‘Tag’ Film Review: Entertaining Action Comedy Chases in Too Many Directions

It doesn’t quite balance its Jackie Chan slapstick with its James L. Brooks sentiments, but it’s a fun way to spend recess

It’s been said that “We don’t stop playing because we get old, we get old because we stop playing.” What a great ethos for a film like “Tag” to have, since it gives every character an excuse to act like an immature child, and it gives the rest of the movie an excuse to run around like a chicken with its head cut off, from one genre and tone to another.

TV director Jeff Tomsic’s new comedy stars Ed Helms, Jon Hamm, Hannibal Buress, Jake Johnson and Jeremy Renner as boyhood friends who still play the game of tag, every year, throughout the month of May. They’re not just messing around either. They’ll infiltrate each other’s businesses, jump out of windows and absolutely annihilate each other’s lives just to slap their hands on one another and say, “You’re it.”

Adults are playing a children’s game, and they’re taking it super-duper mega seriously. It’s a funny premise on which to base a movie. Sometimes “Tag” makes the most of it, treating the innocuous pastime like an action-packed extravaganza, replete with elaborate fight choreography, acrobatic stunts, and twists and turns that would make serial killer Jigsaw nod in approval.

The plot revolves around Jerry (Renner), the only player in the game who’s still never been tagged, even after all these decades. He’s getting married at the end of the month, and he plans to retire from the game undefeated. So Hoagie (Helms) unites fellow players Callahan (Hamm), Randy (Johnson) and Sable (Buress) for one last game.

Yes, they’ll stop at nothing to tag Jerry once and for all, because… because, basically Hoagie talks a big game about how the pastime keeps them young, and how it keeps them connected after all these years. But there are no tangible stakes in “Tag,” and that just makes everything they do sillier and sillier.

It doesn’t, unfortunately, always make them funnier. “Tag” may not be a broad comedy on the absurd level of “Anchorman,” but the game sure is. Even though these characters are shown to feel real pain, real heartache, and real love for one another, the movie never fully commits to that reality. Many of the scenes in which they try to tag Jerry are dangerously irresponsible, life-threateningly violent and/or ethically repugnant.

Indeed, the only way to find some of the scenes in “Tag” funny is not to take the characters seriously. But half of the movie is dedicated to treating them extremely seriously. The segue between the “Looney Tunes” moments, the Jackie Chan moments, the “Saw” moments and the James L. Brooks moments are sometimes jarring enough to elicit a guffaw, but the overall effect is awkward and chaotic.

It would seem as though we are supposed to filter “Tag” through the perpetually amazed lens of Rebecca, played by Annabelle Wallis (“The Mummy”). She’s a reporter who interviews Callahan at the beginning of the film, and when he is suddenly, unexpectedly tagged, she decides to follow them around and write a story about their game. And yet the only reason she seems to be there is to provide the players with an excuse to explain the rules, out loud and to the audience, and to occasionally marvel at just how seriously they treat the game of tag.

The film already has a voice-over narration, and the audience should be doing all that marveling on their own, so even though Wallis is obviously an expert at looking baffled, it seems superfluous to include her character at all. It’s not like she’s given anything else to do.

The same cannot be said, however, for Isla Fisher, who plays Hoagie’s wife Anna, and takes the game more seriously than even Jerry does. Unfortunately (sigh), she’s not allowed to play, because the game was invented when the boys were nine years old, so “no girls allowed.” Never mind that the movie clearly demonstrates that amendments are made to the rules all the time, so there’s absolutely no good, non-sexist reason to keep her out all these years, even though she epitomizes everything the movie is going for. Intense, funny, willing to go overboard when it’s funny but able to seem genuine in moments of intimacy, Fisher is completely hilarious.

At its best, “Tag” offers the free-spirited thrill of a childhood game with the adrenaline rush of a modern action movie. Jerry is the type of role that Renner was meant to play, absurdly O.P. and totally cocky about it, performing feats of acrobatic insanity using an old lady’s walker, and using Helms’ butt as a punching bag. The chases, the reversals and the clever use of thought bubble choreography (slowing the action down enough to get a full running V.O. color commentary from each player) are simultaneously exciting and whimsical.

Even at its worst, “Tag” is merely scatterbrained. It’s a well-intentioned comedy with funny performances and a handful of great humorous set pieces. If it feels as though it’s three or four different movies fighting each other for dominance, then at least those movies are all, in their own separate ways, relatively entertaining and amusing.

Let them have their fun.