Lone Survivor *****

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We’ve seen conflict in Afghanistan played out on the big screen before. What makes Peter Berg’s gripping drama, Lone Survivor, a little different is the uncompromising assault on the senses that begins as soon as the four-man team of US Navy SEALs lands on a mountainside to monitor a Taliban stronghold. This film holds one of the most gruelling and exhilarating fights for survival where you are placed right in the thick of it on a rocky façade. It would be unbelievable if it wasn’t based on a true story from former SEAL Marcus Luttrell.

In 2005 four SEALs are flown into a remote part of Afghanistan tasked with monitoring and identifying the activities of one Taliban leader and to dispose of the threat. Known as ‘Operation Red Wings’, it was doomed from when they first land as unbeknown to them their radio reception is hampered by the mountainside, which will be a final resting place for all but one.

The title and any knowledge of the real-life, ill-fated operation obviously gives the end away. However, this is not the intention of this film; it’s to submerge and lock the viewer into an alien and terrifying existence. Berg totally achieves this with his use of handheld camerawork and point-of-view shots in the breathtaking, deadly cat-and-mouse game. There is very little respite every time it appears one of the team has survived for a single moment. It’s also quite shocking the toll it takes on the soldiers’ physiques, all because they are at the mercy of technology that fails them.

In addition to the harrowing true story behind the film and some slick directing that keeps you hooked, there is some superb acting that really expresses the unspoken bond that these men had. Mark Wahlberg as Luttrell, Ben Foster as Matt ‘Axe’ Axelson, Taylor Kitsch as Michael Murphy and Emile Hirsch as Danny Dietz successfully portray a flavour of the SEALs’ personalities before the operation, enough for us to grasp how each man fits into the team, and during the fight for their lives under extreme pressure in ‘professional mode’.

Indeed, it’s been said that the film feeds the Afghan conflict’s US propaganda machine, especially with the pictorial roll call of those real-life military personnel that lost their lives at the very end. However, this is tastefully done to reinforce the gravity of what we have just witnessed and the real lives behind the story. Berg also does not paint a black-and-white picture as such with some surprises on both sides in store. Lone Survivor is an intense adrenaline rush of horrific proportions that further sets Berg apart from other action filmmaker in his precision to recreate an all-consuming dramatic scene – one that feels like it lasts virtually the entire film in this case.

5/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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LFF 2013: The Armstrong Lie ****

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Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Alex Gibney, winner of the LFF 2012 Best Documentary prize for Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God returns this year with an equally absorbing film that literally puts professional cyclist Lance Armstrong on the spot. Oprah has been there, trying to get the truth. Now it’s Gibney’s turn, especially as he was filming the athlete’s cycling comeback in 2009 as he trained for his eight Tour de France victory (as contested). Issues of doping cropped up back then – all denied.

Since doping revelations have since come to light in the past couple of years, what follows is a change of plan to Gibney’s original documentary idea. He goes armed again with his camera to try and get a ‘true’ confession out of the cyclist, especially as he was lied to face-to-face back then. It’s cringeworthy, ‘car crash’ viewing that doesn’t require any knowledge or love of the sport (or Armstrong) to be gripping and entertaining for the full 122 minutes run-time.

In fact, what’s on show is how far one competitive man will go to stay at his peak – and in the limelight he seems to covet. It also shows how delusional Armstrong can be, leaving you utterly astounded at the audacity of the controversial sportsman, even believing his own myth in front of close friends he sets up for the fall. It’s like watching a real-life pantomime villain at play that you want to boo and hiss at. Conversely, Gibney does show Armstrong’s celebrity power in raising funds for cancer survivours, like him, painting a very perplexing character, and one very ambiguous one.

Also inter-cut with early footage of Armstrong denying rumours of doping, getting quietly angry at random drugs tests being carried out by the cycling authorities in front of his family at home, and post-race frankness into how he was feeling, are insights with Armstrong’s equally controversial and publicly illusive Italian doctor Michele Ferrari who likened the hormone EPO (erythropoietin) to ‘taking orange juice’.

Throughout viewing, what’s uglier than Armstrong’s contempt for some of those who where close to him is the fact that his delusion seems to stem from doping being widespread, almost common practice – and therefore not a problem – among professional cyclists. This is possibly a more fascinating and tougher investigation for any filmmaker.

For cycling fans, the film has lots of archive footage of racing to relive, especially the intriguing in-car conversations during the Tour de France that will enhance what they know of Armstrong and the cutthroat rules of the sport. For the rest of us, the film introduces us to one of the most alluring and complex public figures in sport who riles us while begrudgingly impresses us with his sheer determination to stay at the top. Gibney may not be as biting as in his previous work, possibly as there is a glimmer of marked respect for the sportsman. That said Gibney does not let him off the hook either. Do we ever get to know the real Lance Armstrong after this – does Gibney? The man still feels like an enigma.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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LFF 2013: Inside Llewyn Davis ****

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Although the latest Coen Brothers’ film, Inside Llewyn Davis, follows a tired-out character in the misfortunate Llewyn the musician, superbly played by actor-singer Oscar Isaac, the sumptuous-looking film is as fresh and Coen cool as any before. Mostly notably, it becomes one of the filmmakers’ most memorable with its musical renditions that pause the protagonist’s self-afflicted suffering for a moment. Through these, the film’s soul shines though as it fights for breath while its lead flounders at every turn. There is a remarkable melancholy at odds with a willful spirit that is all-consuming.

Llewyn Davis (Isaac) is an aspiring solo singer navigating the Greenwich Village folk scene of 1961. However, luck is not on his side: he’s broke, has lost his singing partner, and seems set on screwing up every relationship and opportunity that comes his way. All he wants to do is be successful in the entertainment business or he will end up in the family shipping business.

Davis captivates us from the very start, so we can appreciate his talent, but subsequently does not channel that talent very well. He should be a loathsome character from his actions but there is a determination to stick by him to see if things transpire for the better. In the interim, he stubbornly stumbles from one disaster to another like one of life’s victims. As our damaged anti-hero we do empathise with his will to make the dream happen, as well as trying to keep current in a rapidly changing world.

Isaac plays socially obstructive Davis with such flagrant disregard but crippling neurosis that there are wonderful moments of irony and sarcasm. Just when we are losing the will with him, Davis recaptures our faith in his mission with a song, like being placed under a musical spell. Isaac has the impressive acting-singing talent to carry the film and Davis’s weary shoulders in the standout performance of his career to far.

The richly interwoven, subtle humour rises and filters away with every scenario. Like A Serious Man, this film is about life unraveling with signposts along the way. There is a running ‘joke’ about a cat in this that acts as such a prompt for the hapless lead, as much the star of the film as its human counterpart. One of the funniest and most brilliant moments is a road journey taken by Davis with a gregarious but equally pathetic character (John Goodman) and his silent ‘James Dean’ driver (Garrett Hedlund). Everything seems like a barrier to the real person, purely a disguise to get to where they need to go. Part of the Coen magic is figuring out the real character behind the mask.

Carey Mulligan and Justin Timberlake add the big-hitting credits, but the latter features far less than the former who is hilarious in an against-type role that sees the actress play an angry, shouty acquaintance. Mulligan swears like a trooper, taking out her character’s own frustrations on punchbag Davis while trying to scream some sense into him to wake up to reality.

Inside Llewyn Davis is another beautifully crafted Coen Brothers addition that leaves a mark long after watching as we are seduced by the score. The only frustration – apart from the lead character himself – is the narrative does not satisfactorily go anywhere or resolve things. Still, this could an element of Davis’s repetitive routine as he blindly tries to hang onto any fighting chance of creative success, something some of us can well relate to.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Grudge Match **

grudge-match

It is with very heavy heart to inform those whose interest has been pricked by the union of two screen ‘boxing’ legends, Robert De Niro (Raging Bull) and Sylvester Stallone (Rocky) that Grudge Match is a lacklustre attempt at capitalising on the ringside magic that made them famous. The fact is the actual fight takes an age to get going, and if it weren’t for some cheap sideshow entertainment from the likes of Alan Arkin and Kevin Hart, there would be no clout. The latter are the film’s much-needed energy, with the top-billed stars – and the filmmakers – in their debt.

Henry ‘Razor’ Sharp (Stallone) and Billy ‘The Kid’ McDonnen (De Niro) are a pair of old-time boxers in their sixties who loathe each other. Dante Slate, Jr. (Hart), the son of their former unscrupulous agent coaxes them out of retirement after cultivating media interest to see them fight one last bout, 30 years after their last meeting. But can they put their differences aside to stage one last match…

Much like its leads, the film mainly mopes about with a deep-set grudge that is never fully explained – except the falling out over a girl (now a woman) called Sally, played by Kim Basinger. Admittedly, there is nothing wrong with seeing Stallone and De Niro having a grump on, and the pair gets quite a few sniggers at their underhand retorts, like two pensioners who can get away with saying anything. The outrageous is left to filter-lacking trainer Louis ‘Lightning’ Conlon, played with devilish glee by Arkin, who injects the naughtiness, while Hart does his rapid-fire verbal performance to keep things lively.

There is enjoyment to be had at watching two ‘dinosaurs’ out of their depth in the new world of technology that catapults them into online stardom. However, much like Lightning’s jokes, you start expecting this in the very next line uttered. Coupled with this are the standard training montages, but with some nice nods to De Niro and Stallone’s iconic boxing characters.

Director Peter Segal and screenwriting team Tim Kelleher and Rodney Rothman shamelessly tug on our heartstrings with some ‘self-discovery’ moments for the pair, with the importance of family: It seems you are never too old for a journey of self-reflection or to be ‘reborn’, and this is the film’s heartbeat.

The fight scene is more wince inducing than blood-thirsty thrilling as you watch two older guys knocking seven bells out of each other. There is a respect for both actors who strip down to their shorts for the very physical finale, potbellies and all exposed. However, what is missing is a real hunger to see the pair go at each other that the previous scenes are presumably meant to be building up to.

Grudge Match leaves you gunning for more, where the line-up delivers more than the event itself. De Niro and Stallone do the best they can and we applaud them for that; it’s the script that is limp. Relying on the star draw is the laziest kind of filmmaking and quite criminal here with two heavyweights of the big screen.

2/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit ***

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Jason Bourne has created such a high benchmark for any non-007 action film that all seem a poor imitation in comparison. Even more unfortunate is Jack Ryan is a much admired character from the Tom Clancy school of espionage brilliance and very different from Bourne, but the action part of any film adaptation will always be compared. Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, which tries to reboot the franchise, is a serviceable enough but feels lacking in anything distinctive to lift it free from the Bourne net for a current audience. That said there is a great retro baddie to enjoy.

We are taken back to when Ryan (Chris Pine) was a mere student, witnessing the 9/11 attacks on the US on TV while studying in the UK. Next, Ryan is a marine serving his country in Afghanistan when a tragic accident onboard a military helicopter happens. We then witness how Ryan and his partner Cathy Muller (Keira Knightley) first get together, to how he becomes the spy we know him as, recruited by ‘man of the shadows’ CIA agent Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner). With his head for figures, Ryan must stop a Russian terrorist threat to US financial security and go into operational duty for the first time, up against the sinister Viktor Cherevin (Kenneth Branagh).

To be honest, there is a certain likeability to Pine in this role, purely because he epitomises the all-American boy thrust into active duty, when all Ryan wants to be is a desk-bound geek on Wall Street. Ryan does not share Bourne’s ingrained survival streak, so his mishandling of a lot of situations seems apt. Pine’s biggest problem is overcoming his notoriety as Captain Kirk. He does in this, and makes a convincing new spy recruit completely out of his depth (bathroom scene). Part of that is down to heavyweight Costner who has a certain unchallenged gravitas to such a genre and is actually the puppet master in this. In this sense, it’s fertile ground for Pine to explore new territory after his less serious spook turn in This Means War.

One of the bizarre things to get your head around with the latest Jack Ryan is not Pine but some against-type casting: From Knightley trying to be an American gal (but coming across as a plumy Brit trying to do an accent still) to thespian Branagh as the most stereotypical Russian baddie in years, complete with an accent that could cut glass. There is even a fleeting appearance by former Brookside actor Michael ‘Sinbad’ Starke as an auto-plant worker. There is always a split-second incredulous reaction to be had before things settle and you are back in the equally incredulous but enjoyable tale. Thank goodness for the anchor in such a film that is Costner that stops things becoming a farce.

That said Branagh injects such theatrics into his part that he steals much of the show, however ridiculous proceedings are, and there is a nice little tense and flirtageous dinner scene between him and Knightley. In fact it’s a pleasant change to witness these actors doing something different and it does work, if only because Branagh’s direction seems as experimental as his casting. It becomes hard to knock in that sense.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is indulgently enjoyable with a dose of old-school villainy in a techno world but seems a little tame, even superficial for a sincere Clancy screen revival. However, even if this ‘simplified’ version may not appease all fans, it does open up the character to a wider audience bred on Bourne and action-packed 007 films of recent years. It is a shame that Ryan is not more cerebral, in honour of the literary character, but that would mean an entirely different film, and not one that follows the action tropes of downtown carnage and explosions – which some of the more astute have pointed out, the latter seem lacking in the actual film but are plentiful in the trailer.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Devil’s Due **

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The ‘found footage, handycam horror’ effect is fast becoming the norm in the horror flick stakes because it appears to suggest an ‘authenticity’ to forthcoming filmed events, like CCTV footage. Paranormal Activity paved the way for a new kind of cinematic style. Directors Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett’s Devil’s Due borrows from this, with nods to Rosemary’s Baby in terms of storyline. It does well in its cinematographic style but fails to inject enough ‘creepiness’ and oddity that the latter 1968 film achieved. Devil’s Due does chillingly reflect a couple’s fears of parenthood to come though, in a very realistic way.

Newlyweds Zack (Zach Gilford) and Sam (Allison Miller) hitch a ride with a cab driver and find themselves taken to an obscure club on the last day of their honeymoon in The Dominican Republic. After a few drinks, they wake up in their hotel room, confused as to what happened and how they got back. Back home in the States, they receive some unexpected news; Sam is pregnant, much to their families’ joy. But right from the start, Sam feels like something is wrong with the baby growing inside of her, complete with her experiencing blackouts. Zack starts seeing strangers watching their house.

The beginning of the film does well to establish the couple’s relationship; almost a little too much that it begins to drag. The camerawork suggests confusion and mystique at the crucial moment that sets things up nicely for events to develop. The key to the film is from this point, and although there are some great sequences – like Sam at the supermarket and another in a forest with some unsuspecting sightseers, the rest feels all too similar to other demonic horrors in narrative and special effects (such as night vision shots). There is less of a feeling of tension building, less impending doom than in the Paranormal Activity saga. The doom and gloom comes more from a couple not being able to cope with a change in their circumstances rather than anything supernaturally creepy. It all seems a little too gradual in reaction.

In addition, we know Zach is the enthusiastic videographer at the start, but like a lot of such films, confusion grows as to who the shooter is at times, with a few shots that don’t make total sense. We are also prompted to jump when the camera goes static, for example: One of the successes of Paranormal Activity is the camera just rolls and things happen in front of it. Visual prompts take the surprise out of things.

That said although the scenes of ‘those shady characters involved’ feel mysterious and generate curiosity, the ambiguity is too unsatisfactory overall – we don’t need all the answers but some would be helpful. In fact, the climax leaves you frustratingly shortchanged, with the penultimate end scene coming full-circle back to the beginning. The film does set itself up for a possible sequel, but it would be like watching yet another home movie of a pregnant woman’s ups and downs, unless the filmmakers come up with something clever. In short, we feel starved of genuine shocks.

Devil’s Due sets up an intriguing premise for a more sinister Rosemary’s Baby done in the Paranormal Activity Cinéma vérité style but fails to venture into the unknown and develop its own sense of authenticity.

2/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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The Wolf Of Wall Street *****

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If the Devil were running a company, Stratton Oakmont, the dubious stocks-and-shares brokerage house founded by infamous (former) white-collar criminal Jordan Belfort would be it. In fact, Belfort was possibly Satan incarnated. The 80s/90s antics of the real-life character – now a respectable businessman who has a cameo at the very end – is pure screen adrenaline for a new Martin Scorsese film, and it’s one devilish, entertaining white-water ride.

Charismatic New York stockbroker Jordan Belfort starts up his own firm after repercussions of Black Monday in the late 80s and some career advice from then mentor Mark Hanna (Matthew McConaughey), determined to make money whatever the cost to his family life or health. Belfort’s easy success is followed by debauchery, excessive drug taking and total, unadulterated greed, co-run by partner-in-crime Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill). When suspicions are raised over the company’s brokerage dealings, a federal investigation is launched, sparking Belfort to try removing the evidence – his money – to a safer haven abroad. But with so much money at stake and greedy people on the payroll, things begin spiralling out of control and the net is closing in.

With such a controversial subject matter displayed with hedonistic vigour and richly black humour on screen, there is bound to be accusations of ‘glorifying’ Belfort’s old ways. It’s ripe for the taking by Scorsese who does unflinching storylines like no other, and he doesn’t hold back for the faint-hearted. Indeed, to appreciate just how out of control and excessive things got, there has to be major visual shock value, with no editing, enough to make a present-day audience blush or giggle in disbelief.

The only ‘admiration’ you may take away from this is the ballsy, ‘will to win’ stance, which isn’t a bad thing necessarily. Belfort at the time was a tragic character and from the moment he’s snorting coke off a hooker’s backside, all his actions are despicable and predominantly selfish, but you do get caught up in the buzz, as much as anyone would with ultimate power at their fingertips, with the chance to opt out of life’s authoritative constraints. It’s pure escapism, Scorsese style.

Brought to life by the filmmaker’s muse, Leonardo DiCaprio – who is long overdue a big, impressive part like this, Belfort makes Gatsby look like an absolute beginner in the affluence stakes. DiCaprio injects as much brashness, narcissism and irresponsibility possible that he’s invigorating in the role, one of his most enjoyable in years. Only one actor steals his thunder initially, admittedly long before the rot sets in; McConaughey as equally narcissistic teacher Hanna triumphs in another memorable but brief role that precedes the release of the noteworthy Dallas Buyers Club.

Scorsese’s cast is a dream team like his Goodfellas days of glory, complete with Hill as toothy Azoff – supposedly based on real-life firm successor Danny Porush. Hill as Azoff finally shakes off his cuddly ‘best bud’ image that he’s best known for in lots of Apatow bromances. Those characters only dream of what Azoff has. Indeed, Hill has found a character to despise who is so repugnant that he deserves all he gets. It’s a career-redefining moment for Hill and a tonic to witness.

The Wolf of Wall Street is stuffed with humour as much as bank notes and coke that it becomes part of the film’s fabric, as we wait for Belfort and co’s own market crash. In the meantime, it has one of the funniest but most surprisingly desperate drug scenes in a film in a long time when Belfort is trying to get home that on face value seems to belittle addicts’ plight but actually reinforces the utter worthlessness. Scorsese offers a daring and great night out at the cinema for anyone needing a break from austere reality and wanting his or her money’s worth, or without paying through the nose for 3D. Do not miss the chance for a bit of chest thumping.

5/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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The Railway Man ***

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Colin Firth has done some of his finest work recently since The King’s Speech, reaffirming his dominance in British screen drama. Therefore, a film based on the memoirs of British WW2 veteran Eric Lomax, who survived the gruelling hardship of working on Burma’s railway as a POW, and starring Firth as Lomax promises another resounding screen success. Indeed, Firth makes the most of a disjointed plotline that sadly stops and starts and carves up any dramatic nature that such a real-life story should strongly and consistently evoke.

Lomax is a railway enthusiast who meets and falls in love with a fellow travelling companion, Patricia Wallace (Nicole Kidman), who later becomes his wife. However, Lomax has a dark and haunting past as a WW2 POW working on the new railway, ‘Death Railway’ in Burma. This causes him repeat nightmares and continual psychological torment, years after the war has been over.

Patricia resorts to finding out more from Lomax’s fellow former POW, Finlay (Stellan Skarsgård), after her husband refuses to talk. One day Lomax discovers his key torturer is still alive and helping run the country’s Kempeitai War Museum, dedicated to Death Railway’s fallen, and decides to confront him in the hope of ridding Lomax of his demons.

The film’s beginning promises superior and complex subtle tones and menacing unease to come, with an endearingly awkward union between Firth and Kidman. Both acclaimed actors play to their strengths in the limited screen-time they have together. However, director Jonathan Teplitzky and screenwriter Frank Cottrell Boyce’s script seems to keen to plunge us into the WW2 setting as soon as possible, without allowing breathing space and character empathy to first grow. There is an unsettling curiosity and delayed answers as to the root of Lomax’s temperament that do benefit from the time-jumping plot.

Indeed, Jeremy Irvine as the young soldier Lomax fares very well in this respect, giving a standout performance as the young engineer who takes the fall and the brutal punishment from his captors for trying to build communication to the outside world. Irvine, who is no stranger to wartime roles (young star of War Horse), has found his niche here in a more sobering and serious part, and gets full credit.

That said as uneven as the story flows and sometimes languid in parts, Teplitzky gives dramatic centre-stage to Firth in the present day as Lomax when confronting his tormentor Nagase, aptly played by Hiroyuki Sanada. This should be the ultimate redemption scene, full of emotive power but feels a bit of damp squib in hindsight, with the most powerful impact being the end scene on the railway tracks and subsequent real-life photographs in the end credits. It feels as though Firth is holding back in authority and vengeful nature that the whole story has been building to, which is disappointing.

What is a remarkable real-life tale feels short-changed in the hands of Teplitzky and team, even though there is just enough characterisation and unimaginable hardship to get immersed in. The lasting sentiment of The Railway Man is not as dramatically compelling as one might have hoped for, and this is probably a factor of the jumbled plotline, rather than acting ability. Still, such a tale deserves our full attention, and the cast is a stellar one to admire, as well as the stunning production values.

3/5 stars
By @FilmGazer

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Delivery Man **

Delivery-Man

Star Vince Vaughn is up to his usual tricks in Ken Scott’s Delivery Man; that of ‘man child’ forced to grow up with the help of ‘the family’. Admittedly, he does curb some of his usual stream of prattle in this. There is a sense that the comic actor is trying to find the right balance of drama and comedy with each new project but insists on reverting to these goofy, irresponsible roles as a fallback in case he can’t cut it as a serious actor. Indeed, the plot alone makes it very hard for anyone to take this – or him – seriously.

Deliveryman David Wozniak (Vaughn) is one of life’s constant losers (estranged from his pregnant girlfriend and in trouble with the mob), even though he has a steady job at his family’s firm delivering meat. One day he finds a man in his apartment who informs him that due to his very generous sperm donations made twenty years earlier for money to take his family abroad, the same clinic subsequently reused his semen. The result is he has fathered 533 children, some of which – 142 – want the right to know who their birth father is, and for his anonymity to be lifted. Intrigued, Wozniak sets out to secretly meet some of his offspring, against the advice of his lawyer and best pal Brett (Chris Pratt), with Wozniak facing the dilemma of coming clean or not.

Those who enjoy the usual formulaic Vaughn comedy can comfortably add this one to the long list. Vaughn always plays the loser with total credibility; there is nothing new here, aside from a more pensive character at the state of play – hence the stemming of Vaughn verbal dysentery. He is as flawed and affable as ever as Wozniak for loyal fans.

Pratt does get the chance to upstage Vaughn as the real loveable fool – end revelation aside. Theirs is the film’s bromance, acting like a bickering married couple trying to sort out the situation. The film plays for our empathy at the start, with Brett left to bring up four young kids after his partner walks out – Wozniak’s worst nightmare, long before the real one begins.

The trouble is, Wozniak seems to come out of the whole thing rather too lightly and unscathed, complete with a gooey ending that feels as staged and ridiculous as the rest of the scenarios. It does appear as though the film tries to change tone but freaks out and reverts to Vaughn type. A little stark reality is missing along the way, like none of the kids get really angry, that naturally makes the whole thing ultimately frivolous.

That said it is Vaughn’s attempt at a little emotional input in a far-fetched and daft premise, again feeling all too comfortable for him. This could have been a mould-breaking role with a little more effort on the film-makers’ part, especially given the more genuine sentiments of the original 2011 Canadian film Starbuck. Still, Delivery Man is entertaining if lacking in substance.

2/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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