Sunday, July 19, 2015

"Ant-Man" isn’t short on fun

The “Heist” movie.  What an under-served film genre.  Some of the most exciting action/thrillers in film history fall under the “heist movie” heading. Most recently, folks would probably name the Clooney/Pitt Ocean’s Eleven (and Twelve… and Thirteen) flicks, but there are also such entries as Stanley Kubrick’s The Killing, Michael Mann’s Heat, and the original Italian Job (although the remake wasn’t awful, either).  When Marvel’s chief of production Kevin Fiege announced all those months ago that Ant-Man would be Marvel’s “heist” movie, my interest was piqued.  Sure, it’s the next installment in the ongoing Marvel Cinematic Universe series, so I’d have gotten in line and bought my ticket even if I knew it was going to just be two hours of Captain America and Falcon doing their laundry.  More casual moviegoers will probably hope for something a bit more dramatically involved, however.

So what’s it about, you ask?  Well, Paul Rudd plays Scott Lang, a professional thief in San Francisco, who winds up helping old, affluent scientist Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) prevent his protégé, Darren Cross (Corey Stoll), from doing terrible things with a special suit that allows the wearer to shrink down to a bug-size super-soldier. Pym has a suit of his own, which he gives to Lang. With the help of Pym’s envious daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly, who, in a pageboy wig, doesn’t look a day over Barbara Hershey), Pym trains Lang to break into his lab, which Cross controls, dismantle the new suit and wipe out all the data and research necessary to produce more.  And that is mercifully that.

If you’re not aware of all the drama involved in bringing Ant-Man to the screen, that most likely means you’re not one to follow the ins and outs of the movie industry and probably don’t care.  Take my word for it, though - given how much went on in the eight years it took to get this movie to the big screen, it is amazing that the finished product is as good as it is. Director Peyton Reed (Down With Love, Bring It On) was a marvelous (no pun intended) choice to replace Shaun of the Dead's Edgar Wright, who left the project due to those infamous “creative difference” a mere weeks before filming was to begin.  Reed’s experience with placing a light-hearted, but not outright ridiculous tone on material proves we should never doubt Marvel’s decisions about what’s right for THEIR material.  The way I imagine Edgar Wright would’ve made this film would almost certainly have resulted in something that was more HIS and not Marvel’s, and we just can’t have that, now can we…?

What allows Ant-Man to flourish is that it largely turns its back on the solemnity and self-importance that occasionally hamper Marvel features and instead traffics in the same sort of freewheeling frivolity seen in last summer's Guardians of the Galaxy.  For that, thank the four screenwriters — Wright, Attack the Block's Joe Cornish, “Funny or Die”'s Adam McKay and Rudd himself — and their ability to include witticisms both verbal ("tales to astonish" is there for the comic fans) and visual (I loved -the bug zapper, and is that oversized toy with the happy face a nod to Ghostbusters?).  Rudd and a scene-stealing Michael Peña (as Lang's ex-con buddy) further contribute to the gee-whiz spirit, with Douglas and Lilly staking out most of the dramatic content.  Even Ant-Man’s encounter with a particular Avenger, while obviously shoehorned into the movie as a means of tying the movie to the larger Universe, was written and executed so well that it didn’t bother me or make me feel the plot had ground to a halt.

The effects are excellent in general, particularly the final showdown in a child’s bedroom.  The sequence is such a contrast to the world-sized, city-destroying spectacle climaxes of most superhero flicks that it must be applauded for merely trying it.  That the film pulls it off is even better. Ironically, only the film’s ants fail to completely convince.  Granted, they're not laughable creations on the order of the insects seen in the '70s shlock flick Empire of the Ants, but they're obvious enough as CGI to bug all but the most forgiving of Marvel devotees.

While I learned enough about all the protagonist characters to interest me and bring me to care about them, I admit I’d like to have seen a bit more development of the villain, Darren Cross.  I suppose in one sense, he’s the bad guy and we see that he’s a sicko, and that should be enough, but part of me wished for some more insight on why this guy was so intense in his dislike-bordering-on-hatred for his mentor/father-figure, and how on Earth he’d risen so far being so obvious a nut-job. The movie is called Ant-Man, though, not “Yellowjacket,” so if this is my only beef with the film, it must be a pretty trivial one.

The final result of all this is that I must say Marvel appears to be bulletproof. I certainly wouldn’t begin to think of placing Ant-Man on a list with such “heist” classics as I’ve listed earlier, but it doesn't do that label any disservice.  While that may be the mindset the brain-trust at Marvel used as inspiration for the movie’s tone, it’s not what actually resulted.  But that’s fine - what did result was an entry in an on-going film series that fits perfectly, yet can be viewed independently and enjoyed all by itself.  Ant-Man is funny, clever blast of a movie.