Edgar Wright’s films get their kicks by taking characters who belong in a low-key, indie, romantic comedy, and then parachuting them into situations from the most excessive and violent genre movies.
In Shaun of the Dead, that genre was horror, in Hot Fuzz it was cops and robbers, and in Wright’s third film, Scott Pilgrim vs the World, the protagonist finds himself in both a superhero movie and a video game – hence it’s Wright’s biggest, splashiest project so far.
It’s also his first Hollywood film, and his first not to star (or to be co-written by) Simon Pegg. In Pegg’s place, Michael Cera plays Scott, the unemployed 22-year-old bassist in a Toronto garage band. He’s as pleased as punch to be going out with a 17-year-old schoolgirl called Knives Chau (Ellen Wong), but he forgets her the moment he spots Ramona Flowers (Mary Elizabeth Winstead), a punky, pink-haired New Yorker. She’s so cool that Scott is only mildly surprised when one of her ex-boyfriends swoops down through the roof of a club they’re in, and challenges him to a duel to the death. Ramona then explains that she has “seven evil exes” who must be defeated if Scott is going to keep seeing her, and so the weedy, squeaky-voiced slacker goes into mortal combat with, among others, a rival bassist who gets his psychic abilities from his veganism (Brandon Routh, the Man of Steel in Superman Returns), and an action-movie star who lets his stunt doubles do his fighting for him (the even-more-superheroic Chris Evans, who played the Human Torch in The Fantastic Four, and has since been cast as another of Marvel Comics’ main men, Captain America).
Are these delirious, super-powered bouts the product of Scott’s arcade-addled imagination as he processes his resentment of Ramona’s ex-boyfriends? Or does he live in a parallel universe where bass players throw each other through brick walls on a regular basis? Wright isn’t telling. We just have to go along with the notion that Scott can be at home in his shared bedsit one minute, whinging that Ramona hasn’t called him, and the next minute he can be somersaulting through the air with a flaming Samurai sword in his hand, chopping down his enemy's ninja henchmen.
Actually, bearing in mind the astonishing rapidity of Scott Pilgrim's editing, I shouldn't say "the next minute" but "the next second". The film pinballs from scene to scene without pausing for breath, and Wright rarely lets a frame go by without splattering it with split-screens and captions. This hyperactive surrealism may induce migraines in viewers who prefer some looseness and spontaneity in their films. Scott Pilgrim is adapted from a series of graphic novels by Bryan Lee O'Malley, but the postmodern asides that seem offhand and larky in a scrappily drawn black-and-white comic can seem distractingly labour-intensive when they're re-created with expensive actors, costumes and special effects.
Nonetheless, there's no denying Wright's skill, energy and fizzing enthusiasm. Scott Pilgrim's exuberance couldn't be much further from the angst of Inception, but both films quiver with fearless ambition, microscopic attention to detail, and a geeky love of high-concept science fiction. It's nice to see two young-ish British writer-directors bringing such freshness and pizzazz to the summer blockbuster.
The only failing – and you could level the same charge at Inception – is that the non-stop pyrotechnics don't leave much room for plain old human emotion. There's abundant verbal as well as visual comedy, and Cera's line readings are typically offbeat, but while Shaun of the Dead took the time to establish its characters before the zombies shambled into view, Scott Pilgrim never makes us care whether Scott and Ramona get together or not, let alone what happens to the over-qualified supporting cast. Anna Kendrick, for instance, who was Oscar-nominated for her role in Up in the Air, has even less to work with here than she does in the Twilight films. Still, it's a joy to note, a week after The Expendables came out, that the fight between Cera and Jason Schwartzman, two of Hollywood's premier wimps, is 10 times more exciting than the one between Jet Li and Dolph Lundgren.
The Girl Who Played with Fire is the second film derived from Stieg Larsson's three Millennium crime novels about a middle-aged investigative journalist, Mikael Blomkvist (Michael Nyqvist), and a kick-boxing hacker, Lisbeth Salander (Noomi Rapace). If you haven't seen the first film, The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, then this one could be bewildering. But if you already know who's who in Blomkvist and Salander's world, then The Girl Who Played with Fire will be the more satisfying of the two episodes. Dragon Tattoo, after all, spent half its running time introducing a pair of characters who had little to do with each other, and then teamed them up to solve a case that had little to do with either of them. In this film, Blomkvist's campaigning magazine and Salander's traumatic past are tied together in a taut, intricate web of gangsters, murders and sex traffickers. All manner of characters and relationships which didn't serve any purpose in the previous film have their place in this grim, gripping thriller.
Beware, though: while The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo was always intended as a feature film, the follow-up (like the third Millennium instalment, released here in November) was made for Swedish television, and its steady pacing, drab cinematography, and abrupt, inconclusive ending are all more suited to the small screen. My advice is to wait for the DVD box set and watch all three films in a row.
Demetrios Matheou dons his bib and tucker and joins Steve Carell and Paul Rudd at Jay Roach's Dinner for Schmucks
Also Showing: 29/08/10
Grown Ups (103 mins, 12A)
Adam Sandler reunites with four of his schoolmates (Rob Schneider, Kevin James, David Spade, Chris Rock) for a weekend in a lake house. A chance to renew old bonds and reassess their lives? Well, no, not really. Sandler dollops out his usual brand of syrupy sentimentality, and finishes with a group hug that includes every single member of the cast, but most of the film is taken up with feeble wisecracks. It's The Big Chill with all the introspection replaced by peeing and farting jokes.
Diary of a Wimpy Kid (94 mins, PG)
Not so much "wimpy" as "selfish, shallow and lazy": rarely has any children's film had such an obnoxious hero. He's fixated on becoming the most popular boy in school, so he makes countless tiresome attempts to achieve this aim before he learns, in a shocking twist, that true friendship is what matters.
Wah Do Dem (76 mins, 15)
When a Brooklyn hipster is dumped by his girlfriend, just before they're due to embark on a cruise to Jamaica, he goes on his own, only to find that all his shipmates are 40 years older than he is. Promising low-budget comedy.
Dog Pound (90 mins, 18)
Depressing indie drama about a Montana juvenile detention centre, where three new teenage inmates encounter the time-honoured bullies, drugs and feudalism. Nothing you haven't seen before.