Remember Bryan Singer? The guy who directed one of the most memorable and complex films of the '90s, “The Usual Suspects”? I wonder what ever became of that guy. Surely, he couldn't be the same Bryan Singer whose career since 2000 has been dominated by cinema interpretations of well-known hero mythologies — X-Men, Superman and now Jack (of Beanstalk fame)?
“The Usual Suspects” contributed its own original mythology to the popular consciousness — who the hell is Keyser Söze? — no minor feat.
Amazingly, this duo of Singers do seem to inhabit the same body and IMDb entry, so the answers to the above questions are more in the realm of identity and metaphysics than of cinema criticism.
His (their?) new film is titled “Jack the Giant Slayer,” although its story is taken less from the various versions of “Jack the Giant Killer/Slayer” than from its better-known stepbrother “Jack and the Beanstalk” (or, for that matter, from Marvel's “Thor”). In short, Jack (Nicholas Hoult, slightly less a zombie here than in “Warm Bodies”) swaps a horse, his family's last asset, for a handful of beans, from which grows a beanstalk to the sky. Above the clouds there be giants, whole bunches of them, in desperate need of slaying.
From the “Killer/Slayer” tales, we get a romance. Commoner Jack falls in love with Isabelle (Eleanor Tomlinson), the daughter of King Brahmwell (Ian McShane). Izzy is kidnapped by the giants, so Jack accompanies the King's Guards, led by fearless Elmont (Ewan McGregor). McGregor is in full-on “Star Wars” mode, even saying at one point, “I'm getting an awfully bad feeling about this.” Their task is complicated by the secret treachery of Roderick (Stanley Tucci), whose schemes pretty much duplicate Loki's plans in “Thor” and “The Avengers.” (All these mythologies derive from the same Anglo/Norse/other-Northern European legends.)
Like Singer's “X Men” entries, “Jack” isn't exactly bad. But it does feel awfully tired. It has some great production design and effects, but that's true of most of its genre. It will work a whole lot better for viewers — all two dozen of them — who haven't seen “Thor,” “Clash of the Titans,” “Lord of the Rings,” or any of the zillion other heroic journey films of the last 50 years.
Besides the visual aspects, it benefits from nice performances from Tucci, McShane, Eddie Marsan and Ewan Bremner; and from the work of editor and composer John Ottman, a longtime Singer collaborator.
“Jack the Giant Slayer” was shot in 3-D, which, as always, doesn't add much except a greatly heightened risk of eye strain and headache. Perhaps those problems are worse for older viewers, but a whole lot of younger viewers will be shut out by the film's well-deserved PG-13 rating. It's not so much the blood and guts (though there's plenty of that) but the huge close-ups of hideous giants that, had I seen them at the age of 9, could have driven me to a life in one of those institutions where nice white-jacketed orderlies look after you.
Viewers (of any age) who suffer from severe acrophobia might want to take a pass as well. There are a ton of falling, climbing and bird's-eye view shots that, not surprisingly, are even more nauseating in 3-D.
ANDY KLEIN is the film critic for Marquee. He can also be heard on “FilmWeek” on KPCC-FM (89.3).