Film review: Deadpool | Zoolander 2 | Concussion

Ryan Reynolds as Deadpool
Ryan Reynolds as Deadpool
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Comic book conventions are subverted in Deadpool, a fun, fourth wall-breaking riff on the superhero genre, though it isn’t as radical as it would like you to believe

Deadpool (15) | Rating: *** | Directed by Tim Miller | Starring Ryan Reynolds, Morena Baccarin, TJ Miller, Ed Skrein, Gina Carano

The last time Ryan Reynolds played the wisecracking Marvel superhero Deadpool was in a brief cameo near the end of the execrable X-Men Origins: Wolverine, a film so bad its Hugh Jackman-produced sequel erased it from the continuity of the Fox-controlled X-Men universe. The chances of launching another superhero franchise off the back of it seemed virtually zero, then, until that is, some test footage for a Deadpool movie was “leaked” online and the rabid fan reaction, so the story goes, convinced the studio to greenlight this iteration.

Not that whipping fans into a collective frenzy of anticipation online or at Comic Con is any way difficult – or any guarantee that the resulting movie will be something they actually want to see (Tron: Legacy anyone?). Deadpool, though, wears its cynicism about such things on its Spandex sleeve, making cracks about Wolverine and the cheapness of the studio for shoe-horning a couple of minor X-Men characters into the film to boost brand recognition. Indeed, the film punches through the fourth wall from the off, repeatedly drawing attention to its status as a comic book origins story as a way of getting us on board for yet another comic book origins story.

The film sets out its stall in this respect with an irony-drenched credit sequence giving us the archetypal roles everyone fulfills within the film (Ed Skrein is replaced with “British villain”, TJ Miller with “Comic Relief” et cetera, et cetera). In a more adult riff on the now-standard Joss Whedon-inspired technique of offsetting any emotion in a superhero movie with a glib joke, we also get lots of speeches about the duty of the hero undercut with moments of extreme violence or sexually explicit content. The film also has a sly dig at Reynolds’ own much-maligned turn headlining the box-office-tanking adaptation of DC’s The Green Lantern, and things get even more meta when Reynolds-as-Deadpool makes a joke about the acting abilities of Reynolds the movie star. His appetite for deconstruction seemingly knows no bounds – although it should be noted that the film’s relentless self-awareness doesn’t extend to acknowledging that Matthew Vaughn’s Kick-Ass played around with superhero archetypes in a far more anarchic and transgressive way six years ago.

Reynolds, though, is pretty entertaining here as the titular super-powered mercenary who has no compunction about committing murder and mayhem when the bad guys deserve it. For those not au fait with the more obscure characters in the wider Marvel universe (or the expansive X-Men subdivisions contained therein), Deadpool is a mutant who has developed regenerative powers akin to Wolverine thanks to undergoing an experimental medical procedure to cure his inoperable lung cancer. Unfortunately for him, the operation has left his hitherto pretty-boy looks permanently disfigured. Hence the red gimp mask, the sociopathic glibness and the thirst for vengeance.

As the film opens that thirst is on the verge of being quenched: Deadpool is en route to dispense some bloody payback to Ed Skrein’s villainous Ajax for leaving him in the aforementioned state. What’s intriguing here is that the ensuing set-piece – inventively orchestrated with lots of bullet-time action – takes up half the movie thanks to debut director Tim Miller and Zombieland screenwriters Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick using it to flash back-and-forth in the character’s timeline to fill us in on Deadpool’s back story as an ex-Special Forces wise-ass called Wade Wilson. Wade has scraped a living as a tough-guy for hire, but before he’s diagnosed with cancer, he meets and falls for a similarly tough and questionably employed woman by the name of Vanessa (she’s played by Homeland’s Morena Baccarin).

The film – which Reynold’s narrates in the same sarcastic manner as Robert Downey Jr in Shane Black’s Kiss Kiss, Bang Bang and Iron Man 3 – presents itself here as a love story, replete with ironic references to Wham and quotes from Richard Curtis films. This gives rise to its funniest, sweetest and most inventive moment as the film quickly sketches out the intensity and length of Wade and Vanessa’s relationship via a montage of increasingly kinky sex scenes themed around public holidays.

As amusing as the subversive-love-story angle is, sadly it’s not maintained with the rigor one might have hoped for in a movie like this, eventually falling back on a version of the “women in refrigerators” trope (female comic book characters who are maimed, killed or kidnapped in order to spur the male hero into action) as a way of making Deadpool confront his past. Nor are all the pop culture jokes as funny as they should be. And yet the film’s emphasis on deconstruction rather than destruction does mean that everything – from the action to the character beats – operates on a smaller scale. In an age of boring spectacle, that seems more radical than anything else.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (15) | Rating: ** | Directed by Burr Steers | Starring Lily James, Sam Riley, Matt Smith, Lena Headey

This adaptation of Seth Grahame-Smith’s bizarrely successful horror mash-up Pride and Prejudice and Zombies is little more than a title in search of a joke. There’s certainly nothing funny, smart or subversive about it. Where past riffs on Jane Austen – Clueless, say, or Bridget Jones’s Diary – found witty ways to apply Austen-influenced scenarios to their characters’ dilemmas, all this has going for it is the welcome-wearing incongruity of seeing the Bennett sisters engaging in martial arts training as part of their overall deportment classes. The zombie metaphor – famously adaptable and readily applicable to almost any narrative – has no relevance here; instead the undead are just an excuse to show lots of tension-free gore in the midst of lots of period finery. That said, Lily James (Cinderella) isn’t bad as an ass-kicking Elizabeth Bennett, but Sam Riley’s scowling, growling zombie-hunting Mr Darcy comes across as a John Hurt impression gone terribly wrong.

Concussion (12A) | Rating: ** | Directed by Peter Landesman | Starring Will Smith, Alec Baldwin, Gugu Mbatha-Raw

There are some very dubious dramatic devices deployed in this inspired-by-true-events issue movie exploring the link between head trauma and mental illness in American football. Will Smith plays Dr Benjamin Omalu, a Pittsburgh-based Nigerian-American forensic pathologist who discovers a new form of degenerative brain disorder after performing autopsies on a couple of former NFL players who’ve killed themselves in tragic circumstances. Believing their condition to be the result of long-term damage sustained through repeated blows to the head, he finds the NFL conspiring to shut him down and bury his findings. Unfortunately for Smith – and for the story in general – writer/director Peter Landesman doesn’t know how to dramatise the details effectively. Instead he resorts to artificially ramping up the conspiracy theory action – at one point even implying Omalu’s wife miscarries because she’s being tailed by a sinister-looking person who is never referred to again.

A Bigger Splash (15) | Rating: *** | Directed by Luca Guadagnino | Starring Tilda Swinton, Ralph Fiennes, Dakota Johnson, Matthias Schoenaerts

Tonally all over the place, but weirdly compelling the more outré it becomes, Italian director Luca Guadagnino’s loose English language remake of 1969’s La Piscine casts a silent Tilda Swinton in the Romy Schneider role, re-imagining her as an androgynous, David Bowie-esque rock-star recovering from a vocal operation with her younger beau (Matthias Schoenaerts) on the Italian island of Pantelleria. Her island idyll is interrupted by the arrival of an ex-lover (Ralph Fiennes), who turns up with his newly re-discovered daughter in tow (Dakota Johnson) and sets the scene for a quite bizarre psycho-sexual drama as Fiennes’s character, Harry, makes a play for Swinton’s Marianne. The film features some quite bewildering scenes: chief among them Fiennes rooster-dancing his way through The Rolling Stones song Emotional Rescue. It’s simultaneously hilarious and cringe-worthy and, as in Guadagnino’s previous collaboration with Swinton, I Am Love, there’s a chaotic use of music throughout to keeps things deliberately off balance. There’s also a topical subplot involving migrants who’ve been locked up on the island, something Guadagnino uses to further draw attention to how insular the protagonists’ world of privilege really is. In keeping with the setting, though, the pacing can be somewhat languorous, but watching this group of actors let it all hang out makes it all worth while.

Zoolander 2 (12A) | Rating: * | Directed by Ben Stiller | Starring Ben Stiller, Owen Wilson, Penélope Cruz, Will Ferrell

Released a few weeks after 9/11, Ben Stiller’s daffy fashion satire Zoolander was a flop at the box-office, only becoming a cult hit later on DVD. Although still not to everyone’s taste, it was silly and kind of fun, its willful stupidity part of its charm, particularly as Stiller’s existentially troubled creation – a male model-slash-idiot by the name of Derek Zoolander (played by Stiller) – realised there might be more to life than being “really, really good looking”. Its plot didn’t exactly lend itself to a sequel, however; certainly not one that picks up the story 15 years later – and certainly not one this lazy and prone to missing the point of every thing it’s trying to mine for laughs.

Making fun of hipsters, women, the obese, Justin Bieber, the trans community (an ill-judged cameo from Benedict Cumberbatch as a bi-gendered model is one of the many low-points), the film might make Derek Zoolander and fellow catwalk himbo Hansel (Owen Wilson) the butt of every joke, but every joke flat-lines because Stiller either doesn’t realise or doesn’t care that middle-aged white guys making fun of something they don’t understand really isn’t funny in 2016. Of course, defenders of the film might argue that this is part of acknowledging how out of touch the characters are, but in a film in which the pop culture reference points are themselves so dated – Netflix’s mail-order delivery service, Susan Boyle, Sting’s tantric sex life – even this joke fails.

The plot – such as it is – involves Zoolander being coaxed out of hiding to help Interpol get to the bottom of a conspiracy to kill off major pop stars. In a callback to the first film, Zoolander has retired from public life after his Centre for Children Who Can’t Read Good collapses and kills his wife. In a somewhat tasteless opening montage, the building’s collapse, circa 2001, is reported in the style of a 9/11-esque disaster. The film never recovers. Instead it runs through scrappy, mirthless set-pieces involving Zoolander trying to reconnect with his overweight son while Hansel grapples with the prospect of fathering multiple children with members of his regular orgy group (fronted by Keifer Sutherland, playing himself).

Among the dozens of supporting players, Penélope Cruz gets the fuzzy end of the lollipop as Zoolander’s new love interest: a former swimsuit model turned Interpol agent whose cleavage gets more character development than she does. Meanwhile, Will Ferrell reprises his role as devious fashion guru Mugatu, to no discernable comic effect.

At one point Zoolander and Hansel are duped into wearing T-shirts bearing the legends “Old” and “Lame”. Well, they are and so are the jokes. But simply acknowledging this fact doesn’t excuse it.