like the first it has very little going on under the surface. Once again, it’s ultimately about the spectacle of the escape rooms, and this time the imagination and tension of these puzzles has certainly been improved. The film blows its wad a little early by placing its standout sequence (an electrifying dash through a high-voltage subway car) up front, but even the worst rooms here are better than most of those in the first; that upside-down bar sequence in the original still takes the cake though.

However, those expecting any kind of satisfying plot intrigue or subtextual depth aren’t going to find any here. Despite the first film’s ending promising more insight into what’s going on behind the scenes at the mysterious Minos Corporation, the sequel reveals little we didn’t already know, and what revelations it does have just raise further questions. This all leads to an ending that seems clever at first glance, but on further thought basically makes nearly the entire story redundant and leaves our characters right back where they started. The best sequels add to their previous instalment and feel like a necessary continuation of the story, but unless the third film pulls something astonishing, it seems like you could easily skip from this one to that and basically not miss a thing. That…is not a good sign.

Escape Room- Tournament Of Champions - Film and TV Now
(from left to right) Taylor Russell as Zoey Davis, Logan Miller as Ben Miller, Holland Roden as Rachel Ellis, Indya Moore as Brianna Collier, and Thomas Cocquerel as Nathan in ESCAPE ROOM: TOURNAMENT OF CHAMPIONS (2021, d. Adam Robitel)

The characters in the first Escape Room served much the same purpose as they do in any horror movie: exaggerated, easily-distinguishable personalities to be picked off at the film’s convenience until only our heroes remain. Tournament of Champions comes in with an advantage in that we already know Zoey (Russell) and Ben (Miller), but they ultimately haven’t changed much since the first and don’t really develop further here either. If there’s any kind of character introspection, it’s that Zoey is incorruptible and determined to take down Minos no matter what, which may make her more noble but there are no stakes when there’s not even a consideration she may be tempted to give in.

Ben is at least less annoying and more competent here than he was in the first film, and it’s refreshing to see a male/female duo where a romance isn’t even suggested, but he serves little purpose other than to be Zoey’s cheerleader and a sounding board to her ramblings. Some of the new characters show promise, like Holland Roden (giving strong Clea DuVall circa The Faculty vibes) as a contestant with congenital insensitivity or Indya Moore as a traumatised influencer, but the film gives them and the other victims very little to do other than shout exposition. There is only one major character reveal I won’t spoil, and at first it shows a lot of promise in developing the story world, but it leads to very little other than a way of connect this film back to the original.

ESCAPE ROOM: TOURNAMENT OF CHAMPIONS (2021) Reviews and overview - MOVIES  and MANIA
Holland Roden as Rachel Ellis in ESCAPE ROOM: TOURNAMENT OF CHAMPIONS (2021, d. Adam Robitel)

It’s a hackneyed saying but it’s true: if you liked Escape Room, you’ll probably like Tournament of Champions. On the whole it’s an improvement on the original: the scenarios are larger and more terrifying, the characters are less irritating and more rounded, and it’s simply a much breezier and more consistently entertaining ride. For most of its runtime, it comes close to getting a mild recommendation; nothing worthwhile for ardent cinephiles, but certainly the kind of fun, unchallenging movie you’d watch with a few friends over some pizza on a chill weekend. Unfortunately, it stumbles right at the last hurdle with an ending that makes the whole enterprise feel like a placeholder for the sequel the first film promised. At this point, the series needs to either invest in a compelling narrative or up the ante further to insane heights, because its engine is going to bust soon from going so fast at such a low gear.

FINAL VERDICT: 5.5/10

THE FOREVER PURGE – an Alternative Lens review

Starring: Ana de la Reguera (Army of the Dead), Tenoch Huerta (Sin nombre), Josh Lucas (Hulk), Cassidy Freeman (Longmire), Leven Rambin (Mank), Alejandro Edda (Narcos: Mexico), Will Patton (Armageddon)

Director: Everardo Gout (Days of Grace)

Writer: James DeMonaco (The Negotiator)

Runtime: 1 hour 43 minutes

Release Date: 2nd July (US), 16th July (UK)

The Purge movies are a curious franchise, in that it has lasted nearly a decade and wormed its way into the general pop vernacular of people who’ve never even seen them, and yet it’s hard to identify anyone who’d call themselves a diehard fan. The answer is easy once you understand the Blumhouse formula (basic but appealing concept + cheap as chips budget = high profits), creating a franchise that, despite the combined cost of the entire series being a third of the budget of one typical Hollywood blockbuster, has raked in hundreds of millions of dollars. Given this effective business model where even flops can easily become profitable, you’d think a new Purge film would be an easy sell even at a COVID-stricken box office. Unfortunately, The Forever Purge is perhaps a step too far for even this series, taking it in a direction that is somehow both too ridiculous and yet far too real to be enjoyed as cheap entertainment.  

The Forever Purge Gets First Official Poster

A lot of folk are immediately turned off by The Purge movies because of their grim premise, assuming they’re torture porn flicks that glorify American gun culture. On the contrary, they are actually amongst the most blatant and unsubtle films in regards to their left-wing political messaging, evoking much the same spirit as the John Carpenter films they so obviously take their inspiration from. The series hit its peak with the prequel The First Purge by using its platform to talk about African-American inequality, and with Forever Purge they’re now trying to do the same thing with the Latinx community whilst also escalating the franchise into new territory. However, the film bites off far more than it can chew and never really finds its footing.

Right from the off, it haphazardly retcons the ending of Election Year to the point of making it redundant, which will undoubtedly disappoint fans whilst leaving everyone else just a bit confused. The core premise of an extended purge seems interesting and does satisfyingly up the stakes, but it quickly robs the series of the rules and world-building that made it unique, and the story never bothers to cogently explain how or why this new never-ending massacre came to fruition. The political allegories in the prior films were never refined, but now the subtext is the supertext and its far too trite to buy even in a schlocky way. It’s far too forced and over-the-top to leave any real impact, and in light of the January 6th assault on the Capitol Building, this sort of imagery is perhaps in too poor taste for even a cheap B-movie. Sure, it may have been filmed back in 2019 and perhaps shows how prescient these movies can be, but it leaves the movie feeling less like escapism and more like scaremongering.

The Forever Purge lands mixed reviews
(from left to right) Tenoch Huerta as Juan, Ana de la Reguera as Adela, and Alejandro Edda as T.T. in THE FOREVER PURGE (2021, d. Everardo Gout)

The characters in the Purge movies have never been its highlight; the closest thing they’ve even had to a mascot was Frank Grillo’s Leo Barnes, and he was basically just an off-brand version of The Punisher. That said, whilst the heroes of The Forever Purge certainly aren’t the worst this series has had to offer, they are far from their best. Ana de la Reguera is easily the standout as Adela, balancing that fine line between charismatic and tough well as she did in Army of the Dead, but she constantly feels side-lined despite it seeming like she should be our protagonist. Much of the screen time is instead given to the tumultuous relationship between farmhand Juan (Huerta) and his boss’ son Dylan (Lucas), but it’s obvious before the carnage even starts how that subplot is going to play out.

This isn’t helped by Juan as a character being dull and uncharismatic, and beyond one decent one-liner Tenoch Huerta does little to elevate him (if the rumours that he’s been cast as Namor the Sub-Mariner prove true, call me trepidatious). Josh Lucas is fine if somewhat uninvested, Zahn McClarnon adds a little class as a Native American activist, and Will Patton makes the most of his role as Dylan’s father Caleb (especially a “f*ck you” monologue he gives to some Purgers), but that’s about it. All the rest of the characters are forgettable tag-alongs or OTT Purgers with the same psychotic ticks and tells you’d expect. I mean, one of them literally has a giant swastika tattooed on his cheek; how much more unsubtle can a movie get?

The Forever Purge' review: The fifth movie in the 'Purge' series trips over  its horror roots | CNN
Josh Lucas as Dylan Tucker in THE FOREVER PURGE (2021, d. Everardo Gout)

There’s not much else to say. It’s another Purge movie but on a slightly bigger scale, though it is impressive how much spectacle they’ve managed to pack in on a limited budget. There are moments in The Forever Purge when the city is under siege and our heroes are trying to wade through the carnage that evoked what I’d love to see in a Resident Evil movie (here’s looking at you, Welcome to Raccoon City), but that’s all this movie can really do: remind me of other things, including the other better movies in this series. It’s certainly not the worst installment because it at least takes full advantage of its premise (I think this is one of the few examples where the first film in a series is by far the worst), but it’s likely going to be the most forgettable; even as I write this review, the film itself is quickly dissipating from my memory banks. In a summer packed with both action and horror of all shapes and sizes, there are plenty of other films to recommend instead, and I’m sure Jason Blum will find some way to declare this film a success and greenlight another one anyway.

FINAL VERDICT: 5/10