Release Date: February 24th, 2016 (UK); March 11th, 2016 (US)
Genre: Action; Comedy
Starring: Sacha Baron Cohen, Mark Strong
Should you walk into a screening of this latest Sacha Baron Cohen flick not knowing what exactly to expect, you’ll be brought up to speed almost immediately. The first thing we see is a sweaty, mouthy sex scene between Cohen and Rebel Wilson, and here’s the kicker: it takes place atop a mattress in a furniture store. Thankfully Cohen, playing Grimsby goof Nobby Butcher, chooses to purchase said mattress having already christened it. We watch him wheel the thing home using an abandoned shopping trolley; he’s docked out in an England strip and is sporting a 90s britpop hairdo. Meanwhile, Blur’s “Parklife” blares in the background.
It gets much grosser than an in-store romp, though Louis Leterrier’s Grimsby never matches the unfiltered rowdiness of Borat, Cohen’s pinnacle comedic achievement. The film tries — you’ll know it when you see it — but the actor, once a laudable harbinger of satirical bite (and he may be still), is suffocated by a plethora of unoriginal sexual antics. Obvious targets are set up to be shot down: Bill Cosby, blandly, and Donald Trump, more amusingly. Smarter quips are less prevalent, though there is at least one (“Chilcott was dismissed for good reason,” claims an agency insider). It doesn’t want to be that sort of film, which is fine, but the invention isn’t there to justify a simple 90-minute yuck-fest.
An opening Call of Duty action sequence makes use of Leterrier’s background in the genre (The Transporter, The Incredible Hulk): we take the viewpoint of Mark Strong’s Sebastian as he leaps onto vehicles and sends enemies flying with a barrage of roundhouse kicks. The violent obstacle course suitably concludes just as “Directed by Louis Leterrier” hits the screen. Sebastian is an MI6 agent and also Nobby’s brother, though the two haven’t been together since their childhood separation. Inevitably, their reunion sees the latter interrupt the former during a mission, resulting in the shooting of an ill, wheelchair-bound youngster and the escape of Sebastian’s actual target. And so, the brothers find themselves on the run.
In tandem with Cohen’s screenplay — co-written with long-time partner Peter Baynham and Wreck-It Ralph story moulder Phil Johnston — Leterrier attempts to infuse proceedings with that Edgar Wright sense of snap and whizz. It doesn’t work. Partly because the centrepiece jokes are based around sequences that overstay their welcome, thus any built-up momentum succumbs to comedic culling. But the use of flashbacks is also a great hindrance: we see the brothers as annoying kids, loud, sweary and arrogant. Not exactly the sympathetic formula required to make us feel for them when they are split up via fostering.
“Cigarettes & Alcohol” is the soundtrack to the film’s best scene: Nobby, having ditched the football jersey, dons his brother’s spy gear (including a black turtleneck jumper) and saunters forth in slow motion with enough Liam Gallagher swagger to match his Liam Gallagher mod mullet and sideburns combo. It is funny because you can feel a similar sort of pay-off building from the moment Leterrier intercuts Northern English football culture with britpop tunes and britpop attire. And it works because you believe in Cohen’s false big-headedness. He is fairly good as Nobby, it’s just that Nobby isn’t a particularly intriguing character.
The return of Barkhad Abdi to the silver screen is a welcome one, even though his role (drug runner) demands very little from a former Academy Award nominee. Booze comedian Johnny Vegas and Royle Family mainstay Ricky Tomlinson have fleeting supporting roles as two of Grimsby’s football-loving troupe: set during the 2016 World Cup, if ever there was something within the narrative to exemplify the film’s lack of reality or relevance, it would be the England national football team’s success. On the female side of things, Isla Fisher plays a helpful MI6 agent stuck behind mobile phones and computer screens while Penélope Cruz, well, has another portfolio credit.
Fans of Cohen might still enjoy this tamer-in-execution offering so long as they enter not expecting the piercing offence prevalent in earlier outings. Grimsby is basically just Johnny English Reborn, the not-so-good one, but with cruder jokes. There is a working class versus establishment thing going on, I think, but both sides are so plainly drawn nothing new or interesting sees the light of day. This is no Kingsman, which struck the correct balance between heightened impact and genre appreciation. Having said all of that, I did learn of Grimsby and Chernobyl’s twin city relationship. Wait, that was a joke?
Images copyright (©): Columbia Pictures