You had it. But the magic’s gone.

MERCURY RISING (1998)

Shooty: -1/5 Kicky score: -3/5
Enjoy with: the cheapest bottle of red wine you can find. If you’re watching this movie, you don’t deserve to have nice things.

“Mercury Rising” promises very little and delivers even less. Prepare to be bored out of your mind as you endure Bruce Willis on a mission to protect the life of an autistic child from Alec Baldwin and his voluminous hair.

Apparently set in a world where only men work for the FBI, Art Jeffries (Bruce Willis) is an undercover agent who loses his mojo, and job, after witnessing the traumatically bad death scene of a teenage boy. Committed to being miserable, Art carries on as your standard pissed-off maverick agent whose only unique selling point is that he drinks schooners rather than bourbon – a character trait that is more offensive than it is original.

On the other side of town, we meet a young autistic boy, Simon (Miko Hughs), who accidentally deciphers an unbreakable code in a puzzle book. Planted by NSA employees, we’re expected to believe that this was published to prove that the secret cryptographic super-code, “Mercury”, is impenetrable. Or at least that’s the excuse given to their boss, Colonel Kudrow (Alec Baldwin). Like you, he does his best to grapple with the absurdity of this plot point, and after an interesting/awkward attempt to explain what autism means and how the child is harmless, Kudrow decides to do what any normal ignorant person would. Double down on this nonsense and hire the lousiest assassin (Lindsey Ginter) to kill the kid.

Luckily for Art, the assassin is competent enough to shoot Simon’s parents and trigger the chain of events that lead him to be the kid’s personal bodyguard. But unable to hit a target further than a range of five feet, the assassin is never established as a threat. There are a satisfying few minutes where another guy has a go at popping the kid -Peter Stormare cameo- and ends up getting his face kicked in before it’s used to resurface rail tracks. After that, the film lulls along bereft of any sense of danger or suspense.

Spoiler: you’re not supposed to know Kudrow is behind the attacks until the end. Jokes, I really haven’t spoiled anything. It couldn’t be more obvious Kudrow is the film’s villain. There’s creepy, ominous music that plays when he paces in his bunker style office. He continually smiles to himself and keeps his hair slick back and puffy. Christ, at one point he even walks his kill-on-sight German Shepard in the middle of a storm! When you use a formula, you’re supposed to dilute it with something, not leave it shit-powdered dry.

The movie attempts to compensate for the lack of action by drowning us in dialogue that forces you to sit through constant reminders that Simon is autistic and needs to be protected from men who are coming to kill him. It’s excruciatingly repetitive and only serves to show how insecure the film is about its plot. Eventually, a conversation happens where a confession linking Kudrow to the attempted murder comes to light, but it isn’t remotely newsworthy. If you haven’t already, you’ll be itching to put the film on mute.

Granted “Mercury Rising” is an attempt to disparage some myths about autism. Focusing on the point made in a conversation with the bigoted Kudrow, “Autism is not synonymous with diminished capacity”. Nevertheless, it still portrays a narrow perspective of life with autism by playing into the stereotype of the autistic savant. The film perpetuates this by calling on Simon’s abilities as a device and leaving him in the background the rest of the time. There are no other attempts to really explore the spectrum of his feelings and experiences, suggesting his only value is as a savant.

It could have been a more satisfying story if Art spent less time “not getting this kid” and more time listening and learning. Yet true to the movie’s shallow nature, there was no indication the relationship could tread deeper.

Despite its drawbacks, at least the film is a nice walk down memory lane. Taking us back to a time when you could leave a vulnerable child in a coffee shop with a woman you think “looked kind” (Kim Dickens). The 90s were a purer age when the F.B.I were men and women were maternal figures that you spoke over and kissed on the cheeks. Oh boy, thank goodness for the women in the film. If they weren’t all loving and obedient what would happen to poor Art and Simon? The police or social services might get involved. Art might have even be gunned down as a suspected abuser who’s maltreating a screaming child. Who knows how strong female characters could have ruined everything? Luckily the Director (Harold Becker) didn’t have to tarnish his film with any of this misplaced modern sentiment and deliver some truly satisfying two-dimensional females.

For those of you out there who plan to make it through to the end of this film sober, don’t. Or if you do, try to have the decency to get drunk as quickly as possible once it’s over. You’ll need to blot out the hours you have just lost – if not for your own sake, for Bruce’s.

Runtime: 111mins
Certificate: 15 – the number of times you wish you were watching something else
Dir: Harold Becker
Novel by: Ryne Douglas Pearson
Screenplay: Lawrence Konner, Mark Rosenthal

There is no charge for awesomeness… or attractiveness.

KUNG FU PANDA (2008)

Shooty score: N/A Kicky score: 5/5
Enjoy with: A standard, no thrills, pale ale like the Sierra Nevada or the Camden Pale. Avoid the ones that will distract you with sharp fruit or sweet honey flavours. The right pale should taste of earthy-mellow hops that gently fizzles across your pallet. Open your beer, take a slow sip. As you do, drop your shoulders, unclench your stomach and wiggle your toes. Now take a long deep breath in (count to six) and a long breath out (count to eight) and pause. Congratulations, you’ve found your ch’i. Time to fuck it up.

At first, you might be forgiven in thinking that “Kung Fu Panda” is a kids film. Bright colours and big smiling faces dance across the screen like a martial arts pop-up book. But if you’ve drunk enough cans of pale ale, you’ll know it’s more sinister than that.

Essentially, “Kung Fu Panda” is the story about a giant panda who, if given a chance, will use his fists of power to tenderise the shit out of you, stick a bamboo pole up your ass, and maul your face off like a fucking lollipop.

Set in ancient China, the story starts in a town where predators and their prey live side by side in a zen-like community, eating copious amounts of noodle soup. In one such noodle bar, we meet our panda protagonist, Po (Jack Black), and his noodle-loving goose father, Mr Ping (James Hong). Po spends most of his time daydreaming about making it as a kung fu superhero and joining the “Furious Five” – a local team of wild animals that bring the pain.

After a gruelling stair climb that symbolises his relentless ambition to reach his goal – a point wasted on small sober children- Po is chosen as the Dragon Warrior and initiated alongside the Furious Five. According to a wrinkly turtle (Randall Duk Kim), a prophecy foretold that when the Dragon Warrior appears, they will be granted the secrets to unlimited power hidden inside the forbidden Dragon Scroll. Sexy, right? Trouble is it also means Po has to defeat the most feared martial arts villain in all of China. A massive snow leopard called Tai Lung (Ian McShane)* who is on his way from prison to murder everyone.

Tai Lung’s prison break is the most visually stunning scene in the entire film. Bolted down in a fathomless pit, we watch Lung free himself with a feather and catapult his way up in a rabid assent to maim his captors. Borrowing some imagery from the One Piece movie, “Baron Omatsuri and the Secret Island” (2005), Lung meets a hail of bright red arrows, glistening as they pierce through the blackened abyss. He survives and torches the fuckers. The demonstration of his killer talent is remarkable and completely convinces you that the panda will be useless in preventing the impending slaughter.

Why then doesn’t the tiger, Tigress (Angelina Jolie), just pin Po down and use her 400 kg bite force to slowly bleed out the intruding panda and take the scroll for herself? I wish I knew. Instead, she takes her chances with the approaching snow leopard and relies on a flower wearing bamboo viper (Lucy Liu), a crane in a straw hat (David Cross), a monkey in pants (Jackie Chan) and a mother fucking praying mantis (Seth Rogan), to try and kung fu Tai Lung to death.

Before you get your ch’i in a twist, I know these animals are a clever homage to Chinese fighting styles. It’s just that if you’re going to give a viper martial arts moves and she doesn’t also inject a deadly dose of hemotoxin that disrupts blood clotting and leads to organ failure and death, then you’re wasting every body’s fucking time.

Despite not utilising the natural predatory abilities of its main cast, the fighting is excellent. There is an insane number of move combos that have a perfect blend of upper-body blocks and blows paired with gravity-defying kicks. The story-board must have been a work of art to choreograph such satisfyingly fast-paced sequences because the final animation certainly is.

Gradually Po learns kung fu, thanks to Master Shifu (Dustin Hoffman) controlling when he can eat- sadly not a feature on myfitnesspal. Po takes to the task, but deep down you know how close he is to mangling the stubby little body of that red panda and using his entrails as dim sum dip. Anyway, Po becomes worthy of the scroll and discovers some essential truths that push him into the final showdown against Tai Lung.

The concluding fight is full of the impressive high powered strikes you’ve come to expect from the lunatic leopard. Yet the real brilliance in this scene comes from Po’s hilarious counter attacks paired with some deep emotional sentiment. Getting preachy mid-fight is something that is often misjudged in films, but here it’s sincerely heartfelt. Don’t be surprised if you start sobbing into your can, choking back those three little words, “Wuxi Finger Hold…”. It’s a genuinely moving ending.

On a more serious note, “Kung Fu Panda” is also an important example of how films with a predominately white cast had gone unchallenged for many years. It’s 2018 as I’m writing this and the question of why white actors were asked to voice Chinese animals is an obvious one. After all, in 2016 “Kubo and the Two Strings” was rightly held to account for similarily whitewashing a story set in ancient Japan. “Kung Fu Panda” might boast a more diverse cast than Kubo, but the Asian-American actors were only in minor roles.

Times have changed since 2008, sure, but calling out older movies like this is a useful way to trace back and measure where we have or haven’t progressed and consider its broader ramifications. Especially for films that aim to inspire our future kung fu masters. Even if they are too young and sober to really appreciate it.

Runtime: 92mins
Certificate: PG – Implied animal mutilation
Dir: Mark Osborne, John Stevenson
Writers: Jonathan Aibel, Glenn Berger
Story: Ethan Reif, Cyrus Voris

*Also, who creates a kung fu snow leopard and thinks “British”. Mate. Ian McShane should have voiced a crusty urban fox that would have glassed the c*nt.

Now we’re going to find out what’s in Papa’s bag, Peaches!

FACE/OFF (1997)

Shooty score: 4/5 Kicky score 2.5/5
Enjoy with: a bold and spicy Zinfandel. Don’t worry about the tannins; you’ll be smacking your lips to test the elasticity of your face anyway.

Get a peach, stick it in your mouth and start sucking. I’ll tell you when to stop.

“Face/Off” is a welcome cinematic gift pitting two Hollywood heavyweights against each other in a torrent of bullets and explosions. At its heart, it’s a film about revenge. On the surface, it’s about who can play a wide-eyed, shit-losing, psychopath the best.

Based on an original screenplay by Mike Werb (The Mask, Lara Croft: Tomb Raider) and Michael Colleary (Lara Croft: Tomb Raider), “Face/Off” is a sci-fi action thriller about a disgruntled cop and an assassin swapping faces and dick game.

The film starts with a misty flashback where Castor Troy (Nicholas Cage), attempts to kill Sean Archer (John Travolta) as he rides a unicorn – god bless the 90s- and accidentally-on-purpose murders Archer’s blonde-haired, blue-eyed son.

Fast forward six years and Archer is pacing his F.B.I office, while Troy is elsewhere impersonating a priest. Straight off the bat, the film makes a point of exaggerating the differences between these two. Archer, the family man F.B.I agent, versus Troy a bomb planting molester, with a healthy appetite for peaches.

Shouting, singing, and skipping his way through his best life, Cage’s performance as a professional murder-pervert is so corny and shallow that it’s incredible. It’s such a joy to watch him unfold as a clichéd evil archetype – who smokes, does the drugs and wears silk – that it’s a shame he’s interrupted by Archer and his F.B.I army. Mid tongue suck, Cage swaps his superficial evil ticks and enters full murder-mode.

Are you still going on that peach? Good, because this first encounter is just as delicious. Archer body slams a helicopter into Troy’s jet, forcing him and his band of evil-doers to meet the challenge and, oh boy, they deliver.

Wielding a gilded gold gun, Troy cooly pistol whips and spins his way through the crossfire. Quick, nimble and professional it’s everything you expect from a world-class assassin with eyes are wider than a spookfish. It’s disappointing then when Cage abruptly reduces his tempo and is outmanoeuvred by a slow and clunky Travolta. Much like the fuzzy skin on the peach, you’re required to accept it and watch as Troy gets an unconvincing smackdown.

Happily, it isn’t over. Archer soon discovers that a secret government agency is keeping Troy alive to ensure his flesh stays warm and pliable for an undercover mission. The film lives up to its name and lifts the face off Troy and pastes it on Archer, allowing you to witness the surgical magic that makes it possible. If you’ve ever felt disappointed that a chemical peel didn’t go deep enough, this scene will feel more than satisfying.

Archer also gets a new body to complete his Troy make-over. It’s great apart from the fact that nobody mentions what happens to the penis. Not even a slight joke to let you know who might have the bigger dick in this twisted body swapping world. It’s a plot hole I’m desperate to fill. I even googled the shoe sizes! But I digress…Unbeknown to Archer’s family, he’s shipped away to a high-security prison as Troy. Just in time for the real Troy to wake up, sans face.

To be fair to Troy, he then does what any of us would in his position. Take the only face that’s going and murder the people who’ve forced you to become John Travolta.

The ensuing cat and mouse plot is silly as fuck and oh so enjoyable. Archer breaks out of prison and scrambles through helicopter gunfire, working his way back to the city to take down Troy. All the while, John Travolta is doing his best as a creepy evil dude, with lots of added sugar. Laughing and tossing his imaginary hair, he grabs ass, equips a teenager with a switchblade and fucks the wife (Joan Allen) – she doesn’t complain, yo.

Plenty of bullets piss about as we pass through one action scene to the next. Enjoying some stylish symbolism as a close encounter finds Archer and Troy staring down the barrel at their unrecognisable reflections – brilliant work, Director John Woo.

The film also does a great job at keeping Archer two steps behind in the chase. It’s a tricky tactic to get right in a movie because the harder it is for your protagonist to survive and/or win, the more absurd their ascension to victory is. However, I can assure you “Face/Off” hits the sweet spot.

You should probably spit out the pip now and linger for a moment on the syrupy battery of heavy gunfire and the slightly acidic twists of events so far. The aftertaste isn’t going to last long because, before you know it, you’ll want to stuff a big steaming American hotdog in your face.

I won’t spoil what happens in the end, but try not to choke on the flaming speedboat.

Run Time: 138 mins
Certificate: 18 – Violence, bad-words and extreme acting
Dir: John Woo
Writers: Mike Werb, Michael Colleary

Upgrade Shmuckgrade

UPGRADE (2018)

Shooty score: 1/5  Kicky score: 3/5
Enjoy with: A fruity bottle of red wine like a Barbera D’Asti, which gives you vanilla, red berries and an alcoholic punch (14%, yo). You’ll need something sweetly satisfying to fill the monotonous gaps between the action.

“Upgrade” is the sort of film that brings a shotgun to a knife fight but forgot to load the shells.

Set in future-land, car mechanic Grey (Logan Marshall-Green), and his wife, Asha (Melanie Vallejo), are ambushed by a local gang who kills the spouse and leaves Grey disabled. After a hot minute mourning, a super genius client of Grey, Eron – who is the most exaggerated anime character you have ever seen on screen – inserts a super secret chip, STEM, into his spine that helps him walk again. STEM soon turns out to be pretty personal and gives Grey superhuman fighting skills, taking him on a revenge mission to find the gang who killed his wife.

So cheers to a fucking solid concept for a futuristic revenge caper. But refill that glass because it won’t take long for the film to misfire in all directions. I’m sorry, but watching these limp-armed henchmen fail to deliver any kind of blow is as hard to grasp as a flaccid dick… and just as disappointing.

For starters, you’re led to believe that the STEM implant can control Grey to outmanoeuvre any adversary. Flinging him across rooms with amusing reluctance, he slices and dices his way through the city with relative ease and occasional sadistic flourish. Most notable when STEM uses its host to perform an overzealous Glasgow smile on one of the guilty gang members. A solid eight out of ten on the gore scale.

Unfortunately, it’s all tainted with one detail that I cannot overlook: the gang who killed his wife have guns engineered into their arms. Like jacked-up spidermen, all they have to do is flex their palm to unload a couple of rounds. Despite this genius mutation, only a couple of these robo-mercenaries effectively use the fucking thing. That includes the one guy who accidentally blows his own head off.

Unbelievably, the film is pretty content with this. The other lackeys seem happier to take their chances with a kitchen knife, conveniently stacking the chips in Grey’s favour. I’m sorry, but watching these limp-armed henchmen fail to deliver any kind of blow is as hard to grasp as a flaccid dick… and just as disappointing.

Looking beyond this, the mostly gun-less action is actually the only thing that provides a sense of pace and tension to the film. The movement is sudden and grabs your attention with impressive flexing and satisfying bone cracks.

Alas, much like the stale bread you eat at a restaurant while waiting for your steak, you have to chew through the long drawn out story to get to the meaty bits.

The film’s major drawback is that it fails to deliver any emotional substance needed to help you endure long scenes of Grey’s experience as a sometimes-quadriplegic widower. The hurried plot dips its toe into too many characters while demanding you remain sympathetic to the hero’s cause. Near impossible as the only thing you really get to know about Grey is that he likes to repairs old cars and was once “happy”, and now he’s “sad”. The story doesn’t even do its job to provide nuance to Grey’s relationship with STEM. A fact that becomes massively annoying when a quick attempt at the end tries to back-peddle through the story to explain everything. But in true Scooby-Doo fashion, it’s brief and inconclusive.

The films only saving grace is Detective Cortez (Betty Gabriel), whose involvement in finding the killers of Grey’s wife, leads her to suspects Grey almost immediately of being responsible for a whole bunch of murdering. It’s so immediate it could practically pass as lazy writing, but I give her character the benefit of the doubt because, quite frankly, she is brilliant. Savvy, devious and unabashed, Cortez tags along as Grey’s shadow giving us just a glimpse of her stamina. By the end of the film, I found myself fantasising about how she’d single handily take down the group of cyborg murder men (probably with two shotguns and a grenade).

Underusing all of the exciting concepts in the film, while simultaneously failing to pass the believability test of its own universe, “Upgrade” feels like a waste. Some might find it worth a view just for a few splashes of blood but be warned, this is no trigger-happy adventure but a half-baked sob story with a supercomputer thrown in.

My advice? Pass on the bread basket and get hammered on the wine instead.

Run Time: 149 mins
Certificate: 15 – Violence, but no nudey bits
Dir: Leigh Whannell
Writer: Leigh Whannell
UK cinema release: 31st August 2018