Ride the Eagle

★★★★½

Jake Johnson is an actor I’ve always dug. I never really got into “New Girl,” but he seemed likable and cool on it. Johnson’s mumblecore movies “Drinking Buddies” and “Win It All” are highlights of the subgenre. “Let’s Be Cops” is a dumb yet fun action comedy perfect for a Saturday or Sunday afternoon spent nursing a hangover on the couch. Johnson stole so-so efforts “Jurassic World” and “Tag” IMHO. The Peter B. Parker he voiced in “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” is insanely charming and easily the Spider-Man to whom I most directly relate. Hell, the dude played Jesus in a “Harold & Kumar” movie. What’s not to love?

“Ride the Eagle” (available in select theaters and on VOD beginning Friday, July 30) is the Jake Johnsonest flick to ever Jake Johnson – he not only stars in but also co-wrote and co-produced the picture. Mileage may vary depending upon your feelings regarding Johnson, but the film played like gangbusters for me. By my estimation it’s currently one of 2021’s best.

Johnson stars as Leif, an aging percussionist (mostly bongos) who’s living in a tiny house with his beloved dog Nora. The house is in the backyard of his band’s manager Gorka (Luis Fernandez-Gil). Leif spends his days and most of the movie smoking dope and hanging with Nora.

His “busy” schedule is interrupted by Missy (killer comedic character actress Cleo King), a woman who lived alongside Leif’s estranged Mom Honey (Susan Sarandon) in a commune some time ago. She’s there to inform him of Honey’s passing from cancer and of his conditional inheritance of her lovely Yosemite-based cabin. In order to take possession of the dwelling, Leif will have to complete Honey’s to-do list. Honey’s bidding brings Leif into contact with his former flame Audrey (D’Arcy Carden of “The Good Place”) as well as Honey’s ex-boyfriend Carl (J.K. Simmons).

“Ride the Eagle” is directed and co-written by Trent O’Donnell, with whom Johnson worked on 28 episodes of “New Girl.” The duo wrote great roles for their cast to inhabit and they make the most of ‘em. Johnson plays a lot of his scenes opposite only Nora and he still manages to be both magnetic and comedic. Phone calls between Leif and Audrey kinda call to mind Richard Linklater’s “Before” trilogy – they feel real and utterly relatable. Sarandon makes her presence deeply felt despite only appearing on VHS tapes and voiceover letter readings. Simmons’ Carl brings the laughs by calling Leif “fuckboy” and “sugar dick.”

“Ride the Eagle” is funny, but it’s not nearly as humorous as I expected it to be. What it lacks in laughs it more than makes up for with heart and genuine emotion. I cried at this movie … a lot. Hell, I’m crying thinking about it while writing this review. I might’ve connected with the film as deeply as I did as I recently lost a relative with whom I lost touch in the last years of her life. It has a wonderful message of forgiveness and actively encourages its audience to live their best lives. “Ride the Eagle” is what Quentin Tarantino calls a hangout movie. I genuinely loved hanging out with Leif and Nora for 88 minutes. I sincerely think y’all will too.  

No Sudden Move

★★★

Steven Soderbergh was arguably one of our best and most prolific directors prior to his “retirement” in 2013. (During which he made 20 episodes of Cinemax’s “The Knick” – this dude was like Michael Jordan in a White Sox jersey.)  Soderbergh returned to filmmaking in 2017 with the fun and frivolous but ultimately inconsequential “Logan Lucky.” He’s subsequently directed “Unsane,” “High Flying Bird,” “The Laundromat” and “Let Them All Talk” … most of which have debuted on streaming services and only some of which I’ve seen.   

In my humble opinion Soderbergh’s most creatively fertile period was between 1998 (when he released “Out of Sight,” which is my favorite flick of his) and 2001 (which saw the release of his “Ocean’s 11” remake … his most commercially viable work to date). In between Soderbergh made the bitchin’ Terence Stamp/Peter Fonda crime picture “The Limey” (1999), directed Julia Roberts to an Oscar in “Erin Brockovich” (2000) and performed the same service for Benicio Del Toro later that year with “Traffic.”

Soderbergh has often been known as a “one for them, one for me” filmmaker. I’m of the opinion that generally speaking his creative output is actually stronger when he’s making one for them. I incorrectly assumed that his latest effort “No Sudden Move” (now streaming on HBO Max) would be one for them with its starry cast (Don Cheadle, Del Toro, David Harbour, Jon Hamm, Amy Seimetz, Brendan Fraser, Kieran Culkin, Noah Jupe, Julia Fox, Ray Liotta and Bill Duke) and crime caper premise, but this is most assuredly one for him. This feels less like “Out of Sight” and more akin to something like “Bubble.”

It’s 1954 in Detroit. A trio of criminals – Curt Goynes (Cheadle), Ronald Russo (Del Toro) and Charley (Culkin) – are commissioned by middle man Doug Jones (Fraser – it’s kinda funny to see a chubby dude playing a cat with a skinny dude’s name) to hold a family of four (Harbour, Seimetz, Jupe and Lucy Holt) hostage. Harbour’s patriarch Matt Wertz is an accountant for Chrysler who has access to safe-bound plans for the not-yet-employed catalytic converter. If Wertz provides the criminals with the plans he and his family will emerge unscathed.

Complicating matters is the suspicion that this job is a setup. Black crime boss Aldrick Watkins (Duke) is angry at Goynes for botching a previous job. White crime boss Frank Capelli (Liotta) justifiably suspects that Russo is sleeping with his wife Vanessa (Fox). Law enforcement officer Joe Finney (Hamm) is investigating not only the criminals but Wertz himself. Pulling all the strings for his own benefit is an auto industry executive played by an uncredited BIG name Soderbergh regular.

I wanted so very much to dig “No Sudden Move” and to a certain extent I do. It’s handsomely made and well-acted. The script by “Bill & Ted” and “Men in Black” screenwriter Ed Solomon tackles details macro (the treatment of African Americans in 1950s Detroit and America as a whole, the auto industry’s lack of concern for our environment) and micro (naming Cheadle’s character Goynes seems like a cool tip of the cap to late Detroit-based urban fiction author Donald Goines). I just wish Solomon had injected some heart into the proceedings and made more of the characters likable/worth rooting for, but that’s not the story he and Soderbergh chose to tell. Almost all of these folks are underdeveloped or scumbags save for Cheadle’s Goynes and Jupe’s Matthew Wertz Jr. Cheadle is the clear-cut standout acting-wise. A quiet scene between Goynes, a woman from his past named Clarisse (Lauren LaStrada) and her new man Rudy (Wallace Bridges) in which he’s attempting to retrieve a suitcase is easily its best by saying everything and telling nothing.

Soderbergh shot the film under his usual pseudonym Peter Andrews using modern cameras and antique lenses often resulting in an interesting fisheye effect. The camera’s fluid movements occasionally call to mind the works of both Max Ophüls and Douglas Sirk. The movie often moves (it’s somewhat glacially-paced) and feels like it was made in the ‘50s save for some terse language and a few graphic depictions of violence.

I prefer my Soderbergh cool as opposed to cold. “No Sudden Move” is frigid, but I suspect it might warm up on a rewatch.

The Tomorrow War

★★★★½

Chris Pratt is an actor I’ve generally always enjoyed.

I think I first saw him during a recurring guest stint on “The O.C.” (Shut up, the first season is legitimately good!) and was struck by just how funny and weird the dude came across. I followed Pratt through appearances on screens both big (“Wanted,” “Jennifer’s Body,” “Moneyball,” “The Five-Year Engagement,” “Zero Dark Thirty,” “Her”) and small (“Parks and Recreation”).

The cat’s career was shot into the stratosphere back in 2014 with the one-two punch of “The Lego Movie” and “Guardians of the Galaxy.” He followed these successes up with “Jurassic World” and “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” (products where Pratt is more engaging than the movies themselves), Antoine Fuqua’s “The Magnificent Seven” remake (where he was one of the least interesting members of the ensemble cast), the misguided sci-fi gaslighting exercise “Passengers,” less entertaining sequels “Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2” (Why did writer/director James Gunn turn Peter Quill/Star-Lord and Rocket Raccoon into such jerks in the second installment? They were easily the best characters in the first one!) and “The Lego Movie 2: The Second Part,” “Avengers: Infinity War” (where Quill single-handedly screwed all of humanity) and doing voice work for “Onward” (Pixar’s best 2020 picture … come at me, dawg!).

I don’t know if general audiences have tired of Pratt or if it’s just me. I still like the dude … just not as much as I once did. I’ll fully admit I prefer Pratt doughy and droll as opposed to studly and stolid. It also seems as though he’s come under fire from critics and industry types (among them Elliot Page) for his Christianity (he’s a member of the controversial Zoe Church) and purported conservatism.

This brings us to Pratt’s latest project “The Tomorrow War,” which will be available to stream on Amazon Prime beginning Friday, July 2. “The Tomorrow War” is the first film of Pratt’s that he’s executive produced. I suspect he had an active hand in the artistic direction the picture took. The movie is earnest and extols the virtues of family and service to one’s country as well as the world at large. Its set pieces involving guns, knives and snowmobiles have the fingerprints of a good ol’ boy such as Pratt all over ‘em.

I’m happy to report that the final product plays like gangbusters. This is easily Pratt’s best starring vehicle and performance since the first “Guardians.” He and the movie itself are both great. Strangely, this is a sci-fi/action flick with serious “It’s a Wonderful Life” vibes and it all lands. I laughed. I cried. I was entertained.

Pratt stars as Dan Forester, a soldier-turned-high school science teacher longing for a private sector research gig that he’s continually passed over for in favor of others with more industry experience. Dan’s dissatisfied with his life despite having the love of his wonderful wife Emmy (Betty Gilpin, doing a lot with a little) and doting daughter Muri (Ryan Kiera Armstrong).

Dan’s licking his wounds from the latest rejection while watching a televised soccer match at a holiday party. His priorities certainly shift when the game’s interrupted by time-travelling soldiers from 30 years in the future advising of humanity’s impending extinction at the tentacles of the White Spikes, an invading alien force that’s using Earth as an all you can eat buffet.

Dan’s quickly conscripted into service alongside scaredy-cat scientist Charlie (Sam Richardson, even more fun here than he was in last week’s “Werewolves Within”), seasoned veteran Dorian (Edwin Hodge, doing a variation on the stoic black dude shtick he displayed in “The Purge” pictures) and a slew of other average folks (some of whom are entertainingly embodied by sketch comedians Mary Lynn Rajskub and Mike Mitchell). Emmy wants Dan to draft dodge through the assistance of his estranged, government-disdaining father James (J.K. Simmons, looking far more ripped than he did in the DC Snyderverse), but Dan’s unwilling to do so.

Dan, Charlie, Dorian and the rest are sent 30 years into the future for a one-week tour of duty in which they’ll engage in combat with the White Spikes and attempt to retrieve vials that are vital to humankind’s survival. While there they report to the tough, smart and determined Romeo Command (Yvonne Strahovski). If they survive the entire week they’ll be beamed back to the present.

My expectations coming into “The Tomorrow War” were fairly low and they were exceeded at almost every turn. Director Chris McKay (“The Lego Batman Movie”) appears to be one of those filmmakers like Tim Burton, Brad Bird, Phil Lord and Chris Miller, Mike Judge and Travis Knight who successfully made the transition from animation to live action. This is great blockbuster entertainment with a thoughtful script by Zach Dean (writer of the Eric Bana/Olivia Wilde/Charlie Hunnam-starrer “Deadfall”) and moving performances from Pratt and Strahovski. I’d be happy to see action buddy comedies starring Pratt and Richardson in perpetuity – they have real deal chemistry here. The White Spikes are simultaneously familiar and wholly original – most importantly they’re scary as shit. (Serious props to the talented technicians at Weta Digital and Luma Pictures.) My only gripe with “The Tomorrow War” is that I’m unable to see it on the BIG screen with an amped audience. Eat your heart out, “Independence Day.”

Fear Street Part 1: 1994

★★★★

As a tween and in my early teens I eagerly anticipated the arrival of Scholastic Book Clubs’ flyer from school each month. I’d rifle through it and order such highfalutin things as the novelization of the Macaulay Culkin vehicle “The Good Son” or a Lamborghini poster.

What really got me amped however was R.L. Stine’s series of “Fear Street” books. (I especially dug “Fear Street Cheerleaders.”) “Goosebumps” was too childish for a lad of my “sophisticated” tastes. Conversely “Fear Street” felt dangerous and had explicit, R-rated levels of violence that my demented young mind thrived on despite them being written for children.

I was especially stoked when I heard that co-writer/director Leigh Janiak (“Honeymoon”) had signed on to make a trilogy of films inspired by “Fear Street.” The first of these – “Fear Street Part 1: 1994” – will be available to stream on Netflix beginning Friday, July 2 with subsequent entries arriving at a clip of one per week the following two weeks – “Fear Street Part Two: 1978” (Friday, July 9) and “Fear Street Part Three: 1666 (Friday, July 16).

“1994” focuses on two towns – the depressed Shadyside and the prosperous Sunnyvale. (Think Springfield and Shelbyville à la “The Simpsons.”) Shadyside is periodically struck by shocking bouts of violence perpetrated by seemingly normal citizens who turn on a dime and are thrown into murderous fits of rage.

There are two types of teens in Shadyside – those who escape (Olivia Scott Welch’s Samantha Fraser) and those yearning to do so (Kiana Madeira’s Deena). Samantha moves from Shadyside to Sunnyvale when her parents divorce prompting a breakup between she and Deena.

Deena, smarting from the dissolution of her relationship, seeks solace in the company of her nerdy younger brother Josh (Benjamin Flores Jr. of Netflix’s “Rim of the World”) and her drug-pushing pals, the driven Kate (Julia Rehwald) and goofy grocery store employee Simon (Fred Hechinger from Netflix’s recent “The Woman in the Window”).

Adding insult to injury is Samantha’s newfound embrace of heteronormative culture by becoming a cheerleader and dating ass-squeezing Sunnyvale jock Peter (Jeremy Ford). Tensions escalate as a result, driving a deeper wedge between the two young women. Further complications and a mounting body count bring them back together.

Janiak, wife of “Stranger Things” co-creator Ross Duffer, has done one helluva job kicking off her trilogy with “1994.” She was born Feb. 1, 1980 and it shows. This is straight-up nostalgia porn for anyone who was a teenager in the early to mid ‘90s. The devil is in the details and Janiak and her collaborators did their due diligence.

The opening sequence takes place in a mall boasting stores such as Software Etc., B. Dalton Bookseller, Musicland and Gadzooks. TV shows such as “My So-Called Life” and “Unsolved Mysteries” are referenced. A character is shown sipping a Jolt Cola. I can’t even begin to fathom how astronomical the music licensing budget for the flick must’ve been with needle drops from Nine Inch Nails, Bush, Portishead, Cypress Hill, Radiohead, White Zombie, The Prodigy and the Pixies. The only anachronism I caught was the inclusion of Garbage’s “Only Happy When It Rains,” which released in ’95 as opposed to ’94.

This attention to detail wouldn’t mean a thing if “1994” didn’t connect emotionally and viscerally … thankfully it does. Janiak and her co-writer Phil Graziadei have provided her promising young cast with roles that make you care about their characters’ fates and the actors do an admirable job endearing themselves to the audience. It genuinely stings when these kids get got.

Speaking of murders, they’re surprisingly graphic and frightening here. Props to Special Makeup FX Designer/Department Head Christopher Allen Nelson (also known for playing The Groom in “Kill Bill” and Officer Francis in “Halloween” (2018)) and his crew for giving us glorious gore and grue. There’s a kill late in the picture involving a meat slicer that’s a real doozy and might just make ya woozy.

“Fear Street Part 1: 1994” will likely appeal to everyone from today’s teens to ‘90s teens now approaching middle age to teens at heart. Folks who’ve protested Stine’s work in the past or had issues with their kids listening to heavy metal and rap needn’t apply as they’ll likely be offended by the violence and sexual agency on display. (The fact that the film’s central romance is a queer one could also ruffle some feathers.) The movie calls to mind ‘90s horror offerings such as “Scream” and “The Craft.” The highest compliments I can pay the picture are that it made me wanna backtrack to catch Janiak’s directorial debut (the aforementioned “Honeymoon” starring “Game of Thrones” vet Rose Leslie), I’ll be on pins and needles anticipating the second and third installments (Luckily, I won’t have to wait long!) and that it would’ve made my 13-year-old R.L. Stine-loving self very happy.

Take Back

★★★

I’m not gonna lie. I went into “Take Back” (now available in select theaters – including Studio Movie Grill (3535 W 86th St, Indianapolis, Ind.) – and on VOD) with fairly low expectations. The movie is a starring vehicle for Michael Jai White’s wife Gillian White. Despite being a big ol’ fan of MJW (seriously, if you haven’t seen “Undisputed 2: Last Man Standing” or “Black Dynamite” you owe it to yourself to do so), I feared this might be the latest instance of Hollywood nepotism – think every time Adam Sandler (another dude I actually dig) throws his talentless wife Jackie (sorry!) into one of his flicks. Turns out my fears were unfounded, White can not only act – she can also kick a metric shit-ton of ass.

Zara (White) is a successful lawyer living in Coachella, Calif. She’s married to Brian (MJW), a high school history teacher and martial arts instructor, and has a positive relationship with her stepdaughter Audrey (Priscilla Walker). Their lives are turned upside down when Zara comes to the rescue of a barista (Lucia Romero) who’s being violently accosted by her ex (Jay Giannone). Zara disarms and kicks the crap outta the creep. The confrontation is captured on the coffee shop’s security camera. Despite the presence of good police Detectives Schmidt (James Russo, best known for Westerns “Open Range” and “Django Unchained”) and Perez (Jay Montalvo), some cop leaks the footage to the press, which gives Zara unwanted media attention.

Turns out Zara is a sex trafficking survivor, which happened at the hands of dog-loving Patrick (Mickey Rourke) a few decades prior. She was only able to escape/survive by pumping a coupla rounds into Patrick’s torso. Unfortunately, Patrick survived his gunshot wounds, is currently an avid news watcher and sees Zara’s segment. He sends his goons (played by Jessica Uberuaga and Paul Sloan) to Zara’s office and home to harass she and her family. They ultimately wind up kidnapping Audrey and it’s up to Zara, Brian and Schmidt to get her back.

“Take Back” as directed by Christian Sesma (best known for making movies starring Luke Goss of Bros such as “Lost Time,” “AWOL-72,” “The Night Crew” and “Paydirt”) and written by first-time screenwriter Zach Zerries isn’t a good flick, but it’s undeniably an entertaining one.

White has a real presence and I must commend MJW for taking a backseat to his wife allowing her to shine. Rourke almost doesn’t look human here – he sorta resembles a wax figurine of himself melting or Leatherface wearing his visage as a mask. In spite of this, the cat still registers. He’s got a great voice. He plays with his dogs on camera. He makes his monster somewhat vulnerable. I also really enjoyed Chris Browning (Gogo on “Sons of Anarchy”) as Jerry Walker, Zara’s cowboy friend and business associate.

I’ll be honest with y’all, “Take Back” is probably more of a 2.5 star movie that I’m awarding 3 stars, but White’s Zara slits a dude’s throat with a pizza cutter – if ingenuity such as this ain’t worth half a star I don’t know what is!?!

Fatherhood

★★★

I’m not the world’s biggest Kevin Hart fan by any stretch of the imagination. I’ve never watched any of his stand-up specials. I’ve never seen either of the “Ride Along” movies. I know him best as a member of the recent “Jumanji” franchise’s ensemble (the dude did some truly inspired work impersonating Danny Glover in the second installment) and as a supporting player in Judd Apatow and Seth Rogen’s output from the mid-to-late aughts and early 2010s (“The 40-Year-Old Virgin,” “Drillbit Taylor,” “The Five-Year Engagement,” “This Is the End”).

I may actually be the world’s biggest fan of director Paul Weitz. His 1999 directorial debut “American Pie” is a nostalgic favorite of mine. I’ve probably seen it no less than 25 times. (I realize the picture is problematic in certain regards and couldn’t be made today the way it was then, but that doesn’t diminish my love for it.) A few years later Weitz dropped the awesome one-two punch of 2002’s Nick Hornby adaptation “About a Boy” and 2004’s “In Good Company” (a truly underrated movie featuring awesome performances from Dennis Quaid and Topher Grace). I kinda lost track of Weitz after 2006’s dismal “American Dreamz” having never watched his follow-ups “Cirque du Freak: The Vampire’s Assistant,” “Little Fockers,” “Being Flynn,” “Admission,” “Grandma” and “Bel Canto.”

Hart and Weitz have now teamed on an adaptation of Matt Logelin’s “Two Kisses for Maddy: A Memoir of Loss and Love” entitled “Fatherhood,” which will be available to stream on Netflix beginning Friday, June 18. The dramedy (heavy on the drama) seems a more natural fit for Weitz’s wheelhouse as opposed to Hart’s.

Hart stars as Matt, an expectant father who alongside his loving wife Liz (Deborah Ayorinde) is preparing for the arrival of their first child. Their daughter Maddy is born prematurely but healthily via caesarean section. Tragically, Liz dies suddenly and unexpectedly of a pulmonary embolism the following afternoon.

Matt is completely lost. His in-laws Marian (the wonderful Alfre Woodard) and Mike (Frankie Faison of “The Wire” and “Banshee”) want Matt to leave Boston and return to Minneapolis where he and Liz grew up. Matt doesn’t want to do this. His work is in Boston (Paul Reiser plays Matt’s understanding but sometimes exasperated boss). His friends (Lil Rel Howery and Anthony Carrigan AKA NoHo Hank from HBO’s “Barry”) are in Boston. Matt and Liz’s lives were in Boston. Matt wants to prove the naysayers wrong by successfully being a single father to Maddy.

We flash-forward a few years, Maddy (Melody Hurd of the “Jurassic Park” short “Battle at Big Rock” and recent, underappreciated slasher flick “Trick”) is now a kindergartener at the Catholic school Liz wanted her to attend. Matt begins making inroads at dating with Swan (DeWanda Wise, the lead on Netflix’s “She’s Gotta Have It” series), which further complicates matters.

“Fatherhood” is executive produced by “Magic Mike” filmmakers Channing Tatum (who was originally supposed to star) and Reid Carolin. The project feels like a mea culpa for the homophobia that got Hart ousted from hosting the 2019 Oscars. (Hart’s Matt defends Maddy wearing jeans to school against a nun who asks, “What if a boy wore a skirt to school?” To which Matt responds, “It’s the 21st century! Who cares?!!!” Hart also sports a skirt in a mid-credits scene.) Hart isn’t especially funny in “Fatherhood” (what few laughs there are come from Howery and Carrigan), but he’s likable and does decent dramatic work. Hart’s casting is ultimately more interesting than Tatum’s would’ve been as it’s an all-too-rare positive representation of black fatherhood in popular culture.

The final product isn’t as slick as Weitz’s films from the early aughts. The script co-written by Weitz and Dana Stevens (scribe of such dreck as “City of Angels,” “For Love of the Game,” “Life or Something Like It” and “Safe Haven”) does the picture no favors. “Fatherhood” did elicit tears out of me on more than one occasion, which seemed to be its primary goal aside from rehabbing Hart’s image – on both fronts I suppose it’s a success.   

The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard

★★1/2

I should’ve been in the bag for “The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard” (now playing in theaters). I’m a fan of action-comedies as a subgenre, the first installment from 2017, returning Australian director Patrick Hughes, his primary cast (Ryan Reynolds, Samuel L. Jackson, Salma Hayek, Antonio Banderas, Morgan Freeman and Frank Grillo) and production shingle Millennium Media (they’re the modern day Cannon Films!). In spite of all of this, the picture landed with a bit of a thud for me.

Reynolds returns as formerly AAA-rated bodyguard Michael Bryce, who’s still smarting from having lost a prized client at the hands of Jackson’s Darius Kincaid. At the insistence of his therapist (Rebecca Front), Bryce takes a vacation to Capri, Italy (“like the pants!”). Just as Bryce is relaxing and cheekily cracking a copy of “The Secret,” he’s interrupted by Darius’ wife Sonia (Hayek) and a hail of gunfire. Turns out Darius has been kidnapped and Sonia’s in need of Bryce’s assistance in order to rescue him.

Upon freeing Darius, the trio is forcefully enlisted by Interpol agent Bobby O’Neill (Grillo) to put a stop to Greek shipping magnate Aristotle Papadopoulos (Antonio Banderas), who has intentions of dismantling the European power grid as revenge for EU restrictions over his country and company. Freeman’s Senior is also roped into the action as the parent of one of our protagonists.

“The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard” is pretty much what you’d expect it to be … only less. Reynolds mugs his way through the proceedings, Jackson drops his requisite number of “fuck’s” and Hayek makes cracks about her boobs and “pussy pipe.” I can’t decide whether Hayek’s great or grating here, but I did admittedly enjoy Sonia’s strange motherly gestures towards Bryce.

In the best bit of casting since Sean Connery played a Spaniard in “Highlander” or Emma Stone went Asian in “Aloha” is Spaniard Banderas as the Greek Papadopoulos. I must admit I laughed every time Papadopoulos’ name was uttered. Much like Gary Oldman as the baddie in “The Hitman’s Bodyguard,” Banderas pretty much phones it in. Speaking of phoning it in, Freeman seems confused and near death’s door in yet another Millennium Media production (perhaps it’s time for the rightfully beloved 84-year-old actor to retire?) and Grillo unsuccessfully attempts to transform his New York accent into a Boston one in an exposition dump of a role.

“The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard” is to “The Hitman’s Bodyguard” what “The Whole Ten Yards” is to “The Whole Nine Yards,” “Red 2” is to “Red” or “Beverly Hills Cop III” is to the first two “Beverly Hills Cop” pictures. (The only action-comedy franchise that seems to have cracked the code is “Bad Boys.”) The action isn’t as thrilling (the best bit is brief and involves water hoverboards). The laughs aren’t as present (original scripter Tom O’Connor is joined by brothers Brandon and Phillip Murphy, who up the jokiness – most of ‘em miss). The franchise takes a step down and backward. Here’s hoping it’s put out of its misery and we’re not “treated” to “The Hitman’s Wife’s Bodyguard’s Mother, Father, Brother, Sister, Son, Daughter, Aunt, Uncle, Cousin, etc.”

Infinite

★★

Director Antoine Fuqua is a consistent filmmaker – never great, but consistently good. He feels like the diet soda or light beer version of Tony Scott.

Much like Scott, Fuqua consistently works with the same actors – four movies with Denzel Washington (another Scott connection!), four movies with Ethan Hawke (including the upcoming “The Guilty”), one movie with Jake Gyllenhaal with another on the way (the aforementioned “The Guilty”), one movie and an impending Amazon Prime television series “The Terminal List” with Chris Pratt.

Also like Scott, Fuqua consistently works with the same crew – composer Harry Gregson-Williams (four movies), cinematographer Mauro Fiore (six movies) and editor Conrad Buff (six movies). Humorously enough, Gregson-Williams also scored seven Scott movies.

“Infinite” (now streaming on Paramount+) is the second pairing between Fuqua and Mark Wahlberg 14 years after shooting “Shooter.” Rumor has it the duo was peeved when the flick was jettisoned to the fledgling streamer as opposed to getting a theatrical release. They should probably be thankful. The movie adds inconsistency to Fuqua’s consistent filmography. It’s among the worst things he’s made alongside the likes of “King Arthur,” “The Replacement Killers” and “Tears of the Sun” (the absolute nadir of Fuqua’s career).

Wahlberg stars as Evan McCauley, a supposedly schizophrenic man with a sordid past. Quizzically, he can forge samurai swords like he’s Hattori Hanzō (who’s actually namechecked here), which he barters to drug dealer O-Dog (Nabil Elouahabi) for pills so as to keep doctors out of the mix. As it turns out, Evan’s the latest incarnation of a soul that’s been around for centuries.

The soul’s previous vessel was Heinrich Treadway (Dylan O’Brien), who opens the picture driving a cherry red Ferrari through a Mexico City-set car chase (a highlight of the movie despite the presence of a cheesily-rendered phantom brick that finds its way through not one but two police cruiser windshields). Heinrich and by extension Evan are Infinites, i.e. people who have the ability to remember their past lives. Heinrich fully realized his abilities; Evan has yet to. The Infinites are broken into two factions: Believers (folks looking to use their accumulated knowledge to better humanity) and Nihilists (folks who are sick of being reincarnated and wish to end humanity as a result). Every time the Nihilists are namechecked I kept thinking, “We believe in nothing, Lebowski. Nothing …”

The Believers are led by Porter (Toby Jones); the Nihilists by Bathurst (Chiwetel Ejiofor). Bathurst brandishes a “Dethroner gun,” which indefinitely uploads an Infinite’s memories to a wall of hard drives. If Bathurst is so damned miserable why doesn’t he just up and murder-suicide himself and his whole damned squad? Alas Bathurst is no Chris Benoit, so he opts instead to procure a world-ending, egg-shaped artifact. An Egg McGuffin is apropos for this fast food filmmaking.

Believers Nora (Sophie Cookson of the “Kingsman” franchise) and guyliner-sporting party animal Artisan (ace comedic character actor Jason Mantzoukas) aid Evan in unlocking his powers and keeping The Egg (not a big green one) outta Bathurst’s clutches.

“Infinite” is a mishmash of other, better movies (“Highlander,” “The Matrix,” “The Old Guard” – the last of which also co-starred Ejiofor). The first half of it is hella boring aside from the Mexico City car chase. (I actually fell asleep for 15 minutes at the 45-minute mark and had to rewind.) The picture picks up its pace in the back half, but it’s still dumber than dumb. The script by Ian Shorr (based on D. Erik Maikranz’s 2009 self-published novel “The Reincartionist Papers”) is nonsensical. The material might’ve been elevated if Wahlberg weren’t miscast and Ejiofor weren’t so obnoxiously over-the-top. O’Brien, Cookson (who actually gets the best action beat) and Mantzoukas come across better, but should’ve been given more to do.

Chris Evans was initially cast as Evan and would’ve been a better fit for the role IMHO, though the film itself likely wouldn’t have been good for his career. Wahlberg’s incessant narration makes Harrison Ford’s voiceover in “Blade Runner” seem like the height of oration. It sounds a good deal like the interviews Wahlberg’s Dirk Diggler gave in the documentary-within-a-movie in “Boogie Nights.” I buy Wahlberg as a 1970s porn star, a dim soldier (“Three Kings”), a foul-mouthed Boston cop (“The Departed”) or a hardscrabble boxer (“The Fighter”). I don’t buy him as Evan McCauley – even if Wahlberg’s decent with the action despite looking absolutely ridiculous sporting a samurai sword. The only time I believed Wahlberg as Evan was when he exclaimed, “I don’t even know what that means!” Having Wahlberg and O’Brien switch roles might’ve also worked – it could’ve been an action hero passing of the torch of sorts.

There’s a moment where Jones’ Porter – strangely spewing honey from the mouth – asserts, “Blah, blah, blah … faith!” That’s “Infinite” in a nutshell – very little rah rah and plenty of blah blah. Audiences would be better served by watching/revisiting “Shooter” or “The Old Guard.” I have faith in Fuqua and Wahlberg. I don’t have faith in “Infinite” as it’s inconsistent.

The Amusement Park

★★★★

My paternal grandmother always told me, “Growing old isn’t for sissies.” Late, great horror filmmaker George A. Romero’s unearthed 1973 film “The Amusement Park” (now streaming on Shudder) is a 53-minute reaffirmation of her assertion.

Romero was contracted to make this public service announcement by the Lutheran Society, who scrapped the project altogether when they realized just how disturbing the resulting product was. (Had the Lutherans not already seen Romero’s “Night of the Living Dead”?) A beat-up 16mm print was discovered in 2017 and was screened as part of a Romero retrospective at the Torino Film Festival in Turin, Italy. When word of “The Amusement Park” spread, it was given a 4K restoration by New York film preservation organization IndieCollect that was overseen by the George A. Romero Foundation.

The major thrust of “The Amusement Park” depicts a disheveled unnamed elderly man (Lincoln Maazel, who also appeared in Romero’s “Martin” and ironically enough lived to a very advanced 106 years upon his passing in 2009) seated in a white room wearing a white suit. The man is sweaty – his face bloody and bandaged. The man’s pristine doppelganger enters the room. He chipperly greets his double and optimistically wants to exit the room to enter the titular amusement park despite the man’s warnings to the contrary.

The doppelganger departs and is immediately abused alongside many other aged individuals. The elderly sell their precious belongings for pennies on the dollar to a pawnbroker in exchange for tickets that give them access to attractions within the park. Admission to certain rides is denied due to patrons’ physical condition. A senior citizen couple must have an eye exam before boarding the bumper cars. They get into a fender-bender with a younger, brasher park-goer (Romero himself) and are held accountable for the accident despite it not being their fault. A young man (Romero’s longtime cinematographer and “Creepshow 2” director Michael Gornick) barrels the doppelganger over after a fortune teller gives him a glimpse at his “golden years.” The funhouse winds up being a ward in a geriatric care facility – I half expected Ben Stiller’s Hal L. from “Happy Gilmore” to show up.

There’s an absurdity and obviousness to the proceedings that marks much of Romero’s oeuvre, but these qualities don’t make the picture any less disconcerting. Issues plaguing America often find their way into Romero’s works – racism (“Night of the Living Dead”), consumerism (“Dawn of the Dead”) and militarism (“Day of the Dead,” “Land of the Dead”). With “The Amusement Park” Romero directly addresses elder abuse.

“The Amusement Park” is the best PSA I’ve ever seen and one of the scariest movies I’ve seen in a hot minute. (It’d make one helluva back end to a double bill with either Michael Haneke’s “Amour” or this year’s “The Father.”) As disturbed as the picture made me, it ultimately made me want to call my maternal grandmother (my only living grandparent) and parents, help an old lady load her groceries into her car, etc. Roger Ebert was once quoted as saying, “The movies are like a machine that generates empathy.” Mission accomplished, George.

Spare Parts

★★★

“Spare Parts” (now available on VOD, DVD and Blu-ray) isn’t a good movie, but it’s sure as shit a fun one.

Ms. 45 (a cool nod to Abel Ferrara’s 1981 sleazefest) is an all-female punk band currently on tour. The group is comprised of sisters Amy (Michelle Argyris) and Emma (Emily Alatalo) and lovers Cassy (Kiriana Stanton) and Jill (Chelsea Muirhead). On one fateful night during a gig at a biker bar the gals of Ms. 45 get into an all-out brawl with a handsy patron (Kevan Kase) when he crashes the stage. On hand to witness the band’s brutality is Sam (Jason Rouse, bringing BIG Nick Cassavetes in “Face/Off” energy to the proceedings).

Sam takes a particular shine to Emma – so much so that he tails Ms. 45’s tour van in his muscle car, runs them off the road and kidnaps them with the assistance of the Sheriff (Lewis Hodgson) and tow truck driver Daniel (Bruce McFee). The men take the women to a scrap yard belonging to Sam’s Dad, The Emperor (Julian Richings). Upon their arrival each of the women has one of their hands amputated and replaced with a latch to which they can attach weapons such as axes and chainsaws.

Ms. 45 is soon under the tutelage of Driller (Ryan Allen), a former gladiator who will train them in the art of junkyard combat. The women have no choice other than to fight should they want to survive let alone gain their freedom.

“Spare Parts” is a scummy, low-budget affair. Each of the picture’s primary creatives wears multiple hats – Andrew Thomas Hunt (a founding partner of Canadian genre label Raven Banner Entertainment, who also had a hand in this year’s inspired “Psycho Goreman”) directs, executive produces and edits, co-writer Svet Rouskov (alongside David Murdoch) also executive produced and Pasha Patriki served as cinematographer and producer.

The tight-knit nature of this filmmaking collective resulted in a consistent vision. It isn’t polished, but it’s entertaining. The acting isn’t especially good (it needn’t be). The script is tasteless (an abortion is depicted as a throwaway gag) and nonsensical (that seems on brand). Pivotally, the one Ms. 45 song we’re treated to is catchy as all get-out and the gore is plentiful and capably realized … at the end of the day and with this sorta flick that’s what really matters. You likely already know if you’re the audience for “Spare Parts” or not.