360. Review Roundup: Violent Movie Edition

I like to think I’m not a particularly violent person. Sure, I own five machetes, three swords, and a few knives, but I don’t use them. In fact, I seldom show aggression, except when playing video games. All’s fair in love, war, and Mario Kart.

Despite my peaceable nature, I occasionally watch violent movies. I saw quite a few in the past month: films full of epic car chases, superheroes, dystopian futures, demonic possessions, and British cops eating Cornetto ice cream cones. I may not be doing formal reviews, yet here are some brief impressions of Mad Max: Fury RoadAvengers: Age of UltronSnowpiercerThe Exorcist, and Hot Fuzz.

Hold on to your hats.

Mad Max: Fury Road

Mad Max

Mad Max: Fury Road consists of a brutal car chase and little else. Do you know what? I am five thousand percent fine with that.

Most of the film is a chase in which an entire convoy of cars follows an armored tanker truck across a desert. The cars—which were built, I can only assume, by psychopathic punk rockers with welding torches—bristle with spikes and assorted weaponry. One truck serves as a stage for a man playing an electric guitar that shoots flames.

Yes, this is that kind of movie.

In the film, a warlord named Immortan Joe reins unchallenged over refugees in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. When one of his lieutenants betrays him and flees with his wives in a tanker truck, Joe sends a convoy to reclaim his prized “possessions.” One of the outrageous vehicles in the convey has an unusual hood ornament in the form of a wanderer named Max. He may be strapped to the front of a war machine, but Max is a survivor. Explosions and mayhem ensue.

Mad Max: Fury Road doesn’t have much dialogue, but it hardly needs it. This is an action film in its purest sense. The chase sequences were filmed mostly with practical effects and minimal CGI—meaning the film shows real cars, real stuntmen, and real explosions. It’s impressive stuff, and stylish as heck.

For having little dialogue—and being, y’know, flipping ridiculous—Mad Max: Fury Road tells quite a good story. The characters aren’t terribly well-developed, but they are memorable and clearly defined. In this film with sparse dialogue and relentless explosions, profound themes emerge: survival, longing for home, and empowerment of women. Mad Max: Fury Road is a far more intelligent film than it has any right to be, while never losing its sense of good, stupid fun.

I really enjoyed Mad Max: Fury Road. If you enjoy, or have any tolerance for, over-the-top action movies, I recommend it.

Avengers: Age of Ultron

Age of Ultron

Eh, it was all right.

What? You want more of a review than that? Here goes: It was all right, but it needed more Andy Serkis.

In seriousness, Avengers: Age of Ultron wasn’t bad. In the film, the Avengers, a colorful band of superheroes, battle Ultron: a rogue AI that deems humanity unfit to live. There’s a little more to the movie, of course, but that’s the gist. If you’ve seen any of the recent Marvel movies, you probably know the drill at this point.

I liked a lot of things about the film. First of all, Ultron is a marvelous villain with a menacing appearance and a personality defined by sardonic contempt. (I appreciate a bad guy with a sense of humor.) Ultron has a vision for a better, brighter future. It just happens to be a future without human beings. It’s nothing personal.

I was impressed by how the obligatory action scenes were balanced by a surprising amount of character development. The Avengers get plenty of scenes without spectacular fights or expository dialogue—scenes that allow them simply to be themselves. Hawkeye, the least popular Avenger, gets an astonishing amount of characterization. Andy Serkis makes a brief but memorable appearance as a South African arms dealer, stealing the scene from everyone but Ultron.

This brings me to one more outstanding feature of the film: It takes place all over the world. Look, I like America, but I’m tired of seeing it in Marvel’s superhero movies. Avengers: Age of Ultron spends most of its time in Asian, African, and Eastern European countries. I really appreciated the change of scenery.

There are, of course, things I didn’t appreciate about Avengers: Age of Ultron. The film feels slightly suffocated by the weight of all the Marvel movies that came before it. Too many characters are stuffed into the film, including a pair of twins that have no business whatsoever being there. With a couple of minor tweaks, Avengers: Age of Ultron could have worked perfectly without them. One or two unexplained plot elements stick out egregiously. Unlike the breakable hero of Marvel’s Daredevil, the Avengers are invulnerable, and therefore boring.

My final problem with the movie (slight spoiler ahead) is the introduction late in the film of a messianic character in the form of a heroic android. This good AI is a foil to Ultron, sure, but it’s also a literal deus ex machina. Besides, a theme of the movie is that creating self-aware machines like Ultron is a bad idea. The Avengers defeat the godlike AI… by creating another godlike AI. Hmm.

In the end, despite its faults, Avengers: Age of Ultron is another solid entry in the Marvel movie canon. In other news, I think Ultron and GLaDOS would probably get along really well, to the detriment (and possible extinction) of humans everywhere.

Snowpiercer

Snowpiercer

In Snowpiercer, a new ice age has wiped out nearly all life on Earth. The only survivors are the passengers of a high-tech train, the eponymous Snowpiercer, that circles the globe once a year. Built for doomsday, the train is entirely self-sufficient with a powerful engine and carefully regulated ecosystems. The privileged passengers ride in luxurious cars toward the front of the train. Middle cars contain necessities such as orchards and water tanks. The squalid rear cars of the train are reserved for the stowaways. Tired of living in filth and fear, these stowaways revolt against the train’s authorities. The rebels, led by a tough-as-nails passenger named Curtis, must fight their way forward one car at a time.

Snowpiercer is brilliant. Its absurd dystopia is compelling and unique: a society whose socioeconomic classes are divided by train cars. The train doesn’t merely represent a social order—it is a social order, laid out in a neat line. There is a golden simplicity in the structure of Snowpiercer‘s dystopia, and it was gripping to watch Curtis and his crew advance through the train. The train itself is a fascinating chain of set pieces, starting with filthy rear cars and getting progressively more interesting the farther Curtis and company advance.

Although Snowpiercer is a South Korean film, it stars mostly English-speaking actors. I was surprised by how many of them I recognized. Curtis is played by Chris Evans, with other roles filled by Tilda Swinton, John Hurt, and Ed Harris. Snowpiercer has all the visual polish of a Hollywood blockbuster, but is a much smarter film than most American action flicks.

It isn’t a cheerful film, and it’s definitely not for kids, but Snowpiercer is superb: easily one of the best sci-fi movies I’ve seen. I highly recommend it, especially for viewers who like intelligent action films or dystopian fiction.

The Exorcist

The ExorcistI’m no fan of horror films, but I decided to watch this one. For science. The Exorcist, an iconic and culturally significant film, depicts the gradual demonic possession of a girl, and the attempts of two priests to drive out the demon.

My strongest impression of The Exorcist is that it’s really slow. This is both a strength and a weakness. On the one hand, I appreciate that the film takes time to develop its characters instead of rushing to sensational scares. I don’t know much about horror movies, but my impression is that their characters are often treated not as people, but as objects for death and dismemberment. The Exorcist acknowledges its characters as people, which makes their suffering at the hands (claws?) of the demon all the more gut-wrenching. However, while I appreciated the film’s slow-but-steady approach, I found it too slow. The movie’s ponderous pacing leads to an all-too-short denouement, which left me asking, “Heck, that’s it?”

I didn’t find The Exorcist all that scary. The buildup to the demon was excellent, and the scene in which it fully possesses the girl is terrifying, but from that point on the demon-possessed child is mostly silly. Her appearance is blatantly fake, like a Halloween outfit, and it just ain’t scary. By the point the girl starts vomiting lime-green goo, I couldn’t take the demon seriously. A subtler approach, with a lot less makeup, would have been far creepier.

The famous scene in which the demon takes over the girl is easily the scariest in the film, and it’s frankly shocking: especially for a film released in the seventies. Among other things, the girl repeatedly jams a crucifix into her vagina. (The scene isn’t explicit, but it is disturbing.) It’s disgusting and profane—but then, that’s the point. The artist in me is impressed by the strong characterization of the demon. The rest of me is grossed out.

Despite its solid characterization and few scary scenes, the poor pacing and tasteless schlock of The Exorcist make it hard to recommend.

Hot Fuzz

Hot FuzzQuestion: Is Hot Fuzz A) an action movie, B) an old-fashioned murder mystery, or C) a fantastic comedy? The correct answer, of course, is D) all of the above.

In Hot Fuzz, straight-laced policeman—sorry, police officer—Nicholas Angel is transferred from London to the sleepy town of Sandford for making his colleagues look bad. Although Sandford is practically free of crime, a string of suspicious deaths leads Angel to believe the quiet town hides a conspiracy. With his incompetent partner, Danny Butterman, in tow, Angel sets out to solve the gruesome Sandford murders, watching action movies and eating Cornetto ice cream cones along the way.

Hot Fuzz is a unique blend of genres. It has a bit of an Agatha Christie feel with its murders in a rural British village. The gunfights near the end are an affectionate send-up of Hollywood action movies. Most of all, Hot Fuzz is a superbly-written comedy. I watched it because of this glowing review on Kotaku, which perfectly describes the film’s tight screenplay: “Nearly every line of dialogue is either an explicit joke, a set-up to a future joke, or a call-back to a joke that was set up earlier. Some manage to be all three at once.”

As noted in the Kotaku review, Hot Fuzz satirizes action movies in its cinematography. In one scene, two cops run from a bomb about to explode, the camera pulls back expectantly, and… the bomb doesn’t explode. Its a neat subversion of the stereotypical Hollywood explosion. There are also tons of quick, Michael Bay-esque edits, but instead of showing glimpses of action—explosions, gunshots, car crashes!—they punctuate ordinary tasks—filling out paperwork, opening doors, watering plants!

I have only two significant criticisms of Hot Fuzz. First is a jarring tonal shift near the end. The film transitions none too gracefully from detective-story satire to blazing action, with a number of people acting out of character. It feels forced. The other problem is the gore. This film has an astonishing amount of blood, including an icky scene in which a man’s head is crushed by a falling piece of masonry. The gory violence, all of which is flagrantly fake, is probably meant to be funny, but I found it a tasteless blemish in otherwise brilliant comedy.

Despite its overblown violence and some foul language, Hot Fuzz is a clever, well-written satire of British mystery and American action. I highly recommend it.

2 thoughts on “360. Review Roundup: Violent Movie Edition

  1. Great post! If you liked Snowpiercer, you should check out some of Bong Joon-ho’s other movies. I think you would like The Host (no, not the one based on the Stephanie Meyer novel).

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