With Attack of the Clones there was some improvement in the prequels, but many of the stinging problems from The Phantom Menace still exist here. The pace is generally improved with some more action sequences, some better characters, and more interesting locales to explore. However, the supposed “love story” between Anakin Skywalker and Padmé Amidala couldn’t be more contrived or agonizingly acted. Of course, there are frivolous character and story elements peppered throughout which have no bearing on anything at all. So, let’s jump into it, and deconstruct Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones.
Set ten years after the events of The Phantom Menace. Padmé Amidala (Natalie Portman) is now the Senator of the planet Naboo, and is leading the opposition to creating an army of the Republic. This is in response to a faction of political separatists, led by former Jedi Count Dooku (Christopher Lee), who want to breakaway from the Republic. After an assassination attempt on the Senator’s life, Jedi Knight Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor) and his Padawan learner Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) are sent to protect her. After the assassin strikes again with the Jedi thwarting the attempt, they capture the assassin, but she is killed by a bounty hunter named Jango Fett (Temuera Morrison) before they can obtain any answers. The Jedi Council then send Obi-Wan and Anakin on separate missions with Chancellor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) fearing for Senator Amidala’s safety. Anakin is sent with Padmé to Naboo as a protector. However, their feelings for one another slowly stir to the surface causing emotional conflicts for them. Worse yet, nightmares of his mother trouble Anakin enough to return to Tatoonie in an attempt to save her from dire peril. Meanwhile, Obi-Wan’s investigation ultimately leads him to the planet Kamino where he uncovers a deeper conspiracy involving this assassination plot, the Separatist movement, and a Clone Army which could lead to all-out galactic war.
While there are various negatives I wish to point out here, let me counter-balance the review of Episode I by starting out with some positive aspects of this film. Mainly, the visual effects are far improved and much more consistent than what The Phantom Menace offered. It’s hard to believe that CGI evolved so much in such a short span of time, but the industry required it. Bigger films were being made now because filmmakers saw what could be accomplished, and the technology and artistry of these effects houses simply pushed hard to match up with the demand. Everything is generally more detailed in Episode II, and the story allowed for a more vast and diverse set of locations, vehicles, props, and alien creatures. So, there was more of a canvas to apply the improvements in digital filmmaking. Still, the movie is starved for more practical locations. Granted, many don’t exist in reality, but the constant filming against blue screens begins to wear thin. It takes away from the potential depth of the frame, and the tangibility of the environments they inhabit. So much of it just feels fake because it is fake.
On a better note, George’s decision to shoot in high definition digital video was something I was supportive of, same as with Robert Rodriguez. That evolution in video camera technology has actually allowed for my independent filmmaker career to exist. Unfortunately, I did not see Attack of the Clones in a digital projection theatre. That experience would have to wait for Revenge of the Sith.
Another positive is that there is more life with a few characters. Ewan McGregor steps into the mentor role of Obi-Wan Kenobi well injecting some nice dimension into his scenes. He feels more fleshed out and comfortable this time around. A little chuckle here, some urgency there go a long way to show the depth and personality of his matured Kenobi. He truly feels like a good leader, a fine Jedi, and an interesting character to follow now. His single scene opposite Kenobi’s alien friend Dex shows more intelligible and relatable character traits from him than most anything displayed in The Phantom Menace. It shows both a jovial, friendly side, but also, the inquisitive mind of the character. McGregor is surely an excellent actor with a wide range, and I am glad that his talent was allowed to be more in the forefront here. Of everyone in the prequels, his performances feel the most natural and dimensional. I feel he sells Anakin’s downfall more that Hayden Christensen does.
The legendary Christopher Lee gives us a villain with some substance in Count Dooku. I only find it unfortunate that he doesn’t show up until half way through the film. This would be better if he was built up more to create mystery or anticipation around him, but he’s barely mentioned in that first half of the movie. And where Darth Maul had nothing to say for himself, Dooku has plenty, and Lee works his scenes very well. There’s enough ambiguity about Dooku to build suspicion and doubt over what he claims to be truth. Lee’s performance rides the fence of a man who could either be a straight out villain or a controversial strong leader who has a valid point of view. He’s just shady enough to keep it all uncertain. His scene opposite the imprisoned Kenobi is quite rich with juicy character interactions. It is a pleasure indeed.
Unfortunately, from there, the quality of the performances start to get more one dimensional and hollow. Natalie Portman, again, is reflected as a far lesser grade acting talent than she truly is with poor characterization and awkward, ineffective emotions. While she has a generally good show of emotions, they seem to lack depth or realism. The romance, of sorts, between Padmé and Anakin never feels earned, only forced. For the life of me, I cannot rationalize why a young woman dedicated to peaceful, intelligent solutions would ultimately marry a man who confessed to a rage filled slaughter. Tusken Raiders or no, Padmé has always sought out the way of peace in all situations. She never comes off as someone in favor of blind hatred or rage, and in all other instances, appears to have a distaste towards unwarranted violence. She didn’t murder Nute Gunray at the end of the last film. She retook her throne and put him into the custody of the authorities. She believes in justice, and resolving conflicts with negotiation and rational thought. However, she marries a man who is volatile, insubordinate, emotionally unstable, immature, and supports tyrannical political ideals. There is no rational reason they would be attracted to one another side from the physical aspect.
Now, I really don’t know any of Hayden Christensen’s other work to offer a perspective on his talents. Granted, the characterization of Anakin Skywalker is not his fault at all. He played the character that was on the page. There’s nothing different he could’ve done with what he was given to make Anakin a better character. Still, there are many moments where he comes off as wooden. Much of his intended “serious” or “mature” dialogue is delivered with a drab, downtrodden empty quality. As with Portman, there’s no depth behind what is said. Anakin Skywalker should have been a rich character with many sides from the brave and honorable to the conflicted and troubled. Considering the entire saga is ultimately his story from innocent child to conflicted Jedi Knight to the evil Darth Vader to redemption through his son, Anakin Skywalker should have been the most fascinating character of all six films, but he ultimately comes off as one of the least interesting and most annoying in these prequels. So, what Lucas gives us is a very immature and flat character who has little for an audience to emotionally invest themselves in.
There are other characters which I do have things to say about, mainly the Jedi Masters, but they are best left for my summation in the Revenge of the Sith review to avoid redundant criticisms. However, to briefly touch upon those thoughts, I have to say that if Yoda has nothing intelligent or pertinent to say, he ought to keep his mouth shut. So much of his dialogue ultimately makes him seem like a short-sighted fool. He has plenty of opportunities to act upon the bad vibes coming off of Anakin, but he never takes any action in response to them. And I do believe having Yoda engage in frivolous lightsaber battles is a terrible idea. Instead of criticizing the cringe inducing visual of Yoda flying around like a video game character and acting like some dim-witted action hero parody, I want to point out the purpose of lightsaber battles in the Star Wars saga. They are a plot device used to twist the storyline into a new direction, and that is not at all a negative thing. However, that is not the case with Yoda’s duels.
For example: the climactic saber duel in The Phantom Menace results in the death of Qui-Gon Jinn which gives way to Anakin being less-than-well trained by Obi-Wan. The death of Darth Maul opens the way for Dooku to become the new Sith apprentice, and setup the circumstances for the Clone War. In Attack of the Clones, Anakin charges into battle, gets his arm chopped off, and begins to lose more of his humanity from this loss. This motivates him to kill Dooku in Revenge of the Sith, and his death makes way for the rise of Darth Vader. Then, Obi-Wan destroys Grievous, and thus, motivates the end of the Clone War, the attempted arrest of Palpatine, and Anakin’s turn to the Dark Side of the Force. Vader versus Obi-Wan in that same film results in the half-man, half-machine Sith Lord, destroying Anakin Skywalker further. Ben Kenobi’s death in A New Hope allows him to become “more powerful than you can possibly imagine” by becoming one with The Force, and helping to guide Luke anywhere at anytime. The duel in The Empire Strikes Back clearly sets up a whole host of character and plot twists to the point where in Return of the Jedi, the final duel between Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader becomes the catalyst for Luke to put down his arms, and ultimately, instigate the event that turns Darth Vader back into Anakin Skywalker. So, you see, lightsaber duels are never gratuitous action scenes. They serve a very specific plot purpose. That is except for all of Yoda’s lightsaber battles.
They do absolutely nothing to further the saga along. Here, he fights Dooku, only to lose. In the following film, he fights the Emperor, only to lose. By showing that Yoda is unable to defeat a Sith Lord in battle makes it difficult to believe he’s the right one to train Luke in The Empire Strikes Back. Not to mention, in that marvelous film, Yoda talks entirely about how the physical is inconsequential to one’s power with the Force, but in Attack of the Clones, he does nothing but resort to physical means of combat when a few minor Force tricks do nothing against Dooku. And once he has lost, he is apparently so worn out from the battle that he has to strain his Force abilities to lift a piece of machinery from crashing down on Obi-Wan and Anakin. In Empire, Yoda lifts the whole X-Wing fighter from the swamp and onto land with amazing grace and ease. There, all that mattered was the will and confidence to achieve such a feat. This is another obvious example of George Lucas’ change in philosophy that occurred between the creation of the two trilogies. Yoda’s physical strength should not have an effect on his power with the Force. If Yoda can only call on his Force powers in short bursts and it exhausts him to do so, that only shows that his power is very limited. This is in direct contrast to Yoda’s teachings in Empire that, because the Force is his ally, he is powerful beyond physical strength. By failing to defeat any Sith he opposes, and straining to do what should be easy for him with his purported Jedi mastery, it only proves that he’s no more capable than any other Jedi. Yoda is supposed to be the most accomplished and powerful Jedi around, but if this is the extent of their power and wisdom, it is no wonder the Empire was able to wipe them out.
Another thing that is eradicated, again, is intelligence. I mentioned in The Phantom Menace the absurdity of how the Senate was run in that one outspoken statement from any one representative immediately causes sweeping change in the Senate. That returns here, and in cringe inducing fashion. As Senator Amidala returns to Naboo to hide from her assassin she leaves Jar Jar Binks to act in her place with her Senatorial power. Representative Binks is then manipulated into going before the Senate and propositioning the Senate to vote emergency powers to the Chancellor so he can authorize the creation of a Clone Army. This one vote from one STAND-IN for a Senator immediately allows for it to happen. Meanwhile, throughout the rest of the film, the Senate is entrenched in conflict over whether to create an army or not, and Amidala has been the leader of the opposition to this. I find it highly improbable that the majority of the Senate and Amidala’s supporters would suddenly roll over because this dim-witted fool speaks up. I mean, it’s not like they didn’t just have Padmé on a holonet transmission where she could speak on her own behalf in front of the Senate. Not to mention, why is everyone talking about going to war the whole film when, until Obi-Wan uncovers the Separatist’s plans, no hostile action had been taken against the Republic? As far as the Republic knows these people simply want to become a separate autonomous alliance of worlds. Sure, the Republic being split in two would cause some controversy and unease, but immediately jumping to the prospect of war is a little rash when they have no evidence of violent intentions from the Separatists.
I also have issue with what was done to Boba Fett in Attack of the Clones. I’m a general fan of the character, and I find him interesting and exciting. However, Lucas does another frivolous, pointless change to a character. Making Boba Fett a young clone of Jango Fett is inane as it serves no purpose towards the plot or the characters of Jango or Boba. There is no reason Boba Fett couldn’t have been a regular offspring of Jango, and be given his own unique identity instead of being just another clone out of thousands or millions. I also find it quite creepy that Jango is raising a clone of himself. It almost sounds like the strange machinations of a mad scientist to being doing such a thing. Speaking of pointless things, the assassin Zam Wessel had no purpose to being a shape shifter. Again, it serves no purpose to the character or plot. It actually could have been used intelligently with Zam changing form and escaping into the crowd, and creating an actual challenge for Obi-Wan and Anakin. Instead, it’s just there to make her more “alien” and to show off another little visual effects gag.
Digging into Jango Fett a little more, I did enjoy what Temuera Morrison brought to this role. He’s both a cunning, dangerous bounty hunter and a smooth gentleman. Morrison has some restrained charisma in this role allowing Jango to come off as a smart and savvy villain that is confident without being arrogant. He has a very nicely played scene opposite McGregor as Fett and Kenobi size each other up in a stand-offish exchange of words. It’s a strong first true impression of Jango that really sparks an interest, and Morrison handles the overall demands of the role exceptionally well.
On the technical side of things, Ben Burtt should be ashamed of some of the editing in this film. The one part that stands out is the saber duel between Anakin and Dooku. The close-up shots of the two swinging their blades around actually have no continuity to them at all from one shot to another, and hardly look like they’re clashing blades. It looks more like an interpretive dance than an aggressive battle. It’s shoddy work. There are other instances where editing should’ve been tightened up to maintain immediacy in character reactions, or maintain rhythm in certain action sequences. However, the sound design in the film is excellent. The sonic charges deployed by Jango Fett in the asteroid field create one of the most awesome speaker blasting sound effects I’ve ever heard. The city sounds on Coruscant are excellently crafted to create a nicely enveloping world, and the end battle scenes are well balanced for fine clarity where the sound effects don’t simply become an indiscernible onslaught.
What I also do like about this film is the added atmosphere tying in with the mystery elements of the story. The various night scenes create a neo noir visual aesthetic that really appeal to my tastes greatly. The stormy environment of Kamino was an excellent choice that further heightened the mood of the film. As Kenobi gets deeper into the mystery, the more treacherous his surroundings become, and it culminates in a stellar fight between Obi-Wan and Jango. The slippery aspect of the landing platform added a different dynamic which keeps the sequence exciting and unpredictable. Obi-Wan doesn’t get to rely on the lightsaber as much, and has to be more innovative and cunning to survive. This is more akin to classic Star Wars were characters were made intelligent to figure their way out of tight situations.
Of course, pulling directly from the original trilogy is not entirely the most successful approach as the end duel between Anakin and Dooku demonstrates. It tries to recreate some of the smoky light and shadow effect of the climactic duel in Empire, but it comes off as forgettable and mild. It really comes down to a buildup of characters, emotions, and plot points. In Empire, the visual of the carbon freezing chamber with its smoke and orange and blue lighting enhanced the tone of the story being told. It is dark, mysterious, foreboding, and ominous. Everything built up to this, and it sends a chill down the spine of many viewers. Here, it’s just a nice visual. There’s nothing inherently bad about it, but it’s just another hollow throwback to a better film. The duel itself is not that impressive, either. Conversely, I’ve never had an issue with the asteroid field battle in this film. It’s entertaining and exciting. While it is a throwback to Empire, it works for me as it is a logical progression of the plot, and showcases some of Obi-Wan’s cunning combat skills.
While the plot is more sensical than The Phantom Menace, there is both padding to make up for a lack of plot developments and hanging plot threads that never get tied up, ever. Obi-Wan’s investigation into the poison dart should really end with the scene where he meets Dex who tells him its from Kamino. Instead, it goes on for another two scenes where he investigates the planet in the library, and then, since he can’t find it there, he goes to Yoda for answers. Yoda has none, but the little kids he’s training do. This not only unnecessarily pads out the film, but also makes Obi-Wan Kenobi look stupid because he can’t figure out something a five year old who can’t act could. It’s never explained who deleted Kamino from the Jedi Archives, or how they did it. Also, everything about Jedi Master Sifo Dyas ordering the Clone Army despite having died around the same time is never cleared up or resolved. I could speculate on the truth, but that is all that can be done. Lucas lays no clues to come to a confident answer, and no one in the film tries to figure it out. It’s entirely forgotten by the next action sequence. It is also curious that the Sandpeople would hold Shmi Skywalker captive when they’ve always been murderous scavengers, and there is fan conjecture over this saying it was orchestrated by a third party. However, there is hardly anything within the context of the films to perceive it as anything more than it appears to be.
Again, the romance storyline between Anakin and Padmé really doesn’t hold together. The dialogue is stilted, the performances are wooden, and the entire interaction is more like a screenwriter’s naive perception of love. The Han Solo and Princess Leia relationship worked because these were two well developed characters with strong personalities and honest, realistic emotions. It felt like a natural, organic relationship that evolved and grew between them. Plus, they didn’t fall in love and get married within the course of a few days. Anakin and Padmé feel like an immature teenage high school couple who over dramatize their so-called romance because they have no genuine grasp on what real love truly is. They think that what they have is love, but they would be wrong. What they have, at best, is the illusion of love built upon teenage style angst and physical attraction. And again, Padmé is subjected to Anakin whining about Obi-Wan, blaming him for everything that’s wrong in his life, being insubordinate to his superiors, bitching her out in front of the current Queen of Naboo, and confessing to the mass murder of not just the Tusken Raider men, but the women and children, too. Quite frankly, in any other film, Anakin Skywalker would be the psychotic villain, and Padmé would be running away from him screaming in horror. I can’t imagine that she is meant to be a moronic idiot, but that’s exactly how she continually comes off considering all of this nonsensical madness. No woman in her right mind would be so eager to love and marry a man like this. It also makes no sense to me why Padmé is so vehemently opposed to just being involved with a man. She keeps saying she loves Anakin, but then, says she can’t love him because she’s a Senator. That doesn’t compute in my brain. No other reason is ever given. She’s a Senator, and so, she can’t go out on a date. That’s her entire reason. No expansion on that at all. It’s ridiculous.
Never minding all of that, Attack of the Clones has plenty of good action sequences. While not all come off as rational, like Obi-Wan uncharacteristically jumping out the window to grab the assassin droid (couldn’t he have just used the Force to disable it and bring it to him?), the scenes are well structured and choreographed. They are all different and maintain good momentum, to a point. The previous movie had a serious lack of compelling action scenes, and traded them off with long, drab dialogue scenes. Here, it seems like they have to milk the action scenes for as much as they’re worth because the plot lacks enough threads to weave throughout the 120+ minute run time. While the droid factory sequence is decent, it is ultimately another piece of run time padding. It could be a much tighter sequence, if you had to have it, but it needs to be long to stretch the story out. This is the case with most of the action scenes especially the speeder chase through the nighttime of Coruscant. It’s not a bad action sequence, but an action scene is best when it’s tightly paced and gets straight to the point. If you’re going to have a chase scene, make it count with a solid pay-off.
Again, there are some cringable attempts at humor here, but this time, it falls on R2-D2 and C-3PO. I won’t get into it. It’s brain dead idiotic slapstick gags that would even be bad in some television program for kindergarteners. This crap has nothing to do with anything in story, action, or character development. It’s gratuitous garbage filled with horrible puns, and that’s all I’m going to waste my time mentioning it because this review is too long as it is already.
I really hoped to say more positive things about this movie, but the more I dug into it, the more flaws I saw. It’s frustrating to me that I want to enjoy more about this movie, but it’s designed to backfire on me. I’m not going into these films with the intent of tearing them down, and I hope the praise I have offered up reflects that mentality. I don’t have any memories that stick out about my theatrical experiences with this movie, unlike the other two prequels, and so, I can’t recall my early feelings on it. I did purchase the John Williams score CD the same day, and so, that says something. Of course, regardless of the quality of the films, I do own all of the soundtrack CD sets. Anyway, while Episode II makes some improvements from Episode I, some problems are exchanged for others, and some of the biggest ones are never fixed. Again, I don’t want to hate on George Lucas, but the man is not helping me to avoid doing so. I can forgive certain underdeveloped aspects of a film depending on various factors, but the rampant stupidity of some characters and the horribly contrived love story are too much to forgive. Thankfully, I do have very fond memories of Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith, and so, I have more sentimental leeway to offer it. But that’s another review for another time. As Attack of the Clones stands, it’s a long way from greatness, but at least, I can sit through it. I can’t say the same for The Phantom Menace.
In recent months, I started buying comics again, and of course, one of the first I grabbed was Justice League. With DC revamping their full line of books with 52 all new #1 issues, it was a perfect entry point. I was a serious fan of the Justice League and Justice League Unlimited animated series, and while this is not of the same continuity, all of the main voice actors were brought back for this outing. So, that made this animated movie quite special for me. What we have in Justice League: Doom is a very stellar story crafted by some amazing talents as DC Comics’ premiere superhero team battles with more than just villains, but a breach of trust within their own ranks.
Soon after thwarting an attempted robbery by the Royal Flush Gang, the Justice League of America comes under the attack of Vandal Savage’s Legion of Doom. The immortal conqueror has assembled a team of villains to defeat Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, The Flash, Green Lantern, and the Martian Manhunter. Concerned of the consequences should his fellow crime fighters ever turn their backs on humanity, Batman created a set of methods for which to immobilize Earth’s most powerful superheroes in the event of an emergency. However, Vandal Savage breaches the Batcave’s security and obtains these files allowing for his team of villains to use them for lethal intent. Now, joined by the young hero Cyborg, the JLA must overcome deep feelings of betrayal to defeat the diabolical Legion of Doom before Savage launches a missile that will destroy half the planet allowing for himself to be situated as ruler of all mankind.
While there is a lot of subject matter I will delve into, first and foremost, I want to say that this is a thoroughly enjoyable, fun, and exciting motion picture. It is full of great action, excellent characterizations, and plenty of epic, heroic moments that will inevitable please any adventure-loving viewer. There is plenty of levity throughout to counterweight to more dramatic storyline, and the balance between them is beautifully handled. There is much to examine and highlight with this animated feature.
This was adapted from a 1990s story arc in the JLA comic book titled Tower of Babel, and a few changes were made. The line-up of the team is different which originally included Aquaman and Plastic Man. The roles of Green Lantern and the Flash were originally the relatively newer heroes of Kyle Rayner and Wally West, but are now the more classic Hal Jordan and Barry Allen. Also, Cyborg is only a recent addition to the Justice League of the comics, but he is nicely integrated into this story. His role shows a young hero earning his keep by stepping up in a chaotic situation, and using his unique skills to help resolve it. The main villain was also changed from the endlessly fascinating Ras’ Al Ghul to the less dimensional Vandal Savage. Using Ras’ made more logical sense since he is a Batman villain who has infiltrated the Bat-cave numerous times, and it is established that he knows Bruce Wayne is Batman. Plus, his motives are usually more ideological in nature whereas Vandal Savage is usually just about conquering the world. Still, they are both megalomaniacal in their own ways. However, despite these peculiar changes, the story still works excellently adapting new motives and dynamics to these different characters.
Every superhero is handled with substantial depth and respect. The story allows for an audience to see most of the JLA outside of their superhero personas. You see Barry Allen attending to a crime scene as a police forensic investigator, Clark Kent at a press conference as a reporter, Martian Manhunter in his human guise as a police detective, and Bruce Wayne in his interactions with Alfred. They are brief moments, but enough to show an audience that these people do live lives outside of their costumes. In their lives, there are people who they personally care about, and those that care deeply for them. I did especially like how Alfred was written being the rational voice to Batman’s more obsessive, workaholic mentality. It shows that Alfred is still his keeper, and can exercise authority over him due to a long standing respect. Batman wants to keep working, pushing through the pain and fatigue to resolve this new mystery, but Alfred reminds him that he is human and needs rest and mending. Bruce could override Alfred’s mandate, but he would never disrespect Alfred’s better judgment. The interactions of these characters display a history amongst them. Little quips about how Ace “sucker punched” Superman before, or Hal and Batman talking about who is ahead in saving whose life really creates a long standing trust and camaraderie here. This makes the impact of Batman’s secretive contingency plans a stronger blow because we can see how much they are friends on top of being teammates. What is really great is what Batman reveals as his contingency plan for himself at the end, and it hit me as very telling of Batman’s true nature of trust.
I also enjoyed that the entire League is not unanimously opposed to Batman’s contingency plans. They are all stunned by it, but subtle actions by some of them suggest a more open minded, fair viewpoint. I can entirely see Hal Jordan being for it as, at least in the comics, he went completely insane and killed the Green Lantern Corps when infected by the fear entity Parallax. He’s also seen someone like Sinestro, who was a Green Lantern, betray the Corps and become an enemy as well. So, having counter-measures in place to neutralize a rogue member would be a wise precaution in his eyes. However, most of the League would view this as a betrayal of trust, and no one is entirely wrong. When Tower of Babel was written Batman was being made into an increasingly more paranoid character, and so, while his ideas might have been wise, his secrecy might be arguable. However, Batman never takes time to brood about this, or feel regret over it. He remains strong in his belief that what he did was a necessary precaution, and it’s only Savage’s twisting of their intent that made them potentially objectionable, in his eyes. Being the sole non-super powered member of the team, he has a unique perspective to see how destructive their powers could be if mind control or a psychological break were to turn them to the side of evil.
Of course, the voice cast is excellent! Having the same actors back who I loved in the old DC Animated Universe just added an extra special quality to the film. Kevin Conroy and Tim Daly have been voicing Batman and Superman, respectively, for a long time, and have earned a respectable standing in the annals of these characters. Conroy is the voice of Batman to me, forever and always. He captures every psychological and emotional nuance of the character perfectly, and clearly enjoys voicing the Dark Knight. Daly embodies the moral sensibilities and epic quality of Superman wonderfully. Michael Rosenbaum is clearly a great actor, and he is able to adapt his voice acting nicely from Wally West to Barry Allen. There’s still a playful aspect to his performance, but it’s more restrained, a little more mature now. He clearly made a conscious effort to differentiate the two performances. The only change-up here is the amazing Nathan Fillion as Hal Jordan reprising his role from the Green Lantern animated movies. His performance truly transcends expectations meshing greatly with the animation direction to create strong emotional moments. Fillion offers up great jovial quips, but also, deep emotional resonance for Hal. He creates an interesting and fun character that holds a lot of weight. Lastly, Phil Morris, who portrayed the Martian Manhunter on Smallville, takes on Vandal Savage, and does a thoroughly effective job at it. He gives Savage a nice touch of majesty and culture wrapped in an imposing megalomaniacal package. The remainder of the cast inhabit their characters superbly keeping things strong, vibrant, and powerful throughout, but it doesn’t end with just the voice acting.
I have really enjoyed the animation style of these animated movies. I have seen Superman/Batman: Public Enemies, Superman/Batman: Apocalypse, Justice League: Crisis on Two Earths, and Batman: Under The Red Hood (which I previously reviewed). All of these have had some slightly different character models, but they have all raised the animation standards for this medium. They are nicely detailed giving each character their own unique look, angles, and energy. All of the heroes here seem a little younger than usual, but that’s exactly what DC Comics has done with their new continuity. So, it did not throw me off at all. The motion of the animation is very fluid making for some dynamic and exciting action sequences. Those sequences are also smartly handled by never making them frivolous. The heroes have to work hard for their victories, and each action scene furthers the story along. The Royal Flush Gang tends to be a token, generic band of villains to battle, but here, they are made more formidable. They have cunning, skill, power, and some cohesion. As dialogue suggests, they have eluded the JLA before, and so, everyone steps up their game so to not repeat that loss. The Justice League uses teamwork and smarts to ultimately triumph over them.
Scenes play out with a solid cinematic style aided by an excellent color scheme to bring out vibrancy and mood. These enhance the subversive elements in the story creating a mysterious, foreboding atmosphere. The creative design of locations is very cool. I really loved the waterfall interior setting of the Bat-cave. It offers up a different aesthetic than I’ve seen applied before. I felt it was a little inspired by the one in Batman Begins due to the waterfall entrance in Christopher Nolan’s film. Also, the Hall of Doom was a nice update from the old SuperFriends cartoon. It still has all the classic design elements, but it reflects Vandal Savage’s personality with various pieces of elegant art that depict him only.
The story unfolds in a very tight fashion. Pacing is consistent throughout. As DC is keeping these hovering around the 75 minute mark, there’s hardly time to let the story lag anywhere, but it’s more a fact that there are no extraneous elements present. It’s a very lean, meaty storytelling structure staying right on point with the plot elements and character dynamics. Every plot element that is introduced has a purpose. They all tie back into the story at some point, and grow organically from the conflicts or crises that develop. They really took Tower of Babel as a template, an idea, and built a fresh story around it using a new set of character dynamics and relationships to create Justice League: Doom. That is very smart screenwriting, and that was evidently the standard for the late Dwayne McDuffie. Brilliant stories filled with well rounded, well realized characters and themes. He surely hit every character squarely on the mark in this instance crafting their psychologies and histories around a very intelligent storyline. When the Leaguers are taken down in the second act, there is such an epic and powerful weight given to it all. It’s not handled like “just another villain victory.” These are moments that could claim all of their lives, and it is no easy feat for them to bounce back from it. Beyond just the physical toll, it becomes an emotional and personal injury that they need to overcome to move forward with stopping the Legion of Doom. These moments are given their due time so that their epic weight can come crashing down upon the viewer. It is an amazing sequence that gripped me tightly as it unfolded.
My only down comment is that, at the end, I would’ve preferred a more sound tactical approach in the villains and heroes pairing off. When you have such equal opponents setup here, it would be more logical to change them up. Have Flash take on Cheetah, Batman against Mirror Master, Superman against Bane, or Martian Manhunter battling Star Sapphire. Throw the villains off guard by pitting an opponent against them they are not prepared for instead of each hero battling their common enemy. I can understand the storytelling significance of having each hero take down the villain that defeated them earlier in the story, but this suggested approach also makes sound storytelling sense. The Legion of Doom outsmarted them once. Now, it should be the JLA’s turn to outsmart them instead of just throwing down like they’ve done countless times before with the same enemies. This is especially so since there’s a missile ready to be launched that will destroy half the Earth. No time for personal vendettas. For me, it would’ve been more satisfying if they had taken a smarter approach by changing up the fight dynamics instead of trying to settle scores when the fate of half the world is at stake. However, that is merely my own personal issue, but the climax of the film doesn’t end with a hero-villain fight. The Justice League still has a crisis on their hands that requires each member to give it their all to avert disaster, and that only made for a far more intense and satisfying ending.
This is a very dramatic story that deals squarely with the characters on numerous levels. It raises a very involved issue about trust amongst a group of people with secret identities and super powers. Despite their own personal secrets, they have come to trust each other, but at some point, there must be an objective point of view questioning ‘what if.’ Beyond just the potential of mind control or magic manipulating them, anyone is capable of using their power to do something destructive through emotional or psychological turmoil. When that day comes, someone has to be prepared to deal with it, and Batman surely felt it was his responsibility to prepare for that. Batman, at his best, has always been about doing what’s needed, not what’s popular. The film doesn’t address the complexities of the issue, but it does address how the characters deal with it. That is what’s important, in the long run, and it would truly be intriguing to see a direct follow-up to this story to know how this team moves forward from here.
All of this simply results in an extremely well rounded animated movie. The foundations of its success truly began with Dwayne McDuffie’s immense talent and brilliance as screenwriter. I have not had a wide spread exposure to his work, but from what I have learned of it, Justice League: Doom exemplifies much of what he was admired for. This is written with so much depth and knowledge of the characters that it works as an excellent entry point for anyone into the DC Universe. The loss of all the stories McDuffie still could’ve given fans worldwide is hard to fathom, but it is clear that his talent will be forever missed. However, he left behind a large catalog of work for us all to enjoy at our leisure. So, I would say starting here would be a fine choice. Justice League: Doom has thrilling action, great excitement, rock solid dramatic storytelling, wonderfully fun characters, and is an all around enjoyable watch. It’s an attention grabber from beginning to end, and I know for me, it left me wanting more of this greatness. As I know it does for the great guys at the Raging Bullets DC Comics fan podcast, whose own review helped me fuel mine, this movie makes me long for the return of a Justice League animated series.
This is me writing this straight after getting home from the theatre. I saw this a few weeks after release just because of not getting my time in order. Regardless, what I have to say about Safe House is that it is amazing on many different levels. There are some cinematography shortcomings, but where it counts, this is a movie that delivers on more than just action. Safe House is one of the best thrillers I have seen in many, many long years, and this is a genre I am very passionate about.
Matt Weston (Ryan Reynolds) is a low level CIA agent who has been stuck as a “housekeeper” for their safe house in Capetown, South Africa for the past twelve months. Believing he has the potential to become a full fledged case officer, Weston becomes frustrated by the complacency of his career. Meanwhile, Tobin Frost (Denzel Washington), an ex-CIA agent turned international criminal, obtains a digital file from an MI6 contact which contains incriminating evidence of several worldwide intelligence agencies. However, he is targeted by a team of mercenaries, and the MI6 agent is killed in the process. Seeing no alternative, Frost evades them by walking into an American consulate and turns himself over to the authorities. This lands Frost in Matt Weston’s safe house where a harsh interrogation by a special ops team begins, but is cut short when the mercenaries attack the safe house. Weston is forced to escape, taking Frost captive to keep him safe until brought back into CIA hands. However, Tobin Frost is a master manipulator, and he begins to get into the head of the young operative who finds his morality tested and idealism shaken. Circumstances soon push Matt Weston into going against orders and to figure out who he can trust before he and the world’s most skillful assassin are both eliminated.
Simply said, this is a very powerful, effective film fronted by two incredible actors. This film entirely backs up my statements from my Green Lantern review of the wide range and quality of Ryan Reynolds’ acting ability. Playing opposite Denzel Washington inevitably requires an actor who can carry a lot of weight, and in my mind, Reynolds never slacks off. Matt Weston starts off the film as a very frustrated, yet untested agent. He has the ambition to move up in the ranks, but hasn’t the experience to temper his confidence. The film forces him into a dangerous journey that forges him into a sharp minded, confident, and capable man. All the while, Reynolds holds up his end of the film with amazing talent. This is him upping his game and allowing himself to shine through next to Denzel. That is not an easy feat to accomplish, and the screenplay throws a lot at the character to make it an achievement to be hard earned. Reynolds’ performance crafts a great and compelling arc for Matt to work through. The character has many highly relatable aspects, and is a very human character. He has a loving girlfriend named Ana, portrayed by Nora Arnezeder, who he wants to devote so much of himself to, but he cannot due to the secretive necessity of his job. And being stuck on this assignment will soon force him to be parted from her as she takes a job opportunity in Paris. All of these lies and frustrations ultimately create a conflict for Matt as the story forces him into a more perilous position, but never does he let go of his emotional core.
Now, Washington and Reynolds work off each other fantastically creating an evolving character dynamic which is constantly compelling and intriguing. Throughout the film, Frost is imparting his experience and cunning skill set upon Matt, and this is the basis for their relationship. At times, it’s survival based, but ultimately, it’s about trust. As if it needed to be said, Denzel is stunning as Tobin Frost. He is one of the finest, most talented actors around. While Denzel usually has roles that allow his natural charm and charisma to work to his advantage, here, he curtails it entirely. Frost is a far more psychologically driven character who is dark, dangerous, and ruthless. Morality doesn’t factor into anything, it’s about strategy and survival. However, he connects with Weston because Frost sees what he once was and wants to help this young man not become the same thing he became. He’s never straight forward in saying that. Instead, he works as an observer of Weston’s life, and bestows his experiences upon him. This ultimately affects Matt’s decisions and actions. Again, it tempers him, and allows him to survive to make better choices than Frost made. Denzel is also quite unsettling in how he inhabits the merciless nature of Frost’s violence. He doesn’t need to shoot a prone man five times, but he does out of cold rage or a vindictive point. He shows his enemies how more deliberately violent he is by doing such things. For him, it is only shoot to kill. Denzel conjures up a brilliant performance of an intelligent, analytical character who brings immense gravitas to the story. The emotion he shows is subtle and veiled in Frost’s inquisitive and foreboding nature.
The strength of the film is maintained by a solid and impressive supporting cast. Everyone nails the dramatic weight and tone of the film, and their characters feel fleshed out and realistic. Brendan Gleeson is the most prominent as Weston’s direct superior, David Barlow. He plays the subtle turns of the character very nice, and holds an audience’s attention quite well. The film plays some misdirection here and there, but these moments only continue to fuel Weston’s growing weariness. Sam Shepard also appears as CIA Director Harland Whitford creating an all around interesting performance that motivates many of the thematic elements through to the end. An appearance by the always solid and enjoyable Ruben Blades as a document forger adds an extra dimension to Frost. Even if he happens to be a criminal, it shows that Tobin does have people he trusts and can call a “friend.”
What few scenes we do get of Nora Arnezeder as Ana Moreau are great. From tender and affectionate to quietly concerned to distraught and upset, she inhabits all emotional aspects of Matt’s beloved superbly. While she is never in peril or is a direct motivation for Matt to do what he does, she is always in the back of his mind. He has something worthwhile in his life that he does not want to lose, but there are bigger ramifications at hand which he cannot turn a blind eye to. If for nothing else, he wants her kept safe, and makes some difficult choices because of that desire.
This truly is a thriller on the level of Michael Mann. Even a few moments in the musical score felt evocative of Collateral here for me. Composer Ramin Djawadi has done some work I am familiar with including Iron Man, the Hugh Jackman-Ewan McGregor thriller Deception and the current CBS crime thriller series Person of Interest – and so, I can truly see why he has tapped for this film. The score is entirely awesome bringing out some stellar emotional resonance in key moments, and serving the intense action sequences excellently. This is another powerhouse element that raises the film up to another level.
Now, I have good and bad things to say about the cinematography. First off, STOP IT!!! Stop with the blasted shaky cam! Break out a tripod, a steadicam, or dolly track for one scene! Safe House was shot by Oliver Wood, who also photographed the first three Jason Bourne films. Now, while Paul Greengrass has nothing to do with this movie, you would think otherwise in how it was shot. Still, it is a little better than Greengrass’ Bourne films as the framing can be wider at times, and the lighting is far superior. You can actually maintain a sense of geography in most action sequences, especially the car chases because the action is given a wider composition. Still, this trend has worn on me so much over the years, I can only plead filmmakers to stop at this point. There is one scene between Matt and Ana where it’s supposed to be a quiet emotional scene, but the camera just keeps wobbling all over the place. From experience, shooting a simple dialogue scene with a handheld camera usually only results in a subtle instability, but here, it is so deliberately shaky like the camera operator was about to stagger and fall over. The good half of the cinematography is that it does add a necessary gritty, hardened reality to the film. There is nothing glossy about it, and that’s how it should be. The lighting reflects this with perfect execution using many color schemes to breathe some vibrancy into select scenes. There is moodiness and atmosphere, but that gritty texture is always present to maintain a consistent visual style.
And despite the shaky cam crap, the action sequences are massively effective. This truly has some hardcore action going for it by never pulling any punches. It’s full-on, straight ahead realism maintaining intense momentum and adrenalin. The hand-to-hand combat scenes are definitely impressive showing Denzel and Ryan handle themselves like dead-on professionals. They both deliver hard edged physicality which further drove my respect for both actors, especially Reynolds. It really is a pleasure seeing him in a role that showcases his wide range of abilities, and seeing him handle the physical demands of this film pleases me a great deal. I also enjoy that the action sequences aren’t there for self-indulgence, they push the plot and character arcs forward. Seeing Weston beat down on one of the gunman, interrogating him while Frost looks on from afar was an impactful scene. It starts to beg the question of just what path is Matt Weston starting down.
The screenplay by David Guggenheim is a masterful piece of work. Every character is written with such strength and depth that they must have jumped right off the page. The story itself is wonderfully crafted establishing Tobin Frost quickly as a dangerous and cunning man through not just actions but words. The tone of the scenes are built into how they are written through character interactions and situations. While everyone else is panicking in the safe house when it is hit, Frost sits there, handcuffed and calm as can be. He talks Matt through the situation, and tries to keep him calm and focused. This is a man in control, a man who can see the next step forward. He always sets up the situation where he has the leverage, where he dictates how it goes down. This is established right from the beginning of the film, and continues on throughout. The psychological aspects of the story are brilliant. Whether or not Matt Weston trusts what Tobin Frost says, he cannot ignore his words when circumstances turnaround on him. He becomes more and more aware of the truth closing in around him, and Matt must act in his own best interests as a direct result of what he learns from Frost. The screenplay continually weaves a finely textured fabric of truth and deception around Weston with only Frost as the key to unravel it all.
This is all amazingly executed by director Daniel Espinosa. You can be certain that his name is one I will take notice of from here on out. Again, me comparing this to the best of Michael Mann’s work is a huge piece of praise as Mann is my favorite filmmaker (excluding Miami Vice & Public Enemies). This truly has all the hallmarks of the finest this genre has to offer. Every emotion, every conflict, every action sequence, and every character is handled with immense care, detail, and weight. Nothing is cheated or unearned. Great respect is given to all aspects of this story to craft it into a deeply satisfying and rich film. I honestly can’t recall seeing another film as dramatically impactful an visceral as this one, theatrically, in a terribly long time.
For me, 2011 was not a great year at the theatre for me. There were some enjoyable flicks, but nothing remotely as riveting as Safe House came into my view. Whatever the rest of 2012 holds for me, I always enjoy starting out a new year of cinema with a strong film, and this is one of the most rock solid films around. With an incredible cast of talent in front of the camera coupled with an intelligently written screenplay populated by powerful characters, Safe House was an absolute pleasure for me to experience. I am glad I made the time to give it my attention. I highly and deeply recommend this film for anyone who is excited by a psychologically rich dramatic thriller with visceral action sequences.