SHANGHAI KNIGHTS If you're gonna insist on making a distressingly formulaic sequel to a distressingly formulaic comedy, then this might be the way to go, by overstuffing it with so much nonsensical material that some of it is bound to charm through sheer willpower. Its 2000 predecessor, Shanghai Noon, ranked as one of the weaker "odd couple" comedies of late, with Jackie Chan and Owen Wilson going through the paces in a dull action romp set in the Old West. Knights is clearly an improvement, with Chan and Wilson (both more animated than in the previous picture) heading to London to solve the murder of Chan's character's father. The villains are uninteresting and the central plot thread (involving the massacre of the royal family) is dopey, but it's what's around the edges that makes this painless entertainment. Writers Alfred Gough and Miles Millar find clever ways to incorporate historical figures into their storyline (best of all is the use of Sherlock Holmes creator Arthur Conan Doyle, winningly played here by Thomas Fisher), and they also pay tribute to practically every notable screen comedian this side of Cheech and Chong (Harold Lloyd, Charlie Chaplin and the Hope-Crosby team are among those honored). The anachronisms make Oliver Stone's dramas seem like cinema verite documentaries by comparison, yet it's perversely pleasurable to hear The Who's "My Generation" and "Magic Bus" in a film that's set in 1887. 1/2
BIKER BOYZ What does it say about a cinema culture in which something like The Fast and the Furious would serve as an inspiration for other movies? Nevertheless, this obvious take-off, adapted from a New Times article about African-American motorcycle gangs, emerges as the ever-so-slightly better film: If its visceral thrills aren't as memorable as those in F&F, the tradeoff is that we're exposed to characters (and actors) that are more interesting. Derek Luke, the star of Antwone Fisher, again holds the screen, this time playing a young cycle ace who decides to compete for the title of California's top racer, a crown long held by the cool-under-fire Smoke (Laurence Fishburne). Michael Gougis' original article presumably gave more insight into this hidden culture than this movie's screenplay (penned by Craig Fernandez and director Reggie Rock Blythewood), which largely uses this fascinating setting merely as a backdrop for the usual melodramatic conflicts involving a young man who won't listen to anyone, a mother who fears for her child's safety, and a father who's trying to resolve issues with his hot-headed offspring. Good performances help in making us swallow all this, but ultimately, the picture isn't especially fast or furious, just fleeting.
CONFESSIONS OF A DANGEROUS MIND "Never let them see you sweat" is a tagline that apparently went unheeded by George Clooney, who huffs and puffs mightily in his directorial debut. This adaptation of Chuck Barris' memoirs, in which the creator of The Gong Show (among other TV inanities) claims to have been an assassin-for-hire for the CIA, is a genuine mixed bag, full of entertaining moments but also bogged down by Clooney's overwhelming desire to emulate his frequent screen collaborator Steven Soderbergh. Trying for an air of hip irreverence that has never been Soderbergh's strongest filmmaking attribute either, this follows Barris (Sam Rockwell) as he balances a successful TV career and a steady sweetheart (Drew Barrymore) with his clandestine activities for the government, represented here by a CIA mentor (Clooney) and a sexy super-spy (Julia Roberts). Appearing in virtually every scene, Rockwell (The Green Mile) is well-cast up to a point, but he has yet to provide any afterlife to any of his screen personas; he doesn't inhabit his characters as much as get assimilated by them. But Clooney as actor nicely underplays, while Roberts is used far more effectively than in Soderbergh's Ocean's Eleven. 1/2
DARKNESS FALLS The tagline reads, "Evil Rises. Darkness Falls," but they clearly forgot the third caveat: "Slumber Ensues." The sort of lazy endeavor that gives shockers a bad name, this dreadful flick concerns itself with the legend of the Tooth Fairy, an elderly woman who was wrongly lynched 150 years earlier and whose spirit has since terrorized the coastal town of Darkness Falls, killing anybody who dares to look at her directly. The only person to have survived her reign of terror is Kyle (Chaney Kley), who saw her as a child and has now returned to town as an adult to help a former friend (Emma Caulfield) protect her little brother (terrible Lee Cormie) from the wicked witch. Darkness Falls makes less sense as it ambles forward, constantly changing the rules of its own myths and tripping over itself in an effort to provide the sort of fake scares that are emblematic of bad horror films. My favorite: A black cat !!SUDDENLY!! leaps onto the hood of the heroine's car, letting out a Dolby-enhanced screech as it does so. Cats leap all the time, so why would this one wail as if its eyeballs were being gouged out by a white-hot poker? Answer: Because without such manufactured moments of terror, the filmmakers would be left with a horror film that wouldn't frighten even the most susceptible of audience members.