The great gift that “Black Adam” offers casual comic book filmgoers is the chance to experience a lesser-known character in a less familiar “universe,” a film you can take in with few expectations.
We know Dwayne Johnson’s in it, and dude is credibly bulked-up and superheroic, just in his street clothes. Aside from that, and the fact that the man’s been hyping the hell out of this for years, we’re walking in with a blank slate.
It has that DC cinematic universe look — soundstagey, filtered lighting, Marvel on an overcast day. B-movies-on-an-A-picture-budget filmmaker Jaume Collet-Serra (“Orphan,””House of Wax,””Jungle Cruise”) is behind the camera. Let’s see what they come up with up.
Not much, as it turns out.
It’s a jumbled, cluttered “origin story” whose opening scenes have a “Conan the Barbarian” look and feel. The rest? “Shazam!” with a staggering body count, a jokey, murderous action epic of confused loyalties and uninteresting characters, dull performances and Dwayne Johnson spending a lot of time proving Rocks can fly.
Between “Conan” and “Shazam!” there’s an Indiana Jones interlude, a quick bit of poking around in a ruined ancient crypt, cuneiform-reading clues and intoning an ancient summons to bring a Middle Eastern nation’s ancient “Champion,” “Teth-Adam,” to life.
Kahndaq is an ancient land, the world’s sole source of Eternium (Did James Cameron come up with that, or steal it for his “Unobtainium?”) which led to the people being enslaved to mine it. A young slave strikes a blow to free his people, and vanishes in a flash 5,000 years ago.
A modern day academic Adrianna (Sarah Shahi) is hunting for an ancient crown made from Eternium and containing the magic of six demons, because as her skateboarding son (Bodhi Sabongui) notes, “We could really use a superhero right about now.”
Kahndaq has fallen under foreign occupation as multi-national mercenaries and those who hire them exploit their resources. Asssorted villains want that crown, too, chiefly Ishmael (Marwan Keznari) we figure out is a heavy the moment we see him. There’s nothing subtle, mysterious or nuanced in this film. It’s as obvious can be, which contributes to the mind-numbing dullness.
Summoning Teth-Adam (Johnson) gets the attention of the world’s Justice Society, competing for attention with the Justice League, the Avengers and The Evolution Revolution, no doubt.
These movies — and this isn’t just a DC adaptation problem, although theirs do a worse job at hiding it — are just feeding on each other now, repeating themselves ad nauseum. The result is stunningly-decorated tedium, as boring an experience as any sentient cinema-goer’s going to have at the movies this year.
Pierce Brosnan is Dr. Fate, Aldis Hodge is Hawkman, Netflix “To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before” hearthrob Noah Centineo is awkward Atom Smasher and Quintessa Swindell is the windswept Cyclone. These members of the Justice Society are sent by the non-nonsense Waller (Viola Davis) to calm the situation in Kahndaq, “peace keepers” who do nothing about the oppression and exploitation that was the reason a desperate Dr. Adrianna summoned the unstoppable killing machine Teth-Adam in the first place.
“Good guys don’t kill people,” Hawkman lectures the out-of-control Adam.
“I’m not a good guy.”
The film’s attempts at the “Shazam!” jokey tone are largely provided by Adrianna’s kid, Amon, who coaches Adam to take on a whole “Man in Black” persona. Adam, glimpsing a Clint Eastwood spaghetti Western on the kid’s TV, hears him out. “Catch-phrase, THEN kill them!”
“Tell them that the Man in Black sent you.”
There’s a lot of exposition early on, telling us the prehistory that created Teth-Adam. I was somewhat engaged in the opening slave rebellion scenes, but this fiasco fritters that attention away in a flash, losing itself in an endless series of brawls, shootouts with Black Adam catching the bad guy’s bullets, Black Adam flying and Black Adam crashing through walls because “I suppose you didn’t have doors” in his life, five thousand years ago.
The acting is indifferent, save for the teenager, who has no screen presence and must have been hired for his skateboarding skill rather than any acting training. I hate picking on kids, but he is “Phantom Menace” level awful — dead line-readings, literally wilting in front of the camera.
The best thing in “Black Adam” might be the hairstyling. Brosnan, Swindell and some others have screen-saver-ready locks. Johnson? He’s bigger than we’ve even seen him, and balder.
This picture is Johnson’s baby, talked-up and hyped for years before the cameras finally rolled. Apparently his towering ambition is to get one more franchise on his books while he’s still got the clout to do it. This was a mistake, and it’s all on him.
The cut-and-paste writing and lackluster direction are the main failings. There’s little to this that you’d call a “story,” even less “story” that makes sense. At one point, Black Adam is entombed, locked away, willingly submitting to authority in the service of the greater good, only to be released in the very next scene. Pointless crap like that is scattered throughout this script-by-committee screenplay.
I guess that’s to be expected in any movie whose real catch phrase is “A bad plan is better than no plan at all.”
Rating: PG-13 (Sequences of Strong Violence|Intense Action|Some Language)
Cast: Dwayne Johnson, Sarah Shahi, Aldis Hodge, Quintessa Swindell, Noah Centineo, Marwan Keznari and Pierce Brosnan
Credits: Directed by Jaume Collet-Serra, scripted by Adam Sztykiel, Rory Haines, Sohrab Noshirvani, based on the DC comic book character. A Warner Brothers/New Line release.
Running time: 2:04