Symphony of Action

It should be said that 2017 has done very well with its franchise blockbusters. This year has given us, among other things, a fierce but fond farewell to an angry mutant with claws, a giant monkey in the backdrop of Apocalypse Now, and resolved daddy issues set to Fleetwood Mac in space. Even when it gave moderately-impressive efforts to the world’s most famous female superhero and everyone’s favorite nerdy superhero (for the SIXTH TIME), it was still nice to see Hollywood dropping the ball less than last year. Amongst the cavalcade of characters that have thrived this year, who would’ve guessed one of them would be those damn dirty apes?

 

War for the Planet of the Apes is the third installment in the rebooted Apes franchise, seeing the world ravaged from a virus that has killed off most of the human population and made the primate species hyper-intelligent. With the human race beginning to reemerge, the ape population (or at least the one in the woods of Vancouver) is constantly fighting with a rogue military outfit looking to make the gun-toting tribe of primates extinct. Led by the stern but compassionate Caesar (Andy Serkis), the apes plan to leave the woods and find a new home for themselves away from the war with the humans. Unfortunately the military outfit and its conniving leader, known only as The Colonel (Woody Harrelson), is planning a final assault on the apes. With the help of his ape comrade, a straggling ape (Steven Zahn), and a mute abandoned girl (Amiah Miller), Caesar races to The Colonel’s outpost to make a last stand for his kind.

 

While the rebooted trilogy started with 2011’s Rise of the Planet of the Apes under director Rupert Wyatt, the new Apes franchise thrived with 2014’s Dawn of the Planet of the Apes under director Matt Reeves (Cloverfield, Let Me In). Reeves expanded the bleak universe of the Apes movies to be able to build the characters of the apes while also using exceptional motion-capture technology to showcase immersive action. On top of building a narrative comparing the behaviors of apes and humans (SPOILERS: we’re not that much better), he also managed to make a thrilling action movie. In War for the Planet of the Apes, Reeves doubles down on the dour atmosphere and environment by setting most of the movie in the frozen, desolate Canadian border. He and co-writer Mark Bomback (Live Free or Die Hard, The Wolverine) make the focus entirely on the journey of Caesar from reluctant leader to vengeful father to true savior. The screenplay seems to put Caesar as a vessel for the audience more than a character, coldly judging the faults of the war while trying hard not to devolve into the primitive species the humans think of him and his kind. He sees his ape brethren mounted as war trophies, imprisoned and turned to slave labor, but Caesar tries desperately to hold onto his soul.  It truly feels like a fitting completion to his story arc (as no plans for future Apes movies are in the cards at the moment) as he battles the darkest of days. The detail in the building of this movie’s universe is first-rate with imagery that’s reminiscent of Westerns, war dramas, dystopian sci-fi, and hardened action.

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That doesn’t mean Reeves and cinematographer Michael Seresin (Midnight Express, Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban) turn the color down or sour the imagery, as there are some truly gorgeous shots of the first ape vs. human battle in the forests and the apes trekking through the snow that recalls the gorgeous aerial shots of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. War for the Planet feels very much like a sweeping war epic, a cross between Spartacus and The Thin Red Line with action scenes that let the audience see every possible element clearly. Whether it’s the apes riding horses in the snow, throwing spears, or simply lunging for attack, the audience see it set up with tension and executed with grace, plus Michael Giacchino’s grand score doesn’t hurt. It’s all the more surprising that the action is actually minimal for a nearly two-and-a-half hour summer action movie. Aside from the breathless opening assault in the forest and the explosive climax, most of the movie is moved along by the journey of Caesar’s redemption.

 

It’s all motivated by character, which is all the more impressive considering those characters are made partly from computers. To the credit of the special effects team, the apes have never looked more real. Perhaps Reeves planned out so many close up shots of the apes for audience to applaud the team that detailed every inch of the digital apes down to their fur, highlighting legitimate emotions coming from the actors. The slightest shift of skin on the face of the apes looks all to real. Whether human or ape, the acting has a strong supporting cast. The motion-capture actors, including Karin Konoval, Terry Notary, and Michael Adamthwaite have great chemistry with each other and bring out genuine emotion with mere sign language. Even longtime clown Steve Zahn, playing a new monkey called Bad Ape, manages to bring the slightest touch of levity to the film (even if he overstays his welcome in the final act). Woody Harrelson brings the intensity as the villain with a chip on his shoulder. His dynamic with Caesar is less hero vs. villain and more cat-and-mouse, a hunter and his prey. Harrelson keeps his menace understated with a hint of passion, a man who truly believes he’s the second coming of the human race. But the heart and soul of this movie and the two proceeding it is Andy Serkis, fully-formed and more human than ever in his third turn as Caesar. This is not simply a role that Serkis is sliding into, but a life that he inhabits by picking up the weight of the previous two films and wearing it on his slouched sleeves. Caesar spends most of the movie looking haggard, beat-down, and on the brink of completely falling apart. But Caesar still lunges to the front lines and Serkis throws himself into every scene. It feels moot at this point to say that Serkis deserves a certain golden statue for his performance, but he should receive as many commendations as possible.

War for the Planet of the Apes is blockbuster movie-making done with a passion, more about character development than car crashes. Even with the extremely dour atmosphere, the movie has an incredibly powerful feeling with it. Matt Reeves has not made a summer blockbuster but more composed a symphony of action and emotion that syncs up when other movies have those elements clash. The entire Apes franchise has been so fascinating to watch evolve and mature into something with such prestige that if this is Caesar’s final curtain call, it’s hard not to applaud it.

3.5/4

Bad Math

Be honest: when was the last time there was a straight-up action movie making waves in theaters? No superheroes, space ships, young adult novel writing, or any franchise attachment to it, just a story about a blunt tough guy shooting and/or punching people in the face. Aside from 2014’s John Wick there doesn’t seem to be a big market for those kind of movies any more. Whether that’s a good or bad thing is debatable, but it’s hard not to wish for an action movie to just shut up and start shooting without divulging into a muddled mess.

Case in point: The Accountant, a cross between John Wick and Jason Bourne that thinks it’s so cool and clever that it doesn’t know how far it’s stuck its foot in its mouth. The title character is Christian Wolff (Ben Affleck), a brilliant but socially awkward accountant living in solitude and helping locals uncook their books. He gets a job for a robotics company going through their financial records after an employee (Anna Kendrick) finds an error in recent transactions. When Chris finds the error to be accurate, he’s told to back off and is marked for dead. But according to the research of a U.S. Treasury agent (J.K. Simmons) and analyst (Cynthia Addai-Robinson), Chris has been cleaning up the finances of mob bosses, arms dealers and terrorists for years, and he’s not shy about throwing fists and pulling triggers. 

It is important to note that, while influenced by other action movies, The Accountant is one of those rare original ideas that filmgoers have been craving for since franchisemania has swallowed Hollywood whole. There are interesting ideas and elements in the script by Bill Dubuque (The Judge) and he wisely keeps the mysterious parts of the story element hidden so that the audience sticks with it. Sadly, The Accountant succumbs to an abundance of anti-climactic ends to its story threads. There is almost zero interaction Simmons and Addai-Robinson have with the main story, and their closing moments are wrapped up in a drawn out form of exposition and a boring press conference at the film’s end. That’s not even including the involvement of John Lithgow and Jon Bernthal in the movie, who are practically filler to make the two hour runtime. Even Chris’s own story feels incomplete, like it doesn’t know how to finish off making the character fully rounded. Is he a good guy? A bad guy? Misunderstood? Seeking redemption? Wrong place, wrong time? 


The character of Chris himself might also draw attention, as he has high-functioning Autism. He doesn’t understand sarcasm and has trouble with being polite in conversation, but he’s brilliant with numbers and stone-cold when it comes to killing. To the film’s credit, Chris’s condition is not treated as a crutch and not glorified as the reason for his talents. The movie doesn’t even identify his condition until an hour in, and it’s not highlighted or given special drama. It’s just who Chris is and he deals with it in his own way, and that’s commendable for the movie to do. 

Commendations should also be given to director Gavin O’Connor (MiracleWarrior) for actually managing to construct a solid atmosphere in the needlessly-complex mess. He and cinematographer Seamus McGarvey (The Avengers) shot the movie with a pale blue overtone and a near-constant sense of unease while Chris works numerical wonders and shoots up a lake house. It’s like if David Fincher directed a Bourne movie, complete with occasional shaky cam fight scene and some well-staged shootouts. O’Connor thinks he’s making some grand thriller by way of a R-rated action movie, like if The Insider had James Bond in it. Sadly, the mostly dull script and twisting story don’t do his work justice and he seems as lost in the narrative as the audience.

That’s not to say he doesn’t try to savor his talented cast. Affleck, seven months off of his inaugural run as Batman, seems to really get the character of Chris down as stoic but still hiding something underneath. It also shows that Batman training has paid off considering how great he does with the action scenes. Kendrick is typical Anna Kendrick, though it does provide for some funny scenes with Affleck. Simmons acts like he’s asleep in every scene he’s in, but at least Addai-Robinson has the decency to carry the scenes she’s in with and without him. Bernthal is so cool and charismatic in this that it’s actually the biggest waste of the movie. Maybe he’s the star that action movies have been waiting for, a cocky tough guy with just the right amount of emotional investment in something he knows is just fancy gun fights. Oh and Lithgow and Jeffrey Tambor are in this….and then they disappear with no mark left on the story at all, so hopefully they were properly compensated.

The nicest thing to say about The Accountant is that it’s a very nice looking try. This may sound a bit demeaning to the action movie considering how far it’s come since the heyday of Stallone and Schwarzenegger, but maybe the genre needs to lower its standards a bit. Perhaps competing with capes, magic, and laser swords is too much pressure on the action genre. There has to be some kind of middle ground between trying to hard and not trying hard enough, though you won’t find it here.

2 out of 4 stars