Review of “Black Widow”

Please note: There will be some “Avengers: Endgame” spoilers in this review. If you haven’t seen that film yet, it’s available on Disney+, for rental on several platforms and for purchase in stores that sell DVD’s/Blu Rays.

Nothing says “SUMMER” like sitting in a movie theater with overpriced popcorn and soda and a superhero movie on the screen. There hasn’t been a Marvel movie in theaters since “Spider-Man: Far from Home” in July 2019. Now, with the pandemic beginning to ebb (get your vaccination) and the world is reopening, we are treated to a long overdue solo movie for the only women to be included in the early MCU: “Black Widow.”

Natasha Romonoff (Scarlett Johansson) is on the run from US Secretary of State Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt) following her actions in violation of the Sokovia Accords. She slips away to Norway with the help of Mason (O-T Fagbenle) who sets her up in a trailer isolated in the wilderness. Going into town to buy fuel for the generator supplying power to her housing, Natasha is attacked by a warrior who mimics her fighting style called Taskmaster. Taskmaster isn’t interested in her, but a case in her car. Natasha escapes with the contents of the case, several vials of a red gas. Since the items containing the case came from a safehouse in Budapest, Natasha returns to the city from which she and Clint Barton (Jeremy Renner) just barely escaped. At the safehouse, Natasha runs into Yelena Belova (Florence Pugh), the young woman Natasha has known since they were children in the Black Widow training program called the Red Room. Yelena tells Natasha the red vials are a gas that severs the mind control the Red Room has over the female assassins. The training program was run by General Dreykov (Ray Winstone), the target Natasha thought she killed to prove her loyalty to S.H.I.E.L.D. Yelena says he survived and is still running the Red Room in a secret location that no one knows. Natasha and Yelena decide to reunite Alexei Shostakov (David Harbour) who pretended to be the girls’ father in an espionage mission in 1995. Alexei is Russia’s only superhero, the Red Guardian, who was given a super-soldier serum similar to Captain America and worked for Dreykov. Dreykov has put Alexei in a prison in a frozen wasteland. Getting a helicopter from Mason, Natasha and Yelena break out Alexei and travel to meet up with Melina Vostokoff (Rachel Weisz), who pretended to be the girls’ mother in 1995. Melina is the scientist that developed the mind control used on the Widows from the Red Room. The reunited faux family goes on a mission to end Dreykov’s control over the Widows and end his plans for world domination.

While “Black Widow” is more focused on the espionage angle, the story from Jac Schaeffer and Ned Benson, and the script from Eric Pearson, includes a great deal of family moments as well. Unlike “F9,” there are some actual expressions of love and tenderness shown to provide some evidence that the four unrelated people are the closest thing to family any of them has known. Despite them not seeing each other for 25 years, and after some initial discomfort from long simmering resentments, the four main characters slip easily into the roles of parents and children and all the friction that can cause for the youngsters that are now adults. To put it more bluntly, the family dynamic of “Black Widow” actually works, unlike “F9.”

While the rest of the movie is mostly car chases, fist fights and things blowing up, the scenes between Natasha and Yelena are the most fun in the film. They snipe at each other and complain about the choices each makes but in a way that feels sisterly than out of any real anger. The pair are reconnecting and dealing with their actions and the choices they’ve made, some beyond their control, that have cost lives. While the Red Room made them deadly Black Widows, it couldn’t completely eliminate their feelings of guilt.

Diving into this aspect of being an assassin for the State is a concept that was lightly touched on by the “Bourne” films when they weren’t fighting and blowing things up. In “Black Widow,” the notion of being a terminator for a government that will eliminate you when you’ve outlived your usefulness is central to the story. Between Red Guardian being shipped off to prison and the Widows being forced to kill themselves when they might be captured, “Black Widow” shows the unglamorous side of being a spy, even if all the Widows are beautiful.

“Black Widow” is rated PG-13 for intense sequences of violence/action, some language and thematic material. There are numerous fights featuring acrobatic flips, knife play and shootings. There is very little blood, although we see a tracking device cut out of a Widow’s arm or leg, I don’t remember which. There is a graphic, but comedic, description of the forced hysterectomies Black Widows must have. We see a wrist broken during an arm-wrestling match and a leg broken in a fall. Foul language is scattered and mild.

Some have argued the last third of the movie falls into the superhero trope of being all action and very little story or character moments. That isn’t wrong. The big action set piece that concludes the movie is very “Marvel,” with the heroes saving the day and the bad guys vanquished (sorry if you consider that a spoiler, but come on, it’s a Marvel movie). There is a bit of peacemaking with Taskmaster as its identity is revealed. There’s also a very nice moment, wrapped up in action, involving Yelena and Natasha that cements their affection for one another. And the post-credits scene sets up the future of Black Widow that we’ll probably see in the Disney+ “Hawkeye” TV show. It’s not the best Marvel movie, but it isn’t “Iron Man 2” or “Thor: The Dark World” and this one is certainly overdue.

“Black Widow” gets four stars out of five.

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Review of “The Gunman”

Sometimes the actions of a performer off stage color or alter your perception of that person on stage. I don’t think most people will be able to watch Bill Cosby perform standup (or sit down in his case) without thinking about the allegations of rape or sexual misconduct against him by over three dozen women. And while many of his hardcore fans stayed faithful to him, Michael Jackson was always under a cloud of suspicion after allegations of child molestation that eventually led to a trial where he was found not guilty. While his actions usually aren’t illegal (except beating up the occasional photographer), actor Sean Penn is considered a left-wing radical by those who disagree with his political views and probably won’t go see his latest film “The Gunman.” Penn obviously doesn’t worry about his critics as he includes some of his politics in the script he co-wrote. If those who don’t like his views could look past their opinions for a couple of hours, they might find a pretty decent action movie.

James Terrier (Sean Penn) is working with a non-governmental organization (NGO) to build a landing strip and help with humanitarian aid in the war-torn Democratic Republic of Congo. In reality, Terrier and his co-workers are actually part of a private security firm being paid by mining interests in the region to provide security and other services. Terrier is informed by Felix (Javier Bardem), the liaison between his employer and their client, that he has been given an assignment to assassinate the minister who oversees mining agreements as he has just ordered all contracts to be renegotiated. Once the mission is completed, Terrier will have to leave the country immediately, abandoning his girlfriend Annie (Jasmine Trinca), a doctor working in a nearby village. Eight years later, hoping to atone for his actions, Terrier is back in the Congo with an organization digging wells to bring fresh, clean water to the people. Armed men show up looking for “the white man.” Terrier is able to kill all his attackers except one who is killed by one of his assistants. Searching the bodies, Terrier finds vials meant to hold samples of his blood once he was dead to verify via DNA they had killed the right man. Terrier flies to London to visit with his former colleague Cox (Mark Rylance) who, now in management, still works with the private security firm. Somebody wants Terrier dead and he hopes Cox can help. Cox doesn’t have any information but suggests he fly to Madrid where Felix is running a company connecting businesses and charities. While in London, Terrier is hit with debilitating headaches and nausea. After an MRI, a doctor tells Terrier he has plaque built up in his brain from repeated blows to the head. He’s supposed to avoid any more concussive noises and stress. Set up with phony documents, a car and an apartment by his friend Stanley (Ray Winstone), Terrier is cautious since someone could be following him. And someone is as we see people tracking his movements with public security cameras. He finds Felix’s house and observes him through a window, seeing him kiss Annie. They are now married and attempting to adopt a child. Meeting Felix at his company, Terrier asks for help and Felix says he will make a few calls to find out what he can. There’s an odd tension between the men due to Felix and Annie being married but is there something else Felix isn’t saying?

While there’s certainly nothing original about “The Gunman” and it isn’t terribly imaginative with its plot, I found myself enjoying the film despite its 14% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Perhaps it’s my age as Penn is just about a year older than me, but I enjoyed the action and the espionage aspects of the film. “The Gunman” is another in the “over-50” action genre that is pretty much the exclusive domain of Liam Neeson. It tries to be smarter by mixing in the interference of international conglomerates in the political affairs of a Third-World country; but the film lives or dies on the action and for me “The Gunman” did a pretty good job.

Penn appears to have the body of a 25-year old. From his bulging arms to his washboard abs, Penn must either spend hours in the gym with a personal trainer or is juicing. Either way, the results look impressive on screen for a 54-year old man. Penn needed the stamina to carry out the stunts he’s asked to do. There are several close up fights that, as is the current fashion, consist of martial arts moves and gymnastics. These are shown in medium shots that don’t isolate the movements of only one limb. You can see the action and actually follow what’s happening, which I appreciate.

The film also doesn’t skimp on the number of gunshot deaths we get to see with lots of gory detail. Whether it’s blood spatter on a wall behind a victim or being able to see the hole blown out of someone’s head, “The Gunman” isn’t shy about showing about as much as anyone could want to see.

The globetrotting the film does is a kind of travelogue for those of us who will probably never go to Europe. We spend time in London, Madrid and Gibraltar as well as what is supposed to be the jungles of the Congo. The settings are taken advantage of best in Madrid where we spend the majority or the film’s running time. Downtown apartments, estates in the countryside and narrow city streets give the film a luxurious and exotic feel. While it isn’t as exotic as most Bond films, it still manages to make the setting feel unique.

The movie runs into some trouble in two areas: First, the romance between Terrier and Annie feels forced, like they felt the need to create some emotional tension and tacked on a romantic aspect to the story. I didn’t believe the intense connection between the two characters and the decisions those feelings lead them to make. Jasmine Trinca is a fine actress who has done most of her work in her homeland of Italy. She has a believably beautiful face that conveys all the emotion one might expect from the events in the film; but the combination of Penn and Trinca feels like a mismatch. Second, the political and economic aspects of the story feel overly complicated and under explained. Perhaps in the editing some exposition was cut out. I felt lost on a couple of occasions and wasn’t sure who was doing what to whom. That confusion wasn’t from crafty storytelling, but from jumbled storytelling. While I like the idea of the story, the story itself isn’t fully fleshed out.

“The Gunman” is rated R for strong violence, language and some sexuality. As stated earlier, the film is full of bloody gunshot wounds. There are also a couple of stabbings and a death by goring. There are a couple of scenes with people in bed. One scene shows a couple having sex but there is no graphic nudity. Foul language is common but not overwhelming.

It isn’t unique and it won’t set any box office records (it made only $5 million its opening weekend), but “The Gunman” still has something that made me like it. Perhaps it’s a combination of settings and action that appeals to me. Whatever the reason, I enjoyed “The Gunman” even though I appear to be in the minority.

“The Gunman” gets four stars out of five.

It’s a light week at the multiplex with just two new films opening up. I’ll see and review at least one of the following:

Get Hard—


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