Jumanji: The Next Level (2019)

2020 #78
Jake Kasdan | 123 mins | digital (UHD) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Jumanji: The Next Level

The previous Jumanji movie, Welcome to the Jungle, was officially a sequel to the 1995 original. In practice, however, that amounted to little more than a brief nod / tribute to original star Robin Williams, and maybe a few Easter eggs scattered about. The Next Level, on the other hand, is much more in the traditional “direct followup” mould.

Despite our quartet of heroes having destroyed the eponymous game at the end of the last movie, one of them rescued and repaired it, and when he goes back in (for old times’ sake or something) the others must follow to rescue him. But he’s not repaired it properly, and so his septuagenarian grandfather and his chum are sucked in too, and everyone’s inhabiting a different character. And so The Next Level plays with a lot of the same comedic ideas as its predecessor — i.e. the mismatch between real-life person and in-game persona — but mixes up who’s imitating who. Primarily, this means The Rock gets to do an impression of Danny DeVito, Kevin Hart is being Danny Glover, and Jack Black is a black American football player. Karen Gillan doesn’t immediately get to join in the fun, but the film has some tricks up its sleeve. Anyway, once in the game, they head off on an Indiana Jones-type adventure — again, much like the first movie.

For many, this repetition of ideas has been a stumbling block. “The same but slightly different” doesn’t really cut it for a sequel nowadays, when you can easily rewatch the thing it’s repeating. However, I don’t think The Next Level is actually such a slavish clone. The “mismatched identities” schtick arguably worked better the first time, when it was a shiny new gag, but the fact most of the cast get to play at being someone else keeps it at least a bit fresh. There are also several new characters in the mix, with an especially entertaining performance from Awkwafina. More importantly, the adventure itself is considerably different. In my review of Welcome to the Jungle I noted that its locales were “jungle, jungle, and jungle”. Here, we get snowy mountains, vast desert, plus towns and castles. To me, it feels like they took what worked in the first movie and polished it. It’s still fundamentally the same kind of comedy action-adventure — if you disliked the first movie, there’s no reason this should appeal to you more — but refined.

Snow wonder it's better

That said, there’s still ideas left on the table. That game malfunctioning only affects who gets zapped in and which characters they play, but what if it kept glitching throughout? It’s arguably a tricky conceit to manage — if you’re going to do it, you’ve got to integrate it; but you can’t really have our heroes winning (or losing) thanks to random mistakes. But this is why Hollywood filmmakers get paid the big bucks, right? To solve these kind of things. Do it right and the glitches could’ve added an extra zing, either to the humour or as an obstacle to winning or, ideally, both. (Also, on a slightly more personal level, I think it’s a shame they didn’t release it on 3D Blu-ray this time. It was released theatrically in 3D, so a conversion exists, but they didn’t bother to put it on disc anywhere in the world. Adventure movies like this can look great in the format, and there’s a sequence with rope bridges that could’ve been really special.)

I was surprised how much I liked Welcome to the Jungle, but I held back somewhat on the sequel because of the reactions I’d seen. As it is, I was surprised again, because I think The Next Level is an even more enjoyable adventure.

There’s now a third (aka fourth, or you could even say fifth, depending what you count) Jumanji in development, which a credit scene here teases might go off in a new direction; plus cast and crew interviews have hinted at some other intriguing additions to the mythology that spin out of this movie. There’s no guarantee it’ll be a success, of course, but, nonetheless, next time I won’t be so reticent.

4 out of 5

Jumanji: The Next Level is available on Sky Cinema and Now TV from today.

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle (2017)

2018 #89
Jake Kasdan | 119 mins | Blu-ray (3D) | 2.39:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle

As Avengers: Infinity War breaks almost all opening weekend records, a surprise box office champ from last year makes it to UK DVD and Blu-ray. Well, it’s not all that surprising that Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle did well at the box office — it’s the belated sequel to a successful film that has become a childhood favourite for many, and it stars one of the few current actors who’s more-or-less guaranteed to get a film good gross on his appearance alone, The Rock — but how well it did shocked many who commentate on such things. In the US, although it only opened at #2 (behind The Last Jedi in its second weekend), it climbed to #1 for its third weekend, then stayed there for four of the next five weeks. Eventually it overtook every Spider-Man movie to become Sony’s highest-grossing film ever domestically. Worldwide, it’s taken just shy of $957 million to be Sony’s second highest-grossing film of all time (behind Skyfall). That’s more than just some vague nostalgia for an old Robin Williams movie.

Set 20 years later, a group of mismatched high school kids wind up in detention and are assigned to clear out an old classroom. There they find an old games console with a single game: Jumanji. They boot it up, select their characters… and are sucked into the console, finding themselves inhabiting their avatars inside the game’s jungle world. In order to escape they must complete the game, by battling against a gang of mercenaries to return a jewel to its rightful home.

Search for the high school kid inside yourself

It’s a very different setup to the original movie, which is refreshing — it could’ve just been a rehash with modern effects (while the Williams movie still has a lot going for it, the mid-’90s CGI is definitely not one of them). That said, it’s not as innovative or inventive as the first movie. The way that brought the board game’s environment to life in the real world was a unique concept, whereas this sequel merely offers an Indiana Jones-esque jungle adventure, albeit with self-aware characters. It doesn’t even use the fact it’s supposedly a video game that much, aside from a few jokes (our heroes have ridiculous only-in-a-game abilities and weaknesses; non-player characters sometimes have looping dialogue).

Where it does work is the characters and the performances. The headline cast are excellent, playing at once their in-game characters and evoking the real world counterparts who’ve inhabited them. Much of the film’s fun comes from the juxtapositions: the most obvious is Jack Black as a self-obsessed teenage girl in the body of an overweight middle-aged man, but there’s also Dwayne Johnson as a scaredy nerd in the body of, well, The Rock; Kevin Hart as a bulky jock reduced to being a short-ass backpack carrier; and Karen Gillan as an under-confident academic girl now in the body of a sexy Lara Croft type. Well, frankly, I’m not sure how much Hart brings to the table, but Johnson and Gillan are really good (and — minor spoiler! — share what is perhaps one of the best kisses in screen history), and Black is clearly having a whale of a time. The quality of the characters quietly builds to a point where the epilogue back in the real world is surprisingly emotional.

MVPs not NPCs

Unfortunately, not everything works that well. The main thing that suffers is the villain. I suppose there has to be one, if only to provide an obstacle at the climax, but that’s also the only reason he’s there — an antagonist for the sake of it. He either needs more time investment, to make him a proper character, or, actually, less — make him even more of an uninteresting obstacle than he already is. Heck, they could’ve got some gags out of the weak plots of old video games. It’s a similar situation with world building. For example, the city they visit looks fantastic in the establishing shot, but there’s no time invested in it — it’s just a place for an action scene, clearly meant to provide visual variety from the other settings of jungle, jungle, and jungle. Maybe that’s ok, but you feel like there could be more to this world.

These issues with plot construction extend to individual gags, some of which feel like setups in need of pay-offs. For example, Hart’s character has a weakness for cake. We learn that, then he accidentally eats some cake and loses a life, but… that’s it? The scene is mildly amusing thanks to the OTT way it causes him to die, but it feels like that’s a reminder — “weaknesses matter, and cake is his” — before a proper pay-off later. But there isn’t one. I mean, how about this: not only does cake kill him, but he can’t resist it (it’s like, you know, a weakness). So in the rhino scene, instead of just dropping him, they drop a trail of cake to lure him along; then, rather than the rhinos just being distracted by him running away, he eats the cake and explodes, which takes out the rhinos. (Hire me, Hollywood!)

There is running. There is also jumping. Yep, definitely a video game.

In some respects these are all nitpicks. They don’t detract from the main fun of the film, which is the mismatch between real-world kids and their in-game avatars, and putting those characters through an action-adventure. The result is amusing and exciting, and ultimately a lot of fun, even if a bit of polish could’ve made it better. Nonetheless, I probably enjoyed it more than the original.

4 out of 5

Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK today.

In a Valley of Violence (2016)

2017 #20
Ti West | 104 mins | download (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

In a Valley of Violence

The spirit of the Spaghetti Western is alive and well in writer-director Ti West’s shoot ’em up; though where they once took inspiration from samurai movies, now Mr West has his sights set on modern-day gun-fu movies — specifically, here he retrofits John Wick into a familiar Old West narrative.

On his way to Mexico with just his horse and dog Abby for company, drifter Paul (Ethan Hawke) passes through an almost-deserted town, where he ends up in a fight with wannabe-tough-guy Gilly (James Ransone). It turns out Gilly is the son of the local Marshal (John Travolta), but he considers the matter settled and lets Paul move on, ordering his son to leave it be. A shamed Gilly has a different opinion, however, leading his gang of friends to assault Paul in the dead of night. But as is the way with halfwit villains, they leave our hero alive, ready for him to ride back into town and exact his vengeance.

If you come to movies looking for an original storyline, you’ll be disappointed here — as I say, it’s basically John Wick in the West (if you’ve seen that Keanu Reeves actioner, you’ll already know the outcome of Gilly’s revenge on Paul). The devil is in the details, however, and in that respect In a Valley of Violence is rather enjoyable. Perhaps the biggest mark in its favour is its sense of humour. It’s not a comedy by any means, but Gilly’s gang are borderline incompetent in a way that’s increasingly laughable.

Do you know what they call a Quarter Pounder with cheese in the West?

Travolta gets in on the act as a man who seems very much in control of his own little kingdom, but when things truly kick off he’s somewhat caught in the middle. Thankfully he’s not just the bullying villainous type, instead getting a nicely balanced reaction to events: he knows Gilly’s done wrong, but stands by him because he’s his son; but when Paul’s pushing comes to shoving… well, familial loyalty only gets you so far.

As Paul, Hawke finds some degree of complexity in the (anti-)hero, but this isn’t exactly a movie built for psychological complexity. Taissa Farmiga is positioned as the love interest, but thankfully isn’t entirely reduced to such a thankless role. As her sister, Karen Gillan reminds us that, while she may be best known for brightly-coloured sci-fi on screens both big and small, her roots are in comedy. But the biggest star is, of course, the dog. You can’t help getting attached, even when you know you’re watching John Wick of the West.

The dog's the star

The film offers many stylistic nods to remind us of its Spaghetti inspiration, like the starkly animated title sequence, or Jeff Grace’s Morricone-riffing score, which some criticise for its obviousness but I thought was fun. It even comes through in the film’s structure, with a slow-burn first half that reminded me of Leone’s attitude to action. Some complain of the pace there, or lack of it, but I rather liked that. It partly functions as a deliberate delaying of gratification: the main reason we’re here is for the bloody vengeance we know will eventually be coming, but West carefully sets the scene and gradually puts characters in place early on so that the second half can more fully concentrate on the violence. The wit is kept alive even then, with more than one of the deaths provoking at least some laughter.

The more I write about it, the more I wonder if this film is something of an acquired taste. It’s not out-and-out comical enough to be classed as a comedy, but action die-hards may feel the lighter elements undermine the violent thrills they seek. I thought it worked, but experience has taught me that I’m more accepting than most of such tonal mash-ups.

Cool cowboy

Despite the plot similarities, In a Valley of Violence isn’t going to challenge John Wick for ultra-choreographed action satisfaction, but it has many aspects to recommend it for those who like a chuckle alongside their bloodshed.

4 out of 5

In a Valley of Violence is released direct to DVD & Blu-ray in the UK on 6th March.
John Wick: Chapter 2 is in UK cinemas from today.

Guardians of the Galaxy (2014)

2014 #118
James Gunn | 121 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA & UK / English | 12 / PG-13

Guardians of the GalaxyMarvel Studios takes its boldest step yet, moving away from the present-day superhero milieu of its previous movies to a galaxy far, far away for a space opera epic. Its success, both critically and commercially, has cemented the Marvel Cinematic Universe as an infallible force in the current movie world. But, really, how good is it?

The film, as I’m sure you know, sees a gang of misfits — Han Solo/Indiana Jones hybrid Peter Quill (Chris Pratt), Gamora (Zoe Saldana, adding “green-skinned alien” to her repertoire), literal-thinking muscleman Drax (Dave Bautista), racoon-like bounty hunter Rocket (voiced by Bradley Cooper) and his pet tree/bodyguard Groot (voiced by Vin Diesel) — come together around a mysterious item of immense power, that’s desired by villain Ronan the Accuser (Lee Pace) so he can do something nasty and destructive. Co-written and directed by James Gunn, of Super fame, Guardians of the Galaxy combines space-blockbuster thrills with irreverent comedy (the supporting cast includes the likes of John C. Reilly and Peter Serafinowicz) and an ironically-cool ’80s pop soundtrack.

Guardians is a massively entertaining movie — when it works. That happens when it’s character-driven, with characters talking and interacting and following the story (what there is of it). There should be nothing wrong with that, but as this is a modern blockbuster, there’s an unwritten rule about how many CGI-driven action sequences there must be. The point of such things is to provide excitement and drive, but they actually kill the film’s momentum rather than buoying it up. Gunn and co have plenty of originality and fun to dole out the rest of the time, but the majority of the action sequences are seen-it-all-before whizzy CGI.

Indiana Solo?The worst offender is the pod chase through Knowhere, a several-minutes-long sequence that registers as little more than a blur. There’s a shocking lack of clarity to its images, even by today’s standards. Maybe it’s better in 3D, when I guess the backgrounds would sink into the distance and important elements would be foregrounded; but in 2D, you can’t see what’s meant to be going on for all the fast-moving colour and split-second cuts. Almost as bad, though for different reasons, is the climax. It takes up an overlong chunk of the movie and at times feels repetitive of too many other Marvel climaxes — oh look, a giant spaceship crashing into a city! If anything, the film gets ‘worse’ as it goes on. Perhaps not in a very literal sense, but as the blustering action climax takes over, it moves further away from the stuff that makes it unique and interesting.

Sadly, those feature don’t include the lacklustre villains. Marvel have been rather lacking in this department lately: Ronan the Accuser and his faceless minions are as bad as Christopher Eccleston’s lot from Thor 2, who were already rather like Avengers Assemble’s alien army… Henchwoman Nebula (Karen Gillan) has some potential, but she’s barely used. They make a point of her escaping, though, so maybe next time.

Even if the villains are underworked, the film is so busy establishing its large roster of characters (five heroes, three or more villains, plus an extensive supporting cast) that it doesn’t have time to fully paint the universe, either. We don’t really care when Nova City is being destroyed, because we only saw it briefly earlier on and had no reason to suspect we’d be going back there. Whizzy whizzy CGIIt isn’t even called Nova City, but I don’t have the foggiest what it is called because the film didn’t make me feel I should be learning it. Some more effort making sure we knew why that place mattered, even if it was just a clearer depiction of all the planning for its defence, might have sold the entire climax better.

Most people talk about Guardians in the context of its place in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, but it would probably be more interesting to compare and contrast it with other space opera films — that’s where its heart and style truly lies. These aren’t superheroes, they’re space rogues; to pick on two films from one of Marvel Studios’ top creatives, it’s more Serenity than Avengers. The main connection to the other Marvel films comes in the form of Thanos and his beloved Infinity Gems. It’s questionable if this is a little shoehorned in, and also a little bit Fantasy rather than Sci-Fi. Does forcing that in undermine the film? Or is it only because we know it ties into the Avengers side of the universe that it stands out? If we’re arguing that “it’s more fantasy-y than science-y”, perhaps we should pause to look at the most archetypal cinematic space opera, Star Wars: what’s the Force if not some mystical thingamajig?

Whatever the genre, Guardians leaves you with an instant feeling of having seen a top-quality blockbuster, thanks to its likeable heroes, abundant humour, frequent irreverence, uncommonly colourful visual style, retro-cool soundtrack, and so forth. Unfortunately, once you dig underneath that there’s a little too much that’s rote ‘modern blockbuster’, with the explosive action sequences being the main culprit. Many regarded it as the best movie of last summer; on the evidence I’ve seen, it would certainly seem to be the most fun. The character stuff will likely hold up well to repeat viewings, but the noise and bluster surely gets tiring, Big Damn Heroesespecially the overlong climax. Joss Whedon commented of his own Avengers film (as I quoted in my review) that it wasn’t a great movie but it was a great time, and I think that’s just as true here: when Guardians is firing on all cylinders, it’s difficult to imagine a more entertaining blockbuster space opera; but there’s too many merely-adequate bits that hold it back from joyous perfection.

4 out of 5

This review is part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2014. Read more here.

For my thoughts on re-watching Guardians of the Galaxy in 3D, look here.