By John H. Foote
(***) In Theatres and Streaming
Fanboy alert—a new superhero opened, and it is a dandy. Great action sequences, two great performances along with several very good ones (however under-written) and enough high voltage action to be three films. Superheroes are back. This is a sure sign the film industry is back and running on all cylinders, and though streaming has forever changed the face of film, big releases like this will always be best seen on the big screen.
Scarlett Johansson is on fire after earning two Academy Award nominations in a single year in 2019 for her superb lead performance in Marriage Story as a young wife and mother amid a nasty divorce, and her even finer supporting work in Jo Jo Rabbit as the doomed Nazi fighter hiding a Jewish teenager in her closet. It seems her years as a child actress, most notably in Robert Redford’s The Horse Whisperer (1998), have paid off. Strong reviews for her brilliant performance opposite Bill Murray in Lost in Translation (2003) catapulted her to the A-list where she has been ever since. Her boldest work before the Oscar acclaim was in Under the Skin (2013) as a murderous alien, and Her (2013) in which she is the voice of the operating system of a computer her owner falls in love with.
Cast as the Black Widow in the Avengers films, we know going into this film that she was killed off in Avengers – Endgame (2019), sacrificing herself for what she believes is the greater good. So going into this film, we know right away it is an origins film, the story of how she became the Black Widow before her demise. Delayed a year because of the pandemic, for fans of the genre, this is a milestone event. I admit to being a fan of the last two Avenger films, but not the entire series. For me, this is just another superhero movie taking up space until the real movies come along this fall.
Let me state honestly that the film is exciting, with nearly non-stop action. Johansson and co-star Florence Pugh are both terrific in their roles, and there is the added surprise of Stranger Things’ David Harbour as her father, himself a one-time Russian superhero.
We open in Ohio in 1998, where two sisters are playing outside in a beautiful landscape, sun shining, pure Americana. The mother, Melina (Rachel Weisz), is tending to the younger sister who has fallen off her bike when the father, Alexei (Harbour), returns home to tell them they have seconds to grab what they want inside the house and leave. Seconds. They manage to escape, flying to Cuba where en route we learn that they are Russian intelligence agents hiding in America. Believing his three years of undercover is over, Alexei is pleased he can now get back to being Red Guardian, the hero he was before the orders came to act as spies in America. When he meets his leader, the ignoble General Dreykov (Ray Winstone) is barely listening to him, seemingly much more interested in Natasha, a nine-year-old who guards her sister like a vicious attack dog.
Fast forward, now 21 years later and Natasha (Johansson) is on the run, being hunted by a Swat team under the guidance of the Secretary of State, former military leader Thaddeus Ross (William Hurt). She eludes capture, heading to a remote outpost in Norway, where she can hide easily.
Meanwhile her little sister Yelena (Pugh) is a trained killer, now being hunted herself after leaving the ranks of the Russian intelligence community, earning the wrath of Dreykov, who orders her hunted down. Holed up in Morocco, she removes an implant from under her skin, a tracking device put there by Dreykov years before. Outsmarting the all-female death squad who arrive to terminate her, she gets away with a case of vials, an antidote to the drug inhibiting free will.
Now we are in Budapest, where the two sisters meet and are just getting to know one another when they are back on the run again, chased through the streets by men who clearly want them dead.
Once safe, the girls slowly become sisters again, teasing, joking and fighting together with their formidable skills. Hurled into one life-threatening event after another, they never seem to be free of danger, and it further ramps up when their parents re-join the party after a long separation. Yelena is thrilled to have her parents back but Natasha wonders whether the idyllic life she remembers was ever real. Are they really her mother and father, or part of a plot that would explain the constant threat facing them? Some of the best scenes in the film happen when the four are together, very touching family moments as so much time has been lost and they all know it.
The Oscar-winning Weisz is touching as the mother who lost 21 years with her children and hardly knows them now. However, she is honest with them, and both respect that and slowly their relationship evolves. Harbour, so good on Stranger Things, the smash hit for Netflix, portrays his superhero Dad very much like Mr. Incredible in The Incredibles (2004) of Disney-Pixar fame, a kind of goofy, lovable man who regrets what has happened to his daughters and family, and wants the chance to make it up.
The action finds them, of course and it is not long before all four are hurtling through the air, performing jaw-dropping acts of courage, and working as a team/family.
Johansson does great work as the confused, struggling Natasha, but the film belongs to young Pugh, who is fast becoming one of the finest young actors in modern film. Oscar nominated for Little Women (2019) and equally brilliant as the terrified young women lured into the cult in Midsommar (2019), she is indeed the real thing (as they say, whoever they are). She thunders across the screen superbly and yet has the good sense to bring real intimacy to her scenes with her sister and parents. The two girls have a terrific chemistry together that works every time they are onscreen, and must have delighted director Cate Shortland, who beautifully blends the epic action and fury of the pair into the smaller family scenes.
Is it perfect? Hell no, the plot is flimsy and paper thin, but the actors and Shortland do their best to give it flesh and muscle.
A welcome addition to the Marvel family.
REJOICE … THE MOVIES ARE BACK!
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.