DAY SHIFT (2022) – Horror/Action/Comedy at Its Worst

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The mindless action/comedy tour continues, and with DAY SHIFT (2022), you can throw horror into the mix.

In recent weeks, I’ve been writing about the plethora of mindless action comedies at the movies these days, films filled with clever rapid-fire banter between main characters but with stories so ridiculous and over-the-top that they possess no semblance of truth and are about as interesting as watching someone else play a video game. Yawn. These movies have become absolutely wearisome, but since they continue to make money, they aren’t going away anytime soon.

They run the gamut from generally entertaining and fairly well-written, like BULLET TRAIN (2022), to not-so-well written and too-ridiculous-to-be-believed-and-enjoyed, like THE GRAY MAN (2022), to the horribly dreadful and uber boring because not only is the action mindless but the characters as well, like UNCHARTED (2022).

DAY SHIFT, a new horror/action/comedy which premiered this weekend on Netflix, falls into the latter category. It’s pretty bad.

The movie opens with swimming pool cleaner Bud Jablonski (Jamie Foxx) entering a home and immediately being attacked by an old lady who in reality is…. a deadly vampire! We learn everything we need to know about the rest of this movie in this opening action sequence. It goes on for a while, the stunts and action are impeccably polished, and it’s generally entertaining for an opening scene of an action movie, and when it’s done, Bud wins, and he makes a wisecrack.

And that’s what DAY SHIFT is all about. See, Bud’s not really a pool cleaner. He’s a vampire hunter! And in this movie, Los Angeles is crawling with vampires, and so Bud is plenty busy! The gimmick here is that Bud’s ex-wife Jocelyn (Meagan Good) has threatened to move to Florida with their young daughter Paige (Zion Broadnax) because they can no longer afford her private school which costs $5,000, or her need for braces, which will cost $6,000, so in order to keep his family in L.A. with him, he has to come up with $11,000 real fast! So, he has to get extra aggressive with the vampire hunter gig. However, this plot point is a head-scratcher. Moving to Florida isn’t going to remove Paige’s need for braces or the expense that goes with it, and private schools in Florida are just as expensive as private schools in California, so Bud, if he took two minutes to think about things, should have realized he has other options for keeping his daughter with him in California. But that would suggest some intelligence here, which is something that the script lacks.

Bud is paired up with the dorky Seth (Dave Franco) who has been tasked with making sure that Bud follows all the rules of the vampire hunting company, something that Seth isn’t interested in doing because he likes his desk job and isn’t interested in working in the field. And the main villain here, a female vampire named Audrey (Karla Souza) is intent on two things, populating the city with vampires, and exacting revenge on Bud since the old lady he killed in the film’s opening was her daughter. Don’t ask. The explanation doesn’t make sense. So, eventually Audrey goes after Jocelyn and Paige, and it’s up to daddy Bud to save the day.

As stories go, this one is very lame.

DAY SHIFT reminded me somewhat of another Netflix action/horror/comedy movie, ARMY OF THE DEAD (2021), only in that movie, which was directed by Zach Snyder and starred Dave Bautista, the good guys were battling zombies, not vampires. This similarity comes as no surprise as screenwriter Shay Hatten wrote both movies. Here, Hatten shares screenwriting credit with Tyler Tice.

It’s a pretty ineffective screenplay. The dialogue and banter is neither funny or clever, and there’s nary a laugh to be found. There is one amusing conversation between Bud and Seth about the TWILIGHT series, but that’s about it. It tries to be clever and creative with the vampires, as Seth offers an explanation into the different types of vampires, but the movie never makes an effort to make this part of the film’s lore, and so it’s quickly forgotten. The characters are shallow, and the plot forgettable. Vampire Audrey has the upper hand once she captures Bud’s ex-wife and daughter, and the only reason she doesn’t succeed is she went to the Dr. Evil School of Villainy and talks about all her plans but never acts on them. It’s pretty stupid. And finally, the story embraces one of the worst plot contrivances in the movies, where after the dust settles, mommy realizes that her ex-husband and daddy of their child really isn’t so bad after all since he’s a vampire hunter hero, and they decide to get back together. Gag! That simply is not how people act. This plot point is almost as bad as the “it was just a dream” shtick.

DAY SHIFT was directed by stunt man J.J. Perry, and the result is what you would expect. The action sequences are really well done and slick, and they are the best part of the movie, but that’s pretty much all DAY SHIFT has to offer. The horror and comedy are pretty nonexistent.

Jamie Foxx is pretty much hit or miss with me. Sometimes I enjoy his work, and other times I don’t. I really enjoyed him in DJANGO UNCHAINED (2012) and RAY (2004), but he did little for me in another recent Netlix actioner PROJECT POWER (2020), and he was rather ineffective in BABY DRIVER (2017). Here, he’s okay, but it’s a terribly written role.

But he fares much better than co-star Dave Franco who plays one of the most embarrassingly pathetic characters I’ve seen in a movie in years. Seth is a disaster. Let’s put it this way: the running gag in the movie is that every time Seth gets scared, he pees himself, and so after each action scene, we get to see Seth humiliate himself, and the other characters plus Seth himself make jokes about it. I can’t believe Franco would even play this role. It’s so bad. And then once you think he’s been put out of his misery, after he is turned into a vampire, and Bud beheads him, it turns out he can put his head back on to survive and become a “good” vampire.

Your guess is as good as mine.

One of the best performances in the movie belongs to Natasha Liu Bordizzo in a small role as Bud’s neighbor who also turns out to be a “good” vampire, and late in the film, she helps Bud and Seth. She’s fun to watch, and she makes for a better action hero than either Bud or Seth. We just saw Bordizzo play a very different character in the thriller THE VOYEURS (2021).

Also making an impact in a small role is Eric Lange, who plays a shady character who buys goods from Bud. It’s the kind of role Lange is good at, having played a similar shady type in the TV series NARCOS (2016-2017). He was also memorable in a dark role in the effective horror movie ANTEBELLUM (2020).

But Karla Souza is ineffective as the one-note vampire villain Audrey. She holds all the cards, yet she loses in pathetically stupid fashion.

Rapper Snoop Dogg is on hand as experienced vampire hunter Big John Elliott, but he, like everyone else in this movie, is let down by the script. He has nary a memorable line.

DAY SHIFT is not only the most recent example of the action/horror/comedy movie trope that is already passe and cliche, it’s also one of the worst examples.

If I were you, I’d request the night shift instead.

—END—

BULLET TRAIN (2022) – Stylized Action Sequences and Silly Banter the New Norm in Hollywood

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Stylized action and banter.

That’s the new normal in Hollywood action movies these days. Sure, it worked for Marvel’s AVENGERS movies, and actually for most of their movies pre-AVENGERS: ENDGAME (2019), but for that level of success you need both nifty writing and characters you care about, which is not as easy as it sounds.

BULLET TRAIN (2022), a new action/comedy/thriller— why not throw in musical while we’re at it? — directed by David Leitch, the man who directed FAST & FURIOUS PRESENTS: HOBBS AND SHAW (2019) and DEADPOOL 2 (2018), and starring Brad Pitt, is the high concept story of several assassins all on the same bullet train roaring through Japan, all interested in the same gray briefcase. Before I go any further, I have to give a shout out to Peter Bogdanovich’s classic comedy of yesteryear and one of my all-time favorites, WHAT’S UP DOC? (1972), one of the most underrated comedic films ever made, which featured Barbra Streisand and Ryan O’Neal and used a similar plot point, but in that film, it was a bunch of cases that all looked the same. That was a funny movie. BULLET TRAIN has its moments, but it also has to split time between being a comedy and a thriller and an action movie. Maybe it should have just picked one and focused on that!

BULLET TRAIN reminded me a lot of a movie we just saw a couple weeks ago, THE GRAY MAN (2022) which starred Ryan Gosling and Chris Evans. Same formula, action and banter, similar results. BULLET TRAIN has a couple of things going for it which makes it preferable to THE GRAY MAN. One, its action scenes aren’t as ridiculously over the top (although some come close), and two, it has Brad Pitt, who creates a character in this movie who is more fleshed out and enjoyable than either character played by Gosling or Evans in THE GRAY MAN.

Pitt plays an assassin whose codename is Ladybug, and as the movie opens, he’s in Japan enjoying some rest and relaxation, working on getting his head and mood together, so when he agrees to return to action and take another job, he’s feeling rested and terrific, even if he feels he’s always plagued by bad luck, which is a running gag throughout the movie. The job he receives from his handler (voiced by Sandra Bullock) is described as very simple: just board a bullet train, locate a gray briefcase, and take it off the train.

But the job is anything but simple because there are a bunch of other assassins on board, and they also want the briefcase. And that’s the plot folks, as pretty much the entire 126-minute running time is spent with assassins vying for the same case on a speeding train. I half expected Bugs Bunny, the Road Runner, and Wile E Coyote and friends to show up.

As I said, BULLET TRAIN was directed by David Leitch, and it plays like any number of movies he’s made already, although it reminded me the most of his HOBBS AND SHAW vehicle, which was more silly than fun, and I felt similarly about BULLET TRAIN. Leitch also directed ATOMIC BLONDE (2017) which was not a comedy and featured some of the best action fight scenes in a movie in a long time, and so that’s probably my favorite Leitch film.

BULLET TRAIN looks great with its colorful cinematography, and you can’t go wrong with its polished stylish action sequences. You just aren’t going to believe many of them, because they come off as cartoonish. Pitt’s Ladybug is like Bugs Bunny. Bombs explode and he walks away without a scratch. Always.

Zak Olkewicz wrote the amiable screenplay based on the book by Kotaro Isaka, and it’s filled with nonstop banter, so if you like that sort of thing, you’ll have fun here. It works for me up to a point. It’s certainly better than the dialogue in another action/comedy hit (which I did not like at all) from earlier this year, UNCHARTED (2022), a ridiculous movie that featured Tom Holland and Mark Wahlberg exchanging barbs while travelling the world in search of treasure. Audiences ate this one up, though. I found it dumb and redundant.

Here, Brad Pitt is very funny as Ladybug, the assassin who can’t stop thinking and philosophizing on life. His character and his performance are the best parts of the movie. His laid-back attitude is the perfect foil for the high-octane action sequences. From his genuine disappointment upon being attacked— you stabbed me? Really?— to one point where he’s speaking to a woman during a fight sequence and catches himself, saying I’m mansplaining.

Pitt is very good, and the script does its best job with his character, but it’s not enough. The biggest knock against BULLET TRAIN is I’m just getting tired of this kind of movie. After a while, the action and banter get boring. Even with a whole host of assassins on board.

The two best, besides Pitt, are Tangerine (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Lemon (Brian Tyree Henry), “twins” who work together but who share nothing in common other than the fact that they treat each other like brothers. Tangerine is a proper speaking Englishman, while Lemon bases his entire life on the Thomas the Tank Engine children’s stories. Their banter is also funny, but as is the case with Pitt, they are simply not enough to carry this movie.

This is probably the most fun role I’ve seen Aaron Taylor-Johnson play since way back when he was much younger playing the lead in KICK-ASS (2010), and the most satisfying role I’ve seen him play since SAVAGES (2012). Bryan Tyree Henry is equally as good, and it’s probably the best performance I’ve seen him give. Henry has also appeared in GODZILLA VS. KONG (2021), JOKER (2019) and HOTEL ARTEMIS (2018) to name just a few.

Joey King as Prince was probably my least favorite character in the movie. She’s a young woman pretending to be a victim when in reality she’s a major villain. In spite of the duality of the part, it’s pretty much a one-note character and performance on King’s part.

The Japanese characters pretty much play it straight. Andrew Koji as Kimura and Hiroyuki Sanada as The Elder are serious throughout, and as such, kinda seem out of place because the rest of the movie takes nothing seriously.

Michael Shannon shows up late in the game and briefly as The White Death, but it’s both way too late and too short for him to make much of an impact. And when we finally see Sandra Bullock, she looks like she’s either been heavily airbrushed to look younger or they used CGI on her. She just doesn’t look natural. For such a brief appearance, it was weird.

BULLET TRAIN doesn’t really know what kind of a movie it’s supposed to be, yet it feels comfortable in this role, because that’s kind of a new genre today. Make a movie that’s equal parts action, comedy, and thriller, with lots of good-natured banter, and the audience will go home happy. In other words, show lots of stylized violence and bloody deaths, but if the main characters remain cool and make jokes about it, and survive, it’s all okay.

Sort of.

At times, BULLET TRAIN with its R rating seemed to be aiming for a Quentin Tarantino vibe, but it’s vastly inferior to Tarantino’s work. First, Tarantino isn’t above showing the gruesome realities of violence. His characters are still funny and still banter, but his worlds are less cartoonish and safe. Also, the editing here, especially early on, seemed off. It took me a while to really settle in with BULLET TRAIN, as its jumping-around early scenes were more jarring than introductory.

BULLET TRAIN had a lot of moments that I liked, and it featured performances by Brad Pitt, Aaron Taylor-Johnson, and Brian Tyree Henry that I really enjoyed, but at the end of the day it simply wasn’t enough because it’s part of a new “genre” of films that likes to link action and comedy, and through amiable clever banter give the illusion that death and destruction is safe and harmless.

A la Bugs Bunny and the Road Runner.

Don’t get me wrong. I love Bugs Bunny and the Road Runner. But they’re cartoons. And movies should be more than cartoons. I’m not arguing that you can’t make “safe” action comedies. You can.

But you can also make less safe action comedies that are even funnier and work better because the audience is on edge and feeling less safe.

BULLET TRAIN, in spite of its high body count, remains a safe passage for its audience for the entirety of its ride, even with its R rating.

Fans of nervous laughter might want to ride a different train.

—END—

RED NOTICE (2021) – Silly Action Comedy Wastes Talents of Dwayne Johnson, Ryan Reynolds, and Gal Gadot

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How can an action comedy starring Dwayne Johnson, Ryan Reynolds, and Gal Gadot possibly be bad?

Read on.

RED NOTICE (2021), a new action comedy now available on Netflix, has no business not being an absolute crowd-pleaser. Yet it’s not.

FBI agent John Hartley (Dwayne Johnson) is hot on the trail of the world’s most notorious art thief Nolan Booth (Ryan Reynolds). It doesn’t take long for Hartley to capture Booth, but soon afterwards, he finds himself framed for a crime, which gets him sent off to prison. Not only does he find himself in the same prison as Booth, but in the same cell! Now, how’s that for a realistic plot point? Truth be told, this film is played for laughs, and its story is filled with twists and turns, so ultimately this ridiculous turn of events does make sense in terms of the story, but like the rest of this movie, it’s so farfetched it just comes off as plain old dumb. Anyway, Hartley and Booth realize there’s a more dangerous player at large who is pulling all the strings, someone known as The Bishop (Gal Gadot), and so they decide to team up, escape from prison, and capture the Bishop so Hartley can clear his name and Booth can return to being the number one art thief.

This actually would be fun if the script were any good.

Yup, as usually is the case with films that struggle, it’s the script that sinks things. In this case, RED NOTICE was written and directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber, and he fares much better as a director than as a writer.

RED NOTICE is polished and contains a lot of neat action scenes, the best coming early on, the chase scene where Hartley pursues Booth and eventually captures him. This sequence is fast, furious, and fun. No complaints here. But as soon as characters start speaking and plot points roll, everyone and everything in this movie suffers from a case of the stupids.

It’s all supposed to be funny. Every five minutes or so it seems there’s a new plot twist, where this character now is teamed with that character, blah, blah, blah. But none of it works because no care is made to make it at all believable. For instance, even Hartley’s and Booth’s escape from prison is ludicrous. It happens only because it’s a plot point. In fact, everything these guys do works. There’s no conflict, push back, or anything indicating that this is anything more than a bad movie plot.

Plus these two guys do not like each other, and yet we’re supposed to believe they do? There’s a ridiculous torture scene where to get Booth to talk they torture Hartley. Booth says it’s a waste of time because he doesn’t care about Hartley, which is true, and yet he breaks down and speaks anyway. Forced and contrived, and stupid.

RED NOTICE is rated PG-13. It may as well have been rated G. It’s as sanitary and safe as you’re going to find an “action” movie. There’s some language, sure, but in terms of anything that resembles hard hitting action or risky humor? Nope.

Rawson Marshall Thurber also wrote and directed another Dwayne Johnson vehicle, the mediocre thriller SKYSCRAPER (2018) that also suffered from a lack of realism. That being said, I enjoyed SKYSCRAPER more than I did RED NOTICE.

Ryan Reynolds probably fares the best here as art thief Nolan Booth. He’s about the only character who made me laugh. However, he has about a gazillion gags in this movie and only about a quarter of them work, so there are a lot of misfires. And don’t expect Deadpool humor. This film is far too tame for that.

Dwayne Johnson pretty much plays the straight man to Reynolds’ antics. I usually really enjoy Dwayne Johnson. He possesses a very likeable screen persona. But here in RED NOTICE, I found him uncharacteristically dull and boring. Mostly because his character like the rest of this movie comes off as phony.

Gal Gadot doesn’t fare any better than Johnson. Her character, The Bishop, may be sexy, but she’s about as interesting as a bishop on a chess board. She does get one enjoyable fight sequence with Johnson and Reynolds, but again, without any relevance.

Ritu Arya plays Interpol agent Inspector Urvashi Das, and she’s about the only character in the movie who comes off as real. Unfortunately, all she gets to do throughout the movie is show up too late, allowing the three leads in this one to escape, time and time again.

And can you ask for a more lame title than RED NOTICE? How about RED NAPKIN? RED PAPER CLIP? RED TOOTHPICK? Actually those titles might be better. Truth be told, there is a reason for the title. Red Notice refers to Interpol’s highest level arrest warrant. So, there you have it. The reason for the lame title. It’s still a bad title.

I really wanted to enjoy RED NOTICE. When I sat down to watch it, I was in the mood for a clever action comedy starring three of my favorite actors, Dwayne Johnson, Ryan Reynolds, and Gal Gadot. And while they were in the movie, what was missing was the clever part. There’s really nothing intelligent about this one at all.

RED NOTICE plays more like dead notice, as in dead on arrival. Three talented actors, some slick action scenes, and a story that could have been fun are all wasted in a tale that spends no time whatsoever trying to make any of what happens on screen believable or plausible.

—END—

JOLT (2021) – Kate Beckinsale Action Flick An Exhilarating Thrill Ride

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Kate Beckinsale kicking ass in a high voltage action movie. What’s not to like?

Actually, there could be a lot not to like. I am not a fan of Beckinsale’s UNDERWORLD vampire action series, as I find those movies poorly written and terribly boring. That being said, today’s movie, JOLT (2021), a new action flick now available on Prime Video, is actually a lot of fun.

In JOLT, Lindy (Kate Beckinsale) suffers from an unusual condition in which she cannot control her anger and as a result kicks the living sh*t out of anyone who makes her angry. If this were a Marvel superhero movie she’d be turning green and shouting “Smash!” In fact, she and the Hulk would be perfect for each other. JOLT is also marketed as a comedy, and while you won’t be laughing throughout, there are some laugh out loud moments here and there, but more importantly, the humor serves as a reminder that this film certainly does not take itself too seriously. So, Lindy’s condition is treated lightly. This is not a movie about angst.

Lindy finally finds some relief when her psychiatrist Dr. Munchin (Stanley Tucci) provides her with an experimental exoskeleton of electrodes that zap her with jolts of electricity which help manage her temper. Dr. Munchin also advises that she get out more and go on some dates. She takes his advice and meets Justin (Jai Courtney) who immediately sweeps her off her feet. She feels so good that she declares to Dr. Munchin that she’s now cured! But her joy is short-lived when Justin is murdered the next night. Her new hopes shattered, Lindy makes it her mission to find out who killed Justin and when she does to make them pay. She needs to stay one step ahead of the two investigating police detectives, Detective Vicars (Bobby Cannavale) and Detective Nevin (Laverne Cox), and her quest for justice doesn’t get any easier when she learns that Justin was involved with some very powerful and very dangerous people. Of course.

The worst thing that can be said about JOLT is its plot is threadbare. Lindy and all her talents are stuck in a plot in which she’s investigating the murder of a guy she dated twice. That’s as intricate as it gets, folks. And the plot twist at the end I saw coming a mile away.

But the rest of the screenplay by Scott Wascha is very good. The dialogue is fun and witty, and the characters fleshed out pretty darn well for a fast paced action movie. Of course it helps that JOLT is blessed with an impressive cast.

Leading the way is Kate Beckinsale. She makes for a believable action hero even in a film where believability isn’t always key. Just as the movie doesn’t take itself too seriously, there’s a lot of playfulness in Beckinsale’s performance even as she is taking out the deadly bad guys in some pretty violent scenes. She’s in most of the movie, and she easily carries this one.

Stanley Tucci, who is always a joy to watch, is really good in his scenes as Dr. Munchin, and he and Beckinsale share a fun chemistry. Every time she bursts into his office, he pulls a handgun from his desk drawer to protect himself. And when she fights to control her anger over things he’s saying, she imagines herself killing him, and when she returns to the here and now, Munchin calmly asks her how she killed him this time. Asphyxiation? And she tells him no, punctured artery. And he nods and the session continues.

Bobby Cannavale is excellent as Detective Vicars. He is instantly attracted to Lindy, and he goes out of his way to help her. Cannavale and Beckinsale also share a strong chemistry. The characters and their relationships really come to life in this movie, which for an action flick, surprised me.

I also enjoyed Laverne Cox as Detective Nevin. Unlike her partner, Nevin doesn’t trust Lindy at all and makes it her mission to single-handedly capture the woman, and their spirited confrontations make for some of the livelier comedic scenes in the film.

Jai Courtney is charming as Justin, the boyfriend who meets an untimely death, and the film boasts a couple of notable villains as well. Ori Pfeffer plays Delacroix, a cool henchman and enforcer who Lindy tangles with on more than one occasion, and their final confrontation is a good one. And David Bradley makes for an icy cold deadly recluse Gareth Fizel, the villain who is pulling all the strings.

Even Susan Sarandon shows up as a mysterious woman with no name.

But the best part of JOLT, even better than the stellar cast, is the direction by director Tanya Wexler. JOLT is full of impressive and exciting action scenes, and even more so, thrilling chase scenes. JOLT features some of the more exhilarating chase scenes I’ve seen in a long time. The camerawork in these scenes is amazing. While the hand to hand fight scenes aren’t quite as impressive as similar scenes in ATOMIC BLONDE (2017) or EXTRACTION (2020), they come close.

The chase scene in which Detective Nevin pursues Lindy through a hospital is phenomenal, and the car chase sequence where Lindy steals Nevin’s car and is pursued by Nevin and Vicars is even more exciting.

Wexler also directed BUFFALOED (2019), a dark quirky film I really enjoyed, but I think I liked JOLT even more. There’s just so much spirited energy in JOLT. Other than its ho hum standard plot, JOLT as a comedic action flick really soars.

With Kate Beckinsale leading the way, JOLT is an enjoyable thrill ride that will give you quite the charge.

—END—

SPENSER CONFIDENTIAL (2020) – Comedic Misfire From Start To Finish

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Sometimes I find myself asking why I watched a certain movie in the first place.

In the case of SPENSER CONFIDENTIAL (2020), a Netflix original movie which premiered earlier this year, it’s based on the series of Spenser novels by Robert B. Parker, or at least the characters are anyway, and it also stars Mark Wahlberg in the lead as Spenser. Now, Wahblerg has his detractors, mostly based on things he’s done in his personal life, but as an actor, he’s kinda been a guilty pleasure for me. The main reason, besides the fact that he can be a very good actor at times, is he simply reminds me of Boston, and having lived there for a large chunk of my life, that’s a good thing. He kind of embodies that whole Boston feel. I watch Wahlberg on screen and I picture myself sitting in the Fenway Park bleachers eating a Fenway Frank and drinking watery beer.

There was also a very good TV show featuring the character back in the 80s, SPENSER: FOR HIRE (1985-1988) which starred Robert Urich and Avery Brooks.

SPENSER CONFIDENTIAL was released back in March, but I kept away from it as word of mouth on it was not very kind. But anyway, for the reasons listed above, I couldn’t keep away forever and finally decided to check it out.

I should have listened to all the naysayers.

When SPENSER CONFIDENTIAL opens, Spenser (Mark Wahlberg), a Boston cop, is going to prison for assaulting his dirty cop police captain. After several years in prison, Spenser is released and moves in with his former boxing coach Henry (Alan Arkin) where he meets his new roommate Hawk (Winston Duke) who is a promising young fighter. On the day Spenser is released, the police captain he assaulted is murdered, and another officer, one who Spenser also knows and believes to be an honest man, is found dead from a self-inflicted gun shot wound, with evidence surrounding him implicating him of the police captain’s murder.

Spenser believes this good cop has been framed, and he sets out to solve the case, with his new roommate Hawk helping out when he can.

As plots go, the one for SPENSER CONFIDENTIAL is pretty bad. It’s another of those “all the cops are dirty” storylines, and Spenser sets out to expose them all. Nothing that happens in story is fresh or unexpected.

But the worst part of this one is that SPENSER CONFIDENTIAL tries to be a comedy, and unfortunately, the comedy here just doesn’t work. I found myself hardly laughing at all. The humor is a misfire from start to finish. Early on, for example, in prison, Spenser is surrounded by group of hulking inmates intent on teaching him a lesson. Instead, Spenser turns the tables on them as he goes all Jason Bourne and wipes them all out. It’s a fight scene played for laughs, but it doesn’t really work.

The whole mix of brutal acts by the bad guys and goofy shenanigans of Spenser and company never gels. It’s like watching a dark Martin Scorsese crime film only to have the Three Stooges show up. Actually, this sounds better than anything seen in SPENSER CONFIDENTIAL.

The biggest culprit is the humor just isn’t sharp. It is basically comprised of fight scenes that only go one way, in favor of Spenser and four letter expletives by Spenser as he calls out whatever thing he doesn’t like. The situations really aren’t humorous, and the script isn’t funny either. The screenplay was written by Sean O’Keefe and Brian Helgeland, and Helgeland has a ton of credits, including 42 (2013), MYSTIC RIVER (2003), and L.A. CONFIDENTIAL (1997), all fine films, but not comedic ones.

At times, Mark Wahlberg is a really good actor. I’ve enjoyed his performances in such movies as PATRIOTS DAY (2016), THE FIGHTER (2010), and THE DEPARTED (2006). But he’s made a lot of films that I haven’t liked either, films like the TED movies, CONTRABAND (2012), and THE HAPPENING (2008). I can’t say I enjoyed his performance here as Spenser. He’s just sort of playing a variation of his screen persona, and it’s nothing we haven’t seen him do before.

Alan Arkin plays his usual persona as well, and you can see much finer and more comedic Arkin moments on the TV show THE KOMINSKY METHOD (2018-present), in which he co-stars with Michael Douglas.

Winston Duke, who has starred BLACK PANTHER (2018) and US (2019) is amiable as Hawk, but the Hawk in the novels was quite the different character,

Fans of the Robert B. Parker novels will no doubt be disappointed with this movie, since the characters here are quite different and don’t really resemble the ones from the novels.

Even Iliza Shlesinger’s over the top performance as Spenser’s in-your-face Southie girlfriend Cissy doesn’t really work here.

Everything about the humor in this movie is a misfire.

It also suffers from what I call the “Bugs Bunny syndrome.” Everything Spenser does works, and everything the bad guys do fails. Spenser solves the case and saves the day without breaking a sweat. There’s barely any conflict.

Director Peter Berg, who has directed Wahberg in five movies now, doesn’t really capture the Boston flavor with this one. He did a better job capturing the feel of the city in PATRIOTS DAY. I felt like this story could have happened anywhere.

Ultimately, SPENSER CONFIDENTIAL plays like a weak comedy action buddy movie, tailored for the onscreen persona of Mark Wahlberg, and it is simply nowhere near as good as some of Wahlberg’s better movies. It’s also a horrible introduction to the Spenser character. If you want that, read the novels or watch the 1980s TV show.

I won’t be keeping this one in my Netflix queue.

—END—

THE LOVEBIRDS (2020) – Romantic Comedy Offers Some Light Diversion

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the lovebirds

Movie comedies are in a major slump.

Think about it. When was the last time you saw a new movie that made you laugh so hard you couldn’t stop? There haven’t been all that many recently. Which is too bad, because we can always use a good laugh, especially in the here and now.

I wish I could say today’s movie, THE LOVEBIRDS (2020), bucked that trend and had me laughing throughout, but that’s not the case. That being said, this silly romantic comedy about a couple who seconds after deciding to break up become involved in a murder that sends them fleeing from the police and searching for the real killer has its moments, and as such, is for the most part a pleasant diversion from current real world woes.

THE LOVEBIRDS opens with the first date between Jibran (Kumail Nanjiani) and Leilani (Issa Rae) and then leaps forward several years in time to the point where these two lovebirds are on the brink of breaking up. In fact, while in their car on their way to a party they do break up, and at that very moment, they strike a bicyclist with their vehicle. When they run out to see if the man is okay, he gets back on his bike and pedals away in a panic.

Stunned and shocked, they attempt to process what just happened, but they barely have time to do this when a man (Paul Sparks) arrives on the scene claiming to be a police officer. He commandeers their car with them inside and tells them the man on the bike is a dangerous criminal. They give chase, and when they finally catch up to the bicyclist the “police officer” who’s behind the wheel runs him down, and then runs him over several more times until he’s very dead. As he gets out of the car to check on the body, Jibran tells Leilani, “I don’t think he’s a cop.”

What follows is a comedic tale in which Jibran and Leilani work hard to elude both the police and the man, who they refer to as Moustache, as they attempt to find out why Moustache wanted to kill the bicyclist. If they find out why and can prove it, they can go to the police with a real story rather than the flimsy one they have now, with little or no reason why they fled a crime scene other than they were afraid.

THE LOVEBIRDS is a mixed bag. The two leads, Issa Rae and Kumail Nanjiani, do work well together, and by far, the funniest parts of the movie are their interactions with each other. The screenplay by Brendan Gall and Aaron Abrams gets this part right. In fact, the opening date sequence had me both laughing out loud and really enjoying these two characters as they got to know each other and fell in love. And this part of the movie remains consistent throughout. Rae and Nanjiani are both funny and enjoyable to watch from beginning to end.

The problem is the rest of the movie isn’t as strong. The plot never becomes as zany or as madcap as it needs to be. Most of the predicaments Leilani and Jibran find themselves in either fall flat or never push the envelope as far as they should. For example, in one scene, as they are held prisoner, they are given a choice, either hot bacon grease to the face or the unknown threat behind the door. Jibran chooses the door, and finds himself facing the back end of a horse. He actually says what the audience is fearing and expecting, but what happens is anticlimactic. This happens throughout the movie.

I almost wish this one had been a straight romantic comedy without the silly crime plot because Rae and Nanjiani really do work well together. In this case, they have to because they pretty much are the entire movie. Which is another problem with THE LOVEBIRDS. Movies like this really need some quirky supporting characters to keep the comedy moving, but this film doesn’t have any.

The only other memorable character is Moustache, and Paul Sparks plays it straight. He’s simply a menacing bad guy, but he’s not in the movie enough to have an impact. Moustache is also not developed at all. That being said, Paul Sparks does a nice job with what little he has to work with, which is no surprise, because he’s a really good actor. He’s been memorable on the TV show HOUSE OF CARDS (2015-18) and as a rather nasty critic James Gordon Bennett in THE GREATEST SHOWMAN (2017).

Issa Rae is excellent as Leilani, as is Kumail Nanjiani as Jibran, and they really do succeed in making these characters seem like a real couple. They’re funny throughout, and even when the situations they find themselves in simply aren’t as comical as expected, they still manage to garner a chuckle with a one-liner here and there. My favorite Kumail Nanjiani movie remains THE BIG SICK (2017). THE LOVEBIRDS is on par with his silly buddy comedy STUBER (2019) in which he co-starred with Dave Bautista.

There’s a conversation in a restaurant between Leilani and Jibran after they have fled the scene of the crime in which they discuss their options. and they agree they can’t go to the police since they are both nonwhite and fear the police would shoot first and ask questions later. This conversation reminded me of a similar moment in the dark drama QUEEN AND SLIM (2019), a movie about a black couple who flee a crime scene and go on to become an unintentional “black Bonnie and Clyde.” While its heart was in the right place, a lot of QUEEN AND SLIM simply didn’t work as well as it should have. Here, THE LOVEBIRDS attempts to be a lighthearted version of the same predicament, although race relations and police brutality, while a central theme in QUEEN AND SLIM, is barely mentioned here, although it is the reason the two main characters fear going to the police.

Two very different movies, two very similar scenes, and one very present and timely theme.

THE LOVEBIRDS was directed by Michael Showalter, who also directed Kumail Nanjiani in the far superior THE BIG SICK. In THE LOVEBIRDS, Showalter succeeds in bringing the two main characters to life. You will really route for Leilani and Jibran to survive their ordeal and get back together by the movie’s end. But he stumbles somewhat with the rest of the story. The predicaments are never as nutty or as energetic as they could be, and supporting characters who could add to the absurdity are nowhere to be found.

THE LOVEBIRDS works much better as a romantic comedy than an action comedy, because the relationship beween Leilani and Jibran is sincere throughout, while the action sequences are simply not very silly.

THE LOVEBIRDS is good for some light diversion, and it’s generally a fun experience, as long as you’re not looking to laugh your butt off for 90 minutes. Yep, at last check, my butt is still there.

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FAST AND FURIOUS PRESENTS: HOBBS & SHAW (2019) – Amiable Action Comedy Fast and— Fluffy.

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In the interest of full disclosure, I have never seen a FAST AND FURIOUS movie.

Until now, that is.

Way back when the first THE FAST AND THE FURIOUS (2001) came out I just wasn’t that interested, but then they kept coming, and word of mouth and critical reviews said they were getting better and better. But still I resisted, mostly because I hadn’t seen the previous films, but I’m guessing at some point I’ll sit down and eventually start watching these.

Anyway, after eight FAST AND FURIOUS movies, here comes the series’ first “spinoff,” FAST AND FURIOUS PRESENTS: HOBBS & SHAW, a tale featuring characters who appeared in prior movies but who weren’t part of the main core of the cast. I mainly wanted to check this one out because I like the three principal leads, Dwayne Johnson, Jason Statham, and Idris Elba. My expectations were low, but I figured, it might be fun to watch some mindless action scenes featuring these generally entertaining actors.

And I was right.  The action and the dialogue is all very fast, though not so furious. A more apt title for this one would be fast and funny, because really, from beginning to end, this one is played for laughs. I didn’t take any of it seriously, and that was okay.

The plot involves a deadly virus that could wipe out the population of the world, just like that! Yikes!  A former spy (Vanessa Kirby) steals the virus, and a super-charged baddie named Brixton (Idris Elba) will stop at nothing to steal it back. Good guy Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) is charged with saving the day, and he’s paired with former villain turned hero Shaw (Jason Statham) because the former spy who stole the virus happens to be Shaw’s sister.

Trouble is, Hobbs and Shaw hate each other and refuse to work together, but work together they do, which sets the stage for plenty of banter and one-upmanship throughout.

If you like Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham, you’ll enjoy this movie because the two actors are likable throughout and do share a fun chemistry together.  Their banter while not hilarious is certainly comical and amusing. There’s a good-natured amiable vibe all through the movie, even though its plot is about a potentially catastrophic virus, and that’s because the film is about as believable as a wrestling match.

Director David Leitch fills this one with exciting action scenes and chases, especially one near the end involving a helicopter and a bunch of cars. Again, fun, but not believable, which for me, pretty much kept this one from being anything special. Technically, it looks great, but it’s all fluff. Leitch also directed DEADPOOL 2 (2018). Speaking of which, Ryan Reynolds is also in the cast, and he gets to ham it up in a couple of scenes. These bits are okay but not overly funny.

The screenplay by Chris Morgan and Drew Pearce has fun with its Hobbs and Shaw banter but that’s about it. Morgan has written a bunch of other FAST AND FURIOUS movies, and Pearce wrote HOTEL ARTEMIS (2018) which I enjoyed a lot.

While Dwayne Johnson and Jason Statham don’t disappoint, Idris Elba doesn’t fare as well. Elba doesn’t get a whole lot of screen time, and his villain in spite of his superpower enhancements is pretty one-dimensional. Elba deserves better.

Vanessa Kirby is very good as Shaw’s sister Hattie, a kick-ass character who can hold her own against the likes of Hobbs and Shaw, although she’s clearly a secondary character here, unfortunately.

As I said, Ryan Reynolds shows up for a couple of scenes, as do Kevin Hart and Helen Mirren. None of these folks make much of an impact.

I liked HOBBS & SHAW well enough, but it’s all fluff, and other than its agreeable leads and well-choreographed action sequences, there’s not a whole lot going on. I’m a story guy, and this one’s story is pretty sparse, which for me, kept this one from being anything special.

It’s not riveting, there’s no edge of your seat excitement, and there’s no intrigue. Instead, there’s playful banter and sanitized action sequences that are mostly played for laughs.

Fast, yes. Furious, not so much.

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SHAFT (2019) – Samuel L. Jackson Dominates, Richard Roundtree Returns, But Film Flounders

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Samuel L. Jackson is a hoot as Harlem private investigator John Shaft in the new action comedy SHAFT (2019), but the film as a whole is less so, mostly because it lacks the necessary grittiness a film bearing the name Shaft requires.

And now a brief history lesson on John Shaft. The character of Harlem police detective John Shaft was played by Richard Roundtree and first appeared in the movie SHAFT (1971) which was such a hit it was followed by two sequels and a TV series, all starring Roundtree. The series was rebooted in 2000 with Samuel L. Jackson playing New York City detective John Shaft, the nephew of the original Shaft played by Richard Roundtree, in a movie called—SHAFT (2000). How original.

And now comes the latest Shaft movie, called—- you got it!— SHAFT (2019). Gotta love the creativity behind these titles. This one focuses on the son of Samuel L. Jackson’s John Shaft, named— of course— John Shaft Jr.

And why have two John Shafts in one movie when you can have three? And so before this one is over, Richard Roundtree shows up as the original John Shaft, only now he’s no longer Samuel L. Jackson’s John Shaft’s uncle, but his father. Everybody still with me?

All kidding aside, Richard Roundtree’s return as John Shaft is one of the highlights of this movie, which, in spite of the fact that its script doesn’t succeed entirely, I enjoyed quite a bit.

In SHAFT (2019), John Shaft Jr. (Jessie T. Usher) works as an FBI data analyst, and when his best friend turns up dead, supposedly from a drug overdose, Shaft Jr. has his doubts. He thinks his friend has been murdered, and he decides to find out the truth behind his friend’s death. When he realizes he’s in over his head, he turns to his estranged father John Shaft (Samuel L. Jackson) for help, who’s only too happy to help his son, not only because it gives him a chance to finally spend time with a son he hasn’t seen since he was baby, but also because the case connects to a person he’s been trying to put away for a long time.

The plot in SHAFT is secondary. It’s really only an excuse to allow Samuel L. Jackson the chance to chew up the scenery, which he does with great mother f****ing enthusiasm. This is one of the problems with the movie. Not only is its plot secondary, it’s also pretty bad. It tries hard to be contemporary, with a story about terrorism that touches upon racially profiling Muslims, but it’s all very superficial and none of it comes off as real or relevant. Had it taken these subjects more seriously, the film would have been better for it.

The villains are pretty nonexistent. It’s basically Samuel L. Jackson strutting his stuff out talking and out shooting every little bad guy that gets in his way, but there isn’t a main villain to speak of. Sure, there are those at the top who are responsible for pulling the strings here, but we never see them in action.

SHAFT works whenever Samuel L. Jackson is onscreen, and he’s in this one a lot, which is a good thing. The screenplay by Kenya Barris and Alex Barnow gives Jackson plenty of opportunity to spew expletives at bad guys and comment on his sensitive son’s 2019 ways. And while Jackson is hilarious, the way he talks about women in this movie often referring to them by their sex organs is rather jarring here in 2019. Had this film taken place in the 1970s the language would have worked better. Ditto on his use of the “n” word, which his son asks him to stop using, but he doesn’t.

Jesse T. Usher doesn’t fare as well as John Jr. I never warmed to the character, mostly because Usher seemed to be unable to distance himself from Jackson’s shadow. His best scene is when he displays some dance/fight moves on the dance floor when he takes on a thug at a party, but other than this he plays second fiddle throughout. If this series were to continue, I can’t imagine a film built around Usher and John Jr.

The two women actors fare better. Regina Hall plays John Shaft’s estranged wife Maya, and she enjoys some lively scenes. Better yet is Alexandra Shipp as John Jr.’s friend Sasha. Shipp stood out in all her scenes, and I actually thought she held her own with Samuel L. Jackson better than Usher did. I almost wished this one had been about Shaft’s daughter, and that she had been played by Shipp.

Shipp just appeared as Storm in DARK PHOENIX (2019), a role she reprised from the previous X-MEN movie. And while she’s very good as Storm, she has a larger role here in SHAFT and gets to show off more acting chops.

As I said, one of the highlights of SHAFT is the return of Richard Roundtree as the original Shaft, and he’s on hand for the film’s action-packed finale. He’s not really in this one until the end, but his appearance is well worth the wait. Interestingly enough, even though he’s playing Samuel L. Jackson’s father, in real life he’s only six years older than Jackson.

SHAFT was directed by Tim Story, who a while ago directed the underwhelming FANTASTIC FOUR (2005). SHAFT is not underwhelming, and you can thank Samuel L. Jackson for that. He provides all the energy and oomph in this one. Story, on the other hand, adds very little, as his direction is often punchless.

SHAFT takes place in 2019, and there’s something about seeing Shaft operate in the here and now rather than the 1970s which seems out-of-place. The movie never really owns 2019. It tries, as there are plenty of references to modern-day technology, as Shaft Jr. criticizes his father for ignoring the internet and all its resources when working on his cases, and Shaft Sr. criticizes his son’s generation for texting each other rather than talking. But the film never really captures what it’s like in the here and now. And that’s because Shaft Sr. acts exactly the way he’d act in the past. The film does not really address difficulties the character might face here in 2019.

SHAFT also isn’t much of an action movie. None of the action scenes impress. The film is also a victim of its own trailers, which showed most of the funnier bits in the movie. I really wish trailers would stop doing that.

The screenplay doesn’t help, as a lot of the dialogue is pretty bad. Plus it’s one of those movies where characters make deductions in the blink of an eye. Shaft Jr. and Sasha deduce that their friend has been murdered by looking at one set of lab results, and just like that, it’s murder! Sure, it’s a comedy, but it would have worked better as a realistic comedy, at least where the plot was concerned. I didn’t mind the unrealistic elements of Samuel L. Jackson’s Shaft character one bit.

The main reason to see SHAFT is Samuel L. Jackson’s expletive filled over-the-top performance, and the return of Richard Roundtree to the series. If you can sit through a nonexistent plot, a mediocre Shaft Jr., and some unimaginative direction, you most likely will enjoy this one, because Jackson and Roundtree are the real deal, and at the very least will command your attention and make you laugh.

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THE HITMAN’S BODYGUARD (2017) – Simple-Minded Movie Has No Business Being This Funny

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THE HITMAN’S BODYGUARD (2017),  a new action comedy starring Ryan Reynolds and Samuel L. Jackson, reminded me a lot of the buddy comedies from the 1980s.  You know the ones I’m talking about.  Films that paired the likes of Eddie Murphy and Nick Nolte, Mel Gibson and Danny Glover, and even James Belushi and Arnold Schwarzenegger.

It’s slick, violent, and hopelessly forced and stupid, yet that didn’t stop me from laughing.

A lot.

I had no business liking this movie as much as I did.

Michael Bryce (Ryan Reynolds) is one of the most sought-after bodyguards on the planet, but that all changes in the opening sequence in the movie when his client is shot dead by an unseen assassin in front of Michael’s eyes.  Two years later Michael is down on his luck, unable to restore his reputation as one of the world’s best bodyguards.  However, that’s about to change.

A deadly Russian official Vladislav Dukhovich (Gary Oldman) is on trial, and the key witness is hitman Darius Kincaid (Samuel L. Jackson).  While en route to the international court, the motorcade transporting Kincaid is ambushed by one of Vlad’s hit squads, and while there is lots of death and destruction, Kincaid and the young woman in charge of his security detail, Amelia Roussel (Elodie Yung) escape.

Amelia suspects someone on the inside is working for Vlad, and so she turns to an outsider for help, and that would be Michael, who just happens to be her ex-boyfriend. It’s Michael’s big chance to redeem himself, to get Kincaid to court on time, as the judge has given the lawyers until 5:00 to produce their star witness.  All they have to do is survive the efforts of Vlad’s seemingly infinite supply of henchmen and assassins.

And, oh yeah, Michael and Kincaid have a past, and they hate each other.  But they put aside their differences to work together, even bonding to the point where they give each other relationship advice.

As I said, this one’s a throwback to the 80s buddy movies, where it’s all about action, swearing, and silly comedy.  The only thing missing is the obligatory nude scene. Other than this, it’s all there: guns, explosions, car chases, heroes who can’t miss and villains who can’t shoot straight.

THE HITMAN’S BODYGUARD tells as stupid a story as they come, yet it somehow works. It’s that rare example of a story that really isn’t believable, and yet the comedy works and works well.  I can’t deny that I laughed quite a bit during this movie, more than I expected to, and as a result, I liked the whole movie more than I expected, as well.

For starters, director Patrick Hughes does a nice job at the helm.  Hughes directed THE EXPENDABLES 3 (2014), which was probably my least favorite film of that Sylvester Stallone action series, a series that for the most part I’ve liked a lot.  I enjoyed THE HITMAN’S BODYGUARD more than THE EXPENDABLES 3, and one of the reasons I enjoyed it so much was in addition to the comedy, the film also does not skimp on the action.

There are some fun car chases, and one fight scene in particular between Michael and a Russian hitman that is almost as good as the memorable fight sequence in ATOMIC BLONDE (2017) from several weeks back.  While the story itself is not very believable, the action scenes are.

Ryan Reynolds and Samuel L. Jackson also share decent chemistry here.  Reynolds plays the straight man to Jackson’s over-the-top unstoppable hitman, and while I prefer Reynolds as the raunchy foul-mouthed superhero Deadpool, he’s still very good here as the bodyguard who knows he’s still the best.

While I’ve always enjoyed Samuel L. Jackson, for me, his performances are often hit or miss.  His performance here as hitman Darius Kincaid is more of a hit.  I certainly enjoyed him more here than in the last couple of films I saw him in.  His role earlier this year as military man Preston Packard in KONG: SKULL ISLAND (2017) never rose above the cliché, and in last year’s THE LEGEND OF TARZAN (2016) his sympathetic George Washington Williams, while being one of the more enjoyable characters in an otherwise flat movie, was simply okay and far too reserved to make much of an impact.

Here as Darius Kincaid, Jackson lets loose.  He seems to be having an awfully good time, and he’s terribly funny.  Sure, most of the humor stems from Jackson hurling F-bombs, but that doesn’t make it any less hilarious, and Jackson is so good at capturing this type of persona.

Gary Oldman can play villains in his sleep, and his performance here as Vladislav Dukhovich is nothing we haven’t seen him do before, but like Jackson, he’s so good at it. Any film that has Oldman in the cast is going to benefit from his performance, and HITMAN’S BODYGUARD is no exception.

Elodie Yung, who played Electra in Season 2 of the Netflix TV show DAREDEVIL (2016) and who is currently reprising the role in the new Netflix Marvel show THE DEFENDERS (2017) is decent here as security agent Amelia Roussel.  She’s completely removed from the comedy and appears only in the straight action scenes in this one, and as a result she’s not in the best parts of the movie.

On the other hand, Salma Hayek has a field day as Darius’ imprisoned wife Sonia.  While all her scenes take place in her prison cell, she, like Jackson, lets loose and lets the F-bombs fly, in a funny spirited performance, a far cry from her reserved dramatic performance in BEATRIZ AT DINNER (2017) earlier this year.

The cast is excellent, and this is a good thing since the screenplay by Tom O’Connor is about as sharp as a butter knife.  The story is farfetched and simple, the characters cliché, and the humor driven by four letter words.  Yet, in this case, it somehow all works.  Again, I laughed a lot during this movie.

But the main reason for the success behind THE HITMAN’S BODYGUARD is the presence of stars Ryan Reynolds and Samuel L. Jackson.  I’m not the biggest Ryan Reynolds fan, as other than DEADPOOL (2016) I haven’t really enjoyed his movies all that much.  But he strikes the right balance here between likable guy and down on his luck bodyguard, and he makes Michael someone the audience can easily root for.

Paired with Samuel L. Jackson’s over the top larger than life unstoppable Darius Kincaid, the two actors chew up the scenery and keep things entertaining throughout.

THE HITMAN’S BODYGUARD is a movie where the sum of its parts is better than the whole, and that’s a good thing because in this case the “whole” is pretty lame-brained.

The “parts” however, are a hoot.

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