Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | April 20th, 2022
The Bad Guys (Pierre Perifel, 2022) 2½ out of 4 stars.
Who doesn’t love a good heist film, especially one where we get to watch longtime collaborators bicker and snipe as they pull a new job? Thanks to director Steven Soderbergh’s 2001 Ocean’s Eleven (a remake of the 1960 original), the genre received a major 21st-century boost, continued through that film’s sequels and the Ocean’s 8 spinoff (with many other examples, as well). Though crimes and misdemeanors may be on the cinematic menu, there’s a vicarious thrill in watching our protagonists commit bad deeds, even amongst those of us who would never, ever contemplate such a thing (I swear!). Plus, we know that deep down, our heroes have a good side (usually).
Enter DreamWorks Animation with The Bad Guys, based on the eponymous illustrated children’s book series by Aaron Blabey. Directed by Pierre Perifel, the film features a gang of five at its center: Wolf (Sam Rockwell, Jojo Rabbit), Snake (Marc Maron, Stardust), Tarantula (Awkwafina, the aforementioned Ocean’s 8), Shark (Craig Robinson, Songbird), and Piranha (Anthony Ramos, In the Heights). Friends as much as co-conspirators, they do the work because they love it, not just to get rich. In a frenzied, fun opening sequence, we learn each of their traits and see what they’re capable of, which is basically anything they decide to do. Law enforcement is no match.
But one day, they take it too far, going after a trophy designated for the ever-good Professor Marmalade (Richard Ayoade, The Souvenir Part II). Things don’t quite go as planned, and though Governor Diane Foxington (Zazie Beetz, Joker) wants to throw the book at them, Marmalade persuades her and the police to give the criminals a second chance. He thinks he can turn the notorious “bad guys” into good guys. And since he himself is such an adorable guinea pig, who can resist the idea? What could go wrong?
A lot, as it turns out. Which is both good … and bad. The colors and images are all bright and engaging, and the set pieces planned for maximum wow factor. And there are some delightful gags courtesy of the film’s acknowledgement that it traffics in well-worn tropes (including a cute bit about going “full Clooney,” as in George, star of the Ocean’s 11 franchise). But there’s also a lot of tiresome dialogue about not judging people at first impression that feels like a very shallow attempt to tackle the serious issue of discrimination, inadvertently trivializing genuine trauma in the process. The few musical numbers are tiresome, as well.
But the laughs within are genuine and the bulk of it is harmless fun. In addition, it’s nice that in a film as potentially saccharine as this the line between sin and redemption is pleasantly blurred (as it most often is in real life). There’s more to like than not, and the breezy pace makes the story mostly fly by. These bad guys have panache, and that’s all for the good.