REVIEW: “Confess, Fletch” (2022)

(CLICK HERE to read my full review in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette)

Now here’s an series reboot I never saw coming. In fact, I can’t imagine anyone did. “Fletch” (1985) and “Fletch Lives” (1989) were moderately popular Chevy Chase vehicles, neither of which I would call comedy classics. Yet they did have some memorably funny moments in large part thanks to Chase’s madcap comic energy. The Fletch-verse (my snarky title; not a real thing) expands with “Confess, Fletch”, a well-meaning misfire that never captures the zaniness of the 80’s films.

“Confess, Fletch” (directed by Greg Mottola from a screenplay he wrote with Zev Borow) starts with promise, and for a while it had me rethinking what seemed like peculiar casting of Jon Hamm in the Chevy Chase role. But over time the snark gets old, the gags run dry, and no matter how hard Hamm tries, he can’t make his version of Irwin M. “Fletch” Fletcher interesting. Tack on a murder mystery that grows more tedious by the minute, and you’re left with a reboot that probably should have stayed on the shelf.

Image Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

Hamm brings the occasional quick wit, goofy aliases, and signature Los Angeles Lakers ball cap that Chase brought to the Fletch character. But gone are the wacky disguises and the even wackier encounters they would lead to (perhaps that brand of 80s silliness doesn’t screen as well today). And while the story plucks plot points from the previous movies, it doesn’t add much to them. So ultimately we’re left with a film that doesn’t do much with the older material and has nothing noteworthy to add of its own.

The Fletch we get here is a freelance writer who has spent the last two years traveling Europe and writing about art for in-flight magazines. After a month in Rome he returns to the States, stopping in Boston where he rents a swanky townhouse from a free-spirit named Owen (John Behlmann). But upon arriving at his two-week ‘home away from home’, Fletch makes an alarming discovery – the body of a dead woman, face-down in the townhouse’s living room floor.

The police arrive on the scene and the investigation is headed by the ever-sleepy Detective Monroe (Roy Wood Jr.). He’s the father of a newborn who keeps him up all night, leading to a running joke that (like much of the movie) eventually runs out of gas. Monroe and his partner in training, Griz (Ayden Mayeri) eventually tag Fletch as their prime suspect. But our sardonic protagonist sets out to solve the case himself, relying on his credentials of once being an investigative journalist “of some repute“.

Meanwhile there’s this side story (which may or may not be linked to the murder) involving Fletch’s wealthy Italian girlfriend Angela de Grassi (Lorenza Izzo) and her abducted father. His kidnappers want the de Grassi’s priceless Picasso painting as ransom, but someone has recently stolen it along with several other pieces from the family’s collection. Fletch has traced the recent sell of one of the paintings to Boston which is why he’s in Beantown.

Image Courtesy of Paramount Pictures

As these two story paths inevitably converge, we’re introduced to a handful of other mildly interesting characters who may or may not be involved with the murder. There is a germophobic art maven named Horan (Kyle MacLachlan) who is the middle-man in a number of Boston area art dealings. There’s the gossipy stoner Eve (Annie Mumolo) who lives next door to the townhouse Fletch is renting. Then there’s Countess de Grassi (Marcia Gay Harden), Angela’s stepmother who may or may not be heartbroken over her husband’s kidnapping. They even throw in Hamm’s fellow “Mad Men” alum John Slattery as Fletch’s foul-mouthed and disgruntled former boss who now works for a struggling Boston rag. Sadly, with the exception of a stray laugh or two, none of the supporting players bring much to the story.

So we’re left with Fletch and Mottola’s new spin on the character. Hamm puts in the effort, and early on it looks like he just might pull it off. But his act loses steam, the jokes grow repetitive, and nothing that we’re given feels like a worthy reason for an update. Chase’s version of the character was goofy enough to make his two movies fun (to varying degrees). Hamm can’t make the same claim. But it’s hard to put the blame on him, especially when the material he’s asked to sell has no lasting value. “Confess, Fletch” is now showing in theaters.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

REVIEW: “Carter” (2022)

We critics often throw out the phrase “non-stop action” when describing a movie. It’s almost always an exaggeration because of course there are pauses here and there for storytelling and some degree of drama. But the new South Korean action-thriller “Carter” may be the closest thing you’ll find to actual non-stop action. Yes, we get brief interludes stuffed with exposition and information drops. But for the most part this thing is fists-swinging, guns-blazing, bones-cracking, and blood-splattering all the way through.

“Carter” is both ridiculous and extraordinary. It’s a fast-paced, ultra-violent action spectacle unlike anything I’ve ever scene. The goal was to frame the entire film as one single long take. There are numerous cleverly concealed cuts and they aren’t too hard to find. But ultimately the film sets out to give audiences an adrenaline-jacked experience where their eyes are never taken off the action. It’s undeniably impressive, and I’m still not sure how director Jung Byung-gil managed to pull some of his scenes off.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

But while it’s unquestionably bold, there is a downside to this style of relentless full-throttle filmmaking. It can be exhausting and even suffocating at times. And I say that as someone who truly loves big action. It’s a lot for one sitting, and there were times when I just wanted to catch my breath. It’s made even tougher by its hefty 132-minute runtime. By the time “Carter” reaches its big finale, I was a bit worn down and felt like I had already seen the best action it had to offer.

To no surprise, the story is the biggest casualty in such an action-focused movie. Joo Won plays a mystery man who wakes up in a blood-soaked hotel bed with no memory of who he is or how he got there. From there it’s a frantic race to regain his identity and figure out who he can trust. Throughout the small pockets of plot we learn about a fatal DMZ virus that after thirteen days turns people into feral zombie-like killers. We learn our protagonist has a daughter who’s infected and that his mission is to retrieve a young girl and take her to a lab North Korea where her father is using an antibody in her blood to create a vaccine. Without the vaccine, our hero can’t save his own little girl.

All of that sounds like at interesting enough premise. But the problem is most of it is simply conveyed through brief info dumps. We don’t get to watch it play out or have any real dramatic moments of consequence. We get these short bits of story and then it’s off to the next action scene. This lack of attention also leaves the plot murky. For example, there’s this whole friction between North Korea, South Korea, and the CIA that is introduced early but that gets harder to follow as the movie goes on. To be honest, I quite trying.

But let’s be realistic, the huge extravagant action sequences are the movie’s bread and butter. “Carter” is an action junkie’s fantasy, and I found myself rewinding and watching some of the scenes again out of sheer amazement. The constant motion of Jung Byung-gil’s camera can be disorienting at times. But the way he captures and combines the hand-to-hand combat, the John Wick styled gunfights, and the sprawling vehicle chases is truly incredible.

Image Courtesy of Netflix

And then there’s Joo Won whose physicality is mind-blowing. He may not be given a lot to do dramatically, but the steely intimidating hero more than delivers with the action. There is both a fluidity and an unbridled ferocity to his fighting which the movie utilizes to near perfection.

“Carter” is an audacious concoction that is sure to land differently for a lot of viewers. I can see some being exhilarated by the action and all-in on the movie’s grand ambition. I can see others checking out after being worn down by the unrelenting pace and incalculable body count. Me? I see both ways. I was let down by the storytelling and tired by the end. But I can’t deny the kinetic sensation brought on by action sequences and the sheer craftsmanship behind them. They are something to behold, and I would be up for more. But maybe in 90-minute form next time. “Carter” is now streaming on Netflix.

VERDICT – 3 STARS

REVIEW: “Code Name Banshee” (2022)

Antonio Banderas has that special something. Sure he’s a great actor with an incredible range. Yes he’s a natural at drama, comedy, action, you name it. But there’s something about him that always grabs my attention. He’s effortlessly suave and charismatic and it’s hard not to be drawn to his characters, even in smaller movies like his latest, “Code Name Banshee”. But despite his special sauce, Banderas can’t save every movie. Such is the case for this decent yet unremarkable action thriller.

Despite its rather bland title, the Jon Keeyes directed “Code Name Banshee” has its high points. There’s some well-shot action and that above-mentioned Banderas allure is certainly present. But the whole thing is extremely straightforward. There are no twists, no turns, no surprises. The story just plays out exactly as it tells us it will. Even the “big” final act showdown (because we have to have a final act showdown) lacks pizzazz. And the movie dips whenever Banderas is off screen, which is more often than I expected.

Image Courtesy of Screen Media Films

Storywise, the main character is Banshee (Jaime King), an assassin who works high-paying contracts with the help of her computer hacker friend and veritable ‘eyes and ears’, Kronos (Aleksander Vayshelboym). She’s your typical movie assassin type – quiet, lethal, and laser-focused on the job at hand. She never asks questions about her targets, “I’m the executioner, not the judge.”

I an a roundabout way we learn that Banshee’s father and his best friend and black ops partner Caleb (Banderas) have been branded traitors by the CIA. Caleb has vanished off the grid. Banshee’s father is believed to be dead, killed by a ruthless mercenary named Anthony Green (Tommy Flanagan).

Banshee and Green have a face-to-face when he beats her to one of her contracts. Green informs her that Caleb has a $10 million bounty on his head and he intends to collect it. Green offers her $1 million if she’ll give up Caleb’s whereabouts. Rather than accept, she blasts through Green’s goons and sets out to warn her former mentor and maybe recruit him to help her kill the man who may have axed her father.

Image Courtesy of Screen Media Films

For someone described as a “ghost”, Caleb turns out to be hilariously easy to find. These days he’s a bar owner in New Jersey who lives with his daughter, Hailey (Catherine Davis). With the help of Kronos, Banshee pinpoints Caleb’s location and pays him a surprise visit. After reassuring him she’s not there to kill him, Banshee tells Caleb that Green and his henchman are on their way. After dealing with some old baggage, the two realize that they have a chance to take out their mutual enemy. But it’ll take putting aside their past differences and a lot of bullets.

To no one’s surprise, there is quite a bit of John Wick-inspired gunplay. Some of it is pretty fun with headshots galore, each accompanied by a computer-generated spray of blood. There’s also some pretty good fight choreography, the best involving Banderas. King has a splashy scene or two, particularly in the early moments of the film. But it’s all things we’ve seen before. And the movie’s ultimate inability to maintain its energy makes it a hard one to latch onto. “Code Name Banshee” is out now in select theaters and on VOD.

VERDICT – 2 STARS

REVIEW: “Cha Cha Real Smooth” (2022)

One of my big regrets from this year’s Sundance Film Festival was missing out on “Cha Cha Real Smooth”. When sorting out my schedule, it wasn’t a movie that initially caught my eye. But after hearing the overwhelming excitement from fellow Sundancers I knew I had missed out. Apple quickly scooped up the film, and after a limited theater run, “Cha Cha” is now available to stream on Apple TV+.

It turns out “Cha Cha” earns the buzz. The light and easy dramedy teases conventionality but slyly maintains a freshness that keeps the story and characters from coming across as overly familiar. It very much feels like a movie of this era, yet it open-arm embraces several tried-and-true movie staples which is sure to give it credibility with the independent cinema scene. That may sound like a slight, but it isn’t meant to be. In fact, the movie’s fresh flavor mixed with its traditional indie movie vibe is a big part of what makes it work.

Image Courtesy of AppleTV+

“Cha Cha Real Smooth” is directed, written, produced, and co-edited by Cooper Raiff. He also stars as the film’s quintessential indie lead character. Raiff plays Andrew, 22-years-old and fresh out of college. As a character, Andrew is an interesting collage of traits. He’s a bit of a slacker and a touch selfish yet genuinely kind under the surface. He’s not lacking in self-confidence, despite still living at home with his mother (a really good Leslie Mann), step-father (Brad Garrett), and 12-year-old kid brother David (Evan Assante).

Andrew wants to work for a fancy non-profit, but his flighty lack of direction keeps him from putting in the effort. Instead he’s absorbed in thoughts of going to Barcelona where his college girlfriend is doing her Fulbright. It leaves him stuck working a go-nowhere job at a fast-food joint called “Meat Sticks” and serving as a part-time Bar Mitzvah party starter.

The movie gets going in earnest after Andrew meets a young mother named Domino (Dakota Johnson) and her autistic teenage daughter, Lola (newcomer Vanessa Burghardt). Despite their age difference, Andrew and Domino develop an interesting relationship. Johnson is terrific playing yet another ambivalent and hard-to-read single mom with an enchanting aura of beauty surrounding a near impenetrable exterior. Domino is a devoted mother and is hesitant to put herself in any position that might compromise her first and most important calling. But there’s also a sorrow in her eyes – a sorrow that seems to vanish whenever Andrew is around.

This may sound like a pretty obvious rom-com recipe but Raiff has more on his mind. While he never goes as deep as he could have, he also doesn’t let his movie turn into a corny cringe-fest. That’s because his characters all feel natural and more akin to real life rather than the pages of some script. And the relationship between Andrew and Domino has more layers than you might expect. There’s clearly a connection between them and a strong undercurrent of passion. But it’s a classic case of “should they or shouldn’t they”. And despite their simmering mutual attraction, neither seem confident in what they really want. And things get even more complicated once Domino’s fiancé (Raúl Castillo) eases into the picture.

Image Courtesy of AppleTV+

I also loved how Raiff handles the relationship between Andrew and Lola, both on screen and off. It’s more than just a means of bringing the two adults together. It’s more than a young man’s chance to get in with a concerned and protective mom. Andrew often uses his “good guy” persona like a shrewd vendor pushing his wares. But his sincerity and kindness really comes out in his scenes with Lola. And Burghardt as terrific, bringing empathy and an authenticity to both her character and the film as a whole.

“Cha Cha Real Smooth” does a good job exploring the realities of growing up and what it means to discover one’s own direction in life. Along the way, Raiff shows keen instincts both as a director and a screenwriter, anchoring his story on familiar ground, but never letting it fall into the usual traps. And though it wears a little thin in the second half, there’s a certain messiness to these characters that I like and the film’s willingness to let them be flawed pays off in a big way. “Cha Cha Real Smooth” is streaming now on AppleTV+.

VERDICT – 3.5 STARS

RETRO REVIEW: “Con Air” (1997)

There was a time when Jerry Bruckheimer was to action movies what Jason Blum currently is to horror. Obviously it’s not a true one-for-one comparison as both producers had very different approaches to the kind of movies they made. But their names did become synonymous with specific genres and both had loads of success giving those genres some much needed boosts.

While the 78-year-old Bruckheimer is still steadily producing (he has the highly-anticipated “Top Gun: Maverick” next week), one could argue that his box office blockbuster heyday was in the mid-1990s through the mid-2000s. Included in that ten-year stretch were four films with the delightfully enigmatic Nicolas Cage. One of them was none other than “Con Air”.

I’ve always enjoyed Cage, and while his career is certainly at a much different point today, there has been a surge of love for the actor following his wacky (and not-so-great) recent film “The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent”. So what better time to look back at one of Cage’s silliest yet most entertaining action movies, “Con Air”. The film came out in 1997 to fairly positive reviews and it was a box office success. So how does it play 25 years later? Well, pretty good to be honest.

Cage plays Cameron Poe, an honorably discharged Army Ranger returning home to Mobile, Alabama to surprise his pregnant wife Tricia (Monica Porter). The two have a bubbly reunion as Trisha Yearwood’s Oscar-nominated original song “How Do I Live” simmers in the background (such a movie staple of the 80’s and 90’s). But when they’re attacked by three obnoxious drunks, one of the thugs ends up dead and Cameron is sentenced to 10 years in prison for manslaughter. While in the penitentiary, he misses the birth of his daughter Casey (Landry Allbright). But the two frequently exchange letters, anxiously anticipating the day Cameron gets out and can finally see his daughter.

The day finally comes when Cameron is granted parole, and just in time to make it home for Casey’s birthday. But to get back home he has to hitch a ride on plane carrying inmates to a new maximum security prison in Alabama. It’s a prison designed for lifers, “the worst of the worst”. So he’s put onboard a converted Fairchild C-123 (appropriately called The Jailbird) with an “all-star” lineup of the country’s most dangerous felons.

Obviously there are a ton of questions. For example, why was Cameron sent off to a prison so far away for what amounted to self-defense? And was there no other way to get him back to Alabama other than a flight full of the most savage criminals? To be honest, in a movie like this those are details I’m happy to overlook. That’s because director Simon West and screenwriter Scott Rosenberg are clearly having a good time stacking up their wacky scenario. And part of what’s fun of “Con Air” is throwing ourselves into it and watching how it all plays out.

As far as the “Who’s Who” of convicts onboard, John Malkovich plays Cyrus “The Virus” Grissom, the brilliant yet psychotic mastermind of the inevitable takeover of the plane. Some may laugh, but this is one of my favorite Malkovich performances. He’s a great fit – equal part hammy and cold-blooded menace. It’s said Malkovich wasn’t high on the movie, but he makes for a delightfully devious (and at times dryly funny) chief antagonist.

Cyrus is joined by Nathan “Diamond Dog” Jones (Ving Rhames), a black militant domestic terrorist and Cyrus’ right-hand man. There’s William “Billy Bedlam” Bedford (Nick Chinlund), a mass murderer who killed his wife’s entire family; a serial rapist who goes by “Johnny 23” (Danny Trejo); Earl “Swamp Thing” Williams (M.C. Gainey); a wild-eyed convict with piloting experience; and a chatty arsonist/dopehead named “Pinball” (Dave Chappelle). Oh, and then there’s Garland Greene aka “The Marietta Mangler” (Steve Buscemi), a notorious serial killer who creeps out even the most hardened of the cons.

As Cyrus’s plan unfolds in the air, U.S. Marshall Vince Larkin (John Cusack) works on the ground to regain control of the plane. Along the way he constantly butts heads with the insufferable (and annoyingly over-the-top) DEA Agent Malloy (Colm Meaney) who wants to shoot the plane down despite there being innocent people onboard including our protagonist. Cage is a hoot with his hit-and-miss Southern accent and his flowing gif-ready locks. The movie has fun with his unique style of action hero and hearing him utter overtly silly lines like “Put the bunny back in the box” never gets old.

“Con Air” only gets crazier with two particularly memorable set pieces, one at an abandoned airfield and the other on the Las Vegas strip. If you’re looking for realism, you’ll be disappointed. Instead West goes for the gusto with over-the-top action and a hearty wink of the eye. It’s that last part that is so important. “Con Air” never takes itself too seriously. It knows how preposterous it is and doesn’t try to be anything other than wild raucous popcorn entertainment. And sometimes that’s all I’m in the mood for. Sadly, we rarely (if ever) get these kinds of movies these days. But at least we have escapes like “Con Air” for whenever that mood hits.

VERDICT – 4 STARS

REVIEW: “The Contractor” (2022)

Chris Pine gets to flex his action-thriller muscles in “The Contractor”, the new film from Swedish director Tarik Saleh. The movie is Saleh’s English language big screen debut and it sees Pine as an ex-military special forces soldier (aren’t they all in these things) who joins a private contracting outfit with his best buddy played by Ben Foster. But as you can probably guess, the two end up in over the heads in what unfortunately turns out a fairly conventional and predictable story.

Written by J.P. Davis, “The Contractor“ seems to struggle with an identity crisis. The story kicks off with promise and positions itself as a stinging examination of the United States government’s treatment of military veterans. But the further it goes down the genre route the more it loses its relevance. And as an action movie, Saleh never fully gets the film off the ground. So it isn’t as pertinent as it tries to be or as kinetic as it wants to be.

Image Courtesy of Paramount

Pine plays James Harper, a soldier out of Fort Bragg who we first meet as he rehabs from a knee injury. But when steroids used to speed up his recovery show up in his blood work, his unit’s new commanding officer kicks him out, granting James an honorable discharge but stripping him of his pension and healthcare. “They’re cleaning house,” a more sympathetic officer tells James. “You made it easy for them.“

As unpaid bills mount back home, James begins to reconsider his pledge not to take contract work. Desperate for cash and despite the concerns of his wife Brianne (Gillian Jacobs), James lets his buddy and fellow vet Mike (Ben Foster) set up a meeting with Rusty Jennings (Kiefer Sutherland), a private contractor who does jobs globally for the United States government. You know, the covert, ‘no one can know about them’ kind. “We import and export coffee,“ Jennings says in the most unconvincing fashion.

James and Mike are sent to Berlin where they’re tasked with doing a lot more than moving coffee. What starts as surveillance of a big-shot bio-engineer and virologist (Fares Fares) leads to James running for his life. This is where the predictability kicks in. And while the movie tries to throw a couple of twists into the mix, nothing catches us by surprise and the tension never gets above room temperature.

Image Courtesy of Paramount

The movie teases more layers to James such as his desire to escape from the shadow of his hardened military father and (as mentioned above) the failings of the government towards our military vets. Sadly, the film never does much with those angles. And the idea of a husband and father trying to get back to his wife and son should carry a certain emotional connection for the audience. But even that is tepid at best.

“The Contractor” ends up being a movie that can’t quite build the momentum or the emotional stakes that it needs to sell us on its story. The capable cast deliver solid performances, but there’s only so much they can do. Outside of a few early table-setting scenes and one particularly well-shot action sequence, the story mostly sits in neutral. And that’s a shame because there’s a lot of potential here that’s never met. “The Contractor” is out now in select theaters and on VOD.

VERDICT – 2 STARS