The Screen Critic: Action man Liam Neeson returns, a gig economy crime drama and a blistering boy scouts expose

Sep 22, 2023
Image caption: Liam Neeson takes the driver's seat in Retribution (Studio Canal); Kenneth Branagh in A Haunting in Venice (20th Century Studios); Aubrey Plaza is terrific in Emily the Criminal (Roadside Attractions)

Given how mediocre so many of his action outings tend to be, it’s pleasing to report that Liam Neeson’s latest venture is well above par.

Set in Berlin, Retribution is a punchy, tense thriller in which our favourite senior man of action plays a wealthy investment broker with a dodgy track record. 

One morning while driving his warring kids to school he’s told by an anonymous caller that his luxury car has been booby-trapped with a bomb under his seat and unless access to a secret bank account containing millions in stolen loot is granted, the plush upholstery will go boom.

The action is taut, featuring some neat chase sequences through narrow streets and cool car prangs that inevitably end with florid explosions (all digitally enhanced, of course).

On top of having to deal with the prospect of instant annihilation, poor Liam also has to contend with his wife (Embeth Davidtz) wanting a divorce. It’s just one more inconvenience on a very bumpy start to the day.

Kenneth Branagh returns for his third turn behind the moustache as Agatha Christie’s detective Hercule Poirot in A Haunting in Venice, a very middling murder mystery that has neither that star cast nor the scenic beauty of Death on the Nile.

Mostly taking place inside a poorly-lit Gothic orphanage during a torrential storm, Poirot investigates the death of a young woman with the help of an American murder mystery writer (Tina Fey).

Though tinged with a supernatural vibe the proceedings are far from gripping, with Branagh fans – and there are a lot of them – being the only ones likely to get much out of a gloom-laden film that looks like it was designed for the stream screen. Best to wait.

In yet another so-so studio spectacle, Blue Beetle offers up a little-known comic-book superhero from the DC stable in the hopes that the deluxe big-budget, big-screen treatment with all the usual bells and whistles will ignite another film franchise.

When college graduate Jaime Reyes (Xolo Maridueña) returns to his debt-ridden Mexican family he stumbles upon an ancient alien artefact that imbues him with super powers, including the standard ability to cause much property damage while fighting bad guys.

Though the film cost around $100 million to make it’s all-too clear that nary a cent was invested in making it look or feel any different from most of the superhero larks that have plopped in front of us since the advent of Iron Man back in 2008.

As far as flashy time killers go Blue Beetle is a passably cranked-out serving of fantasy action, with a little comedy thrown in courtesy of George Lopez. Anyone expecting anything more, however, will feel short-changed.

And be warned: the film is loud as heck.

For a far more interesting use of superpowers, grab the kids and check out the crowd-pleasing animated holiday family film Paw Patrol: The Mighty Movie, in which the tech-powered canine crew are imbued with special powers by a glowing meteor that crashes in the middle of Adventure City.

With a handful of adults-only jokes cleverly inserted throughout (mainly to do with movie merchandise and overpaid Hollywood actors), it’s an enjoyable, fast-moving adventure full of colourful action and big doses of wide-eyed cuteness.

Message-wise, the film (based on the hugely popular TV series) celebrates the values of cooperation and the importance of never underestimating someone because of their size. Good call.

Yet the film’s biggest treat is Victoria Vance (voiced by Taraji P. Henson), the cackling, scene-stealing, sassy, super-fun villain who is forever offended by being called a mad scientist. She’s a hoot.

The long and sorry child abuse scandal that shook the Boy Scouts of America to its core is explored in Scout’s Honor, a Netflix documentary that is both powerful and moving.

Digging deeply beneath the organization’s wholesome All-American image the film investigates the manner in which abusive scout leaders were able to operate through a combination of administrative failures and outright deception. 

A trove of incriminating documents, long hidden from public view, reveal the extent of the abuse. We also learn how religious organizations were able to exert their influence and social agendas upon the Scouts, which was always meant to be secular and open to all. 

Wisely, the film does acknowledge how the organization recognizes its wrongdoing and that its policies strongly promote inclusion and equality. Still, the film is full of raw emotion as victims, now grown adults, give testimonials that illustrate the life-long impact child abuse inflicts. An excellent documentary.

In the terrific crime drama Emily the Criminal we watch as unfair circumstances push an otherwise decent person into a risky but rewarding life as a fraudster.

Best-known for her droll comic presence in Parks & Recreation, Aubrey Plaza does a great job as Emily Benetto, a woman struggling with student debts and unable to secure as job because of her criminal record.

She is introduced to a scam where items are purchased with fake credit cards. It pays well but comes with an element of danger that brings out Emily’s dark side as she becomes part of the underworld’s gig economy.     

Anchored by Plaza’s magnetic central performance Emily the Criminal is one ripper movie. Catch it on Netflix and Binge.

For more visit with updates on X at @jimschembri

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