Fast and Furious 8 ****

As much as we all miss the late Paul Walker as the all-American boy Brian in the car-chasing series, Episode 8 proves the franchise hangs on muscle – in the human and auto sense, driven by Vin Diesel’s camp posturing as car nut Dom Toretto. It has even bigger biceps as Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson flexes the ever-expanding pecks again as law-enforcing Hobbs. But as Toretto always says, it’s ‘family’ that keeps it together and the momentum on track once more, in more wittier ways than before.

When mysterious cyber villain Cipher (Charlize Theron) forces Toretto to join ranks with her against his ‘car family’ of wife Letty (Michelle Rodriguez), Roman (Tyrese Gibson), Tej Parker (Ludacris) and newbie member Ramsey (Nathalie Emmanuel), the merry band join forces with Hobbs and unlikely ally, former nemesis Deckard (Jason Statham) to find rogue Toretto and stop him in his tracks. The question is what hold does Cipher have over him?

The latest saga has all the required throbbing engines, nubile ladies wearing ‘belts’ as skirts, sneers and jeers and testosterone-fuelled racing to prove a point that any fan expects. It also has the gravity-defying stunts, including the series’ most crackers one yet that involves breaking ice and Russian military hardware. Director F. Gary Gray is new to the F&F directing chair, but has stayed loyal to the franchise’s style that there is no obvious difference this time.

With a nice subtle nod to Brian when Toretto goes AWOL, the rest of the characters behave as billed – even Toretto in his new compromised position. The actor, who steals every scene he’s in though, is Statham – drawing on his comical turn in Spy (2015) and a blend of his Transporter/Expendables/Mechanic/Crank roles all in one gravelly delivery. The actor is certainly getting softer in his old age, the hard edges to his characters smoothening out – even with Deckard. Strangely, you will grow fond of him in the end.

Fans can expect a couple of old faces popping up throughout from previous escapades too – they just refuse to go away, nicely illustrating previous plots’ relevance to current events, so there is a lot of thrills to be had there, in addition to the collateral damage.

Get on board again for the ride with Version 8. Expect nothing new, just bigger, dafter ballsier fun with egos the size of tanks on the loose. This latest film just adds more fuel to the saga’s tank and keeps it running. Paul, you’d be proud.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Moana (3D) ****

We are getting quite used to strong animated female leads, and Disney’s latest hum-along entitled Moana – the name of the heroine in it – is no exception. She is headstrong, smart, courageous, adventurous and naturally, pretty. What makes her and her adventure more intriguing is the mythology surrounding the tale that anyone can enjoy, with songs that are emotive and toe-tappingly catchy, rather than pure schmaltz.

A terrible curse is triggered after a greedy Demigod called Maui (voiced by Dwayne Johnson) steals a precious stone, causing all islands in the region to slowly perish. When the curse finally reaches Moana (voice of Auli’i Cravalho), an impetuous Chieftain’s daughter’s island, she answers the ocean’s call to seek out Maui and put things right.

Moana is a blaze of colour and a cool refreshing summer breeze on a chilly December day, with exotic island settings and characters that entertain all age groups. It also has enough subtle jokes for adults, rather than overkill of tedious ‘nudge, nudge, wink, winks’ that have to be explained in the darkness of a cinema as to why mummy or daddy is in a fit of giggles when something clearly unfunny has happened to small eyes.

Moana is also justified in her scolding nature at times, especially with the immature Maui, rather than damn right condescending like some other ‘Disney princesses’. She is very practical and full of wanderlust, which is infectious – though Disney can’t resist drumming home the ‘listen to yourself and follow your dreams’ mantra it survives on. Still, what’s wrong with that?

Again, the 3D is irrelevant for kids too young to keep their glasses on. The magic is in the colourful storytelling, the mood-raising songs and the fun characters that all have their minute of fame and purpose. There is even a Bowie-esque number by a crab that thrills.

Moana merchandise is in the shops, ready for Christmas. However, this time, you don’t resent the hard Disney sell as Moana is a role model any parent would actively encourage their offspring to have.

4/5 stars

By @Filmgazer

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Central Intelligence ***

central-intelligence

Proving bromances still have their own unique appeal is new comedy Central Intelligence. The key is getting the right pairing, which is why this one is an easy watch as it stars Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson opposite Kevin Hart. Just as well the relationship is the central focus here as the narrative takes second place.

Overweight teen geek Bob Stone (Johnson) has never forgotten high-school athlete Calvin Joyner’s (Hart) act of kindness after he was rudely ‘exposed’ in the school gym in front of all the pupils. Grown-up Calvin is now stuck in a rut in an accountancy firm, married to his high-school sweetheart Maggie (played by Danielle Nicolet), but missing his glory days as the school’s most popular kid and likely to succeed – until Bob gets in touch via social media.

Stone is now a muscular CIA agent who needs Calvin’s numerial skills to crack the mystery of who’s compromising the US spy satellite system and trying to frame him for the murder of a former agent. Suddenly, Calvin’s world gets turned upside down and a little exciting, and all before the high-school reunion.

The story’s outcome is predictable – as is always the case where ‘brothers’ overcome adversity. However, it’s the journey taken full of gags and scrapes that matters. Hart is his usual fast-talking self, but it’s Johnson’s admirable comedy skills that meet the diminutive comedian head on to keep the verbal game of ping-pong fresh and fluid.

In fact, Johnson moves smoothly between personas, from goofy old pal, to lethal killing machine, to marriage shrink madness. He seems to be in his element, combining the film typecasting he’s known for (action figure) with the softer side he has adopted in his past family-centric films. Bob acts as a great catch-all role to watch Johnson thrive in for fans.

Hart thrills as Johnson’s naive fall guy, complete with oodles of charm, and the joke is not lost on the size differences between the two, as they share the limelight. It also helps that both men have done action comedy and marry their own personalities to the roles.

Co-Writer-Director Rawson Marshall Thurber’s comedy also taps into the screen popularity of high-school flicks, with reference to John HughesSixteen Candles throughout. This stomping ground of personal development plus the great comedic timing give the otherwise thin plot a touch of depth. Just as well, as even though Amy Ryan lends her steely gaze and authority as agent-in-charge Pamela Harris in this, the action set-pieces seem sporadic and only there to serve as a gauge as to where the boys’ relationship lies at any one point.

As with the reference to Eighties/Nineties high-school films, Breaking Bad fans will also get a gleeful nod from Aaron Paul as a CIA operative, while Jason Bateman brings on the delicious nasty in one defining scene for his character, bully Trevor. It is a comedy full of delightfully entertaining moments.

Central Intelligence plays by narrative numbers but has loads of Hart and Johnson to make it a bold choice for cinemagoers looking for a fun night out.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Fast & Furious 7 ****

Fast-Furious-7

It’s the long-awaited follow-up that unleashes (a p****d) Jason Statham on the franchise, but also, sadly, says goodbye to Paul Walker, an actor who made his name in the series with surprisingly average acting skills but just all-American good looks. Fast & Furious 7 puts horror’s James Wan (Insidious 2 and The Conjuring) in the director’s seat this time – instead of Justin Lin, but it feels like the same gloriously over-acted offering with fast cars, crazy, gravity-defying stunts and half-dressed women as ever. In fact, ‘crazy’ just got crazier with some action pieces just so nonsensical that you won’t do anything but whoop with sheer delight. Watching this on an IMAX screen is definitely worth the money too.

After his brother, Owen (Luke Evans), is placed in a coma, following his ‘evil’ feats in Furious 6, big (nastier) bro Deckard Shaw (Statham) wants revenge on Dominic Toretto (Vin Diesel) and his motoring crew. However, Shaw Senior is a trained special ops assassin, a ‘shadow’, who is not easily defeated. Shaw pays Hobbs (Dwayne Johnson) a visit at his HQ one night, causing chaos, and hospitalising the ‘man mountain’ (who is ever bigger in this film). This sets off a chain of events that sees Toretto and co trying to bring down ‘the shadow’ while saving the world from a new tracking system that has dire global consequences if it falls into the wrong hands.

The best bet is to suspend disbelief with each new Fast & Furious film that comes out. The stunts are ballsier and more thrilling, with carnage the order of the day. The series makes no apologies for its chauvinistic nature; beautiful ladies are there to ogle, even when they fight dirty in evening frocks – much like latter-day Bond flick, really. What this franchise has is a beauty of another kind – four wheels for petrol heads out there, and it never fails to deliver, even if the cars would never withstand that kind of rigorous road testing in real life.

The acting has not got any better – Statham appears practically thespian-like in comparison here. However, it’s part of the whiff of cheese and self-mockery that makes these Neanderthal male characters so endearing – plus Toretto constantly reminding us of what a committed ‘family man’ he is. It seems there may be honour among thieves.

The only thing that is far-fetched and seems a tad ‘throwaway’ in Furious 7 is the addition of your standard international crime lord, played by Djimon Hounsou as Jakande. He gets very little explanation in terms of his motivation, and seems like an empty threat, when really, the film could have just had Shaw as the only villain – however ‘samey’ as the previous film that might have been.

For fans wanting a fitting tribute to Walker, this film yanks hard on the heartstrings at the end – again, shamelessly, and without apology. There will be a lump in every fan’s throat, maybe even a tear shed, but it’s a nice ending for the actor. It also settles the question of what to do next with Bryan, if there is another future film to follow.

Fast & Furious 7 serves up the same as before, only bigger, louder and bolder. Revel in its silliness and its big heart and let it simply entertain you – all it ever tries to do.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Snitch ***

Dwayne Johnson usually plays larger-than-life, powerhouse characters, full of wise retorts, rippling muscle and fixed stares. In Snitch, he attempts to tone down this full-frontal ‘The Rock’ assault a notch or three, going for serious drama in a fact-based story about drugs, their consequences and the somewhat harsh US laws. Although veering into the absurd at times, Snitch is still a surprisingly solid watch from Felon writer-director and former stuntman Ric Roman Waugh that plays to Johnson’s strengths for those still wanting to see the actor triumph over adversity and dispel with some baddies.

As synopses go, first read suggests this film is way farfetched before viewing even begins; a father going undercover (and it even being authorised) for the DEA, in order to free his naïve teenage son who is in line for a lengthy prison term after being part of a drug deal. Actually, Johnson plays John Matthews, an influential businessman who uses his company’s haulage business resources to assist drug running between the US and Mexico so that he can help deliver one of the bigger fish as part of his son’s release. In this respect, believability is still intact, and Johnson instantly wins us over in his character’s attempts to take on Goliath. The action is a little more realistic with Johnson taking some blows rather than knocking seven bells out of several bodies at once with apparent ease.

That said the build up to the actual tense, nail-biting action is a tad drawn out as we are left in no doubt at Matthews’s family values. Indeed, those with teen kids will appreciate the film’s sentiments and question how they’d react. The rest of the story – once the gushy father-son stuff is laid on thick – relies on us being fully on Matthews’s side, however dubious some of his business dealings are. If there hadn’t been an element of truth to the tale too, the idea that the DA (played by Susan Sarandon) would allow such a compromise to happen is a little incredible too, and this still requires a leap of faith to keep the momentum going.

Johnson actually surprises all by delivering some of his finest and earnest work to date in this largely less physical part. In fact it’s a relief that he’s a bog standard businessman man and not some former government agent since retired. In this respect, you are kept guessing as to how things will pan out and whether this father can keep his nerve when faced with the big guns. There is also a healthy element of vulnerability to Johnson’s character that is also refreshing to see him portray. The start does play to each and every cliché in the book but Waugh nicely balances out action with a human emotion, resulting a stirring ride.

As Matthews gets in further over his head and the DA allows more daring stings to operate, things do get increasingly ridiculous, however much we want to see a pumped Johnson cause serious carnage. Plus you do wonder why no one seems to listen to Agent Cooper’s (well played by Barry Pepper) obvious doubts at using Matthews as a civilian pawn. Would the authorities really let this happen in reality? Indeed, why would a top drug kingpin (played by Benjamin Bratt) be so quick to trust Matthews? Surely just following his movements in a day would highlight how careless he is in his meetings with the DEA? These are just some of the implausible points that lessen plot credibility.

Nevertheless, the casting is well done and there is a nice character arc at play for Jon Bernthal as two-time criminal and family man Daniel on the way to his third strike out who is conned into helping Matthews by introducing him to his drug world connections. Sarandon’s on-off part could have been played by anyone but she at least lends another big-hitting name to the film.

Overall Snitch aims to entertain and yank a parental heartstring. It also shows everyone involved in the film in a good light, especially Johnson as comfortable in a less physically demanding part as well as opening up other possibilities for the actor. It’s just as events unfold, it lessens the effect (to make some think twice about drug dealing in the US in particular) and with things becoming a little incredulous, cultivates in a forehead-slapping ending that does raise the odd snigger. Still, Johnson is always an appealing presence on screen, whatever he is doing, especially when putting wrongs to right with gutsy determination.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Journey 2: The Mysterious Island ***

Our thirst for family adventure movies is never quenched, and the promise of yet another involving a mystical, far-off land packed with interesting creatures promises big things. Carving a niche in such a market is Canadian filmmaker Brad Peyton, the debut director of Cats & Dogs: The Revenge of Kitty Galore that got mixed reviews in 2010. Tasked with breathing life back into the Journey to the Center of the Earth franchise from 2008, and with the second film simply shortened to Journey 2: The Mysterious Island, Peyton’s shaky foray into family feature filmmaking has been redeemed.

In this adventure, a more mature Sean Anderson (Josh Hutcherson) is back on another quest to find yet another lost relative at the centre of the Earth, his grandfather (played by Michael Caine), after receiving a coded message from him. Reluctantly accepting help from his mum’s enthusiastic new partner, Hank Parsons (Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson), the pair decodes the message and finds the hidden location of a mystery island through the classics of Jules Verne, Jonathan Swift and Robert Louis Stevenson. But getting to the island will prove tricky and highly dangerous, and the pair enlists the help of pilot Gabato (Luis Guzmán) and his attractive and smart teenage daughter Kailani (Vanessa Hudgens) who get ‘sucked’ into the bizarre rescue.

As such ideas and mythical vistas have been seen and recreated before, Journey 2 is inevitably predictable in a respectful, copycat Jurassic Park/Avatar kind of way – even down to florescent forest toadstools from the latter. However, it bounds along on a flurry of enthusiastic energy and silly but amusing frolics and familiar squabbles between Hank and Anderson Sr, never taking itself too seriously. In turn, it provides ample family fun with good clean jokes that neither bore the adults or sore over the kids’ heads.

It also aims to spark literary inquisitiveness that will have the youngsters checking out all the old adventure classics that its own journey is based on, including the lost City of Atlantis. In addition, and as with any film in this genre, it is peppered with lessons to be learnt and appreciation for your elders – even if Caine as Anderson Sr. is as unreliable as they come, and looks like an aging rocker at the end. It also has its faults when dealing with scaling of its animals in this new world (big animals are small, and vice versa) – just check out Anderson Sr.’s fireflies illuminating his abode that remain normal size.

The casting of beefy Rock – still a man giant from Fast & Furious 5 last year – with a toned Hutcherson acting alongside Hudgens in the tiniest of shorts and vest top and with curls to die for is designed to titillate and provide the glamour among the forest undergrowth. If nothing else, this display of youthful virility will thrust Hutcherson into the hormonal and rather over-crowded teen spotlight currently occupied by the Twilight boys. Boy-next-door Hutcherson has an appealing integrity about him that carries through from the first film, even though he endearingly struggles with teenage angst and bad chat-up lines this time around. Still, he can handle bee flying – another unoriginal nod to another kids’ film classic, Honey, I Shrunk The Kids.

As for the 3D, it seems to have been deployed in this film merely to allow The Rock to do his party trick of firing virtual berries in our faces using pecks power alone – and it gets some giggles. Intimidating in size but as soft a playful puppy dog, the only really disconcerting feature of Johnson’s appearance is his oddly placed nipples that provided a fascinating, if horrifying distraction in the drearier moments. Still, the actor’s comic timing laced with sarcasm is in full supply in this, and he produces some comedy moments with Guzmán and Caine as the grown men try to overcome the obstacles standing in the way of making a quick escape. Apart from that, the 3D is just a nice, visually enhancing factor, but hardly earth-shatteringly important to the story context, so you decide whether you wish to spend the extra money when paying for a family cinema outing.

As foreseen as the ending is, it’s the journey taken that is key, in generating the laughs and the life lessons along the way. Journey 2 may not offer any exciting new premise to the genre and is not without its continuity errors, but its appealing cast has a great chemistry and an infectious team spirit that gives you a buzz and entertains you right until the corny and equally predictable finale.

3/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

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Fast & Furious 5: Rio Heist ****

Petrol heads unite; it’s the return of throbbing muscle cars tearing up the streets and desert highways with a bunch of thrill-seeking car enthusiasts at the wheel. Well, kind of, but the noise and adrenaline is certainly still there in full dramatic force.

Once you’ve adjusted your ears, seasoned Fast franchise director Justin Lin throws in a dusty desert chase at the very beginning for good measure for fans who have been waiting a couple of years for the next instalment. Apart from trying to work out (spoiler) how a car can flip a coach and still stay intact, lap up this incredulous first stunt because the latest film has turned all Jason Bourne/Ocean’s Eleven on us, and is more about a major heist and escaping authority in Rio, plus the gang’s relationship values, than the motorised chases/races the series is best loved for.

That’s not to say that the filmmakers have never placed a lot of importance on family in past films, but this one drums it home (schmaltzy ending aside), often in wholly sincere (and quite amusing) moments of self reflection, with the aid of much-loved characters, Dom (Vin Diesel), Brian (Paul Walker), Mia (Jordana Brewster) and extended family.

Indeed, returning to the franchise’s successful relationship core Fast 5 sees Dom busted from jail by Brian and Mia who go on the run in the favelas (shanty towns) of Rio, before reuniting with some old personalities – one of the film’s major joys – for one last $100 million dollar heist. This is not just another ‘get rich quick plan’, though, but a skewed serving of justice to take down the local corrupt kingpin masquerading as a legitimate businessman. However, adding to the ‘misfit family’s’ woes is Rottweiler US federal agent Luke Hobbs (Dwayne ‘The Rock’ Johnson) who carries out his job to the letter and is determined to hunt down and bring Dom to justice.

A serious suspension of disbelief is needed with a lot of the action scenes, but that’s not to say you don’t get the same entertainment value out of seeing our heroes narrowly miss objects by the skin of their teeth. Each energetic and well-edited set piece is set to a pumping Samba flava to depict the colour, vitality and spirit of Rio. It’s equally galvanising to see Diesel and Walker united in the driving seat once more, a little older and wiser, but just as tightly-sprung and testosterone-fuelled as before. In fact this film bathes in the latter, like an overpowering whiff of cheap aftershave that seems to rub off on the women, too. Mia has become more hard assed and hands on in this, but still keeps a dignified femininity. Sadly, even though this is set in Rio, you have to wait some time before the beautiful bodies lounging over hot throbbing bonnets come into view. Still, the willowy Gisele (Gal Gadot) returns for another job in biker leathers with a metal beast throbbing between her legs, and later in a miniscule bikini to whet the appetite first.

But by far the most gleefully splendid moments are those with Johnson as hunter Hobbs in the frame, especially the iconic one when the two ‘muscular man mountains’ of Diesel and him collide, which is worth the lack of car chase scenes alone, and could be one of cinema’s defining altercations. Indeed, Johnson is quite formidable in presence and gusto in this, but his character has a noticeable, fragile human side that adds to the intriguingly fine balance between good and bad in the narrative. There are a lot of guns and violence, so the film is at the far-end of its 12A rating, bordering more on 15.

Fast 5 also sees the welcome return of Dom’s nearest and dearest, including smooth-talking Roman (Tyrese Gibson), practical Tej (Chris ‘Ludacris’ Bridges), quick-thinking Han (Sung Kang) and banished Vince (Matt Schulze), a ploy to bring delight fans back – and yes, Han didn’t die in Tokyo Drift, it seems. Gibson and Ludacris provide the comedy act, signalling the highs and lows and camaraderie of the whole operation. Apart from the final grand gravity-defying and breath-stopping car chase through Rio that all players mightily deserve to participate in, considering the otherwise driving drought, there are some energising on-foot chase scenes and shootouts within the twisting pathways of the favelas to indulge in, as well as the ever charismatic Joaquim de Almeida as kingpin Reyes, another Latin baddie/businessman role that he effortlessly moulds and delivers with total credibility.

If you are expecting high revs and racing meets, you may be a tad disappointed with Fast 5. However, the characters, with the welcome addition of Johnson, will quickly reel your interest back in and get you on board because of their strong sense of values and purpose, and because we just love to witness them in action. Make sure you stick around for the end of the credits, though, for two nice surprises… Fast 6 might be being tuned up as we speak, and ready to be rolled out any time soon. As they say, ‘where there’s demand, there’s supply’, and this franchise will shoot up the box office chart because it’s undemanding and fiercely electrifying entertainment.

4/5 stars

By @FilmGazer

The Other Guys – 4*

It starts in school. If you’re not one of the popular guys, you long to be. Become one of them, and it’s tough staying at the top. Saturday Night Live writer Adam McKay’s gargantuan giggle fest of deadpan lunatic proportions, The Other Guys, takes this concept and places it bang-slap in cop territory, where the opportunity to feel alienated is rich comedy pickings for writers. And he doesn’t disappoint.

The Other Guys stars SNL colleague Will Ferrell and film action-man Mark Wahlberg in the leads as hapless, mismatched cops Gamble and Hoitz – the former happy to push paper for all eternity, but the latter wanting the action-packed glory and danger of the star cops on the force, Highsmith (Samuel L. Jackson) and Danson (Dwayne Johnson). Ferrell is normally an acquired taste, whilst Wahlberg appears to be shedding his tough guy roles more frequently (Date Night, for example). But Ferrell paired with Wahlberg is nothing short of comedy genius that shows off the talents of both in the best possible light.

Ferrell plays down his trademark idiocy, unleashing it in parts, but taking on more controlled and serious traits as Gamble. Wahlberg thrillingly sends up his stereotypical film persona (angst-ridden and pumped) as Hoitz to the point where both actors seem to be having a blast doing so and experimenting along the way. Thankfully, their chemistry and timing is such that we never tire of watching their team antics and the consequences, which is a good sign that this casting works.

There is also a deliciously funny ensemble of supporting cast members that simply add to the film’s overall strength. Without giving spoilers away, once Jackson and Johnson exit, having provided ample laughs in hammed up, inflated roles, it’s down to Michael Keaton as tricky Captain Gene Mauch to take up the baton, injecting Mauch with all the unpredictability and quiet insanity we come to expect with a Keaton performance, except – as with Ferrell – all the standard ingredients are there, but they are mixed up a little to deliver a character not so routine as first thought, which keeps all on their toes. There is a masterful joke throughout to do with all-girl group TLC that needs to be experienced to appreciate how hilarious it is, every time Mauch is on screen. Rather than becoming tedious, it actually gets funnier as the film goes on.

Eva Mendes is Gamble’s intelligent and drop-dead gorgeous wife, Dr Sheila Gamble, who oozes sex appeal, but is unaware of her impact on the opposite sex. Mendes reverts back to her The Women character for understated slapstick value, and seems as comfortable playing comedy as Mrs G, as any other role, having fun torturing Hoitz whose tongue she virtually trips over whe he comes around for dinner. The weaker link in the line-up is Steve Coogan whose corrupt entrepreneurial character David Ershon never really finds his true value and doesn’t quite make the grade as a camp ‘baddie’ of sorts. That’s not to say he isn’t amusing, just not as witty as first hoped for.

Whilst a comedy cannot be a laugh a minute, the downside of The Other Guys is it has a couple of flat moments, where the gag falls flat or it’s dragged out too long. One prime example is when we first meet Hoitz’s love interest, innocently taking a ballet lesson with a male, which Hoitz misinterprets as more, accompanied by imbecile jeers from Gamble at the door. That said it could be argued that these bizarre scenes merely have you scratching your head even more at the farce before you, and wondering whether among the divine subtlety you are actually missing something quite innovative in deadpan delivery? Perhaps not…

Nevertheless, The Other Guys is a hoot a minute and well worth a trip to the cinema for overall entertainment value and a great cast. Both Ferrell and Wahlberg can safely preen like a couple of peacocks after this.

4/5 stars

By L G-K