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Spring 2024 – Week 6 in Review

Hello folks, and welcome back to Wrong Every Time. We’re finally hitting the warm weather at this point, so I’m happy to be sitting with my windows open and a pile of Evangelion writeups in front of me, all eagerly awaiting their final revisions. It may in retrospect have been psychologically unwise to leave half a dozen deep dives into the mindset of depression and self-hatred all stacked up at the end of my funded projects, but honestly, it’s actually been an absolute pleasure returning to these episodes that still loom so dramatically in my own media development. As it turns out, Evangelion is really, really good, truly one of the great works of narrative art, and every episode I revisit only offers all the more to appreciate. The characters are so richly drawn I can relate to aspects of all of them, and it also simply feels good to at last be fulfilling these long-outstanding requests. Anyway, I’ll likely have the next Eva writeup for you on Monday, but for now let’s see what films I snuck in the margins of the week!

First up this week was Monkey Man, Dev Patel’s recent directorial debut, starring Patel himself as an unnamed agent of revenge. As a boy, his village was raided and destroyed by corrupt police officers following the dictates of a local religious guru, who planned to use the land for an exploitative factory. As a man, he now earns his pay by throwing fights in the guise of the heel “Monkey Man,” while steadily plotting his revenge on the men who burned his home and killed his mother.

Given its sleek style, largely urban setting, and brutal action scenes, it’s understandable that many viewers assumed this film would essentially be Patel’s take on John Wick. If that’s what you’re looking for, Monkey Man will undoubtedly satisfy, but the film offers so much more than that. Blaring neon lights, beautifully fitted suits, and a protagonist who gets the ever-living shit beaten out of them: yes, all of that is undeniably Wick-reminiscent. But the scrappy brutality of this film’s extended fight scenes, and the ingenuity of its camera work? That shit’s Timo Tjahjanto, or possibly Gareth Evans. The stoicism and circular evolution of Patel’s protagonist? That’s classic martial arts cinema, mixed with a splash of revisionist westerns. And the poignancy of Patel’s performance? Well, obviously that’s all the man himself.

Monkey Man synthesizes the best trends of modern action and the enduring appeal of classic heroes into a delicious cocktail, offering a succession of burning fuses and punishing explosions that never feel tired or predictable. Patel clearly put in the work to become a physically convincing action lead – he is agile and brutal, and like with Keanu, much of the fight scenes’ appeal comes from watching how much damage he takes only to come back swinging. I could have done with a touch more connective tissue binding Patel’s origins and current double life, but it’s hard to fault the film for knowing its priorities so well, and executing on them to such satisfaction. Patel the director has clearly arrived.

Next up was Central Intelligence, a buddy comedy starring Kevin Hart as an accountant who feels his life has failed to live up to his high school glory days, and Dwayne Johnson as his formerly obese classmate who is allegedly some kind of CIA operative. Johnson barrels back into Hart’s life with the agency on his tail, claiming he has been framed, and that he alone knows the identity of the nefarious “Black Badger.” Hart reacts to this change in fortunes with characteristic yelping and flailing of arms, as he is forced to choose not just between multiple lives, but between his would-be friend and all the powers of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Central Intelligence is an easy pitch and an easier watch: Hart as wide-eyed straight man to Johnson’s exuberant theatrics, accompanied by a generous helping of distinguished guest stars (Jason Bateman, Aaron Paul, and even Kumail Nanjiani in a brief, scene-stealing appearance). My one-word impression of Kevin Hart’s persona is “shrill,” but he actually puts in fine work here, and develops some solid chemistry with the ever-affable Johnson. The film possesses modest aspirations and yields modest successes; likable actors help sell a mediocre, predictable script, and the steady introduction of high-profile guest stars helps alleviate the overall sense of familiarity. I did find the film’s emotional premise kinda funny; “I feel unfulfilled by my well-paying white-collar job” is a concept ripped straight from the ‘90s (Office Space, Fight Club, The Matrix), which in our modern era feels a touch less sympathetic. You’ve got a great job, Kevin Hart! You have a beautiful home!

We then watched The Sentinel, a ‘77 horror feature very much in the vein of satanic smolderers like The Omen and Rosemary’s Baby. Cristina Raines stars as Alison Parker, a fashion model who’s moving out of her boyfriend’s apartment and into an imposing Brooklyn brownstone. She is swiftly confronted by a series of bizarre housemates, culminating in a birthday party for a cat that convinces her to contact the building manager. Her manager informs her that no one lives in the apartment except for her and an old blind priest, prompting Alison to begin investigating a mystery that will lead her beyond her catholic upbringing, and onward to the gates of hell.

The first half of The Sentinel proceeds almost precisely like Rosemary’s Baby, and is actually quite effective for it. Both Alison’s peculiar housemates and her imposing new home make for satisfyingly unnerving spectacles, and the thread of psychosexual guilt and regret is effectively steeped through a combination of repressed memories and emergent horrors. Life in the apartment nails that particular tone of unnerving disorientation attendant in much superior horror; you don’t need outright monsters when every incidental encounter carries such a threat of bizarre escalation.

Unfortunately, the script flounders and the tension dissipates as The Sentinel passes its halfway point, owing largely to the misguided decision to take Allison out of the house. Sure, it makes sense to leave, but it results in an unmoored film that scrambles between police investigations, murder mysteries, and supernatural threats, with characters frequently seeming more dragged forward by narrative necessity than propelled by coherent in-character motives. The end result is a film that can’t live up to influences it is too obviously cribbing; it’s fun to see future stars like Christopher Walken and Jeff Goldblum in bit parts, but I can’t in good conscience recommend the film for viewing.

Last up for the week was The One, a 2001 Jet Li feature from the maverick director of Dragon Ball: Evolution. Okay, that’s maybe a little harsh, but there’s truly not very much to recommend this feature. If anything, I’d describe it as one of the most 2001 action movies you could possibly imagine: that is to say, get ready for nu-metal and obvious Matrix riffs, because you’re in for an unending deluge of both.

The film’s premise involves Evil Jet Li storming across the multiverse, killing every possible version of himself in order to consolidate all of their power into his own body. The only person standing in his way is Good Jet Li, an LA sheriff who understandably does not want to die in order to empower his evil clone. Assisted by two Time Cops (Delroy Lindo and Jason Statham), he must do battle with his evil doppelganger, and thereby prevent some ill-defined terrible thing from happening.

And honestly, that’s all a perfectly fine premise for a film, with a number of capable actors standing in the key roles. Unfortunately, even if The Director of Dragon Ball: Evolution could shoot action, The One is hamstrung by its own core narrative assumptions. The main appeal of a Jet Li film is watching Jet Li exhibit his phenomenal martial arts talents – but here, as a man possessing the strength of 123 Jet Lis, hand-to-hand combat is largely replaced by slow-mo zooms and superhuman acts of physical power. Jet Li’s character is simply too strong to engage in interesting martial arts feats – and with his only capable opponent being another Jet Li, the film is unable to shoot its action scenes as anything but shot-countershot quick cuts, robbing it of the kinetic excitement and physical storytelling inherent in martial arts films. There’s a certain gaudy thrill in watching Jet Li kick ass to a soundtrack of Drowning Pool and Papa Roach, but The One’s fundamental conceptual mistakes prevent it from ever rising to something worthy of recommendation.

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