At The Movies: Black Widow's sting is mild; No Sudden Move is a thriller with bounce

A still from Black Widow featuring Scarlett Johansson (left) and Florence Pugh.
A still from Black Widow featuring Scarlett Johansson (left) and Florence Pugh.PHOTO: THE WALT DISNEY COMPANY

Black Widow (PG13)

134 minutes
Opens Thursday (July 8) in cinemas
Available on Disney+ Premier Access from Friday (July 9) for $38.98
Free for all Disney+ subscribers from Oct 6
3 stars

This muddled but well-intentioned action movie feels every bit like a project that has gone through permutations.

Around the edges, there are glimpses of the bloody revenge flick it might have been. In the soggy middle section is a bit about a Soviet sleeper cell that fakes being a nice suburban American family at the cost of the children's mental well-being.

But the greatest wasted opportunity rests in how, despite having two great martial arts exponents as characters, so much time is spent on titanic smash-ups and big booms and so little on hand-to-hand combat.

Set during the superhero clique conflict of Captain America: Civil War (2016), Natasha Romanoff (Scarlett Johansson), also known as the Black Widow, is cut off from the other Avengers. The spy from intelligence and counter-terrorism unit S.H.I.E.L.D. is hiding from the authorities and goes underground.

But her solitude is interrupted by someone from her past: Dreykov (Ray Winstone), a former Soviet officer who took her and Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh) as children, as well as thousands of other girls, for use in the Red Room spy training programme.

A miniseries' worth of ideas are compressed into two hours. Into the current Marvel template of light comedy and epic action are poured feelings of betrayal and family abandonment and, for good measure, state-sponsored terrorism carried out by trafficked girls sent into a brutal training regimen.

Australian director Cate Shortland, to her credit, manages to smooth some of the most jagged transitions exposed by the uneasy mix of light and heavy ideas, airy fantasy and sordid reality.

Some reports say she is the first woman to direct a movie featuring a Marvel hero. That honour goes to German-Palestinian kickboxing champion-turned-director Lexi Alexander, who helmed the blood-soaked Punisher: War Zone (2008).

Johansson, Pugh, David Harbour (as comic relief superhero Red Guardian, a back-in-the-USSR version of Captain America) and Rachel Weisz (as former Red Room scientist Melina Vostokoff) are excellent, but a story about two blade-wielding women delivering rough justice to the men who kidnapped and abused them ought to feel more intimately and satisfyingly vengeful.

In The Heights (PG)

A still from the musical In The Heights. PHOTO: WARNER BROS

143 minutes
Opens Thursday (July 8)
2 stars

This musical strives to be so unflaggingly sunny, likeable and relatable that one feels terrible giving it anything less than five stars, but here we are.

From its opening scene that frames the film as a kid's story-time treat, to its non-stop raising up of the mostly Latino inhabitants of Manhattan's Washington Heights, the film's positivity, energy and leaps of fantasy give it the aura of a big-budget version of the children's show Sesame Street.

At certain points, one almost expects shopkeeper Usnavi (Anthony Ramos) to break the fourth wall with a lesson about a letter or number.

Usnavi wants to switch the American Dream for a place in the Dominican Republic, where he hopes to revive his father's former business. He pines for hairdresser Vanessa (Melissa Barrera), but is too intimidated to express his feelings.

She, in turn, yearns to go to fashion design school.

The film covers the couple, along with others in the neighbourhood, each with dreams of his or her own but lacking access to money, citizenship or some other resource. They form a village coalescing around a shared love of community elders, home-cooked food, music and dancing.

Director Jon M. Chu, helming his first feature after the massively popular romantic comedy Crazy Rich Asians (2018), infuses this stage production-turned-movie with a degree of visual elan.

Perhaps the original live show, co-written by celebrated musician, actor and playwright Lin-Manuel Miranda, possessed some magic. But this movie's infantilised characters and absence of memorable tunes turn the Heights into a neighbourhood that is fine for a quick visit, but a chore for anything longer.

No Sudden Move (M18)

Benicio Del Toro (left) and Don Cheadle in No Sudden Move. PHOTO: HBO

110 minutes, available on HBO Go
4 stars

Gangster low-lifers, white-collar crooks and corporate conspiracies collide in this darkly comic crime tale set in the 1950s - a time when the United States emerged as an industrial giant in a world still shattered from a world war.

Don Cheadle is Goynes, a Detroit hood recently released from prison, carrying out what looks like an easy heist on behalf of a local kingpin. He is joined by Ronald Russo (Benicio Del Toro) and Charley (Kieran Culkin), goons hired by gangster go-between Doug Jones (Brendan Fraser).

What begins as a simple plan becomes decidedly less simple - bodies pile up and shared confidences are exposed as lies. Goynes and Russo find themselves caught in a web that crosses the lines of race and class.

Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh (Traffic, 2000) - working with a screenplay from Ed Solomon (crime thrillers Now You See Me and Now You See Me 2, 2013 and 2016, as well as the three Bill & Ted time-travel comedies, 1989, 1991 and 2020) - derives pleasure in seeing antiheroes Russo and Goynes work the angles in a dangerous game that they, like the audience, cannot see in totality.

While nowhere as breezy as Soderbergh's much-admired Ocean's heist films (2001, 2004 and 2007), his bouncy sense of rhythm is still present.

Found in patterns of speech, imaginative camera work and a jazz-inflected twangy guitar soundtrack, it is a beat that drives this industrial-age thriller from scene to scene.