Tag Archives: C

THE MEG

Producer: Lorenzo di Bonaventura, Colin Wilson and Belle Avery
Director: Jon Turteltaub
Writer: Dean Georgaris, Jon Hoeber and Erich Hoeber
Stars: Jason Statham, Li Bingbing, Rainn Wilson, Ruby Rose, Winston Chao, Cliff Curtis, Page Kennedy, Jessica McNamee, Ólafur Darri Ólafsson, Robert Taylor, Sophia Cai, Masi Oka, Rob Kipa-Williams and Tawanda Manyimo
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures

C

A mash-up of “Godzilla” and “Jaws” loosely based on Steve Alten’s 1997 novel, “The Meg” is essentially a live-action comic book whose derivative silliness ultimately sinks it, though as brainless popcorn entertainment it might suffice for undemanding viewers looking for an action fix. An imbalance in the Chinese-American production toward the Asian partner, however, means that audiences across the Pacific may find it more engaging escapist fare than those in America.

The hero of the piece—you might even call him a superhero, given his amazing deeds, which seem far beyond the powers of mortal men—is Jason Taylor, played with mostly stern countenance and a photogenic stubble of beard, not to mention impressive pecs, by Jason Statham. In an opening prologue he’s shown as a deep-sea rescuer who saves a bunch of researchers but must leave others in a submarine to an explosive fate, explaining that he had sighted a monster fish that made further efforts impossible. Ridiculed and maligned as a coward, particularly by one of the people saved, a doctor named Heller played by Robert Taylor, he retreated into retirement in Thailand, always with beer bottle in hand but remaining incredibly fit despite the prodigious alcoholic consumption.

But following the old “Godfather” formula, though Taylor tries to stay out of the game, they keep pulling him back in. A disaster occurs at a Chinese marine research platform investigating the mysteries of the Mariana Trench, the deepest point in the ocean. A small sub penetrates the chilling fog that obscures the bottom and finds a new world of unknown species. Before it can resurface, it’s attacked by some huge entity and its crew—a female commander named Lori (Jessica McNamee) and two scientists, a beefy fellow called The Wall (Ólarur Darri Ólafsson) and a genial Japanese named Toshi (Masi Oka)—are trapped. But who is to attempt a rescue?

Although Suyin (Li Bingbing), the spunky daughter of project director Dr. Minway Zhang (Winston Chao), will attempt to get down to the stricken ship, there’s really only one man for the job, and so Zhang and his operations manager Mac (Cliff Curtis) are off to Thailand to persuade Taylor to take on the task. He initially refuses but when he learns that the commander who’s running out of air at the bottom of the drink is his ex-wife, he quickly changes his mind. Lickety-split he saves not only Suyin, keeping a promise to her adorable little daughter Meiying (Sophia Cai), but Lori and The Wall as well, earning an apology from Heller, now the operation’s medic, for his erstwhile hostility.

Unfortunately, the rescue effort has briefly ripped a hole in the fog layer guarding the deep trench and the giant fish—a prehistoric shark called the Megalodon—has escaped into open water. The rest of the movie is a shark hunt with Jason and the other members of the crew—including computer experts Jaxx (Ruby Rose) and DJ (Page Kennedy)—in pursuit of the beast. Along the way some will die as the humans try to kill the critter before it reaches a Chinese beach, where it looks like thousands of extras are pretending to have a wonderful time in the water, and gobbles them all up.

The special effects in “The Meg,” while hardly cutting-edge, are better than average, and may suffice for viewers satisfied with a roller-coaster ride, even if it’s one they’ve been on before. Everything else about the movie, directed without much imagination by Jon Turteltaub, is pure cookie-cutter too, down to the corny dialogue, studded as it is with juvenile one-liners, and the villain Jack Morris (Rainn Wilson), the callow billionaire who financed the project and, after cogitating on ways to profit from The Meg, finally decides to clean up the mess before the lawsuits start pouring in. Needless to say, he gets his just desserts in a crowd-pleasing scene toward the close.

Of course Morris is an ugly American, which is characteristic of a script that seems to gravitate to a Chinese POV even more than “Skyscraper,” which also catered to the Chinese market, did. One feels that the makers would have thought it somehow improper to portray the villain as a corrupt Chinese businessman; indeed, the Chinese characters here might occasionally be misguided or mistaken, but basically they’re all idealistic and heroic—even little Meiying (who quickly grows tiresome, one must add)—while most of the Americans are depicted, if not as villainous, as definitely imperfect, like the jovial but cowardly DJ, who’s treated as comic relief, or the grim Heller, who done Taylor wrong. Of course Statham’s Jason stands apart from everybody else, striding or swimming through the action like a colossus always ready with a plan of action—and a macho quip. But he’s a stateless fellow, unencumbered by nationality or, it would appears, the laws of physics.

It should be noted that the movie is pretty gore-free, considering the plot. There is one shot of a severed arm, but it’s brief and bloodless, and the deaths that do occur and handled swiftly and decorously by today’s standards. That extends to the beach melee at the close, in which the focus on a chubby adolescent and his mother is proof that the movie is aiming at the family trade.

One shouldn’t be too hard on “The Meg.” By making no pretense about trying to recapture the genuine tension and visceral impact of “Jaws,” while refusing to succumb to the pure inanity of the “Sharknado” franchise, it stakes out the same territory occupied by the recent “Jurassic” series, which has enjoyed considerable success, and you can understand the desire of its makers to try to meld the American and Chinese markets. But by straining for a broad appeal it comes off as a collection of elements cribbed from other, better movies and made as blandly unthreatening as possible. “The Meh” is more like it.

THE SPY WHO DUMPED ME

Producer: Brian Grazer and Erica Huggins
Director: Susanna Fogel
Writer: Susanna Fogel and David Iserson
Stars: Mila Kunis, Kate McKinnon, Justin Theroux, Sam Heughan, Hasan Minhaj, Gillian Andersn, Ivanna Sakhno, Fred Melamed, Jane Curtin, Paul Reiser, Kev Adams, James Fleet and Carolyn Pickles
Studio: Lionsgate

C

A buddy-action comedy with female leads is still enough of a rarity that one is inclined to welcome “The Spy Who Dumped Me,” which pairs Mila Kunis and Kate McKinnon in a globe-trotting espionage caper concocted by another woman, writer-director Susanna Fogel. But though the talent behind the picture is undeniable, the result proves an uneasy blend of farce and violence, hobbled by jarring shifts of tone. The combination of humor and mystery, along with the question of “Whom should I trust?” that underpins the plot, recalls Stanley Donen’s “Charade,” but that film’s sixties charm and glamour have been replaced by the raucously vulgar humor and overly explicit nastiness characteristic of today’s typical Hollywood product. That’s a pity, since the movie has a lot to offer.

The setup finds Audrey (Kunis), a clerk at a Los Angeles organic food store, despondent over having been dumped, via text no less, by her boyfriend Drew (Justin Theroux); periodic flashbacks show their cute meeting at a bar and subsequent romance. Comforting dour Audrey after a fashion is her constantly high-strung, frantic BFF Morgan (McKinnon), who suggests trashing the stuff he’s left at her apartment, and letting him know they’re doing it.

Drew, meanwhile, is engaged in a desperate attempt to outrun a bevy of assassins in Lithuania—a long chase sequence, punctuated by lots of hand-to-hand combat and capped by a tremendous explosion concocted via a method worthy of MacGyver, that’s played with deadly seriousness. Unbeknownst to Audrey, he’s a CIA agent, and he returns to her in California only to be shot and left for dead in her apartment by another hit-man; before he collapses, however, he begs her to deliver a cheap trophy to somebody named Vern at a café in Vienna the following day. The lives of millions depend on it, he insists.

So Audrey and Morgan are off to LAX on the first leg of a journey that will take them across Europe: they will visit such stunning locales as Vienna, Prague, Berlin, Amsterdam and Paris while trying to evade pursuers that include both bad guys and police (early on, they will be identified by authorities as murderers on the run). Among them is a handsome MI6 agent named Sebastian (Sam Heughan), who identifies himself as a colleague of Drew’s in an important mission, but whom neither Audrey nor Morgan entirely trusts.

It would be a fruitless task to try to unravel all the twists and feints of the cumbersome plot (even an ersatz Edward Snowden, supposedly a friend of Morgan’s, makes an appearance), which centers on a flash drive with an encrypted “back door to the internet” that every country and terrorist group in the world appears to want to acquire and that our heroines find hidden in Drew’s trophy (and occasionally have to conceal, with considerable discomfort, on their persons).

That MacGuffin, however, is only an excuse for a succession of big set-pieces that try to mix comedy and action with varying degrees of success. An extended battle in that Viennese café and a car chase that follows (featuring an over-the-top turn by Kev Adams as the girls’ driver), for example, are played mostly for excitement but with some laughs thrown in, while a later episode, in which the girls are captured and tortured by a steely-eyed Russian gymnast named Nadedja (Ivanna Sakhno), is much too graphically nasty to allow for even a smile.

Then there’s the big finale, set in a Berlin museum where Cirque du Soleil is putting on a show and, while Audrey is wrapping things up with Sebastian and some surprise guests in an armaments room, finally realizing who is trustworthy, Morgan, decked out like a member of the company, gets into an extended brawl with Nadedja on a trapeze. McKinnon tries to inject some humor into the episode, but the big-top action is so brutal that the whole thing leaves an unpleasant taste, especially since it ends with an image that’s actually quite vicious.

On the other hand, there are times when the movie pauses and offers some relatively relaxed, amusing moments: a dinner scene in Prague featuring a creepy host played by Fred Melamed; a nifty cameo by Gillian Anderson as the super-genteel head of MI6, for whom Morgan expresses enthusiastic admiration; and a couple of inserts featuring Jane Curtin and Paul Reiser as Morgan’s loony, laid-back parents. But such instances are few and brief; they quickly end, and the movie is off to the races again, the prisoner of its convoluted plot and Fogel’s need to fill the screen with visceral action and machine-gun verbal riffs.

Kunis and McKinnon are forced to scream a lot as the complications unfold, but they make a good team, with the latter a perpetual-motion Lucy type and the former the more subdued, but mostly game Ethel. Heughan and Theroux provide the necessary male eye candy while keeping the girls guessing as to their motives as long as necessary, and Sakhno is the very personification of agility and ruthlessness. One must, however, feel sympathy for Hasan Minhaj, as Sebastian partner, who’s saddled with some of the lamest jokes the scripters have devised.

Technically the movie is topnotch; Barry Peterson’s crisp cinematography (offering some lovely views of the European locales) and Jonathan Schwartz’s sharp editing help to give shape and rhythm to Fogel’s deft staging of the action sequences, and Tyler Bates’s score adds a few snatches of classical music to accompany the changing locations.

In fact, there are so many good elements to “The Spy Who Dumped Me” that one regrets their not having been put in the service of a better whole.