1 June 2010

Alternative Vote

As something of a regular disclaimer, it's only my opinion here- others are available. As ever, mild spoilers may occur in the process of reviewing, but never so far as to spoil any major plot developments.

Did anyone else get a nasty surprise at their local cinema this past weekend? It seems the film where women sink to men's level rather than prove themselves strong and independent is on four screens in Cineworld Middlesbrough. Troubling, but as the great Dr. Kermode says, it's not specific to anyone, and stupid people of all genders, ages and sexual persuasions can enjoy Sex and the City. For sensible people everywhere, there are alternatives- The Losers and [REC] 2.
Based on the Vertigo comic series, The Losers are a crack force of commandos framed for a crime they didn't commit. Yes, it goes there- the comics actually satirise The A-Team to some extent, which would be less conspicuous if there weren't a film version of that series due out in July, being advertised before this one in cinemas. Anyhoo, at the top of the plot, our heroes survive an assassination attempt by their handler, Max, and go into hiding. They're galvanised to get revenge by the appearance of Aisha, who knows Max's whereabouts.

Yes, comparisons to The A-Team loom large, but it needs to be said, this is what Joe Carnahan should have done with the upcoming blockbuster. Liam Neeson, Bradley Cooper and Sharlto Copley are all promising, and if Carnahan's film is half as fun as The Losers, we'll have no problems whatsoever. What so few action directors seem able to carry off these days is a film that's cheesy without being stupid, silly without patronising the audience, and for most of this film, you'll have a whale of a time.

Are there problems with it? Bucketloads. For one thing, it feels like someone at some stage decided to scale the film right back, looping a lead around its neck and letting it bark at the audience without any real bite. The 12A certificate neuters the film somewhat, and after a really dark and unsettling twist around five minutes in, the script reclines into juxtaposing a cock-fighting scene with the bloodless violence of the rest of the film. It can't keep a straight face long enough to be taken seriously, but neither is it parodic enough to be an outright satire.

On balance, this is a modestly budgeted run at blockbuster success too. It cost $25 million to make, but that makes the obvious if implacable presence of the studio leash only more disappointing. It doesn't try to innovate all that much. Oh, and it's not a spoiler to say so, but leaving things open for a sequel sometimes works. In the case of The Losers, it means leaving the story largely incomplete, departing with an ominous note that's instantly undercut by a nice post-script and a slapstick post-post-script before the credits. I don't think it's quite made enough at the box office to deliver on that promised sequel either.

What sets it apart from louder and worse directed fare is its performances. As Max, Jason Patric is more or less a Bond villain of the 1990s variety, played for laughs, and somehow he still fits perfectly into a tonally uneven film. He shares most of the film's laughs with Chris Evans. Somewhere along the line, the strapping and charismatic Evans actually pulls off the loveless dork role, giving a great comic performance that makes you wonder why he's not a bigger star yet. To tell you about any of his funny scenes would be to divulge the best punchlines in the whole film. A far cry from leads Jeffrey Dean Morgan and Zoe Saldana, who are both playing characters viciously wronged by Max, but they largely trot through the script with only the merest modicum of passion and interest.

The Losers comes out as the boisterous guilty pleasure that it is on account of its sense of humour and the acting from Patric and Evans. There's next to nothing new about it and it's generic in some of the worst ways imaginable. It deals in MacGuffins and stock characters, but bloody hell, it was lively. So many other straight-to-DVD actioners or rushed out studio tentpole features are more feeble than this, and it kept me amused throughout. If Carnahan can flesh out the bare bones on show here in time for The A-Team proper, it'll be one of the best films of the year. If not, there's always The Losers. Or The Expendables, maybe.

The Losers is now playing in cinemas nationwide.
You've seen The Blair Witch Project, Cloverfield and Paranormal Activity. If not all of them, at least one, I'll bet. The "found footage" sub-genre of horror has been getting a thorough workout lately, and now directors Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza return with a sequel to one of the most well-received examples, [REC] 2. You may take it as read that there will be spoilers for [REC] from here on out. Starting just fifteen minutes after the chilling conclusion to the first film, Plaza and Balagueró pick up with a four man SWAT team being sent into the quarantined apartment building full of possessed "zombies". They're led by a gung-ho priest who insists that their mission, above all else, is to secure a sample of possessed blood in order to create an antidote to er... the Devil.

It's a comparison I made about the Weeping Angels episodes of Doctor Who a few weeks back, but [REC] 2 is to [REC] what Aliens is to Alien. It broadens the scope of the original, and thus your enjoyment will very much depend on whether you liked the religious twist at the end of the first film. It's back in a big way here, accumulating nods to James Cameron's film with its team of grunts, as well as both The Exorcist and John Carpenter's The Thing. It's not the most original film ever, but it is expertly and ruthlessly executed.

One thing that seems to have been dispensed with since the first film is the character development, and we're instead given four pretty indistinct SWAT guys under the command of Jonathan Mellor's excellent Dr. Owen. The man behind the camera this time around, Rosso, inherits a problem from his predecessor in [REC], Pablo. He's never really a character, often remaining mute to document what the on-screen characters are doing instead. I think the only film that's got around this problem is Cloverfield, in which Hud is likeable and always present even though he rarely turns the camera on himself.

These are merely minor problems with [REC] 2 in the grand scheme of things, and I found it to be a blast. If character development falls by the wayside, it's because the writers and directors are driving forward with the muscular mythology that bulks up the threat of the first film to something much more frightening without explaining it away entirely. To detractors, I'd say that I'm an atheist too, but I still enjoyed the religious terror at work here. There is the aforementioned debt to The Exorcist, but where the filmmakers excel, as they did with [REC], is in innovatively treating material you've seen before.

To come back to Aliens again, it should be said to avoid disappointing anyone that [REC] 2 simply isn't as outright terrifying as the first film, but it's just as exhilarating. Minute for minute, it probably held my interest better than [REC], as well as most other films I saw this year. Erring more on the side of action, it is brutal and pared down to the bone in a way that keeps the thrills consistent throughout its running time. Its biggest achievement is not merely surpassing the original, but in also standing as a perfect companion to it- both are fairly short and crying out to be watched as a double bill by avid fans. If the sequel hook embedded in this one's killer ending is followed up, let's hope it makes for an excellent trilogy.

It won't please everyone, but [REC] 2 is that rarest of beasts- a horror sequel that at the very least matches its predecessor for quality. It seems churlish to complain about characters being given less attention in a film that kept me on the edge of my seat while still caring about what happened to our protagonists. World cinema continues to dominate the field in the horror genre with a smart and exhilarating sequel. Roll on [REC] 3.

[REC] 2 is now playing in selected cinemas nationwide.
If you've seen The Losers or [REC] 2 and want to share your thoughts on the films and/or my reviews, why not comment below. If you want to accuse me of being sexist for dismissing that other film, I refer you to Mark Kermode and Lindy West- don't waste my time with a comment.

I'm Mark the mad prophet, and until next time, don't watch anything I wouldn't watch.

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