THE OLD GUARD

Cert 15 Stars 2

Charlize Theron’s latest action thriller is a wannabe franchise starter but instead of being an extravagant exercise in gleeful mayhem promised by the outlandish concept, it delivers a curiously flat experience in a painfully pedestrian manner.

With centuries old immortal warriors battling their way across time, this could easily have been a storming feast of inventive comic book violence, like 1988’s Highlander updated for the 21st century.

Highlander is a big bag of swashbuckling nonsense and one of my favourite films, however where it featured a contest to the death for the ultimate prize, here they’re a sword-carrying band of do-gooding undercover mercenaries, a bit like TV’s the At-Team, but without the knowing sense of escapist fun.

Wanting to anchor the story firmly in the real world the script includes kidnapped African schoolgirls, Afghanistan action, and an exploitative pharmaceutical corporation.

But it takes itself far too seriously and is played with the earnest and weary tone of an existential drama as characters struggle to cope with the pain of never-ending life.

Worse the adequately-staged action is formulaic and nowhere near as thrilling as Theron’s blistering fights in 2017’s thriller Atomic Blonde. Here she’s the leader of the soldiers teaching the newly immortalised KiKi Layne how to survive as an outsider in a world which fears you.

As for Theron’s team, Matthias Schoenaerts is even more morose than usual, while Marwan Kenzari and Luca Marinelli are sympathetic but forgettable, and collectively they’re far from a bundle of laughs. But as the villain is tragically underpowered, they’ve little reason to raise their game.

The most interesting character is Chiwetel Ejiofor’s former CIA agent who commissions Theron’s team to stage a daring rescue, and terrific as the British actor can be, even he struggles with the misjudged tone, which is a criminal waste of talent as he’s more than capable of delivering the outrageous performance necessary to carry the material.

PAYBACK

Cert 15 Stars 2

West Midlands-born kick boxing champ turned actor Scott Adkins brings a Jason Statham-esque swagger and action skills to this low rent sequel to 2018’s brash action crime thriller The Debt Collector.

He makes a bickering double act with Louis Mandylor as they go to Las Vegas to see a criminal casino owner who owes money to their boss. Meanwhile, a notorious drug kingpin is after them to avenge his brother’s death.

British writer and director Jesse V. Johnson keeps everything simple and direct with a blood, bullets and banter approach, and while nothing’s very original I was never bored.

7500

Cert 15 Stars 3

Tense, brisk effective and brisk, this airplane action thriller is grounded in the best sense by great central performance Joseph Gordon-Levitt.

He stars as Tobias, an American co-pilot on a Berlin-Paris flight who’s caught in a life and death struggle to save the lives of his passengers and crew after terrorists try to seize control of the plane.

Having found fame as a teen star of TV series 3rd Rock From The Sun, Gordon-Levitt graduated to blockbusters such as Looper, Inception, and The Dark Knight Rises.

However this is far from an action man role but a portrait of an ordinary and mild-mannered man driven by extremes to desperate measures.

Tobias is confused and slow to respond to events and finds himself locked in the cockpit with an injured co-pilot and an unconscious terrorist, while his flight attendant girlfriend is at the mercy of the hijackers who threaten to murder their captives if Tobias doesn’t open the cockpit door.

Being a non-German speaker temporarily flummoxes the aggressors, and Tobias’s behaviour is desperate and painful as the balance of power switches back and forth.

Omid Memar is uncertain and scared as the youngest of the attackers, while Aylin Tezel is made to suffer as Tobias’s girlfriend.

It’s confidently directed by Patrick Vollrath in his feature-length film debut, who squeezes us into the claustrophobic cockpit and makes us question how would we act as Tobias does in the same circumstances.

He doesn’t keep us waiting for the drama to begin, maintains a strong tone and makes the close quarter violence shocking and realistically brief and nasty.

The sound design adds hugely to the fraught atmosphere, combining the warm hum of the instruments, heavy breathing of the injured co-pilot and the hammering of the terrorists on the cockpit door, while the calm voice of air traffic control contrasts with the onboard screams of panic and fraught shouted conversations. Book your seat now.

DA 5 BLOODS

Cert 15 Stars 5

Director Spike Lee is in typically incendiary form with this timely, technically superb, important and violent drama which explores the legacy of the Vietnam war and is in parts a history lesson, political statement and a call to arms.

Set in the present day and soundtracked by Marvin Gaye’s protest songs, it’s also a determinedly mainstream entertainment and we follow four African American army veterans who’ve returned to Vietnam in search of the remains of their squad leader Norman, and a secret stash of buried treasure.

Norm Lewis, Clarke Peters, Isiah Whitlock Jr. and Delroy Lindo are a tremendous ensemble of talent with a convincing camaraderie as ‘Da Bloods’, with the latter in particular on Oscar-worthy form, with the strong character development of the first half providing emotional firepower to every bullet spent in the blood-soaked second half.

In flashback Chadwick ‘Black Panther’ Boseman appears as Norman, while Jean Reno has fun as an arrogant Frenchman representing European colonisation, corruption and exploitation.

On a creative roll after his Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar for 2018’s undercover cop thriller BlacKkKlansman, Lee knows better than to exhaust his audience, so he uses his experience and ability to time each of his dramatic punches so they land with the greatest possible impact.

Though Lee playfully riffs on the Vietnam War classic Apocalypse Now, the biggest storytelling touchstone is 1948’s Oscar-winning tale of greed and madness, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, in which Humphrey Bogart starred as a desperate American adventurer abroad.

It’s fascinating to see the two films relating to each other across generations and geography in terms of style, tone and intent, and by directly referencing that classic Lee is asserting his undoubtedly deserved right to stand in the pantheon of great filmmakers.

I wish I’d been able to experience this on the big screen, though it’s no less a masterpiece on the small.

BLOODSHOT

Cert 12 Stars 2

Based on a character from Valiant Comics this derivative revenge sci-fi action thriller was intended to kickstart a franchise, but the film’s disastrous box office performance underscores the it’s star Vin Diesel is only a bums on seats draw when in his Fast and Furious franchise or in his xXx films.

Diesel bullies his way through a lacklustre plot as a Marine who was killed in action and reborn with enhanced powers by a powerful organisation intending to use him as a weapon. Toby Kebbell, Talulah Riley and Guy Pearce do their best in this anaemic shoot-em-up.

EXTRACTION

Cert 18 Stars 3

Thor star Chris Hemsworth uses his considerable bulk to batter his way through this blood-soaked and bullet-riddled action thriller which is terrific when it barrels along all guns blazing, but a little unsteady on its feet when it stops to pause for breath.

Forgoing his over-abundant charm and gift for comedy in favour of a no-holds barred intensity, Hemsworth plays a world weary mercenary called Tyler whose latest mission is to extract the teenage son of an Indian drug lord from the clutches of a rival drug baron in Dhaka, the densely populated capital of Bangladesh.

Tyler is fast on his feet and with his fists for a big man, he always brings a gun and grenades to a knife fight and he’s also pretty handy with a blade.

But as Tyler’s mission begins to transform into a repentance for a lifetime of killing and his failings as a father.

Extraction is produced by Joe and Anthony Russo, who wrote and directed Marvel blockbuster Avengers: Endgame, and is directed by their stunt coordinator Sam Hargrave.

He brings inventive flair and highly polished technical skill to the exhaustingly brutal and extraordinarily well-executed scenes of multiple slaughter.

Immersive and fluent camera work puts you in the heat of the brutal action, and there’s room for the script to reflect on cyclical nature of violence and how the sins of the fathers are visited upon their sons.

At its best it rivals Keanu Reeves’ John Wick films for relentless carnage, but lacks its unique otherworldly sense of time and place.

Plus the dialogue and plotting is functional at best, and I hope Hemsworth isn’t getting paid by the word.

Iranian actress Golshifteh Farahani is underused as a rare female character but still manages to impose herself on proceedings, and if there’s a sequel then it would be great to see her take centre stage.

 

COLOR OUT OF SPACE

Cert 15 Stars 4

This inventive, bloody and disgusting cosmic horror is a trippy rainbow of the gory and the grotesque, a nightmare of techno-fear, eco-occult, alien infection and bodily torment.

Based on a short story by famed horror writer H.P. Lovecraft, it stays true to his spirit ,when a meteor lands in the garden of the isolated woodland Alpaca farm, and unleashes a dark power resulting in violence and death.

Elliot Knight plays a fresh faced hydrologist surveying a lake for development when he encounters a teenage girl attempting witchcraft who introduces him to her family.

Lavinia’s mother is a stockbroker, her elder brother is a dope fiend, the younger one talks to imaginary friends, and her dad is played by the Nic Cage.

A long time favourite actor of mine, Cage brings his unorthodox delivery and unique sensibility to the role as he switchbacks between ineffectual father and demented conduit of chaos, and seems at times on a separate astral plane to everyone else.

There’s humour and humanity amid the increasingly weirdness, and will appeal to fans of John Carpenter’s The Thing, and David Cronenberg’s The Fly

The 3 minute video top 10 box office countdown

THE INVISIBLE MAN (2020)

Cert 15 Stars 4

A 21st century makeover is given to H.G. Wells’ 19th century classic story in this slick, scary and daftly entertaining slice of Friday night popcorn horror which delivers gas-lighting from beyond the grave.

Originally planned as a big budget star vehicle for Johnny Depp as part of Universal Pictures blockbuster Horror-verse films, it’s been reconfigured as a low budget project for the #MeToo generation by Blumhouse Productions, who along with trusted writer and director Leigh Whannell, previously made The Conjuring horror franchise.

The story is given fresh impetus by being told from the victims point of view, as well as tech-billionaires, online stalking, and computer hacking.

Star of TV’s Madmen, Elizabeth Moss anchors the action with a wonderfully twitchy performance as Cecilia, the survivor of an abusive relationship. But after her ex is found dead, a campaign of terror by an unseen assailant makes people doubt her sanity.

Old school special effects mix effectively with modern CGI, plus there are cheeky nods to the iconic film version of 1933 and Schwarzenegger’s Terminator 2. See if you can spot them.

The 3 minute video top 10 box office countdown

UNDERWATER

Cert 15 Stars 3

Kristen Stewart is in deep water and under enormous pressure in this claustrophobic survival sci-fi horror which left me gasping for air.

The Twilight star is typically terrific as an engineer seven miles down in an ocean bed oil drilling station, which suffers mysterious tremors leading to a catastrophic collapse and leaving most of the crew dead.

Vincent Cassel’s noble captain attempts to lead his five remaining crew on a desperate bid for safety across the sea floor to a sister platform and its precious escape pods, but as morale and oxygen run low, they face even more monstrous terrors.

Refreshingly the script is angled more towards a conspiracy theory than an eco-message, and the faint residue of philosophical musings are washed away by a welter of crowd-pleasing blockbuster thrills.

Uncharitably described by a co-star as a ‘flat-chested elfin creature’, Stewart anchors the action with a gutsy physical performance, the latest left turn in a career marked by its impressive range and constant evolution.

END OF WATCH

Stars 3

The writer of the Oscar winning smash hit Training Day, returns with another gritty police thriller set in South Central LA, but with a Denzel Washington-shaped hole where the charisma should be.

Writer and director David Ayer, shot entirely on location in fidgety, semi-documentary, police-cam video style, creating a loud and tense gun and drug movie where the highest ambition police officers have is to survive their shift and have their timesheet signed off, End Of Watch.

Jake Gyllenhaal and Mike Zavala Michael Pena are patrol car partners who come across a safe house belonging to a Mexican cartel who immediately put a price on their heads for disrupting their lucrative drugs trade.

The cops aren’t the brightest guns on the street but they are mostly honest and unquestioningly brave. Patrolling is a series of verbal abuse, brutal fist fights and vicious gun battles, and even the music is aggressive.

Off duty, Anna Kendrick and Natalie Martinez provide strong acting support as their wives, with America Ferrera and Frank Grillo as their fellow officers.

Watching this film is like being trapped for two hours in a small steel cage with a pair of uniformed, squabbling, slurping, chattering caffeinated kids, before being released on a regular basis to be shot at by angry Uzi abusing gangsters.

Ayer doesn’t wholly commit to his handheld format which reduces its authenticity, and the last two scenes are unnecessary and lessen the films impact.

Despite this the two officers hold your sympathy and attention because although they’re not as interesting or entertaining as the film believes they are, even the most basic police work involves being screamed and shot at.

Their wives are the only lightness in their lives and in the movie and are a sweet and sassy counterpoint to the constant aggravation the men experience on duty.

This is a portrait of a city in a state of siege, and the only advice the script can offer is to wear comfortable shoes and a bulletproof vest.