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Blu-Ray Pick of the Week: Tag

“Upgrade” is also new to Blu-Ray this week. 

“Tag” is about a children’s playground game turned into an extreme sport being played by men in their mid to late 30s. It’s also wickedly, side-splittingly funny and one of the best comedies I’ve seen in a long time.

The men in question are Hogan “Hoagie” Malloy (Ed Helms), who is the most passionate about the game, Randy “Chilli” Cilliano (Jake Johnson), who would rather sit around and smoke a bowl with his dad (played in a cameo by Brian Dennehy), Kevin Sable (Hannibal Buress), who would rather talk to his therapist (another funny cameo, from “Portlandia” star Carrie Brownstein), and Bob Callahan (Jon Hamm), a Fortune 800 executive who would rather be interviewed by “Wall Street Journal” writer Rebecca Crosby (Annabelle Wallis). Then there’s Jerry Pierce (Jeremy Renner), the only one in the group who, even after 30 years, has never been tagged. A hilarious flashback montage shows the lengths that Jerry goes to in order to keep his perfect record.

But this is the year they get him. Or at least Hoagie thinks it is, so after tracking down Randy, Kevin, and Bob—and even going so far as to get a job at Bob’s company to tag him—Hoagie convinces them that this year Jerry is a vulnerable target since he’s getting married and they know where he’ll be. The other three agree and head off on their mission—but not on their own. Rebecca goes along for the ride to cover this strange and amazing story for the “Wall Street Journal,” and Hoagie’s ultra-competitive wife Anna (Isla Fisher) also joins them. Anna wants to be part of the game, but can’t, because the rules the boys created (when they were nine years old) say no girls allowed.

I love the concept behind “Tag,” which is based on a true story. It’s bold and original, and more importantly, lends itself very well to laughter. The lengths at which the group goes to find Jerry and try to tag him are above and beyond sanity, which is why they are so funny. The lengths to which Jerry goes in order to avoid being tagged are so extreme that I found myself stunned with shock while I howled with laughter.

This is a very, very funny movie. My favorite moments come when one of the other four men thinks they have the drop on Jerry. He goes into a mode of perfect situational awareness, akin to what we see when Robert Downey Jr,’s Sherlock Holmes or Denzel Washington’s McCall in the “Equalizer” movies is about to fight. He can see every move well in advance, think, react, and predict the outcome before his assailants know what hit them. It’s like he’s playing 3D Chess while those attacking him are playing Checkers—and it is incredibly hilarious.

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Not everything is fun and games though. Two other women in the movie, Jerry’s fiancée Susan (Leslie Bibb) and an old flame of both Bob and Chilli named Cheryl (Rashida Jones, sweet as ever) show up to ground the movie—and the men—in reality. It also gives some weight and background history to the dynamics of the group, without which they would just be a bunch of silly, immature guys who carried on a childhood game for far too long. I mean, they are that, sure—but that’s not all there is to them.

I appreciate the character writing in “Tag” by co-screenwriters Rob McKittrick and Mark Steilen. The tired old industry standard is to have the men be overgrown babies and have the women be humorless, wet blanket shrews. That is not the case here. The friendship of the men has a truth and a complexity to it, to which folks around the same age or older, who have had friends for 25-30 years, can relate. Susan and Cheryl are far from wet blankets. They understand why these guys do what they do, smile along with it, and let them have their fun. Rebecca wants an interesting story on a CEO. And Anna would play the game with them if she could. So would I. Buy it.

Also New This Week

Upgrade

While watching the opening credit sequence in “Upgrade,” I sat in amazement and wondered to myself, “Why has this never been done before?” Opening credits are as old as movies themselves, but why--90 years after the advent of sound in movies—have the opening credits to a movie never (at least to my knowledge) been spoken before. Credits are always something that you read on the screen, not something you hear. But not anymore.

“Upgrade” takes place in a futuristic world that we can recognize, but with tweaks. It’s the technology of today taken to its logical conclusion after a couple more decades of development. Right now we can spout off into thin air and ask Alexa, Siri, or these other primitive A.I.s a question about something, like the recipe for chicken soup. With more development, the A.I. will make the soup for us. With even more development, it will wash the dishes too. Then it will run the whole house.

This is the future we are headed toward, and not everyone is a fan. Certainly not Grey Trace (Logan Marshall-Green). He works on vintage cars with good ol’ fashioned internal combustion engines while his wife Asha (Melanie Vallejo) takes a self-driving car—a technology we have today but some bugs need to be worked out before they’re mass marketed—to and from work so he can enjoy his livelihood. He makes his stance abundantly clear when he meets the ultra-wealthy, reclusive tech genius and buyer of one of his fixed-up cars. The man’s name is Eron Keen (Harrison Gilbertson), inventor of an innovative new technology called Stem. While not explicitly stated, the name is most likely derived from the fact that it operates similar to a stem cell, meaning that it can transform and adapt and become anything.

While riding back from Eron’s, Grey and Asha experience the scarier side of what can go wrong with such advanced technology. After they crash, a group of thugs kills Asha and leaves Grey paralyzed from the neck down. The well-meaning police officer assigned to the case, Detective Cortez (Betty Gabriel), does what she can but there is little hope of finding the perpetrators. Feeling as though the only way to get justice is to embrace this new Stem technology, which will allow him to walk again and investigate the crime on his own, Grey agrees to have a Stem chip implanted.

Upgrade2

He gets more than he bargained for when Stem does more than just bridge the gap between his brain and spine. It can also whisper thoughts into his head and fully control his body to the point where out of nowhere, Grey can now fight like a kung fu master.

The fight scenes are particularly sleek and well-done. I like the way the camera follows every flip, twist, and grab without degrading into the ham-fisted shaky cam/overly edited approach. The flow of the movements are smooth, even if Grey is exasperated at what he’s doing, and the action is clear with a good sense of space and character placement.

If there is one nitpick about “Upgrade,” it’s that the plot is perhaps a bit mundane. The twists aren’t really all that surprising. It’s basically a hard-boiled film noir with much more stylized hand to hand combat and some futuristic technology thrown in to give it a shiny new coat. That said, it’s a very imaginative coat, and if a movie is going to have a mundane plot, it should at least have a strong sense of style and brisk pacing. This movie has both. Buy it.

More New Releases: “American Animals,” in which four young men mistake their lives for a movie and attempt one of the most audacious heists in U.S. history, starring Evan Peters, Barry Keoghan, Blake Jenner, Udo Kier, and Ann Dowd; and “A Kid Like Jake,” about the competitive world of New York City Kindergarten admissions, starring Claire Danes, Jim Parsons, Octavia Spencer, Priyanka Chopra, and once again, Ann Dowd.

Andrew Hudak is a lifelong film lover. His column on Blu-Ray new releases appears every Tuesday. He lives in Connecticut.