It’s been ten years since Sacha Baron Cohen went Full Phenom with Borat. Has he ever recovered? 2009’s semi-sequel Bruno should have been the great stealth-nuke satire of the Prop 8 era, but Cohen’s candid-camera comedy was already feeling a bit like schtick. But an actual screenplay didn’t do 2012’s The Dictator any favors. Cohen’s talents for media-baiting grotesquerie are unparalleled – like Anchorman 2, The Dictator was less of a movie than a press tour.
Cohen was a presence. He gave good paycheck in Sweeney Todd and Les Miserables. (He couldn’t sing, but he wasn’t alone.) Still, when he showed up onstage at the Oscars in Ali G garb, you worried it was the kickstart of his Legacy Act period. You expect a malcontent to go establishment, to hide behind makeup in Alice in Wonderland sequels.
Here’s what you didn’t expect: That The Brothers Grimsby, an upstairs-downstairs spy comedy, would be Cohen’s best work in a decade. Cohen is Nobby Butcher, a football hooligan from working-class Grimsby. Nobby’s got 11 kids, as many tattoos, and no apparent job; his fashionspiration might be the Plumber’s Crack. Nobby’s also got a hole in his heart. As a child, he was separated from his brother. That brother grew into Sebastian Graves, MI6 superspy, played by Mark Strong.
Strong is one of those British actors you might call “Bond Adjacent.” He’s handsome, withdrawn, looks good killing people. He was the Q analogue in last year’s Kingsman: The Secret Service and a mournful MI6 agent in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. If you liked Kingsman, you might not like Grimsby; I sure hated Kingsman, and I sure loved Grimsby. With a filmmaker like Matthew Vaughn, you’re desperately aware of an anxious elitism, a sense that the primary concern is making sure everybody’s suit fits.
Grimsby, by comparison, pairs Cohen with an ideal collaborator. Allow me to come out once and for all as a fan of Louis Leterrier, a trash-candy director of the first order. Like Cohen, Leterrier’s a Euro gone Hollywood. He worked on a couple Transporter movies before making The Incredible Hulk and Clash of the Titans, twin cheesefests deployed right in the thick of blockbuster’s grimdark phase. Leterrier’s got that French thing where he doesn’t mind when things look fake. Maybe he prefers that. His digital effects look like greenscreen; his fight scenes are too choreographed to feel casual; he encourages performers like Tim Roth and Ralph Fiennes to go big. His finest showcase yet was 2013’s Now You See Me, a genre-smashing scenery-gnashing gem. Now You See Me was sort of a superhero movie and sort of a heist movie, except nobody had superpowers and the heists made no sense.
Leterrier’s approach to filmed action mirrors Cohen’s approach to comedy: Scattershot, hyperkinetic, aggressively over-the-top. Too-muchness is the problem, and the point. When we meet Sebastian, he’s on a mission that requires him to kill various people and jump on various vehicles. Leterrier shoots the scene partially in first-person – all spies in this verse have retinal Go-Pros – and it might be the best thing he’s ever done. Leterrier doesn’t do “steady,” but there’s a goofball grace to his staging. (Understanding Leterrier means understanding that he loves martial arts but doesn’t mind pretending Dave Franco knows karate.) At one point in that first scene, we watch through Sebastian’s eyes as he kicks a baddie down the stairs and then shoots him in midair. The whole action takes about a millisecond; Michael Bay’s been chasing a moment like that his whole career.
There’s a pointy-headed film nerd notion called Chaos Cinema, the idea that action movies have declined as action movies have sacrificed careful staging for the aesthetics of a movie trailer. Leterrier’s Chaos combines perfectly with Cohen’s chaos. Barely over 80 minutes long, Grimsby fits in a trip to decadent London and scrubby Grimsby, to Africa and South America. It has one of the single most disgusting sequences in movie history. (Suffice it to say: I have no more questions about elephant physiology.)
There’s a scene where blackbooted government goons storm a football pub, and a couple of foulmouthed children fight back. From a window, someone throws a wheelchair on one goon; when another goon attacks, that same window throws down a living, barking dog. (The kitchen sink is implied.) Rebel Wilson, Penelope Cruz, and Gabourey Sidibe swan in and out, playing their most hyperbolized selves. At the risk of spoiling the plot, this is a movie that involves the quote: “Because of you, the head of the World Health Organization is dead, and Harry Potter has AIDS!”
Not everything in Grimsby works. The parading bad guys should feel more colorful, or at least somehow differentiated. (I have a real soft spot for Scott Adkins, a direct-to-VOD action star who made three movies yesterday, but Grimsby reduces him to a few punches and a frown.) Leterrier’s filmmaking isn’t precise enough to count as parody or satire, so a running flashback origin story is exactly as boring as most flashback origin stories. And the film quickly loses interest in the MI6 side of the equation; Isla Fisher and Ian McShane do lots of screen-staring as the film’s variations of Moneypenny and M.
But credit Grimsby for landing on a sledgehammer point. The movie takes the brother’s snob-vs-slob backgrounds seriously. An MI6 agent calls Nobby “working class scum,” and that classist insult reverberates throughout the film. Grimsby‘s biggest idea is that James Bond’s England is also Mike Leigh’s England. Leterrier’s best visual gag is just shooting Sebastian – tall, dark, shimmeringly bald – inside Nobby’s cruddy house, a saggy-walled hovel where foulmouthed adolescents watch Breaking Bad. Crucially, it’s Sebastian who seems unusual. He might as well be an alien, or one of the Eternals from Zardoz.
This is also the kind of movie where a baby wearing a diaper and English-Flag facepaint walks through a bar carrying a half-full pint of beer, and the kind of movie where more than one set of private parts are thrust right into Sacha Baron Cohen’s face – and yours. God help me, I laughed. B+