Director: Peyton Reed
Stars: Paul Rudd, Michael Douglas, Corey Stoll, Evangeline Lilly
Genre: Action /Comedy /Sci-Fi/Comic Book Adaptation
Duration: 2 hours approx.
Rating: PG-13 / 12A
1989: Dr Hank Pym (Douglas) has mastered an awesomely powerful secret formula that can manipulate atomic structure. Except he’s not letting anyone get hold of it. Fast forward 25 years and Pym has created his own technology business.
The CEO role appears to be passed to Pym’s protégé, Darren Cross (Stoll). But Pym has other plans. Disturbed by Cross’ plans to weaponise miniaturisation technology and sell it to the highest bidder, Pym looks to an unlikely ally to help save the day.
Enter Scott Lang (Rudd): talented thief, with a heart of gold. Can Lang BE the ‘ANT-MAN’ required to master Pym’s technology, harness his inner hero and foil Cross’ evil plans? If he succeeds, Lang will get the clean slate he needs to be the perfect Dad to his beloved daughter. The clock is ticking and the fate of the world is in the balance.
Last time I reviewed a Marvel movie, it was AVENGERS: AGE OF ULTRON. You may recall I was not exactly a fan. But I did like its hints that Robert Downey Junior’s Tony Stark was being set up as the new big bad villain or at least anti-hero of the Marvel universe. Ready for next year’s CAPTAIN AMERICA: CIVIL WAR. That sense of shared continuity between nonetheless self contained heroes’ adventures is one key to the success of Marvel movies and indeed, that of their parent brand. ANT-MAN continues the tradition and keeps the charm intact, too.
The script for ANT-MAN has VERY intricately planned and expertly delivered nods to the AVENGERS and especially to Tony Stark’s legacy, whilst retaining its own story beats; never derailed by wider continuity concerns. There are still hints of world building here for further future Marvel movies: references to inter dimensional consciousness (DOCTOR STRANGE) and ‘crawling up walls’ (SPIDER-MAN). But un-intrusive. Blink and you miss them.
If you don’t like those ‘Easter Eggs’ worked into your Marvel movies, you’ll still like ANT-MAN. Because you’ll WANT to. The film has heart and soul and wit. It calls you in an almost meta-textual way to will it to win, against all the odds. The film is its own hero here. It’s a cinematic underdog, mirroring the fortunes of the eponymous hero.
Whilst marketed in the blockbuster market, the pitch is slightly left of field; innately ironic and almost subversive of rather than supportive to the genre in which it nominally rests (sci-fi and super-heroes). The poster campaigns acknowledged as much. Trailers: ditto.
Even the film’s production was pulled off somewhat against the odds. Edgar Wright (as in can do no wrong?) was supposed to direct the piece, having taken great care to develop it. He still gets story credit but for various reasons behind the scenes, Mr. Wright did not take the helm as planned.
Cue frantic, last minute hunt for a Director. No Brett Ratner or McG jokes, please. Peyton Reed (YES MAN) accepted the job and was judged before he’d shot so much as one scene. And Reed’s job was made undeniably tougher by the adulation and cult status surrounding Edgar Wright.
I think Wright’s just a tad overrated to be frank. EMPIRE magazine (much as I love it) had him right up there with the likes of Coppola and Spielberg recently. Seriously? Yes, he has a style that’s visually and atmospherically distinct. His edits are also great and would have come in handy here as the pace is frequently pedestrian and the visuals indistinct. But Wright is hardly prolific. And much of his writing hinged on nostalgic nods to pop culture favourites that everyone knows and loves. Anyone can make a joke about Star Wars or B list action movies.
Granted, Shaun of the Dead was a big hit. But it was released in a sleepy Easter season in 2004 when the only opposition was a lazy arsed tribute to Starsky and Hutch. Go figure. Hot Fuzz was clever and great fun, though. I’m NOT ‘Wright-bashing’. My point is simply that it seemed unfair on Peyton Reed for a million fans to cry out in anger when Wright jumped ship. The fact that Reed had such a mountain to climb made me WANT him to succeed all the more.
I’m pleased to report that Reed does a competent job. It’s NOT visionary or ground-breaking. But that’s the whole point here. It’s not MEANT to be anything more than what it is. The subject matter does not DESERVE a big, over-earnest Dark Knight makeover. Neither is it familiar enough to warrant an all-out spoof.
The material calls out for, expects and demands, an almost exact balance between by the numbers heist / action beats and knowing nods and winks without falling into full on spoof. That’s the objective and Reed accomplishes it. The slight drawback is that tone IS sometimes uneven, thereby compromising the sense of real peril in some of the action and even stumping some intended laughs. But the exceptions prove the rule: this movie ‘works’. Just.
Paul Rudd and Michael Douglas work well together. It’s interesting that Douglas is NOT simply playing the mentor; though the familiar dynamics of mentor /hero relationship are played. We even get a MONTAGE as Rudd’s Lang learns to master the Ant-Man suit. But this is a joint venture.
Rudd’s character is simply aiding Douglas’, rather than ‘replacing’ him or compensating for an aging lack of ability in the elder mentor. Age IS a factor and they HAVE if anything made Douglas look OLDER than his 70 years for the movie’s majority (save a few giveaway scenes where he sits down and retrieves his commanding movie star presence). But it’s refreshing to see a hero’s age being worked into the script rather than denied or glossed over, whilst maintaining the character’s dramatic relevance. He is the initiator of events here: proactive.
Rudd by contrast is ‘us’, the audience. We want him to be victorious (and win his daughter back) but equally it’s not laboured as being ‘HIS’ film. He is precisely the kind of veteran ensemble playing, unselfish yet charming performer who can make that work. See ANCHORMAN, CLUELESS, ROMEO AND JULIET et al to watch the preceding performances in which Rudd hones that delicate craft.
Rudd/Douglas are a great double act here and it’s a shame they are so late to the super-hero bandwagon party. That feeling is compounded by a prologue that features a ‘younger’ Douglas (great special effects, btw). Would this movie have worked better, therefore, as a period piece, with another actor playing young Douglas? Possibly. Probably. Definitely.
The supporting cast don’t shine so brightly. Evangeline Lilly is a so-so love interest and the forced moments of ‘chemistry’ with Rudd simply don’t take off. It feels awkward, tagged on and disposable. Equally disappointing is the gang in the van. They’re simply a collage of racial stereotypes that desperately want to be funny but fall flat with every forced accent and contrived pratfall. An embarrassing throwback to some straight to video teen comedy in the 1980s. It’s not funny. It’s tragic.
Corey Stoll is a bland baddie. He’d have been better sitting this one out and waiting to be anointed with a hero part as Marvel ploughs through its ‘phase three’ heroes in the back catalogue. He certainly has a physical presence though faces a similar fate to last week’s Terminator hero, Jai Courtney (fine as the muscle supporting player but yet to find feet as truly charismatic leading man).
The music score is rather forgettable. You won’t go away singing the theme tune. So it’s difficult to feel some rousing sense of fun or victory when our hero is in training or triumphing against the odds. Rudd’s character does not help: yes we like him as both actor AND in the story; but it’s somewhat ill defined. Is he a loser or misunderstood genius? It’s unclear and not due to intended ambiguity so much as awkward and lazy pasting of the hero’s journey template onto a character lacking clarity.
There are moments where darker, bolder ambitions DO crop up. The hero wants his daughter back yet cannot afford to pay child support. He is a white collar brain, forced into dead end, blue collar jobs to which he is inherently ill suited. One sympathises in today’s NINJA era (‘no job, no income, no assets’: copyright, Michael Douglas’ own Gordon Gekko). And yet, entirely out of place in a piece like this and therefore rapidly thrown out in the name of a lighter tone.
But the pervasive special effects ARE truly SPECIAL. Whichever format you see this in, be it 2 or 3 d, IMAX or everyday cinema, you WILL be impressed. The ants are CHARACTERS. Train-set action scene: perfection! Attention to detail in the background shots, a joy to behold. You can SEE the hard work, right up on the screen. That’s a marvellous testament to the magic of movies. The photography of San Francisco is wide, beautiful and immersive. It’s like going on a quick holiday.
FINAL VERDICT: I liked ANT-MAN. You’ll like it too, I suspect. Did I love it? No. Will you? Probably not. Is it efficient, competent and generally satisfying? Yes! Is it unmissable or game changing? No way. A solid ‘pass’ grade. Worthy addition to the Marvel movie universe. But by no means one of the best. 3 out of 5.