Category: Franchise Killers

Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore (2022)

Fantastic Beasts: The Secrets of Dumbledore (2022)

The Potterverse goes through its death throws in this anaemic offering in a misguided franchise

Director: David Yates

Cast: Eddie Redmayne (Newt Scamander), Jude Law (Albus Dumbledore), Mads Mikkelsen (Gellert Gindelwald), Ezra Miller (Credence Barebone/Aurelius Dumbledore), Dan Fogler (Jacob Kowalski), Alison Sudol (Queenie Goldstein), William Nadylam (Yusof Kama), Callum Turner (Theseus Scamander), Jessica Williams (Lally Hicks), Victoria Yeates (Bunty), Richard Coyle (Aberforth Dumbledore), Poppy Corby-Tuech (Vinda Rosier), Fiona Glascott (Minerva McGonagall), Katherine Waterston (Tina Goldstein)

If the House of Potter teetered after the not-very-good Crimes of Grindelwald, it collapsed with the release of The Secrets of Dumbledore to waves of indifference. It’s proof that if you super-size your series not because you have a genuine story reason but because you think a fat goose will lay even more golden eggs than a thin one, you’ll eventually end up with a dead obese goose.

A year or something has passed and Dumbledore (Jude Law) and Grindelwald (now Mads Mikkelsen, thank God) continue circling, neither quite willing to end their ‘friendship’. Grindelwald is determined though to seize control of the Wizarding World by manipulating the election for the Supreme Leader to launch his anti-Muggle war. Dumbledore recruits a team, led by Newt (Eddie Redmayne), to stop him – but with Grindelwald’s new power to see the future, seized from a Fantastic Beast, Dumbledore can’t tell anyone his plan (plus ca change). Meanwhile Credence (Ezra Miller), is groomed by Grindelwald to destroy Hogwarts’ favourite professor.

The Secrets of Dumbledore may be flabby, over-extended and frequently meander down alleyways and byways that feel frustratingly pointless – but it is a better film than The Crimes of Grindelwald. Its problem is, it’s nowhere near good enough to win back the massive loss of audience faith that complete shit-show (combined with all sorts of social media storms) caused.

The Secrets of Dumbledore’s major positive is the arrival of Mikkelsen as Grindelwald. Replacing Johnny Depp (and his “personal problems”), he gives the film an automatic upgrade. If you want an arrogant, sinister, manipulative, but also dashing, romantic villain, why in God’s name wouldn’t you have cast Mikkelsen in the first place? The film is more daring on the Dumbledore and Grindelwald relationship than any other Potter film before – we even hear the “L” word.

Anything focused on these two – either together or alone – is invariably the good stuff. The two of them (Jude Law is equally good) semi-threatening, semi-reminiscing, semi-flirting in a café at the start is the finest scene, and the genuine regret between them is rather well done. Rowling also writes in, pretty much direct from the final book, the entire tragic Dumbledore-backstory reveal which the final Deathly Hallows film bizarrely cut (perhaps she thought it was as terrible an idea as I did?). Law plays this little moment to perfection.

You end up wishing the film was a more personal story between these two. Unfortunately, we get this over-inflated mess. The most bizarre thing about Secrets of Dumbledore is that simultaneously loads is going and the plot feels incredibly slight and mostly pointless. Frequently events bend down alleys or fizzle out into pointlessness. Far from being full of secrets, Dumbledore and his brother fall over themselves to share their secrets at every opportunity to keep the plot moving forward.

After the money-grabbing decision to squeeze as much cash out of this franchise (five movies!) as possible, The Secrets of Dumbledore feels like it has taken on a lot of padding to get up to length. Rowling, to put it frankly, isn’t that great at structuring a screenplay (it’s telling Steven Kloves was bought back to help bang this into shape). It’s a reminder it’s a very different set of skills telling a coherent story, full of twists, turns and universe building over 2 hours compared to 700 pages.

Grindelwald’s plan involves the complex and poorly explained, killing and resurrection of a magic goat. There is a lot of talk of “the people getting a say” in the election: an election where no one gets a say, since the leader of this civilisation is chosen on the whim of said magic goat. Our heroes go to the German Ministry of Magic solely, it seems, so Newt’s brother can be captured. A “spy” is planted among Grindelwald’s forces who does no spying, has parts of his memory wiped for no reason and then rejoins the heroes. Two characters communicate via a magic mirror, even though they’ve never met and couldn’t know who the other is. A labyrinthine plot about an assassination has so many hastily explained twists I genuinely have no idea what was going on. At regular intervals the heroes reconvene with Dumbledore, like players in a video game being given a brief for the next level.

Even more than the last one, the “Fantastic Beasts” idea feels like a burden. They’d have done better just starting a new “Dumbledore vs Grindelwald” franchise. The plot sort of revolves around a poorly explained magic animal. Theseus is whacked in a prison guarded by a deadly scorpion. In a bizarre tonal zig-zag, Newt distracts this beast’s scorpion-y minions by doing a funny dance – interrupted every so often by it grabbing a “political prisoner”, eating them alive and then spitting out the half-chewed corpse for its minions to consume. Remember when this felt like this series was going to be about the charming adventures of a naïve zoologist?

The legacy characters stumble through with little to do. Redmayne’s Newt is a character so bizarrely ill-conceived as the lead in a prelude-to-war series he’s often quietly relegated to side missions. Dan Fogler’s Jacob and Alison Sudol’s Queenie continue a nonsensical emotional journey (she, let’s not forget, defected to Grindelwald – the man who wants to destroy Muggles – because she wasn’t allowed to marry a Muggle). Katherine Waterston’s Tina is relegated to a cameo.

Then there’s Credence. This character, the central Macguffin of the last two films, is here relegated to the role of heavy whose long-hyped clash with Dumbledore is a little more than a dull one-sided scuffle. It’s hard not to think the character has been reduced to glorified extra due to the increasingly toxic public image of Ezra Miller (has there ever been a franchise more unlucky in its casting?). But the unceremonious dumping of this entire plotline so crucial to films one and two hammers home the feeling that there is no consistent planning going on here at all.

I said in Crimes of Grindelwald this franchise in need of a new creative eye. David Yates directs his seventh Potter film and, while he does nothing wrong, I don’t think he’s got a single new idea in the tank. The look and feel of this film, its visuals, the effects, its tone, its colour palette – all of it is now achingly familiar, making it feel even more like something tipped carelessly off a production line. It also looks shockingly over-processed: I know it’s about magic but by Merlin’s Beard nothing looks real. Does it feel magic to be back at Hogwarts? No, it looks like a freaking CGI nightmare.

The lack of freshness surely contributed to its death at the box-office. No one seems to have stopped and asked “would someone who hasn’t been working on Potter full time for over 12 years care about this?”. I don’t think they did. If you work the Golden Goose night and day, demanding it produces an egg a day, eventually it will keel over. It didn’t have to be like this, but there is more chance of Depp returning than anyone making the next two films in this misbegotten series.

Speed 2: Cruise Control (1997)

Speed 2: Cruise Control (1997)

It seemed like such a good idea at the time… Keanu Reeves wisely passed on Speed 2 – so should you

Director: Jan de Bont

Cast: Sandra Bullock (Annie Porter), Jason Patric (Alex Shaw), Willem Dafoe (John Geiger), Temuera Morrison (Officer Juliano), Glenn Plummer (Maurice), Brian McCardie (Merced), Christine Firkins (Drew), Mike Hagerty (Harvey), Colleen Camp (Debbie), Lois Chiles (Celeste), Royale Watkins (Dante)

In 1996 Keanu Reeves turned down a huge salary for Speed 2. Everyone in Hollywood thought he was mad. On June 13th 1997, Speed 2 was released. On June 14th everyone thought Keanu Reeves was a genius. It’s quite something when one of your best ever career moves was not doing a movie. But God almighty Keanu was right: time has not been kind to Speed 2 – and even when it was released it was hailed as one of the worst sequels ever made. It’s like de Bont and co sold their souls for Speed and in 1997 the Devil came to collect.

Keanu’s Jack Traven is clumsily replaced by Jason Patric’s Alex Shaw – although the dialogue has clearly only had the mildest tweak as Shaw has inherited Traven’s job, friends, personality and girlfriend Annie (Sandra Bullock – elevated to top billing but even more of a damsel-in-distress than in the original). Alex and Annie are wrestling with making a long-term commitment – see what I mean about this script only be mildly tweaked? – when they decide to take an all-or-nothing cruise. Shame the cruise liner is hijacked by deranged computer programmer turned bomber Geiger (Willem Dafoe). With the boat powering through the water towards a collision on shore, can Alex save the day?

You’ve probably noticed the disparity between the title Speed and the setting: a slow-moving cruise liner. At one point, Alex asks how long it would take an oil tanker to move out of a collision course with the liner – “At least half hour – that’s not enough time!” he’s told. The very fact that a debate whether 30 minutes will be enough time in a flipping film about speed shows how far this sequel has fallen. How did anyone not notice this?

Pace is missing from the whole thing. The script is truly dreadful. Paper-thin characters populate the cruise liner, none of whom make even the slightest impression. At one point a character breaks an arm and then immediately shrugs off the injury to steer the ship. The script is crammed with deeply, desperately unfunny “comedy” beats. Bullock’s character seems to have transformed into a ditzy rom-com wisecracker – with a “hilarious” running joke that she’s a terrible driver (geddit!??!) – and, instead of the charming pluck she showed in the first film, is now an irritating egotist. She still fares better than poor Patric, who completely lacks the movie star charisma of Reeves and utterly fails to find anything that doesn’t feel like a low-rent McClane rip-off in his character.

It’s like de Bont forgot everything he knew about directing in the three years between the two films. If anything, this feels like a well below average effort from a novice director. The humour is dialled up with feeble sight gags and the film takes a turgid 45 minutes to really get going (most of which is given over to derivative romantic will-they-commit banter between Patric and Bullock).

de Bont basically flunks everything. He fails the basic directing test of confined-spaces thrillers like this by never making the geography clear to the viewer. I challenge anyone to really understand how characters get from A to C on this boat. The long introductions are supposed to establish these basics (see Die Hard for a masterclass in this), but here you haven’t got a clue about what’s where or why some locations are more risky than others. There is a spectacular lack of tension about the whole thing – it’s not really clear what Dafeo’s lip-smacking, giggling, leech-using (yes seriously) villain actually wants or how his scheme works, and the momentum of the boat towards unspecified destruction is (a) hard to see on the open water with no fixed point to compare the speed with and (b) even when we get that, not exactly adrenalin fuelled anyway.

de Bont’s comedic approach to much of the material might have worked if he had any sense of wit or comic timing in his direction. Or if Patric had been more comfortable with the wit the part requires. Bullock instead feels like she has to joke for all three of them, to disastrous effect. There are a couple of semi-comic sidekicks sprinkled among the supporting players, but none of them raises so much as a grin. The film can’t resist implausible in-jokes, like bringing back Glenn Plummer’s luckless character to have his boat swiped by Alex (they even leave in a mildly altered “what are you doing here?” line, as if they didn’t realise until shooting it that Keanu wasn’t going to be there).

It ends with a loud crash of a boat into the shore which cost tens of millions of dollars (at the time one of the most costly stunts ever) but just looks like a fake boat ripping through a load of backlot buildings. It’s a big, loud, dull, slow ending to a film that looks like it was made by people who had no idea what they were doing but enough power to ignore anyone who might have been able to point out what they were doing wrong. Speed 2 remains the worst sequel ever. Reeves went off to make The Matrix. Who’s the idiot?

Men in Black: International (2019)

Tessa Thompson and Chris Hemsworth struggle through the messy Men in Black: International

Director: F Gary Gray

Cast: Chris Hemsworth (Agent H), Tessa Thompson (Molly Wright/Agent M), Liam Neeson (High T), Kumail Nanjiani (Pawny), Rafe Spall (Agent C), Rebecca Ferguson (Riza Stavros), Emma Thompson (Agent O), Kayvan Novak (Vungus the Ugly)

Remember Men in Black? An amusing, odd-couple buddy movie about a secret agency patrolling alien activity on Earth. To be honest, the well was pretty dry after when the first movie ended. The formula – with original stars Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones – attempted to recapture the magic twice with diminishing returns. This, surely final, attempt subs in the stars of Thor: Ragnorak for an over-long, neither terribly exciting nor funny movie that feels like it’s been assembled by an arguing committee.

Molly Wright (Tessa Thompson) encounters the Men in Black when they erase the memories of her parents (but accidentally leave hers intact) when she’s a child. As an adult she becomes obsessed with joining them, dedicating her life to building the skills the agency needs. Recruited by shrewd head of US operations Agent O (Emma Thompson) as Agent M, she’s shipped to the UK to join forces with their ace Agent H (Chris Hemsworth), under the direction of branch chief High T (Liam Neeson), to safeguard an alien dignitary. When the dignitary is assassinated, Agents M and H find themselves at the centre of a conspiracy that could destroy the whole world.

Tonally, Men in Black: International is a mess. At times it’s a farcical buddy movie, at others a darker action film. What it is all the time is overlong, meandering and only occasionally interesting. It stretches its slim action over nearly two hours (the first film was barely more than 90 minutes!), with the plot featuring so many diversions and chases down rabbit holes, that you are desperate to get back to the Eiffel Tower for the signposted showdown.

It doesn’t help that most of the events in the film are fairly predictable. You only need to have seen a film before to work out who the ‘surprise’ villain is. Every action scene – flipping heck nearly every joke – has been done in hundreds of films before. Anything remotely interesting – in some version of this film Agent H could have been a washout, coasting on his glory days rather than the stereotypical cocky-but-cool hero he is – has been ironed out. None of the dialogue sticks even vaguely in the head and not one of the punchlines lands.

Every scene is written with a perfunctory A-to-B quality. For example, at their first meeting Agent H is dozing at his desk, when Agent M approaches to ask to join his latest mission. She has a comprehensive briefing prepared for him (because she’s new and eager) which he shoves aside with a few off-the-cuff I’ll-read-it-later gags (because he’s a bog-standard action hero who acts on instinct). He claims he wasn’t dozing but meditating and sends her on her way. As she leaves, she tells him he has a “tell”: when he meditates he snores. This is neither particularly funny or enlightening, but because Agent H needs to be impressed for the film to continue, he is and recruits her. That’s a decent insight into the formulaic writing.

F Gary Gray tried to resign multiple times as the story he wanted to tell – something slightly darker about alien refugees on the run from a hideous force – was forced more and more into cookie-cutter Hollywood summer blockbuster fare by the producers. Fights like this perhaps explain why the motivations and actions of several characters make little sense. While Gray and the producers feuded over their cuts of the films, Hemsworth and Thompson allegedly then hired their own scriptwriters to re-write their dialogue.

It ends up an incoherent film, where it feels like some scenes were inserted by test audiences. For example, Rebecca Ferguson pops up for essentially a pointless cameo where she gains control of the macguffin. This long sequences only exists so we can get: a hot actress as an ex for Hemsworth’s character, a fight between Ferguson and Thompson (because Hemsworth can’t fight a girl, he fights the heavy – complete with lame Thor hammer joke), and an unneeded wrap up of a minor plot hole from the film’s opening. At the end they get the macguffin back again – but you could have dropped the whole sequence and got to the ending much quicker and lost nothing.

Hemsworth and Thompson do their best, although the film can’t decide whether to make them buddies or potentially romantic partners. Perhaps the confusion comes about from the actors’ obvious lack of sexual chemistry (they are much more believable as mismatched buddies). I actually feel both actors would have been better the other way around, rather than the lazy casting here. Hemsworth’s sweet earnestness and geeky charm under the muscle would be better as the newbie agent, while Thompson’s confidence and no-nonsense brusqueness matches the more the experienced agent. They do their best anyway, but they have some piss-poor material to work with.

It says a lot that the best moments of the film feature Emma Thompson coasting with snark through a few minutes of screentime. Liam Neeson seems an odd choice for a character clearly written as a posh English gent. Rafe Spall’s casting memo clearly told him he was in some sort of cartoon farce, so embarrassingly broad is his performance. The CGI chess pawn comic relief character does and says nothing that has even a passing relationship with the word “funny”.

Men in Black: International is a fairly dull, predictable, unimaginative franchise entry that, by trying to appeal to everyone with its derivative stunts and jokes, ends up appealing to no-one.

Terminator: Dark Fate (2019)

Even reuniting Linda Hamilton and Arnold couldn’t save Terminator: Dark Fate from (undeserved) disaster

Director: Tim Miller

Cast: Linda Hamilton (Sarah Connor), Arnold Schwarzenegger (Carl), Mackenzie Davis (Grace), Natalia Reyes (Dani Ramos), Gabriel Luna (Rev-9), Diego Boneta (Diego Ramos), Tristan Ulloa (Felipe Gandal)

It should have been a hit. The third attempt in the last ten years to restart the Terminator franchise, after no less than two cancelled planned trilogies, this one bought back James Cameron in a producing and story capacity, pulled in Linda Hamilton to return as Sarah Connor for the first time in nearly thirty years and finally seemed to be the “true” Terminator 3. But it bombed anyway, worse than either Salvation or Genysis and finally put paid (probably) once and all for the franchise. How did it come to this?

In 1998 a T-800 Terminator (Arnold Schwarzenegger) – one of a number sent back in time by Skynet before erased from history by our heroes in Terminator 2 – finally succeeds in killing John Connor (a CGI recreation of Edward Furlong from T2), leaving Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) distraught. Twenty-two years later and a new artificial intelligence from the future, Legion, has sent back a Terminator (Gabriel Luna) to wipe out a pivotal future figure for the human resistance Dani Ramos (Natalia Reyes), with the resistance once again sending back its own champion Grace (Mackenzie Davis), an artificially enhanced human. The inevitable combat between man and machine is on again, with Grace and Dani joining forces with Sarah Connor, as well as other unexpected allies.

That paragraph probably gives you a sense of what’s good and what’s bad about the film. Starting with a twist that seems to finally try and send the franchise off in a new direction – the eradication of John Connor, the person every film has been about protecting – is a brave decision. The confirmation that eternal enemy Skynet has indeed been erased from history finally changes the enemy. Arnie’s T-800 is confirmed as literally the last in existence – a killer sent from a future that now no longer exists. It looks like we are set for something entirely different.

And then of course we aren’t. Because it seems man’s reach will inevitably exceed his grasp, just as would-be Terminator film producers will always overreach themselves. Even with Skynet gone, there must always be some artificial intelligence super-computer that destroys the future, there must always be some sort of special one who must be protected at all costs, always a hero sent from the future who knows more than they can say and always an Arnie Terminator on hand for good or bad. Just as Genysis tried to re-set the table, but only reminded us what a small world is, this film tries to shake up the pieces but then replaces most of them with like-for-like and throws us into a film that has effectively exactly the same structure as the first two films.

So, after that opening scene twist, we get the arrival and meet up of the two future warriors, a scrap at an everyday setting for her hero, a series of shocked reveals about the future, some gonzo chases (this one does at least up the anti – literally – by setting one of them in a plane), a lull in proceedings while our on-the-run heroes work out whether they can trust each other, then a final smackdown in a factory where self-sacrifice is all the rage. For a film that tries to do something new, it is remarkably conservative and shows that for all the time-travel inspired gymnastics of the universe it operates in, the series is strictly tied to a set number of rules and plot mechanics.

But it’s all really confidently told. That’s almost the tragedy. This is a pretty good film. Easily the third best Terminator film made. I actually pretty enjoyed it. It has a simple narrative drive to it, an old-fashioned world where the characters throw each other about and punch each other really hard into things rather than engage in balletic, choreographed fight scenes. Tim Miller directs the whole thing with a pace and drive and if Cameron feels like he may have only really been happy to attach his name to the whole thing in return for a few story ideas and a paycheque, at least it can boast it has his definite seal of approval.

The acting is also pretty good. Linda Hamilton is a welcome return, getting some fascinating beats of intense drive mixed with deep grief. It’s a great to see an action film like this front-and-centre female characters so much. It’s a shame that this is such a franchise with such a masculine reputation, as this realignment has probably not had the impact it could have had in bringing new people in. Mackenzie Davis is impressive as Grace, Natalie Reyes growing in confidence and strength as the new messiah. Even Arnie gets to do something very different with his T-800 characterisation (after 22 years of living as human, the robot has changed beyond all recognition from the remorseless killer), not least seeing him successfully terminate a target for the first time in the franchise. 

It’s just a shame that this energetic re-telling of an old story probably suffered above all from franchise exhaustion. After reboots and restarts from Salvation to Genysis have seen their plotlines, developments and future sequels sent to the scrap heap (certainly the last two) it really seems a case that once bitten, twice bitten makes us not just shy, but running scared. At the end of the day any interest and affection the franchise had from the first two films has been burned up beyond all recognition – and this film, in the end, doesn’t reinvent the wheel enough to encourage you to come back and see what’s different. It’s a shame that this sprightly entertaining film has been terminated not by its future, but by its weary, error-strewn, past.

X-Men: Dark Phoenix (2019)

Sophie Turner does her best with a franchise that has finally seen better days in Dark Phoenix

Director: Simon Kinberg

Cast: James McAvoy (Charles Xavier), Michael Fassbender (Erik Lensherr/Magneto), Jennifer Lawrence (Raven Darkholme/Mystique), Nicholas Hoult (Hank McCoy/Beast), Sophie Turner (Jean Grey), Tye Sheridan (Scott Summers/Cyclops), Alexandra Shipp (Ororo Monroe/Storm), Kodi Smit-McPhee (Kurt Wagner/Nightcrawler), Evan Peters (Peter Maximoff/Quicksilver), Jessica Chastain (Vuk), Ato Essandoh (Jones)

As Dark Phoenix limps out of a cinema near you, losing the studio almost $100 million and finally consigning to oblivion for evermore an X-Men franchise that has lasted almost twenty years, it would be easy to think this must be one of the worst films in comic book history. It’s not. But then again it’s not the best. Dark Phoenix’s main problem is not really that it’s bad, more that it’s a bit meh. After umpteen films, I’m not sure there was anything new to show or tell about these mutant superheroes – and this film certainly failed to find it.

It’s 1992 and the X-Men are international heroes – something that may be going to the head of Charles Xavier (James McAvoy) who gets feted at major events and has a direct hotline to the President. On a mission into space to save a stranded space shuttle crew, powerful telepath Jean Grey (Sophie Turner) is hit by a strange cloud of glowing space power – and when she returns to Earth she finds herself struggling with a split personality, with a dangerous darker side of her personality taking control of her actions. It’s encouraged by a mysterious alien Vuk (Jessica Chastain) who wants the power in Jean Grey for her own ends. Can the X-men overcome conflict and tragedy to come together once again and save the world and Jean Grey herself from her demons?

Simon Kinberg finally takes the helm after producing and writing several other films in the series – although his promotion feels more like a failure to find anyone else interested in doing the job. General lack of real interest permeates the film, as if most of the stars only came on board because they felt an obligation to put a cap on the series. Jennifer Lawrence presumably came back in order to be killed off (no spoilers, it’s in all the trailers) while Michael Fassbender gives off the air of a man who’d rather be anywhere else. 

It’s not a huge surprise since the script goes through the motions, retelling a comic book storyline around Jean Grey’s “Dark Phoenix” personae that had already been done once (disastrously) already in X-Men: The Last Stand. Retreading the action here, this is certainly a better film (at least Simon Kinberg understands the characters and what makes them tick in a way Brett Ratner on that film didn’t) but it’s still a lot of the same story beats, similar types of location and brings it all together into a series of set pieces and moral conundrums that quite frankly we’ve seen before.

On top of which, Kinberg is not an imaginative enough visual stylist to make any of it look new. He’s not a bad director by any shot, but he’s a thoroughly middle brow one and he puts together a film that echoes and repeats stuff from the previous films in a way that never really feels fresh. Instead every single action beat or emotional moment feels like a quote from a previous film in the series, and never does the film really take fire and become its own thing.

This needed something special or new to bring the franchise roaring out in a blaze of glory. Instead it sort of meanders towards a resolution most people watching can probably already guess. Kinberg’s version of the story here also throws in several mistreads, most notably a plot line involving aliens and mystical clouds from space. Now I’m reliably told this fits with comic book lore. But much like in Spider Man 3 (remember that?!) when a blob of black alien space goo infected Peter Parker, introducing aliens into this series that has always seem grounded on Earth seems a bit – well – silly if I’m honest. Again it reminds you how slowly and carefully Marvel built up its universe stretching sand box. This ham-fistedly throws aliens of uncertain provenance into its world and somehow, despite this film featuring a hero who can shoot lasers out of his eyes, it feels a bit silly. 

It’s not helped that the aliens plot line is confused and their aims unclear or that Jessica Chastain looks non-plussed to be in the thing at all, as if she lost a bet or something. It does mean that we get a (reasonably) happy ending of our heroes coming together to fight an external threat – but even this feels like a tacked on reason to throw into the mix a clear antagonist, instead of dealing with the sort of shade-of-grey (no pun intended) antagonist who is also still sort of one of the good guys.

It’s telling that the film works best when it focuses more on character. Sophie Turner does a pretty decent job as Jean Grey, despite not being given masses to work with. James McAvoy enjoys the best storyline, of a Charles who has lost his way slightly and been seduced by fame – but deep down is still the humane, caring and loving character he has always been. It’s a new light to see the character in.

I think the main problem with this film is its lack of anything really original other than the odd beat like that. Everything as been seen before and, like X-Men Apocalypse despite the world-shaking events everything feels a bit rushed and lacking impact. Dark Phoenix is a decent enough entry into a long-running franchise and doesn’t short change you of the sort of thing you’d expect from an X-Men film. But that’s really it’s a problem. It’s a solid, average, okay entry into a long-running franchise but not the final hurrah the series needed to go out on an earth-shattering high.

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017)

Charlie Hunnam is a “Proper LEGEND” in disasterous geezy gangster King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

Director: Guy Ritchie

Cast: Charlie Hunnam (King Arthur), Jude Law (King Vortigern), Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey (The Mage), Djimon Hounsou (Sir Bedivere), Aidan Gillen (Goosefat Bill Wilson), Eric Bana (King Uther Pendragon), Kingsley Ben-Adir (Tristan), Craig McGinlay (Percival), Tom Wu (George), Neil Maskell (Back Lack), Annabelle Wallis (Maggie), Katie McGrath (Elsa), Freddie Fox (Rubio), Mikael Persbrandt (Greybeard), Michael McElhatton (Jack’s Eye), Geoff Bell (Mischief Jack)

Okay we’ve all seen bad movies. And we’ve all seen movies that don’t make a lot of sense. But it’s a pretty special film that is both at the same time. King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is one of those. It is jaw-droppingly terrible and also insanely, ludicrously, incoherent. It’s completely impossible to follow what the hell is going on. Considering the studio planned this as the first of at least ten movies in an Arthur-verse, it’s practically a textbook on how not to start a movie franchise.

Anyway the plot, such as I can work out, is something like this: back in ye olde England times, magic and Mages have been nearly wiped out after (I think) an attempt by Mage Warlord Mordred to seize the throne. Then former Mage pupil and jealous brother of King Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana), Vortigern (Jude Law) kills his wife to get powers to seize the throne. Only young Arthur survives – and an unspecified period of time later (he ages, no one else does), Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) is a cocky geezer running a brothel in Londinium in the shadow of the Coliseum (yes really). Then one day Uther’s sword Excalibur turns up buried in a stone and Vortigern gets everyone to try and pull the sword out of the stone, so he can find the true heir (Arthur) and then when he finds him he puts on a show trial and it looks like he’s going to execute him because Arthur has become a legend in five minutes. Then Arthur is rescued by rebels who want Arthur to lead them, because the sword has special powers which Arthur can control if he can only get over his doubt and when it works… Oh God I can’t believe I’ve just tried to puzzle it out.

Scenes in King Arthur: Legend of the Sword follow each other with barely any structural link from one to the other. The film is convinced that the best way to pique our interest in a mystery is to throw us into the deep end and then info-dump flashbacks and voiceover throughout the film. The effect is rather like an ove- excited child trying to tell you a story (“And then a MASSIVE OLIPHANT SMASHED THE BRIDGE, and Uther fought it with a sword and it went boom and there was a big funeral and then Vortigern killed his wife and he was sad and he shouted and then a BIG DEMON killed Uther because the sword couldn’t go boom and then Arthur grew up”) who keeps leaving out the key details so has to throw them in later (“oh and Vortigen killed his wife because he needed to become a BIG DEMON and could only do it if he killed someone he loved and he had to become a BIG DEMON because it was the only way to stop Uther from making the sword go boom and he needed to get the sword – umm – well I’m not sure why but he needed it to build his tower. Did I mention his Tower? I think it was why he wanted to become King so he could build the tower. I think the tower made him a powerful magician. But of course he already was a magician he just wanted to be a betterer one. Did I mention that Arthur got the sword and made it go boom?”).

Instead the film showcases absolutely all the worst instincts of Guy Ritchie. All of them. Everything happens really fast and incredibly loudly. There are huge senseless battles and enormous CGI beasts who attack for no reason whatsoever. Arthur and his cronies are all transformed into cockney wide-boys, with Vortigern’s enforcers basically gangsters, all speaking with the Lock Stock rat-a-tat vibe that was fresh in 1998 but feels impossibly dated and tiresome now. This mixes with the ridiculously loud and fast pace of the film that makes it almost literally impossible to work out what is going on – and certainly makes it impossible to give a shit about anyone or anything in the film as events, characters, action and dialogue fly past with nothing dwelling to make any impact.

Everything has been thrown at this. Monsters! Gangsters! Chinese Martial Artists! Knights as Nazis (Jude Law’s Vortigen hosts a full blown Nuremberg Rally)! None of it really ties together. Nothing makes sense. Everything is filmed dull and murkily.

Probably because the producers worked out what they’d put together was an impossible turkey, the film has been cut to ribbons. To try and make a virtue of this, frequently characters explain events that are going to happen, while the events themselves play out on screen. Ritchie pumps this up to the next level by having the dialogue delivered with manic speed, which clearly passes in his mind for cool. This is when it explains things at all. More often events speed by so swiftly that we just have to assume massive time jumps have happened. This sword must be important (its name is in the title) but when it pops up out of nowhere, we get no sense that Vortigern has spent any time looking for it. Not only that, his system of forcible sword tests is both a well-oiled machine and something Arthur (who lives literally in the shadow of Vortigern’s castle) has never heard of. In less than two minutes of screen-time after he pulls the sword, Arthur is spoken of as a legendary figure who must be killed publicly to kill his legend. What? How much time is passing here?

The film has both way too much plot going on, and not enough interesting plot going on. It’s so determined to set up future movies that we get lots of incoherent information about Mages, magic and powerful swords dumped on us really quickly. Anything that could be seen as a “special effect” has been left in, while it feels like anything dialogue-related has been cut. So we have a way, way, way too long sequence of Arthur in some place called the Darklands battling monsters for reasons never explained by the plot (its stated purpose, to get him to master the sword, doesn’t even work – making it a complete cul-de-sac). We get a battle at the start where we literally don’t know who is fighting whom or why. At one point, the Mage commands a giant snake which pops up to save Arthur and is never used again. On the counterside, we are never clear what Vortigern is trying to do or why he seized the throne, why he is building a huge tower or why he needs the sword – or indeed why the sword is important other than it makes things go BOOM.

The actors stumble about the wreckage of this film, like shell-shocked survivors of some kind of apocalypse. Perhaps this is at last the end of Charlie Hunnam as a star of big budget movies – he is, to put it bluntly, awful: a complete non-presence. Jude Law swans through the film as if just turning up was repaying a favour to Ritchie – although god knows Vortigern is a character that makes no sense at all. The rest of the actors make no impact – Aidan Gillen looks a little ashamed to be there – with the one exception of Neil Maskell who gets some very small emotional force out a father-son relationship. But to be honest, this is one where you want to be forgotten.

A film that wants to start a franchise but gives us no reason to care about anyone in it, is on a hiding to nothing. What on earth in this movie would make you want to come back and see the future adventures of Arthur and Pals? I can’t think of anything. If you can work out what is going on you are welcome to it. Lord knows no one else wants it.

The Mummy (2017)

Like the film, Annabelle Wallis stares at Tom Cruise in awe in disaster laden (in more ways than one) The Mummy

Director: Alex Kurtzmann

Cast: Tom Cruise (Nick Morton), Sofia Boutella (Ahmanet), Annabelle Wallis (Jenny Halsey), Jake Johnson (Chris Vail), Russell Crowe (Dr Henry Jekyll), Courtney B Vance (Colonel Greenway), Marwan Kenzari (Malik)

Mummy PosterMany films have killed their franchises. It takes a really special film to kill a franchise before it has even started. Welcome to the first, and probably last, entry in Universal’s misguided Dark Universe franchise, a Marvel-style playground for all Universal’s old monsters like Frankenstein, Dracula, the Wolfman etc. etc. And of all of them, The Mummy was the one they decided to start with? 

Anyway, our hero is Nick Morton (Tom Cruise) a sort of soldier of fortune in modern day Iraq, plundering antiquities under the banner of the US Army like some low-rent Indiana Jones. He and his hapless sidekick Vail (Jake Johnson) stumble upon a tomb of mysterious lost Egyptian princess Ahmanet (Sofia Boutella) after stealing information from archaeologist Jenny Halsey (Annabelle Wallis). On the clock to take as much as they can from the tomb, Jenny and Nick take home Ahmanet’s sarcophagus. Their plane crashlands in Dover, with Jenny the only survivor – only for Nick to be resurrected in the mortuary. Looks like reborn Ahmanet wants to bring Set, the God of Death, into the world and has chosen Nick as the vessel for Set’s soul. Or something. It’s not really clear. 

In fact the whole film is pretty awful. What sort of film were they trying to make here? Is this a horror or an action film or a buddy film or some sort of black comedy? The tone shifts wildly from moment to moment: one minute Tom Cruise is exchanging Indiana Jones-style banter with his buddy Vail (Jake Johnson). The next he is shooting a possessed Vail at point-blank range (even this is played for laughs a bit). The next he’s being haunted American Werewolf style by a ghost or vision or zombie or somethingversion of wise-cracking Vail. What is going on here? What kind of film is this?

Tom where he normally is – centre of the frame

Well actually we know what kind of film it is: it’s a Tom Cruise starrer. Allegedly, the Cruiser (already quite the control freak perfectionist) took over most of the production from inexperienced, Universal suit Alex Kurtzmann. The DVD’s special features don’t half support this, with Cruise shown effectively directing most of the action sequences while Kurtzmann stands quietly to one side or (best of all!) greeting the star after the opening aircraft crash has been filmed to be told “you’ll love the footage Alex!”. 

Well the studio had doubled-down on Cruise to launch their franchise with his glittering smile and international box-office appeal, so I guess it’s fair enough the guy was shoved square centre. I know the film is called The Mummy but it might as well be Nick Morton. Cruise is in almost every single scene, most of the characters spend the whole time talking about him, and all the action is done by him (every other character is completely useless). The best lines, such as they are, go to him. He’s starting to look a little bit too old for the “young buccaneer” role he has here – and certainly too old to be flirting with Anabelle Wallis – but the film doesn’t care.

Anyway, the plot charges about London with odd time jumps, and unclear character motivations abounding. Why does Ahmanat have such an idee fix that Nick has to be the vessel for Set (other than, of course, his Tom Cruise Awesomeness)? Is it a good or bad thing that Nick could or could not get the powers of a god? Why does Ahmanet need Set in the first place – she “sells her soul” to him in ancient Egypt times for the throne, but basically just cuts the throats of her family at night (hardly requiring the demonic powers of the dead)? In Egypt she’s easily defeated with a blow dart but by the time she’s reborn in London she has incredible powers over minds, matter and animals – why didn’t she use any of this before? 

On top of that, we’ve got the incredibly dull Prodigium organisation (a sort of SHIELD for monster fighting) run by Nick Fury-ish arc character Dr Henry Jekyll, played with lumbering crapness by Russell Crowe. Why Russell, why? Crowe plays the part half like a plummy Stephen Fryish professor, the other half like some demented OTT cockney geezer. Of course the film isn’t subtle enough to avoid giving us Jekyll going full Hyde, a laughable moment of cheesy rubbishness with a wild-eyed Crowe reduced to “alrigh’ mate” hamminess while tossing Cruise around in a punch-up that looks like two drunk dads at a wedding going at it.

Oh Russell, why? Why do you make it so difficult for your fans?

The film is also saddled with one of the most inept female characters since Roger Moore’s Bond years. At one point, poor Anabelle Wallis stumbles on Ahmanet and her zombie minions on the verge of stabbing Nick to death and turning him into a demon-host, and Nick’s response is an irritated cry of “Jenny!” as her total lack of proactive response to this, like even he finds her arrival pointless and annoying. I’m afraid to say after that moment, every moment in the film with Wallis weeping, panicking, running away or laughably cheering Nick’s Tom Cruise Awesomeness from the wings (“Kick her arse Nick!”) was met by me and everyone I was watching the film with shouting “Jenny!” at the screen with the same exasperated annoyance.

The only good sequence in the film is the opening plane crash – and that is spoilt as it was all over the trailers. By the time we are in a secret crypt (getting in the way of the crossrail construction) with zombie Templar knights wrestling Nick (no seriously) you’ll have long since ceased caring. Even the fun of saying the next line in the cliché-ridden script before the actors do will be less fun than it used to be.

The Mummy sounds like it should be some sort of camp classic. But it’s really not. It’s ineptly made, poorly written, with a plot that makes no sense and action that varies from dull to laughable. Terrible characters, awful pace, rubbish acting, lousy direction and half-hearted from start to finish – it could barely launch a fart let alone a franchise.

Dracula Untold (2014)

Luke Evans rises above another terrible film in this first terrible attempt to launch a “Dark Universe”

Director: Gary Shore

Cast: Luke Evans (Vlad the Impaler/Dracula), Dominic Cooper (Sultan Mehmet III), Sarah Gadon (Mirena), Art Parkinson (Ingeras), Charles Dance (Master Vampire), William Houston (Cazan), Diarmaid Murtagh (Dumitru), Noah Huntley (Captain Petru), Paul Kaye (Brother Lucian)

Every studio wants its own Cinematic Universe. Because the lesson from Marvel’s patient and excellent build of an entire world is that people will come and see every single film you make in a series. Right? Perhaps that explains the painful attempts of Universal to turn one of their few recognisable assets – monster movies – into some sort of bizarre linked universe. The project is currently in terminal decline after the flop of Tom Cruise’s The Mummy. But before that, a reboot had already been attempted with this bizarre retelling of the Dracula origins story.

Vlad the Impaler (Luke Evans) is a guy who wants to put his life of impaling behind him. All he wants is to lead his people peacefully in Transylvania. So imagine his disappointment when his boyhood rival Sultan Mehmet III (Dominic Cooper) arrives and demands the tribute of the first born sons of Transylvania – including Vlad’s son Ingeras (Art Parkinson). Vlad umms and ahs and then he decides – y’know what – not on his watch. But how can he keep his people, his son and wife (Sarah Gadon) safe? Well the only solution is to take on the mighty Power of the Vampire from a mysterious cave-dwelling creature (Charles Dance). Vlad now has unlimited strength for three days – but can he resist the craving for human blood that will make the transformation permanent? And will the powers last long enough to repel the Turks?

Okay. So obviously this film is complete rubbish. I mean it really is. It’s hilariously overshot – the action sequences are frequently hard to follow, so swiftly does the camera swoop and swirl like the bats Vlad can transform into. Shore is in love with showy shots – one battle is seen through the reflection on a CGI sword that is thrown in the air and twirls in an arc downwards (yes it is as complex and unengaging as I made it sound).

The plot is complete bobbins. It’s all “Forsooth my lord” and “We make for the monastery!” (a building, by the way, of unlimited size that seems genuinely able to accommodate most of the population of Transylvania). The film wants us to remember that Vlad is a cool bad-ass but also that he is ashamed of his life of sticking people on poles (needless to say, his signature move breaks out eventually). Vlad is a vampire and a monster – but he is also someone we need to root for, so he is portrayed as a lovable family man who never really seems that tormented by urgings for blood.

Luke Evans. One day he will be a star. If you could find a good performance in a terrible, stupid film it would be his. He is fully committed and he gives the part so much emotional depth – way more than is in the script. He really, really sells Vlad’s humanity and makes his character feel like a warm, lovable guy – but he mixes it with an edge behind the noble call of duty. Evans is genuinely rather good in this. The guy deserves so much better.

I’ll give a pass as well to Sarah Gadon and Art Parkinson, who at least treat the parts with a certain respect. Charles Dance has fun under bizarre make-up as a wizened monster. Everyone else is here to be as over-the-top and stupid as possible – not least Dominic Cooper, whose ludicrous accent, utterly unimposing frame and inexplicable sudden detailed knowledge of vampires makes for a deeply stupid, bad performance. But then everyone is going for it – Paul Kaye leaves no piece of scenery unchewed in his brief performances – and going for it badly. Everyone comes out of it badly.

The plot makes no sense: a strange gypsy emerges from nowhere to try and serve Vlad (why?) and then only returns at the end to help set up a sequel-that-never-came. Every decision Vlad makes is terrible. The villagers oscillate wildly from pathetically grateful yokels to “burn him!” lunatics to – well it would be spoilers, but let’s just say there is quite the body count. In fact, the only thing really interesting about the story is wondering what will make Vlad remain a vampire (which we all know he will do) – of course it is a “noble sacrifice”.

The biggest problem with the film is that Vlad is both far too powerful and far too noble. Since he can literally kill thousands of people single handed, why does he waste time taking his people into the woods – why not ride out single handed to meet the Turkish force and take them out? If he is so noble that he is never tempted once to keep the powers of a vampire for selfish reasons, where is the dramatic tension?
The film eventually ends in another overblown, stupid fight scene with bats and invulnerable vampires flying about the place. That’s before we head into an unearned coda in the modern age which sets up a sequel that is not coming, and includes a few groan-worthy references back to the original novel. But then this is a cartoon made by people who thought that they didn’t need to bother to make a good movie at all if they slapped the Dracula name on it.  I suppose you could say it’s just trying to entertain: but with no real interest in doing anything other than making more movies off it later, it’s a bit of a pointless mess.

The Golden Compass (2007)

How did it all go wrong? The disastrous production of Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass

Director: Chris Weitz

Cast: Dakota Blue Richards (Lyra Belacqua), Nicole Kidman (Mrs Coulter), Daniel Craig (Lord Asriel), Sam Elliott (Lee Scoresby), Eva Green (Serafina Pekkala), Jim Carter (John Faa), Clare Higgins (Ma Costa), Tom Courtenay (Farder Coram), Derek Jacobi (Magisterial Emissary), Simon McBurney (Fra Pavel), Jack Shepherd (Master of Jordan College), Ian McKellen (Iorek Byrnison), Freddie Highmore (Pantalaimon), Ian McShane (Ragnar Sturlusson), Kathy Bates (Hester), Kristin Scott Thomas (Stelmaria)

After the success of The Lord of the Rings, bookshops were stripped of all epic fantasy novels with a cross-generational appeal by film producers, their mouths watering at the prospect of having another billion-dollar licence to print money. Nearly all of these projects bombed, but I’m not sure any of them bombed harder than this, an attempt to kick-start a trilogy of films based on Philip Pullman’s both loved and controversial His Dark Materials books. What went so completely wrong?

Pullman’s trilogy is set in an alternative-Oxford, where people all have Dæmons, part of their soul that lives outside their body in animal form. It’s a world where the Magisterium, a powerful organisation, suppresses all free thought, in particular all investigation into the mysterious particle dust. Lyra Belacqua (Dakota Blue Richards) is an orphan raised in Jordan College, who saves the life of Lord Asriel (Daniel Craig), who is investigating Dust in the North. Leaving the college with the mysterious Mrs Coulter (Nicole Kidman), who may or may not be involved in a series of child kidnappings, she eventually finds herself drawn more and more into setting right the problems of her world.

The Golden Compass is a film that pleased no-one. Fans of the book generally hated it. The people who hated the books hated it. The people who hated what they had been told the book was about hated it. Why did the studio decide to make a film in the first place about a book series they seemed to know was controversial from the start? If they didn’t really want to embrace the themes of the books, why bother? Pullman’s books are partly adventure stories, partly intricate world building, partly spiritual discussions – and yes partly atheist tracts with a strong anti-Establishment-church bent (with a more general regard for genuine faith). To put it bluntly, that’s a lot of ideas to try and squeeze into a film – particularly a film well under two hours.

So The Golden Compass is a mess that feels like it’s been put together by committee. It’s been cut to within an inch of its life – scenes jump incredibly swiftly from event to event, often with the barest of clunky explanation voiceover (“We’re going to see Lord Faa, King of the Gyptians”) to tell you what’s going on. Pages and pages of dialogue and character seem to be lost. We are constantly told Lyra is “special” but never shown anything that supports or explains this. An Eva Green-voiced infodump opens the film: clearly the producers were thinking about Peter Jackson’s masterful opening to The Fellowship of the Ring, which skilfully introduces everything. This introduction though is about removing all the mystery and magic of the story as soon as possible by stating it bluntly up-front.

The biggest mess is of course the way the film avoids all reference to Pullman’s religious themes. No reference is made at all to the Magisterium being a church. No reference is made at all to religion or faith. Iorek is clearly being held in a Russian Orthodox painted church – but the building is referred to throughout as an “office”. Derek Jacobi plays one of the principal Cardinal antagonists of the third book – no reference is made to his office. The Magisterium is instead just a “shady organisation” – a controlling gestapo-type organisation, with black uniforms and creepy Albert Speer style buildings. The questions of Dust and original sin – so central to the motivations of the story – are completely unexplained, meaning the child kidnapping and sinister intercission the villains are carrying out makes no sense at all. How on earth they planned to continue not talking about religion in their planned third film is a complete mystery.

This rushing is the problem throughout the film. Stuff just happens really, really quickly for no real reason. Characters pop up to introduce themselves for later films, or to drop clunky exposition. Tom Courtenay explains what an aleitheometer is for us (the film constantly brings up this “Golden Compass” and its future-telling properties, without ever really making them feel important for anything that happens in the film). Eva Green flies in to say she’s a witch and how pleased she is to meet Lyra and promptly flies off. Daniel Craig name checks Dust, gets captured then disappears. Sam Elliott introduces his rabbit Dæmon and shoots a couple of things. None of this gets any chance to grow and develop – and you end up not caring about any of these characters. Nearly every plot event from the first book is kept in – but so rushed you don’t give a toss.

The structure of the film has also been changed from the book, and not for the better. The film (probably thinking about later films) increases the presence of the Magisterium throughout – but without really making their antagonist role clear. Lyra and Iorek’s defeat of Iorek’s usurper Ragnar is moved to before the final defeat of the Gobbler’s ice base – this doesn’t make a lot of sense. If Iorek now commands an army of bears, why doesn’t he bring them along for the final battle? Lyra instead wanders up to the base like an idiot, and the film extends the release of the children from the ice base into a big battle in order to give us a Lord of the Rings style finish. It doesn’t matter that nothing in the film feels like it’s building plotwise or dramatically towards this battle – it’s there you feel, because Lord of the Rings had battles and people loved that, so let’s get one in here. 

In fact the film builds towards nothing, because it has been cut so poorly, and is such a terrible compromised product, that everything the books are building towards has been removed from it. So the entire thing makes no bloody sense. The clash with the church and organised religion doesn’t work because all reference to faith has been cut. There are mutterings about a “war” coming, but no one says what it might be about. There is a loose crusade to save the kidnapped children – but we don’t understand either side of this. The cruelly ironic ending of the book, with Lord Asriel’s real plan revealed, is deleted altogether from the film – because the studio didn’t want a “downer” ending. As a result the film just suddenly ends (after a clunky “We’ll go home one day after this, and this, and this, and this, and this, and after we’ve solved all the problems of the world” speech).

Studio interference reeks off this whole film. It’s been cut to ribbons. Ian McKellen and Christopher Lee were parachuted into the cast in order to make the film feel more like Lord of the Rings. McKellen sounds completely wrong as a mighty armoured bear (original casting Nonso Anozie would have been perfect). Lee chips in a single line in what is painfully obviously an addition from re-shoots. Anything potentially different or interesting is cut out. In fact anything that was unique about Pullman’s original books is cut out: as much is done as possible to make Pullman’s story as identikit and standard as hundreds of other bland fantasy dramas. As if they hadn’t realised the book was potentially really controversial in the more traditional parts of the US market, it seems like the studio only really read the books once the film was shot, suddenly realised they had made a massive mistake, and tried to reduce the danger as much as possible by making the film as bland as they possible could.

Chris Weitz is completely unsuited for directing it – and he actually feels like a hostage the more you read about the film’s turbulent production – but it’s not all bad. Dakota Blue Richards is actually pretty good as Lyra – she’s got a certain magic charisma. The set design is pretty terrific – even if it is a lot more steampunk than I pictured the novel as being. The special effects are pretty goods – the Dæmons are well done, and the puff of gold Dust they turn into when someone dies is striking. Some of the adult casting is pretty good – Kidman is just about perfect, Craig is pretty good, Sam Elliott stands out as Lee Scoresby. There are some neat cameos as well – I would have liked to see Jacobi get to tackle the third book, Eva Green is wasted, Tom Courtenay is pretty good. It just all rushes by so quickly. You don’t get the chance to get to know anyone fully. If the book was a bit episodic, this takes that worst element of it and ramps it up to eleven.

The Golden Compass tanked. It tanked so hard, New Line Cinema didn’t really recover. All plans for future films were scrapped. However, it is important in another way. In presenting such a horrifically neutered, stripped-down version of the story, it persuaded a lot of people that books rich in world building and content like this needed much longer than a traditional film to be brought to life. It helped persuade George RR Martin that TV was the way to go when selling the rights for Game of Thrones. And His Dark Materials will now live again as a 10 part TV series in the near future. For all its many, many failures – we owe it something.

GI Joe: Retaliation (2013)

Channing Tatum and Dwayne Johnson wonder how they landed in this mess in GI Joe: Retaliation

Director: Jon M. Chu

Cast: Dwayne Johnson (Roadblock), Bruce Willis (General Joe Colton), Channing Tatum (Duke), Jonathan Pryce (President of the US), Adrianne Palicki (Lady Jaye), DJ Controne (Flint), Ray Park (Snake Eyes), Byung-hun Lee (Storm Shadow), Ray Stevenson (Firefly), Arnold Vosloo (Zartan), Walton Goggins (Warden James), RZA (Blind master)

Back in 2009, Hasbro (flushed with success from its Transformers franchise) released GI Joe: a humble, straightforward nonsense actioner (almost exactly the sort of film spoofed by Team America) in which gung-ho American action heroes save the world, destroying major cities on the way. It was harmless, Stephen Sommers-directed fun. Critics hated it. Audiences saw it, but were basically meh. It left us on a cliff-hanger. The cliff-hanger led to this joyless, “by-contractual-obligation” reboot.

The villainous Zartan (Arnold Vosloo) has changed his entire DNA to make him an exact physical match for the President of the United States (Jonathan Pryce) and taken his place. Using his powers, he orders a surprise attack on the GI Joe force, wiping out their base. All the Joes, including Duke (Channing Tatum) are killed, except for Roadblock (Dwayne Johnson), Lady Jaye (Adrianne Palicki) and Flint (DJ Controne). Now they need to form a team to take revenge, defeat Zartan and prevent the plans of the newly escaped Cobra Commander.

Oh dear God this is an awful film: a truly dire comic book disaster, terribly written and practically incoherent in its plot and storyline, peopled from top to bottom with bored looking actors. It’s barely a sequel at all to the original film. In fact, it disregards most of the plot of GI Joe: Rise of Cobra altogether, barely acknowledging its existence. None of the plot threads of the first film are carried across at all, with the exception of the replacement of the President. On top of that, all the characters the first film spent time establishing as our heroes are unceremoniously dispatched (mostly off-screen) to be replaced with a trio of new heroes, none of whom make any real impact. Is it just me who feels cheated that all the characters the first film tried to build up just get wiped out like so many wasps when a pest controller comes calling?

Was it really necessary to totally dump the previous film? It wasn’t that bad. And if they were going to do that, could they not have come up with a fresher reboot than this? Who on earth thought the way to make the series fresher was to introduce Bruce Willis (at his most breezily, contemptuously disengaged) as a new hero? The film barely has time to introduce its new heroes: Lady Jaye has Daddy issues and is looking for approval (her Daddy, by the way, sounds like a sexist asshole with his “women shouldn’t serve in the military” attitudes and I was waiting for another character to point this out – they don’t of course), while Flint barely has a character beyond being a cheeky-chappie. When even Dwayne Johnson can barely be bothered to bring his C-game to a role, you know you’re in trouble: this film turns the most engaging action star of our age into a dull rent-a-muscle.

Then the plot. Yawn. Oh dear God yawn. Is there a plot? Not really. Events happen. They keep happening. Occasionally characters (like the “Blind Master”) pop up to essentially blurt out a load of plot, in between rushed character introductions. Turgid fight scenes are given extended screentime – but since they usually involve people we don’t really know fighting people we’ve barely been introduced to, it’s pretty hard to get engaged in them. Nothing really links together or carries any meaning. In fact, the film is about so little – and what plot there is, so clumsily and irritatingly spoonfed to the audience while our heroes take a frustratingly long time to catch-up – that you’ll be surprised the run time is as long as it is. I’ve already forgotten most of it and I watched it two days ago.

I say watched it, because I’m not sure “letting it pass before my eyes” on a Saturday morning over breakfast really counts. Certainly the final battle scenes – involving the storming of a bunker, something blowing up in space, world leaders in peril, and embarrassingly trite “personal rivalry” stories coming to a head – are so unimaginatively filmed, so dully predictable in their execution, that I fast forwarded through them. I just wanted the fucking thing to end. In fact I bemoaned the failure of Cobra to knock off all the Joes to start with. Not that the villains are much better themselves.

Pity poor Channing Tatum. Actually on reflection don’t: he’s well out of it. Tatum and Johnson’s double bill is the most likeable thing in the movie, the only thing that feels remotely real. Tatum was called back for reshoots (as he became more famous in between finishing filming and the planned release date, after the success of Magic Mike) and it’s a neat reminder of what an engaging, off-the-cuff performer he can be: when he kicks the bucket, the film’s most likeable, interesting character goes with it. The other actors just seem interested in picking up a cheque.

GI Joe: Retaliation isn’t a reboot. It’s an execution. It’s not even an execution you can get worked up about. In fact, I would have happily knocked off some of its characters myself. Did we create the language of cinema to come up with something as stodgy and insipid as this? Where is the magic and inspiration, where is the fun? What looking glass did we fall through, that anyone thought this pile of crapparoo was the way to restart a franchise?