Saturday, 5 December 2015

Movie Review: The Transporter Refueled/Home Sweet Hell (2015)



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Luc Besson is one of the greatest action writers in cinematic history. Debate the quality of his overall filmography as much as you like, and he has definitely ventured into weird-ass territory numerous times throughout his time in the industry, but in terms of his impact to the genre, people seem to forget how much he’s done. Between rejuvenating Liam Neeson’s career (for better or for worse) with Taken, helping to rescue Jet Li’s American reputation with Kiss Of The Dragon and giving Jean Reno the role he will always be remembered best for with Léon: The Professional, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who has affected the landscape as much as him. Hell, even with how ridiculous Lucy was, Scarlett Johansson’s action credentials are still secure regardless of the Marvel Cinematic Universe because of it. However, of all of his creations, his greatest contribution to the world of film would be introducing Jason Statham to a wider audience with the Transporter series. So, when a new addition was announced to the series, you better believe we were excited… until we discovered that Mr. Statham wouldn’t be returning for it. *sigh* This is The Transporter Refueled.

The plot: Frank Martin (Ed Skrein) is a Transporter, a driver-for-hire for the less reputable clients of France’s underground. However, when his father Frank Sr. (Ray Stevenson) is kidnapped by prostitute Anna (Loan Chabanol), he is forced to help in her plan for revenge against her current employer and Frank’s former commander Karasov (Radivoje Bukvić), even if it goes against his very strict set of rules.

The acting is… look, might as well get it out of the way, it sucks that Jason Statham isn’t here. Skrein, despite how much he’s trying here, just doesn’t have the charisma and presence of the king of British cool. He keeps thinking that almost whispering makes him look badass and, given how the Transporter films have always been dangerously close to having his character overshadowed by the femme fatales of the series anyway, that lack of Statham makes that possibility an unfortunate reality. Not that I’m dissing Chabanol, as she’s more than capable in her role; just that they needed someone with a more forceful personality to balance things out. I’m sure this’ll add more fuel to the fire that 2015 was the year where male action stars got overtaken by their female co-stars; for the rest of us who have perspective, it’s just disappointing. However, this is helped a bit by Stevenson as Frank Sr. Now, while this would have worked a lot better if he was the original Frank from the last three films, and Frank Jr. just wanted to continue the family business, it is unfortunately not the case. So, yes, Skrein is indeed meant to be our Statham for this film. Thankfully, Stevenson is having a lot of fun on set here which results in a damn engaging performance. I doubt that just anyone could have convincingly told someone that they were going to use cobwebs as part of a makeshift surgery.

And speaking of the wildly ludicrous, let’s get to the writing of this thing. Honestly, even though it does follow the series tradition of extremely convoluted revenge plots, I’ll admit that it has a decent and well-paced set-up. Really, it only starts to really fall apart once it comes to why the Martins got involved, which reached the point where I started wondering if this was even meant to be a Transporter film in the first place. Then we get to the relationship between Frank Jr. and Karasov, and the explanations we get for Frank’s background actually make sense, like the reasons why he sticks to his rules like he does. The fact that his background gets fleshed out, even if only a little bit, makes me again have to scrutinise Skrein’s performance here. If he was even remotely close to Statham with how he played it, these revelations might have had a bit more of a kick to them. Then again, these points are so minor, the film could’ve carried on without them; it’s just a nice addition to the overall product.

Now for the important part: The action beats. More than anything else, the Transporter series is best known aesthetically for its Hong Kong style fight scenes. Outside of Jason Statham, they’re the main reason to watch them in the first place. Here is where we get to another person who didn’t return for this installment: Fight choreographer Corey Yuen. One only need to look at Transporter 2’s firehose sequence to see that the man has a flair for creatively bizarre but extremely effective bouts. This film doesn’t feel like it has the same skill behind the scenes, but I’d be lying if I said these scenes weren’t awesome in their own right. In fact, these are where my bitching about Skrein stops because, when he’s in a scene that doesn’t require him to talk, the man knows how to sell a fight scene. These also enter into the realms of the absurd, like when Frank Jr. fights a group of thugs while outside of his car that is still slowly rolling along to a locked gate, but that sense of cartoon reality honestly ends making them even better. It also helps that, between the throwdowns and the car chases, it’s mostly done practically; it is immensely more satisfying seeing actual cars crashing into each other rather than the usual CGI-sploitation we usually get.

All in all, this is Luc Besson doing what he does best: Dumb but fun action fluff. However, unlike his last effort from earlier in the year, this doesn’t feel like the exact same thing we’ve been seeing for years now. If anything, the Hong Kong-style fight scenes are something that’s been sorely missing in today’s more explosion-heavy and CGI-abusing scene. It may still suck that Statham didn’t return for this one, but the film just manages to hold together without him, thanks largely to a very fun performance from Ray Stevenson. If you have a taste for Besson’s brand of bombast, check this out. It’s better than Paper Planes as, even with that film’s gloriously cheesy ending, this film wins out because it makes for a remarkably fresh breath of air in terms of fight scenes. Seriously, flesh and blood fighting shouldn’t be this rare nowadays. However, despite how much fun this was, no singular moment here hit me as hard as some of the Das Sound Machine sequences from Pitch Perfect 2. As such, it ranks just below that.

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Trying to make a commentary on modern-day sexual politics is probably one of the more difficult things to do right. I say this not because making such statements are all that tricky; it’s because of how said statements are often interpreted by audiences. Rather than taking on board the fact that there is a reason why characters in a given creative medium are acting the way they are, they will instead fixate on the fact that you have people acting in rather sexist ways. Not to say that there aren’t cases where they are just being sexist; I mean, possibly because of how unfortunately common such behaviour is, we don’t even notice when it is being done for reasons other than the writer doesn’t know how to socialize properly. Take, for instance, Gone Girl. A sharply written look into gender roles and the media, yet people only seemed to notice how sexist the two main characters were… despite that kind of being the point of the film. Just because they’re the focus doesn’t necessarily mean we have to sympathize with them. With all this in mind, we have yet another film that wants to try its hand at similar subject matter… and going just by the approval ratings it’s gotten, it’s not looking hopeful. This is Home Sweet Hell.

The plot: Don Champagne (Patrick Wilson) is a semi-successful furniture salesman who lives semi-happily with his wife Mona (Katherine Heigl) and their two children. However, when Don starts having an affair with his new co-worker Dusty (Jordana Brewster), their married life starts to get shaken up. Once Dusty tries to extort money out of Don to keep her quiet, Don confesses everything to his wife who comes to only one natural conclusion: Dusty has to die. All of a sudden, Mona’s impossibly intricate attitude to life and her goals starts to take on a whole new light.

Patrick Wilson is a very good actor. Don Champagne, on the other hand, is not; not by a long shot. I draw attention to the difference between the two because Wilson is really good in this movie at being a very bad pretender. The first act of the film, where we see how badly he tries to look like he’s happy with his life and fails, is honestly really effective. It also helps further the film’s theme about how perceptions can be deceiving, coupled with a rather robotic performance from Heigl. However, for the first time in her entire career, her usual coldness works to her advantage here as she portrays a Stepford Wife by way of Joan Crawford, creating serious wince-inducers anytime she’s on-screen near knives. Jordana Brewster is… not that impressive, really. She was put in this film to be the eye candy/gold digger, and that’s all she gives; no more, no less.

Keep in mind my comments about sexual satire, and the fact that Married With Children is my all-time favourite TV show, in mind as I go on. At first, the film’s premise of the psychotic wife, the spineless husband, the slutty co-worker and the rather misogynistic drunk that is his other co-worker (Jim Belushi), got a couple of laughs out of me. This was mainly out of how well Wilson portrayed Don but, nevertheless, it starts out well enough. Then the little details begin to creep in and a sudden realization comes: Haven’t I seen all this before?. Now, this might automatically seem like a bad thing but, let’s be honest, how many original ideas are there? And I’m not just talking about the current state of Hollywood; I’m talking in terms of overall creativity. Originality is kind of overrated, since pretty much everything is a reworking of everything else.

No, what makes this film bad when it comes to being derivative is that it is an extremely tired re-working of elements that have been done countless times before. Remixing means more than just looping the same tune over and over again; you have to add your own touches to make it into something fresh(er). The social ideals about getting into “Champagne society” (Actual fucking quote, just to illustrate my point further), the sexual politics about the compromises needed to make a marriage work, the querying about where the need for materialism starts, the worrying about “what will the neighbours think?”; it doesn’t raise any new points or even portray the old points in any interesting ways. Between American Beauty, Gone Girl, The Lobster and God knows how many others have touched on these subjects, this can’t help but feel extremely behind the rest of the game. I find myself intensely annoyed at the fact that the film keeps presenting possibilities for interesting plot twists, and then just dropping them because the filmmakers apparently couldn’t be bothered to try.

But, like I said, that would be fine if the re-used ideas were utilized well. Unfortunately, between the characterization and the plot development, this is an very stupidly written film. The aforementioned good acting from Wilson and Heigl? Their respective methods only work in certain scenes, mainly those found in the first act. Beyond that, Wilson’s inability to bluff stops being effective and starts bringing questions about how the hell no-one has found out about him yet. Along with him, Heigl’s cold exterior ends up being a lot more robotic than the role really calls for; like so many other actors out there, she can’t discern between showing no emotion and having no emotion. One is hiding something, the other is just bad acting. She even gets a chance to step outside of that and let out some seriously repressed memories, and actually does a good job. However, by the end credits, what she has given audiences just ends up being a tonally confused performance overall. Beyond the acting, these are two extremely stupid characters. For as much as Mona gives the air that she knows what she’s doing, supposedly, she makes a lot of amateur mistakes when it comes to the gorier acts that need to be done. Don, considering how well he apparently knows his wife, should know full well that he can just let whoever is coming after them come after them because Mona, in the film’s universe at least, is more than capable of dealing with them. Him being spineless and her being able to hide it well are excuses, after a while, fail to make up for the sheer idiocy on display.

All in all, the sexism is easily the least offensive aspect of this film; after all, in a better film, it could have served a higher purpose. Where this film ultimately fails, despite some decent performances early on, is that it just re-hashes old ideas and revelations without even presenting them in a fresh way; it’s like a compilation of The Lie Of The American Dream’s Greatest Hits. It’s a far less compelling, far weaker, far dumber version of Gone Girl; go watch that instead if you haven’t already. It’s worse than Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2, which actually managed a moment of transcendent comedy gold despite the rest of its many, many faults. However, as frustrating as this film is, it didn’t annoy me nearly as much as the ‘comedy’ stylings of Now Add Honey. In fact, I dare say that that film did an even worse job at delivering satire.

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