Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Movie Review: "Ant-Man" by David Pretty

Ant-Man is a perfectly serviceable super-hero movie. At face value that might sound like faint praise but as we near the saturation point for this genre the bar of distinction is just gonna keep going up and up for me. Mercifully director Peyton Reed and producer Kevin Feige have come up with something that's reasonably fresh. So even if the final product does feel a little "decision by committee", it's still a fun, engaging, summer romp.

Paul Rudd plays Scott Lang, a top-notch robber, er...burglar who's been stewing in prison for corporate sabotage. After he's paroled for good behavior he hooks up with his old partner Luis (Michael Peña) and his two new "business associates" including Dave (Tim "T.I." Harris) and Kurt (David Dastmalchian). Collectively they try and lure Scott back for one, final, easy job but this time our hero vows to go straight in order to improve his relationship with his estranged wife Maggie (Judy Greer) and justify daughter Cassie's (Abby Ryder Fortson) hero-worship. Natch.

But child support payments don't come easy when you're working for sprinkles at Baskin-Robbins. Scott is fired after his past comes to light so he immediately falls back on his old ways. The "cakewalk" job turns out to be a heist at some rich, old, one-percenter's phat palatial mansion. Scott manages to defeat the estate's high-tech security system and break into the vintage safe but all he finds inside is a helmet and some freaky-looking biker gear.

Turns out he's just pilfered the personal effects of Hank Pym (Michael Douglas), a brilliant scientist who's breakthrough discovery to shrink in size gave him amazing powers. In the guise of "Ant-Man", Pym ran missions for S.H.I.E.L.D. back in the Sixties until they tried to force him to share his secrets. After resigning from the organization under a cloud of ill-will, Pym started up his own private company not long after.

But that wasn't the end of his troubles. Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), the young hotshot protégé that Hank hand-picked to run the operation, has become obsessed with his mentor's guarded attitude towards sharing the Pym Particle technology. With the aid of Hank's estranged daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly), Darren has all but locked Hank out of his own company. He's also on the verge of producing his own shrinking suit (code-name: Yellowjacket) and he's poised to make a killing in military contracts. Natch.

The balance of the film concerns itself with addressing the questions set up in the first half. Will Scott assume the mantle of Ant-Man and, if so, will he prove to be hero material? Why is Hope so cheesed-off at her father? Can she put aside her differences and mentor Scott? Will this eclectic team congeal before Cross pawns off Hank's potentially-dangerous technology? Things come to a head in a fantastic final act that really catapults the film into the upper echelon of superhero flicks.

And that's what I liked most about Ant-Man: it's attempting to do something different. The whole "ex-criminal-turned-hero" angle hasn't been done yet in the Marvel Cinematic Universe and, frankly,  I really appreciate any deviations from the formula at this stage. Add in a super-fun tech heist, some great performances and the inherently-amusing shrinking gimmicks and you've got yourself a pretty refreshing combo.   

Essentially Ant-Man is Honey, I Shrunk The Kids meets Iron-Man, which, let's face it, is a pretty sweet-ass combination. By their very nature, the visual effects alone are a tremendous wellspring of originality. Between Scott's first inadvertent shrinkage in the bathtub to his first tête-à-tête with his insect allies to the final mano-a-mano battle against Yellowjacket over a Thomas the Tank Engine train set, the film is a visual delight.

And, let's face it folks, Ant-Man ain't never gonna be as cool as a Spider-Man or a Wolverine. To offset this the producers have fully embraced the humor inherent in the concept. Since the Pym Particles provide the perfect excuse to film some truly-inventive action sequences, there are tons of dazzling set-pieces. I won't spoil anything; just suffice to say that you're gonna wanna keep a close eye on Hank Pym's personal effects.

Even though Peyton Reed's direction isn't what I'd call "distinctive" I really appreciate his patience in telling Scott's story. By the time things start to percolate we're already emotionally invested in the characters and want to see things work out for them. At first I was concerned that Reed and his editors Dan Lebental and Colby Parker, Jr. had shot and cut every single action sequence w-a-a-a-a-y too close and fast but mercifully this hyperactive style tones down considerably by the time we get to the final tilt. Plus, if nothing else, Reed certainly knows how to exploit the whole shrink-y / grow-y gimmick to maximum effect.

Having said that there are a few things about the film that kinda irked me. Unless you've been living under an ant-hill for the past four years, you'd know that the film's co-scribe Edgar Wright of Shawn of the Dead fame was originally tapped to direct. Unfortunately he had a "creative differences"-style falling out with Marvel Studios which led him walk away from the project. Now if I had to guess as to what caused this rift I'd have say that it had something to do with Ant-Man not being integrated enough in the MCU.

Naturally when things start to get hairy, Scott is forced to ask the perfunctory question on everyone's mind, I.E.: "Why aren't we calling in the Avengers?". Given the current complexity and interdependence of the MCU such questions are necessary but mercifully brief. Which is more than I can say for another superfluous sequence that follows later on in the film which feels a lot more like fan service wankery than anything that's integral to the plot. Again, if I were a betting man I'd wager that Edgar Wright's version of the script probably had a lot less connective tissue with established continuity. Oh, and it was probably a lot funnier, too.

Even though the comic book continuity nerd in me is slightly bummed that Hank Pym didn't get the first at-bat as Ant-Man, I can see why Marvel went this way. As a well-established character that's been around for fifty-three years, Pym's understandably got a lotta baggage. He's constantly flipping out, he's the unofficial punching bag of the Avengers and he's even been guilty of domestic abuse at one point. Needless to say I don't blame Marvel for kicking this series off with the relatively- clean-slate that is Scott Lang.

And as such, I think that Paul Rudd is a great choice for the role. Effortlessly charming, he's equally earnest as a put-upon underdog, a loyal father, an expert safe-cracker and a reluctant hero. You might be hard-pressed to call Scott's journey a "character arc"; after all he's pretty much the same person at the end of the movie as he is at the beginning. It is fun, however, to watch him become increasingly self-assured as a hero and attempt to justify his daughter's blind faith in him.

Michael Douglas is also a solid pick for Hank Pym. He does a stellar job hinting at the character's frailties and foibles while still maintaining an air of authority and experience. During a riveting prologue that uses seamless reverse-aging CGI to show a Wall Street-era Michael Douglas quitting S.H.I.E.L.D. we get a quick and effective snapshot of the guy. Between that scene and the power of command that Douglas wields during the final operation, we get all the Hank Pym-era Ant-Man we need before Rudd takes over as the more sympathetic protagonist.

Evangeline Lilly's Hope van Dyne is actually better written than I expected. As it turns out, she actually has a really good reason to be pissed off with pops, making her initial alliance with Darren Cross somewhat justifiably. But what I liked most about Hope is how outraged she is over the prospects of Scott inheriting the Ant-Man suit. It's as if she's speaking for an entire legion of women who, justifiably so, are wondering why we haven't seen a female-led super-hero movie yet. Even though Hank's reasoning does lead to a reconciliation of sorts between the two it's still a tremendous source of friction that Lilly really runs with. 

As for the movie's main foil, Cory "House of Cards" Stoll gets more to do here then, say, Lee Pace did in Guardians of the Galaxy or Christopher Eccleston did in Thor: The Dark World. Which still isn't saying very much but at least Cross's character has a clearly-defined motivation for turning against Pym. Unfortunately the writer's don't think that Cross's Machiavellian ambitions are enough reason for us to boo and hiss at him, so the character stoops to wanton murder and animal cruelty in order to underscore just how EEEE-VIL he truly is. Credit Cory Stoll's even and vaguely-sympathetic performance which ensures that Cross doesn't drift completely into the realm of caricature.

Finally, Michael Peña deserves a nod as Luis, Scott's eternally-grinning, super-chill partner in "crime". Now I'm sure some people will dismiss Luis as yet another Latino stereotype but I think that's unfair, especially given the character's incongruous penchant for art exhibits and high-class gala luncheons. On the page Luis is reasonably well-sketched, but Peña's fun and memorable interpretation is what makes the character really memorable. It's likely that everyone out there knows at least one guy like Luis, someone who keeps smiling optimistically, regardless of what personal turmoil he's talking about.  

For two hours of entertainment, you could certainly do worse than Ant-Man. Sure, it would have been cool to see what a visionary director like Edgar Wright would have done with this material but I can only review the movie we got and what we got was actually pretty durned good. The heist plot is surprisingly deep, the wise-ass dialogue is amusing, the cast is on-point, the story unfolds organically and the resolution serves up just enough curve-balls to keep us on our toes.

Compared to the bloated, top-heavy Age of Ultron, Ant-Man might be smaller but it's also mightier.

 Tilt: up.

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