Grimsby / The Brothers Grimsby
Directed by Louis Leterrier
(24th February 2016 UK / 11th March 2016 US – Big Talk Productions, Columbia Pictures, Four By Two Films. LStar Capital, Sony Pictures Entertainment, Village Roadshow Pictures, Working Title Films)
Written by Sacha Baron Cohen, Phil Johnston & Peter Baynham
Starring: Sacha Baron Cohen, Mark Strong, Penelope Cruz, Rebel Wilson, Ian McShane, Gabourey Sidibe, Isla Fisher, Barkhad Abdi, Scott Adkins, Johnny Vegas & Ricky Tomlinson
Synopsis: A new assignment forces a top spy to team up with his football hooligan brother.
Sacha Baron Cohen has the reputation of being a maverick in the film industry. In real life, a seemingly kind, and generous man, campaigning for Syrian refugees and donating millions to a variety of charities; on screen he has a multitude of carefully crafted personas, each of them positioned to take advantage of, and confront the expectations of his audience.
Ali G was the character that first brought him to fame, a satirical stereotype of privileged middle class white kids that tried to emulate “black culture” and disguise their origins. Cohen’s commitment to the character was absolute, and he headlined a couple of successful television shows. One of his greatest gifts is an inhuman ability to maintain character under the most trying of circumstances. He interviewed a variety of prominent and important people, and all of them he made look foolish or intolerant just by allowing them to talk themselves into unwinnable arguments, or exposing their own deeply held prejudices. While Ali G’s television appearances were successful, the subsequent film, Ali G Indahouse, was less so, causing many pundits to accuse Cohen of being a one trick pony.
Then came the rise of Borat Sagdiyev, a character that had a few early appearances in various different forms in Cohen’s earliest work, before being reborn as a segment on Da Ali G Show. It is here that Cohen perfected the character, before unleashing him on America in the comedy masterpiece Borat: Cultural Learnings Of America For Make Benefit Glorious Nation Of Kazakhstan.
Borat is still considered to be a great piece of filmmaking because Cohen and his crew were able to travel across America in disguise, and through a variety of hidden cameras and subterfuge created a film that contained mostly real reactions and interactions with a variety of people, many of them made to look like awful, awful people. Cohen was able to coax the worst out of people, exposing their deeply held racism, homophobia, sexism etc. to the world. Naturally, this caused an avalanche of lawsuits against the British comedian once the film had been released, but he weathered that storm.
After that came Bruno and The Dictator, two films that were inferior to Borat’s greatness in every way. Bruno attempted to recreate the public embarrassment and raw interactions with people that Borat did, but many people were wise to it due to Cohen’s infamy after Borat. No longer able to hide behind costumes, the film was shot in the same style as Borat, but was mostly choreographed and scripted, leading to a palpable inauthenticity that harmed the film.
The Dictator was his first foray into the fully scripted moderate budget comedy film, but it’s core problem was that it didn’t fully embrace the medium. A lot of the comedy is still generated from exaggerated cultural differences and bystander reactions to them; carving comedy out of America’s fear of terrorism and people from the Middle East, but because the whole film is scripted, it doesn’t work nearly as effectively as the catharsis in Borat.
Which brings us to Grimsby (titled The Brothers Grimsby in North America), his latest effort that sees the comedian finally embrace the strengths of scripted comedy. Delivered in the form of an electric action comedy, Grimsby is yet another recent addition to the modern spy genre, most akin to last year’s Kingsman: The Secret Service, although far more outrageous and offensive.
There is no denying that the genetic makeup of Grimsby is 60% puerility, 40% gumption, and yet it’s that latter element that makes this Frankenstein monster of cliches, stereotypes, offensive jokes about every taboo subject you can imagine, and the worst thing to ever happen to an elephant in cinema history, so damn infectious and compelling.Of course, if you’re easily offended, or don’t like gross out humour, stay far away from this film, but as a piece of bad taste cinema it is oddly charming and moving.
Narratively, Grimsby is about the relationship between estranged brothers Nobby (Cohen, an obscene stereotype of football-obsessed lower class benefit grabbing scum), and Sebastian (Mark Strong, a privileged and upper class super spy) who were separated at a young age by adoption from their orphanage, leading to their wildly different lives. For decades, Nobby has been trying to search for, and reunite with his younger brother, while Sebastian has been gallivanting all over the world executing high value targets and perfecting top secret missions to make him one of Britain’s best secret agents.
Nobby lives in the titular town of Grimsby, which is rendered with brutal efficacy as a sort of third world slum. Shot in slow motion, and featuring an overwhelming amount of ugly British and lower class stereotypes (from mothers handing their young children beers, to drunks pissing out the windows of their homes) that have been propagated by various “poverty porn” programs that litter television. To call it ugly and an affront on first viewing is to put it lightly, as alcohol soaked lewdness seeps from every grubby pore with a stomach churning ugliness (the film inspired the mayor of Grimsby to create a short film to prove that the town was not akin to a war torn ghetto populated by football hooligans, but a lovely place to live).
But where Grimsby has surprising success is in humanising its subject matter, Cohen may poke fun at an entire class of Britain, but he also delicately exposes their humanity. His jokes are exaggerated, but they are completely lacking in malice, demonstrating an affection for his inspiration that makes the film compelling. What’s more, while Grimsby is certainly more focused on being an action comedy romp, there is a small amount of corrosive criticism and satire directed at the failings of a Conservative British government, and the upper classes who have abandoned such people to beer, poverty, squalor and of course, football.
It doesn’t take long for Nobby to find out that Sebastian will be at a charity event, unknown to Nobby he’ll be trying to foil an assassination attempt, which Nobby predictably and hilariously botches. As a result, Sebastian has to hide from the British government and go off the grid, so naturally Nobby drags him to Grimsby, where he receives an ugly reminder of what his life could have been like.
Cohen of course manages to squeeze jokes out of every corner, detail, situation, and hell even orifice. If you’re not on board with how infantile the whole thing is, then it’ll become tiresome. It seems Cohen saw Tom Green‘s divisive cult film Freddy Got Fingered, and decided it just didn’t go far enough. So, everyone in Grimsby has tons of kids with stupid names, does drugs, and a wide variety of idiotic things. He squeezes awkwardness out of sex, but simultaneously delivers charm via puzzlingly delivered, but endearing affection. It’s this juxtaposition that makes Grimsby so successful at its goal – to be both riotously entertaining, and impishly button pushing, often stretching bad taste jokes from funny, to not funny, to funny again just by drawing them out far longer and more elaborately than most people would dare to push them. You could consider it a barrage of crudeness, one that if you didn’t break down and laugh then you might just cry instead. Surprisingly, that’s a good thing in this case.
Other than it’s comedic elements, Grimsby brings a heavy dose of action, with a number of high octane combat sequences featuring Mark Strong flexing his masters degree in badassery. This is also where director Louis Leterrier (The Transporter, The Incredible Hulk, Clash Of The Titans, Now You See Me) fares best, as his talents are in relatively competent action blockbusters rather than raucous comedy. Largely inspired by videogames (and a fitting precursor to the impending release of Hardcore Henry), the fight scenes are captured mostly from a POV perspective, via a contact lens gadget that Sebastian wears. These conflicts have a palpable kinetic energy and strong momentum, that brings a suitable efficiency to the bone breaking and blood letting.
Ultimately though, Grimsby‘s greatest success is in the unlikely pairing of Cohen and British heavyweight character actor, Strong. The latter is completely dedicated to the role, and suffers a number of insane injustices in service of delivering a laugh. It’s something that you would imagine, would be completely beneath an actor of his caliber, but he executes it all with such aplomb and enthusiasm that it makes the whole film contagiously enjoyable. What’s more, Nobby with his Liam Gallagher inspired haircut, constant clutching of a beer in his hand, and his paunchy belly sticking out from under a too tight England football shirt; is Cohen’s least intrusive (and arguably least memorable) character yet, but it plays to the strengths of the film, and allows the narrative and the jokes to come first, rather than revolving around the average person’s reaction to a madcap character.
Combine that with a wide range of supporting British talent from Ian McShane, Ricky Tomlinson and Johnny Vegas (to name a few), and a few recognisable faces (Penelope Cruz, Gabourey Sidibe, Barkhad Abdi), Cohen has landed himself a winner, and his best film since Borat first graced our screens. Yes, it’s dumb and offensive, but there’s an intelligence in the flow and structure, that belies the subject matter and makes it an undeniable achievement for the eccentric British comedian. Plus, how can you fault a film that is audacious enough to literally give the notoriously litigious and odious Donald Trump A.I.D.S.?