Here’s a word I would have never associated with a movie version of Battleship: bizarre. But the big screen incarnation of the Hasbro board game – raise your hand if you relished sinking those plastic vessels during grade school – is one very odd bird, a slapdash, f/x-heavy display of all-American artillery that becomes increasingly conscious of its utter ridiculousness and then heads off in a loopy, tongue-in-cheek direction. To merely dismiss it as a rehash of Michael Bay’s greatest hits would be lazy, and ultimately not very accurate.
John Carter’s Taylor Kitsch stars as slacker-turned-Navy-stud Alex Hopper. When we first lay eyes on the jaded bum, he’s breaking into a quickie mart to microwave a chicken burrito for the hungry bombshell who entered the bar next door where he and his older brother Stone (True Blood’s Alexander Skarsgård) were celebrating Alex’s 26th birthday. The buxom blonde turns out to be Sam (Just Go with It’s Brooklyn Decker), the daughter of Admiral Shane (Liam Neeson, way underused), Stone’s superior officer. Daddy, as it turns out, has zero tolerance for troublemakers, even those who join the U.S. Armed Forces at the behest of their well adjusted siblings. Shape up or ship out, Stone tells his semi-naked brother after he emerges from an ice-cold bath the day after his arrest for pulling that lovestruck stunt. (Bay would never be caught dead eroticizing a heartthrob like Kitsch.)
A year later, Alex is still getting himself into trouble, only now he sports a crew cut. Smack dab in the middle of RIMJOB, er, RIMPAC (aka the world’s largest international maritime exercise) off the coast of Hawaii, Sweet Cheeks gets into hot water with Shane, who’s none too pleased that this stubborn, erratic loser is banging his daughter. Berg directs the film’s early scenes with an unexpected featherweight touch, even as the humor crosses the line into insufferable goofiness. But just when Alex’s unruly behavior threatens to make Battleship watchable, down come the humanoid visitors from another galaxy to ruin the fun.
Berg’s destructive water polo match pits a United-Colors-of-Benetton array of American and Japanese seamen against some high-tech spaceships looking uncannily like the ones that razed Tinseltown in Battle: Los Angeles last year. Ah, but that atrocious waste of celluloid didn’t have the destructive pods – let’s call them balls of destruction – that lay waste to Oahu Pearl Harbor-style. It’s fairly apparent these aliens want to take over the Earth, but for a race hellbent on global domination, they’re spectacularly undisciplined in their strategy. Berg attempts to determine a motive for their visit, but it’s so muddled that I’m still trying to figure it out. (The space invaders, who look like rejects from the video game Halo, are also saddled with the lamest Achilles’ heel of any movie extraterrestrial I’ve ever seen.)
What follows is a singularly dull interspecies showdown peppered by bursts of naval combat that do nothing to advance the story. Alex joins forces with feisty Petty Officer Cora Raikes (pop diva Rihanna, making a ho-hum feature acting debut) and Captain Yugi Nagata (Thor’s Tadanobu Asano) to outsmart their stronger foes. Nagata’s strategy involves beeping buoys and a digital display uncannily similar to the board where we used to predict our own opponents’ coordinates. The sequence that pays homage to Battleship’s source material stops an already overlong movie dead in its tracks. Much like the desperate uniformed men and women onscreen, Berg’s film tentatively fires shots into a dark void.
And just when you knew where it was going, Battleship gives way to a kooky climax involving a real-life World War II floating relic and some weathered veterans ready to kick some E.T. butt. Berg coins them “Old Salts” in the movie’s end credits. Let’s give them a better nickname: Code Name: Depends. It’s not the most dignified homage to these men of a certain age who defended our country so gallantly, but for a good 15 minutes or so, they make this otherwise underwhelming summer spectacle cheekily enjoyable in a way few big studio releases could even fathom. Call it messy. Call it derivative. But don’t you dare call this mindless sci-fi bust generic.
The old farts warding off the aliens’ balls of destruction in Battleship are funnier than anything in The Dictator, Sacha Baron Cohen’s third feature-length collaboration with director Larry Charles (Religulous). A lady in the theater lobby following the advance screening for this movie summed up her reaction to this facile cross between Coming to America and the Austin Powers trilogy this way: “Too much toilet humor.” The problem with this dismayingly laugh-deprived satire is not the exorbitant amount of scatological gags. It’s that they’re all so…harmless, a shocking term to describe the work of the man behind Borat and Brüno.
The gifted Brit’s newest creation is Admiral General Haffaz Aladeen, ruler of Wadiya, a North African “republic” whose name brings to mind Sarah Palin’s Wasilla and intentionally resembles powder kegs like Saddam Hussein’s Iraq and present-day Syria. Summoned to the United Nations to address delegates about his plans fledgling nuclear program, he packs his bags – and his beret-wearing harem – and heads to America, a country “built by the blacks and owned by the Chinese.” His big announcement to tell the U.N. to stick democracy where the sun don’t shine is thwarted by Uncle Tamir (a wasted Ben Kingsley), who has his nephew kidnapped and replaced with a dimwitted dead ringer (Cohen times two). Shorn of his virile beard and his dignity, Aladeen reluctantly accepts a job offer from well-intentioned granola feminist Zoey (a brunette Anna Faris) to work at her New York City food co-op while he secretly hatches a plan to sabotage his backstabbing uncle’s plans to bring elections to Wadiya.
The Dictator offers Charles and Cohen plenty of opportunities to indulge in their bracingly pointed brand of social commentary, but by doing away with the “candid camera” interactions between the comedian and people on the street who have no idea they’re the butt of the joke, the filmmaking team is cut off at the knees. Brüno was far from perfect, but it held a mirror to the homophobia of mainstream audiences who deemed its risqué, deliriously over the top antics “too gay.” In his latest effort, Cohen doesn’t appear to be the least bit interested in pushing viewers’ buttons. Instead, he serves up a palatable, watered-down variation on material they used to find transgressive. Even more disappointing, he employs his once-reliable formula in the context of a bland romantic comedy that adheres to the genre’s story beats all too neatly. A series of clever one-liners do not add up to a satisfying whole, and there are few sights as sad as witnessing this brilliant comedic mind reduced to following in the footsteps of Mike Myers and Peter Sellers in their late-career paths. This unconventional comic has no business making such a dispiritingly conventional film. Back to the drawing board, Ali G. This is the dinner theater version of your old stuff.
The Dictator (republicofwadiya.com), which opened Wednesday, continues its covert mission to eradicate the Jew menace in wide release. Battleship (battleshipmovie.com) begins sinking moviegoers’ IQs to new depths this Friday.