Mark Strong



It’s generally accepted that, as comic book universes go, Marvel is the outfit that employs a lighter touch, whereas DC habitually plays things dark and po-faced. So Shazam! is clearly an attempt to give the latter franchise a kick up the spandex-clad backside, playing things primarily for laughs and making a pretty good job of it. Unfortunately, the tone of the film tends to veer alarmingly back to the dark side every now and then and, whenever it does, the momentum is temporarily lost and has to be recaptured.

Shazam! began life back in 1939 as a comic, where the central superhero was known (rather confusingly, given recent film history) as Captain Marvel, but the origins story remains pretty much intact. This is the tale of young orphan, Billy Batson (Asher Angel), who loses his young mother in a crowd one day and, years later, is still desperately trying to find her. For no good reason, an ancient wizard (Djimon Hounso) gifts him with the ability to transform himself into the titular superhero, Shazam (Zachary Levi). But before we see that origins story, we are obliged to sit through another one, a scene from the childhood of Thaddeus Sivana, who will one day grow up to be played by Mark Strong and who will be a very bad egg indeed.

To be honest, the opening twenty minutes of the film are a bit of a trial – indeed, I am actually considering walking out of the screening until Billy’s first transformation occurs and the film takes a huge step in the right direction. The central conceit – what would a superhero be like if he was actually a fourteen year old boy? – is a bit of a masterstroke and Shazam’s early attempts to come to grips with his newfound abilities, aided by his nerdy friend, Freddy (Jack Dylan Grazer), are laugh-out-loud funny. Likewise, Billy’s interplay with the foster parents who take him on is nicely done with some lovely dialogue between him and the other kids in the group home.

But of course, it’s only a matter of time before a grown-up Dr Thaddeus Sivana shows his face and matters lurch straight back to the dark side. Sivana has managed to find a way to channel the seven deadly sins, giving himself superpowers of an altogether more sinister kind than Billy’s. A scene where Sivana flings his older brother through the window of a skyscraper and then orders his brutish parasites to chow down on a boardroom full of businesspeople (one of whom is his father) does not sit particularly well with the humorous stuff I’ve just been enjoying so much.

The film continues to seesaw its way along in this disconcerting fashion and I find myself constantly having to reassess my position on it. For the most part, it’s enjoyable stuff and even the distressingly long, CGI-assisted final confrontation is, I suppose, par for the course in a superhero movie. There’s a brief coda that provides a brilliant last laugh and a post credits sequence that suggests the possibility of a sequel. I’m not sure this idea has the legs to go very much further, but Shazam! is, for the most part, entertaining and, unlike so many comic book movies of recent years, it doesn’t take itself too seriously.

Which, when I think about it, may be the best recommendation of all.

3.4 stars

Philip Caveney


Kingsman: the Golden Circle


Marmite movies – you wait for ages and then two come along at once.

No sooner has the Twitterverse stopped ranting about Darren Aronfsky’s mother! than they are virtually foaming at the mouth over this sequel to Kingsman: the Secret Service. The way people talk about it, you’d think the original was some kind of cinematic masterpiece. It certainly wasn’t that, but it was, in my opinion, great fun – an adrenalin-fuelled Bond spoof. This first film covered the induction of straight talking street-kid, Eggsy into the suave and sartorially elegant ranks of the Kingsmen, a secret society pledged to defend the world from evil.

Inevitably perhaps, the sequel is bigger and flashier, with such a starry cast that Taron Egerton finds himself in the uncomfortable position of being third-billed in what is ostensibly his movie. Director Matthew Vaughan and writer Jane Goldman have clearly decided, this time out, to pursue an even more audacious plot line, cranking the old silly-o-metre up to maximum override – in the process, I’m afraid, making the whole thing a tad too ridiculous even for my taste.

Drug kingpin, Poppy (Julianne Moore), based in a secret hideout in the South American jungle (aren’t they all?), is seeking to enslave the world with her own brand of opiates. She even inserts a special ingredient into her produce that turns its users into blue-veined freaks with a life expectancy of just a few days. While she’s at it, she also unleashes a series of vicious attacks on the Kingsman headquarters, killing off most of its key operatives. The only two survivors, Eggsy  (Egerton) and Merlin (Mark Strong), head off to Kentucky and the headquarters of Statesman, the American equivalent of their own organisation. There, they team up with Tequila (Channing Tatum), Ginger (Halle Berry) and Whiskey (Pedro Pascal) in a bid to find an antidote to Poppy’s drugs and save millions of people from an untimely death…

As I said, the plot is so borderline-deranged, it’s hard for an audience to feel any sense of jeopardy – and no amount of guest appearances from the likes of Elton John, Jeff Bridges or Poppy Delevingne can prevent this from feeling like an over-inflated soufflé, all style and very little substance. It’s not a total write-off, mind you. Vaughan still has a winning way with an action set-piece and there are several here that periodically ramp up the excitement, but all too soon we’re back to robot dogs, people being made into hamburgers, Eggsy knocking around with a princess and introducing her to all his mates on the estate… and then there’s the little matter of a character who was murdered in the previous film still being alive. How do they explain that one? Well, they do try. I can’t help feeling that a storyline that kept a little closer to some kind of reality would help no end.

Look, here’s the bottom line. If you didn’t like the first film, you’ll hate this – and if, like me, you enjoyed the first one, you might just be willing to accept everything being ramped up to number eleven. But as far as I’m concerned, this is where I bale out.

3 stars

Philip Caveney

(By the way, what’s with the John Denver thing? Here’s yet another movie that employs Take Me Home, Country Roads for one of its key scenes – about the fourth or fifth I’ve seen in as many months.)

Kingsman: The Secret Service



Matthew Vaughan, creator of Kick Ass, has made no secret of the fact that he’s long held a desire to direct a Bond movie. With Kingsman: The Secret Service, he may just have gone one better, creating an irreverent spoof that’s surely strong enough to become a franchise of its very own. Actually, in tone, it’s probably closer to long running TV series, The Avengers, a surreal blend of action, espionage and dark humour, but whatever it’s inspiration this works brilliantly, setting off at a brisk canter and accelerating into a full gallop.

Eggsy (Taron Egerton) is a teenager on a sink estate who’s life seems to be heading rapidly down the toilet. He’s surrounded by thugs (one of whom has got his grips on Eggy’s Mum (Samantha Janus) and his future looks decidedly bleak. But little does he suspect that he has an ally in Harry Hart (Colin Firth) a member of a secret organisation known as Kingsman. A pre credits sequence has revealed that Hart owes his life to the action of Eggsy’s late father, a member of the same organisation. Hart has vowed to take care of his son. So Eggsy finds himself invited to undergo the society’s ruthless initiation course, coached by Merlin (Mark Strong) a kind of Q figure, with access to all kinds of state-of-the-art weaponry. Along the way, the world faces destruction at the hands of Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson) a communications billionaire with a fiendish plan to stamp out global warming and…

You know what? The ins and the outs of the plot hardly matter. Suffice it to say that Kingsman ventures into areas that the Bond franchise wouldn’t dare to tread. Based on a graphic novel by Dave Gibbons and scripted by Vaughan and Jane Goldman, the film is an inspired mix of action, comedy and cartoon violence that never falters and never loses it’s grasp on an audience’s attention. Firth convinces as an action hero with more than a passing nod to John Steed, a secret agent who is as concerned about the cut of his suit as he is about nailing the villains. Newcomer Egerton (looking eerily like a young Leonardo Di Caprio) clearly has a bright future ahead of him and should Vaughan decide to go this route a second time, I for one will be first in the queue to watch it. Superlative stuff.

4.8 stars

Philip Caveney