Shades of Caruso makes no bones about its enjoyment of truly bad movies, and our search for the right kind of cinematic dreck means we watch a lot of movies that are dismissed by critics. This approach has pros and cons. While something that feels like it was made in a kind of mass delirium (e.g. Obsessed, My Sister’s Keeper) can be a real source of pleasure, films that are merely formulaic and boring (e.g. Bangkok Dangerous, The Boat That Rocked) can really defeat us. Nevertheless, while our hunt for something terrible is a pretty cynical way of watching films, there is another reason to do it. Critics watch even more films than we do, and as a kind of cerebral shortcut will make assumptions about movies — especially genre movies — before seeing them.
I’ll happily give any genre movie a chance, hoping to stumble upon something that has been dismissed en masse which contains some purpose or highlight that has been overlooked. Occasionally, we watch a movie that got shortshrift for hiding a greater ambition under generic trappings, and this makes the effort of watching the chaff of cinema worthwhile. That said, though I’m obviously some kind of wonderful saint for doing this, it’s easy to aim my anger at critics who treat childrens’ movies with this kind of frustrated huffing and puffing, as I don’t have to put up with the same amount of cynical, poorly thought-through tripe that clogs multiplexes during holidays. It’s all well and good going to see Pixar movies or my beloved Speed Racer, but what about the rest?
In the interest of fairness, I recently subjected myself to Dragonball Evolution, the caucasian-ised live-action version of Akira Toriyama’s manga. Directed by James Wong of X-Files fame, it tells the hackneyed tale of a nerd boy with a secret past and no parents trying to find a series of MacGuffins before they are claimed by a poorly sketched bad guy who will use the MacGuffins to destroy the world or enslave it or maybe both depending on who is re-telling the expositional bits about evil magicians and aliens and monsters and dragons etc. Much as I try to give every film a fair shake, and will admit that even really terrible movies have some redeeming qualities, when something is lazy and pointless, I’ll grant that. Dragonball Evolution certainly qualifies as the biggest waste of time I’ve subjected myself to in a long while, and even managed to make me temporarily not like Chow Yun Fat. Unacceptable!
Any critic who had just had to see that feeble collection of cliches and cheap effects would have been forgiven for groaning at the thought of an incredibly expensive and aggressively marketed spy movie aimed at kids. Hoyt Yeatman’s guinea-pig spy action epic G-Force has several strikes against it immediately. It’s a kid’s movie not made by Pixar. It has a premise — intelligent guinea pigs working as spies against an evil corporation — that sounds unworkable. It has a starry cast, which is often a way of adding clout to a movie that might otherwise be some cookie-cutter money-making exercise. It’s full of CGI. It’s the sort of movie that’s built to create a line of merchandising to further bankrupt parents everywhere. The trailer is full of awful jokes and crashing explosions. Nic Cage is in it and the received wisdom, lazily trotted out by people who don’t have the time to inspect this claim, is that he’s crap nowadays. What could be more unappealing than this?
Worst of all, it’s produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, who — in the eyes of much of the critical community — is the enemy of good taste and art, a galumphing unsubtle populist who doesn’t care about educating audiences or giving them breathing space between hectic, orange-tinted action scenes. His movies cost millions and make billions, and that lowest-common denominator approach to filmmaking has debased our culture to such an extent that no one learns anything any more. Bruckheimer is a name now automatically attached to any discussion about the soul-deadening dreadfulness of contemporary commercial filmmaking, a one-man blame-magnet. While Michael Bay destroys the art of direction, Bruckheimer destroys the possibility of thought-provoking adult cinema with his roller-coaster ride ethos and relentless tide of tightly plotted fireworks displays. Never forget, he once made a movie based on a theme park ride.
Of course, it’s best we forget that the theme park movie — Pirates of The Caribbean — was enormously entertaining and not to mention made with real skill and love of the swashbuckling movies of old. It’s also best to forget that while it’s undeniable that a lot of Bruckheimer movies are not that great, he has also been responsible for the first Beverly Hills Cop — a pacy comedy-thriller that still holds up well — as well as the excellent Fail-Safe-esque Crimson Tide, prescient surveillance thriller Enemy of the State, and the endearing bombast of The Rock. The ratio of bad movies to good is probably not something I should think about too hard while constructing an argument for his movies, but even though he has delivered some awful, lazy movies, he has also given us some gems. These are never considered when rushing to denounce him as the worst thing to ever happen to popular cinema.
Of his previous movies Con Air might well be my favourite, though this is treated like the absolute bottom of the barrel by many. Those who do praise it usually refer to it as a guilty pleasure movie, “so bad it’s kinda good”. Those who hate it consider it especially tasteless and garish, the dumbest film Bruckheimer has produced. Perhaps it deserves a slot beside Starship Troopers as a satire that many people didn’t get, though Troopers had a higher aspiration than Simon West and Scott Rosenberg’s action comedy. It’s plainly obvious that the movie is making fun of action movie memes and expectations, with a cast of supervillains standing between our whiter-than-white hero (Cameron Poe, played by a hilarious Nicolas Cage) and a reunion with the daughter he has never met.
Very nearly every scene is played for broad laughs, with a nice compliment of sly gags running in the background. It makes fun of movies that fetishise serial killers — Steve Buscemi’s character is awful, but not much worse than the widely-adored Hannibal Lecter — not to mention the moral equivalence of good and bad. For instance, Poe might be a hero, but he’s also a killer himself, as are many “heroes” in action movies. We also get to see an action-liberal (as Bruckheimer is a Republican, it’s amusing to see a sandal-wearing pencil-pusher saving the day several times), and one of the most extreme and hilariously protracted “Bad-Guy-Deaths” ever, as John Malkovich’s Cyrus Grissom is stabbed, thrown through a building, electrocuted, and then has his head crushed. This play on the delightfully ghoulish tradition in action movies to have the villain killed in outrageous fashion might be my favourite moment in all of Bruckheimer’s movies.
This interest in picking apart the conventions of his own movies is similar to that shown by 90s action producer Joel Silver, whose movies were so formulaic he could afford to make fun of that template three times over. The Last Action Hero is exactly the kind of genre deconstruction Shane Black does better than anyone, and the movie managed to pull of the difficult trick of showing its plot machinery while still working as an exciting and hilarious crowd-pleaser. Demolition Man had as much fun playing with action movie tropes as it did with the idea of a joyless politically-correct world gone mad.
More notoriously, Hudson Hawk set those conventions in a deeply absurd world that paid homage to 60s spoofery (e.g. The Pink Panther, the Flint movies) as well as Silver’s actioners. Both movies suffered the same fate as Con Air, their satire missed or ignored by audiences and critics alike. Making fun of these solid conventions is a tough trick to pull off. Trey Parker and Matt Stone had to use puppets to make sure the comedic point of Team America: World Police wasn’t missed.
To this list of action satires can be added G-Force. Though it’s not as successful at making fun of the stable it comes from as the other movies mentioned above, it is still silly and self-lacerating enough to stand alongside them. The film opens with a team of secret agents infiltrating the home of Leonard Saber (Bill Nighy, excellent as usual), the shady owner of electronics and appliances firm Saberling Industries (is this a nod to director Brad Silberling? And if so, why?). Though the mission is successful, their mentor — FBI scientist Ben (a subdued Zach Galafianakis) – has operated without authorisation from the supervisor he is trying to impress (Will Arnett, not given enough to do), and the team is disbanded. Separated from Ben, team leader Darwin (Hott Sam Rockwell) rallies his colleagues and tries to prove the nefariousness of Saber while eluding Arnett’s agent goons, who seek to capture the team to use in experiments.
Bit harsh, but then the team is made up of guinea-pigs (and Nicholas Cage’s mole computer expert Speckles). As you can imagine, a lot of the comedy in the movie comes from the sight of well-animated guinea-pigs wise-cracking and getting into various scrapes involving grappling hooks, skateboards and motorised exercise balls. There are also almost unbearable wisecracks and cultural catchphrases quoted at depressing length as in the worst kind of sub-par cheap-skate animation: if there is anything that made my enjoyment of the movie drop to worrying depths, it was the stream of unfunny puns from Blaster (Tracy Morgan).
The movie is at is funniest when it plays things as straight as possible, with the team of tiny mammals acting like stereotypical covert spies and computer experts, spewing tech-speak as if they were action movie archetypes. Such straight-faced chatter is overused in modern movies and usually bears only a passing resemblance to real life: many of my favourite moments in 24 come from hearing CTU computer experts panicking over opening sockets and tasking satellites. Nevertheless, we take it for granted that this is how these people speak, until these words come out of the mouths of CGI guinea-pigs. Re-contextualised, the absurdity of these action movies — and the oeuvre of Bruckheimer — is exposed to the light of scrutiny.
Better than that is the flirty sparring between Darwin, Blaster, and female guinea pig Juarez (Penélope Cruz). Not only does she rebel against a young girl’s attempts to feminise her with dresses and make-up (a refreshing change to see a female character unsoftened by this kind of brainwashing), she also plays both men off each other in order to win their affection on her terms. It genuinely sounds like a romantic sub-plot from another movie drafted in without alteration. The effect is discombobulating.
I wasn’t the only person delighted by this playfulness. The Guardian’s David Cox (the only critic working on that paper who seemed to understand what Tarantino was trying to do with Inglourious Basterds) wrote an excellent piece about G-Force‘s satirical bent, while pretty much every other critic waved it away with a bleat about how it was mere summer-movie kids fodder with not a thought in its mind. Tasha Robinson of the AV Club stated:
Pointing out G-Force’s plot holes would be redundant; it’s more hole than plot, and more videogame commercial and exhausted-old-trope clearinghouse than film. Events follow each other with a sublime disregard for coherence or story continuity.
Thus missing the point. Her comments about the plot are especially aggravating as screenwriters Cormac and Marianne Wibberley have done a good job of emulating the tried-and-true action plots of recent times, and from where I was sitting it seemed watertight.
Even more surprising was the considerable emotional charge therein. While I was less invested in the sub-plot involving team leader Darwin and his brother Hurley (Jon Favreau), the final act revelations about the villain and the true reason for his evil plotting is unexpectedly powerful. Though even I would baulk at claiming the movie is some kind of classic, or even one of the year’s best, I cannot lie about the effect the final fifteen minutes had on me. In those moments what had been a fun diversion with a cunning sense of its own absurdity became a real dramatic triumph, helped by first-time director Yeatman’s nifty handling of the final act action scenes. The sight of an enormous robot rising out of Bill Nighy’s estate and raining space debris down on FBI officers is an image I won’t be forgetting any time soon.
I strongly feel a little gem has been ignored in the rush to damn a movie for wasting the time of critics who would much rather be watching L’Avventura. Bruckheimer is man enough to know that the product he churns out has a formula. Here he has given Yeatman and the Wibberleys permission to have fun with that template, and we’re all the better for it. Even the seemingly lazy witticisms could be seen to be digs at the usual macho catchphrases of action heroes, though I’ll admit they truly do test the patience.
Nevertheless, even if that is a satirical dig too far, the voicework is spirited enough to dispel the audience’s annoyance. I’m tempted to say this is worth renting just to listen to an almost unrecognisable Nicolas Cage, channeling his Charlie Bodell voice. His work is almost solely responsible for G-Force‘s most satisfying moments and, along with his turn in Herzog’s Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, signals a real return to form. For that, and for exceeding my expectations so completely, I shall seek to defend G-Force from lazy criticism from now until someone comes up with an equation proving me wrong.