This time of year, lower profile movies have a tendency to come and go before I ever get the chance to see them in the theater and it bums me out. So yesterday I put aside all healthy plans and enjoyed a triple feature of PG-13 action films. I had a lot of fun. It turns out I would not rather be fishing.
Pompeii was never going to set the world on fire. We knew as soon as we saw the first trailer that this was going to be a film with two halves, both bullshit. Good and bad doesn't enter into it. Pompeii needs only worry about being fun or boring.
For the most part, Pompeii comes out on top of this dichotomy. The film's two-part structure is kind of a blessing as the lame perfunctory stuff you dread, while still largely meaningless and dumb, goes by in fast-forward to make time for the big volcano action at the end. The truly awful love story anchoring the film's lack of emotion isn't something we have to suffer long, and even then it never quite hits boring thanks to the near-constant presence of Kiefer Sutherland's seething villain, who not only forgoes an accent completely but also has the wherewithal to supply the film with a surprising and uncalled for Jurassic Park reference.
Pompeii's main point of charm comes from the typical bromance which brews between fellow gladiators Kit Harington and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje. While all the man-to-man fights look sponsored by ADHD, the gladiator stuff in general works pretty well. It's always easy to get behind noble slaves who mean to disrupt the evil status quo of the sniveling Roman Empire. As with the love story, Paul W.S. Anderson has to tell this story in double time, but thanks to all the great violence involved it at least remains mostly interesting and comes to a satisfying climax early in the film.
Against all expectations, Kit Harington actually comes across as cool. Simply by closing his mouth, he manages to trade in John Snow's boring naivety for knowing steeliness, and it works. This is a character who says almost nothing and feels more like a placeholder for audience expectations than anything, but his casting does not represent the massive misstep it seemed in the trailers.
As for the volcano portion of the film, Anderson doesn't reach Roland Emmerich-level destruction porn, but he does an okay job making the deaths of thousands look enjoyable. The volcano's destructive power manifests mostly through fireballs, structural damage, and one big-ass tidal wave, though. Lava doesn't exactly flow through the streets or anything goofy like that.
Pompeii basically adds up to the same amount of nothing its trailers indicated, but for a Sunday afternoon at the movies, I had a good enough time with it. I recommend watching the film with horse meatball spaghetti and a no-label table red wine.
(Four Out of Eight Thumbs Upward)
Non-Stop is one of those movies where the plot only advances thanks to the main character's stupidity and unwillingness to communicate with other characters. Not that much of Non-Stop falls under the banner of "believable," but even in a massively fictional setting, Liam Neeson's airplane thriller goes pretty far out of its way to remain complicated throughout. At times it almost feels like Neeson's character wants to be misunderstood and distrusted. I certainly had more fun watching this movie through that false assumption than I probably would have otherwise.
If you can handle that kind of frustration, Non-Stop delivers a pretty solid thriller. Its appeal is two-fold. One, we have to figure out who's responsible for fucking with Liam Neeson's plane. And two, Liam Neeson has to clear his name as the highjacking is also one giant frame. The mystery is strong enough to cover the fact that Liam Neeson doesn't actually gain any heroic autonomy until super late in the film. He spends most of the running time two steps behind his enemy, chasing theories that either don't pan out or end up helping the villain. It's tense and fun, but it also means Non-Stop won't have much rewatch value. If that matters. I'm not sure it does.
The funny thing about these PG-13 Liam Neeson actions films is how little action they have. Non-Stop has a couple fights, but it's mostly just Neeson running around barking orders. This guy's reputation as an ass-kicker feels increasingly like something we all agreed upon without evidence. Then again, there's a bit in Non-Stop where Liam Neeson's thumb becomes a deadly weapon, so. I guess I'm torn. What I really want is for him to make an all-out action spectacle like Stallone did with Rambo. Even Old-Neeson's greatest presentation of badassery, The Grey, is more psychological than actually action-packed.
These movies are kind of for old people. I saw it in a theater full of them. They fucking loved it. When loss of gravity allows Neeson to catch his gun mid-air, a moment that was in all the trailers, they clapped. When it was over, everyone asked each other if they liked it. They all said yes. Then they all asked each other if they accurately predicted who the bad guy was. They all said yes. I don't think they were being honest, though.
(Seven Out of Fourteen Thumbs Upward)
3 Days to Kill
Of the three films I saw yesterday, 3 Days to Kill is easily the most troubled, the only one that feels like a misfire. And yet, it might be my favorite. While it definitely misses its mark - I'm not sure it even had a mark identified - it still has the most going on, the best main character, the best action, and the closest proximity to real emotion.
3 Days to Kill is actually three different films. While I assume many will buy a ticket expecting a grizzled Kevin Costner kicking ass all over the place, the primary story is kind of a My Father the Hero where the dad happens to kick ass all over the place. You're not exactly getting what you paid for, but you do get something of value. Costner, like Liam Neeson, can do a lot of things simultaneously. We've seen him be an earnest father before, but that doesn't mean he's not good at it.
Basically, Costner is a CIA assassin who gets terminal cancer of the everything and wants to reconnect with his estranged family before he croaks. Then Amber Heard shows up looking like a fourteen year old cosplaying as a Lady Gaga video. If Costner will kill a bunch of guys for her, she will cure his cancer.
So he tries to be both badass and dad at the same time, and we get two movies as a result. The third movie barges in any time Amber Heard appears and we suddenly shift into goofy comedy mode. You can feel the rest of the movie almost resent these scenes for unnecessarily demoting the whole package. Amber Heard just can't sell this character and everything around her suffers as a result. You feel especially embarrassed for Costner.
3 Days to Kill also suffers from a weird tonal problem as it bounces back and forth between remarkably harsh violence and a surprisingly silly comedy streak. There's no reconciling the two modes at all, so you kind of just have to accept the severity or goofiness of the film on a scene by scene basis.
But you do get to see Costner kick a lot of ass. I guess the emotional stuff with his daughter must work because the most satisfying scene of the film arrives not when he shoots terrorists but when he beats the shit out of a group of ravers who want to rape her. He even carries her out like she's Whitney Houston.
(Ten Out of Twenty Thumbs Upward)