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Martin Lawrence, Gabrielle Union, and Will Smith are a modern Mod Squad in Bad Boys II.
Bad Boys II
Dir. Michael Bay; writ. Ron Shelton, Jerry Stahl; feat. Martin Lawrence, Will Smith, Gabrielle Union, Joe Pantoliano (R)

As synonymous as his name is with testosterone-heavy, none-too-bright cinema, it's hard to believe that this is only the fifth Michael Bay movie. Then again, those five movies - such elephantitis-stricken beasts as Pearl Harbor and Armageddon - add up to about 34 hours of screen time. ("Hey, Bruckheimer paid for all this rocket fuel; we really should shoot some more explosions.") Bad Boys 2 holds true to form: It is 90 minutes of guilty summer pleasure, with an hour-long A-Team episode tacked to the end for good measure.

Actually, for a summer in which even Hollywood has come to believe sequels stink, this one has more kicks than its predecessor. Will Smith, who has become a huge star since the first film, rejoins Martin Lawrence to wear flashy clothes, drive a hot car, and shoot guns at drug dealers in sweat-drenched Florida. (Bay wanted to call this franchise Miami Vice: The Fireballs, but Michael Mann wouldn't sell the rights.) Lawrence provides critical banter, and Bring It On's Gabrielle Union plays the love interest.

The dealers in question peddle Ecstasy in glammy nightclubs, and here Michael Bay's experience making beer commercials pays off: He can shoot writhing bodies with the best of them, and after sending his camera through air ducts and across the dance floor he actually points it directly up a skirt or two. Moviegoers who think that is tacky clearly don't understand the cinema de Bay, which if it were a car would be the yellow Humvee our heroes drive here - vulgarity incarnate, the product of men with too much money who never escaped adolescence. (Bay is about to turn 40, and an uncharitable soul might wonder why he needs to film so many explosions.)

But this is summertime, and Bad Boys scratches a certain sleazy action niche, delivering all the right poses and wisecracks. If Bay's shallowness turned Pearl Harbor into a day of infamy, it is right at home here. He makes carnage look cool, if you're into that sort of thing. In the film's first shootout, a bullet leaves Smith's gun in slow-mo, shatters a few bottles of moonshine, passes through his partner's rear end, and catches a KKK hillbilly in the neck. Yee-ha!

Less gleeful is the highway chase in which dead bodies are thrown out of a mortuary van in an attempt by drug-runners to evade Smith and Lawrence. Our heroes drive over a few of them, dismembering one in a particularly gory shot. It's almost enough to make you forget that a few minutes earlier you saw two rodents copulating onscreen - but not quite.

As distasteful as some of these scenes are, they aren't the first ones a humane editor would have trimmed. The last 30 minutes - in which the cops invade Cuba to rescue Sydney - could have been lopped off and nobody would have missed it.

Then again, this anticlimactic climax is the part of the film featuring the yellow Humvee, so maybe it's not as redundant as it feels. Every artist is entitled to sign his work, after all - and if there weren't a bloated, gas-guzzling testament to militaristic hardware envy on the screen, we might not know this was a Michael Bay movie. John DeFore


 
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Lotsa special effects, but few thrills: Spy Kids 3.
Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over
Dir. and writ. Robert Rodriguez; feat. Daryl Sabara, Ricardo Montalban, Alexa Vega, Sylvester Stallone, Salma Hayek, Mike Judge, Antonio Banderas, Carla Gugino (PG)

With the mushrooming use of computer graphics over the last few years, it has become extremely common to hear viewers comment that the latest action film "looks like a video game." Usually, the statement is meant to be damning, but you wouldn't know it from Spy Kids 3-D: Game Over, which not only looks like an arcade game but thinks and behaves like one as well.

The bulk of the film's running time takes place within a game, where retired kid spy Juni Cortez has been sent to rescue his sister Carmen, who is being held captive by a nefarious "Toymaker." (That's Sylvester Stallone, attempting to prove he has a sense of humor while pounding a few more nails into the coffin of his movie career.) The less said about the story the better; it isn't oversimplifying to say that the plot is just about as rudimentary as that of an Atari console game circa 1985, with rote challenges broken down into arbitrary levels.

It is during this part of the movie, where the actors are the only things onscreen that aren't computer-generated, that viewers are meant to thrill to the joys of three-dimensional action. This aspect of the movie might wow kids who haven't seen stereoscopic effects before, but won't be especially exciting to most other folks - especially non-adolescents who have visited the bottom of the sea in James Cameron's Ghosts of the Abyss.

And sadly, if the effects don't move you, there is not a single reason to sit through the film. Aside from the effort required to make it 3-D, everything about this movie shouts "straight to video sequel" - from the cheap sets and costumes to the cardboard script and acting, which would be sub-par even for an afternoon kiddie TV program. The most optimistic interpretation possible is that director Robert Rodriguez was utterly focused on making his upcoming Desperado sequel, Once Upon a Time In Mexico, as deliciously violent as its predecessor, and saw this flick as nothing more than a test reel for special effects companies.

The other interpretation, of course, is that Rodriguez (who in the past has been happy to entertain children without talking down to them) thinks kids will buy anything he offers at this point, and decided to cash in on that goodwill. Unfortunately for him, Spy Kids 3-D boasts fewer thrills than any given five minutes of Finding Nemo, which is still playing just down the multiplex hallway. John DeFore


Sweet Sixteen
Dir. Ken Loach; writ. Paul Laverty; feat. Martin Compston, Annmarie Fulton,William Ruane (R)

Blessed with a majestic beauty, Greenoch was once home to a thriving shipyard and sea port, a sharp contrast to its present-day blight. Life for young people there is as bleak as those shuttered steel mills and long unemployment lines in a Bruce Springsteen song.

Meet Scottish teens Liam and his best friend Pinball. As young entrepreneurs in the small town of Greenoch, they sell contraband cigarettes to adults and charge youngsters to "stargaze" through Liam's telescope. It is through Liam that veteran director Ken Loach's film is focused.

A riveting gritty sequence sets the film's tone and story early on. Liam's grandfather and his mother's boyfriend Stan are taking him to visit his mum in prison. But this is no charitable visit on the older men's part. Instead, they expect Liam to pass drugs to her in the visiting room with a mouth-to-mouth kiss. Liam wants none of it. His dream is for his single mother to come home and give him the maternal succor he missed since he and his sister Chantelle were placed in a "home" as "weans."

On the trip back, Stan and gramps unleash such a fury on the 15-year-old that would make the Sopranos wince. The physically and verbally battered lad is then dumped on the side of a road. Later, his belongings are thrown into the street. Homeless, he moves in with Chantelle, a single mom who dreams of a better life while eking out a meager one.

Liam's obsession with pleasing his mum and securing a place for her to live away from the madding underworld drives him into the criminal life. (At times, Compston's powerhouse portrayal of Liam echoes James Cagney's mother-fixated character in White Heat.) His dirty money goes to put a down payment on a trailer, called "a caravan" in Scottish dialect. (The Scottish brogue is so thick that the film has English subtitles.) Liam's success brings him to the attention of a local mob boss who bankrolls the young boy's career as a potential wise guy - and endangered youth.

A masterful observer of the human condition (think Poor Cow, My Name is Joe, or the recent Bread and Roses), Loach undertakes the grand themes of growing up, of friendships betrayed, of sibling rivalry, and of thwarted maternal love in Sixteen. The result is one of the most lyrical and moving films to emerge from England in recent years. — Greg Barrios


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