The Wicker Man (2006, Neil LaBute)

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SPOILER WARNING: These reviews reveal plot twists! Also, this review is based on the director’s cut of the film, which differs slightly from the theatrical release.

Californian motorcycle cop Edward Malus (Nicolas Cage) travels to the remote island of Summersisle after his ex-girlfriend writes to say that her daughter, Rowan, has gone missing. But when he arrives he uncovers many shocking secrets…

Seen on its own merits, this remake of 1973’s The Wicker Man is a watchable bit of hokum – it passes the time well enough without ever impressing you. However, when compared to the original, it’s a near-disaster. The changes to the story make little sense, the director opts for the obvious all too often, and Nicolas Cage’s performance includes at least two scenes where his OTT tendencies become laughable.

While broadly the same plotline as the 1973 original, there are a number of differences. The story has been shifted to the autumnal north-west of America, for example, while the lead character now has a prior personal connection to the island. Edward Malus is also a very different man from Sgt Neil Howie. Malus is not a devout Christian so he’s just dismissive of the island’s bizarre religion, rather than offended by it. This is a big change that has a huge, negative impact. Stripped of its religious satire – these villagers practise some vague, made-up beliefs based around bees rather than the historically resonant paganism of the original film – the plot becomes much more conventional. This is simply a straight-ahead horror film about a ‘normal’ man trapped with weird people doing weird things.

Not that Edward Malus is totally normal – how could he be while played by Nicolas Cage? But the character is lighter than Sgt Howie and Cage handles the gags and general bemusement well. He also gets a new bit of backstory: before heading to the island to help a missing girl and her mother, he fails to save a different girl and her mother from a burning car. (The burning, of course, also foreshadows the film’s ending.) This creates huge guilt on his part, driving his obsession to travel to the island on his own dime when his police colleagues seem less than interested. It’s such a shame that writer/director Neil LaBute feels the need to ‘spookify’ this plot point up, though. After the accident, Malus is told that no bodies were found in the car and the cops can’t find out who the woman and child were. This is representative of the movie’s biggest problem. It wants to replace the original’s subtly with on-the-nose horror clichés.

The islanders, for example, are much less interesting than the Hebrideans in 1973. Those people were terrifying because, well, they were so nice. But here we get openly hostile and provocative women – including twins talking in unison – who dress in old-fashioned, Amish-type clothes. The characters have no depth or ambiguity to them: they’re just creepy, end of story. Incidentally, there *are* men on the island but none of them speaks or has any power. It’s a big bee metaphor, you see. The island industry is honey, so there are plenty of illusions to bees in the dialogue and production design; the community’s leader, Sister Summersilse (Ellen Burstyn from The Exorcist), is the queen and everyone else constitutes her workers. But the more the bees feature in the story, the sillier everything becomes.

In fact, the weirdest shit happens after the allergic-to-bees Malus has been stung, making you momentarily question whether he’s hallucinating everything. Then, while the islanders prepare for some sort of fertility ritual, he disguises himself in a bear costume and starts punching women in the face. As in 1973, we then get the big reveal: the girl’s disappearance was staged in order to lure Malus to the island so he could be sacrificed to the gods. Rowan herself (who, by the way, turned out to be Malus’s daughter) and her mother were in on it, though in a nice bit of shading the mother (a vacant Kate Beahan) seems guilty about her involvement.

Cage goes off the deep end now, especially once the villagers cover his head with a wicker basket and fill it with bees. It’s an acting style with one foot in reality and the other on the fucking moon. The villagers also break his legs, then haul him up into an enormous wicker-man edifice and set fire to it.

But it’s very difficult to take any of this seriously; there’s no dread, no terror involved. In a cruel twist it’s young Rowan who lights the flame. But rather than feeling for Malus, you’re just grateful that it’s all over. (In the version of the film released in cinemas, it wasn’t. Viewers got an unnecessary coda scene set months later. Two of the island’s women are in a city bar, picking up two innocent blokes – one of whom is played by James Franco. The cycle continues, you see.)

Five cameos from Aaron Eckhart out of 10

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The Karate Kid Part III (1989, John G Avildsen)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Daniel LaRusso’s former nemesis John Kreese enlists a powerful friend to help get revenge…

Cast and story:
* As with Part II, this film begins with a montage of the story so far. We get clips from the first two movies to remind us who John Kreese (Martin Kove) is and why he hates Daniel LaRusso (Ralph Macchio) and Mr Miyagi (Pat Morita) so much.
* As this film’s story gets underway, Kreese is down on his luck. He’s shuffling about unshaven and his once-thriving dojo has closed down. So he goes to see his boss: Terry Silver (Thomas Ian Griffith), who’s also an old pal from their Vietnam days. (The 16-year age gap between the actors doesn’t seem to be important.) Silver is a ponytailed twat: a crass businessman who’s made his fortune by dealing in nuclear waste. Seeing his friend so defeated, he pays for Kreese to go on holiday and then resolves to get revenge on Daniel and Miyagi for… you know, winning a minor karate tournament for under-18s… Right, okay…
* As Kreese gets on a plane, coming the other way at the airport are Daniel and Mr Miyagi. They’re just getting home from their trip to Okinawa in the previous film (which means this 1989 movie is actually set in 1985). Daniel’s bulked up somewhat while on holiday.
* The pair soon get a shock: Daniel’s apartment building, where Mr M works as caretaker, is being demolished. With Daniel’s mum looking after an ill relative in New Jersey (Randee Heller returns for a tiny cameo at the end of a phone), Daniel moves in with Mr Miyagi. He also uses his college fund to set up a new business for his friend: a bonsai shop.
* Meanwhile, Terry Silver is working full-time on his revenge plan. He hires a young karate hotshot called Mike Barnes (Sean Kanan), who bullies Daniel into competing in the next Under-18 All-Valley Karate Championship. However, not keen on the situation, Mr Miyagi refuses to train his friend.
* Terry then goes to Daniel and claims to be from Kreese’s original dojo. He apologises for what happened in the first film and tells Daniel that Kreese has died. Oh, and while he’s here why doesn’t he train Daniel for the competition? However, Terry’s tactics are harsher and more violent than Miyagi’s and the training regime not only injures Daniel but makes him feel uneasy…
* As with the last film, Daniel’s girlfriend has dumped him off-screen. But he soon meets a young woman who works in the pottery shop across the street. Jessica Andrews (a bland Robyn Lively) is introduced via a suggestive shot of her hands caressing some clay on a wheel, but the relationship never really goes anywhere. She even drops out of the story before the karate-tournament climax.
* After Daniel tells Terry he’s not going to fight in the tournament after all, Silver reveals that he’s in league with Mike Barnes… and Kreese, who’s not dead! The whole thing’s been a plan to punish Daniel for winning in the first film! Mwa-ha-ha-ha! The three are about to beat Danny up, but then Mr Miyagi arrives (yay!) and saves him. Finally, Mr M agrees to train Daniel for this year’s tournament.
* A rule change has just been brought in that says the defending champion goes straight through to the final, so at least we’re saved a montage of Daniel beating no-hopers. Then in the final he faces – wouldn’t you know it? – Mike Barnes, who keeps alternating between scoring a point and hurting Daniel on purpose. But Daniel eventually manages to win. Kreese and Silver, watching on from the sidelines, are not happy.

Review: This tired re-tread of the first Karate Kid film suffers from an obvious, cartoon villain. We’re asked to believe that a powerful, successful millionaire is willing to spend weeks of his life engineering a convoluted plan simply to embarrass a schoolboy. Terry Silver is like a bad guy from The A-Team or Scooby-Doo. He has no depth, no nuance, no personality beyond being a bad guy (“What do you mean you can’t dump it in Borneo? Who in Borneo knows what chloride sludge is?”). At least the first movie’s chief antagonist was an angry teenager who was embarrassed about being dumped. Part III also has a very boring love story for Daniel, though part of this lacklustreness was because they cast a 17-year-old to play opposite the 27-year-old Ralph Macchio and some of the more romantic scenes had to be dropped. A disappointingly drab film.

Five bonsai trees out of 10

The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles: Transylvania, January 1918 (1995, Dick Maas)

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An occasional series where I write about works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: The bulk of the story takes place in January 1918 in Venice and Transylvania. There are also bookends featuring an older Indiana Jones (George Hall) back home in America; it’s Halloween in the early 1990s.

Faithful to the novel? The connection to Dracula lies in the fact that this TV episode – which obviously was a spin-off from the 1980s movie series – features a vampire version of Vlad the Impaler who is Bram Stoker’s character in all but name. Indiana Jones (Sean Patrick Flanery) travels to Venice during the First World War. He’s operating under the alias Henri Defense and working for US intelligence. Four months previously, a POW camp in Austria was attacked by a Romanian general called Mattias Targo and the Allied prisoners are now missing. So Indy and his superior officer Colonel Walters (Keith Szarabajka) are sent to find out what’s happened. There are lengthy shots of them travelling into rural Transylvania and then they have an edgy encounter in an unfriendly bar. Hooking up with some local agents – Dr Franz Heinzer (Sam Kelly), Nicholas (Paul Kynman) and Maria (Simone Bendix) – they track down the prisoners, then head to a nearby castle… which is spooky and on a hilltop. Lightning strikes as they see it. After Indy and the others break in, they find bodies impaled on spikes – and deduce that Targo is copying Vlad Tepes, the 15th-century warlord known as Vlad the Impaler who killed over 100,000 people. There’s other weird shit going on too, including balls of lightning that float about. Maria is then possessed, blood flows down the walls, and Walters is electrocuted to death. Eventually, Indy finds General Targo (Bob Peck), who turns out to be a vampire with a Bela Lugosi accent. He’s been capturing soldiers for his army of undead warriors. Indy and Maria try to escape, but Targo gives chase. The pair eventually stake him.

Best performance: Sam Kelly as Dr Heinzer, who is later revealed to be a double agent for the Austrians called Adolf Schmidt.

Best bit: Clearly a lot of money was spent on this series – the sets and locations are very impressive.

Review: This episode was meant to be the final instalment of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicle’s second season in 1993. However, the series was axed by ABC and Transylvania, January 1918 was one of four episodes not shown. There was a screening on German TV in 1995, then it got a wider public release in 1996 when the series was reedited into movie-length specials for a VHS release. Transylvania, January 1918 was combined with an episode called Istanbul, September 1918 (originally broadcast 17 July 1993) and the result was branded as The Adventures of Young Indiana Jones: Masks of Evil. Sadly, Indy’s adventure in Transylvania doesn’t exactly sing. There’s cheesy dialogue, a few dodgy performances, and clichés all over the place. Characters have penis-measuring contests for no reason; Indy is a passive character who’s just along for the ride; and the horror is either implied or tame. A dud.

Five paper aeroplanes out of 10

Night Gallery: The Devil is Not Mocked (27 October 1971, NBC, Gene Kearney)

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An occasional series where I write about works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: A castle in the Balkans during the Second World War. There’s a brief framing device in the modern day (ie, the early 70s).

Faithful to the novel? The Devil is Not Mocked makes up the last quarter of an hour-long episode from the American TV show Night Gallery (1969-1973). This anthology series was created by Rod Serling as a more horror-based version of his earlier hit The Twilight Zone. He appears on screen at the start of the hour to introduce the episode’s first story (A Question of Fear, which stars Leslie Nielsen) then again after 45 minutes to tee up The Devil is Not Mocked. The latter segment was based on a short story by pulp writer Manly Wade Wellman and is about a Nazi general called von Grunn (Helmut Dantine). During the Second World War, he arrives at a Balkan castle, intending to search it for resistance fighters. His soldiers force their way in, but the castle’s owner – a strange, calm nobleman in a cape (Francis Lederer) – seems unconcerned. Von Grunn reckons that the man is the leader of the local resistance, but when midnight strikes all the Nazis are wiped out by the nobleman’s acolytes and wolves. As he closes in on the general, the man confirms that he’s the leader of the rebels and then announces that he’s also Count Dracula…

Best performance: This was Francis Lederer’s second go as the famous vampire: 13 years earlier he’d starred in a tame horror movie called The Return of Dracula.

Best bit: When von Grunn tells Dracula that they’re going to burn his castle down, Dracula just smiles benignly. If he were a Twitter gif the caption would be, “Bitch please.”

Review: Evil meets evil in a 15-minute drama. It has just one story beat: a punchline that surely every member of the audience sees coming a mile off. In its favour, the plot is notable for Dracula being (relatively speaking) the good guy.

Five paintings out of 10

The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973, Alan Gibson)

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An occasional series where I write about works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: London and the surrounding area. We’re told that the events of Dracula A.D. 1972, of which this is a sequel, were ‘over two years ago’. The climax takes place very close to 23 November, which is said to be the sabbath of the undead.

Faithful to the novel? This was Hammer’s eighth Dracula film in 15 years, so the book is now a dim and distant memory… A secret agent escapes from a country house where some prominent members of society have been taking part in strange rituals. His bosses Peter Torrence (William Franklyn) and Colonel Matthews (Richard Vernon) then recruit a policeman called Murray (Michael Coles) to investigate the cult further. He in turn ropes in occult expert Lorrimer Van Helsing (Peter Cushing), who lives with his granddaughter Jessica (Joanna Lumley). (Murray, Lorrimer and Jessica are returning characters from Dracula AD 1972, though the latter role has been recast.) Lorrimer realises that one of the cultists is an old friend and this eventually leads him to a businessman called DD Denham, whose shiny new office building was built on the site of the church from the previous film. Guess what: Denham is actually a resurrected Count Dracula (Christopher Lee, playing the vampire in a Hammer film for the seventh and final time)! He’s planning an apocalypse, using his own ‘four horsemen’ to distribute the bubonic plague. After a lengthy sequence at the country house – in which various female vampires meet their end – Lorrimer lures the Count into a hawthorn bush (go, biblical subtext!) and stakes him through the heart.

Best performance: Peter Cushing, who was always able to make hokum watchable.

Best bit: When the team first investigate the house, Jessica sneaks into the cellar, which is full of coffins. Then she finds Torrence’s secretary Jane (Valerie Van Ost) chained to a wall. We’d earlier seen her kidnapped by the cult and turned by Count Dracula. At first, Jess thinks Jane is dead – but we viewers know otherwise. Jessica creeps closer, feels for a pulse, and Jane turns to look at her. She smiles… then lunges with her fangs. Then other female vamps start to emerge from the coffins and close in…

Review: This starts out well. A Satanic cult are carrying out bizarre ceremonies in an English country house, while the British Secret Service are getting worried about it in their modern, brightly lit offices. It has the feel of an episode of, say, The Avengers or Doctor Who. (Incidentally, Don Houghton had recently worked on the latter when he wrote this film. Perhaps choosing 23 November as the plot’s key date was an in-joke: it’s the day Doctor Who began in 1963.). And the storytelling is often fun, with information being drip-feed during different scenes. However, the longer the film goes on the more it drags and the less it entertains. Few of the characters have much spark or life to them, especially Joanna Lumley’s Jessica, who’s a noticeably blander, older and less fun version of the character we saw in the preceding film.

Five Afghan coats out of 10

Dracula Has Risen From the Grave (1968, Freddie Francis)

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An occasional series where I write about works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: A prologue is set in 1905, then the bulk of the film takes place a year later. The location is Hammer’s default, mid-European fantasyland. A lot of the story takes place in a village called Keinenberg.

Faithful to the novel? This is the fourth entry in Hammer Films’ Dracula series. At the start, Count Dracula is terrorising a village, but we then cut to a year later – ie, after the events of Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966). The count is dead but the villagers still fear him – so a visiting monsignor called Ernest Mueller (Rupert Davies) attempts to exorcise the abandoned castle. However, during the ceremony the local priest (Ewan Hooper) accidentally resurrects the vampire (d’oh!) when his blood drips into the vampire’s icy-moat grave. (During this scene, Dracula sees his own reflection in the water.) Unaware of any trouble, Mueller returns home. Dracula (Christopher Lee) follows, wanting revenge for what’s happened to his castle, and targets Mueller’s niece Maria (Veronica Carlson). Maria’s mother (Marion Mathie) and fun-loving boyfriend (Barry Andrews) get caught up in the mayhem, as does local barmaid Zena (Barbara Ewing).

Best performance: Barbara Ewing as the flirty Zena.

Best bit: The prologue shows a young man discovering a corpse in the church: a woman hanging upside down in the bell tower.

Review: This film is hamstrung by all the usual Hammer limitations: the cast is tiny, we get very used to the same few sets, the locations are generic, and there’s some risible day-for-night shooting. But in a couple of ways it’s an interesting entry in the series. The nominal hero of the story, Paul, is an atheist. Admittedly, this detail doesn’t really go anywhere, but it’s a nice change from the norm. And Freddie Francis (an Oscar-winning cinematographer as well as this film’s director) uses coloured filters on the edges of shots associated with Dracula. This gives them a strange, stained-glass-window quality, which is both unusual and effective.

Five rooftops out of 10

Van Helsing: The London Assignment (2004, Sharon Bridgeman)

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An occasional series where I write about works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: This 30-minute animated special was produced to promote the 2004 movie Van Helsing and dramatises the events immediately before that film’s main storyline. The DVD packaging says it’s set in 1889, a date that’s confirmed by Queen Victoria being 70 years old, even though the parent movie takes place in 1888. The locations are London and the Vatican City.

Faithful to the novel? It’s a new storyline. Dr Jekyll (Dwight Schultz) is the Queen’s personal physician, yet has been secretly turning into a monster called Hyde (Robbie Coltrane), killing women, and bottling their dying breaths. Vatican monster-hunter Gabriel Van Helsing (Hugh Jackman) and his sidekick Carl (David Wenham) are sent to combat him. Turns out, Dr J has been in love with Queen Victoria since she was a young woman and wants to return her to her former beauty and marry her.

Best performance: Give them their due, the producers convinced Hugh Jackman, David Wenham and Robbie Coltrane to reprise their movie roles.

Best bit: The film begins with a 1930s Universal logo. Nice touch.

Review: Various Victorian clichés have been thrown into the mix: as well as Van Helsing himself, we get fog-bound London streets, the chimes of Big Ben, a version of Jack the Ripper (though that name is never used), the Jekyll and Hyde story, the London Underground, beefeaters and Queen Vicky herself. The animation’s stylish, but the story’s slight.

Five proper-sized corsets out of 10

House of Dracula (1945, Erle C Kenton)

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An occasional series where I write about works inspired by Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula…

These reviews reveal plot twists.

Setting: It’s vague. There are lots of Germanic names, but most of the characters have American accents. There are telephones but no cars.

Faithful to the novel? This is a sequel to 1944’s House of Frankenstein and another of Universal Pictures’ character-crossover events. Despite being destroyed in the previous film, Count Dracula (John Carradine) is back. He wants a cure for his undeadedness, so visits Dr Franz Edelmann (Onslow Stevens), who is remarkably unfazed by a famous vampire walking in at 5am and asking to see the cellar. Dr Edelmann has a couple of nurses working for him. One of them, Nina (Jane Adams), has a deformed back and he intends to help her with an operation. Then – how’s this for a coincidence? – a guy called Lawrence Talbot (Lon Chaney Jr) shows up asking the doctor to cure his werewolfedness. (This was Chaney’s fourth time playing Universal’s Wolf Man.) Depressed that the treatment might not work, Talbot then tries to top himself. He jumps off a nearby cliff but ends up in a cave, where he and Edelmann find Frankenstein’s monster (Glenn Strange) and the corpse of Dr Niemann from the previous film. Meanwhile, Dracula tries to seduce a nurse called Milizia (Martha O’Driscoll) – so to protect her, Edelmann kills the Count with 25 minutes of the film still to go. However, Dracula had earlier infected Edelmann with some vamp blood during a transfusion. So the doctor now has a bonkers dream, which involves clips from previous movies, then goes mental and kills a couple of people (including poor Nina). Talbot reluctantly has to shoot him dead.

Best performance: This was John Carradine’s second appearance as Dracula, after House of Frankenstein. He’s suave and cultured. He later played the Count in three non-Universal films: Billy the Kid Versus Dracula (1966), Las vampiras (1969) and Nocturna: Granddaughter of Dracula (1979). His son David was Bill in Kill Bill.

Best bit: Nina is an interesting character. Given her deformity, she was actually classified as one of the movie’s monsters in some of the publicity (see the poster above). Yet Jane Adams plays her with an inner sadness, and the moment when she realises Dracula isn’t casting a shadow is well staged.

Review: There are a few nice elements on show here, such as some fantastic sets and some good special effects. The bat-to-Drac transformation is neatly done in shadow, for example, while Talbot turning into a werewolf is achieved via some very nifty dissolves with Chaney’s make-up getting increasingly hirsuite. But the B-movie dialogue and cod acting drag everything down.

Five hunchbacks out of 10

The Incredible Hulk (2008, Louis Leterrier)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Bruce Banner (Edward Norton) is on the run after an experiment gone wrong: if he gets too angry or excited he’ll turn into a giant, green, rampaging monster. Meanwhile, the military are on his trail…

In retrospect, this has become the forgotten film of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. The lead character has never been given a solo sequel and was recast for later appearances in the series; it took eight years for one of the secondary characters to crop up again, while love interest Betty (Liv Tyler) hasn’t even been mentioned. And it wasn’t the first Incredible Hulk movie to be ignored. There had been one just five years earlier, simply called Hulk, which hadn’t been very successful. (People didn’t like Bruce Banner when he was directed by Ang Lee.) If you squint and ignore the fact all the actors are different, you could pretend that the backstory being told in The Incredible Hulk’s opening credit sequence – Bruce undergoes experiments, gets zapped, turns into monster – is a recap of that earlier film. But this is technically a reboot and it’s quite refreshing that it isn’t yet another origin story. The story begins with Bruce in hiding, his Hulk tendencies plaguing him (he’s on a run of 159 days without ‘incident’). Sadly, the big problem with the concept then rears its head. You only really have one plot with this character: Bruce doesn’t want to get angry, Bruce doesn’t want to get angry, Bruce doesn’t want to get angry, Bruce doesn’t want to get angry, Bruce gets angry. Edward Norton – who also worked on the script – is not awful in the role, but does seem to be an actor on autopilot. Coming just a month after Robert Downey Jr’s attention-grabbing performance in Iron Man, it’s just not good enough. Elsewhere, the small cast also fail to excite. Liv Tyler sleepwalks through an underwritten role, William Hurt goes for comic-book-villain thinness as gruff General Ross, and Tim Roth is miscast as Emil Blonsky, a Royal Marine from Russia who talks like an American with a Cockney accent and shoots a dog so we know he’s evil. The film works best when adding lightness to all the shade – Bruce has a good gag when trying out Portuguese: “You wouldn’t like me when I’m hungry!” – but the film is routinely sombre and lifeless. Everything seems like it’s going through the motions. There are flashes of invention, such as a joke about why Bruce shouldn’t use the subway or Tim Blake Nelson as a scientist who feels like he’s visiting from a better movie, but the story is always told in the most straightforward and unsurprising way possible. There are also some ridiculously dull action sequences that are repetitive variations on monster-versus-military. (The climactic battle is CGI monster versus CGI monster and seems to never end.)  At least the film sometimes looks pretty. The early scenes of Bruce hiding in Brazil are quirky and colourful and contrast well with the Michael Bay sheen used for the military characters. The movie then feels like a Jason Bourne spy chase when the two worlds collide. But the movie suffers from a fatal lack of distinction and is often quite boring. The most interesting thing about it is its place in a growing shared universe. There are blink-and-miss sightings of the Stark Industries logo and Nick Fury’s name, then Tony Stark shows up for a fun cameo. It seems like the film itself is already more excited about the rest of the series.

Five bottles of Guarana soda out of 10

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Suicide Squad (2016, David Ayer)

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Spoiler warning: these reviews reveal plot twists.

Due to the existence of powerful ‘meta-humans’, a team of reprobates is assembled to combat them if something goes wrong…

Good guys: Well, there aren’t any, really. The ‘heroes’ of the story are Task Force X, a ragbag team of prisoners who have committed a variety of crimes but are offered shorter sentences if they help the government. (We know they’re bad guys because they keep telling us they are.) Two of the group shine noticeably brighter than anyone else in the film: Deadshot and Harley Quinn. The former’s real name is Floyd Lawton and he’s played by Will Smith. An assassin with preternatural marksmanship, he also has an 11-year-old daughter (which manipulatively tells us that he can’t be entirely evil). Smith, as always, knows what he’s doing and the character has a fair amount of sarcasm and swagger. Meanwhile, Harley Quinn – real name Harleen Quinzel – is played by Margot Robbie. She’s a former psychiatrist who was turned loopy after sessions with master criminal The Joker. They fell in love and went on a crime spree, including murdering Batman’s friend Robin. Interestingly, rather than debuting in a comic book, Harley Quinn was created in the early 90s for the TV show Batman: The Animated Series. She’s a punky, crazy, flirtatious, immature, gleeful cheerleader type with peroxide hair, a crop top and a baseball bat. Robbie is ace, bringing bags of energy and danger. It’s no surprise that a solo movie for the character has been rumoured recently. (A more responsible blogger might also discuss the troubling subtext of an ostentatiously sexy character who talks and dresses like a little girl. But let’s ignore that and return to being sniffy about Suicide Squad…) Elsewhere, Task Force X’s other members are all desperately dull. Army Special Forces Colonel Rick Flag (Joel Kinnaman) is the leader, though he himself has no super powers or anything. George ‘Digger’ Harkness aka Captain Boomerang (Jai Courtney) is a tough, uncouth Australian who – wait for it – uses a boomerang to kill people. Chato Santana aka El Diablo (Jay Hernandez) is a former gang member who can generate and withstand fire; he has lots of tats and, admittedly, a bit of a backstory. Waylon Jones aka Killer Croc (Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje) is a man who’s been mutated into a humanoid crocodile. He has no personality. Neither does Tatsu Yamashiro aka Katana (Karen Fukuhara), a martial-arts expert who has a big sword, nor Christopher Weiss aka Slipknot (Adam Beach), a guy who can climb anything. Both join the team later than everyone else with precious little fanfare or consequence. Slightly more interestingly, Ben Affleck reprises his Batman from the previous film in this series. He appears briefly in flashbacks but chooses not to take part in the potentially world-destroying main story. Does his jurisdiction only extend to the Gotham-and-Metropolis area? The Flash (Ezra Miller) also cameos from the previous film.

Bad guys: The antagonist of the story is the Enchantress, a 6,373-year-old, mystical, evil, extra-dimensional entity who has inhabited the body of archaeologist June Moon. Both characters are played by Cara Delevinge. It’s tempting to assume that her contributions were trimmed down in editing – the characters don’t appear much in the finished film and when they do it feels like we’re cutting around a weak actress (or at least a miscast one). The Enchantress wants revenge for something or other and plans to kill everyone or whatever. (If you think that last sentence was sloppy, it still tops how much thought the filmmakers put into the character.) A more heavily featured villain is Amanda Waller (Viola Davis), the government official who assembles Task Force X yet has shadowy motives. Additionally, Jared Leto plays The Joker Who Inevitably Disappoints Because He’s The One Who Comes After Heath Ledger. The character has been repurposed as a gold-toothed, tattooed, hip-hop gangster, but he’s not especially interesting or important.

Best bits:
* The first 21 minutes of the movie form a whip-crack-fast opening act that introduces us to all the main characters, uses fun flashbacks, features cameos from Batman and the Flash, sets up the concept of the squad, and contains both humour and decent visual effects. The sequence rocks with energy, and it’s great fun. It’s like watching a hyper version of Hustle or Ocean’s Eleven. We get quickly cut montages, on-screen captions, treated footage, famous songs used as score, dislocating editing and trippy sound effects – there’s a flamboyance and a freedom. The rest of the film simply can’t compete.
* Deadshot pulls a gun on a prison guard. “If this man shoots me,” the guard tells a colleague, “I want you to kill him. And I want you to go clear my browser history.”
* Harley Quinn beating people up to the sound of Black Sabbath’s Paranoid.
* The montage of the squad tooling up for a mission is cut dead when Harley realises that every man close by is perving at her.
* A nice twist: the squad has been fighting to get to a room… then discover it contains their boss, Waller, who soon kills her co-workers so they don’t learn her nefarious plan. “I like her,” deadpans Killer Croc in his one moment of individuality in the whole film.
* The ending: the Joker breaking Harley out of prison. Hashtag sequel set-up
* A mid-credits scene that teases the forthcoming Justice League movie: Bruce Wayne getting some information from Waller.

Review: This film is a spin-off from the dreadful Man of Steel (2013) and the even more dreadfuller Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016); the series of movies is known as the DC Extended Universe. But as we start, there’s a nice surprise. It seems that Suicide Squad has turned its back on the dreary house style. Instead, the tone is fun and refreshingly dangerous. The opening 20 minutes are full of attitude, spikiness, threat and dark comedy. Even the studio logos that start the film are tinted in neon purples and greens. This pop-art sensibility reminds you of Batman: The Animated Series (1992-1995) or Gotham (2014 onwards), two theatrically styled TV shows also inspired by the same comics as Suicide Squad. Sadly, all that is quickly forgotten and the movie morphs into a drab, lifeless, voice-less franchise film. The longer it goes on, in fact, the worse it gets. Writer/director David Ayer reportedly wrote the script in six weeks and it has the tell-tale signs of being rushed. (Clearly a lot of work has gone into the set-up. The middle act and climax, though, reek of that’ll-do desperation.) The story descends into utter garbage and the second half of the film is really, really appalling. When you can follow what’s happening it’s impossible to care about any of it. Suicide Squad is also another case of the DC Extended Universe mechanically copying something the Marvel series of superhero films did first… yet failing to understand why it worked. This is DC’s equivalent of Guardians of the Galaxy (2014) – both films have an irreverent tone and feature a team of misfits. Guardians, however, also had wit, style and characterisation. This is just a mess. The story is confused, the characters ridiculous, the humour often terrible, the action boring. However, based on the strength of the opening 20 minutes and its general punky attitude, let’s give the film a generous score…

Five workplace romances out of 10