An older retiring hitman finds out that his former employer really doesn’t want to pay his pension… Featuring Deadmau5.
Duncan “The Black Kaiser” Vizla (Mads Mikkelsen) is an elderly hitman famous for being among the best in the world. His former employer, Mr. Blut (Matt Lucas), decides that he doesn’t want to pay Duncan’s owed retirement pension and instead hires a group of killers (played by Ruby O. Fee, Josh Cruddas, Anthony Grant, Fei Ren, and Robert Maillet) to take him out. At the same time, Duncan is trying to mentor and befriend a young woman named Camille (Vanessa Hudgens), who gets caught in the crossfire.
So, a lot of the things in this movie, including the idea of an old killer being chased by younger ones, has been done to death before. It’s also been done better, to be honest, even with the recent film Killing Gunther. But, that doesn’t change the fact that this movie is exactly what it promises: A fun, violent, exploitation film. There’s gratuitous killing, ultraviolence, random nudity and sex, and more violence. It’s not as over-the-top and stylized as, say, Crank, but it’s definitely in the range of RED with Bruce Willis.
The characters are all very distinct, each with a clear comic-like color scheme and dialogue tendencies, similar to Dick Tracy villains. They’re mostly just archetypes, but the movie does, correctly, use that fact to avoid having to go through exposition about what they have done. We don’t get a ton of background on Duncan, but what we do get is mostly conveyed through short flashbacks that indicate his feelings about his career thus far. There’s also a lot of subtext in the scenes between him and the, admittedly greatly underused, Camille.
What’s craziest about this movie is that it’s ostensibly based on the webcomic Polar, a series famous for the fact that it had NO DIALOGUE. It was just a black, white, and red (really orange) series that was filled with gore and focused mainly on an assassin trying to kill a retired hitman in a frozen landscape. The creator Victor Santos has openly said that it was inspired in part by the film Le Samourai, a classic noir tale about a hitman whose employers decide to kill him. It’s this intent to convey through style more than dialogue that benefits the film, but, again, it’s been done better elsewhere.
The film’s sense of humor, too, doesn’t really set it apart from most modern films of this genre. It’s got a lot of funny moments, some that are genuinely hilarious, and scenes set to ironic songs, but none of them that really stand out. Ultimately, the thing in the movie that might most have distinguished it is the relationship between Mikkelsen and Hudgens, but that is actually minimized throughout the film in favor of showing us the actions of the new generation of killers.
So, if all of this stuff has been done better in other films, what did I think of it? I thought it was a fun 119 minutes. Yeah, it’s not deep and there are other movies that do this, but that doesn’t make it any less interesting. Mikkelsen’s performance is really great and the killing action scenes are still creative. The cinematography, too, is solid, emphasizing all of the sex and violence in the movie in just the right way for an exploitation film. The music is on point, with Deadmau5 score doing a lot of work setting the tone of the scenes. This movie isn’t going to change your life, nor is it the best popcorn film of this type, but it’s worth watching if you like cheesy movies like this. AND I DO.
So, it’s happening. I’m doing all of Edgar Wright’s movies, though I guess not in any particular order. There aren’t that many, since Fistful of Fingers never got distributed and he got kicked off of Ant-Man, and I probably won’t review Spaced unless it’s requested. I do like the show, though not as much as the subsequent films, I just am already regretting the shows I’m currently set to review… especially since I plan on doing an actual live review of the next season of Doctor Who. But, for now, I’ve got some more amazing movies by a visionary director to review.
This was the first of the Cornetto Trilogy and also the least-earning one at $30 Million, though on a $6 Million budget, it still was profitable… though it earned less money that year than Christmas with the Kranks, Fat Albert, or Catwoman, a fact that should kill your soul.
Slight format change: I’m putting a synopsis here, and a full summary after the “read more” page, so you can just read the analysis and not have to wade through the movie. If you want the summary, just go to the bottom and read it first. Let me know if you think this is better.
Shaun Riley (Simon Pegg) gets dumped by his girlfriend, Liz (Kate Ashfield), because he’s so dispassionate about life that he only wants to drink at the same pub, the Winchester, with his slovenly roommate, Ed (Nick Frost). Shaun decides he’s going to get his life together, but unfortunately he’s been missing the fact that the zombie apocalypse has come. Shaun and Ed form a plan to get his mom, Barbara (Penelope Wilton), kill his step-dad Philip (Bill Nighy) who has been bitten, rescue Liz, and head to the Winchester.
However, things don’t go as planned. Shaun can’t bring himself to kill Philip, Liz brings along her flatmates David and Dianne (Dylan Moran and Lucy Davis), Ed screws up most of the plans by being reckless and irresponsible, Barbara is bitten, and Philip becomes a zombie. They finally make it to the pub, but are surrounded by hordes of zombies. Eventually, David, Dianne, and Barbara are killed, Ed is bitten, and Shaun and Liz prepare to go out fighting, but are rescued by the military. Six months later, Shaun and Liz are engaged and Shaun keeps zombie Ed in the shed to hang out with, their relationship mostly unchanged.
Something painfully occurred to me during this re-watch: In terms of re-watchability, this is the worst of the Cornetto Trilogy. Don’t get me wrong, it’s still fun to watch again, but Edgar Wright’s films are notoriously good to watch a second, third, or tenth time. Hell, the other two movies in the trilogy, Hot Fuzz and The World’s End, are arguably BETTER when you see them a second time. This one is about the same. Still good, but about the same.
Part of that is that this movie has less of the foreshadowing and repetition that are in the other two films, because this was the first one. Sure, they’re in the film and they’re done great, but they just aren’t as polished as they are in the others. But, none of that makes this film any less amazing, because when you consider that this is an underfunded first outing of a director who had previously only done television, this is basically watching Babe Ruth’s first home run.
Like the best zombie movies, the point of the movie is to use zombies as a metaphor. In Night of the Living Dead it’s Vietnam-era America (and a dash of racism from the living), in Dawn of the Dead it’s consumerism, in Day of the Dead it’s a lack of communication, in Land of the Dead it’s the nature of power to eventually be countered, and in Dead Alive it’s so that someone can kick ass for the Lord (if you don’t get this reference, ask me to review the movie). Shaun of the Dead actually takes it a step further and just points out that so many people are effectively already zombies that the actual zombification is really secondary. Hell, at the end, Noel (Rafe “I was the bad guy in Jurassic World 2” Spall), the jerk that worked with Shaun, is basically doing the same job now that he’s a zombie.
Shaun feels the way that many people feel. He’s given up doing anything he’s passionate about (like his deejaying) because he has bills to pay. He instead chooses to just do the same thing over and over again, drinking with Ed and Liz at the same bar, never trying to be stimulated, because when you know your dreams are dead, what the hell’s the point in doing anything else? And, like many of us, he’s just existing, he’s not really living. He’s not depressed or suicidal, he’s just dispassionate and doesn’t know what to do since he can’t do the thing that he actually wanted. It’s like most people whose passions are art or theater but aren’t lucky enough to do them for a living, you end up just working a job to keep a roof over your head, and you don’t want to dedicate all the energy for a hobby. You know that you could, but you also know it’d be super hard for little reward, so you don’t, and then you’re even more miserable by choice.
To summarize: You’re not living, but you’re not dead.
I’m going to add a clip from the show Steven Universe here, because there is a song that perfectly encapsulates what I’m saying.
The key to the movie is stated by Liz at the end: ” You did something. That’s what counts.” When Shaun actually starts to do something instead of just going through the motions, everything goes wrong, which is exactly the thing that most people fear so much that it stops them from doing anything. But, that’s also exactly what allows Shaun to start being a more complete person at the end of the movie. He hasn’t stopped hanging out with Ed, hasn’t stopped going to the Winchester, but he’s also doing other things that have some risk and discomfort. And that’s how you really feel alive.
As for the technical qualities of the movie itself, the foreshadowing and repeated dialogue is amazing, partially because it almost all functions as clever wordplay and partially because recontextualizing things is an easy way to convey meaning by inherently drawing comparisons. The big one is Ed’s speech about what they’ll do the next day:
“… Have a Bloody Mary first thing. Get a bite at The King’s Head. Grab a couple at The Little Princess, stagger back here and bang! We’re up at the bar for shots. How’s that for a slice of fried gold?”
Aside from Ed’s speech telling the plot of the movie (Bloody Mary is the first zombie they kill, a bite at the King’s head is Philip getting bitten, grab a couple at the little princess is picking up David, Dianne, and Liz, back to the Winchester for shots is… self-explanatory), there’s also Ed telling his other roommate Pete (Peter “I’m the Tick” Serafun… Seramichelle… Serafinowicz) that the next time he sees him he’s dead and Pete telling Ed to live in the shed.
The repetition is pretty great, too. Shaun’s dialogue to Ed when he’s playing the game is mirrored with Ed saying the same to Shaun when he’s shooting zombies. There’s a shot in the beginning of the film when Shaun closes his bathroom mirror and Pete is there as a jump-scare parody, which later is duplicated with the zombie Pete. “You’ve got red on you” naturally takes on two meanings. Shaun’s walk to the bodega near his house is similar both times, except the second time the apocalypse has happened. When Shaun tells David to turn the jukebox off, he says “kill the Queen,” (because the song is by Queen) which becomes a conflict when David tries to kill Barbara, who, as the King’s wife, would be the Queen. Additionally, almost every character seen in the first half becomes a zombie in the second.
Another hallmark of the film is that there are sharp, dramatic cuts with powerful sound effects for the most mundane things, like adjusting a tie or washing hands. Like with the repeated dialogue, this actually helps to convey the metaphor by saying that the scenes that normally would feature the zombies feature the mundane aspects of Shaun’s life.
There are tons of references to other zombie and horror movies, with businesses being named for George Romero, Lucio Fulci, John Landis, and their films. Much like in the original Night of the Living Dead, the zombies are never actually explained, although the proposed causes are borrowed from other zombie movies.
Other than that, the movie’s just funny as hell. Every performance is pretty much spot on, although I have a special love for Penelope Wilton as Barbara. She was always so gentle and loving that it was honestly heartbreaking to watch Shaun kill her.
Also, last thing, I finally looked up what Noel’s dialogue means when he says he only has an “Henry.” That’s Cockney rhyming slang for pot, because it’s Henry the Eighth -> An Eighth of Pot. Cockney rhyming slang is always fun.
Is there anything that is a genuinely selfless act? If you teach a child to read, you benefit from a more educated population. If you make the world a better place, you get to live in a better place. Even if you’re doing something good in private, the feeling of reward you get is still providing you a benefit. So, when is something truly good, if goodness requires seeking no advantage? This episode came up with one of the most creative answers in television.
Quick Recap of the show:
The premise of the show is that there is a being called the Doctor that travels through time and space with various companions to fight evil. He’s an alien from a race called the Time Lords who lives and journeys in a 60s British Police Box called the TARDIS (Time And Relative Dimensions In Space). Sometimes he fights aliens, sometimes he eats hot dogs, sometimes he meets famous historical figures. Honestly, he just kind of travels, but the TARDIS tends to take him where he needs to be. Sometimes he changes history, sometimes he can’t, depending on the writing. At the time of this episode, there had been 12 doctors, and the current one was played by Peter Capaldi. His companion at the time was a woman named Bill Potts (Pearl Mackie) and a humanoid alien named Nardole (Matt Lucas). In the episode before this, the Doctor was rendered blind and uses sophisticated sunglasses to pretend to see to hide his condition.
At the beginning of the episode, the Doctor receives an e-mail titled “Extremis” and begins to read it through his sunglasses. It’s then shown that the Doctor is cleaning up his classroom (he’s temporarily teaching) and is surprised by a group of cardinals and the Pope himself. They’ve come concerning an ancient book found in the Vatican Library called Veritas (the Truth). It turns out that every person who reads the book commits suicide afterwards. They ask the Doctor to read it.
The Doctor picks up Bill (and humorously interrupts her date with a very attractive woman by showing her the clergy) and, together with Nardole, heads into the secret Vatican library which houses Veritas. They are led to the reading cage which houses the book and find the only translator of the book who hasn’t killed himself rambling about having “sent” it. The translator runs off and commits suicide, and Nardole and Bill see that he had e-mailed a copy of the translation to CERN. The Doctor uses a high-tech device to temporarily restore his sight so he can read the book, but the exertion knocks him out.
Nardole and Bill, going through the library, find a portal. They step through it to find themselves in a broom closet in the Pentagon. They head back through the portal and are suddenly in a hub room with a large number of portals projected to various important locations. They pick another and emerge in CERN, where the workers are all having a raucous party. It’s revealed that they’ve set up an explosion to destroy the entire facility and kill them all.
When the Doctor wakes up, a figure emerges that he can’t quite see yet. The figure steals the book and tells the Doctor that what they are doing is just “a game.” The Doctor responds: “Good, because I win” and escapes with the laptop containing the book’s translation. He finds a corner, opens the laptop to read it, but his eyes fail. The figures come for him until a bright light surrounds him.
Back at CERN, Bill and Nardole ask one of the heads what is going on. He explains that they are saving the world. They ask him how. He asks them to select a random number. As they answer, in sync, he says the same word, then challenges them to pick more. Every time they say the number, he says the same. He apologizes, then prepares to blow up CERN. Bill and Nardole escape into the hub, but discover that they aren’t truly portals: They’re projections. None of the places they’ve been are real, they’re just projections. Nardole, horrified, reaches past the projector and dissolves into pixels. Bill, shocked, follows a blood trail through another portal.
Bill finds herself in the Oval Office with the Doctor. The Doctor tells her that he read Veritas, and it’s a story of a Demon that wanted to take over the world. The Demon decided to create a Shadow World filled with Shadow People who think and act like regular people, and to observe this new world to figure out how to take over the real one. In other words, it’s a computer simulation. The random number test was to confirm whether the reader is in the real or fake world: If you’re in the real world, you can come up with a real random number, but in the fake world, everyone answers the same sequence. The Doctor and Bill both failed the test, so they’re both in the simulation. They aren’t real. This means the most noble thing for them to do is to kill themselves, because that will stop the simulation from matching the real world and hurt the Demon’s chances of taking over the real world.
After the Doctor finishes explaining, Bill dissolves, revealing the figure behind the simulation to be a desiccated alien dressed as a monk, one of many. The Doctor says that he’s going to stop them. The monk explains that they have run many simulations for centuries and that they have killed the Doctor many times, ensuring that he will not stop them. The Doctor counters that the problem with running a computer simulation this good is that it has allowed the Doctor to interfere. The monk counters that there is nothing he can do. The Doctor informs him that, in order to simulate the computer networks of Earth, the monks had tapped into the computer networks of Earth, allowing him to do exactly one thing: Send an e-mail. The simulation Doctor titles it “Extremis” and sends it to the Real Doctor who got it at the beginning of the episode.
Throughout the episode, there have been flashbacks to the Doctor attending the execution of his life-long nemesis The Master (currently “The Mistress” or Missy, played by Michelle Gomez). While the Doctor watches the executioners set up the proceeding, he is met by Nardole, who reads to him the last words of the Doctor’s Wife, River Song (Alex Kingston):
Goodness is not goodness that seeks advantage. Good is good in the final hour, in the deepest pit without hope, without witness, without reward. Virtue is only virtue in extremis. This is what he believes, and this is the reason above all, I love him. My husband. My madman in a box. My Doctor.
The Doctor then prevents the execution of Missy, believing that she can change, and the Doctor agrees to watch over her. In the present, the Doctor asks Missy to help him stop the monks from invading.
So, this episode contains an answer for the question in the beginning: Virtue is only virtue when there is no possibility of reward. In other words, the only true good is sacrifice. In this episode, we see a number of people living up to that by killing themselves in order to disrupt the simulation and help stop the aliens from keeping up the simulation, but that’s only because those people realized that they weren’t real. Ultimately, it also didn’t make much of an impact because they have millions of simulations running. The Doctor, instead, goes a step further and, rather than kill himself, figures out a way to actually make a real difference, even though he himself is not real. Basically, the Doctor doesn’t just beat death to do something good, he beats reality.
Honestly, I love the fact the episode really recalls a running question during the Doctor’s Twelfth incarnation: Is the Doctor a good man? The Twelfth Doctor can be callous, can be rude, can be unkind even, and definitely can be judgmental, but this episode finally draws that question to a close. He is not just a good man, he is a man willing to do what is good without any reward being promised or even possible. The fact that the episode also features the Doctor saving one of his most hated enemies from death, knowing that she will likely try to kill him again in the future, just in case she can change, is equally significant. The end of the episode shows why it may have been the right decision: Because only Missy might be able to stop the monks.
The episode kind of invokes the simulated reality movies like The Matrix, eXistenZ, or even Dark City, but is really closest to The 13th Floor, because the main character is also not real in this story, but is a copy of someone in reality. The movie connections pretty much end there, though, since this is about overcoming the limitations of being stuck in a virtual world not by breaking it (as the CERN workers try), but instead by using it.
This is one of my favorite episodes of Capaldi’s run, though it didn’t really approach the beauty of “Heaven Sent.” Still, he’s in my top three Doctors, for now, and this episode really helped.