Review: Hitman: Agent Jun (2020), A No-Frills Half-Baked Action-Comedy that Entertains

When the kids in my writing classes are bereft of story ideas, I always remind them to think of an actual incident they have experienced, do a slight (or hard) left turn and let it ripped from there. In Hitman: Agent Jun, webtoon artist Jun (Kwon Sang-Woo) is at his wits’ end. Nothing he draws worked and the threat of being fired is looming. In a fit of drunken stupor and righteous anger, he draws his personal stories using actual names with no intention of uploading his secret past as a NIS secret agent and “Ace” assassin up to the internet. But the shite hits the fan when his wife accidentally uploads it. His webtoon becomes the talk of the town and before long his enemies and friends who thought he was dead come rampaging into his life and make it a living hell.

My wifey and I actually had the entire cinema to ourselves. Unbelievable! The COVID-19 thing is really killing a lot of F&B and entertainment businesses. No matter what, the show must go on and we laughed our heads off at the antics and hilarity of it all. It’s such a shame that nobody was there with us. A cinema filled with raucous laughter would have done everybody some good.

Okay this review is going to write itself and I suspect the novelty of having an entire cinema to ourselves earned the movie another half star. 

Like many Korean movies, Hitman: Agent Jun has an interesting premise, but building upon it is a different ball game. I can detect a lot of True Lies (1994) vibes, but this isn’t even remotely in the ballpark of James Cameron’s classic action-comedy. Hitman: Agent Jun coasts along with the affable charm of Kwon Sang-Woo and its intriguing premise.

There are lots of people dying but the deaths are portrayed in a cartoonish manner. The hero is practically bulletproof and irresistibly winsome, but his arc doesn’t go anywhere remotely memorable. His superior behaving like a child, screaming his entire dialogue grates on my nerves. The villain is the baddest guy on the planet because he has a humongously scarred face with one eye and he snarls through all his dialogue. Basically, the characters are drawn in convenient broad strokes and you will know how the plot will progress from a mile away. Finally, all the parties collide in a climax that is an over-long overkill and ends with a coda that is utterly useless, with me silently praying “no sequel please.”

Director Choi Won-Sub’s strategy is to machine-gun the whole canvas, but nothing hits the bullseye. To be fair, it is successful at some moments, bringing on mad laughter from us in an empty cinema (that’s not an easy task), but inventiveness and depth are not his forte. Jun’s daughter and wife story arc would have made an amazing story spine, but I guess that would scream True Lies in my face. That’s a shame because the scene of daughter rapping is particularly memorable and fresh, and the scene of the wife going wide-eyed in slow-motion and mouthing “where the f**k are you going?” as Jun careens his car in a new direction instead of saving her is hilarious. All in all, it’s not a bad way to spend 110 minutes, just leave your brain at the door. 

Rating 3/5

Review: Happy Old Year (2020), A Charming Little Story About a Woman Doing a KonMari on Her Cluttered Home and Love Life

Being a creative writing teacher, I am a firm advocate that the beginning and ending of any narrative piece is crucial. This little English lesson has also permeated into many areas of my life, including my love life: how one begins and ends a relationship is also significant. I was at the tail end of a seven-year relationship with a girl who two-timed me. I knew it was game over and I had a choice: I could make it really bad for her or I could let her go gently. I chose the latter. I was not under the illusion I was a saint – when a relationship breaks down, both parties have a part to play. On our last date, I brought her to the exact spot where I confessed my love for her seven years ago, a bench outside a lecture theatre at National University of Singapore, and we had a heartwarming time chatting and reminiscing the great moments we shared together. Thinking back, I thought it was the most fitting way to end a relationship that both of us have put in so much and it was a good emotional closure for both of us. It was a farewell that gave us hope and set us free to love again. 

In the Thai movie Happy Old Year, while Jean (Chutimon Chuengcharoensukying) is doing a major decluttering of her house to convert it into a home office, she finds some items that belonged to Aim (Sunny Suwanmethanont), her ex-boyfriend. Three years ago, Jean just packed up and left the country without giving Aim a reason. Their relationship never did have an emotional closure. It may be time to do the right thing now.

You wouldn’t be faulted for catching some zany rom-com vibes and you would be utterly wrong. Just like writer-director Nawapol Thamrongrattanarit’s Heart Attack (2015), Happy Old Year is marketed like a rom-com, but it isn’t in the strictest sense.

The movie is divided into chapters, each detailing an aspect of decluttering. The KonMari’s method seems easy on paper: anything that doesn’t spark joy just say “thank you” and throw it away. It is easy when the things are irrelevant, but it gets tough when they are tied to a memory. This is where the movie soars – its examination of the elusive concept of memory, its selectiveness and how it is tied in an ironclad bond to histories and emotions. Thamrongrattanarit shows us the different ways we deal with painful memories through Jean, her mother and all the other myriad characters. Jean seems ruthless, wanting to follow a strict timeline to get everything out and give the home a minimalist look, while the mother is resolute with her selective amnesia in not wanting to change the status quo. The scene where Jean and her mother get into a heated argument is especially poignant and heartbreaking. 

How expositions and plot details are doled out is immaculately handled. Even the music has a minimalist feel which ties in to the theme of minimalism. The possibly rekindled romance is but a part of the whole story and I wouldn’t even say it is the spine. The typical rom-com arc of “will they or will they not” takes a backseat as the scenes of Jean and Aim play out in surprising ways. 

The topic of memory is prone to be mishandled, but Thamrongrattanarit’s hand is assured as he delves into the different notions of the elusive concept. Through all the storytelling, he even gives the movie a spellbinding minimalist vibe and makes it compellingly relatable. The characters feel lived in and authentic. I was rooting for Jean to get the emotional closure she doesn’t know she needs, just like me.

Rating 4 / 5

Review: Birds of Prey: And the Fantabulous Emancipation of One Harley Quinn (2020), These Birds Failed to Take Flight

Birds of Prey review

That sure is a mouthful for a movie title and it also cleverly signifies this is a movie that cannot be taken seriously (not that we need a reminder when we see Quinn’s kaleidoscopic get-up and strange choice for a pet). Let me fire out all the puns first: these Birds not only do not soar, they stay grounded; I won’t be surprised these Birds lay a bad egg at the box office; these Birds are going into a tailspin; my fear of birds just got worse; these Birds won’t be ruffling any feathers; when Birds hit the hour mark my senses went on flight mode.

Okay… it isn’t as bad as what I made it out to be and it definitely isn’t the worse one from DCEU. I think Suicide Squad (2016) takes that unwanted honour. Out from that mess, Harley Quinn was the only colourful spot and the powers-that-be decides that she deserves her own spotlight.

Harley Quinn (Margot Robbie) has broken up with the Prince of Crime, Joker. She soon realises that the privileges accorded to her have been revoked and all guises of trouble come looking for her. Meanwhile, club owner Roman Sionis aka the Black Mask (Ewan McGregor) sends his henchman Victor Zsasz (Chris Messina) and driver Dinah Lance (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) to get a special diamond, but it lands up with pickpocket Cassandra Cain (Ella Jay Basco). Sionis enlists Quinn’s help with the promise of protection for her in Gotham City once the job is done, but her path is impeded by Huntress (Mary Elizabeth Winstead) and driven cop Montoya (Rosie Perez).

A few minutes into the zany movie, my mind is throwing up Deadpool with the same off-the-fly expositions and storytelling that doesn’t adhere to a chronological timeline. It is alright to copy, God knows there practically aren’t many original stories anymore, but to me the borrowed idea needs to be taken to a different place. In the case of Birds of Prey, it just isn’t an interesting place.

The plot is outlandish, the characters cartoonish and the situations absurd. That is all fine because I can take a joke, but the plot is choppy and the story feels like a mess. At least it is a colourful mess. The action scenes also don’t escalate in terms of spectacle and ingenuity. The police station raid is oh-la-la fantastic, but the climatic one at the amusement park isn’t on par with the earlier ones with a lack of inventiveness.

Director Cathy Yan doesn’t understand the dynamics of an ensemble movie. The main focus of Birds of Prey is only on one bird, and her arc isn’t pronounced. You can’t just put a bevy of women together and scream “this is female power” and everyone will get the female empowerment message. I felt none of that because every time it may be going down the road to develop the female characters, we get inundated by noise. That seems to Yan’s goto aesthetics – noise and more noise.

Its other problem is a lack of a convincing villain. McGregor tries his damnedest to chew his scenes out but when you are not given much material to begin with you are probably chewing on your own tongue. Victor Zsasz gets it even worse and from what I have read he features strongly in the comics. I don’t read the comics and don’t get why Roman needs a mask.

Whatever potential Birds of Prey has is buried under a heap of under-realised characters and repetitive action. Birds need to be free and these birds deserve better. They just couldn’t break free from its stylised cage. They didn’t even try.

PS – There is an end-credit scene that drops after you sit through all the credits. Depending on your disposition, you may just shout some expletives at the screen, so I think I better tell you it’s just a cheeky sound-bite involving a certain major character.

Rating: 2,5 / 5

Review: Bombshell (2020), Fails to Detonate Resoundingly

bombshell review

There is a deliciously charged scene near the halfway mark of Bombshell depicting the three principals in a lift. No words are exchanged at first, all of them sizing each other up from the corner of their eye, deciding whether they are friend or foe. Prior to this scene it all feels like a wine and dine build-up of each character’s motivation. The lift scene is momentous with each woman representing different stages of their career and what they have to lose if everything explodes. Their paths intersect and the possibilities are enticing. However, what a could-have-been becomes a flurry of denouements that don’t quite hit the spot.

Bombshell is a retelling of the 2016 sexual harassment scandal at Fox News, which was the harbinger of the #MeToo movement. The story drops us right smack into the presidential campaign and Fox News honcho Roger Ailes (John Lithgow) makes no bones that he likes Donald Trump at the helm. Megyn Kelly (Charlize Theron) is tasked to pick at Trump which lands her in hot soup. Kayla (Margot Robbie) is new and wants to build a vivid career at the network. She gets more than she bargained for when she finally gets to meet Ailes in his office. Gretchen Carlson (Nicole Kidman) is a veteran at Fox News programming, but she has had enough of the male corporate atmosphere, especially when Ailes is trying to squeeze her out of the network as she tries to introduce feminist thinking in her show. Knowing that the end is near, she seeks legal help, eventually suing Ailes for sexual harassment, exposing his sexual deviant behaviour to the world.

For a talkie movie, it moves at an electric pace. Scenes don’t overstay their welcome, neither does director Jay Roach allow the scene to build to an empathetic level. There is also a cheekiness in that Kelly at times addresses us, educating us in the not too subtle ways of the network that seeks to be the Numero Uno of all television networks. It is an intoxicatingly breathless tour of the network floor where the selling of ideas, ethics, candidates and the truth as they deem it is of paramount importance and it does it through the showing of the female legs and sexuality. 

Charlize Theron superbly nails the twisty character of Megyn Kelly. Theron gets Kelly – her sensuality weaponised to the hilt, every smile calibrated to set off bombs in your body you didn’t you have and the walk to any spot timed to perfection. It is a role that Theron owns and she absolutely deserves her Best Actress nomination. 

Elsewhere, Margot Robbie’s Kayla also does a great job as a composite character. Kayla is essentially our surrogate. The scene of her in Ailes’ office as she is subtly asked to betray her soul to a predator is gobsmackingly scary. It is in this scene that the thought of “why can’t you just walk away” is extinguished because so many elements are in play. The conversation is not immediately discernible as sexual harassment, but Ailes is a skilled predator in playing the game of backing off and pushing it further. When all else fails, he gently, Iike a little lamb, holds you hostage with your career. It is just not easy to stand up and walk away from that. 

Bombshell feels like a greatest hits package – we get all the momentous moments that change history. Don’t accept the unacceptable; speak up; get help; say no to the objectification of your body; stand up to sexual harassment in your workplace. If the message is blunt and the plot’s denouement stodgy, it is all smoothed out by the fine acting. Credit must be given for a nuanced way of telling the story, but it feels over-packed with many pulled punches. What should detonate with stand-up chest-thumping fervour becomes just a flurry of small explosions with little impact.

3.5 / 5