As was destined to happen at my well-attended-by-teenage-girls screening of Insurgent, I heard plenty of nervous titters when Shailene Woodley and Theo James finally unzipped their faux X-Men garb and got (PG-13) busy with one another, and solemn silence during most of the rest of this tear-stained, thematically pushy action adventure. But I did hear one other occasional sound, because nearly every time Miles Teller opened his mouth for a throwaway retort or vicious insult, the girls in my crowd laughed, and were completely right to. As Teller's Peter is an eternal thorn in our heroes' sides and a grade-A prick to boot - a character you'd presume more deserving of hisses than giggles - this was somewhat surprising. It was also hugely cheering. Those teen patrons may have collectively enjoyed the rampaging mediocrity of this Divergent sequel, but they also, just maybe, recognized true greatness when they saw it.
At the start of this second installment in the four-part trilogy, Woodley's Divergent Tris, a former Abnegation, finds herself and her fellow Dauntless in hiding from the Erudite amidst the Amity. If you find nothing about that sentence making the least bit of sense, including the phrase "four-part trilogy," you probably have too much catching up to do to bother with Insurgent. (The follow-ups Allegiant: Part 1 and Part 2 are scheduled for 2016 and 2017, so feel free to preemptively ignore those, as well.) Adapted from Veronica Roth's YA-lit series that, by all screen evidence, appears to be little more than a Hunger Games knock-off with less psychological nuance and more black leather, director Robert Schwentke's outing is yet another violent (though largely bloodless) rallying cry against conformity and in favor of individuality and personal responsibility. These are worthy sentiments, to be sure, especially for a young-adult demographic. As expressed here, they're also thunderously obvious and uninteresting ones, because the deck is so decisively stacked against Tris' opponents that only literal Nazis could find themselves swayed by the malevolent fascism on display. (The Divergent series tells us that, in this not-too-distant future, the worst thing a person could be is Erudite, which is, to put it mildly, a discomforting message to send today's youth.)
But whatever - a lot of action flicks feature villains far less empathetic than the ones in Insurgent. The bigger problem is that Schwentke's generically proficient movie delivers nothing original in terms of either narrative or presentation; Teller's snidely biting asides as the turncoat Peter stand out because they're practically the only elements of the film boasting the shock of the unexpected. While Woodley acts as the mouse to Kate Winslet's cat, we sit through standard chases and gunfights, familial tenderness and betrayal, chaste romantic clinches, "unexpected" character reversals, and it's all just as polished, earnest, and unconvincing as Shailene Woodley herself - a moderately charismatic presence for whom tremulousness and weepy sincerity come all too easily. (In film after film, Woodley seems overly moved by how moved she is; it's this same "poor pitiful me" quality that, for many years, dulled our interest in Clare Danes, until Temple Grandin and Homeland reminded us how good she could be.) By Insurgent's climax, with Tris effectively forced into a real-life version of SimCity, there's nothing to do but wait for the long-anticipated shoes to drop, plus the inevitable non-ending promising us, yet again, more scintillating drama the next time around.
Thank goodness for Teller's surliness, then, and the other bursts of personality supplied by several supporting performers. While Theo James has long served admirably as eye candy (remember the Brit when, in Downton Abbey's first season, he played the handsome Turkish diplomat who died atop Lady Mary?), he's also a forceful actor who has a couple terrific moments here against Naomi Watts, the latter, as a brunette, giving the film the "See you in 2016!" kicker it desperately needs. Ashley Judd, in flashback and fantasy, is happily back, as is Winslet, who appears to be the only one on-screen fully embracing the material's camp possibilities. ("I've been thinking all Divergents are the same," her carefully coiffed heavy mutters before adding, with a comically raised eyebrow, "but some are stronger than others!") It's too bad we're stuck with more of Ansel Elgort here than we were previously ... though now that he's co-starred with Woodley in Divergent, The Fault in Our Stars, and this, it is fun to imagine him cast in the Faye Dunaway role in Chinatown. ("She's my sister! [slap!] She's my lover! [slap!] She's my sister! [slap!] She's my ... !") And as with the Hunger Games franchise, other familiar, welcome faces keep popping up: Octavia Spencer, Mekhi Phifer, Ray Stevenson, Daniel Dae Kim, Maggie Q, Janet McTeer. With at least a few of them sure to return, there's at least some reason not to dread next year's Allegiant. I just wish there were more reasons to also look forward to it.
DO YOU BELIEVE?
After the startlingly hefty box office for last spring's God's Not Dead, a movie I totally didn't hate, I certainly can't blame that film's screenwriters, Chuck Konzelman and Cary Solomon, for repeating their successfully tested formula in Do You Believe?, another inspirational Christian drama in which numerous dovetailing narratives collide, literally, for an exploration of redemption and faith. Considering their new picture is so roundly terrible, though, can I blame them for everything else?
Perhaps not. Director Jonathan M. Gunn certainly deserves his share of raspberries for the lackluster staging and his performers' collective tendency to overplay even the script's rare moments of subtlety. And while I won't single out the, shall we say, less-than-wholly-professional actors whose embarrassing readings make you want to stare at the cineplex floor rather than the screen, I feel no such sensitivity toward Sean Astin, whose smug, repellant one-dimensionality as an ER medic with the world's worst bedside manner makes him a constant blight on the movie. But while people spoke and Will Musser's score whimpered throughout this hellishly long two hours, practically all I heard were the clunk and thud of Konzelman's and Solomon's screenplay, a work so grossly rigged, heavy-handed, and aesthetically (and oftentimes racially) offensive that its title might as well be Do You Believe This Actually Got a National Release?
Unless you're predisposed to give a get-out-of-jail-free card to every pro-faith offering from The Passion of the Christ to Kirk Cameron's Saving Christmas, you may find it tough to determine exactly which tenet of Konzelman's and Solomon's script you detest most. Brian Bosworth's benevolent sage telling Mira Sorvino's homeless mom to cheer up because, while the achingly miserable woman and her young daughter may have no money or prospects and are living in mom's Gremlin, that kid is just so darned cute? Arthur Cartwright's gangsta uttering such white-screenwriter classics as "It's not right what we did, yo!" and "Word!"? Astin's doc sneering at the unconscious woman on his gurney for attempting suicide by consuming Chinese take-out? (I am dead serious about this.) Faith as an immediate cure for PTSD? Faith as an immediate cure for leukemia? As one howlingly convenient, cloying, phony event after another piles up until there's nothing left for its authors to give us but an actual pile-up, Do You Believe? proves to be the movie that haters of Crash consistently accuse Crash of being. By its finale, I resented the film so much that I'd almost forgotten the three early, magnificent minutes with Delroy Lindo, whose street preacher lends the proceedings a dramatic intensity and truthfulness it can't possibly handle. I'd also nearly forgotten the initial fun of again seeing '70s and '80s TV stalwarts Ted McGinley, Cybill Shepherd, and Lee Majors, the latter of whom enters the film as a hospital patient who explains, "My pacemaker thought my battery was running low." I guess six million dollars can't buy what it used to.
Director Pierre Morel's action thriller The Gunman, starring Sean Penn as an on-the-run assassin, is at least more interesting than its title. Then again, how could it not be? With its script (based on a Jean-Patrick Manchette novel) credited to Penn, Don MacPherson, and Pete Travis, it's the tale of professional sharpshooter and part-time humanitarian Jim Terrier (Penn), who, eight years after performing a successful killing in Congo, finds himself hunted by a mysterious someone who wants Jim similarly executed. Among the chief suspects are Javier Bardem, Ray Winstone, and Mark Rylance, and while the villain's identity is easily surmised, that doesn't diminish the pleasure of watching these three character-actor pros in action, or the delight in watching the spectacularly fit and muscular Penn go through his action-pic paces running, punching, shooting, romancing, and even surfboarding. (At age 54! Without a stunt double!) Sadly, though, once you get past the contributions of its cast, The Gunman proves a letdown, its initially intriguing setup undone by too many coincidences and unnecessary detours, and the plotting devolving from enjoyably unlikely to downright loony. By the fourth or fifth hop in this increasingly silly globe-hopping adventure, with Penn searching for his kidnapped lover in a Barcelona corrida de toros and a confused-looking toro actually turning around to gore the henchman he previously missed, the setting seemed oddly fitting, because the whole Gunman experience had turned into bull.