Monday, July 16, 2018
Movie Reviews
Movie Reviews

Tom Cruise reunites with director Christopher McQuarrie for the sixth spectacularly action-packed entry in the series.

The plot may be as indecipherable as The Big Sleep, but the action is insane in this sixth installment of Mission: Impossible. Loaded with extended sequences that show Tom Cruise doing what look like real — and really dangerous — stunts all over central Paris and London, in addition to more far-flung destinations and on almost any means of transportation you care to name, writer-director Christopher McQuarrie’s second outing on the series tops what he did with Cruise three years ago with Mission: Impossible — Rogue Nation, which is saying something. That film pulled in $682 million worldwide (71 percent of that outside the U.S.), and there’s little reason to believe that this new ultra-amped-up extravaganza shouldn’t pull in that much or more.

You get the feeling that Cruise and his frequent partner in crime McQuarrie made a pact to go for broke here. Especially in light of his serious injury suffered in jumping a good distance from one London building to another (it does look awfully precarious when seen onscreen), it wouldn’t be a total surprise if Cruise decided to make this outing as Ethan Hunt his last. If he does, he’d certainly be signing off on a very good note.

Unlike with other installments in the series, there is carry-through from the last one to this. In Rogue Nation, MI6 agent Solomon Lane (Sean Harris) went over to the dark side and joined the Syndicate, a terrorist organization bent on the idea that the status quo must be destroyed before a new world order can spring up. Lane’s possession of three small plutonium bombs and his intention to use them springboard all the action.

In a tricky and winning opening sequence, Cruise’s Ethan Hunt and his buddy Benji (Simon Pegg) try to nab the caps in Berlin, but the botched operation triggers the wrath of Angela Bassett’s CIA director and forces Ethan and perennial helpmate Luther (Ving Rhames) to be saddled with a sidekick, August Walker (Henry Cavill, a good and welcome presence out of his Superman suit), whose ongoing relationship with Ethan is as uneasy as his real intentions are unclear.

An even more ambiguous figure is the “White Widow,” a wildly wealthy philanthropist and apparent part-time arms dealer played with a mix of elegance and frisky abandon by Vanessa Kirby, so great as Princess Margaret in The Crown. Needing to get to Paris in a hurry to see her at a giant shindig, Ethan and August arrange a rather novel means of transportation; they jump from a high-flying jet transport to a low altitude before opening their chutes and landing directly on the Grand Palais, a grand entrance no doubt unprecedented in Paris society.

In short order, they mix with some of the Widow’s muscular goons in a deliciously protracted and bloody action scene in a large, gleaming men’s room before Ethan starts negotiating with the provocative Widow, who plays a high-low game and wouldn’t mind combining big business with a little pleasure involving the straight-arrow American.

McQuarrie, the first director ever asked to return for seconds behind the camera on this franchise, succeeds in establishing and more or less maintaining the ideal tone, one that fuses sufficient self-aware humor with the ever-more-outlandish set pieces so as to encourage the audience to enjoy them for what they are — some of the most extreme, sustained and dangerous-looking stunt-reliant action scenes ever assembled. Even at 56, Cruise is well-known to push these boundaries, and here he has two eager accomplices in McQuarrie and stunt coordinator/second unit director Wade Eastwood.

So even as the narrative becomes more perplexing — as before, realistic masks conceal true identities, characters’ actual agendas remain hidden — the fast-moving spectacle unfolds in extraordinary fashion. Probably never has Paris been availed so extensively as the setting for such spectacular action, which encompasses not one but two breathless motorized chases, one involving cars and a second on motorcycle that has a helmet-free Cruise zooming through congested streets and, in the most amazing interlude, speeding against traffic in the busy circle around the Arc de Triomphe. In scenes like this, any sense of dramatic necessity or real purpose is obliterated by the sheer sensation of it, which is significantly enhanced in the Imax format. Lorne Balfe’s sharp reorchestrations of Lalo Schifrin’s original themes nicely further the cause throughout.

One way or another, McQuarrie spins just enough of a narrative line on which to hang the big set pieces. Having exhausted Paris, these characters who never sleep move on to London, where Rebecca Ferguson’s former MI6 agent from Rogue Nation, Ilsa Faust, steps more to the fore, with intentions that muddy the waters even further. To figure out who’s on what side and why and what they’re all trying to pull off becomes an impossible mission of its own after a point. So the impulse is to just let this go and ride with it, a worthwhile decision because of the extraordinary level of visceral and realistic-looking action cinema the team here has achieved.

A chase that takes Ethan through a jammed church funeral service is pretty amusing, while the prolonged footrace atop some scenic London roofs (during which Cruise was badly injured) makes you catch your breath at times; as much as any other scene, this one provokes real wonderment about how it was pulled off.

Eventually, the journey’s end brings everyone to Kashmir (doubled by Norway and New Zealand, it would seem), which the amazingly still-living Solomon Lane has determined will be the best place to launch the destruction to trigger the eradication of the known world and the birth of the new. Lo and behold, Ethan here runs into his ex-wife, Julia (a returning Michelle Monaghan), who was thought to have died after M:I 3. The fact that Julia and Ilsa bear more than a passing resemblance to one another is subtly acknowledged by the looks the two actresses give each other and adds to the resonance of these late scenes, which pivot on the Goldfinger-like countdown to a doomsday explosion Ethan’s partner Luther (Rhames plays a bigger role in the proceedings this time) desperately tries to help prevent.

But even here, McQuarrie, Cruise and Eastwood (no relation to Clint) find a way to vastly up the ante, sending Ethan out on a desperate helicopter pursuit of August through the mountains. As has been the agenda throughout the film, this episode needs to top the one that has come just before and, to everyone’s credit, it does just that. The action here represents the mainstream cinema’s version of extreme sports, and these guys have staked their claim at the summit. Now someone will have to try to top this; either someone else will take on the mission, or these guys will again, if they choose to accept it.

Production companies: Tom Cruise/Bad Robot
Distributor: Paramount
Cast: Tom Cruise, Henry Cavill, Ving Rhames, Simon Pegg, Rebecca Ferguson, Sean Harris, Angela Bassett, Vanessa Kirby, Wes Bentley, Frederick Schmidt, Michelle Monaghan, Alec Baldwin
Director-screenwriter: Christopher McQuarrie, based on the television series created by Bruce Geller
Producers: Tom Cruise, Christopher McQuarrie, Jake Myers, J.J. Abrams
Executive producers: David Ellison, Dana Goldberg, Don Granger
Director of photography: Rob Hardy
Production designer: Peter Wenham
Costume designer: Jeffrey Kurland
Editor: Eddie Hamilton
Music: Lorne Balfe
Stunt coordinator/second unit director: Wade Eastwood
Casting: Mindy Marin, Toby Whale
Rated PG-13, 144 minutes

Dwayne Johnson must save his family from a burning building in Rawson Marshall Thurber’s ‘Die Hard’ wannabe.

Part Towering Inferno, part Die Hard, and part test to see how much Hollywood baloney a physics-literate viewer can take before his or her head explodes, Rawson Marshall Thurber’s Skyscraper is one of the most idiotic action movies to come down the pike in some time. It’s also a lot of fun if you’re willing to go with it, and getting viewers to go with things is one of several fronts on which The Rock routinely earns the money he gets paid.

The performer now known as Dwayne Johnson — but honestly, a flick like this demands The Rock — brings more earnestness than wit to this performance. Though that makes sense when playing a man who must rush into hell to save his family, it (along with Thurber’s subpar script and the absence of a Hans Gruber-grade villain) keeps this film well short of John McTiernan’s enduring Bruce Willis crowd-pleaser, which celebrates its 30th birthday this very month. Nevertheless, multiplexes should welcome it with open arms.

Johnson plays Will Sawyer, a former special-ops guy who, since a decade-old tragedy that cost him half of one leg, has stayed behind a desk. Now working as a high-level security consultant, Will has landed a peach of a gig: He’s vetting all the safety and security systems on the Pearl, a Hong Kong skyscraper that is the world’s tallest, three times the height of the Empire State Building.

The Pearl is a curvy, biomorphic thing, with a 30-story park in its interior and a mysterious sphere cradled up top. The building’s billionaire owner, Zhao (Chin Han), brags that the vast array of high-def monitors inside that sphere makes it the Eighth Wonder of the World, which really only means that he needs to leave his skyscraper more often.

Zhao has an enemy whose crew steals control of all the Pearl’s systems and nearly kills Will while he’s away from the building. Will’s wife (Neve Campbell, playing a military surgeon) and twin kids are still high up in the tower, though, when the bad guys start a massive fire on the 95th floor and shut down all those precious safety systems, locking down the building’s entranceways and exits.

Look: If you think you can keep The Rock out of a flaming skyscraper while his wife and kids are inside, you’re welcome to try. But do yourself a favor and make sure there aren’t any giant construction cranes nearby. In the first of many guffaw-worthy daredevil sequences, Will scales a crane’s exterior (how long would it take to climb a hundred stories?!), uses its hook to smash a hole in an upper floor of the Pearl and takes a running leap from the crane into that hole.

Only a scholar of schlock would know, but it’s possible that no other film has made such frequent and ridiculous use of the device in which a character falls from something very tall but catches himself at the last possible moment in a completely impossible way. Will is barely inside that hole in the building before he’s finding far-fetched reasons to go back to its exterior. (And as stupid as things get out there, you gotta love the guy’s faith that duct tape will keep him from flying off the 98th-floor ledge.)

Inside the building, Campbell’s Sarah Sawyer isn’t exactly a helpless damsel. But in a script whose action often boils down to knowing the right buttons to press on a control panel, Will’s expertise is going to be necessary at some point. Up in the 220th-floor penthouse, Zhao has locked himself in a titanium-walled safe room, and the men who want him out decide they can get Will to help open the room by taking his kids hostage. Again: Good luck with that. (And to the viewer: Please temporarily disable your brain before the movie reveals where the access panel to the penthouse is located.)

With no real personalities to play against on the villains’ side, the film’s human-on-human (as opposed to human-on-the-laws-of-physics) action is more ordinary than it might have been. But Johnson is nothing if not invested, and it’s gratifying to see him play Unstoppable Dad, even in such a setting. At this point in his career, why is Johnson still having to make mindless films watchable? Why aren’t genuine action auteurs lining up to make movies with this man?

Production companies: Legendary Pictures, Flynn Picture Company, Seven Bucks
Distributor: Universal
Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Neve Campbell, Chin Han, Roland Moller, Noah Taylor, Byron Mann, Pablo Schreiber, Hannah Quinlivan
Director-screenwriter: Rawson Marshall Thurber
Producers: Beau Flynn, Dwayne Johnson, Rawson Marshall Thurber, Hiram Garcia
Executive producers: Dany Garcia, Wendy Jacobson, Eric McLeod, Eric Hedayat
Director of photography: Robert Elswit
Production designer: Jim Bissell
Costume designer: Ann Foley
Editors: Mike Sale, Julian Clarke
Composer: Steve Jablonsky
Casting director: Sarah Halley Finn

Rated PG-13, 102 minutes

Drac looks for a new Countess in Genndy Tartakovsky’s third ‘Hotel Transylvania’ cartoon.

Sending its gang of cuddly monsters off on a holiday at sea, Genndy Tartakovsky’s Hotel Transylvania 3: Summer Vacation is exactly the kind of energetic, middlebrow ‘toon-timekiller fans will expect. It’s also the series’ biggest peddler yet of one of the most damaging lies movies have ever sold to young people: That there’s one and only one love out there for everyone in the world; that it can be recognized at first sight; and (advocates for the abused love this part) that you must never give up on that true match, even if she’s trying to kill not just you but all those you love.

The asterisk here is that a person might get a second chance at a “zing” (the series’ sickly-cute name for true love), provided that your first one has died. Hotel Transylvania’s proprietor Dracula (voiced by Adam Sandler), having been a widower for well over a century, begins at the film’s outset to yearn for a new neck to nibble. But he has barely started swiping through the menagerie on ghoul-hookup app Zingr when Mavis, mistaking his loneliness for workaholic fatigue, books him and all their friends on a surprise vacation: a cruise beginning in the Bermuda Triangle and destined for Atlantis.

Drac’s buddies Frankenstein, Wayne the werewolf, et al are sure he’ll meet somebody on the cruise. No sooner has he chided them, “this isn’t the Love Boat,” than a lithe acrobat flies through the air and makes Drac go goofy with infatuation — a white-clad woman with a platinum pixie cut who turns out to be the vessel’s Captain Ericka (Kathryn Hahn). She also turns out to be a member of the Van Helsing clan of vampire-hunters, though it’ll be a while before the passengers learn that.

In a flashback to 1897, we see Dracula and Ericka’s great-grandpa in an amusing series of Coyote/Road Runner encounters, with Van Helsing getting foiled so many times he eventually gives up. But the human villain has kept himself alive all this time with a series of steampunk substitute body parts, and has trained Ericka to loathe vampires above all other beings that make bumps in the night. She’s supposed to take the ship to Atlantis so the old man can retrieve what he believes is a secret weapon there, but Ericka is impatient and makes several covert attempts to slay the soft-hearted bloodsucker en route.

The movie flirts with the usual mixed-signals of romantic comedy, but is on much more solid ground with sight gags (as when Drac’s jello-like blob friend happily absorbs the slice-and-smash violence Ericka aims at the vampire) and character work that depends less on celebrity voice talent than on body-language animation: Though not used much this time around, Mavis’ hang-loose husband Johnny (Andy Samberg) slouches and sways his way into a few laughs near the end. Though much of the design work is either generic or derivative, the folks in charge of motion earn their keep.

This being a kiddie picture, Ericka will eventually zing for the Count, and even her grinchy great-grandpa will see the light: Monsters or humans, “basically, we’re all the same,” as Drac puts it. Here, at least, is a moral more worth feeding to elementary-school kids than “a zing only happens once in your life” or “a zing never lies” — and certainly less harmful than the third-act admonishment, “you’re just a half” a person until you create an “infinite whole” with someone else.

Production company: Sony Pictures Animation
Distributor: Columbia Pictures
Cast: Adam Sandler, Selena Gomez, Andy Samberg, Kevin James, David Spade, Steve Buscemi, Fran Drescher, Keegan-Michael Key, Molly Shannon, Fran Drescher, Kathryn Hahn, Jim Gaffigan, Mel Brooks
Director: Genndy Tartakovsky
Screenwriters: Michael McCullers, Genndy Tartakovsky
Producer: Michelle Murdocca
Production designer: Scott Willis
Editor: Joyce Arrastia
Composer: Mark Mothersbaugh
Casting director: Mary Hidalgo

Rated PG, 97 minutes


Keanu Reeves and Ana Ularu star as ill-fated lovers in Matthew Ross’ fatalistic Russia-set thriller.

While killing time waiting for the release of John Wick 3, viewers might be forgiven for mistaking Matthew Ross’ “romantic thriller” Siberia for a fair facsimile of Keanu Reeves’ hardboiled crime series. Or perhaps the pairing of Reeves with contemporary Molly Ringwald as alienated spouses sounds like too good an opportunity to miss, but since they appear in only two scenes together (one of them an online video chat), well, wrong again.

Instead, Ross serves up a fatalistic romance framed by a pointedly obscure heist plot that struggles to gain momentum before finally sputtering out. Stiffly scripted and stoically directed, Siberia shamelessly squanders the particular appeal of its charismatic lead and wastes an inordinate amount of screen time going practically nowhere, except undoubtedly right to VOD.

Selling rare diamonds to Russian gangsters probably isn’t the safest segment of the high-end industry, although gem dealer Lucas Hill (Reeves) seems resigned to the inevitable risks of the black market trade. He gets caught off-guard, however, on arriving in St. Petersburg to find that his Russian partner Pyotr (Boris Gulyarin) has gone missing. Showing up empty-handed at a meeting with local crime boss Boris Volkov (Pasha D. Lychnikoff), he gingerly negotiates a two-day deadline extension to secure the samples of blue diamonds that Pyotr previously promised in a $50 million deal. Before you can vocalize the thought “go home now,” Hill tracks his partner to the Siberian city of Mirny, chartering a private jet to the remote gem-mining outpost in hopes of locating Pyotr and recovering the missing samples.

This being the off-season, it seems like Pyotr wouldn’t be that hard to locate, but Mirny is one of those dark little towns with lots of secrets, or something to that effect. What becomes clear, however, is that some residents don’t like outsiders, after two locals rough up Hill when he defends the virtue of local cafe owner Katya (Ana Ularu). Apparently she’s not as hostile as her neighbors, taking him home to recover and moving him to bed her the next day. Hill initially demurs, however, since he has diamonds to locate and gangsters to appease. That’s not a problem for Katya, who’s happy to tag along back to St. Petersburg where their relationship can get super-steamy as Hill attempts the delicate task of negotiating with Volkov.

Some of this nonsense almost succeeds just on the basis of Reeves’ ability to speak some passable Russian at key moments, although not so much during the numerous love scenes with Ularu, who does a decent job of playing an incongruously English-speaking Siberian. The sense lingers, however, that if screenwriter Scott B. Smith (who also scripted the far superior A Simple Plan) had let Reeves dictate the terms of the plot himself it would have turned out at least somewhat more involving.

As it is, he’s left to drift through a miasma of existential angst on his search for Pyotr and the missing diamonds, inching toward some undoubtedly fatalistic resolution. Lychnikoff’s over-the-top Volkov periodically provides a modicum of comic relief, although not much of a credible threat as the clocks ticks down on the promised diamond delivery date.

Ross (Frank & Lola) hems them all in with restrained camerawork, too-cool lighting and ponderous pacing, determined to make us feel every moment of Hill’s mental and physical pain, but is it worth it?

Distributor: Saban Films

Production companies: Saban Films, Mars Town, Elevated Films, The Fyzz Facility, Globus Film, Unbound Films

Cast: Keanu Reeves, Ana Ularu, Pasha D. Lychnikoff, Dmitry Chepovetsky, James Gracie, Eugene Lipinski, Rafael Petardi, Veronica Ferres, Molly Ringwald, Boris Gulyarin

Director: Matthew Ross

Screenwriters: Scott B. Smith

Producers: Stephen Hamel, Keanu Reeves, Gabriela Bacher, Braden Aftergood, David  Hansen

Executive producers: Cassian Elwes, Christian Angermayer, Wayne Marc Godfrey, Ness Saban, Shanan Becker, Christian Angermayer, Klemens Hallmann, Marc Hansell, Christopher Lemole, Tim Zajaros, William B. Bromiley, Robert Jones, Phyllis Laing, Devan Towers, Jere R. Hausfater, Jeff Beesley

Director of photography: Eric Koretz

Production designer: Jean-Andre Carriere            

Costume designer: Patti Henderson

Editor: Louise Ford

Music: Danny Bensi, Saunder Jurriaans  


Rated R, 104 minutes

Richard Foreman/TIFF

Woman Walks Ahead

Type: Movie; Genre: Drama; Release date: 06/29/18; Performer: Jessica Chastain, Sam Rockwell, Michael Greyeyes; Director: Susanna White; MPAA: R

In an era as chaotic as our current one, part of the pleasure of watching history unfold onscreen is just knowing what you’re in for. Isn’t it comforting to be sure that at least some of those crazy kids will make it home from Dunkirk, or that the queen’s faltering marriage will definitely live to see another season on The Crown?

But the flip side, of course, are the unhappy endings you can’t rewrite or forget — and anyone who sat through seventh-grade social studies remembers the fate of Sitting Bull and the Battle at Wounded Knee. Woman Walks Ahead at least comes at the story from a relatively fresh angle, via real-life activist and artist Caroline Weldon (Jessica Chastain), a wealthy young widow determined to make her way from circa-1890 New York to North Dakota to paint the legendary Lakota warrior.

Despite her social connections to millionaires and senators, Weldon is hardly welcomed with open arms; in fact, she’s spit on, called a prostitute, and worse. A gruff colonel named Silas Groves (Sam Rockwell) clocks her as trouble before she even disembarks the train, and the great holy man himself (Michael Greyeyes) can’t help side-eyeing her clumsy overtures, at least at first. (It doesn’t help that Chastain, always such a lovely and expressive actress, has chosen to speak in an oddly strangled cadence straight out of the Ministry of Silly Accents.)

But her Weldon is determined, and undeniably brave. And BAFTA-winning director Susanna White (Generation Kill, Parade’s End) captures the stark racial and sexual power dynamics of the 19th-century West with a deftness that the script, by Steven Knight (Eastern Promises) sometimes struggles to match.

Both probably share some responsibility for the white savior/noble savage tropes that creep in — especially as Weldon begins to insert herself into the fight between the Native population and the men conscripted by the U.S. government to take their land away and effectively eliminate their way of life.

The relationship between the painter and her subject also veers dangerously close to paperback-romance territory, though the inherent grace of the two actors playing them, and Rockwell’s acerbic turn, help cut the creep of sepia-toned sentiment. (So does the striking wide-open scenery, by cinematographer Mike Eley.)

Woman could use some of the quieter character nuance of a movie like last year’s Wind River, another fact-based drama that reflected the struggle of indigenous people with a sensitive, unvarnished kind of naturalism; White’s well-meant version is undoubtedly incomplete, and gilded with a certain amount of Hollywood silliness. But if it doesn’t exactly feel revelatory or deeply explored as a historical document, it’s still an intriguing story, capably told.

An ex-con computer hacker falls in love with a grieving war widow in Jeremy Culver’s romantic dramedy.

The opening montage of news clips about cyberattacks hardly provides an accurate introduction to Jeremy Culver’s offbeat romantic comedy/drama. While one of its central characters is a computer hacker who gets involved in an FBI investigation into stolen bitcoins, No Postage Necessary proves decidedly old-school in its storyline. Best suited for basic cable exposure, the film, receiving a limited theatrical release, is most notable for being the first to be screened on a blockchain platform and available for purchase with cryptocurrency. That’s cinematic progress of a sorts, I guess.

One of the film’s chief problems is that its principal male character, Sam (George Blagden, TV’s Vikings) is something of a creep. Recently released from prison, he’s crashing on his brother’s couch while working a menial job at a soft-serve ice cream stand and supplementing his income by pretending to be a postal carrier and stealing mail that occasionally contains cash.

One day he purloins a letter addressed to “The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.” It turns out to have been sent by Josie (Charleene Closshey), who periodically writes missives pouring out her heart to her Marine husband who was killed years earlier in Afghanistan. Living with her father (Raymond J. Barry) and emotionally troubled adolescent daughter (Michelle Moreno), Josie is still very much in the grieving phase.

Intrigued by Josie’s heartfelt letters, Sam begins stalking her and, with the help of his religious-minded co-worker and fellow hacker (Robbie Kay), manages to meet her by pretending to save her from being run down by a car. Sam and Josie embark on a tentative romance, even as he is forced to deal with his attentive parole officer (Michael Beach) and a ruthless FBI agent (Stelio Savante) pressuring him to use his unique skills on a case involving the underground drug market on the internet and a fortune in missing bitcoins.

Director/screenwriter Culver doesn’t succeed in blending the complex storyline’s romantic, comedic and thriller elements into a coherent whole. None of it works remotely well, including the ploddingly paced love story that begins with a dinner at Outback (the Bloomin’ Onion is very much on display) and eventually results in Sam rediscovering his inner decency. That the film works at all is a testament to the performers who manage to make the awkward material palatable. Blagden brings just enough charm to his roguish character to make him seem not totally repellent, while Closshey is low-key and appealing as the emotionally vulnerable war widow. The supporting players are even better; the veteran Barry infuses his stern but loving character with genuine gravitas, Beach is stolid as the parole officer who treats his ex-cons fairly, and Kay is a hoot as Sam’s reluctant accomplice.

There’s nary a believable moment, emotionally or otherwise, in No Postage Necessary, which also suffers from its overly treacly musical score composed by Closshey. The film bears as much relation to real life as cryptocurrency does to hard cash.

Production: Two Roads Picture Co.
Cast: Charleene Closshey, George Blagden, Robbie Kay, Raymond J. Barry, Michelle Moreno, Stelio Savante
Director/screenwriter: Jeremy Culver
Producers: Charleene Closshey, Jeremy Culver
Executive producer: Jennifer Closshey,
Director of photography: Jeff Osborne
Production designer: Matthew Hill
Editor: Sandy S. Solowitz
Composer: Charleen Closshey
Costume designer: Kerry Hennessy

Rated PG-13, 104 minutes


The First Purge

Type: Movie; Genre: Horror; Release date: 07/04/18; Performer: Y’lan Noel, Lex Scott Davis, Joivan Wade, Marisa Tomei; Director: Gerard McMurray; MPAA: R

What are The Purge movies supposed to be? Are they horror movies, in which we’re given a ludicrous set-up (all crime is legal! Mayhem reigns!) so we can enjoy ideally no more than 90 minutes of gore and anarchy? Or are these movies social commentary — an attempt, a la Blumhouse’s most critically successful venture to date, Get Out, to illuminate cultural truths through the shared nonverbal language of jump-scares and goosebumps? In the Purge franchise’s own mind, one suspects these movies are both. Unfortunately, The First Purge succeeds at accomplishing neither.

In The First Purge (a movie whose title already sets up a miserable Abbott and Costello routine, for it’s the fourth film in the franchise), the United States government — run by a new neo-fascist political party — decides to implement an experiment on Staten Island: for 12 hours, all crime will be legal. Citizens will be paid $5,000 if they decide to participate in the experiment by remaining on the island, and those participants will be fit with neon-glowing camera contact lenses so their violent debauchery can be broadcast to the public. The logic here is shaky at best (yes, I know, I know, I did just write the word “logic” in a review of The First Purge) because the goal seems to be to broadcast as much gory violence as possible to a still-free press — these fascists work slow, it turns out — but wouldn’t that turn off the vast majority of the public? If this is the First Purge, and it’s not yet something the modern-day populace is acclimated to, one imagines mass-broadcasted footage of a drug addict slashing a stranger with a fist of hypodermic needles (the first “purge” of the night) would cause most rational-minded people to recoil and think, “hmm, perhaps this isn’t the best embodiment of our nation.”

The experiment, as it’s called, was engineered by a miserable-looking Marisa Tomei in a terrible blonde wig, dressed as if she’s planning on attending an uptown art gallery opening when all of this murdering is over. We’re made to believe this character is a true believer in the moral righteousness of the Purge, a woman who’s sense of right and wrong permits encouraging free-wheeling killing but who draws the line at the government fudging the numbers to make the trial look better. (Equally incorrect casting: the monotone, middle-aged accountant-looking guy who was apparently elected president. Aren’t fascists supposed to be charismatic?)

For the first two-thirds or so of the movie, the scares are lacking. As our character archetypes — I mean, protagonists: Nya (Lex Scott Davis), her little brother (Joivan Wade), her heroic ex-boyfriend (Y’lan Noel) — wander wide-eyed through near-abandoned streets, it feels more like an overpriced haunted house than anything: out pops a guy in a scary mask waving a machete! Out pops a lunatic wearing a raincoat who sprays you with water! Oh no, hands grabbing at your ankles! These moments are so discrete and harmless you expect our heroes to collect a souvenir photo when all of it is over.

The premise of a “Purge” — the helplessness and anarchy of it — is so promising, it’s no wonder why they keep making these movies and why people (your reviewer among them) keep paying money to see them, expecting guilt-free, bloody mayhem, a symbolic two-hour Purge from the obligations of responsible consumerism.

Why then, does this film feel so cardboard? In part, no doubt, because of its self-seriousness (the moments of humor they do attempt to inject are awkward and misplaced) but also maybe because law-enforcement is never a considerable factor in horror movies, and so removing it, while fun in premise, doesn’t do much as a matter of actual practice. All horror movies find a way to nullify the comfort of an active and capable police force (“My phone is dead!” or “This cabin is so far away, police won’t be here for hours!”) until the final moments. “No police to help” is the precondition for good horror, but no more.

And early on, The First Purge teaches us that police aren’t a helpful factor in the lives of our characters: pre-Purge, a junkie slices a young drug-dealer in the face with a razor blade in his mouth. That same junkie is the one who goes on to hypodermic needle-stab someone else, but obviously he’s not someone who was patiently waiting for crime to be legal to really let loose: he already sliced our hero in the face! Where the Purge movies could have been about the slow — and then terrifyingly rapid — dismissal of morality and social norms, like High-Rise, it chooses instead to skate through those haunted house scares and clunky symbolism.

By the final third of this movie though, I’m not sure if you can call it symbolism at all, when it’s just the thing itself and not a representation of it: when people haven’t been murdering enough, the fascist government sends in mercenary racists to systemically gun people down. In a clear echo of the 2015 shooting in Charleston, neo-Nazis ride motorcycles away from a church whose congregants were slaughtered. The KKK glide in bloody sheets through the sheets. The leader of the unit assigned to murdering everyone in the protagonist’s apartment building is dressed like an SS officer, with his goons in minstrel black-face masks. (Were these costumes provided to these last-minute Purge missionaries or did they select people who already had them?)

These images are horrifying, but if 2018 has taught us anything, it’s that, even more horrifying, in the real world, the villains don’t wear bloody KKK hoods or twirling metaphorical moustaches. Evil is petty and banal. Racists love to begin their sentences with “I’m not a racist, but.” Neo-Nazis balk at the comparison to Nazis, and use the accusation as fuel to prove how outlandish and off base their enemies are. How much less terrifying the world would be then, if they were all wearing SS uniforms, and their power dissolved at sunrise.

At one point, as an organized militia armed with machine guns begin their march into the heroes’ apartment building to murder everyone inside, a neighbor earnestly pulls Nya aside and says she’s worried about the state of the country. A reminder: armed gunmen in Nazi costume are currently storming up her stairwell to remorselessly kill them. Hey lady, now’s not the time for an exaggerated wink to the audience. I promise, just dealing with The Purge would be interesting enough.

Peyton Reed’s sequel stars Paul Rudd as the titular Marvel superhero, along with Evangeline Lilly, Michael Douglas and franchise newcomer Michelle Pfeiffer.

It’s hard to say which is the most lightweight, evanescent and inconsequential of the bunch — Ant-Man, the Wasp or Ant-Man and the Wasp. But while pondering this conundrum for two hours, it becomes increasingly difficult not to notice that this latest entry in the unstoppable Marvel Studios takeover of the world is probably the most amusing film the company has made since the Kevin Feige reign began a decade ago. With a domestic haul of “only” $180 million in 2015, the original Ant-Man stands as the company’s second-lowest grosser during that period, so Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War will not feel threatened. But young summer audiences will nonetheless delight in the goofy, low-stakes nonsense the mostly engaging characters generate.

Black Panther instantly became a landmark by placing black characters and culture front-and-center in such a mass audience attraction. Now it seems as though Ant-Man has exerted a strong influence of its own by demonstrating that actors of a certain age can once again play characters decades younger. Having passed 70, Michael Douglas, submitting to the miracle of digital facelifting, three years ago paved the way with his entirely convincing turn as the fortysomething downsizing genius Dr. Hank Pym. Michelle Pfeiffer and Laurence Fishburne clearly took note and told their agents, “Hell, get me some of that stuff, too.” And here they are, looking (part of the time) as ready as ever for their close-ups.

Trying to slip these wispy little insect characters into a world dominated by the likes of Thor, Thanos, Iron Man, Hulk, Drax and so many bulging others was always a long-shot challenge, so it was a smart move to push a disarming sense of humor to the forefront in this series. Star Paul Rudd is the only returning writer from the original’s team of four, and replacing the departed ones are four more — Chris McKenna and Erik Sommers (The Lego Batman Movie, Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle) along with Andrew Barrer (Haunt) and Gabriel Ferrari — whose marching orders clearly mandated coming up with as many jokes and gags as possible for returning director Peyton Reed to spin into the action.

The result is an effects-laden goofball comedy in which anything goes and nothing matters. Not that this is an entirely plot-free extravaganza or just an excuse for comic riffs. But the filmmakers are so cavalier about the idea that any of this is supposed to make any sense that there’s a certain liberation in not burdening two human-brained insects with the fate of the entire universe. If the filmmakers don’t pretend to take the proceedings too seriously, you don’t have to, either.

It’s refreshing to feel that the little corner of the universe known as San Francisco hasn’t yet come to Thanos’ attention. All that really matters for good-natured goofball Scott Lang (Rudd) is to serve out the remaining three days of his house arrest without lapsing back into his superhero guise. Given all the hubbub in the household, you can bet it won’t be easy.

Scott is under strict orders not to re-enter the Quantum Realm, but this is like telling Eve not to eat the apple — especially since the Realm’s pioneer explorer, Dr. Hank Pym (Douglas), believes his beloved ex-wife, Janet (Pfeiffer), the original Wasp, remains in limbo there, and Hank and Janet’s daughter, Hope (Evangeline Lilly), is also a quantum physicist keen on helping out. Part of the film’s antic comedy grows out of Scott’s slippery maneuvers to elude the authorities on this score, and another part of it rests in the sort of flippant attitude that allows one character to snort to a scientist, “Do you guys just put the word ‘quantum’ in front of everything?”

But even more of the mirth springs from the fact that, in this installment especially, size matters. A lot. Part of the minute lead characters’ effectiveness stems from their minuscule stature and consequent near-invisibility, hence their ability to zip around mostly unnoticed. But now they can get really large on a whim as well, and so instantaneously that the filmmakers’ decision to essentially dispense with justification and explanations becomes part of the romp’s charm.

But the main benefit of this devil-may-care attitude is the running gag relating to the size of Dr. Pym’s top-secret lab headquarters. Since size-changing is the central given of this series, why not then logically extend it to a building, specifically the one where all the secrets are kept? Possessing this edifice becomes the prime concern of bad guy Sonny (an amusing Walton Goggins), and the sight of the building repeatedly being reduced from the size of a city block to that of a suitcase that can be stolen and carried around provides a droll kick, both for its own comedy value and for the way it intermittently pushes the silliness to the level of quasi-inspiration.

By Marvel standards, the film is reductionist in every way, and what’s at stake couldn’t be further from what lies in the balance at the conclusion of the studio’s recent mega-blockbuster Avengers: Infinity War. But therein lies most of its modest charm. Almost by necessity, it takes the low road, but its underdog status is embraced, even exulted in.

Rudd does more than anyone to set the mood by walking a tonal balance beam with a seriousness shot through with an irrepressible edge of goofy insubordination. While the sincere grownups in the room are played by Lilly, Douglas and Fishburne, the latter as a brainy former academic colleague of Pym’s, counterbalancing them with antic comic relief are Scott’s former small-time criminal cohorts (Michael Pena, Tip ‘T.I.’ Harris, David Dastmalchian) trying to make a move into the security business.

Given that there’s really nothing that the filmmakers could have done to disguise the truth of the matter, which is that Ant-Man really is a pipsqueak compared to the A-cast of Marvel superheroes, Marvel has done a pretty good job with its B team. After the heavy lifting involved in the studio’s most recent blockbusters, Black Panther and Avengers: Infinity War, Ant-Man lays out a welcome picnic.

Production company: Marvel Studios
Distributor: Disney

Cast: Paul Rudd, Evangeline Lilly, Michael Pena, Walton Goggins, Bobby Cannavale, Judy Greer, Tip ‘T.I.’ Harris, David Dastmalchian, Hannah John-Kamen, Abby Ryder, Randall Park, Michelle Pfeiffer, Laurence Fishburne, Michael Douglas
Director: Peyton Reed
Screenwriters: Chris McKenna, Erik Sommers, Paul Rudd, Andrew Barber, Gabriel Ferrari
Producers: Kevin Feige, Stephen Broussard
Executive producers: Louis D’Esposito, Victoria Alonso, Charles Newirth, Stan Lee
Director of photography: Dante Spinotti
Production designer: Shepherd Frankel
Costume designer: Louise Frogley
Editors: Dan Lebental, Craig Wood
Music: Christophe Beck
Visual effects supervisor: Stephane Ceretti
Casting: Sarah Halley Finn

Rated PG-13, 112 minutes

Sylvester Stallone and Dave Bautista star in this sequel to the 2013 action film.

The 2013 Sylvester Stallone/Arnold Schwarzenegger vehicle Escape Plan was no masterpiece, but it had a reasonably clever concept and offered the opportunity to see the two aging action stars banter in enjoyable fashion. Such is not the case, alas, with Escape Plan 2, its misbegotten sequel marked by the indignity of not receiving a theatrical release. And although Stallone and Dave Bautista are top-billed here and prominently in the advertising, their onscreen time is limited. Be forewarned.

As before, Stallone plays Ray Benson, a security expert who specializes in advising prisons in how to prevent its inmates from escaping. His skills naturally come in handy when a member of his team, Shu (Huang Xiaoming), is kidnapped along with his tech wunderkind cousin Yusheng (Chen Tang) and thrown into a high-security facility whose name can be guessed from the film’s title. It seems the evil warden (is there any other kind?) who dubs himself “The Zookeeper” (Titus Welliver) desperately wants the patent for a new satellite system designed by Yusheng.

So it’s naturally up to Ray and his associates, including holdover Hush (Curtis “50 Cent” Jackson) and newbies Luke (Jesse Metcalfe) and Abigail (Jaime King) to rescue their comrades. Ray also calls in his friend Trent for some extra muscle, which makes sense considering the character is played by Bautista.

Shu receives the main focus for much of this installment, although we hear frequent voiceovers by Stallone in which he issues metaphysical advice on the order of “You move together, everything flows as one.” The film includes numerous fight scenes, since the warden has a policy of forcing his inmates to engage in violent cage matches, the prizes of which are time spent in a virtual environment, “Sanctuary,” where they can enjoy some relaxing fantasy.

Unfortunately, director Stephen C. Miller, whose numerous include such forgettable B-movies as Extraction, First Kill and Arsenal, fails to bring any vitality or visual coherence to the action sequences, while Miles Chapman’s screenplay lacks the doses of wit that made the original film sporadically amusing. The design of the hellhole prison feels all over the place, one moment futuristic and the next medieval, with such flourishes as drones, artificial intelligence and a trio of albino hackers adding little of interest to the proceedings.

Chinese star Huang, on hand to better appeal to the market where the first film was a big hit, has the physical chops for his action-packed role but lacks the charisma to command the screen. Stallone mainly looks tired and glum, as if still disappointed over not winning the Oscar for Creed, while Bautista has little opportunity to showcase the unlikely comedy chops he’s displayed in the Marvel universe. The supporting players are mostly nondescript, although Welliver seems to be relishing his cartoonish villain role.

Escape Plan 2 is essentially a tired, low-rent attempt to create a new franchise, albeit one now relegated to VOD. The film ends with a setup for a third installment which would well benefit from a bigger budget and the return of original director Mikael Hafstrom.

Production companies: Emmitt/Furla/Oasis Films, Grindstone Entertainment Group, Leomus Pictures, Lionsgate
Distributor: Lionsgate Premiere
Cast: Sylvester Stallone, Dave Bautista, Huang Xiaoming, Jaime King, Jesse Metcalfe, Wes Chatham, Lydia Hult, Pete Wentz, Shea Buckner, Tyler Jon Olson, Chen Tang, Titus Welliver, Curtis Jackson
Director: Stephen C. Miller
Screenwriter: Miles Chapman
Producers: Randall Emmett, George Fula, Xing Su, Jie Qiu, Mark Canton, Zack Schiller, Robbie Brenner
Executive producers: Wayne Marc Godfrey, Robert Jones, Tony Parker, Barry Brooker, Stan Wertlieb, Henry Winterstern, Arianne Fraser, Delphine Perrier, Alex Boies, Ted Fox, Mark Stewart, Vance Owen, Montgomery Blencowe, Ron Lynch
Director of photography: Brandon Cox
Production designer: Niko Vilaivongs
Editors: Vincent Tabaillon, Carsten Kurpanek
Composers: The Newton Brothers
Costume designer: Bonnie Stuach

Rated R, 94 minutes

NBA star Kyrie Irving plays a senior citizen returning to the court in Charles Stone III’s comedy co-starring Tiffany Haddish and Shaquille O’Neal.

Playing a character invented several years ago for a series of soda ads, NBA star Kyrie Irving once again dons a gray wig and makeup to star as Uncle Drew, a legendary neighborhood athlete who vanished from the game decades ago instead of going pro. Helming this jump from web videos to the big screen, Charles Stone III delivers a light comedy that is understandably geared to hoops fanatics, calling in a team of other stars (ranging from the WNBA MVP Lisa Leslie to no-stranger-to-the-movies Shaquille O’Neal) to join Irving under the latex wrinkles. Moviegoers who don’t get a kick out of spotting athletes on the screen may be less than enthralled by the otherwise formulaic comeback flick, but sports-loving viewers will likely be more enthusiastic.

The tale’s protagonist is not old Drew but thirtysomething Dax, who gave up playing the game as a teen but still seeks minor glory as a coach. (Dax is played by Lil Rey Howery, a stand-up comic whose few minutes of screen time in Get Out yielded far more laughter than he gets here with Jay Longino’s pedestrian script.) Every year, Dax brings his neighborhood-league team to compete in Harlem’s long-running “Rucker Classic” tourney; every year, he loses to a team coached by the boor who once fouled him on the court, spoiling what should have been a triumphant moment. (As that coach, Mookie, Nick Kroll is in his douchey wheelhouse, smacking a wad of gum with his mouth open and taunting Dax at every opportunity.)

Mookie steals Dax’s star player Casper (Aaron Gordon, of the Orlando Magic), leaving him without a team to coach. With no hope of winning the tournament’s $100K prize, he’s also probably about to lose his Gucci-loving girlfriend Jess. (Tiffany Haddish earns her keep in the thin role.)

Consoling himself with a visit to the barbershop, Dax talks to a haircutter who used to watch Uncle Drew play. What you need, the oldster says, is to go meet Drew. (J.B. Smoove plays this bit part, again in old-man makeup. It’s always a pleasure to see Smoove pop up onscreen, but, with all the artificially aged actors here, you have to wonder if the filmmakers realize there are honest-to-god old black actors who might appreciate some work when a script calls for it.)

When it happens, that meeting is accidental, giving Drew a chance to wow Dax by sinking three-pointers over a cocky youth’s head. When Dax begs him to return to the game, Drew agrees on one condition: He’ll only play with teammates of his own choosing.

The script extends this “getting the crew back together” sequence for all it’s worth, as the two men go on a road trip in Drew’s shag-carpeted orange van and swap perspectives on music. (Dax, of course, thinks the sexy groove of The Isley Brothers’ “Between the Sheets” was invented by Biggie Smalls.)

In D.C., they find Preacher (Chris Webber) delivering a fiery sermon to his congregation; they watch Shaq’s “Big Fella” teaching children martial arts in another town. Reggie Miller is Lights, who is now legally blind and in an old folks’ home with nearly catatonic, wheelchair-bound Boots (Nate Robinson). Boots’ loving granddaughter Maya (Erica Ash) decides to come along for the trip — ostensibly to watch out for Boots, but obviously because the script needs a redemptive love interest for Dax.

Anyone who’s seen an underdog sports film can write the rest of this picture, and Longino sees no need to reinvent the wheel, presumably accepting that the main reason we’re here is to see these creaking old dudes teach the young bloods a thing or two. The athletes, especially Irving, handle their off-the-court scenes better than one might expect — though it’s easy to be generous about a non-thesp’s acting when he’s under such cumbersome makeup. When the tournament begins, Stone plays things like a Harlem Globetrotters game, letting the unfortunate opposing teams be just good enough to show off the stars’ talents. (Robinson is especially fun to watch, making tricky shots while wearing a Frederick Douglass meets lightsocket wig that emphasizes how much shorter he is than everyone else.)

The pic’s main shortcoming is its impulse to keep coming back to Dax’s personal journey. When you have five once-great players getting a comeback none of them expected — and finally dealing with grudges they thought they’d take to their graves — don’t they deserve more of the film’s attention than the hustler who’s mostly in it for the money?

Production company: Temple Hill
Distributor: Summit Entertainment
Cast: Kyrie Irving, Lil Rel Howery, Shaquille O’Neal, Chris Webber, Reggie Miller, Nate Robinson, Lisa Leslie, Erica Ash, Tiffany Haddish, Nick Kroll, Aaron Gordon
Director: Charles Stone III
Screenwriter: Jay Longino
Producers: Marty Bowen, Wyck Godfrey
Executive producers: Louis Arbetter, Aziel Rivers, Marc Gilbar
Director of photography: Crash
Production designer: Douglas J. Meerdink
Costume designer: Johnetta Boone
Editors: Jeff Freeman, Sean Valla
Composer: Christopher Lennertz
Casting director: Victoria Thomas

Rated PG-13, 103 minutes

Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro reprise their roles in this action-packed follow-up to the 2015 drug cartel thriller.

Although this sequel to the blistering 2015 drug cartel drama Sicario has lost four of the original’s key creative contributors — director Denis Villeneuve, star Emily Blunt, cinematographer Roger Deakins and the late composer Johann Johannson — Sicario: Day of the Soldado emerges as a dynamic action drama in its own right. Making sure of that is writer Taylor Sheridan, who’s hatched a compelling new yarn that triggers rugged, full-bodied work from returning leading men Benicio Del Toro and Josh Brolin. With the first film having grossed just a moderate $85 million worldwide, a follow-up was no sure thing, but its successor digs in its dramatic claws from the outset and keeps the tension high and dramatic twists coming in ways that should spark a solid commercial life.

In his brief but meteoric career as a screenwriter, Sheridan (Hell or High Water) has successfully applied Old West dramatic tropes to New West situations, vitalizing both in the process. Here, he uses the ruse of a secret CIA kidnapping of the teenage daughter of a Mexican cartel kingpin to explore corruption and criminality on all sides of the drug wars — and especially how they ensnare the very young in their net. No one comes out of this clean, but a few come out alive to fight another day.

The macro tale opens on the U.S.-Mexican border that was so vividly rendered in the original film. In a nocturnal scene, depicted entirely through night vision goggles and greatly resembling Alejandro Gonzalez Inarittu’s brilliantly nightmarish virtual reality short, Carne y Arena, about American authorities apprehending migrants in the desert at night, one man blows himself up. At the same time in Kansas City, four guys stride into a big store and set off big explosions, killing many. Some guards are picked off in Somalia. Learning that the K.C. bombers came in from Mexico, CIA op Matt Graver (Brolin) reports to D.C. to get his nasty marching orders from the Secretary of Defense (Matthew Modine), reminding him that “dirty is exactly why you’re here.”

The micro story sees taciturn 14-year-old U.S. citizen Miguel (Elijah Rodriguez) helping a low-end trafficker get people across the border as a warm-up for becoming more deeply involved with a Mexican cartel. There can be no doubt that these multiple strands will twist together like thorny vines before the film’s brisk two hours are over.

Graver’s assignment to snatch crime boss Carlos Reyes’ daughter holds considerable emotional appeal to attorney Alejandro (Benicio Del Toro), whose family was killed by the drug lord in question at the end of the first film and who welcomes Graver’s prediction, “You’re going to help us start a war.” The about-to-be victim, Isabela (Isabela Moner), is cheekily introduced as a rude and privileged early teen who would instantly be expelled from school if not for her father’s status, and director Stefano Sollima proves his worthiness for this tough-minded, hard-action material by the powerful way he handles Isabela’s kidnapping as she’s being driven home by bodyguards through a posh Mexico City neighborhood.

After the clear-cut good-guy/bad-guy dynamics of the opening act, matters become more vague and fluid in the film’s mid-section. A good part of the point is that it’s always very difficult, if not impossible, to tell which side anyone, other than the Americans, is on. Many Mexican police are in bed with Reyes, which makes the Americans’ job virtually impossible; from a political and PR point of view, how do you go after the bad guys if killing them will cause international scandal and compromise the job you’re trying to pull off?

At a certain point, Isabela escapes the clutches of her captors, but even then it’s difficult to know how she might find a road back from the middle of the desert to safety. No matter which side you’re on, you can never know if the next person you meet is going to be your friend or foe, a situation the pic plays to its considerable advantage.

Still, with so many uncertainties lingering in the air and numerous fates hanging in the balance, the film’s mid-section suffers a bit from the attenuated plotting, the drama slowing and the tension flattening out a bit. For a while, the movie’s ambiguities get the better of it as the characters become stuck in a figurative as well as literal no-man’s-land, even if it continues to be punctuated with spasms of terrible violence.

At a certain point, things get so out of hand that Graver’s operation is shut down, but that still leaves Alejandro and Isabela out in the desert, where some truly wacky things start to happen. Fate sticks out its foot more than once to trip up these mere mortals, but then sometimes changes its mind just for fun to see what they might make of one more chance. The final stretch includes some startling, even wacky twists and shifts in fortune, sending the film out on a high note and leaving the door open to further adventures for some of the characters.

For all its intricate plotting and nutty surprises, however, Sicario: Day of the Soldado can’t help but be saturated in sadness and tragedy due to the dire world the film inhabits. Its predominant settings — the foreboding desert, grim border communities, heavily militarized zones — are nowhere you’d want to be plunked down in real life if you could help it, and the human dilemma symbolically embodied in the character of young teen Miguel, to stay straight or become a killer, could not be more clear-cut or, ultimately, tragic.

Largely unknown in American film circles, director Sollima clearly learned a thing or three about suspense, action and staging big-scale crime drama through his work on such Italian TV series as La Suadra, Romanzo Crimnale and, most recently, the highly successful Gomorrah. His work here is confident, rugged and quite successful at expressing the ambiguities and contradictions that blur the line between good and bad in this sort of genre work.

Still, leading the way here is Sheridan, who has found much more to mine in the material he broke through with on Sicario just three years ago (Yellowstone, a 10-episode TV series he both wrote and directed, premiered this week). The way things are left here, there is certainly potential for much more from the intrinsic material and surviving characters if Sheridan cares to pursue it.

If anything, both Brolin and especially Del Toro register more strongly in their roles here than they did in the original; they have more to do and more moods to express, and together, they carry the film prodigiously. Playing younger, 16-year-old Moner shows a wide range as the unfortunate kidnapped member of a venal empire; she’s a vital presence who has the opportunity to show multiple sides to the teen’s drastically tested personality. Jeffrey Donovan brings a diverting light touch to one of Grave’s associates, and Rodriguez provokes uneasiness as the blank-faced young adolescent being inexorably drawn to the dark side, while Catherine Keener is wasted as a CIA higher-up who poses a stumbling block for Graver.

Rough real locations and Dariusz Wolski’s highly mobile cinematography provide ample atmosphere and verisimilitude. Deep and disturbing echoes of the original film’s overwhelming score by the late Johannson are to be heard in the new music by one of his proteges and creative colleagues, Hildur Gudnadottir.

Production companies: Columbia Pictures, Thunder Road Pictures, Black Label Media
Distributor: Sony
Cast: Benicio Del Toro, Josh Brolin, Isabela Moner, Jeffrey Donovan, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Matthew Modine, Catherine Keener, Elijah Rodriguez, David Castaneda
Director: Stefano Sollima
Screenwriter: Taylor Sheridan, based on characters created by Taylor Sheridan
Producers: Basil Iwanyk, Edward L. McDonnell, Molly Smith, Thad Luckinbill, Trent Luckinbill
Executive producers: Ellen H. Schwartz, Richard Middleton, Erica Lee
Director of photography: Dariusz Wolski
Production designer: Kevin Kavanaugh
Costume designer: Deborah L. Scott
Editor: Matthew Newman
Music: Hildur Gudnadottir
Casting: Mary Vernieu, Marisol Roncall

Rated R, 117 minutes

HANNIBAL BURESS as Kevin Sable, JAKE JOHNSON as Randy “Chilli” Cilliano, ED HELMS as Hogan “Hoagie” Malloy, JON HAMM as Bob Callahan and ISLA FISHER as Anna Malloy

Jeremy Renner, Jon Hamm and Hannibal Buress lead the ensemble in this comedy about a group of childhood friends caught up in a decades-long game of tag.

The amount of pleasure you derive from the new comedy Tag may depend on how appealing you find its bizarre real-life subject: a group of friends in their 40s that have been engaged in the same all-consuming game of tag since childhood. If the prospect of grown men chasing each other around the country, scheming and strategizing, hooting and hollering and bro-ing it up brings a smile to your face, this one’s for you. If, on the other hand, you’ve always found the eponymous schoolyard pastime to be dull or exhausting or even, on occasion, a source of existential terror — Why me? How long will this last? — you’ll probably want to pass.

There are worse ways to kill a couple of hours than watching gifted goofballs like Ed Helms and Hannibal Buress mix it up with the suave likes of Jon Hamm and Jeremy Renner, both working their comic chops. And after the sloppy one-two stumble of I Feel Pretty and Life of the Party, Tag comes off as a model of proficiency and hustle — peppy and punchy enough, with some satisfying bursts of slapstick. But it also suffers from the gimmickiness and genericism that are the dual scourges of the contemporary studio comedy, which is in such a sorry state that a confidently executed triviality like Game Night is greeted as the second coming of classic screwball.

Like that film, Tag is neither bad nor good, but rather, despite its out-there story, almost numbingly ordinary: an easy, breezy action-com that’s sometimes amusing but rarely funny, competent rather than inspired.

A big-screen debut by Jeff Tomsic (whose TV credits include the great Broad City), the movie is based on a 2013 Wall Street Journal article that screenwriters Rob McKittrick and Mark Steilen have adapted into a rowdy tale of man love and one-upmanship. Every May for the past 30 years, the band of buds at the story’s center has thrown itself into a no-holds-barred, monthlong game of tag. They ambush each other at home and work, while their wives are in labor, during funerals; no setting or circumstance is off-limits. Whoever is tagged just before the clock strikes midnight on May 31 has to endure the indignity of being “it” for the next 11 months.

Earnest veterinarian Hoagie (Helms) is the keenest participant. He’s backed by his wife, Anna (Isla Fisher), who, because of a no-girls-allowed rule implemented long ago, can’t technically play but is the most aggressive tactician — a sort of expletive-spewing, overcaffeinated Lady Macbeth. The other members of the close-knit crew are dashing insurance exec Callahan (Hamm); recently divorced stoner Chilli (Jake Johnson); and spacy, neurotic Sable (Buress). But by far the best player is ferociously competitive, never-been-tagged fitness guru Jerry (Renner, all slyness and swagger), who, we learn early on, has chosen not to invite the boys to his wedding; it’s scheduled for May 31, and his fiancee, Susan (Leslie Bibb), doesn’t want it overrun by a bunch of dudes playing grab-ass.

Hurt by the snub but galvanized into bringing his A-game, Hoagie recruits Callahan, Chilli and Sable for the ultimate power move: They’ll corner an unsuspecting Jerry on his big day back in their hometown of Spokane, Washington, and finally tag him. Trailing the group is a WSJ reporter played by Annabelle Wallis (who, based on her appearance here, should be on the shortlist to play Ivanka Trump in HBO’s in-development Fire and Fury series); she’s assigned to profile Callahan, but decides this unusual decades-long tradition among friends is the better story.

The guys go all out in their effort to tag Jerry, with Hoagie at one point dressing in full old-lady drag and tottering after his target at a mall. But every time they get close, Jerry unleashes a flurry of ninja moves that prevent anyone from laying a hand on him. In their cleverest touch, Tomsic and DP Larry Blanford style these sequences like something out of the movies the guys presumably geek out over — slowing the action down, speeding it up and sprinkling it with bits of absurdist physical humor (Renner pummeling Helms’ buttocks is, um, something to behold).

Those scenes lend Tag a momentum that it has trouble maintaining. Part of the problem, as is often the case with mainstream comedies, lies in the dialogue, which is whiplash-fast without being particularly smart. You sense the actors working hard to lift their lines into a wittier register, and, happily, they sometimes succeed. It’s fun, for example, to see Hamm playing someone who’s not the coolest guy in the room; there’s disgruntlement in his every sputtered quip and raised eyebrow.

Unsurprisingly, the ladies don’t have much to do, with Fisher getting the most screen time but few notes to play other than foul-mouthed belligerence. (Bibb’s big moment, meanwhile, is a woefully ill-advised gag revolving around a faked miscarriage.) The top-tier supporting/cameo cast includes Rashida Jones as the object of Callahan and Chilli’s rivalrous affections; Nora Dunn as Hoagie’s loopy mother; Carrie Brownstein as Sable’s therapist; and, best in show, Thomas Middleditch as a gay-panic-gripped gym clerk.

In its final few scenes, Tag makes a bid for poignancy that feels forced given the broadness of these characters and the fundamental weirdness of their obsession. Sure, tag allows the guys to stay in each other’s lives, as Hoagie explains. But it’s also a never-ending hazing routine, a way for them to live out childlike macho fantasies of dominance and destruction. In men-misbehaving romps like The HangoverThe World’s EndThis Is the End and others, chaos befalls the protagonists (with a little help from drugs, alcohol and the apocalypse); here, the protagonists pursue and perpetuate the chaos. Tag is a so-so comedy, but on second thought, it might have made a really good, twisted psychological thriller.

Production companies: Broken Road Productions, New Line Cinema
Distributor: Warner Bros.
Director: Jeff Tomsic
Screenplay: Rob McKittrick and Mark Steilen, based on the
Wall Street Journal article by Russell Adams
Cast: Ed Helms, Jon Hamm, Jeremy Renner, Hannibal Buress, Jake Johnson, Isla Fisher, Annabelle Wallis, Leslie Bibb, Rashida Jones, Nora Dunn, Lil Rey Howery, Thomas Middleditch
Producers: Todd Garner, Mark Steilen
Executive producers: Richard Brener, Walter Hamada, Dave Neustadter, Hans Ritter
Director of photography: Larry Blanford
Production designer: David Sandefur
Editor: Josh Crockett
Music: Germaine Franco
Costume designer: Denise Wingate
Casting: Rich Delia

Rated R, 97 minutes