21 Jump Street
The problem is not that “they don’t make them like they used to.” The problem is that they continue to make them about what they used to, and they continue to make them the way they do now. The school of original thought has become so vapid in the case of remakes that even the “updated” versions mock their own lack of ingenuity. As the police captain in this film explains: “We’re just recycling old crap and assuming no one will notice.”
The recycled crap this time around involves two high school polarities (the dumb jock and the smart geek) who, despite their schoolboy friction, find themselves best buds and partners after yoking onto each other’s strengths in the police academy. Why the weak kid would ever desire such a dangerous, physically demanding job is never explained. A slimmed down Jonah Hill somewhat defeats expectation as the wimpy brain, but Channing Tatum provides him with a suitable foil as the high school hunk. However, the mistaken-identity shtick that drives the plot also deflates every joke it generates due to how obviously it could have been avoided.
Due to the pair’s apparent youthfulness, they are recruited for an undercover assignment to pose as high school students (“Teenage the fuck up!”) and infiltrate the supplier of a new “super drug,” the side effects of which only appear fatal if you’re not an essential character. Anyone important who takes the drug enjoys a good trip, with video-game title cards and other hallucinogenic clichés.
The film is a pinball machine: loud, tedious, and ever tilted toward failure. The viewer is ricocheted through a barrage of stereotypes: the jock, the nerd, the Goth, the thespian, the socially conscious, the gay and proud, the etc. Any sincere identity that might accompany these labels is lost in the crudity of the presentation. The most unsettling stereotype comes by way of Ice Cube as the boss of the baby-face baton swingers. While his role reaches for no more than the “angry police captain,” his performance is pigeonholed even further as the foulmouthed black man in charge. Think Puff Daddy in Get Him to the Greek — an unfortunate portrayal of what black authority is supposed to look like.
Will 21 Jump Street appeal to high school kids (clearly, the intended audience) with its stereotypical view of high school? Every social situation is a parody. Every classroom is a caricature.
The depiction of police work is as ludicrous and juvenile as the school scenes. We are left with the racket of hyped-up action, milk-a-laugh cameos (ha-ha, we get it, they were in the original show), and incessant gay jokes sanitized for political correctness. The two leads seem to be having fun through it all, but just playing make-believe does not qualify as acting.
An obscure choice for a film adaptation, Disney reaches back to Edgar Rice Burroughs’s Barsoom series for its new adventure saga. The definitive novel was published in 1917 (appearing earlier in pulp magazines), but the fantasy aspect of the story gives it a timeless quality.
As is the custom these days, the film is shot in 3-D. The best that can be said about the fuzzy experience is that one gets used to it. It becomes a nuisance as opposed to a torment. The majority of the background is digitally enhanced, making for more of a screensaver than a cinematic palette. But the artwork is competent, offering a believable sense of scale and expanse. In addition, the interaction of live actors and digital images is nearly seamless.
The plot is a mess — something to do with divine creatures who manage the progression of the cosmos by meddling in mortal affairs, sort of a violent Adjustment Bureau. In this case, they are determined to forge a false alliance between two warring races on Mars (no discernible difference between the races other than their names). The reason for all this blather is never made known, nor does it seem to matter, as before long the titular character (a disgruntled war hero from Virginia, circa mid-1800s) is transported to Mars by means of a magic medallion lifted from one of the celestial beings. The special effects provide some mild amusement when Carter attempts to negotiate the low gravity of Mars with his earthly body.
Once on Mars, Carter is inducted into all manner of ruckus: a civil war, a tribal race of asparagus-limbed warriors, and some spiritual techno-talk about the alignment of the planets. All this nonsense is intended to illuminate the protagonist’s battlefield demons: “War is a shameful thing.” The themes of nobility, self-sacrifice, and duty are all pretty heavy-handed. There is one compelling sequence in which a battlefield slaughter is intercut with a family burial — the same man carrying out both the killing and the digging. It reaches for eloquence but touches no further than cleverness.
The supporting cast is full of reliable players; the main actors are relative unknowns. Taylor Kitsch is credible as Carter, falling somewhere between Christian Bale and Ashton Kutcher in appearance and acting chops. Lynn Collins, as a Martian princess, elevates her role as the beautiful love interest. She is intelligent, alluring, and courageous — qualities that serve to make her more beautiful, more sultry, more captivating. She’s easy to get lost in.
Ultimately, the potential for enjoyment is overwhelmed by the bombast of the plot — too many glaring faces and dire speeches delivered in somber tone. The mood becomes a cliché long before the eye-rolling parade of false endings.
Let the Bullets Fly
Cornball comedy from China in the vein of Kung Fu Hustle. The grand shootouts that are garden variety in John Woo flicks are here used to highlight the levity — the same silly action employed ironically to parody its own silliness.
In keeping with the comical tone, the film is flamboyantly photographed. The images teem with dynamic color and rich lighting. This at times produces a somewhat cartoonish appearance (especially when the low-budget digital effects are at play), but overall the vibrant look is refreshing.
The story involves a bandit who (by means of falsified identity) takes the position of governor in a rural province circa 1919. The fake politician proves to be a man of the people, taking on the struggle of “Justice! Justice! And bloody justice!” against the wealthy gangster who runs the town. Writer/director/actor Wen Jiang is engaging as the decent-souled imposter, and Yun-Fat Chow makes an amusing turn as the clownish villain, abusive to subjects and subordinates alike. But all the violence (one ill-advised rape scene aside) is goofy, all the conflicts mild.
The script draws several grins and a fair number of laughs, but something is no doubt lost in translation. The timing on the dialogue is so rapid-fire that the subtitles are often gone before we’ve read half of what someone has said. English-speaking audiences may have a tough time keeping pace with the jokes.
Many of the scenes run too long, and much of the plot is convoluted just to be convoluted: mistaken identities, decoys, doppelgängers. The ultimate goal of the film is summed up best by Chow’s character: “Confuse everyone.”
Reviewed in the movie listings: The Forgiveness of Blood, A Thousand Words, Undefeated.