*** (out of five)
On paper, it’s hard to tell if teaming Dwayne Johnson, the artist formally known as The Rock, now officially the highest-earning movie star in the world – in salary and box office – and Meryl Streep, the most awarded and respected (except by the President of the United States) movie actor in history, was a good one. In practice, it’s turned out surprisingly well. In My Bodyguard, which is a very tenuous, practically “in name only” remake of the 1980 drama, Johnson plays Sanchez, the well-meaning, dyslexic janitor at an isolated, elite private high school hired by the school’s principal (Streep) to be her bodyguard against the increasingly – and bizarrely – dangerous student population. It’s a strange hybrid of gritty (and surprisingly violent) action and sentimental May/December romance, and, somehow, it works, despite a few preposterous moments.
Happily, those moments are also some of the film’s (deeply) guilty pleasures. As with seeing Helen Mirren blow things and beat people up in Red (2010), it’s highly entertaining to watch Streep lay into one of her particularly odious charges while Sanchez sits calmly in a dark corner of the room, his presence all that is needed to keep the student from fighting back. Likewise, it is a rare joy to see Johnson go into emotional territory he simply hasn’t explored before; – spolier – yes, we see the big fella cry.
By setting the scene in an expensive private school, the film deftly – or, blatantly – avoids racial politics. All of the students turned violent are white; the few minority students, all on scholarships, are also the good ones, who pay Sanchez respect even before he puts down his broom and picks up his bat. Like The River Wild (1994) and The Giver (2014), this is Streep taking a swim in genre cinema seemingly to just give it a go, but – of course! – she also deeply commits. Watch, they’ll give her another Oscar nomination; wouldn’t it be fun if Johnson got one too?
Dwayne Johnson is a big movie star, and that’s an intended pun: these days, his muscles must be acknowledged before a story can commence. Central Intelligence, a reasonably entertaining take on old-school buddy action movies, takes this acknowledgment to new heights: in the vernacular of the movie, it gets meta on our ass.
The gag is that Johnson’s character was the “fat kid” in high school, and everything he does now that he’s forty or so is colored by over-compensating for this. So he’s huuuuge (“I worked out six hours a day for twenty years”) and he’s also the CIA’s most deadly rogue agent – or something like that. Unlike The Nice Guys, the other recent buddy movie throwback, Central Intelligence does not have an important plot. Hell, it doesn’t really have a plot.
What is does have is chemistry between Johnson and Hart, which is the sole and entire reason to see the movie. Who cares what it’s about? They’re in practically every scene together and they play off each other well. There is a surprising amount of gunplay (and death, which I wasn’t expecting); there is a refreshing lack of sentimentality. There’s an anti-bullying message hidden in there somewhere, too, possibly between Johnson’s biceps brachial and scapula. But you can listen to Sia, Rihanna, Swift or Perry for that. See this movie for Da Boyz; they’ll be back soon, in a remake of Jumanji. And the inevitable sequel to Central Intelligence.
***1/2 (out of five)
A Los Angeles Fire Department Helicopter Pilot gets the chance to save his marriage when the biggest earthquake in history rips open the San Andreas fault from LA to San Francisco. If that co-mingling of the personal and the devastatingly tragic makes you a little queasy, San Andreas – which, amid hundreds of thousands of deaths, is only concerned with a few actual lives – may not be for you. The astonishing thing is that the film kind of pulls it off.
The performances help. As our little family unit at the centre of a little family drama that just happens to unfold during the total annihilation of California as we know it, Dwayne Johnson, Carla Gugino and especially Alexandra Daddario give emotionally honest portraits. Daddario plays the (surviving) daughter of what was once a four person household; her sister drowned in an accident some years ago. The threat posed to her life as San Francisco crumbles around her gives her parents the chance to find redemption, and their love back.
I know, it sounds cheesy, and the worst scenes – which see Johnson and Gugino sharing happy memories even as they’re choppering to find their daughter who could very well be dead – are laughable. But Daddario, who easily commands as much screen time as Johnson, is excellent and believable even as she’s thrown into the most physically dangerous situations imaginable, accompanied by Ben and Ollie, a charming Brit and his younger brother, played by Australia’s Hugo Johnstone-Burt and wee Art Parkinson, Rickon Stark in Game of Thrones. Johnstone-Burt is tremendously capable, and his amount of screen time – and close-ups – is quite staggering considering his last feature was the seen-by-three-people Goddess. A huge Hollywood career is now his to lose.
It would be enormously easy to dismiss this film as tasteless, exploitative or stupid. Coming after the Nepal calamity, its premise hardly seems to qualify as fair entertainment, and its many, many depictions of skyscrapers coming down in explosions of glass, concrete and dust are so reminiscent of the actual images of the World Trade Centers’ felling that they border on some sort of history porn. But the film has a massive heart and makes the right choices at the right moments, and manages to skilfully avoid the many inherent pitfalls with this sort of material. There is no actual gore; Johnson’s character does actually help some other folks besides his family; the science behind the quakes seems soundly researched – and Paul Giamatti plays the main scientist! Giamatti’s committed, heartfelt performance sums up what’s right with this film: he, and the creative team, knows how bad it could be, so they’re determined to be careful, and make it good.