Monster Hunter: Milla Jovovich and Tony Jaa - gatherers need not apply.
What must breakfast be like at the home of married co-workers Milla Jovovich and Paul W. S. Anderson? “Remember back a decade ago, when I first entertained adapting Monster Hunter for the screen?” Paul asks. Milla eagerly replies, “The one about the Army Captain who cuts herself free from a Nerscylla pupa, uses gunpowder and flint to cauterize wounds earned from battling a great horned arachnidian, and finds her jaw on the receiving end of a sock from Ron Perlman’s right duke?” A pause and a smile are followed by, “Sounds like fun. When do we start?”
Cast against the blackness of night, a bleached, sandpapery-complexioned New World pirate known as The Admiral (Perlman) pilots his ship across sand dune seas in pursuit of the subterranean creature his trackers have dubbed Diablos. Though budgeted at a mere $60 million, there was no scrimping on the special effects; the film looks better than many others three times as expensive. In this, the sixth professional collaboration between the actress and director best known for the Resident Evil franchise, Jovovich stars as Captain Natalie Artemis, or as her team fondly calls her, “Boss.” (Or “Ma’am,” a term of respect used in Anderson’s Our World army as a nod to the old west.)
Atop the majestically observed vantage point of an arched rock formation stands Hunter (Tony Jaa), a warrior named after his profession, with spyglass in hand. Schooled in the art of monster demolition, Hunter has been dislocated in time from Admiral and his mates, and before Hunter’s warning arrow has a chance to register, Artemis’ platoon has been monster mashed. Character actors Megan Good and T.I. barely last long enough to earn their billing, leaving Artemis and Hunter ample time to scrapple before an inevitable reconciliation is reached. Their comedy of miscommunication — neither speak the same language — contributes to a pair of swell running gags, the first involving the word “bait.” And true to all the war films in which a soldier tries to win over a member of the opposition with an American candy bar, Artemis has a couple of miraculously unmelted squares of Hershey’s chocolate lounging in the pocket of her cargo pants, the delicacy of which bears repeating. (All that’s missing are the nylons and American cigarettes.) On the downside, several of their exchanges border on childish, leaving one to wonder if Anderson wasn’t bound to the limitations set forth by the property’s video game predecessor.
The monsters are uniformly and imaginatively designed, with the best in breed — a fire breathing, green smoke-belching dragon — saved for last. And no Toho monster epic would be complete without the ceremonial Devouring of the Human, preferably head first. To show his panache, Diablos finishes off his soldier sushi with a flourish, flipping the body in the air and catching in his mouth the same way a person would a popcorn shrimp.
Anderson is the last great director currently dedicating his life exclusively to making genre films. The monsters are virtually invisible until the time comes for them to resurface. Artemis works hard, piecing together Rube Goldberg contraptions aimed at distracting the monster and throwing it off its game. It’s moments like this that recall the childhood thrill that first drew me to quality action/adventure fantasies. (It also makes me regret all that more that for a year, I’ve been unable to enjoy moments like this in the comfort of my local multiplex.) Milla Jovovich may not have the household name recognition of a Willis or Schwarzenegger, but damn if she isn’t the last great action hero. ★★★
Video on Demand New Release Roundup
Crisis — The convolution commences at the Canadian border, with a chase resulting in the capture of a young man carrying a backpack filled with pills. This sets in motion the bringing together of three dissimilar characters through their various connections to the opioid crisis. A drug-trafficking DEA agent (Armie Hammer) works with the Montreal mafia and a pair of Armenian crime lords on a scheme to smuggle fentanyl across the Canadian border. A Detroit architect and recovering Oxycodone addict (Evangeline Lilly) travels to Canada to investigate her late son’s short-lived career as a drug runner and to ferret out the real reason behind his death. Lastly, there is producer and star Gary Oldman, playing a college professor who discovers the “non-habit forming pain killer” he’s about to endorse is not only highly addictive, it increases dependence threefold. Convoluted though the plot may be, it was this one glaring snag in logic that left me stressing. All of the lab mice tested for the drug died within ten days. Why would big pharma endorse a product that killed its clients, when there’s more money to be made off of addiction? The sophomore feature from Arbitrage auteur Nicholas Jarecki relies too heavily on stereotypes (or is it Hammer?); Lily suffers with the best of them, and Oldman knows just how to pucker his lips around a whistle and blow. But as directed, the bad guys are so damn obvious. At a celebratory gala. drug company infiltrator Meg (Veronica Ferres) listens as her hapless boss (Martin Donovan) waxes misty-eyed with sentimentality over news that his father’s dream drug is at last becoming a reality. Her contemptuous eye-rolling packs all the subtlety of a spit take. And speaking of a bad poker tell, when her cohort (Luke Evans) tries to pressure Oldman into signing off on a revised contract in exchange for $780,000, he closes with, “It’s pretty standard stuff” and notes that the sooner it’s signed, the sooner the funds will be available. Other than the need of a few plot clarifying rewinds, there’s not much here that you haven’t seen before or need to see again. 2021 — S.M. ★★
The Little Things — Joe ‘Deke’ Deacon (Denzel Washington), a Bakersfield cop with a spiritual side (hence the nickname) and a tainted past as an L.A. Detective, is assigned a return trip to his roots to pick up a pair of blood-stained boots. But rather than retrieving the evidentiary material, all Deke seems able to collect are dirty glances from his former colleagues. A web of red tape keeps him in town for the night. Why take in a show when Deke can accompany dapper-dressed Det. Jimmy Baxter (Rami Malek, casting more side-eyed glances than a guilty puppy), a hotshot holy roller with a bright future ahead, on a crime scene investigation? Wouldn’t you know it, the case bears eerie similarities to the still-unsolved serial murders responsible for the bad blood between Deke and the department. Happily, Deke is a corpse whisperer of sorts; it’s a creepy side to his personality that allows him to address the dead or crack cases by spending quality time in the space once occupied by their killer. John Lee Hancock (The Blind Side, The Founder) told Deadline that he wrote the screenplay in 1993 with Spielberg in mind, but the director, hot off the success of Schindler’s List, “felt it was too dark for him.” The script passed through several hands before Hancock finally decided to take his position behind the camera. What was once deemed dark is now the stuff of network police procedurals. And considering how little the early ‘90s milieu comes into play (phone booths were bountiful), it might have behooved Hancock to move things forward into the new millenium. The one fresh wrinkle is Jared Leto’s hollow-eyed, mangy-haired, and perpetually wise-cracking turn as the suspected serial killer. The rest is rote. 2021 — S.M. ★★
Malcom and Marie — From Sam Levinson (Another Happy Day, Assassination Nation) comes a cogent two-hander about Malcolm (John David Washington), a black filmmaker who — if what the white critics said after the premier of his first feature is true — stands on the cusp of greatness, and Marie (Zendaya), a girlfriend eager to play the part of muse, if only he would let her. The two are poised to spend the night in a secluded Malibu residence, waiting for the reviews to post in the morning edition. (What would Margo Channing do if confronted by a paywall?) In spite of the evening’s accolades, Malcolm seems incapable of taking “yes” for an answer. Isn’t it racist to compare him to Spike Lee or John Singleton and not William Wyler? And what’s with the festive meal Marie has in store? William Wyler never celebrated his triumphs over a bowl of mac and cheese, and if he did, it would have been Stouffer’s, not the stuff in the blue box. (The production company popped for the digs, not the dinner.) The more we know about the characters, the less we like. From the sound of it, Malcolm’s magnum opus is an artsy variation on a familiar “just say no” theme. Then he forgets to thank his muse during a post-show speech, something for which Marie spends a good portion of the film verbally flogging him. (She argues, convincingly, that his script wouldn’t exist were it not for her life and struggles.) The cigarettes Marie smokes are skinnier than she is, but her addiction is necessary, if for no other reason than to move the camera outdoors and cover the action from a different angle — which Levinson does with great fluidity. Come for the romantic tension and stay for the multitude of inside jokes. Can his film be hailed a masterpiece if it’s not on his terms? Laugh along with Malcolm’s fiery reading of a mostly praiseworthy review in which not an observation, no matter how well-intentioned, escapes his scornful eye. (“It’s a dolly, not a steadicam shot!”) But it’s Marie who has the final word, delivering a blistering acceptance speech she wishes he had written. 2021. — S.M. ★★★