This week's movies: Concrete Cowboy, Final Days and Thunder Force 

— Idris Elba is an urban cowboy complete with a Stetson and a horse stabled in the front room
This week's movies: Concrete Cowboy, Final Days and Thunder Force 

Concrete Cowboy ****

The American cowboy is synonymous with the Old West and wide open spaces, and – according to Hollywood, at least – almost invariably white. Ricky Staub’s Concrete Cowboy (15A) directly addresses this whitewashing of one of America’s most potent archetypes, sending disaffected teenager Cole (Caleb McLaughlin) into the heart of Philadelphia, where he is bemused to discover that his estranged father Harp (Idris Elba) is an urban cowboy, complete with Stetson and a horse stabled in the front room of his house. 

As Cole turns away from his father’s tough love, preferring instead to run the streets with his old friend and wannabe gangster Smush (Jharrel Jerome), the story settles into a familiar groove: indeed, Harp’s neighbour Nessie (Lorraine Toussaint) goes so far as to describe Cole as ‘a prodigal boy’. But while the tropes might be familiar, the setting is distinctive enough to earn our attention, and not least because screenwriters Staub and Dan Walser root their story in real events, with Staub casting some real-life Philly cowpokes (Jamil Prattis, Evannah-Mercedes) in the supporting roles. 

The authenticity gives this tale of ‘concrete cowboys’ an emotional depth, especially when their stables, their de facto community centre, is threatened with destruction due to the alleged mistreatment of horses. Caleb McLaughlin puts in a break-out performance as the troubled teen Cole, who finds himself torn between the short-term gains of the ‘thug life’ and the possibility of a life-changing passion, while Idris Elba is masterfully understated as a kind of urban Shane, who provides a belated role model for his errant son. Most interesting of all, however, is the film’s celebration of the black cowhand, who might have been airbrushed from the official history but who is still alive and kicking in north Philly. (Netflix)

Final Days ***

Final Days (15A) opens with Aidan (Tyler Posey) waking up late one morning to discover that he has missed the early stages of a ‘virus outbreak’ that has resulted in a ‘global pandemic’ of flesh-eating zombies. Barricaded into his apartment, Aidan starts broadcasting video-messages into the void and berating himself for being too much of a coward to venture out to replenish his diminishing store of food. 

Crushed by the existential weight of living alone without hope, Aidan resolves to end it all — which is when he spots a fellow survivor, Eva (Summer Spiro), who is hiding out in an apartment block across the way. Written by Matt Naylor and directed by Johnny Martin, Final Days is an I Am Legend for the Coronavirus era, as our solitary hero, armed with his trusty baseball bat, starts cracking skulls and learning how to eke out survival during a zombie apocalypse. Naylor’s script flirts a little too closely with obvious metaphor – it isn’t a huge leap from ‘Aidan and Eva’ to ‘Adam and Eve’ — but it’s difficult to argue with the story’s central premise, as Aidan and Eva seek to transcend the primal impulse to survive at all costs, and achieve a quality of life that includes comfort, affection and perhaps even love. 

There’s something endearing about the movie trying to establish a romance between star-crossed lovers who must communicate across an unbridgeable chasm populated by deranged cannibals, and while the circumstances make it very difficult for the leads to establish any kind of chemistry, the repeated narrow escapes from flesh-devouring zombies provide the story with the expected urgency and tension. (digital release)

Thunder Force **

Thunder Force (12A) stars Melissa McCarthy and Octavia Spencer as Lydia and Emily, schoolfriends who grow up to become an unlikely superhero duo: Emily, a scientist, develops the power of invisibility in her laboratory, only for Lydia, a blue-collar forklift-driver, to accidentally inject herself with the serum that delivers superhuman strength. 

Determined to defeat the ‘miscreants’ — sociopaths with superpowers — who killed her parents, Emily reluctantly teams up with Lydia to pursue Laser (Pom Klementieff), a miscreant who is wreaking havoc on Chicago at the behest of the arch-villain The King (Bobby Cannavale) and his sidekick The Crab (Jason Bateman). All of which represents a very good cast and a potentially hilarious superhero spoof; unfortunately, writer-director Ben Falcone gives his actors very little to do, and even less by way of comic dialogue. 

Instead, Falcone — who has previously directed Melissa McCarthy in Life of the Party (2018) and Superintelligence (2020) — appears happy to allow his characters to ad-lib, albeit to no great effect, with many of the scenes rambling on interminably whilst the characters cast around for a punchline that might put it out of its misery. That’s a pity, because McCarthy, Bateman and Cannavale have previously demonstrated a wide variety of comic personas; meanwhile, Spencer, a superb actor, is left standing around frowning at the silliness of it all. (Netflix)

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