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The space race was a real thing. It pitted two superpower countries in an aerospace competition to put a man on the moon and bring him back safely. It was expensive on both sides, but was a technological achievement like no other. Some believe though that the actual moon landing never happened, that it was in fact, an elaborate hoax perpetrated by the US government involving film director Stanley Kubrick.
The premise of Moonwalkers is to bring that 1969 conspiracy to life. Of course, this is 2016 so it’s a wildly violent, blood-splattered, action movie that barely qualifies as original, let alone a comedy. And while many films can be a wildly violent, blood-splattered, action movie and be incredibly good, this one is not.
Directed by Antoine Bardou-Jacquet, in his debut, Moonwalkers wants to be off-beat and madcap, but is instead an exercise in rudimentary set-ups and payoffs that is like a laundry list of movie jokes 101. In a film where people on the phone repeat things they are supposedly hearing so we can follow, or where one character says one thing and right away the opposite happens (more than once, twice, three times . . .), or a character who says “not on my watch” and looks at his wrist and sees that his watch is missing, the film trudges along like a slow-moving freight train with one wheel off the track.
Ron Perlman plays CIA agent Kidman, fresh off a decidedly brutal mission in Vietnam, recruited, in secret, by the government to convince visionary director Kubrick, whose latest film 2001: A Space Odyssey, to film a fake moon landing in case the real mission fails. He’s given a briefcase full of cash and sent to London, where he is meant to meet Kubrick’s agent. But, that’s not what happens.
Meet Jonny (Rupert Grint), a different entertainment manager, or at least tries to be, who has a mobster on his tail that is looking to collect the money Jonny’s borrowed. He’s the cousin of the other agent and is in the office when Kidman walks in with an offer he can’t resist. Using a friend in disguise, he convinces Kidman that he is Kubrick’s agent, takes the money and thinks he’s home free. Needless to say, he’s not and after some shenanigans, a plan is concocted to get the footage and foil the bad guys.
Much of the “humor” comes from the idea that everyone in the late 1960s was on copious amounts of mind-altering drugs, and the film spends a lot of time with that, having people hallucinate in slow motion, but it’s not clever nor entertaining. But there’s more. Like the ‘director’ they do hire to make the fake film. His house, a kind of hippie love nest, has a giant mural on the front of a nude woman with her legs spread open and her vagina serving as the front door. Why? Because it’s the 60s. It didn’t work in Patch Adams and it doesn’t work here. But that’s where we are in this story.
Then there’s the gun fights. Yes. In a movie about the moon landing, there are gun fights. While gun fights are certainly thrilling in many films, if they have no purpose then they have no intrinsic value, worse, if that purpose is only to have gratuitous shots of heads exploding and brain bits splash all over the screen. There was a time when this kind of thing was exclusive to late night horror films, but has slowly crept into mainstream filmmaking. Macabre violence doesn’t give a film verisimilitude simply because the effect is gruesome and shocking. That comes with context and investment in a character. There is none of that here.
So what is good? Well, despite these criticisms, Perlman is fun to watch. Even at 66-years-old, he’s impressively intimidating and while the dialogue is poorly written, he carries the weight of the film well. He doesn’t over do it, which is refreshing, and truly, the single best moment in this film involves his introduction in a wonderfully crafted transition from the war-torn jungles of Vietnam to the foot of his bed while he suffers from frightful PSTD. It’s the only time in the film where it’s played seriously and would have been a better film if we’d been allowed to follow that story rather than what comes after. Indeed, that very incident is never revisited or allowed to resolve, only turned to ‘laughs’ when he begins to see dead, mutilated enemy soldiers in the corners of every room. Rupert Grint does the best he can, too, his character a slimy, self-serving loser who is caught in a harrowing situation. He’s an appealing actor and he manages to hit some good notes, but like Perlman, squandered in a role with no depth or chance for growth.
Then there’s the serious lack of any quality female roles, aside from a brief but memorable bit with a girl named Ella (Erika Sainte), a hippie taken up residence at the commune. She seduces Kidman and adds a bit of spark (and a nod to Kubrick’s Lolita?), but it fades quickly. She is set up to be a character who seems to know more than what she appears, one who is aware of the complexities of the commune and the absurdity of the people who live there, yet it’s never explored. The rest of women are just candy, half-nude and strung out, with nothing to say or do.
The premise of this film is comedy gold and it’s frustrating to see it wasted in this movie. What should have been a tense, deeply satirical work ends up being a bland, standard shoot-em-up with no irony. One wonders in the hands of someone like David Fincher or the Coen Brothers (or even Kubrick himself) what might have been. Bardou-Jacquet has just gotten started and perhaps will innovate on his next turn, but for now, Moonwalkers is a failed mission.
Director: Antoine Bardou-Jacquet
Writer: Dean Craig
Stars: Rupert Grint, Ron Perlman, Robert Sheehan
Genre: Black Comedy