Gadot solid as Stone
What with The Gray Man, Extraction and Red Notice franchises, Netflix is making a name for itself as the go-to source for solid action fare. Tom Harper's Heart of Stone seems destined to be added to the streamer's stable of series as the director delivers a solid, if not overly original, espionage thriller that's never less than thrilling or fun. The film gets off to a rousing start as Stone and her MI:6 team – Parker (Jamie Dornan), Yang (Jing Lusi) and Bailey (Paul Ready) – infiltrate an Italian stronghold in the Alps where they plan to take out a nefarious (is there any other kind?) arms dealer. Of course, it all goes sideways and before the first 20 minutes have played out, we've been treated to a crackerjack fight sequence, a tense downhill race replete with SUVs, snow-cycles and a parachuting Stone, finishing off with a slick shootout. It's an impressive start.
Screenwriters Greg Rucka and Allison Schroeder aren't content to go through the motions, their story containing one surprise after another. Turns out Stone belongs to a clandestine agency known as The Charter, an international group of rogue agents who have taken it upon themselves to do the jobs their governments have prevented them from doing. At their disposal is a massive A.I. computer that has access to every bit of information in the world. (Who's bankrolling this operation is never explained and falls under the category of questions you're not supposed to ask.) Of course, whoever has this system has control of everything, so it comes as no surprise that a group of terrorists are trying to get ahold of it.
If you're experiencing a bit of déjà vu, then you've likely seen Mission impossible 7, which operates around the same premise. Stone is working at a disadvantage because there's really no new ground to cover in the genre. The villains are the same, the premise is the same and the narrative beats are the same. All action films suffer from the "been there, done that" syndrome, so the only thing that elevates one over another is how well the actions scenes are executed.
The set pieces are, on the whole, are well done, thrills and a bit of humor evident whether our heroine is careening down the streets of Lisbon or freefalling from a low-flying satellite. And Gadot sells it, never self-conscious in executing her feats of daring-do, a wry smile evident throughout. Stone proves to be a solid first entry in what I hope will be an ongoing series. Streaming on Netflix.
River overcomes leaky third act
Though its title is similar to the 1994 Meryl Streep feature, and it does focus on a perilous journey on a river with a psychopath calling the shots, Ben Ketai's River Wild manages to be distinctive in delving into the psyches of its central characters in an effort to give us a more emotionally based thriller. For the most part it succeeds, though it stumbles badly during its third act when a degree of laziness takes hold of Ketai and Mike Nguyen Le's writing, incidents taking place that stretch the bounds of credibility.
At a crossroads, Joey (Leighton Meester) decides to get away and take a trip with her brother Gray (Taran Killam), who happens to own a white-water rafting tour company. She tags along on a small expedition with him and two first timers, Karissa (Olivia Swann) and Van (Eve Connolly), but perpetual third wheel Trevor (Adam Brody) also joins the expedition. A childhood friend of Gray's, the ex-con is a loose cannon, his erratic, impulsive behavior often leading to trouble.
Sure enough, an accident occurs in which Van fractures her skull and it's implied she was trying to escape Trevor attempting to sexually assault her. This triggers Joey and we learn that she was also a victim of his, some 15 years ago, and the trauma from these repeated events is something she's not been able to grapple with. Things get complicated as they try to get Van down river for help and before you know it, Trevor has killed a park ranger and has taken his cohorts hostage, insisting they help him flee to Canada in order to escape justice.
Ketai does a fine job capturing the violence of the river they must navigate, putting the viewer in the fragile inflatable with the characters, tossing and turning us around with them to great effect. He also has some solid performances at his disposal, each in his intimate cast rising to the occasion as the pressure in the narrative mounts. Their reactions fuel the tension, and as things progress, the film becomes a character study, Meester given the spotlight as a damaged woman who must find the courage to face her demons.
This examination of trauma and its effects provides the movie with a solid emotional foundation. Unfortunately, there are a couple moments in the last half hour that defy all logic, Joey forced to go against character and commit two incredibly stupid acts in service of sustaining the plot. These acts are so out of keeping with all we've seen of her previously, that I almost threw in the towel. However, the final scene is on point and the emotional pull of the story is enough to make me forgive River its faults, but by a very narrow margin. Streaming on Netflix.
Meg 2 drowns in confusion
When you watch a Jason Statham movie, you have certain expectations. There will be action, the story will likely make little sense and the star's wry charisma will help smooth over the movie's faults. Ironically, his latest, Meg 2, elicited a response I never thought I'd have toward a Statham actioner – I was bored to tears. I never thought a movie featuring three sharks as big as a tractor trailer and an octopus as large as a house munching on people would make me nod off. And yet, in that way, Ben Wheatley manages to defy expectations with this instantly forgettable, bloated B-movie.
More is not more here, not where the oversized sharks or the needlessly convoluted plot is concerned. All we need is the thinnest of excuses to turn these teethed leviathans loose, yet it takes far too long for that to happen. Instead, the film gets bogged down with an overlong journey to the depths of the ocean by a group of scientists who foolishly venture into an unknown sector. There they find a hidden mining facility while their submersibles suffer mechanical failure, and the crews are forced to walk to safety on the ocean floor. All the while, the sharks are cruising.
Look, I know movies play fast and loose with scientific fact, but when our hero must take a quick dive at 25,000 feet and we're told he won't be crushed if he clears his sinuses and fills them with air...I mean, give me a break! I can forgive such egregious errors if I'm adequately distracted, however, that was certainly not the case here. Confusion reigns as much of the action is muddled due to many scenes taking place in the sea's darkest recesses, none of this helped by a rapid cutting rhythm. It got so bad, once helmets were put on for the fateful ocean walk, I couldn't distinguish one character from the other.
The carnage – and let's be honest, that's the reason you're going to this movie – doesn't kick into high gear until the last half hour when a resort comes under attack. However, this is botched as well as Wheatley takes a page from the superhero film playbook, giving us an overextended, repetitious conclusion that bores rather than thrills. Not silly enough to be funny, not serious enough to be scary, Meg 2 is dead in the water. Sharks + Statham = Tedium. Who'd a thunk it? In theaters.