Annette (2021) * – Seen at the Cinema

Contender for the weirdest film of the year and a truly bonkers misfire, this is a musical only in the sense that much of it is sung in the vein of Tommy (1975) but completely lacking in the kind of memorable songs that would make it qualify for the genre. It is the most over-ripe of conceits, actors who can’t sing, a story that doesn’t fly, characters whose characteristics are endlessly laboured, little development, and a director who clearly believes audiences will swallow anything.

World-famous soprano Ann (Marion Cotillard) marries agent provocateur stand-up comic Henry (Adam Driver). Her stage act consists of dying and bowing, his of heckling his audience. The relationship soon hits the rocks but not before she has given birth to Annette. This is where it becomes even more tricky because Annette more closely resembles an offspring of Chucky, the horror doll, rather than, as was clearly intended, Pinocchio. The story takes an odd turn, which I won’t reveal, but it fails to redeem the project.

While Driver (Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, 2019) is quite convincing as the bonkers comedian – especially in one skit where he has the audience believing he has killed his wife – and it is virtually impossible for Cotillard (La Vie en Rose, 2007) to be bad in anything, the film needs more than repetitive scenes of her singing and him upbraiding the audience. Cotillard actually has a reasonable voice – and has cut a few albums – but what she is given to sing here makes a mockery of her talents.

With names such as director Leos Carax (Holy Motors, 2012) and screenwriters/ composers Ron and Russell Mael of Sparks fame this was clearly always going to err on the side of cult. It might have worked if the director could have seen his way to a bit of brevity. At 90 minutes or so it might have been an interesting trifle. At 140 minutes, it outstayed it welcome.

Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings (2021) **** – Seen at the Cinema

While sharing similarities to Black Widow with family to the fore, warring siblings,  understated love interest and greater emphasis on character than action, this is a bolder origin story.  Shang-Chi (Simu Liu), living as a car valet driver in America under the pseudonym Shaun, is drawn home by his father Xu Wenwu (Tony Leung), who gave up global domination for love. Shang-Chi is somewhat surprised to discover that the mother he believed dead is instead being held prisoner.

Family reunion is complicated by the fact that Shang-Chi shamed his father and abandoned his sister Xialing (Meng’er Zhang). Shang-Chi’s not-quite-girlfriend Katy (Awkwafina), when not aiding exposition, mostly provides comic relief until superceded in that department by  wacky thespian Trevor (Ben Kingsley). As the story picks up it also drops back to explain the family dynamics but without losing any tension. On paper the tale sounds a tad overcomplicated but it works like a dream on screen and we only really enter Marvel territory filled with mythical Chinese creatures in the last reel. So on the one hand it works as an interesting drama while on the other delivers innovative bang for your buck.

There’s a brilliant sequence on a runaway bus in San Francisco, Shang-Chi battling a group of thugs led by the appropriately-named Razor Fist (Florian Munteanu) while Katy tries to control the vehicle. Then there’s a terrific battle on skyscraper scaffolding. Throw into the mix a drive through a terrifying forest and a return to their mother’s village to confront the evil that threatens the world. And in keeping with Marvel dynamics pendants that hold the secret of finding the hidden village.

The set-up is particularly well-done with clever twists to audience expectations, what appear at first to be expository voice-overs turning into conversations, the undefined Shang-Chi/Katy relationship causing grief among parents and friends, their driving skills put to superb use in the plot, while the father’s backstory, lust for power being assuaged by love, is not given short shrift. The story more than toys with the audience in other ways, setting up different expectations which prove unfounded.

All the main characters have great story arcs –  Xu Wenwu from ruthless villain to romantic softy and back to ruthless when training his son, Shang-Chi from apparent waster to unwillingly accepting a different path, Xialing the girl who had to learn skills her father refused to teach her, and, her driving apart, Katy from mere observer in action scenes to participant.

Primarily a television actor and stuntman Simu Liu makes massive impact in the leading role, adding a fresh face to the MCU. Asian superstar Tony Leung (Infernal Affairs, 2003) makes a comfortable leap into the Hollywood big time. The relatively unknown Meng’er Zhang (In the Mood for Love, 2019) comes up trumps and rapper Awkwafina (Jumanji: The Next Level, 2019) brings a welcome touch of normality to the proceedings. Look out for Michelle Yeoh (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, 2000), Florain Munteanu (Creed II) and Benedict Wong (Doctor Strange, 2016).  Oscar-winner Ben Kingsley almost steals the show.

Destin Daniel Cretton (Just Mercy, 2019) does a brilliant job of marshalling not just the visuals but the drama and brings clarity to the storyline. Special mention to an unusual score by Joel P. West.

The Last Bus (2021) *** – Seen at the Cinema

As we saw with Stillwater, great performances can rescue films. And there are two stunning performances on show in this alternative road trip, one from star Timothy Spall (Mr Turner, 2014) and another in a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it scene from supporting actress Grace Calder. The story here is pretty slim, Tom, aged over 90, sets out on 800-mile pilgrimage by bus from John O’Groats at the very top of Scotland to Land’s End at the very south of England. The trip’s purpose is concealed until the climax but hardy cinemagoers will easily guess it. He has various encounters along the way. That’s it, pretty much.

Most films about the old have redeeming features, a charming character and if grouchy with a last chance at redemption, and if played by a star generally bring with their performance a whole parcel of screen memories that have an audience rooting for them. Tom ain’t like that. He’s old the way really old people are old. He’s not an attractive sight. His bottom lip sticks out most of the time like an aged trout. He shuffles along, in battered old clothes clutching a battered old suitcase. Most of the time he’s out of his depth, occasionally rescued by passersby, occasionally not.  

The most you can say about him is he has grit, standing up to a drunk abusing a Muslim, fixing a broken-down bus, offering a shoulder to cry on to a weeping teenager. In another time, in another place, such characteristics would have propelled a story. Here, they are mere makeweights. He’s so self-effacing he’s easy to ignore.  

Scottish director Gillies Mackinnon (Whisky Galore, 2016) takes the bold decision not to make him overly sympathetic. Scenes that would have been played for all they were worth in any other film almost pass without comment, just minor ingredients in a larger tapestry. The most Tom achieves is retaining dignity at a time when body and mind are starting to betray him.

That this is just the smallest of small pictures is amply demonstrated when, trapped between a bunch of rowdy boys enjoying rowdy banter with a hen party, he starts singing “Amazing Grace.” Tom doesn’t have an amazing voice. He doesn’t even seem to recognise that he gradually attracts an audience. He is in a world of his own. And the director lets him stay there.

I was so convinced by Timothy Spall’s performance that I hoped they had used a stunt double to film a scene when he has to gingerly negotiate a path down rugged rocks. I had not realised that Spall is only 64 and not close to the aged specimen I had been watching. Spall has that quiet genius of the great actors even though rarely given a leading role and if you recognise him at all, unless you are an arthouse devotee, it will be from The Last Samurai (2003) or Vanilla Sky (1999).  

What of Grace Calder? Occasionally I deliver lectures on film and in one of these I use the final scene of Greta Garbo in Queen Christina (1933) to demonstrate the power of female close-ups, how women far more than men are capable of a greater range expression, showing a shifting series of emotions through their eyes. And I saw that same astonishing quality in Grace Calder (Love Sarah, 2020). She appears as the lover of an arrogant male who taunts Tom in a B&B. As she reins her lover in, her eyes rapidly change in a matter of seconds to conveying a depth of different emotions.  None of the other actors, who are all fleeting two-dimensional cameos, come anywhere close in a part that was not a part until she made it so memorable.

Most critics have been pretty sniffy about The Last Bus and you can see why. Television writer Joe Ainsworth making his movie debut tries too hard for diversity, the social media trope sticks out like a sore thumb, affords overmuch footage of glorious Scottish landscape to recompense Creative Scotland for its financial input, and never quite resolves the question of how a 90-year-old guy who can hardly manage a bus pass manages to work out a convoluted route in at least a dozen local buses to retrace a route he took 70 years before.

But it is all held together by a stunning performance by Spall.  

Censor (2021) ** – Seen at the Cinema

From video nasty to video laughty in one easy move. I was laughing out loud when the picture started to get nasty and I doubt this was the intention of director Prano Bailey Bond, making her movie debut. The movie is set in the uber-drab 1980s, where color was apparently in short supply, and all the characters inhabited offices or houses that appeared to belong to the black-and-white era.  The notion that iconic characters like Boy George, Madonna and Princess Diana might have been around at the same time is largely ignored in the bid to make every character flat and conformist.

In fairness, working in the British film censorship department was hardly likely to provide a bundle of laughs. As well as being as being as buttoned-down as they come, Enid (Niamh Algar) is also riddled with guilt since she was in charge of her younger sister when she went missing two decades previously. A chunk of the film is almost a spoof of The Office, with characters hidebound by officialdom.

And there are a few excellent set pieces. As with The Night House, the scenes that deal with grief, Enid’s parents finally coming to terms with their daughter’s disappearance, are very well done. The dialogue among the various censors, judging whether to reject movies or heavily edit them, rings very true and there is a terrific scene involving film-making where the director is kept off-camera while an actress is literally standing in the spotlight.

Tight-lipped Enid becomes obsessed with the idea that her sister is not only alive but actually an actress in a video nasty.  To that end, she tracks down smarmy producer Doug Smart (Michael Smiley). As I said, it may have been the director’s intention that Smart is killed by ironically managing to have an award statuette rammed down his throat, but I’m not so sure and at that point I began to lose faith in the picture. It goes on to a perfectly bonkers climax which had me in stitches, again not entirely a recommendation.

The Courier (2021) **** – Seen at the Cinema

A brilliant example of how to control your material, this low-budget old school espionage picture, virtually a two-hander, based on a true story and set against the 1960s cold War paranoia, delivers thrills against the background of a murky business. Smarmy businessman Greville Wynne (Benedict Cumberbatch) is inveigled into picking up rolls of film from Russian intelligence office Oleg (Merab Ninidze), giving away his country’s secrets in a bid to prevent nuclear war.

An anti-James Bond scenario sees Wynn employing little bits of tradecraft and spending almost every minute fearing capture while he develops a friendship with his foreign counterpart. On the domestic front, the pressure tells on Wynn, already a nervy character and relying too much on alcohol to sustain his own possibly failing business. Wife Sheila (Jessie Buckley) suspects he is engaging in another extra marital affair. Doting father Oleg wilts under the burden of betrayal, hoping that his assistance in the Western cause will lead to a successful defection, aware of the impact on his family if caught.

In the background Wynne’s ruthless handlers, Dickie Franks (Angus Wright) representing MI6 and CIA operative Emily (Rachel Brosnahan), are like circling sharks. While tense enough, this is all straightforward Tinker, Tailor… territory but in the second act the stakes suddenly rise and the movie shoots into quite different, far more realistic territory, that takes its toll on both protagonists.

It’s a very lean film and in concentrating on character rather than extraneous thrills in the manner of other recent offerings like Stillwater, The Night House or Censor, comes up triumphant in terms of plot. And without attempting to impose background through artistry as with Censor perfectly captures the mood of the times. The background characters are all well developed but the unexpected friendship that develops between the two spies and leads to the climax is exceptionally well done.

Oscar nominated Benedict Cumberbatch (The Imitation Game, 2014) drops all his mannerisms to bring alive a fascinating character who has, in any case, in his business life, had to develop an alien persona.  Merab Ninidze (Jupiter’s Moon, 2017) is every bit his equal, living a lie, trying to keep one step ahead of his own suspicious compatriots. Rachel Brosnahan (Change in the Air, 2018) is excellent as the one backroom character with an ounce of empathy and a pithy line in dealing with stuffy Brits and Jessie Buckley (Wild Rose, 2018), adding another decent accent to her collection, adds some pathos.

Director Dominic Cooke (On Chesil Beach, 2017) does an excellent job of marshalling his material and his concentration on character pays off in spades. Versatility could find no better expression than through writer Tom O’Connor who went down a completely different route in his previous movie The Hitman’s Bodyguard (2017).

I do have one slight niggle. When the British were outraged at Burgess, Philby and MacLean and the Americans Klaus Fuchs et al, the arguments given by these various traitors was that, in giving away state secrets, they were merely realigning the nuclear status quo. These characters were all roundly vilified, but not Oleg here. And although the film concentrates on a few exchanges between Oleg and his courier, in reality more than 5,000 military secrets went from Russia to Britain in this fashion.

Reminiscence (2021) ** – Seen at the Cinema

Hollywood has been running shy of genuine film noir for some time now so it makes little sense to give it a waterlogged futuristic setting despite the impressive track record, albeit not in the movies, of writer-director Lisa Joy best known as co-creator of television hit Westworld (2016-2021). Ecologic disaster dominates this future, floods reducing cities to rivers, skyscrapers and buildings existing as islands in a wet landscape. Dystopia is also rampant with the masses close to riot and big business, as you might expect, nonetheless able to exploit the situation.

Nick Bannister (Hugh Jackman) is a private eye of sorts, but concentrating his practice on infiltrating the mind, operating some kind of giant bathtub immersion which, plus a  headset that looks borrowed from a Marvel supervillain, allows him to penetrate secrets. Enter statuesque femme fatale Mae (Rebecca Ferguson) who has – wait for it – lost her keys! Yep, that’s the set-up. Some amazing technological gizmo that can be turned into a key-hunting device.

Of course, that’s not the whole story. To fill out the film noir aspect, Mae is some kind of nightclub singer, rehashing the Rodgers & Hart standard “Where or When,” singing into a  1940s mike. And there’s a voice-over reminiscent of the awful voice-over that besmirched the original release of Blade Runner, with some lines so bad that the director sees fit to run them twice.

Soon Bannister is plunged (pardon the pun) into a mystery that takes in businessman Walter Sylvan (Brett Cullen) and family and there’s other bad guys like Cyrus Boothe (Cliff Curtis) and a shoal of red herrings lying in wait. Instead of Bannister being the alcoholic as is usually the private eye trope, it’s his sidekick Watts (Thandiwe Newton).

Left alone, this might have made a decent mystery, and there is enough intrigue to be going along with, family secrets to expose, but the setting destroys any possibility that the picture might actually take off.  The city is in some cases flooded to probably the first ren or twenty storeys of a skyscraper but in other sequences Bannister skips through what look like little more than a few inches of water. There is an absolutely peculiar scene where Bannister escapes his enemy by trapping him in a grand piano and sending him into a watery grave only to change his mind and try to rescue him.

There’s some interesting material about how to capture memory and keep it on permanent rewind but it’s kind of lost in the general flotsam and jetsam and there’s a sweet line about finishing a story at the good part before it turns into a sad ending. But there’s really no justification for the futuristic setting even if Bannister had invented a gizmo that opened up the mind, more of an electronic psychiatrist than a gumshoe.

Hugh Jackman (The Front Runner, 2018) does his best but the risible voice-over, striving too hard for memorable lines, does for him. Rebecca Ferguson (Mission Impossible: Fallout, 2018) is satisfactory without being electrifying but Thandiwe Newton (Solo: A Star Wars Story, 2018) is wasted.

Old (2021) *** – Seen at the Cinema

Surely no director has cut his cloth according to his means more than M. Night Shyamalen. After a series of big-budget failures, he returned with a series of low-budget numbers like The Visit (2015) and Split (2016) with a couple of forays into television to keep his hand in. And although his movies sometimes don’t work, usually from over-ambition, he is still a brand name and as a triple-hyphenate one of the few working directors to completely control his output.

So the starting point is you don’t know what you’re going to get, except there will be twists and occasional shocks along the way. Even the Glass films aren’t a trilogy in the accepted sense of the word. 

Old is a neat idea. A group of strangers on vacation end up on a strange beach where time moves along at quite a clip and they can’t escape. Most of the action involves the characters responding to one calamity after another and despite a couple of gruesome moments Shyamalan seems intent on swapping jump-out-of-your-seat moments for a continual slow burn. He takes the disaster trope of who’s gonna die next – the bad old guy or the cute younger person – and inverts it until nothing makes any sense except impending apocalypse, at least for all stranded in this apparent paradise.

Speeded-up life makes for speeded-up dread. While wounds heal in seconds and pregnancy might last, oh, a half hour or so, the malfunctioning body malfunctions at lightspeed.

The great thing about Shyamalan is he is a writer first so the characters here are all very well drawn. He gives a geeky kid the geekiest of all character traits, going up to everyone he meets to ask their name and job. But it’s an ensemble picture so nobody is more important than anybody else. And the characters bring along a hamper full of tensions – there’s an epileptic, a couple on the verge of divorce, a doctor on the verge of a breakdown. He also has a distinctive visual style, preferring to track the camera from one character to another rather than using cuts.

It slightly runs out of steam as the body count mounts and it might have been an idea to introduce the shock ending – which asks significant questions about the direction society is heading – a bit sooner

There’s a solid cast, good actors rather than A-list stars, a bundle of whom are best-known for television. Gael Garcia Bernal (The Motorcycle Diaries, 2004) takes pole position in the credits, supported by Rufus Sewell (The Man in the High Castle television series, 2015-2019), Luxembourg actress Vicky Krieps (Das Boot, 2018- 2020), Ken Leung (Lost, 2008-2010), and Abbey Lee (Lux Aeterna, 2019).  Scions of Hollywood royalty get a leg-up here – Francesca Eastwood being the daughter of Clint and Alexa Swinton cousin to Tilda – and there are cameos from the likes of Embeth Davidtz (Schindler’s List, 1993)

Otherwise it’s a decent addition to the Shyamalen oeuvre, enough at least to keep him chugging along until he gets the next big idea or budget. While the chances of him alighting on another Sixth Sense (1999) or Unbreakable (2000) might appear remote bear in mind the guy has barely passed 50, an age when top directors are just coming into their prime – Hitchcock was a few years older when he hit the hot streak of Rear Window, Vertigo and North by Northwest.

There’s a fair chance the ending is uncomfortably close to science fact rather than fiction and if Shyamalan can activate social media along those lines the picture could build up enough of a head of steam to bring the director back into the big-budget Hollywood fold or ensure at least that he is never cast aside.

Saw this at the cinema as part of my Monday double bill. – but on the previous week to Suicide Squad/Jungle Cruise.

Jungle Cruise (2021) **** – Seen At The Cinema

Can’t believe this romp is getting such sniffy reviews. But the reason is simple enough. Critics don’t watch it with an audience (except possibly of other critics) – on Rotten Tomatoes critics scored this at 63% while audiences rated it 93%. I saw it as part of my Monday Night Cinema Double Bill – along with Suicide Squad which critics adored. But while I thought Suicide Squad was a blast and very original, I laughed more at Jungle Cruise and I was much more involved. The difference – Suicide Squad is slick and cynical with hardly a single empathetic character, which is an easier target these days, but Jungle Cruise goes for something more difficult to achieve, a genuine warm-hearted movie that doesn’t disappear into romantic slush.

Sure, Jungle Cruise recycles not just Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981) – which itself recycled just about everything – but Ghost (1990), Highlander (1986), The African Queen (1951), Romancing the Stone (1984) and Pirates of the Caribbean (2003), but I don’t think that took away from its originality. The story made sense and the clues involved in the treasure hunt aspect of the picture were well worked out, delivering quite a few surprises. But mostly, there was terrific charisma between Dwayne Johnson and Emily Blunt.

Roguish Frank Wolff (Dwayne Johnson), with a line in lame jokes (which, by the way, had the audience roaring), operates an Amazon river cruise before the First World War where most of what the passengers see is manufactured. Explorer and accomplished burglar Lily Houghton (Emily Blunt) mistakes him for riverboat magnate Nilo (Paul Giametti) but after Frank saves her from a tiger (his tame beast, it turns out) she hires him to find a fabled treasure. Also in the hunt are ruthless German Prince Joachim (Jesse Plemons) and Spaniard Aguirre (Edgar Ramirez).

Both Wolff and Houghton are given great opening scenes, he proving what a con man he is, she more than capable in a man’s world, where such is the antipathy to female archaeologists that her brother MacGregor (Jack Whitehall) has to deliver her lecture for her. There’s action by the bucketload, quite a few Indiana Jones-type escapes, shooting the rapids, encounters with dangerous animals – snakes, piranha fish etc – and natives. Prince Joachim has one hell of a river vessel and quite a few tricks up his sleeve. It’s not just that the pace never lets up, but it is generally delivered with verve.  

Interestingly, there is a nod towards diversity in that MacGregor is gay, a fact accepted by Wolff. Equally interesting, MacGregor has a pivotal transitional moment as his character starts out in one mode and ends in another.  And Lily gives the finger to the male-dominated academic world.

Paul Giamatti (TV’s Billions, 2016-2021) only has a small part but it’s a delight to see him make any big screen appearance at all and Jesse Plemons (Judas and the Black Messiah, 2021) takes on the rather unusual role of the German bad guy. Even though Edgar Ramirez (Yes Day, 2021) spends most of the movie in disguise one way or another, his intensity still shines through.

Jaume Collet-Sera made his name directing Liam Neeson thrillers like Unknown (2011) – one of my favorite pictures – and Non-Stop (2014), Run All Night (2015) and The Commuter (2018) but this is a big step up not just in terms of budget and the occasionally complex story line but also in the romance and comedy elements and in my eyes he more than delivers. Michael Green (Blade Runner 2049, 2017), Glen Ficarra (Focus, 2013) and John Requa (The Bad News Bears, 2005) all had a hand in the screenplay and James Newton Howard (News of the World, 2020) has written a great score.  

I’ve no idea whether Jungle Cruise has anything in common with the ride at the Disney theme park and I didn’t care. This is not just great family viewing but for audiences of all ages who just want to be – wait for it – entertained. But Disney may well have shot itself in the foot by streaming this at the same time as opening it in cinemas for I bet you this will get terrific word-of-mouth and they should have let it sit in cinemas for months to gather the benefits. An ideal summer movie of the old-fashioned kind.

Black Widow (2021) **** – Seen at the Cinema

Like Skyfall, that rarity, an action film with a solid emotional core. Take away the action and you would still have an absorbing story of a loss, family tension, bickering siblings and an ego-driven pompous father. The action brings family together, initially the two girls, Natasha (Scarlett Johansson) and Yelena (Florence Pugh) rescuing papa Alexei (David Horsburgh) from a Russian maximum-security prison then with the addition of brainy mum Melina (Rachel Weisz) tackling criminal mastermind Dreykov (Ray Winstone) in an exceptionally clever secret location.

If you’ve come looking for simple action, this is the wrong movie for you. Family complication, on a par perhaps with the criminal clan of The Godfather and imbued with the darker hues of Christopher Nolan’s Batman, adds far more depth than normal for a superhero picture. And even for Dreykov, the issue is family. He is the repairer-in-chief, on the one hand putting back together as well as he can his own familial loss, and on the other giving a home for countless orphans worldwide, albeit to suit his own plans.

Natasha has run the gamut of raw emotion. Orphaned twice, forcibly ejected from the one place she called home, i.e. The Avengers family, her feelings about being reunited with  adoptive Romanoff parents are noticeably negative.  Yelena is more willing to embrace the errant parents. Never mind that this is the one superhero picture in The Avengers catalogue where the superhero, as fit and agile as Natasha is, has no demonstrable superhero powers. And even those powers are mocked by Yelena who makes fun of the pose we have so often seen Natasha adopt. Nearly stealing the show is the self-pitying Alexei, the over-ripe overweight over-emotional father who would always be embarrassing you, inflated with his own self-importance, as bereft now as his daughters, having been stripped of his own superhero status as the Red Guardian. Whenever any of his family are in danger you can be sure his ego will get in the way.

The story is simple enough. By accident, Yelena, a member of the Dreykov army of female orphans, accidentally discovers she is enslaved, teams up, but only after a knock-down scrap Jason Bourne would have been proud of, with on-the-run Natasha, and eventually her parents. The action is terrific, especially the jailbreak, which has time to steal the central riff from Force Majeure (2014) just to ramp up the tension. And there are plenty surprises along the way, especially apt reward for Natasha’s ruthlessness as a do-gooder.

This is an entire family up for redemption, forced to confront their pasts, and for once it is not action that provides the solution. In some respects it is the family that clings together that stays together. The Avengers aspect is mostly redundant here, so what’s left is a more solid action-fueled thriller with superb characters, each, including villain, with their own emotional story arc. And it’s not always dark either, the family scenario studded with comedy nuggets.   

Visually stunning, as you might expect, this is a welcome big-budget showcase for Cate Shortland (Berlin Syndrome, 2017) who brings emotional intelligence to bear on a genre in which that is often in short supply. Eric Pearson (Godzilla vs Kong, 2021) was the wordsmith.

Johansson (Marriage Story, 2019) has rarely been better and it says a lot for the performance of Florence Pugh (Little Women, 2019) that in their scenes together she is rarely overshadowed. Hopefully, this is the breakout picture for David Harbour (No Sudden Move, 2021), and maybe even the MCU team might recognize the comedic opportunities in a stand-alone based on his character, so effortlessly has it been constructed. And it’s a welcome return for Rachel Weisz, absent from the big screen since The Favourite (2018).  William Hurt (Avengers: Endgame, 2019) makes an expected appearance and Olga Kurylenko (The Courier, 2019) a surprise one and The Handmaid’s Tale’s O-T Fagbenie provides an interesting cameo.

This is definitely not going to work as well on the small-screen so if you’ve got the chance to see it in the cinema – where I saw it on my weekly Monday night outing – grab it while you can.

The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard (2021) ****

Contrary to all my expectations – and the opinions of the Rotten Tomatoes critical aggregate – this was a blast. The over-the-top tongue-in-cheek action thriller is dominated by Salma Hayek who acts as a glorious foil to the bickering bad boys. Had she not been so well established, this would have been a career-making turn. It might yet give her a fresh burst of cinematic life away from the serious stuff to which she has previously devoted her screen life.

This movie follows the new rule for sequels, in that often these days they are better than the original. I had not been so taken with The Hitman’s Bodyguard (2017), which basically turned on the old idea of a mismatched duo with a more straightforward storyline.

This time round, disgraced bodyguard Michael Bryce (Ryan Reynolds) is forced out of a very brief self-imposed retirement by Sonia Kincaid (Salma Hayek), who had small role in the original, to rescue husband Darius (Samuel L. Jackson) from gangsters. The main plot is straightforward enough – Greek shipping tycoon Aristotle Papadopolous (Antonio Banderas) plans to hold Europe to ransom after the EU imposes financial sanction on his native country by knocking out all digital communication throughout the continent. Interpol agent Bobby O’Neill (Frank Grillo) forces the trio to work together to foil the plot.

But there are a host of wonderful, and occasionally surprisingly emotional, subplots. For a Start Sonia is desperate to become a mother with question-marks about Darius’s ability or wish to make her pregnant. Bryce has vowed to give up violence and we get to meet his father, a legendary hitman (Morgan Freeman) who adds surprising complications to the story. Bobby O’Neill is constantly at odds with boss Crowley (Caroline Goodall) and can barely understand a word spoken by Scottish interpreter Ailso (a very dry Alice McMillan). Aristotle once had a thing for Sonia and his chief bodyguard Magnusson (Tom Hopper) is by far the coolest bodyguard on show.

The action just batters along, fueled by various plot twists, and there is hardly a pause for breath as the hitmen and their adversaries destroy a ton of Europe’s most attractive cities. There are also plenty of laugh-out-loud moments. There’s nothing remotely serious about the plot beyond personal issues facing the trio and that the preposterousness reaches high-octane levels only adds to the fun. If it’s not a shoot-out, it’s a chase. If the trio are not killing each other, they are trying to save each other. And there is a surprise ending which may trigger another sequel.

Salma Hayek (Oscar-nominated for Frida, 2002) at full throttle both emotionally, vocally and in murderous mode steals the picture. She delivers some hilariously salty dialogue in amongst the profanity and proves no slouch in the cunning department. All guns blazing is her default. Ryan Reynolds (Deadpool, 2016) I found to be surprisingly good, too, a long way from the cocky screen persona he has inhabited of late, most of the time here emotionally vulnerable, in part due to his current antipathy towards violence but also from childhood demons, and spending most of the time taking one beating after another, once so convincingly dead that hitman and wife callously dump his overboard.

Samuel L. Jackson (Glass, 2019) could play this kind of role in his sleep but he, too, is given some emotional depth. Only Antonio Banderas (The Mask of Zorro, 1998) overplays his role. Caroline Goodall (Hunter Killer, 2018) is great as the crisp authority figure and Frank Grillo (Point Blank, 2019) as the eternal underling. It’s great to see Oscar-winner Morgan Freeman (The Shawshank Redemption, 1994) back in action – and more action than you might initially expect – and there is a cameo from Richard E. Grant (Withnail and I, 1987).

Patrick Hughes reprises his directorial duties, respectively, from the original and turns in a fresh take.

I caught this on my weekly Monday Night at the Cinema outing, catching films on the big screen before they are belittled on the small screen.