Monday, 3 August 2015

I am loved and respected by all who know me... slightly.

Mortdecai
(2015)

David Koepp’s (very loose) film adaptation of the first of Kyril Bonfiglioli’s novels concerning louche art dealer Charlie Mortdecai arrived in January to resounding disdain. Much of this was directed at star Johnny Depp, whose whacky voices/ wigs/make-up schtick is now being judged as a full-blown irritant by even his most charitable critics.  While I’m not immune to a sense of fatigue at his determined mugging, I’ve yet to succumb to thermal death point; I do, actually still find him entertaining for the most part. So with that caveat, for the most part I found his latest crazy creation, Charlie Mortdecai, entertaining, as determinedly indulgent as his performance is. The real problem with Mortdecai is that it comes courtesy of a director lacking real comic flair. The movie is fitfully as engaging and lively as it desperately wants to be – and by no means the atrocity that has been claimed – but Koepp continually gives off the air of someone who has studied how to make a crazy comedy caper, and never as one to whom it comes naturally.


Koepp, from a screenplay by Eric Aronson, seems to be aiming for something of the effortlessly oddball tone of Wes Anderson (Jeff Goldblum even appears, for all of three minutes), but you can’t learn how to be Wes Anderson. Either you’re a Wes or you aren’t (Depp was reportedly considering the M Gustav role in Grand Budapest Hotel at one point). I could imagine, say, Michael Lehman lending this an appropriately offbeat tone, but Koepp is all at sea. I’d attributed the issues with his last comedy Ghost Town, to be more down to Ricky Gervais as leading man, but Koepp’s funny bone malaise seems more fundamental. If you’re trying too hard, you end up looking desperate. He’s a solid, serviceable director (Stir of Echoes and Premium Rush are particularly strong examples), and even with a bit of a fizzle (Depp starrer Secret Window), he can generally nail tone, but the prevailing lack of comedy on his screenwriting resumé, and his being someone who can adapt Dan Brown with a straight face, ought to have been warning signs.


As such, I wouldn’t put the failings of Mortdecai down to the determined anglophilia of its lead actor and director; there’s no reason American filmmakers shouldn’t go British any more than there is for not casting Brits as the entire superhero populace of the States (so it often seems). And Depp can do a funny British accent in his sleep. No, I think the problem is these kind of pictures are much harder than they appear (stolen paintings turned into divine farce got Anderson multiple Oscar nominations for Grand Budapest Hotel, but who has any fondness for Michael Hoffman’s broad-as-broad remake of Gambit?) There’s also the little detail that the source material isn’t really that hot.


Bonfiglioli’s novels have been compared in prose style and sense of humour to PG Wodehouse, and he was so indebted (quite understandably) that he couldn’t resist namedropping the author in his Charlie Mortdecai novels. For Bertie Wooster transpose Charlie Mortdecai, and for Jeeves replace Jock (Strapp, Paul Bettany). It’s true that Bonfiglioli has an exuberant, jocular style, but in content he couldn’t diverge more extremely from his authorial hero. The Mortdecai novels are the vulgarian’s version of Wodehouse, Carry On Wodehouse, if you will, replete with a steady stream of sexual innuendo, bodily function gags and a pastiche approach to American crime fiction (the last bit isn’t Wodehouseian, but one could quite imagine a Carry On Up the Big Easy).


If nothing else, this highlights why Wodehouse’s style is so distinctive and remains so seminal; it isn’t so much that his humour is sophisticated or that his plotting is incredible (if you’ve read one Wodehouse novel, you pretty much know how they go). It’s that the language is so pleasurably lyrical, almost musical, and the world he creates is entirely heightened and untouched by anything approaching everyday problems (less still anything as undignified as sex). Bonfiglioli could mimic the style, but then peppering the content with fart jokes, debauchery and lustiness plays to the cheap seats. The results tend towards the sadly adolescent (by comparison and contrast, Douglas Adams steered his love of Wodehouse into the realm of science fiction, and so was able to hook a similar flair for language to material that brought out, rather than curtailed, the big ideas he was playing with). The lowbrow humour operates as a crutch, rather than an effective contrast.


Which isn’t to say I don’t enjoy a good fart gag. But it needs to be employed with judiciously. Too frequently, Mortdecai strays into the field of the BBC’s godawful recent Blandings adaption, which seemed almost perversely at odds with everything that made Wodehouse’ writing so glorious. Mortdecai doesn’t actually shame its source material, of course; indeed, one of its problems that it’s too deferential.


The plot is convoluted, but not in an involving manner and, since this isn’t a full-blown parody of the Mike Myers variety, Aronson is unable to use this to its advantage. Numerous elements survive from the book, just as many more are discarded: the stolen Goya painting (and where it is hidden), the sale of the Rolls, Inspector Martland (as with Charlie, granted a photogenic makeover in the form of Ewan McGregor, but they retain their mutual contempt), the globetrotting.


Others are changed or invented. The Russians are new, while Johanna’s character is effectively substituted for Georgina (Olivia Munn), the nymphomaniac daughter of Krampf (Jeff Goldblum). Johanna (Gwyneth Paltrow) is ready and wed to Charlie when we first meet her (this doesn’t happen until the second novel). Her disapproval of Charlie’s moustache is, of course, a homage to Jeeves’ frequent dismay with Bertie’s clueless fashion choices (which, at one point, include a liperpillar).


Mortdecai is more successful during the first half, before it’s expected to start solving its ungainly plot. It’s not as if Koepp can’t construct a set piece efficiently. Rather, they just don’t have the lightness of touch that could make them fly. There are some good laughs to be had, of course; Charlie trying to persuade Martland to eat some especially stinky cheese, his “sympathetic gag reflex” in response to the effect his moustache has on Johanna, a visit to Spinoza (Paul Whitehouse, continuing his best pal-dom with Depp) at the garage and ending much as it does in the novel, an elaborate car chase that finds Charlie, Jock and Emil (Jonny Pasvolsky) swappng places as it progresses, a meeting with Sir Graham (Michael Culkin) that sees Charlie pinned against a lift wall (“What are you hiding in your belly?”). And capture by the Russians, led by Banshee’s Ulrich Thomson (asked to Open your balls” Charlie responds, “I shan’t! What does that even mean?”)


The shift to America (“A terribly vulgar place called Los Angeles, apparently located in the far west colonies”) might have been ripe for laughs, but somehow the post-Imperial public school superiority Charlie wields feels terribly laboured  (it was dated when Bonfiglioli was offering it in the ‘70s) The country-hopping is accompanied by garishly-titled transitions that highlight Koepp’s wanting sense of tone. He has something broad so he thinks the only way to go is to make everything broad. In this regard, check out, or avoid, the score by Mark Ronson and Geoff Zanelli, which is far too big and intrusive, trying to breezily proclaim “THIS IS FUNNY!” (to be fair, the soundtrack is probably quite a good listen in isolation).


What Mortdecai highlights most effectively is the deceptively light tough Mike Myers and Jay Roach brought to Austin Powers. There, Myers knew how to revel in the crudity in a more consistently creative and centralised manner. Probably because he took his cues from the Pink Panther series (as much as Bonds), which at their best knew how to extend a set piece or bit of business to the point where their ridiculousness becomes sublime. Probably also because he built his movies around extended sketches. 


Mortdecai occasionally approaches such inspired territory; the aforementioned car chase has a touch of dementedly delightful slapstick, and a later chase finds a food poisoned Jock throwing up over a pursuing car’s windscreen (“Questionable attack, Jock. Spirited, though”). However, too often half a joke is flourished without the zest to make the whole thing sing (a climactic fight at an auction, where a crate is dropped on Charlie, only to collapse around him, leaving him unscathed, is fine, but the rest of the sequence is forgettable).


Depending on your tolerance levels, its Depp who ultimately makes this passable or kills it. For the most part Mortdecai’s double act with Jock is every bit as effective as it is on the page. Bettany continually steals the show as Jock, and if Charlie’s capacity for injuring him is overcooked, it does result in an amusing sequence where his “manservant and thug” is about to lose a finger in Charlie’s stead. Jock has been imbued with an “enviable rate of sexual intercourse” here, probably considered more palatable than his Shirley Temple fixation from the novels.


More lines groan or fall flat (“I had no idea I was so deep in her majesty’s hole”), than hit the spot (“The file was fat, and well handled, like a Welsh barmaid”), but enough do carry to make this easier viewing than the majority of mainstream studio comedies. By this point, there is little discernable difference between what Depp is doing with a Charlie Mortdecai and what Myers does (used to do?) with his comic personas, except the latter is a control freak and Depp clearly isn’t. Lines like “Oh, you pretended to be gentle but you weren’t” or “It made me feel dirty” are all down to Depp’s delivery; this is the closest he has come to a Clouseau or Austin Powers, but he really needed a more sympathetic director.


There’s a rich vein to be tapped in cowardly, aloof and disdainful characters, and Depp relishes hiding under tables and referencing having children as an “odious thought” (he’s been actively into undercutting classic heroes since at least Sleepy Hollow), or insulting a Russian henchman (“Your mother and father only knew each other for a day, and money changed hands”).


I don’t think Depp was going for the Terry-Thomas thing further than the gap tooth visual cue (wisely, he didn’t have a hope in hell of coming close). As for the rest of his appearance, the moustache obsession isn’t nearly as funny as everyone clearly thinks it is, but even that has the odd moment; getting in a lift surrounded by other hirsute types, and comparing notes with Emil (“I was just admiring your Franz Joseph”).


The supporting cast are mostly fine. The likes of Michael Culkin, Whitehouse and Goldblum (it’s amusing to see Goldblum being weird in a “straight” role, just by being Goldblum, acting against Depp who can only be weird by dressing up in an overpowering character suit) are good value. McGregor is badly miscast. He’s the straight man, but he isn’t a natural with comedy, or with RP delivery come to that. It renders the picture lopsided; he’s at his least damaging playing spurned devotee to Johanna.


Paltrow probably nurses more ill feeling than Deep these days, although I can’t say I’ve closely followed all the reasons she’s now apparently a terrible person. She’s blessed with good comic timing, and is entirely delectable throughout (particularly in a policeman’s helmet and scarf). It says a lot for her that she’s more than able to hold her own with pronounced screen hogs like Depp and Downey Jr, particularly in roles that are intrinsically less dazzling. Her best scene comes with Michael Byrne’s Duke, keen to show her what he has in the lavatory (“I’ve been trying to get rid of her, but she’s so damned attractive”).


Mortdecai is all set to rank near the top of many a “Worst of 2015” lists, but it doesn’t really deserve such opprobrium (any more than Myers’ slated The Love Guru did). It’s patchy, sure (it’s never going to be rediscovered as cult movie the way, say, Hudson Hawk has been) and Koepp should definitely stick to thrillers in future (its safe to say there won’t be any further Charlie Mortdecai movies, at least not with Depp or in the next decade or two), but this is probably as about as good a Kyril Bonfiglioli adaptation as could be hoped for, short of drastically upgrading the source material.




Sunday, 2 August 2015

Now we're all wanted by the CIA. Awesome.

Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation
(2015)

(SPOILERS) There’s a groundswell of opinion that Mission: Impossible – Rogue Nation is the best in near 20-year movie franchise. I’m not sure I’d go quite that far, but only because this latest instalment and its two predecessors have maintained such a consistently high standard it’s difficult to pick between them. III featured a superior villain and an emotional through line with real stakes. Ghost Protocol dazzled with its giddily constructed set pieces and pacing. Christopher McQuarrie’s fifth entry has the virtue of a very solid script, one that expertly navigates the kind of twists and intrigue one expects from a spy franchise. It also shows off his talent as a director; McQuarrie’s not one for stylistic flourish, but he makes up for this with diligence and precision. Best of all, he may have delivered the series’ best character in Rebecca Ferguson’s Ilsa Faust (admittedly, in a quintet that makes a virtue of pared down motivation and absence of backstory, that may not seem to be saying much, but it is).


In terms of plot mechanics this might be the most lucid in the series thus far; the objective is clear, the MacGuffin is actually crucial (so more than just a MacGuffin) and the deceits and double-crosses peppering the narrative recall the first Brian De Palma picture, only more finely honed and deliberate.


It’s an abiding problem for liberal filmmakers making spy pictures that the subject matter tends towards underlying support and validation of control systems prone to abuse; from Bond to Hunt, if we didn’t have the hero spy acting beyond the law and infringing our civil liberties, what a pickle we would all be in. A solution to this was summoned in the first M:I movie; make the organisation corrupt and have the real good guys restore what is right and true. The bad seeds can even stand as a metaphor for where the government as a whole has gone wrong. This idea became even more intrinsic to the genre following the advent of Jason Bourne. Now it was the only way to go. Even Bond, who previously only went rogue to sort out a personal vendetta, was now expected to fly solo. The establishment is inherently not to be trusted, and what better way to illustrate this than having the hero operate on his own recognisances, to show the system how it should be done? It’s an approach that benefits a genre built on conspiracies and not knowing who to trust; the danger is that if everyone is doing it, it gets old quickly.


So in Rogue Nation Ethan is out on a limb yet again, hunted by his masters and attempting to bring down the real villains (who, of course, no one believes exist). The presence of the Syndicate (it’s sort of M:I’s very own SPECTRE… oh, wait, they’ve destroyed it) serves to emphasise the jaundiced view of the intelligence services. A group of rogue agents established by figures in the British government. Rogue Nation posits a global foe explicitly manufactured by those with a duty to defend their country (make of that what you will in terms of its bearing on current conspiracy lore, although Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci had nothing to do with the plot for this one).


Rogue Nation even goes as far as having Ethan, Fast & Furious style, announce that he works with his friends; that’s what his IMF is, a posse of pals. Even CIA director Alan Hunley (Alec Baldwin) comes round to their way of thinking by the end of the picture; he’s allowed to join their gang, and get in on lying to those who would stop them from doing the right thing, for the greater good, with no accountability…. Er… It’s ironic that the series has arrived at the “friends together” thing, five pictures in, as the Cruise star-led approach had almost studiously avoided the team aspect and approach of the TV original.


Sure, Ving Rhames’ Luther Stickell is a stalwart of the franchise (amusingly referenced as being completely out of shape as a key point during a set piece), and Simon Pegg’s Benji has now featured in three movies on the trot, but they’ve been on the periphery mostly, facilitators for Tom’s Hunt to do his thing. And since Ethan himself is something of a cypher – in a good way, since the state of movies has reach the point where even Bond is encumbered with superfluous and irritating back story and emotional journey – and Jeremy Renner’s Brandt being slightly untrustworthy is summoned again to add a bit of tension to a plot twist, it makes it all the more peculiar and slightly absurd to proclaim their great chumminess in this way. Sure, III attempted to give Ethan (and to be fair, did it quite well) a home and love life, although Cruise seems to have acknowledged the trickle down that Hunt is best left vague and unfettered (Michelle Monaghan was granted a cameo in Ghost Protocol, she doesn’t even merit a mention here).


The ironies pile up. I doubt anyone would have expected a franchise revolving around Cruise’s star appeal as fundamentally as this (which is why profits are prone to waning when his personal beliefs are in the spotlight; see III in particular) to suddenly serve up by far its strongest character out of leftfield, one who steals the limelight. Yet one of the reasons the twists and betrayals in Rogue Nation work so well is that they revolve for the most part around the picture’s greatest asset, Ferguson’s MI6 undercover agent (or is she?) Ilsa.


Cruise is left playing catch-up, perhaps not quite to the extent of the other female lead in boys’ movie clothing of the summer Mad Max: Fury Road, but nevertheless many of the best moments go to Isla. Ferguson is outstanding. I wasn’t aware of her work beforehand, and I don’t know if she, like Cruise, learnt to hold her breath for a full six minutes at a time, but she’s clearly down there in those underwater scenes, riding daredevil motorbikes, and pulling impressive martial arts moves.  Isla isn’t just a kick-ass; she’s cunning, vital, highly motivated and very sexy (it’s a bit disingenuous of Pegg to complain about the poster at the top of the page when the movie takes pains to accentuate Ferguson’s figure at every opportunity). Her character arcs from mysterious, to manipulative, to desperate and in danger, to teaming with the IMF, and Ferguson navigates each stage with consummate skill.


It’s particularly notable that Isla gets to save the hero, and is granted the climactic fight scene (with Jens Hultén’s henchman); you don’t miss that Cruise doesn’t get to do the honours. The extent this was planned is uncertain (the ending might have had more of an Ethan flourish in original conception) but there is evidently an intentional commentary on the lead character. This is, after all, the Tom Cruise/Ethan Hunt who free solo climbs cliffs, leaps about the outside of the world’s tallest building, straps himself to the outside an Airbus taking off and generally acts as if he is immortal.


McQuarrie’s sets up this commentary on mythos from the first; no one can stop the plane filled with deadly nerve gas until Ethan rocks up. When he visits a retro-vinyl store to get his orders, the counter girl (Hermione Corfield) is in awe of Hunt. She’s heard all about him. Are the stories true? Likewise, Benji is completely blasé about Ethan being able to tackle any given physical challenge (some of Cruise’s best deadpan playing comes from his scenes with Pegg). Later however, it’s Ethan who needs saving and resuscitating when he loses consciousness in the cooling tank, and it’s Ethan who gets shot and a Bourne-like (or -lite) gammy leg.


McQuarrie is nursing and simultaneously undercutting expectations. This isn’t far from the way Q or M traditionally comment on Bond’s trademark foibles, but it extends more self-reflexively still. Sean Harris’ Solomon Lane refers to Hunt as a chancer; he exists on the knife-edge between being a hero and a villain. There’s borderline incredulity at IMF’s track record in the Senate oversight committee, since somehow their flouting of the rules and recklessness has yielded a 100% success rate, always against the odds. The whole thing is spectacularly unlikely, and McQuarrie knows it.


McQuarrie had wanted to bring back other former players Maggie Q and Paula Patton, who weren’t available (obviously, Emilio Estevez’ character wouldn’t have been considered), so it’s left to Ferguson to singlehandedly prevent this from turning into a boy’s club. Rhames is always good fun, and his antagonistic banter with Renner enlivens the proceedings, particularly during the already lively Moroccan road chase. Renner is much better served here than in the last movie, even though he isn’t involved in most of the action. He milks the humour from his suited appearance before the senate, and he and Baldwin clearly enjoy sparking off each other. Indeed, what’s clear from this is that he and Cruise don’t have the best chemistry; he needs to be matched well in these ensembles (Avengers has similar problems). Calling on the idea that Brandt might betray Hunt is a bit desperate, and no one is really buying it by this point, but it only comes into play for a brief spell.


Pegg is much better suited to this supporting part than his one in that other J J Abrams franchise. His role has increased with each successive M:I, but he and Cruise aren’t quite the perfect double act. Pegg makes Cruise look fun, but Cruise can’t make Pegg and his special new luxury hairpiece seem like a weighty dramatic actor. His one bum note is Benji’s speech on why he should be there at Ethan’s side, and it reminds you there’s good reason Pegg’s niche is comedy (likewise, the intimidation scene with Harris – they could play brothers – I assume Pegg was playing terrified, but he looked as if he was going to crack wise at any moment).


Harris is an indelible screen presence, but blockbusters, including this one, have failed to make the most of him. He may not love fucking rocks in Rogue Nation, but Lane is only unnerving because it's Harris playing him, not because there’s any meat to his character (one wonders if Lane’s throat was damaged during a mission, given Harris’ strangled delivery, a nice unelaborated touch). Hunt gives a speech about Lane blaming others rather than himself, but the villain’s motivation remains vague; he objects to working for bad guys so he becomes a worse guy? It might have been interesting if Lane attempted to espouse an ethos that made him seem morally justified in comparison to the crooks he used to work for. Instead, he’s just another criminal mastermind.


Likewise, while I appreciate the eschewing of a more’s-the-pity slam-bam explosive finale for something a bit more measured, satisfying and in keeping with the TV show (on that score, I loved the title sequence this time round), one might be forgiven for expecting something slightly more intricate given the emphasis place on Lane’s abilities to control everything. Hunt needed to come up with a doozy; what we have is fine, and surely preferable to what they originally had, but you know McQuarrie has the chops to come up with something really special.


The action scenes are hugely satisfying. McQuarrie, as with Jack Reacher but on a significantly grander scale, knows exactly how to stage and arrange an action sequence for maximum comprehensibility on the part of the viewer. Action is clear and understood. Best of all, he fully understands how to sustain tension through editing. Perhaps the opening with the jet is the weakest, but only because it’s an amazing stunt that is more impressive knowing it was for real than actually watching (unlike Ghost Protocol’s tallest building).


But the sequence at the opera, juggling multiple elements in a more workmanlike way than De Palma or Hitch would (it’s definitely that kind of scene) is quite dazzling in its deftness of touch, Likewise, the underwater server farm scene is visceral and classically against the clock. Later, the Moroccan car chase is the fun one, with Cruise and Pegg paired for banter and Ving and Renner likewise; there’s a cute visual gag as Benji, upside down in a crashed car, sees the legs of a hit man approaching, only for said hit man’s legs to be sent flying when Luther’s van slams into him. Following this, the motorbike chase lays to rest the ludicrous memory of the series’ last flirtation with such vehicles.


There are many other elements deserving praise. Simon McBurney’s is casually callous as MI6 guy Attlee (preposterous balding going on up there too), while Tom Hollander steals every moment he’s on screen as the very funny drugged-up PM. There’s good but sparing use of the traditional IMF face masks/identity swaps (including an almost Edgar Wright-esque what-if run through scene). Robert Elswit’s cinematography, returning form Ghost Protocol, is bold and vibrant. Joe Kramer’s score isn’t up there with Michael Giacchino’s, and I’m still unsure about his use of Nessun Dorma as a motif, but he gets the job done.


It remains to be seen how well this does at the box office. If it falls short of Ghost Protocol, that wont be for want of quality (but that wasn’t the case with M:I III either) and probably more to down to the vagaries of release date and the ever-fluctuating Cruise factor. Hopefully any shortfall won’t impede M:I VI, which Cruise wants to get going next summer. I read McQuarrie might be back, but they should stick to the strategy of a new helmer each time. McQ on script duties would be more than welcome, however. And bringing back Rebecca Ferguson is an absolute must.


Friday, 24 July 2015

I want you to break into a place and steal some shit.

Ant-Man
(2015)

(SPOILERS) Ant-Man is good fun, low stakes and likeable, but its definitely a lesser Marvel effort. This has nothing to do with the scale of the superhero in question. Rather, it’s the lack of zip director Peyton Reed injects into the proceedings. There’s nothing much wrong here, and there are regular laugh-out loud moments (mostly courtesy of Michael Peña) but the overriding sense is of a middling movie: serviceable and for the most part unremarkable. Reed, replacing Edgar Wright after his kind-of-not acrimonious parting of ways with the studio, has done a resolutely competent pick-up job.


One only has to look at Joe Dante’s Innerspace to see how much fun can be had with the micro-world, and when Reed gets on board with the prevized set pieces that were (probably) part of Wright’s vision for the picture, there’s more than enough flair and exuberance to ignite the proceedings. Elsewhere, however, his basic shooting style and static approach to scenes makes Ant-Man drag quite badly. This one of the few Marvel movie coming in under two hours, but it feels longer.


And it really shouldn’t. When the other Marvel picture of the summer suffers from bloat and first-degree third act fatigue, the differing tack taken with Ant-Man ought to have been a breath of fresh air. The plot is basic and the more robust for it; small time burglar Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), freshly out of prison, is doing what he is doing, to ensure he has access to his daughter. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) “hires” Scott to prevent the miniaturisation technology he developed from being used for nefarious purposes. The picture is basically the planning of a heist, the execution of which benefits from being contained and delineated in a manner that could teach Marvel climaxes generally a thing or two from (one does wonder, though, in this IT age, that the burgled building has zero disaster recovery and everything important is apparently held on site).


Likewise, the subsequent big fight between hero and villain (Corey Stoll’s Darren Cross in the guise of Yellowjacket – a cool virtual costume you wouldn’t know was virtual) is appealingly personal, taking place in the bedroom, and in particular across the train set, of Scott’s daughter (the cute without being irritatingly so Abby Ryder Fortson). A string of inventive moments punctuate the scene, as the picture plays with enlargement (first an ant, and then, most uproariously, a Thomas the Tank Engine) and cosmic quantum trippiness as Scott shrinks to a subatomic size (much as I enjoyed the fractal craziness here, I could have done with the bit more emphasis on the brain frying; as with the majority of Ant-Man, it’s a touch too diluted to really leave the viewer buzzing).


In getting to this point, Reed and Adam McKay’s rewrite of Wright and Joe Cornish’s screenplay embraces numerous characters and elements that should coalesce with a surfeit of zest, but end up overly and safely arranged. Too often, Ant-Man resembles a standardised, production-line piece of work; basically what you get if you strip Wright out of the equation (which is, of course, why Marvel did exactly that). Reed may do well enough with the jokes (but they don’t fly thick and fast the way Shane Black pumps them out) but he lacks the visual chops of even his least masterful Marvel predecessors (lets face it, most of their movies aren’t in the most dynamic of hands); in terms of pace, this is most similar to the disappointing first Captain America. That it has more flair than Cap is mainly down to the fun characters.


Luis (Peña), Kurt (David Dastmalchian) and Dave (T.I.) are Scott’s criminal buddies and sidekicks, there to help bring off the heist and offer the necessary comic relief. Most of this tends to the successfully silly side, and Peña in particular is having a ball, but – the odd moment aside – you’d be forgiven for thinking this was interchangeable any big studio broad strokes US comedy. The exceptions are Luis’ “tip” montages, re-enactments of incidents in which he voices each character we see (including, most amusingly, Anthony Mackie’s Falcon); whether it is or not, this is exactly the kind of thing we expect from Wright (most notably in his “What if we…?” fast-cut speculative scenarios from Spaced onwards).


Ant-Man is so very safe and cosy, it really needed Wright’s zest to mould into something that stood out. I mentioned Dante above, and his is a similar kind of thing; just having an off kilter sensibility will by necessity warp an otherwise studio picture into something more distinctive and idiosyncratic (an early promotional video for military uses of miniaturisation provokes a smile, but doesn’t have the barbs Dante or, say, Verhoeven would have brought to the material). The Wright-cast Rudd is the embodiment of this; he’s agreeable, affable, and wholly unassuming, which just about sums up Ant-Man.


Scott the absent father even has well-meaning ex (Judy Greer, wasted again in a 2015 summer blockbuster following Jurassic World; I hope she got paid well) and her antagonist new beau, cop Bobby Carnavale, to deal with; the picture’s sop nice that Carnavale comes round to being best of chums with Scott by the end. It’s that kind of movie. Which is fine, feel-good endings are fine; I just wish it played out with a bit more verve. A great deal is made of Scott being a burglar not a robber; he abhors violence. So it’s ironic that his graduation to the status of superhero requires him to kill a man, and that he should be completely unfazed by the act; in any another Marvel movie this would be par for the course but, with the moral centre shifted closer to the everyday, tonally it’s a bit off.


The askew setting does pay dividends in terms of the depiction of, and contrast with, the greater Marvel universe, however. Michael Douglas is pretty great as Pym (the de-aging effects in the opening scene are first rate too) and adds a bit of class to any scene he is in. There’s an abundance of emotional clichés powering the picture, and Pym’s guilt over past failures needs someone with Douglas chops to work.


Evangeline Lilly gets to be pissed off and little more, but I’m looking forward to seeing her as the new Wasp (the “It’s about damn time” really shouldn’t be commended for “turning” failure into triumph on the part of Marvel ignoring female superheroes, though; they’ve still gone the best part of a decade without a female-led superhero movie).


Stoll is thrown a lousy villain role with a daft motivation (the suit’s affecting his mind! So that’s why he creepily shows up in Scott’s daughter’s bedroom). It would be fun to have a villain in a Marvel movie who could actually have some fun, who you loved to loathe (Loki nearly qualifies, but he’s already become too much of a heartthrob).  Unfortunately, that seems as far off as ever. The closest we get to this kind of thing is Cross reducing a dissenting voice to a puddle of mush in a gents, and testing the shrinking effect on a poor ickle lamb, but they’re both better as visual gags than anything Stoll is able to bring to the table.


The visuals are great when they arrive, of course, with some pretty nifty macro-photography to enhance the backgrounds. The ants aren’t photo-real, presumably because Marvel didn’t want audiences to flee theatres in revulsion, but neither are they distractingly CG-looking. Mostly, one is wondering how Wright might have done all this (better is the self-evident answer), but the montage sequences with Scott learning how to use the suit and talk to the ants do the job in predictable but pleasant fashion. 


There’s a fight with Falcon that tickles (Mackie’s a good sport, although let’s face it his character needs the exposure) and leads to the final credits sequence setting up Ant-Man’s appearance in Civil War and as a possible Avenger. I can’t say I can remember anything about Christophe Beck’s score.


Perhaps given the turbulent production history, we should be grateful Ant-Man is as watchable as it is. It can’t help but slightly disappoint though, landing on the Thor end of the spectrum of Marvel pictures that can’ quite rise to the occasion. Thor doesn’t surprise me because he’s always seemed a bit of stodgy deal (he works better in company), but Ant-Man had the potential to surpass Guardians of the Galaxy in the funny and inventive stakes if it had been treated sufficiently sympathetically. Instead, it’s an adequate Marvel movie, which is probably why it will end up with adequate rather than spectacular box office takings.