Starring: Denzel Washington (Man on Fire), Chris Pratt (Guardians of the Galaxy), Ethan Hawke (Sinister), Vincent D’Onofrio (Jurassic World), Byung-hun Lee (GI Joe: Retaliation), Manuel Garcia-Rulfo (Cake), Martin Sensmeier, Haley Bennett (Hardcore Henry), Peter Sarsgaard (Green Lantern)

Director: Antoine Fuqua (Training Day)

Writers: Nic Pizzolatto (True Detective) and Richard Wenk (The Equalizer)

Runtime: 2 hours 12 minutes

Release Date: 23 September (US, UK)

In this landscape of remakes and reboots, a new version of The Magnificent Seven honestly isn’t such a bad idea. The original 1960 classic is itself a westernised retelling of Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece Seven Samurai, and there’s plenty to improve on considering the dated and somewhat un-PC elements of the original film. For this new version, Antoine Fuqua has taken what worked best about both previous versions and given it a modern polish, making for a movie that isn’t necessarily better than either incarnation but is a solid and entertaining western shoot-em-up in its own right.

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The basic premise of a town under threat and the band of heroes assembled to protect it stays pretty much the same, but a lot has been done to update the story for a modern audience. Instead of violent bandits oppressing the town, we have a tyrannical tycoon taking it over. Rather than merely raiding it for supplies, our villain Bogue (Sarsgaard) has complicated motives regarding the relationship between capitalism and God, which also helps give the film greater themes than just “being mean is bad, and teamwork is good”. But most importantly, our titular group is a far more diverse bunch both in terms of skill set and ethnicity (which is refreshingly not made a big deal about). The story certainly has its sombre and emotional moments but it doesn’t take itself too seriously, often feeling tonally closer to a Marvel movie than a classic western, but it’s a welcome take on the genre and for Fuqua’s usually po-faced filmmaking in general. The pacing does lull a bit in the middle as we venture into the typical recruiting of the team, but it does give us time to get to know these characters and only further builds anticipation for the inevitable confrontation. There’s only a few small action beats sprinkled through the first two thirds of the film, all of which are well executed, but once the third act kicks in the movie explodes into a bonanza of gunfire. There is not a moment wasted in the entire sequence, making for an action extravaganza on par with some of the best set pieces of the year so far.

The original Magnificent Seven consisted of some of the manliest men in Hollywood at the time such as Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, Robert Vaughn and James Coburn, and the new team equally reflects today’s perception of the action hero. Denzel Washington once again teams with Fuqua to deliver a typically Denzel performance, stepping into the equivalent shoes of Brynner and making for the perfect leader of this team. Similarly, Chris Pratt is allowed to do what he does best as the wisecracking Farraday and his performance and chemistry with Washington helps keep the film consistently lively. The rest of the Seven don’t get quite as much focus as Washington or Pratt, but they all manage to leave an impression with what they have. Ethan Hawke initially seems perfunctory but is given some depth with his morality regarding violence, and his buddy relationship with the badass Byung-hun Lee further adds to the team dynamic. Manuel Garcia-Rulfo brings some grit as the outlaw of the team, with the back-and-forth between him and Pratt adding more humour, and Martin Sensmeier’s turn as the quiet Comanche warrior Red Harvest is small but memorable. Vincent D’Onofrio pretty much steals every moment he gets as the gentle giant Jack Horne, flitting from reserved mountain man to brutalising berserker at the drop of a hat without losing any of his likability. Rounding out the cast is Haley Bennett as instigator of the team Emma Cullen, who quickly proves herself a character worthy enough to perhaps join this band in the future, and though Peter Sarsgaard’s Bogue is hardly the most nuanced villain he does drench the character with as much slime as he can to make him truly despicable.

As previously mentioned, the action on display in this new Magnificent Seven is easily its biggest draw and what makes it so entertaining once the bullets start flying. Fuqua’s ability to direct action has certainly only gotten better since efforts like Olympus Has Fallen and The Equalizer, but even with the restriction of a PG-13/12A rating he manages to keep it just as brutal. The cinematography and editing practically morph whenever the mood changes; most of the movie has the look and tempo of a classic western, but it quickly adapts to a modern action feel with little jarring effect. The music is also wonderful, not only for featuring the iconic theme song but it also has the sad of honour of being the late James Horner’s final score. His compositions, completed with the assistance of frequent collaborator Simon Franglen, feature all of Horner’s trademarks and acts as a beautiful swansong to one of the great composers of our time.

The Magnificent Seven doesn’t change the game in regards to remakes of classics or the place of westerns in the modern cinema landscape, but it’s certainly an entertaining time at the movies. It captures the spirit of the original whilst not being overly reverent to it and mostly does its own thing, which is exactly what a great remake should do. The cast is an overall success, the story remains as timeless as ever but updated just enough to modern taste, and the action never lets up once it starts. Whether this is the start of a new franchise or just a one-off tribute to the original, it’s something definitely worth checking out whether you love old school westerns, modern action or, most ideally, both.

FINAL VERDICT: 8/10

Starring: Jane Levy (Evil Dead), Dylan Minnette (Goosebumps), Daniel Zovatto (It Follows), Stephen Lang (Avatar)

Director: Fede Alvarez (Evil Dead)

Writers: Fede Alvarez & Rodo Sayagues (Evil Dead)

Runtime: 1 hour 28 minutes

Release Date: 26 August (US), 9 September (UK)

One of the main reasons a lot of horror movies don’t scare me is because I know it’s not real, but that’s doubled whenever dealing with the supernatural. I’m not a superstitious person, so rarely after watching a movie involving ghosts or zombies or what-have-you do I find myself still in fear because I know that kind of thing would never happen to me. Even most slasher movies don’t get to me because they start over the top or degenerate into the fantastical like the Halloween franchise did. I still enjoy them from a cinematic perspective; I just don’t find them scary. What does get to me, however, is when horror movies deal with real-life terrors. For example, Halloween and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre are scary because they, for the most part, feel like they could actually happen. Don’t Breathe falls into this camp by deriving scares from a realistic situation, never cheating in its objectives or falling back on the supernatural, to deliver easily the best horror movie of the year so far.

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Don’t Breathe has an incredibly basic premise and wastes no time getting to the meat of the story. It results in a somewhat rushed beginning, but within it is packed all the basic motivation and information you need to get behind these characters. From there, the tension begins to build and pretty much never stops. Every other beat there’s a new obstacle to overcome, and every lull in suspense is quickly made up for with a jolt of fear. The plot has just enough twists to keep you guessing and increase the stakes, but the story remains tightly focused thanks to its enclosed setting and minimal cast. It mostly plays out like a mixture of Panic Room and Hard Candy, but the presence of Stephen Lang’s Blind Man gives it shades of Alien and Predator as our protagonists sneak their way around him. The film occasionally relies on jump scares but they never feel forced or undeserved, and ingenious sequences like the blacked-out basement and dog-and-car scenes more than make up for it. By the film’s third act all bets are off as to what could happen, and the film’s ending is satisfying but doesn’t forget to leave you with a lurking sense of dread. My only flaw with the story is that the film’s opening shot, whilst cleverly done and perfectly sets the mood, is an in media res moment before cutting back to a few days earlier; it results in you knowing that at least two characters will survive to that moment, taking away some of the surprise until the plot catches up.

The cast of Don’t Breathe is kept pretty small; with the exception of a few minor characters in the film’s bookends, it’s basically just three twenty-somethings and a badass blind pensioner in a house. Jane Levy, teamed once again with her Evil Dead director Fede Alvarez, delivers a strong performance as main character Rocky. She’s not exactly a saint considering the lengths she’s going to just for some money, but her motivations are completely justified and they just about manage to keep her in the sympathetic camp. Dylan Minnette as Alex is the more doe-eyed reluctant member of the group, mainly acting as the voice of reason who just wants to get out of this nightmare, but again his motives and personality justify the times he makes rash decisions. Daniel Zovatto is easily the weakest of the bunch as scumbag Money; you know he’s going to get what’s coming to him from scene one, but he at least serves the purpose of setting the stakes. But the real scene-stealer is Lang as the Blind Man, who barely says a word of dialogue until the third act but gets across so much through simple things like body language and rate of breathing. He’s more of a creature than a man at points, like a more realistic Michael Myers with far more efficient combat skills, but he has just enough humanity to make him both somewhat relatable and yet so incredibly terrifying.

Alvarez’s experience on Evil Dead definitely shows here, and now he seems far more comfortable with elements like tone and atmosphere. The cinematography uses a lot of long takes to both build tension and familiarize the audience with the terrain of the house and, whilst the camera does sometimes linger too long on an object just to set it up for later, the effect works brilliantly in the long run. The sound mixing is very strong as well, with plenty of sparse moments as our characters try to avoid being found out by Lang followed by the intensity of running feet and gunshots. The filmmakers have also done a great job of making Hungary look like a Detroit suburb; fairly easy for the most part considering the enclosed location for the majority of the film, but even when out in the open it’s entirely convincing compared to other productions.

Don’t Breathe will take your breath away, pun intended. It’s an intense ride from start to finish with well-executed scares, strong performances, and a plot far more intricate and entertaining that I expected. Whilst it didn’t exactly scare the pants off me, I found myself actually invested in the characters and wracked with tension during the really intense scenes, so those who do scare easily and crave that sensation will totally have a blast with it. It’s a vast improvement over Alvarez’s so-so Evil Dead, and I hope from here on out he takes on more original concepts like this with producer Sam Raimi at his side rather than competently rehashing the latter’s already perfect movies.

FINAL VERDICT: 9.5/10

P.S. I’ve posted the trailer here as usual, but I honestly recommend you don’t watch it as it spoils a few key moments; I didn’t watch it before I saw the movie and I’m glad I didn’t. Watch at your own risk.

Starring: Charlize Theron (Mad Max: Fury Road), Art Parkinson (Game of Thrones), Ralph Fiennes (Hail, Caesar!), George Takei (Star Trek), Rooney Mara (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo), Matthew McConaughey (Interstellar)

Director: Travis Knight

Writers: Marc Haimes and Chris Butler (ParaNorman)

Runtime: 1 hour 41 minutes

Release Date: 19 August (US), 9 September (UK)

In the wonderful landscape of animated movies we live in now, Laika is a company that is getting constantly overlooked. All of their movies so far (Coraline, ParaNorman, The Boxtrolls) have been wonderfully imaginative and beautifully crafted, bringing a much needed darker vision to a genre that generally plays it safe, but nowhere near enough people actually bother to see them. Maybe it’s because they’re so aesthetically different or they don’t have the brand recognition of a Disney or a DreamWorks, but whatever the reason Laika has yet to have a big smash success. Kubo and the Two Strings is their latest effort and certainly their most ambitious film so far, and whilst I again worry the general audience will look over it, those who do see should find that it’s probably their best and most accessible movie to date.

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Kubo follows a very traditional hero’s journey plotline with our young hero sent off on a quest with his quirky companions to collect three magic MacGuffins to fight off the big evil guy at the end, but not only is it a well-told version of that classic tale it is one embellished with wonderful details and themes. Similar to the Kung Fu Panda series and Avatar: The Last Airbender, the film doubles as a wonderful lesson in Eastern folklore and philosophy that’s understandable for children, using those as a great backbone for its messages about family, storytelling and loss. The story for the most part is fairly predictable with twists that older audiences should see coming, but the third act culminates in an unexpected and emotional way that eschews the traditional action climax for something more fitting of the film’s themes. What ultimately keeps Kubo moving along at such a breezy pace is its subdued but charming sense of humour and its warm heart. There is never a moment where the pacing drags, the jokes aren’t gut-busting but they add a lot of charm, and every key emotional beat hits home every time. It’s certainly the closest Laika has every come to making a traditional family movie, but all of their trademarks are still there and that element of darkness only makes those bright spots feel more earned.

The cast of Kubo is pretty small, but that only allows for more time to focus on our main players. Kubo himself is probably the least interesting character of the bunch, but he’s still a likable presence with a cheeky sense of humour and Art Parkinson really sells the earnestness of the character. The real main attractions of the picture are Charlize Theron’s Monkey and Matthew McConaughey’s Beetle, with the two of them together making for an excellent double act. Monkey’s po-faced seriousness and determination is perfectly balanced out by Beetle’s scatterbrained goofiness, but they both have their solemn moments together too and their relationship with Kubo forms the emotional core of the film. Ralph Fiennes has limited screen time as the antagonistic Moon King, his character being talked about far more than actually seen, but he makes for a refreshing villain in a kids’ movie in that his motivations have a certain sense of logic to them. Rooney Mara as his masked twin minions The Sisters serve as the more physical threat, and Mara’s chilling voice perfectly suits this pair of twisted characters that are sure to give some kids nightmares. Combined with some smaller roles from recognisable voices like George Takei and Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, and you’ve got yourself a strong cast behind all the magic.

As strong as their stories are, the real wonder of watching a Laika movie is all of the artistry that goes into making it, and Kubo is easily their most complex and beautiful film so far. It becomes incredibly hard to tell at points where the stop-motion ends and the computer animation takes over, with both elements blending perfectly together to create a seamlessly wondrous image. The whole movie is fantastically imaginative in how everything is designed and brought to life from how Kubo brings his origami to life with his guitar to the giant monsters he and his companions have to battle; be sure to stay through the credits for Laika’s usual behind-the-scenes bit that shows off how they accomplished one of the movie’s most spectacular scenes practically. Music plays a key role in the plot of Kubo, so it’s only natural that the film’s music lives up to the visuals. Dario Marianelli’s score is a wonderful blend of traditional Japanese music with a more western orchestral score, all of topped off by Regina Spektor’s beautiful cover of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”; it compliments the movie perfectly and it’s one of the best Beatles covers made for a film since Fiona Apple’s “Across The Universe” from Pleasantville.

Kubo and the Two Strings is a stunning piece of filmmaking from start to finish, telling a simple but appealing story that takes advantage of everything the medium of animation allows. It’s certainly toned down compared to Laika’s previous films, but it retains enough of their unique style to both appeal to a wider audience and still be unequivocally theirs. Whilst the summer blockbusters have fallen, animation in 2016 has remained strong throughout this year and Kubo certainly stands amongst not only the best animated films of the year but with the best films in general so far this year. Don’t let this one pass under the radar like Laika’s previous efforts. Go see it in a movie theatre and support film that not only deserves your money but also desperately needs it.

FINAL VERDICT: 9/10

Starring: Seth Rogen (This Is the End), Kristen Wiig (Bridesmaids), Michael Cera (Scott Pilgrim vs. The World), Bill Hader (The Skeleton Twins), Edward Norton (Fight Club), David Krumholtz (10 Things I Hate About You), Salma Hayek (Desperado), Nick Kroll (Vacation), James Franco (127 Hours), Jonah Hill (War Dogs), Paul Rudd (Ant-Man)

Directors: Conrad Vernon (Monsters vs. Aliens) & Greg Tiernan (Thomas & Friends: Hero of the Rails)

Writers: Kyle Hunter & Ariel Shaffir (The Night Before) & Seth Rogen & Evan Goldberg (Superbad)

Runtime: 1 hour 29 minutes

Release Date: 12 August (US), 2 September (UK)

There’s a stigma in our Western culture that animated films are just for kids, and I think that’s a shame. Animation is just another way of telling stories, a medium that can accomplish things that simply cannot be done in live-action, and whilst countries like Japan understand that, Western animated films for adults are extremely rare. The fact that no one has ever done a feature-length parody of animated family movies is frankly bizarre, but who better than Seth Rogen and his band of usual suspects to finally break that barrier with Sausage Party.

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Just again up front in case you haven’t got the message: this film is definitely NOT for kids! Sausage Party is vulgar enough to shock even the most well balanced adult, and any child who somehow manages to watch this is probably going to need therapy. If you are easily offended by jokes dealing with race, religion or sexuality, this is also definitely not a film for you. This is the kind of movie that takes a jab at everyone and doesn’t care about things like modesty or political correctness. It most reminded me of the works of Trey Parker & Matt Stone in that way, and also much like both South Park and Team America it uses crass humour to ultimately talk about social issues. Sausage Party uses the template of a Pixar movie not just to make gags about weed and f*cking, but also to discuss the effect of religion on our society and how it can limit our perspective on alternative views. This at first can make the film look like a putdown piece by made by self-important liberal atheists, but the film soon acknowledges that the drastic alternative of slandering those beliefs only leads to more chaos and that a compromise needs to be found. It’s a smart and forward-looking film that uses our culture’s ideologies and stereotypes to paint a metaphorical picture of our world and then just goes bananas. The third act is where the movie really just dives into insanity, delivering a climax that is as surreal as it is hilarious before diving into one of the most debauched scenes ever put to animation and a sequel hook that is quite literally out of this world. The plot isn’t always the most coherent, especially in a moment in the third act where several characters just show up with only a hand wave explanation as to how they got there, but for the most part this is a solidly written and consistently hilarious piece of satire that will stand the test of time.

Taking food and giving it a personality may seem like a bizarre and difficult task, but Sausage Party makes it seem effortless. Sure, the film does rely a lot on stereotypes to create its cast, but it never feels derogatory and they mine some good humour out of it. Seth Rogen as lead sausage Frank is basically just playing another variant on his own personality again, but as the closest thing to a straight man this movie has it’s a characterisation that works and allows the rest of the cast to bounce off of him with their wackier characters. Kristen Wiig as the voluptuous bun Brenda is a lot of fun as the “religious” character in denial of the truth (similar to Wiig’s arc in Paul), and her chemistry with both Rogen and Salma Hayek’s taco Teresa works wonders. Edward Norton and David Krumholtz as a bagel and a lavash who constantly bicker is full of comedic gold, with Norton especially shining with a spot-on Woody Allen impersonation, and the way their relationship culminates is both hilarious and emblematic of the whole film’s message. There are so many other great characters like Bill Hader’s shamanistic Firewater or Michael Cera’s diminutive sausage Barry, but the real scene-stealer is Nick Kroll as the film’s villain. I don’t want to reveal his character’s identity in case you don’t know, but for such a stupid joke it creates a goldmine of a comedic antagonist.

Sausage Party takes full advantage of the medium of animation to tell its story, accomplishing gags and set pieces far too insane to be done in live-action. The only problem is that the animation quality itself is a little lacking in detail. There are many moments where it does shine, mainly in the especially graphic scenes, but for the most part it doesn’t look worthy of a theatrical film; it looks far more like what you’d see in an advert or a TV show aimed at toddlers. This could have been circumvented if the film acknowledged the lower quality through a gag, kind of like how Team America took advantage of the limitations of the marionette format to create jokes, but that’s never even touched on here. The designs of the characters is also a little unimaginative, with most just coming down to sticking googly eyes and Mickey Mouse-style limbs on the food. Some are more creative like the curvaceous hot dog buns with vertical mouths or how the hole of Norton’s bagel is also his mouth, but ultimately the designs feel too flat and it never truly feels like this movie could blend in with a film by Disney or DreamWorks. Making up for that, however, is Disney musical legend Alan Menken not only co-writing the score to the film but also composing the original song “The Great Beyond”; it’s a wonderful little piece that perfectly meshes the uplifting music of Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid with the satirical and foul-mouthed personality of the movie.

Sausage Party is the perfect antidote to what has honestly been one of the weakest summer movie seasons in recent years. It goes beyond merely lampooning its target to create a film hilarious enough to stand up on its own, whilst at the same time making a humorous but relevant nonetheless statement about our culture’s tendency to accept the easy lie over the harsh truth. This is a movie that could finally shift the landscape for Western animation away from just material aimed at families, and if Rogen and co’s sequel promise comes to fruition then we’re in for an even crazier ride next time. Just get a bigger budget for your animation next time, OK?

FINAL VERDICT: 9/10

Starring: Bryce Dallas Howard (Jurassic World), Oakes Fegley (This Is Where I Leave You), Wes Bentley (American Beauty), Karl Urban (Dredd), Oona Lawrence (Southpaw), Robert Redford (Captain America: The Winter Soldier)

Director: David Lowery (Ain’t Them Bodies Saints)

Writers: David Lowery & Toby Halbrooks

Runtime: 1 hour 42 minutes

Release Date: 12 August (US, UK)

Of all the remakes Disney has been doing lately, tackling Pete’s Dragon seems like an odd choice. It’s a movie most of us remember but very few of us do so with much fondness; to most of us, it’s “that silly movie with the cartoon dragon”. Handing the helming duties to indie director David Lowery is an even stranger move, but on further thought it begins to make sense. Some have criticized the Disney remakes, including myself, for needlessly changing and expanding upon a movie that was already perfect. Maybe by remaking one of their less fondly remembered films, they can update it and, dare I say it, improve on the original?

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In terms of plot, the similarities between the original Pete’s Dragon and this new version end with the basic set-up: a boy and his invisible dragon friend in a small American town. From there, the film takes on an identity that could be best described as a mix of Tarzan, How to Train Your Dragon and King Kong. The story isn’t anything too special, featuring typical elements like Pete misunderstanding society or the angry hunters thinking the dragon is a dangerous monster, but it manages to remain fresh thanks to the surprising blend of Lowery’s independent style, the tone and pacing of an 80s Spielberg movie, and the irresistible heart of a traditional Disney movie. It definitely feels like a much smaller movie than its brethren, but its size perfectly suits the nature of the story. It doesn’t exactly offer anything you can’t find anywhere else, but it’s a heart-warming tale nonetheless and it’s that emotional drive that keeps the movie consistently engaging.

The cast of Pete’s Dragon contains a strong mix of talent but the material they’re given is far more variable. Oakes Fegley definitely gives a strong performance as Pete himself, portraying the wild boy with the right amount of subtlety. He’s less of a feral monster and more like someone whose understanding of modern life stopped at the age of five; he’s confused, but he’s not stupid. Bryce Dallas Howard delivers a suitably sweet performance as park ranger Grace, and Robert Redford brings a lot of gravitas to the film as Grace’s father; the scene where he recounts his original encounter with Elliot years ago is simple but beautiful. Wes Bentley feels a little useless as Grace’s fiancé, adding little to the story that couldn’t be accomplished by anyone else, but the real sore spot is Karl Urban as antagonist and Bentley’s brother Gavin. His performance isn’t bad and he at least has redeeming qualities, but his motivations seem to change at a moment’s notice. At first he simply wants to protect the town from what he assumes is a dangerous creature, but then he suddenly wants to capture it for exhibition purposes and to get out of his brother’s shadow; this desire had never been brought up before, nor does it play into the story ever again. At some points, even he seems confused about what he actually wants, and as a threat that quickly becomes lame and uncompelling. But the real star of the movie is Elliot himself, who’s depicted her as more of a giant winged canine than a reptilian beast. He doesn’t talk, instead communicating through his eyes and grunts, creating a creature that is believable and very quickly endearing.

Just as impressive as the character of Elliot himself is the CGI used to create him which, whilst never fully photorealistic in the same way The Jungle Book is, is more than convincing enough that you forget it’s an effect promptly. The design of the dragon is fun too, with his furry coat adding to his cuteness and his invisibility rendered more as a natural ability rather than anything magical. Though set in rural America, the film was shot in New Zealand and at times obviously so, but it certainly adds to the picturesque beauty of the production and the sweeping cinematography captures it all excellently. The film’s music definitely gives the movie more of an indie feel in both Daniel Hart’s score and the use of a lot of country music, but it’s a stylistic choice that suits the movie’s more grounded ambience.

Pete’s Dragon definitely sets itself apart from the original by going adapting the premise into something more grounded, but at the same time it doesn’t do much to stand apart from other family films with similar plots. It’s a well executed version of a classic story that combines indie sensibilities with blockbuster value that at the very least gives the film some unique flavouring, but it’s the traditional elements of the film that too often hold it back from greatness. It’s definitely better than some of Disney’s other reimaginings, but The Jungle Book told a very similar story to this much better and I’m sure by the end of this slate of reboots Pete’s Dragon will end up somewhere in the middle of the pack. Who knows? Maybe it’ll be fondly remembered as “that remake of the silly movie with the cartoon dragon”.

FINAL VERDICT: 7/10

Starring: Will Smith (Men in Black), Jared Leto (Dallas Buyers Club), Margot Robbie (The Wolf of Wall Street), Joel Kinnaman (RoboCop), Viola Davis (The Help), Jai Courtney (Terminator Genisys), Jay Hernandez (Hostel), Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje (The Bourne Identity), Karen Fukuhara, Ike Barinholtz (Bad Neighbours), Scott Eastwood (The Longest Ride), Cara Delevingne (Paper Towns)

Writer/Director: David Ayer (Fury)

Runtime: 2 hours 3 minutes

Release Date: 5 August (US, UK)

Of all the DC Comics properties to be made into a feature film, Suicide Squad is certainly not one I think even diehard comic book fans expected to happen. The concept is simple and provides a lot of ample opportunities for badass fun, but it’s still a little weird to see these villains get their own movie when half the DC pantheon has yet to be even mentioned in one of these films. What it does potentially offer, most importantly, is a shift from the typical superhero dynamic we’ve all come so accustomed to into something a little more subversive; not deconstructive like Watchmen or parodic like Deadpool, but certainly something with a more twisted viewpoint. Suicide Squad does ultimately deliver that aberrant experience, but it’s also unfortunately an inconsistent one.

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The film ultimately plays out like a comic book version of The Dirty Dozen, with the first act focused on assembling the titular squad before they are sent on their impossible mission. It’s in that initial portion of the film where it really shines, delving into obscure places in the DC universe and having fun with all the toys it gets to play with. It integrates itself with the previous and future films without calling too much attention to it, ultimately making the world feel more lived-in. However, once the team finally heads out into battle, that’s where things start to fall apart. The film quickly becomes a conveyor belt of action sequences broken up by exposition and quips, leaving very little room for effective character development and ultimately making the pacing feel a little stop-start. The actual plot is a pretty self-explanatory “stop the bad guy from destroying the world” story, but the film keeps acting like it’s complicated and stops to have characters explain what’s going on instead of devoting that time to character beats. By the film’s climax, it feels like its blown its load way too early and haphazardly rushes its way to a conclusion, leaving behind lots of wasted opportunities that can hopefully be followed up in a sequel. The film is at its best when its not taking itself too seriously in a Guardians of the Galaxy way, letting the characters’ personalities bounce off each other during and between the action, but whenever it becomes about the story the film’s seams become incredibly apparent.

Thankfully, the characters of Suicide Squad are the real stars here and they manage to shine bright even when other parts of the film are struggling to. Screen time isn’t spread evenly, with certain characters getting elaborate flashback sequences to explain their origins whilst others only get a quick verbal introduction (one suspects there is a lot of material on the cutting room floor), but they all provide unique personas to what is already a very eclectic film. Will Smith’s interpretation of Deadshot is a change of pace for both the actor and the character, allowing Smith to play a little seedier than usual whilst still utilising his trademark sense of humour. Margot Robbie’s Harley Quinn is an absolute joy, perfectly capturing the essence of the character whilst also adding a darker sense of humour and just a dab of tragedy; she is true heart of the movie and I’m sure her popularity will only increase afterwards. Viola Davis manages to capture the unforgiving brutality of Amanda Waller without it becoming unrealistic, Jay Hernandez is a surprising revelation as the redemptive Diablo, and Jai Courtney’s Captain Boomerang is easily the actor’s most charismatic performance he has ever given. Jared Leto’s Joker will probably split opinions, and he certainly doesn’t come close to topping Heath Ledger, but he’s probably the most accurate to the comics portrayal of the character personality-wise and he fits the tone DC are going for with the universe perfectly; I look forward to the inevitable day when Ben Affleck punches him in the face. There are some weak links however. Karen Fukuhara and Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje are great as Katana and Killer Croc respectively but don’t get much screen time, whilst Joel Kinnaman’s Rick Flag gets plenty but lacks personality as the de facto straight man of the group, but it’s Cara Delevingne as June Moon/Enchantress that flops hardest. Despite being a major character in the plot, neither of her personas gets much development and her performance mostly comes down to flailing her arms around as CGI engulfs whatever screen presence she has.

Mixing David Ayer’s panache from grittiness with the hyper-reality of DC Comics makes for a glorious mix in Suicide Squad, adding some much needed personality that Man of Steel and Batman v Superman were lacking. The design of the film from the sets to the costumes is a mishmash of cultures that makes for a vibrant and unique look for a superhero movie, giving the movie its own identity whilst still still sitting comfortably with its brethren. The music of the film constantly steals the show, with both Steven Price’s score and the vast array of soundtrack choices ranging from rock classics to contemporary hip-hop perfectly accentuating the movie’s flavour. Effects work both practical and digital is also top notch, with Killer Croc’s make-up and Diablo’s fire effects being particular standouts. Where the spectacle disappoints, however, is in the action sequences. They’re all choreographed and filmed perfectly fine, but there is a serious lack of standout moments. There’s never that moment where a character whips out their trademark move at a crucial point or uses one of their weaknesses to their advantage. It’s mostly just a barrage of gunfire and slicing that ultimately congeals together after the movie is over, and for a movie that sells itself so much on style that’s kind of an underwhelming result.

Suicide Squad is thankfully a fun and unique time at the movies, but rarely ever is it coherent. It manages to constantly get by thanks to the overabundance of personality from its cast, but underneath it all is a simple story that doesn’t hold up under the pressure of its ambition. It’s certainly an encouraging step in the right direction for DC, just about setting the right balance between grit and fun, but it does suffer from many of the same ailments their films have had since the beginning. This is all initial gut reaction at this point, as I have an odd feeling this is the kind of movie that might improve with age in the vein of Fight Club, but as of right now I can only call Suicide Squad a pretty decent movie rather than a damn good one. Regardless of the quality, the potential for future adventures with Task Force X remains strong and I hope the film is successful enough for this creative team to take another shot with more freedom and more confidence to do something truly spectacular.

FINAL VERDICT: 7.5/10

Starring: Matt Damon (The Martian), Alicia Vikander (Ex Machina), Tommy Lee Jones (Men in Black), Vincent Cassel (Black Swan), Riz Ahmed (Nightcrawler), Julia Stiles (10 Things I Hate About You)

Director: Paul Greengrass (Captain Phillips)

Writers: Paul Greengrass & Christopher Rouse

Runtime: 2 hour 3 minutes

Release Date: 27 July (UK), 29 July (US)

Back in 2002, The Bourne Identity was a fresh air for the espionage thriller genre. James Bond movies at that point had devolved into gadget-centric nonsense, but Doug Liman’s first entry into the franchise brought a real-world grit and intensity to the table along with an intriguing look inside the morally questionable motives of government agencies. Paul Greengrass took over the franchise with the solid follow-up The Bourne Supremacy, but his third chapter The Bourne Ultimatum is the true crowing jewel of the franchise that perfected everything the series set out to do, capping it off with a conclusive and satisfying ending that still left some wiggle room for more. However, where do you honestly go from there? Well, 2012’s The Bourne Legacy certainly wasn’t the answer; especially given that Jason Bourne isn’t even in it. Now Matt Damon and Greengrass have finally returned for a true follow-up to Ultimatum, and given the amount of time since then you’d think they’d only come back if they had a story worth telling. In reality, Jason Bourne is an admirably attempt to continue the series but one that can’t help but pale in comparison to its predecessors.

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The Bourne films have a very specific formula that this new entry certainly doesn’t deviate from, so still expected to see lots of scenes with Matt Damon walking around with a tense face intercut with guys in suits barking at computer monitors. However, whilst each new film previously brought new ideas to the table, Jason Bourne often feels like too much of a retread of the series’ greatest hits. The plot on a basic structural level is cobbled together from elements of the original trilogy, even down to emotional character beats and action sequences. Whilst the story does bring to light a few interesting details about Bourne’s past, none of it drastically changes our perspective on the character within this film or the previous entries. If anything, it perhaps reveals a little too much, ruining the mystery behind our enigmatic hero. In many respects, it feels like Greengrass wanted to use this film as a platform to talk about online privacy and government surveillance rather than make a Jason Bourne movie, but as relevant as that topic is it doesn’t really belong in this movie and only distracts from Bourne’s mission. Regardless of the content however, it’s still a well-executed story with efficient pacing and gripping action, but as strong as the direction is it can’t make up for lacklustre writing; the lack of series regular Tony Gilroy as screenwriter is achingly noticeable.

Jason Bourne is easily now amongst Matt Damon’s most iconic roles and no one can truly replace his presence in the franchise (sorry, Jeremy Renner). He returns to the character here with a little more weariness but with the same straightforward determination and focus. Bourne is at his best when he doesn’t say much, and here Damon again portrays him with the cold efficiency of a Terminator, conveying his emotions through facial expressions and body language rather than words. This is possibly Bourne’s most personal mission yet, and Damon still gives it his all even when the film loses focus on him. Juila Stiles is the only other carry-over from the previous films, briefly reprising her role as Nicky Parsons to set up the plot, but the new supporting cast are all able replacements. Alicia Vikander’s Heather Lee brings a modern perspective to the franchise as it delves into the issues of today, and her mysterious and conflicting loyalties make her a consistently enjoyable character to watch; should the series continue, I’m actually more invested in her story at this point than Bourne’s. Tommy Lee Jones does what he does best as the new CIA director, and though he doesn’t offer anything particularly new to the table his natural grumpy charisma more than carries the character. Vincent Cassel as the series’ latest villainous Asset gets a lot more development than his predecessors, with motivations beyond simply following orders, which adds a further variable to Bourne’s chances every time he enters the fray. The Steve Jobs/Mark Zuckerberg analogue is already a played out character in modern films, but as much as Riz Ahmed tries his best to fight against the archetype through some relatable internal conflict he still can’t but help feeling like a tacked-on character.

If Jason Bourne proves nothing else, it does clearly demonstrate that Paul Greengrass knows how to shoot an intense action scene. Being one of the few directors in the world who knows how to use shaky-cam properly, the film is packed with strongly choreographed chase sequences and fistfights. Though none of them come close to topping anything like the Morocco sequence from Ultimatum, they’re all fantastically entertaining, especially the final destruction-heavy rampage through the streets of Las Vegas. John Powell returns once again to the franchise with some suitably intense compositions, and as much as I’d prefer these films to reuse the original version of Moby’s “Extreme Ways” instead of constantly remixing it, I’ll take it over not having it at all; it’s as integral to the franchise’s identity as Damon is at this point.

Jason Bourne is certainly a competent enough piece of entertainment, but it doesn’t do much to justify its own existence. Making a worthy successor to Ultimatum is a difficult but not impossible task, and after nine years it’s a little disheartening to find this is all they could come up with. From a technical perspective it is as masterfully constructed as Greengrass’ previous entries, but on a story level it feels a little too distracted by ideas that belong in another movie whilst simply following the tried-and-true Bourne formula. There are flashes of brilliance within it and it’s certainly a better tribute to the originals than Legacy was, but it can’t help but live in the shadows of that near-immaculately constructed trilogy. I certainly don’t get the impression that Damon or Greengrass were phoning it in, as their passion is clearly there along with everyone else in the cast and crew, but I’m having a hard time pinpointing what exactly went wrong here. It’s certainly clear that they want to keep making these movies and, though taking him out of the picture is an idea already proven to fail, it’s hard to think of what they could actually do with Jason Bourne that hasn’t already been done. Maybe one day they’ll figure it out, but if it doesn’t I’m perfectly happy to just enjoy the original three as they are.

FINAL VERDICT: 6/10

Starring: Chris Pine (Into the Woods), Zachary Quinto (Margin Call), Karl Urban (Dredd), Zoe Saldana (Avatar), Simon Pegg (The World’s End), John Cho (A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas), Anton Yelchin (Fright Night), Idris Elba (Thor), Sofia Boutella (Kingsman: The Secret Service)

Director: Justin Lin (Fast & Furious 6)

Writers: Simon Pegg (Shaun of the Dead) & Doug Jung (Confidence)

Runtime: 2 hours

Release Date: 22 July (US, UK)

It’s hard to make a Star Trek movie that appeals to everyone. You can make an extremely faithful adaptation to appeal to the fans, but then you risk alienating a general audience with long scenes of technobabble. If you strip it down and make it more of a sci-fi adventure movie for the general audience, then the fans are going be dissatisfied because of the lack of technobabble. This is an issue that has plagued the rebooted Star Trek franchise since 2009. JJ Abrams’ first film was a fantastic reintroduction to these classic characters, but some were dismayed by the shift towards space opera instead of contemplative science fiction. The sequel Into Darkness tried to fix this by introducing more classic elements, but that only seemed to make things worse. Now with Abrams taking a backseat and Fast & Furious veteran Justin Lin stepping up to bat, there was a lot of worry that Star Trek would only further devolve into homogenised Hollywood blockbuster fodder. I am happy to report that, though Star Trek Beyond is still in the vein of its two predecessors, it shows a far greater understanding of the franchise than either of them.

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In comparison to the first two films where the complicated plots involved time travel and conspiracies, Star Trek Beyond takes a far simpler approach: there’s a bad guy who needs a thing to destroy another thing, and so Captain Kirk and crew need to stop him. There’s an elegant simplicity to the story that makes it easy to enjoy, and because of that it works well as a standalone Star Trek story rather than a small part of some grander saga. Though it does tie back into the first two films through some character moments, there is no rehashing of classic characters and scenes for the sake of fan service. This is an original adventure that creates new mythos for the lore and, like all great classic Star Trek does, uses its world to explore interesting sci-fi concepts. Beyond is ultimately a film about why the Enterprise crew needs to stick together and, in a greater sense, why Starfleet is important to this universe and why it should serve as an example to us in the audience. All of this is mainly just extra flavour behind all the character banter and action sequences, but it’s all there if you’re looking for it. For all intents and purposes, Star Trek Beyond’s ultimate goal is to have fun in this universe and it accomplishes that with aplomb with fantastically breezy pacing, a good sense of humour and some creative action set pieces. If you’re still expecting this series to make a sharp turn back to the strictly introspective you’re out of luck, but I’d say there’s just enough of it here to satisfy the slightly less pedantic fan.

With the story becoming less convoluted, Beyond now instead focuses its attention on the characters and develops them in small but meaningful ways. Whilst the focus of the film remains on Kirk and Spock, it’s less about their relationship with each other like the first two and more about their relationships with the rest of the Enterprise crew. For a good chunk of the film all these characters are split apart from each other in small groups, allowing for interactions previously not focused on. It’s fun to see Kirk and Chekov working together or watch Spock and Bones endure each other, giving the movie a little bit of buddy comedy flavour in the midst of the greater adventure. The entire main cast is still as excellent as ever and have really made these roles their own whilst respecting their forbearers, and to see the film pay tribute to both Leonard Nimoy and Anton Yelchin in even the smallest way adds a tinge of sadness to an otherwise celebratory film fitting of the franchise’s fiftieth anniversary. In terms of the new cast, Sofia Boutella frequently steals the show as Jaylah. Her character is far more than a simple alien badass, adding some solid humour with her interactions with Scotty, and I hope they can find a way to bring her back for future adventures. Idris Elba’s villain Thrall, however, is probably the film’s weakest element. Elba’s performance is great and suitably villainous, bringing to mind Kruge from The Search for Spock without being a total copy, but the film waits too long to explain his character and motivation. He’s just a stock villain on the level of the average Marvel villain, and by the time he starts to get interesting the film is almost over; this is especially a shame given how his motivation ties back into the importance of Starfleet.

Justin Lin’s experience directing crazy action sequences certainly pays off here, making Star Trek Beyond easily the most viscerally entertaining of the new series. Though none of it comes close to the ridiculousness of the Fast & Furious films, the action does feel a lot more lively and varied in both on-foot skirmishes and spaceship battles. On a design level the film is in keeping with Abrams’ vision (though with his absence, the lens flare levels have significantly dropped), but little touches like the new Starfleet uniforms and some alternate ship designs give the movie its own flavour. Michael Giacchino’s score for the franchise continues to evolve and elevates every moment on screen and, though its presence in the trailer is still a little perplexing, the way they incorporate Beastie Boys’ “Sabotage” into the actual story ends up creating one of the film’s standout moments.

Star Trek Beyond clearly loves the franchise but doesn’t do so by throwing in a bunch of references to the originals. It shows its love by creating a new story and expands upon the world rather than relying on what worked before. Unlike its forbearers, it’s easy to imagine this story sitting amongst episodes of the original series, but now it’s amplified by its modernity instead of hampered. It doesn’t bog itself down by trying to be too grand, instead just telling a fun sci-fi story that still works in character introspection and social commentary amongst all the action; it’s an approach to storytelling I wish more Hollywood blockbusters would take. I’m not convinced Beyond will satisfy every Star Trek fan out there, but to anyone who felt disillusioned by Into Darkness I think it more than deserves a watch.

FINAL VERDICT: 9/10

Starring: Kristen Wiig (The Martian), Melissa McCarthy (Spy), Kate McKinnon (The Angry Birds Movie), Leslie Jones (Trainwreck), Chris Hemsworth (Thor), Neil Casey, Andy Garcia (Ocean’s Eleven), Cecily Strong (The Boss), Michael K. Williams (The Wire), Matt Walsh (Ted), Charles Dance (Game of Thrones)

Director: Paul Feig (Bridesmaids)

Writers: Katie Dippold (The Heat) & Paul Feig

Runtime: 1 hour 56 minutes

Release Date: 11 July (UK), 15 July (US)

Up front, I just need to make it clear that I am a massive fan of Ghostbusters. It has been one of my favourite films since I first saw it when I was six years old. I love the movies, I love the cartoons, I love the toys, and nothing brings me more joy than when I can find an excuse to quote the movie in everyday conversation. But ever since it was announced Ghostbusters was getting a reboot, the Internet has been in uproar not only because of the usual childhood sodomising claims, but because the filmmakers had the audacity to make the titular group of paranormal investigators all female. All of this at first could easily be blown off as the usual sexist Internet trolls blowing things out of proportion, but then that first trailer came out and all hell broke loose. Suddenly, this new Ghostbusters became a marketing nightmare and even anyone with any legitimate criticism unfortunately became associated with the aforementioned trolls. But now that the film is finally available to the public and I have witnessed it, I have a very strong urge to break composure and address the naysayers with some colourful language, but I’m going to remain civil and simply say I liked this movie. Quite a bit, actually. Here’s why.

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In describing the new Ghostbusters, the key phrase I’d use is “similar, but different.” The film is structurally comparable to the original, especially in the first half as our heroes discover the presence of ghosts and set up their business to fight back against them. You’ve got the university dismissing the Ghostbusters for their preposterous findings, accusations that they are actually frauds causing these apparitions for monetary gain, the slow discovery that the spike of paranormal activity is leading to an apocalyptic event, and government figures who ignore their findings in the face of this crisis. But to call this film a rehash of the original is like calling The Force Awakens a rip-off of A New Hope: it’s clearly intentional. From that basic template, this new Ghostbusters takes the series in a different direction and that is mainly done through having its own unique voice. It takes the core concept of the franchise and injects it with Paul Feig’s outlook and sensibilities, creating a film that certainly respects its source material but also wants to do things its own way. With that, the sense of humour is definitely more akin to his movies than the Ivan Reitman originals or similar films of that era and genre. The jokes are a lot faster and cruder, full of more adlibs and asides, than the more sarcastic and absurdist comedy that fuelled the original. But the key thing you’re all concerned about is far simpler: is it funny? That’s hard to judge because everyone’s funny bone is tickled differently, but for me I can happily say I laughed consistently throughout the entire runtime. Sure, not every joke hits, with most of the duds being the ones they used in the trailers (seriously, was Sony’s marketing department trying to make this movie look bad?), but enough of them do that it keeps the movie consistently entertaining. The movie does begin to outstay its welcome as it reaches its third act, especially given the slightly bloated two-hour runtime, and the many different pieces of fan service vary from chuckle-worthy to cloying, but none of that is enough to stop the movie from being a fun, entertaining ride.

Recapturing the magic of the original Ghostbusters cast is something you just can’t do, and so again the filmmakers have done something different with their new batch of heroes and I’m not just talking about their lack of Y-chromosomes. There are definitely elements of those original characters in the new team, with Melissa McCarthy’s Abby having an enthusiasm for her work comparable to Ray and Kate McKinnon’s Holtzmann being an awkward introvert genius in the vein of Egon, but these are otherwise original, funny and likable characters that stand apart from their masculine predecessors. In many facets these comediennes are just playing exaggerated versions of their real-life personas, but no more so than Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, Harold Ramis and Ernie Hudson were. Kristen Wiig’s Erin is certainly the most unique of the group, coming into this situation with more trepidation than excitement, and her inner conflict as she tries to find that balance between respectable scientist and paranormal geek makes her a deeper character and a great role model for those fighting against their own quirks in an attempt to be “normal”. McCarthy, as she did in Spy, thankfully uses her usual abrasive persona sparingly for comic effect rather than just being a walking trove of colourful insults, and her relationship with Wiig gives a strong emotional core to the story as two friends driven apart by conflicting priorities. Leslie Jones’ Patty makes for a good grounding presence as the layman of the group who honestly gets more character development in this one movie than Winston ever did in both of the originals, but I do think she will be a divisive presence; if you already don’t like Jones’ sense of humour, this won’t change your mind. But the breakout MVP of the main cast is most certainly McKinnon, finally putting her Saturday Night Live chops to good use and stealing every frame of film she appears on. She’s a hilarious wildcard of a character, with nothing that comes out of her mouth being predictable or sane. Seriously, if nothing else, I hope she at least gets some more shots at the big leagues because she bloody deserves it.

The supporting cast in comparison, however, feels a little undercooked. Neil Casey’s scheming Rowan does bring to mind Peter MacNicol’s Janosz from Ghostbusters II, but unfortunately not only is he not a particularly original character but he lacks development. It’s a real shame because there is a lot of potential with his character and towards the end he does start to become more interesting and even funny, but eventually it just devolves into another “blast the ghost” finale. Andy Garcia and Cecily Strong have some funny moments as the Mayor of New York and his conniving assistant respectively, especially in how confusedly they try to deny the existence of paranormal phenomena despite the obviousness, but they come into the story a bit too late to be effective. Michael K. Williams and Matt Walsh are basically just glorified extras with nothing particularly interesting to do, Charles Dance is funny whilst he’s there but is never seen again after his two scenes, and the various cameos from the original cast members are mostly just throwaway gags. Nevertheless, the salvation of the supporting cast comes from the most unlikely of places, and that is the simple but elegant brilliance of Chris Hemsworth’s Kevin. His entire shtick stems from the simple joke of “he’s an idiot”, and the sheer lunacy of how far his stupidity goes never ceases to get a laugh. Even when other jokes fall flat, you can always count of Kevin to get that smile back on your face.

The “similar, but different” approach the film takes also applies to the film on a technical level, appropriating many of the visuals of its source but repurposing them and giving them a new twist along with some welcome additions. The redesigns of elements like the jumpsuits, the proton packs and the Ecto-1 are ultimately harmless changes, but the new tech the film adds some much needed variety to the actual busting of ghosts and gives the action something a little more panache than just a bunch of guys standing still and firing lasers. The ghost designs are perfectly fine and match up well to the style of the original films, though I do wish there were more practical elements to the ghost effects instead of the full CG blowout. However, the effects themselves never seem unconvincing and for the most part fit in well with the more colourful tone of the film. The film’s overall look is far brighter and slicker than its forbearers, but it’s a shift in aesthetic than is again more fitting to the film’s tone. Theodore Sharpio’s score for the film is certainly nowhere near as iconic as Elmer Bernstein’s compositions for the original, but some of the pop music choices for the soundtrack are inspired. Oh, and for those who don’t like Fall Out Boy’s cover of the classic Ghostbusters theme (I’m kind of indifferent to it), don’t fret too much; it’s only used briefly in one montage scene and the Ray Parker Jr. original remains front and centre.

Let’s all face it: there was no way any new version of Ghostbusters could match up to the original. Remember, the core creative team tried to with Ghostbusters II and even they couldn’t manage it. It’s a unique lighting-in-a-bottle film that could not have worked at any other time, and expecting the same thing to happen again in completely different circumstances is pretty much insane. So the fact that this new Ghostbusters isn’t as good as the original is absolutely no shock to me, but the fact that it succeeds on its own terms does bring me a great deal of delight. It’s a film that is keenly aware of its legacy and wants to honour, but it also wants to do it on its own terms. It takes the premise of Ghostbusters and makes it its own, bringing a different sense of humour, a different cast of characters, and a different outlook on the world. The gender change to the main cast is absolutely the last thing wrong with this movie, and if there is any justice in this world their chemistry and humour will only inspire Hollywood to bring more casting diversity to Hollywood blockbusters. Will every fan of the franchise be pleased by the final result? Given the backlash before even a frame of footage was shot, I can unequivocally say no. But for anyone willing to accept the film for what it is trying to do rather than measuring it against a film it isn’t trying to be, then I’d say there’s a far stronger chance you’ll come out liking it. If you have even the slightest affection for Ghostbusters, you owe it to yourselves to go see the movie and decide for yourself. If you don’t like it, that’s perfectly fine with me as long as your opinion doesn’t completely stem from a preconceived place of hate.

FINAL VERDICT: 8/10

Starring: Alexander Skarsgård (Diary of a Teenage Girl), Margot Robbie (The Wolf of Wall Street), Samuel L. Jackson (Pulp Fiction), Christoph Waltz (Django Unchained), Djimon Hounsou (Gladiator), Jim Broadbent (Hot Fuzz)

Director: David Yates (Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix)

Writers: Adam Cozad (Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit) and Craig Brewer (Hustle & Flow)

Runtime: 1 hour 50 minutes

Release Date: 1 July (US), 6 July (UK)

Did you know there have been around two hundred different films featuring Tarzan? That’s a lot of movies about a shirtless guy jumping around the jungle and yelling, but even a hundred years after Edgar Rice Burroughs created the character he remains a memorable fixture in pop culture. But with that many movies, there’s bound to be a lot of fodder in there. There are the notable favourites like the old Johnny Weissmuller films of the 30s and 40s, Christopher Lambert’s take in 1984’s Greystoke, or the animated Disney version from 1999, but then you’ve also got the infamous Tarzan, The Ape Man with Bo Derek and Miles O’Keefe or that god-awful German CG abomination from a few years ago. To stand out from the pack, The Legend of Tarzan is going to need to do something different whilst also sticking to the core of what makes the character so enduring. But unfortunately, whilst it certainly strives to do that, the execution is ultimately lacking.

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Feeling in many ways like a sequel to a movie that doesn’t exist, The Legend of Tarzan touches upon the character’s origin through scant flashbacks whilst mostly telling a story set after his return to civilisation. Crafting a story that places Burroughs’ character within the real-life tragedy of Belgium’s occupation of the Congo in the 1890s (Christoph Waltz and Samuel L. Jackson’s characters being real historical figures in that event), the film certainly has lofty ambitions with its strong themes of honour, freedom, racism and the balance between man and nature. However, because the film is dealing with such sensitive subject matter and takes it so seriously, it ultimately sucks a lot of the fun out of the movie. The pacing is achingly slow at points, with far more scenes dedicated to discussing trade negotiations than swinging through treetops, which is further hampered by too often taking Tarzan out of his element. For most of the movie, he’s stuck in open plains or small settlements with little opportunity to take advantage of his skill set; it’s like watching a Spider-Man movie where he’s stuck in a neighbourhood of bungalows. But even as few and far between as they are, those moments when Tarzan is actually allowed to be Tarzan give the film a huge shot of adrenaline and reminds you why this character has stood the test of time.

What really holds the film together even in its dullest moments is Alexander Skarsgård as John Clayton/Tarzan himself, not only pulling off the physicality of the Ape Man but also his demeanour and personality. Tarzan is supposed to be a man of few words who mostly communicates through body language, and though Skarsgård’s version is more sophisticated given his domestication he retains that stoic gruffness that defines the character. Jackson’s George Washington Williams makes for a great counterpoint to Skarsgård, bringing a lot of his own natural charm and humour to bounce of off Tarzan’s seriousness, but at certain points he can feel a little anachronistic; he feels so modern that, if you changed the setting to present day, you’d barely have to alter his dialogue. Djimoun Hounsou is seriously underutilised as the vengeful Mbonga, but in those few moments he creates an interesting antagonist who generates as much sympathy as he does fury. It’s with these three aforementioned characters that The Legend of Tarzan shows off a surprising degree of moral ambiguity, with both Tarzan and Williams showing regret for past actions and Mbonga’s motivation being totally understandable. I just wish this level of depth was also seen in Christoph Waltz’s character. He does a fine enough job as the villainous Leon Rom, effectively just playing the same smug bad guy he’s played in every non-Tarantino production of his, but he there’s very little more to him that that; then again, if you read into what the real Rom was known to do, Waltz’s version is practically a teddy bear. But what I’m most sad to say is that Margot Robbie’s Jane is the one that really lets the side down. The character herself isn’t greatly written, her presence in the story basically just being incentive for Tarzan to chase after Rom, but as much as Robbie tries she feels a bit miscast in the role. Her romantic chemistry with Skarsgård is passable at best, and though she claims to be no damsel she pretty much is; she does manage to escape her captors without external help, but she gets recaptured pretty much immediately anyway.

David Yates’ experience in directing action sequences has mainly consisted of teenagers pointing magic twigs at each other, so The Legend of Tarzan serves as a challenge for the veteran Harry Potter helmer. In terms of capturing Tarzan in motion swinging on vines or jumping through treetops he’s done an excellent job, but when it comes to actual fight scenes the direction becomes a lot choppier. There’s one decent hand-to-hand confrontation on a train where Tarzan single-handedly takes out a carriage full of guards, but other scenes like Tarzan’s fight with a gorilla or his confrontation with Mbonga are sloppily edited so as to be almost incomprehensible; yet another example of quick cuts and cramp camerawork ruining action. The film certainly looks nice with its sweeping cinematography and great period production design, and Rupert Gregson-Williams’ score is suitably heroic enough, but there’s nothing that truly stands out on a technical level.

The Legend of Tarzan is a perfectly acceptable movie that I’m sure fans of the character will get a least a little kick out of, but considering the vast number of alternatives it’s certainly not one I see being especially remembered amongst its hundreds of brethren. I give it a lot of credit at least for attempting to do something daring with the source material, but unfortunately that braveness too often works against what the film should be. There’s simply not enough real Tarzan moments, and when the film actually remembers to have those moments it really shines. It almost makes me wish they just did a standard Tarzan origin with this cast and crew, as the potential for a great adaptation with today’s technology can be seen lurking within the story’s flashback sequences. Skarsgård’s excellent performance and its important messages ultimately make the film worth a look, but it’s certainly not a film that demands the full cinema experience; being able to take breaks might even alleviate the sluggish pacing. But even with that, I am worried for the fate of this movie at the box office. If we’re not careful, The Legend of Tarzan may become the second high-profile Edgar Rice Burroughs film to tank financially this decade…and that’s not great considering John Carter is the better movie (at least in my opinion).

FINAL VERDICT: 6/10