Friday, July 17, 2015

"Ant-Man" (2015)

Starring Paul Rudd, Michael Douglas and Evangeline Lilly
Written by Edgar Wright, Joe Cornish, Adam McKay and Paul Rudd
Directed by Peyton Reed
Rated PG-13 — Violence, language
Running Time: 117 Minutes

Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is struggling after his release from prison on burglary charges. As an ex-con, it's difficult to land — or keep — even the most menial of jobs, while his ex-wife Maggie (Judy Greer) and her new fiance Paxton (Bobby Cannavale) threaten to keep Lang's daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson) away from him unless he can get his act together. Feeling desperate, Lang takes on a burglary job with his buddies Luis (Michael Pena), Kurt (David Dastmalchian) and Dave (Tip "T.I." Harris).

But Lang soon discovers that the job was a setup: reclusive genius Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) needs Lang for an even bigger job and wanted to test out his abilities. Pym was previously an agent of SHIELD, and the original Ant-Man, a super-secret soldier who could change his size at will. But now his former protege, Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) is close to recreating the Ant-Man technology and plans to sell it to the highest bidder — no matter who that might be — and Pym wants Lang to break in and destroy it before the tech can fall into the wrong hands.

Lang, desperate for a second chance with his daughter, and perhaps just a little attracted to the thrill of the crime, joins forces with Pym and Pym's daughter, Hope (Evangeline Lilly) to bust into one of San Francisco's most secure scientific facilities and save the world. No small task.

"Ant-Man" is probably Marvel's most famously troubled production yet, and to some extent, that comes across on-screen. While running close to two hours, "Ant-Man" breezes by feeling slight. For those nearly two hours, though, "Ant-Man" is also a lot of fun, veering more towards overt comedy than any Marvel movie not called "Guardians of the Galaxy."

It's also refreshingly small-scale. After the city-dropping antics of "Age of Ultron," it's nice to sit back and watch a Marvel film that doesn't involve decimating large swaths of the landscape. Instead, Marvel has crafted a lightweight heist comedy that, while it doesn't dig too deep, is fairly successful at what it sets out to do.

Casting is, for the most part, one of the film's highlights. Paul Rudd, for starters, is doing what he does best. He's likable and goofy when he needs to be, but also is capable of showing some genuine emotion that the script rarely calls for. He works best with Michael Douglas' Hank Pym, but the scenes between Lang and his young daughter Cassie are rather charming.

Douglas, too, is great as Pym. He can be a little cold, calculating, but underneath there's regret and loss, and he's still got that great voice and shows off some fine intensity when the moment's right. In fact, he completely owns the opening scene, overshadowing a scene that some might accuse of being mere fan service since it features cameos by Howard Stark (John Slattery) and Peggy Carter (Hayley Atwell). Even better is the makeup and effects work use to shed 30 years off Douglas' face. It's uncanny seeing a circa-1980s Michael Douglas so well done.

Evangeline Lilly is probably the cast's weakest link. Some of that has to fall on the script; she's not really given all that much to do except be hostile about Pym's plan to use Lang instead of letting her wear the suit and conduct the operation. She doesn't have much in the way of chemistry with Rudd, which is mostly fine until the script throws a (predictable) romantic curve in its final moments.

As Lang's buddies, Pena, Harris and Dastmalchian are a riot, often eliciting the film's biggest laughs. These extremely competent yet somehow buffoonish characters are a genuine highlight. Pena, specifically, seems to be having a blast, maybe even more so than Rudd.

Peyton Reed's direction is a bit inconsistent. When not much is happening, his images are flat and dull. A conversation between Hope and Lang in her car is awkwardly framed and edited. But when Luis is explaining how he came across tips for an upcoming job, or when there's burglary or superheroics happening, the movie comes alive. The entire third act is a bizarre, hilarious joy to watch. Some of the gags and concepts at play are absolutely awesome. And that model train gag from the trailer? Still kills it.

One of the issues I had with "Age of Ultron" was how awkward its franchise obligations got. "Ant-Man" plays with its role in the greater Marvel Cinematic Universe for laughs, and does so pretty well. An action sequence midway through the film featuring Falcon (Anthony Mackie) shows off the ridiculousness of "Ant-Man" even within the framework of the already somewhat goofy Marvel movies, but does so in a manner that embraces the concept and lampoons it at the same time. It's actually pretty funny watching a man with robotic jet-pack wings deride a man who can change his size... and then fight him. This ties into a great gag at the end of the film and into the film's fan-pleasing post-credits scene.

"Ant-Man" is a smaller Marvel movie that gets off to a shaky start but finishes strong. Its characters feel slight and there are some dull moments, but when "Ant-Man" comes alive, it really comes alive. The more it embraces the inherent silliness of its own concept, the more fun it gets, ultimately leading to a gutbuster finale.