What an unusual time it is to be in charge of a light-hearted topical film-review column! Looking on the bright side (which I think we should at the moment), this at least will give many of us the chance to catch up with our DVD collections, or the streaming service of our choice, should we so desire.
It's all happened so suddenly – as recently as last weekend, everything still seemed relatively normal. That said, there was something very odd about the trailers for coming attractions: the studios boldly promising their next blockbuster would be coming out in April, May or June seemed detached from reality; even the ones offering a less-specific 'Coming Soon' seemed hopelessly optimistic. As it is, every big movie has been pulled from its scheduled release and it's impossible to imagine this changing until the cinemas re-open. Marvel Studios have finally met their match in the coronavirus, after hanging tough longer than anyone else and sticking with a May date for Black Widow until only a few days ago.
Universal, on the other hand, are being ultra-cautious and Fast and Furious 9 has been pushed back by a whole year (and this follows its release date being delayed to accommodate last year's spin-off). Never mind the pandemic – what is the world to do without its regular fix of Vin Diesel driving crossly and quickly? Well, this particular sub-crisis could be potentially be ameliorated by the fact that Vin has had another go at a non-F&F movie (what's that quote about doing the same thing again and again and expecting different results…?) and it is available to view in cinemas now: Bloodshot, directed by Dave Wilson, a co-production between the often badly-named Original Film Company and Bona Films (which to me sounds like something out of Round the Horne).
Diesel, resembling as ever a cross between Telly Savalas and a Cape buffalo, plays Ray Garrison, an elite US special forces soldier whom we first encounter shooting some bad guys with great aplomb in Kenya. That all sorted out, he heads off for a holiday in Italy with his lovely wife (Talulah Riley). This occasions various scenes of Vin trying to play the romantic lead, which finds the big man some distance from his comfort zone, and could be considered a gruelling experience for the audience, too.
Luckily enough, the two of them are soon kidnapped by some bad guys out for revenge, led by a character named Martin Axe (Toby Kebbell). Kebbell comes on and does a little dance number to 'Psycho Killer' by Talking Heads, just to make it quite clear he is a psycho killer. He proves his psycho killer credentials by killing not just Vin's missus but Vin himself (this barely qualifies as a spoiler as we haven't even reached the opening credits yet).
Well, it probably will not come as a shock to you if I reveal that it takes more than being killed to keep a man like Vin Diesel down, especially when his body is donated to private industry by the US government. That mighty carcass falls into the hands of cyber-boffin Dr Emil Harting (Guy Pearce), who brings Vin back from the dead by replacing his blood with robots (look, I just write this stuff down). Now he is super-strong, heals like Hugh Jackman, and his new robo-blood can log onto the internet and do all kinds of improbable things. Harting wants Vin to join his team of cybernetically-reconstructed forces veterans (Eiza Gonzalez plays the obligatory ass-kicking babe), but Vin is having trouble getting his shiny head around all of this, not least because dying has given him amnesia. He wanders off by himself and sits looking aggrieved, occasionally putting his head in his hands (viewers of the film may be doing the same by this point).
But then someone plays some Talking Heads on the radio and it all comes back to our man. Off he trots to exact a violent revenge on Kebbell, making full use of his robo-blood and other special faculties. But isn't this all just a bit convenient? Could there be more going on than Vin is aware of…?
Yes, I know: the world is gripped by a pandemic, cinemas and restaurants are closed, whole cities and even nations are in lockdown, and this is the movie I chose for my last trip out for the foreseeable future: not just a non-prestige superhero movie based on a comic book even I have never heard of, but a Vin Diesel vehicle to boot, and one with a very silly name. Well, what can I say: even last weekend every trip out felt like a bit of a gamble, and I never was very good at knowing when to fold 'em and when to hold 'em.
Of course, in this case the odds get rather longer, because Vin Diesel's record outside of the F&F franchise (and, I suppose, his work with Marvel, such as it is) is so variable that for years he pretty much gave up on making other movies. This is his first non-Toretto, non-tree lead role since The Last Witch Hunter five years ago – a film which made a small profit but was critically reviled. Quite what attracted him to Bloodshot I don't know – but the fact it potentially gives him a chance to be in at the start of another proposed 'superhero universe' based on comics from Valiant (no, me neither) must have had something to do with it.
I did turn up to Bloodshot expecting not just junk, but bad junk, but I have to say this movie is not quite as poor as one might reasonably expect (someone in the theatre audibly said 'Let's see just how **** this movie is' as it got underway), nor as it probably sounds from the synopsis. This is mainly due to things that happen in the second and third acts of the movie, which would really count as spoilers, so you'll just have to trust me on this. There are some interesting ideas in the mix here, mainly connected to Vin's unreliable memory and the way in which this affects his character. There's something almost existential about this – if you don't trust your own memory, how do you make any kind of decision? – and while the film certainly doesn't dwell on the notion or explore it more than strictly necessary, it was still a touch more thoughtful than I was expecting.
In the same way, while the revenge vendetta element of the plot may sound hackneyed and predictable, there's almost a suggestion that this is intentional – that this is a narrative intended to function on a number of levels, as a predictable, no-brainer action movie, but also as a knowing deconstruction of this kind of story. Unfortunately, mainly due to a clumsy script and direction that seems more interested in always getting to the next action sequence as fast as possible, this falls a bit flat: the whole movie is hackneyed and predictable, just not on purpose.
There are other problems too: some of the supporting performances are rather over-the-top, and there are places where the tightness of the budget just can't be hidden – a foot chase with Vin being pursued around central London has clearly been filmed in suburban South Africa, and it's absurd that anyone thought for a second this substitution would work.
That said, the meat-and-potatoes action stuff is reasonably well-presented. Vin Diesel is kind of an odd outlier as an action star, as he doesn't seem to have any kind of wrestling or martial arts background (when his peers were off at the dojo, Diesel was busy playing Dungeons & Dragons) – his signature move, if that's the right way to describe it, seems to be to hurl himself bodily at his opponents and crush them with his sheer bulk (something which perhaps achieved its apotheosis in the 'dolphin' headbutt demonstrated in Fast & Furious 6). Nevertheless, he is reasonably effective as the relentless human bulldozer of vengeance the story here requires.
In the end, though, this is not a great movie, for all that it ticks all the boxes and passes the time in a reasonably diverting way. If it feels particularly disappointing, that's because there are signs here of a film with genuine wit and intelligence that never got made – instead, it's just very routine genre stuff, aiming low and just about hitting the target, possessed of a belief that lavish CGI is a good substitute for a proper script. Who knows, we may see future appearances by Diesel as this character, or further movies in this setting – but I don't think we'll be missing much if they never happen.
Also This Week...
...prior to Bloodshot, I saw Jessica Hausner's Little Joe, an Anglo-Germano-Austrian botanical horror movie (yes, another one). A workaholic geneticist (Emily Beecham) succeeds in breeding an unusual new flower, which demands extra care from its owner but in return releases chemicals promoting happiness and contentment. She is initially dismissive of suggestions that anyone exposed to the pollen of the plant (nicknamed Little Joe) begins to act rather strangely, but slowly the evidence begins to accumulate...
An intelligent movie which has clearly been made with the greatest of care and thought, with strong performances from Beecham and Ben Whishaw as her colleague. However, the movie eschews the traditional moments of suspense and release you would expect from a commercial horror film, in favour of a creeping sense of intensifying uncertainty and dread. The slow-burn build-up of paranoia and Beecham's gradual realisation that not all is as it should be is superbly achieved, but overall the film makes perhaps too much of a virtue of subtlety and understatement to be completely successful as anything other than an oddity. Worth watching, regardless.
And Going Forward...?
We are in unknown territory, naturally, with all the cinemas shut and new releases cancelled. Is there still an appetite for a light-hearted film review column of any kind? Any interest in reviews of old movies, or an expanded look at some from earlier this year that didn't get reviewed in depth? Movies from off the internet or the streaming sites? Complete indifference? Please let me know. (Maybe not in the case of complete indifference, we'll take that as read). Stay safe, regardless.