Directed by Louis Leterrier (Now You See Me) with a surprising amount of bombast – and a reasonably hefty budget, if the locations are anything to go by – Grimsby marks Baron Cohen’s fifth crack at a self-penned, self-fronted feature. It feels a bit of a distant memory after the mixed receptions that greeted Brüno (2009) and The Dictator (2012), so it’s worth remembering that 2006’s Borat was Oscar-nominated (for Best Adapted Screenplay), with its star winning a Golden Globe for his fearless comedic performance. Grimsby isn’t a return to form exactly but it does deliver on the gag front, in more than one sense.
Nevertheless, the plot is so lazy and brazenly daft it could have been strung together in seconds. A proud resident of the titular, down-on-its-luck Lincolnshire town, Nobby has never lost hope that his brother will return, even after a 28-year absence. When he receives an inexplicable tip-off that Sebastian – now a MI6 operative – will be attending a charity event hosted by philanthropist Rhonda George (Penélope Cruz) he blunders into proceedings in a way that ends up with a kid in a wheelchair getting shot and Sebastian going rogue. This simple-minded football fan and his international man of intrigue bro then team up for a globe-trotting adventure, culminating with the pair heading to Chile for the World Cup Final.
Whether they’re hiding out up an elephant’s backside or Nobby is sucking poison from Sebastian’s privates, they’re a likeable double-act, with Strong making a highly effective and hugely game foil. When Sebastian accidently takes heroin, Nobby steps into his brother’s action-man / ladies’-man shoes – that his spy guise is Liam Gallagher doing a bad Sean Connery accent adds to the hilarity. Sadly, the remaining cast are reduced to little more than cameos; although Rebel Wilson gets a few laughs as Nobby’s missus, Baron Cohen’s real-life wife Isla Fisher, a talented comic performer herself, has a more thankless task as a MI6 lackey, while Ian McShane, Johnny Vegas and Ricky Tomlinson provide fleeting support.
The sight of London-born, ex-public schoolboy and Cambridge grad Baron Cohen poking fun at working-class northerners is jarring at first and his depiction of the folk of Grimsby as binge-drinkers, serial reproducers and benefit cheats is certainly shameless. But they’re also shown to be a properly loyal community with a strong sense of family and the film builds to quite a vociferous attack on the very snobbery it initially appears to endorse, as those who are branded ‘scum’ by the elite take the word back, reinventing themselves as heroes.
Although some of this is very nearly rousing, anything that remotely resembles a serious point is quickly, often enjoyably undermined (a stirring speech which begins ‘It’s scum that built the hospitals they’re now closing down,’ ends with ‘It’s scum that keep the Fast & Furious franchise alive.’) Still, the film takes out a range of righteous targets in inimitably silly style, including Donald Trump and FIFA, and it even has a little pop at gun crime: ‘It completely detaches you from the guilt of your actions,’ Nobby marvels as he mows down an army of would-be assassins.
There are some energetic interludes, captured in a first-person shooter-style, and the frenetic editing means the film’s visuals are often as brash as its humour. As an espionage spoof Grimsby is nowhere near as finely tuned as the recent Spy, adopting a more scattergun approach and mainly getting its kicks from how low it can go (it can go very low), but fans of Baron Cohen or broad, bawdy laughs will be in their element. It’s not big or (that) clever but, thankfully, it is funny.
Grimsby is released in UK cinemas on Thursday 25th February
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