War Dogs and Mechanic: Resurrection fail to make their morally dubious characters interesting
Two movies this week present good case studies on that most mercurial of qualities - likeability.
Both movies feature awful male characters at their core, but want the audience to find them sympathetic, and how they do it offers a fascinating look at how Hollywood makes its products.
War Dogs(M18, 114 minutes, opens tomorrow, 2.5/5 stars) is a heavily fictionalised version of a true story about two men who saw the American military as an overstuffed cash pinata and took a few whacks at it.
David Packouz (Miles Teller) is at a dead end: He hates his job as a masseur and his partner Iz (Ana de Armas) is pregnant. His long-lost buddy, the smooth operator Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill), offers David a fresh start through a job in his weapons-sales company.
The late-2000s are a great time to be selling things that go bang, because Washington has deep pockets and a long shopping list. Afghanistan and Iraq have native armies and police forces that need guns and ammunition, and their patron, the American government, is none too choosy about suppliers, as long as the goods are cheap.
Cue lots of shots of the salesmen living the high life. Efraim goes on a hedonistic tear, while David moves his expectant partner into more luxurious surroundings.
What's interesting about this movie is how much of it played as a bro comedy, accompanied by the rock and hip-hop of Pitbull, Beastie Boys and Iggy Pop - bad behaviour set to a soundtrack.
The film has been compared to The Wolf Of Wall Street (2013) or The Big Short (2015) because, superficially, it deals with wealth and how it makes men vulgar.
Actually, this work is more like Entourage (2015) or The Hangover films (2009-2013) because director and co-writer Todd Phillips wants you to admire the bros, not be sickened by them.
He gives you a choice of whom to root for - the decent chap whose ill-gotten gains goes to his family, or the guy who blows his cash on sports cars and strippers, but who is, deep down, a lovable stoner.
Their monied antics neither reach the baroque heights attained by Wolf, nor does the film have The Big Short's sense of outrage at a rigged financial system.
It is no coincidence that Phillips directed all three Hangover films and this one carries the same vomitous idea: "These guys are odious twerps, but gosh, aren't they goofy!"
No, they are not that goofy; they are morally subnormal, in ways that are deeply uninteresting.
Mechanic: Resurrection (NC16, 98 minutes, opens tomorrow, 2.5/5 stars) is the sequel to the 2011 action-thriller, itself a remake of a 1972 Charles Bronson action flick.
Super-assassin Arthur Bishop (Jason Statham) is laying low at a resort in Thailand, one that happens to be owned by Michelle Yeoh's Mei because what other name could a woman of Asian descent have in a movie like this?
His cover is blown because he saves damsel-in-distress Gina (Jessica Alba), an act that would pull him back into the world of killing for money, in ways that look like accidents.
What follows next is the usual for indie works starring The Stath - the dialogue is laughable, the sex, uncomfortable. What sets this apart from the run-of-the-mill caper movie is its script ambitions.
These days, when such Statham, or Stallone, Neeson or Costner vehicles are mainly a series of explosions linked by stuff about family or brotherhood, this work dares to use old-fashioned story devices. There is a love angle, between Bishop and Gina, as well as villains who are a tad more colourful.
Locations, too, show scope - things happen in Thailand, Penang, Sydney, Rio de Janeiro and Bulgaria. As if in a nod to Statham's former career as a high diver, Arthur is constantly swimming, on one occasion while inside an evil overlord's lair, which is - what else? - a submarine pen.
Ambitious? Maybe. But it's still dull and tone-deaf to pacing, suspense and character.
The love scenes are cringe-making. Actually, any scene where Statham is not breaking necks is cringe-y. After Arthur displays some medical prowess, Mei notes, in fortune-cookie fashion, that "those who are best at killing are also the best at healing". It sounds profound, but makes no sense.
An example of how clunky things get is the appearance of Tommy Lee Jones, as baddie Max Adams.
Jones, the man with a glare that can curdle milk, turns up in earrings, a soul patch on his chin, tiny sunglasses and loud shirts. He has played villains before. It is almost certain none would have looked like a narcotics cop trying to blend in at a 1990s Grateful Dead concert.
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 31, 2016, with the headline 'Making bad guys look good'. Print Edition | Subscribe
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