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Posts Tagged ‘2010’

They say there’s no such thing as a job for life any more (personally, right now I would settle for a guaranteed six months), but that’s not the case for everyone. Once a movie star, always a movie star – which is to say that, once you achieve a certain level of success, you are always going to be guaranteed some kind of gig simply because of how recognisable your name is, as long as you don’t mind lowering your standards and possibly working abroad. Every maker of low-budget genre movies is delighted to be able to slap a proper movie star name on the publicity, often in inappropriately large print.

But why should you, as a successful movie star, contemplate demeaning yourself in this way? Well, most likely because you can’t get a decent gig any more, either because no-one is going to see your films or you have done something so unspeakable even Hollywood film producers won’t be seen in your company. Yes, we are here to talk about Mel Gibson, who managed to almost destroy one of the most successful careers in Hollywood with various bouts of alcohol-fuelled bigotry. Even through Gibson’s wilderness years, however, he was still managing to land the odd part, with the longest pause between lead roles coming between Signs, in 2002, and Edge of Darkness in 2010. This latter film appears to have been a slightly marginal release – the end of January is not a prime juncture to be releasing a thriller with an $80 million budget – and possibly Gibson agreed to do it for a reduced fee, or perhaps because he was a big fan of the original material.

The movie is directed (not entirely surprisingly) by Martin Campbell. Gibson plays Tom Craven, a veteran Boston detective who has a slightly awkward relationship with with his daughter Emma (Bojana Novakovic). Nevertheless, Craven is delighted when she comes round for dinner, even though there is clearly something on her mind. Maybe even more than that, for she is suddenly taken violently ill, and on the way to the car they are jumped by a masked gunman. Emma is shot and instantly killed and the killer makes his escape.

Everyone’s assumption is that this is someone from Craven’s past with a score to settle, but he is not so sure. His investigations lead him to Emma’s employers at Northmoor, a private company linked to the defence establishment, and also reveal that she was part of a group of activists working to limit environmental damage and nuclear proliferation. His discoveries eventually attract the attention of Darius Jedburgh (Ray Winstone), an enigmatic British security consultant employed by Northmoor and its allies in the government to keep situations like this from attracting publicity: Northmoor is illegally producing nuclear weapons for deniable use, and when they attempted to reveal this, Emma and three of her friends were murdered. Can Craven bring the truth to light or will the conspiracy silence him as well?

Yes, well, the key thing to bear in mind about Edge of Darkness is that it is based – loosely! – on a British TV serial (mini-series, I suppose) from 1985, which Campbell also directed. To call the TV series critically acclaimed is an understatement – for many serious critics as well as viewers, it remains a landmark piece of TV drama, emblematic of a time when British television drama was not afraid to be bold, ambitious, and include a touch of fantasy. Although ostensibly about a conspiracy within the nuclear industry, the series touches on a vast range of themes and ideas, incorporating the Gaia hypothesis of James Lovelock, the implication of a generational feud between rival secret societies, Anglo-American politics in the 1980s, and some genuinely fantastical elements (the original script ended with Craven mystically transforming into a tree, symbolising the coming restoration of the balance of nature by the elimination of the human race). It is a mind-boggling, frequently breath-taking achievement.

This is not true of the movie version of Edge of Darkness, which is, not to put too fine a point on it, just another bog-standard Mel Gibson revenge thriller, about a man on a mission to get justice for his daughter’s death. Forget the place of humanity within the ecology of the planet, the closest this comes to a substantive subplot is Craven’s increasing realisation that he didn’t know his daughter as well as he thought he did.

It does make you wonder what Martin Campbell really thought the core of Edge of Darkness was, for once past the initial set-up and Emma’s murder the two pieces diverge in almost every imaginable way – the characters of Craven, Emma, and Jedburgh are just about recognisable (the fact that Robert De Niro walked off the movie led to Winstone being cast, which at least inverts the nationalities of the characters from the TV version), but the character of Bennett is promoted to being chief villain, and Danny Huston plays him almost as a panto bad guy. This is another of those movies which sets up the stock figure of the private security contractor as a hissable villain – which I suppose is as good a way as any of allowing American audiences to process any ambiguity they may feel towards their country’s foreign policy adventures over the last two decades without the film criticising, even implicitly, members of the country’s armed forces.

It’s not just that the movie takes a genuinely thought-provoking and multi-faceted drama and reduces it to something not unlike Death Wish, it’s that even on its own terms Edge of Darkness is just not a very good movie. It is oddly paced, slow at the start (many scenes of Gibson wandering mournfully around empty rooms on his own) and rushed at the end. The requirements of the plot result in many very odd and often inexplicable contortions: there’s a repeated motif where someone poisons someone else, usually with irradiated milk, but as it takes a long time for someone to die from radiation poisoning the film chivvies things along by having them subsequently shot anyway.

If I say that Gibson is competent, then it may largely be because the film has obviously been tailored to suit his persona: he looks intense and beats people up a lot. Ray Winstone actually makes a fairly positive impression as Jedburgh, though this is an almost completely different character from the TV version: rather than a rogue CIA agent pursuing his own rather cryptic agenda, here Jedburgh is yet another security consultant, albeit one who has improbably grown a conscience. Hardly anyone else in the film makes much of an impression, but then the film as a whole hardly lingers in the memory much. The best I can say for it is that it made me want to watch the British version of the story. I fear it may have the opposite effect on anyone not familiar with the TV show, which is possibly the most heinous sin it commits. A bad movie, regardless.

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There was a point about fifteen or twenty years ago where you couldn’t move for big-screen adaptations of popular TV series from twenty or thirty years earlier. I don’t just mean the Star Trek movies, although these are particularly notable for their role in getting the show back on the telly for a very substantial run – there were also the Charlie’s Angels movies, Mission: Impossible (nowadays pretty much existing solely as a Tom Cruise vehicle), Scooby-Doo, Lost in Space, Starsky and Hutch, Miami Vice… even really obscure things like The Mod Squad and SWAT were dusted off and sent to the cinema. It almost got to the point where you were surprised when an old TV show wasn’t turned into a movie: apparently The Six Million Dollar Man got tied up in rights issues, thus possibly sparing us from a comedy version starring Jim Carrey, while the big-screen take on Knight Rider hit a snag when mooted star Orlando Bloom declared his role as David Hasselhoff’s son to be insufficiently demanding for an actor of his abilities (now that’s a criticism).

It’s fairly self-evident that some of these movies took a distinctly tongue-in-cheek approach to the TV shows that spawned them, which I must confess that I wasn’t always a particular fan of, although this probably depended on how much I enjoyed the original programme. Of course, there are worse things than being irreverent, as I discovered in 2010 when Joe Carnahan’s big-screen version of The A-Team finally arrived (I say ‘finally’ as the movie had been in development for fifteen years, arriving notably after the peak of the small-to-big-screen-transfer craze).

The film opens in Mexico, presumably in the early 2000s, where hard-bitten US Army Ranger Colonel John ‘Hannibal’ Smith (Liam Neeson) is intent on bringing a corrupt local general to justice. In order to do so he must first rescue his sidekick, a smooth-talking lothario nicknamed Face (Bradley Cooper). But Hannibal doesn’t have a ride! His only option is to carjack the first person who happens along. This turns out to be bad-tempered mechanic B.A. Baracus (Quinton Jackson), who is driving along in his beloved red and black van minding his own business. Hannibal shoots B.A., just a little bit, to prove he is serious about the carjacking, but then notices B.A. has a Ranger tattoo just like his. What are the chances? Such is the bond of comradeship between US Rangers that B.A. completely overlooks Hannibal shooting him and off they go to rescue Face together. (No, really. And this is just the first ten minutes.)

Having saved Face from being barbecued alive, the next priority is to get out of the country, which they do by borrowing a helicopter from an army hospital. But who is to fly it? Well, it turns out that one of the patients has an outstanding record as a combat pilot, the problem is he’s just completely insane. Yes, it is Howling Mad Murdock (Sharlto Copley), and he whisks them all off to safety.

Your heart sinks a bit as this opening section concludes, because you realise it has nothing – nothing! – to do with the rest of the plot, and is just there to show how the four members of the A-Team first met (the movie doesn’t bother including any of the non-core characters from the TV show). Why have they bothered to do this? It is puzzling – the premise of the story is that the characters all have a background in the military; it’s not like you have to contrive a way to get them all together.

Well, anyway, we then jump forward to the present day where the A-Team are hanging out in Iraq having done their bit to bring long-term peace and stability to the Middle East (‘You guys are the best!’ Hannibal tells some local soldiers he’s been training). But then word reaches them of some forged plates for making counterfeit American money which are due to be smuggled out of Baghdad very soon. A convoluted jurisdictional tussle breaks out between US army intelligence, the CIA, and private security firms over who is going to capture the plates, involving slippery CIA dude Lynch (Patrick Wilson) and Face’s old girlfriend (Jessica Biel), who’s in military intelligence. Needless to say the A-Team are given the nod to go ahead with the op.

However, they have been set up, it all goes bad, the plates disappear and their authorisation for the mission disappears in a ball of flame. As a result they are all court-martialled and sent to four different glasshouses to serve their sentences (Murdock is even sent to Europe, though this also serves the plot). But Lynch approaches Hannibal with a proposition: if he can retrieve the plates and find the man who stole them, Lynch can bust him out of jail and see to it he and the team get a full pardon…

Now, I was discussing the state of modern TV with a friend the other day and really lamenting the fact that hardly anybody does episodic television any more: nearly every programme is essentially serialised to some degree or other, making it a lot harder to dip in and out of them. I do think there is a certain craft and skill involved in making this kind of entertainment, certainly for the long haul, and that this kind of show had its own particular charm.

On the other hand, I am currently between jobs which means I can, if I so choose, watch three episodes of The A-Team on re-run, most days, and in this situation you do very quickly realise that the bare bones of the series’ format were seldom very deeply covered. The plot of an episode of The A-Team nearly always goes something like this:  a small mom & pop outfit somewhere nondescript is being bullied by small-time hoods. One of the victims makes tentative contact with the team and manages to hire them. The next time the hoods show up, they are properly slapped about by Hannibal and the others. There is a plot twist where it turns out the hoods have a bigger plan which bullying mom & pop is only a small part of, followed by a reversal which sees the bad guys locking the A-Team in a garage with a lot of welding gear and washing-machine parts. The A-Team build an armoured car or helicopter gunship out of the washing-machine parts and blast their way to freedom for the climax. They proceed to fire 37,000 rounds of .223 ammunition at the bad guys, destroying all inanimate objects in a half-mile radius but leaving their human opponents miraculously unscathed. The bad guys go to jail and the A-Team are paid their (presumably hefty) fee: there are smiles all round.

(Mixed in with this are the scenes where the individual team members get to do their schticks – Hannibal puts on a ridiculous disguise, Face either scams someone or romances the only female character, B.A. snarls a lot and says something motivational to a child, and Murdock – well, Murdock’s schtick is that he gets a different schtick every week, so it depends.)

There are coats of varnish with greater depth to them than the typical A-Team script, but while this is undeniably schlock TV aimed at the very young and the very undemanding, it remains oddly likeable and perhaps even watchable (up to a point at least). The movie’s problem is that it doesn’t want to be schlock, but hasn’t figured out a way to not be schlock while still remaining recognisable as The A-Team. The problem isn’t just that the film opens with a sequence providing unnecessary back-story for the team: the whole movie is unnecessary back-story for the team, as it concludes with them just about to commence their careers as good-hearted soldiers-of-fortune operating on US soil, at which point all the familiar A-Team plot beats will presumably start to occur and it will genuinely begin to resemble the TV show. (I mean, the movie is two hours long and the most prominent use of the theme music is diegetic. Also, they write off the A-Team van in the opening sequence. I mean, really…)

But as it is, it’s like the A-Team have accidentally wandered into a particularly downbeat Mission: Impossible movie, or possibly a Bourne, where they keep going off to Germany and getting double-crossed. You don’t expect to have to work quite so hard to follow the plot of The A-Team, to be honest, but there’s a lot of slightly baffling exposition going on here (‘I found it a little confusing and I was in it,’ Liam Neeson later commented). Plus there’s a subplot where Face doubts his own ability to put a plan together, and another one where B.A. becomes a pacifist… the writers don’t seem to have realised that to give these characters extra depth is to lose what makes them recognisable and distinctive. You do wonder about the extent to which the success of the TV show was just down to the charisma of the main four leads, the simple pleasure of watching stuff blow up, and how reassuringly predictable it all was to watch.

If the movie never quite feels like the A-Team TV show, an equally big problem is that it never really feels like a very good movie, either. Quite apart from the problems with the plot, the action sequences are not particularly spectacular or exciting, and the use of CGI is also quite obvious. The performances, I should say, are not bad, given the material the actors have to work with, but they are fighting a losing battle from the beginning of the film to the end.

George Peppard was long gone by the time the movie came out, and Mr T refused to take part, but the other two original cast members (Dirk Benedict and Dwight Schultz) do turn up for cameos – however, these don’t appear until the very end of the closing credits. Supposedly this was for timing reasons, but there is something very odd about this sequence – it feels grudging and uneasy, almost like a contractual obligation. The movie seems to have little interest in or affection for the original TV show, so why else would the film-makers have invited the cast back? This film was underwhelming at the time, joyless and dour where the TV series was silly but diverting. It would probably be quite difficult to make a big-screen A-Team that was both faithful to the show but also good, but the movie shows that doing one which is at least as bad as the TV series while barely resembling it and having little of its entertainment value was entirely possible.

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For anyone reading from elsewhere, the current UK film certification gradient goes something like this: we begin with the U rating, indicating a film is universally suitable, then progress upwards to the headier heights of the PG (Parental Guidance indicated), then the 12, 15, and 18 age-related certifications. Beyond here lies only the rare and dubious R18, normally found only in films with restricted audiences displayed in private gentlemen’s establishments. I don’t keep track of how my own viewing scores, but I suspect it averages out somewhere between 12 and 15 – I probably watch more 18-rated films than Us, but then again it’s quite rare to find a proper U film these days which isn’t specifically aimed at young children.

However, I had a flutter of excitement the other day as I found myself watching a film which was not on the main ratings scheme at all, and had managed to snag the unusual E certificate, indicating a film which is primarily educational in nature. Quite where the line falls between an informative documentary and an actual education film, I don’t know, but Michael Madsen’s Into Eternity shows enough style and artiness for me to suspect that a fast one of some kind has been pulled.

(This is not the Michael Madsen of Reservoir Dogs infamy, by the way: this Michael Madsen is a Danish film-maker who appears to have the curious parallel interests of nuclear radiation and theoretical semantics.)

Into-Eternity-poster

Into Eternity is a concise examination of the Onkalo storage facility in Finland, a still-under-construction repository for dangerously radioactive waste from the country’s nuclear industry. The film goes through the logic behind Onkalo’s construction very straightforwardly – nuclear waste can be lethal, and needs to be carefully managed; the current system where it is ‘actively’ maintained in cooled water tanks is not a viable long-term solution; and so it is necessary to create a place (as stable a place as possible) where it can be safely deposited in years to come.

And the years to come will be fairly numerous. Nuclear waste has a half-life of about 100,000 years, and so Onkalo will have to survive intact for that long. To put this into perspective, the oldest pyramids of Egypt are about 4,500 years old, while the oldest cave paintings thus found in Europe date back only about 32,000 years. The time scales involved are difficult to comprehend – at one point someone working on the project casually mentions that most scientists agree that we’re due the start of another Ice Age before Onkalo’s lethal cargo becomes safe.

The film doesn’t focus that much on the engineering or architectural challenges of the project, instead choosing to concentrate on the consequences of the immense span of time involved. Madsen chooses to make the film with the conceit that it is actually a message from our own epoch to that of the very distant future – ‘I am speaking to you from a place where you should never come’ is practically the first line of the film, and he briefly speculates as to the nature of the civilisation he is addressing.

The key question arising from this is exactly how to warn the people of the future of the dangers lying in the Onkalo vaults? Given that languages and cultures are likely to change beyond all recognition in the space of a hundred millennia, how can we expect to leave a sufficiently urgent ‘KEEP CLEAR’ message? Another school of thought suggests that the site of the repository be left unmarked in the hope that it is forgotten entirely – the suggestion being that any kind of surface monument could potentially be misinterpreted that something of value, such as a tomb, lies here.

It’s a fascinating, if necessarily unresolved question. Finnish law has apparently addressed the issue of the safety of future generations, but even they seem to recoil from thinking more than a few decades in advance. Then again, implicit throughout the film is the suggestion that our civilisation is spectacularly bad at long-term planning as a whole.

Into Eternity pointedly avoids coming across as an anti-nuclear power movie – as one contributor observes, whether you’re pro- or anti-, you have to agree that it’s our responsibility to deal with the waste. The fact remains, though it’s not stated as such in the film, that the relics of our civilisation most likely to still be around in 100,000 years are (as things currently stand) a few landers on the Moon and Mars, and our accumulated, highly toxic nuclear waste. What will our remote descendants make of us, based on this legacy?

Again, it’s something implicit in the film, but still an inescapable question. Madsen assembles his film with sufficient skill and delicacy to pose it without seeming to be hectoring or even particularly political. As a piece of film-making, it’s impressive, as is the willingness of the project to address such unusual philosophical issues. Our civilisation frequently shows signs of a tendency to forget the lessons of the past; but we show very little sign at all of thinking about the future in any but the most immediate sense. Into Eternity at least attempts to redress this a tiny bit.

 

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Well, the continuation of global civilisation and weather permitting, I’m trundling off to watch Kick-Ass 2 at some point in the next few days and this seems as logical a time as any to share my thoughts about the original 2010 film, directed by Matthew Vaughn. I have been promising a review for a couple of years now, but as it took me quite a long time to catch up with the actual movie this delay is not entirely inappropriate.

kass

I believe I saw the first trailer for the film, which ran before Avatar in 2009, and thought something like ‘That looks a bit different,’ but when it actually came out I was in Sri Lanka and quite probably several thousand miles from a decent English-language cinema. I do recall turning up a copy of the Daily Mail on the flight home in which the resident critic complained about being ‘cyber-bullied’ after describing it as ‘a crime against cinema’ and morally inexcusable.

Normally I would give a very favourable hearing to anything with the ability to get the Daily Mail so upset, but by the time I was back in the UK the film’s theatrical run was coming to an end and I basically had a tough call to make: see Kick-Ass, or Iron Man 2. Now in retrospect, one of these films is much more interesting (and arguably more accomplished) than the other, but I was still smarting after not seeing the original Iron Man in English (I was in Italy when it came out – a pattern develops) and made a bad call.

Eventually I got it on DVD, and when I sat down and watched it I found it to be… well, it’s a very well-made film, but also a rather strange and not entirely unproblematic one. Permit me to explain.

Aaron Taylor-Johnson (as I believe we are now obliged to refer to him) plays Dave Lizewski, a nondescript New York teenager who – for no particular reason other than a vague sense of moral outrage – decides to become the masked vigilante Kick-Ass. The fact that his initial efforts usually result in his being severely beaten or almost killed do not dissuade him.

However, Kick-Ass has timed his venture into superherodom poorly, for long-suffering crime boss Frank D’Amico (hardest working man in showbiz Mark Strong) is finding his operation under attack from a masked man who is keeping a much lower profile. Frank, not unreasonably, jumps to the conclusion that Kick-Ass is actually his persecutor, and with the aid of his son Chris (Christopher Mintz-Plasse) sets about laying his hands on him…

Well, here’s the big question about Kick-Ass, if you ask me: just exactly what kind of film is it supposed to be? Is it a straightforward  superhero adventure? Is it a parody of the genre, or a very dark comedy-drama? It’s really difficult to be certain because at different points it seems to be trying to be all these different things.

The thing is, that if you just look at the main storyline about Kick-Ass himself, it’s almost purely an exercise in adolescent male wish-fulfilment, presented unironically: by putting on his costume Dave eventually becomes famous and popular and lands himself a hot girlfriend (Lyndsy Fonseca). All right, he does describe himself as ‘a useless dick in a costume’ at one point (which strikes me as being pretty much on the money) and he does spend most of the film almost getting killed, but in the end he is victorious and gets pretty much everything he wants. A lot of the initial reviews of Kick-Ass focussed on the violence and profanity of the film, both of which are far beyond what you’d see in – for example – a Marvel Studios film, but if you look past that this is fundamentally one of the most conventional superhero films to be released in recent years. If anything it’s a pastiche rather than a parody, and the scenes with Dave himself aren’t really funny enough for it work as a comedy.

On the other hand, the scenes with Nicolas Cage and Chloe Grace Moretz as other crimefighters Big Daddy and Hit-Girl genuinely are darkly funny, mainly due to the dissonance between their clear devotion to one another as father and daughter, and their equal obsession with guns and violence. Cage’s performance is way out there, but it still just about works, while Moretz is also very good. I think it’s fair to say that Hit-Girl is the character from this movie who everyone remembers, and that’s not simply because she’s an eleven-year-old gun-toting masked vigilante.

Of course, I suppose we need to at least address the question of all the various scenes in which Hit-Girl swears like a trooper and gorily disposes of dozens of bad guys. It’s certainly not the case that she’s intentionally being presented as a sexualised character, which is one of the Daily Mail‘s main problems with the film, but on the other hand you’ve got a pre-teenaged girl being presented as, basically, a killing machine, and the film’s attitude seems to be ‘Hey, isn’t this cool?’ For the most part the film is so dynamic, and the action well-enough choreographed, for this not to be a problem, but I did find the climactic scenes in which Moretz and Strong violently take each other on a little troubling to watch.

I suppose if I had to sum up my issues with Kick-Ass, it would be that whole ‘Hey, isn’t this cool?’ thing. There is the odd, sometimes slightly sentimental moment of genuine idealism, emotion or poignancy, but the rest of the time it’s much more about what’s cool, or transgressively funny: I suppose I would say it’s a bit too cynical for my tastes. That said, Vaughn directs with his usual flair and energy and the script hangs together quite well. As I said, this is an impressively assembled piece of work, I’m just a bit dubious about the sentiment behind it.

Haven’t seen Kick-Ass 2 yet, as I say, but what the hell, I’ll make some predictions: it’ll be much, much more about Hit-Girl (and it’ll be interesting to see how they address the fact that Moretz has, um, matured a bit in the last three years), the transgressive stuff will be more OTT, and it’ll be trying even harder to have its cake and eat it by claiming to be some sort of ironic commentary on superhero stories while actually being a very down-the-line example of one. We shall see.

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Good God, did I really ask my rental company to send me The Expendables? I fear it must be so. Quite possibly a textbook example of ‘it seemed like a good idea at the time’ (at least, I assume it did: I have no memory of actually requesting this film). I saw this at the cinema back in 2010 and was not particularly impressed, but it’s got two of my favourite performers in it – so I can only presume I decided to give it a second chance for their sake.

expendables

Sylvester Stallone’s movie concerns itself with the doings of a biker gang/mercenary team. On said team are Stallone himself as the grizzled leader, Mr Jason Statham as an ex-SAS knife thrower (no-one seems to have told J about the ex-SAS bit as he deploys his standard it’s-supposed-to-be-American accent regardless), Jet Li as (surprise, surprise) a martial arts expert, Dolph Lundgren as a giant crazy dude, and a couple of wrestlers I’d never heard of.

After cheerfully executing some Somali pirates at the top of the film, the Expendables head home to wait for their next mission. This comes courtesy of Bruce Willis, playing a shadowy intelligence operator, but to get the job Stallone has to fend off rival mercenary Mauser (Arnold Schwarzenegger). You would think that any scene with these three acting together would be memorable simply because it’s so iconic: but you would be wrong, mainly because they don’t seem to be acting together, just vaguely in the same vicinity. There is no chemistry between them, most of the jokes fall painfully flat, and you’re actually quite relieved when Arnie and Willis quickly bugger off.

In the end Stallone accepts the job of knocking over the president of a banana republic in Central America – he has teamed up with a renegade CIA agent to sell drugs, or something. Stallone and Statham pop over there to do a spot of reconnaissance, disguised as the world’s least plausible birdwatchers, not realising that their embittered former colleague Lundgren has got in touch with the opposition and is negotiating to sell them out…

Now, as action movies go, it’s pretty much inarguable that The Expendables has an all-star cast, even if some of those stars haven’t got quite the degree of fame they had a couple of decades ago. However, it seems pretty clear that a pre-existing action movie script has been savagely cobbled about to find roles for them all, because with the exceptions of Stallone and Statham hardly anyone gets the amount of screen time or action that you might expect. Okay, Arnie and Willis are just in one very short scene, and appear uncredited, but Jet Li’s hardly in the film either, and most of the wrestlers don’t get much to do outside of the third act.

One of the advantages that Expendables 2 had over the original was that the writers seemed much more aware of who was actually on the cast list and were able to tailor the script to suit them. Things seem much more hit and miss here, and the story barely seems to acknowledge the nature of the cast – for this film really to work as ‘action legends together at last’ you might expect the various lead cast members to reprise the various schticks they are best known for – in the course of the story, Li would fight twelve people at once, Statham would fight a giant in a garage, and so on. But there’s nothing really like this going on – the one point where the film shows signs of being what you’re hoping for is when Jet Li and Dolph Lundgren take each other on, and even this is so incoherently edited it loses most of its excitement.

And so we are left with a very ordinary, very unreconstructed, entirely subtext-free action movie full of big muscly men who can’t act (also Li and Statham, of course) running around shooting machine guns and slaughtering stuntmen by the dozen. It’s all so earnest and straightforward (not to mention hackneyed) that one almost wonders if it’s in fact a deadpan spoof of the genre. It can’t be a spoof; a spoof would have more charm and probably be a lot more fun.

This is the weird thing about The Expendables: for a film about red-blooded guys doing manly things (riding motorbikes, drinking beer, getting tattooed, shooting guns, hitting each other, deposing Central American dictators) the tone of the thing is actually rather mournful. Mickey Rourke pops up and delivers a monologue about failing to prevent a suicide, at the end of which he actually starts crying. Statham gets his own subplot in which it turns out his girl has been straying with one of the local basketball players – this at least means Statham gets an individual fight where he beats up the team and delivers the line ‘Next time I’ll deflate all your balls!’, but it doesn’t look like he and his young lady are likely to get back together any time soon.

In short, this film is not jolly or cheesy; it is – quite inappropriately – dark and brooding. (I never knew how to waterboard someone until I first watched The Expendables, because it happens to the leading lady at some length.) Possibly Stallone the director was aware of what a piece of ridiculous fluff this could have turned out to be, and the gloominess of the film is his way of ensuring that people will still take The Expendables seriously as a drama.

Except there’s no way that was ever going to happen, with a cast-list stuffed with ex-wrestlers, knowing in-jokey cameos from famous faces, and a ludicrous plot development at the end: a character who went bad and was apparently mortally wounded after trying to kill his former friends shows up, forgiven, back on the team and with only a dab of sticking plaster to show he was ever hurt in the first place.

It’s almost as if the creators of The Expendables intentionally set out to produce a film which avoided making the best use of its considerable assets. Instead of a knowingly cheesy action romp – a sort of testosterone-drizzled equivalent of Mamma Mia – stuffed with big names, what this film actually appears to want to be is a thoughtful drama about the existential crisis affecting modern masculinity. With explosions. Let’s be clear: neither The Expendables nor Expendables 2 is anything approaching a good movie (and heaven knows what Expendables 3 is going to turn out like), but at least the sequel is silly and fun. This one is just silly.

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One of the advantages of my DVD rental package is the ability to sign up to have the life’s work of any of the great film-makers of history sent to my garret one film at a time. All of Kurosawa! The complete Michael Powell! The greatest names of cinema!

Naturally I plumped for Jason Statham’s entire back catalogue. I am a unashamedly big fan of the Stath and have been so ever since seeing The Transporter nearly a decade ago. In the intervening period Mr Statham has appeared in an impressive number of movies, including quite a few I completely missed on their cinematic release, mainly due to my (ahem) international globetrotting lifestyle in the late 90s.

Amongst these is Gela Babluani’s 13, a – hmm – crime drama originally released in 2010. On paper this movie is an eyepopping prospect, with a remarkable cast, and the kudos attendant upon being a remake of an acclaimed French-language thriller. If you are getting the impression that there is an almighty ‘But’ rumbling in our direction, I commend you on your perspicacity.

Sam Riley plays Vince Ferro, a young blue-collar worker in desperate need of funds to help pay family medical bills (there’s something about the opening sequence suggesting this is going to be an implicit critique of the US healthcare system, but it doesn’t really go anywhere with this). When his employer dies, Vince remembers overhearing the man speaking of an opportunity to make a vast amount of money in a matter of days, doing something unspecified but risky.

Vince opts to take the dead man’s place, and after a circuitous journey discovers just what he has let himself in for – he has signed up to be a player in a highly illegal and incredibly dangerous game, basically a competitive version of Russian roulette, watched and betted upon by numerous wealthy gamblers. Also competing is a Texan convict (Mickey Rourke), overseen by a handler (Curtis ’31p at the current exchange rate’ Jackson) and a mentally ill British man (Ray Winstone), managed by his brother (The Stath) – this plotline is bizarrely reminiscent of Rain Man in a twisted sort of way.

Ferro is horrified to discover just what he’s got himself into, but the gamblers funding his appearance refuse to let him back out, promising they will honour their arrangement and make him rich if he wins. But even if he survives, the police are on his trail and there are vengeful other participants and their sponsors to consider – can he possibly make it out alive…?

I’m going to cut to the chase with uncharacteristic speed on this one – 13 is really, really not a very good movie. It just comes across as weird and repellent in a way it’s quite hard to define. I’m not sure whether this is a result of conscious artistic decisions which are fundamentally misconceived, or simple ineptness on the part of the director.

To begin with, with a cast like this one you would expect either a tough drama or possibly a serious action movie – or maybe something with elements of both. This is really neither; none of the characters are particularly engaging, even Ferro – and it’s mystifying why this should be given the strong motivation he possesses and Riley’s skill as an actor.

The main problem is that the game at the centre of the story is just not that cinematic to watch, being repetitive and at the same time quite random. The randomness is crucial – at no point can you thrill to the cleverness or skill of the protagonist as he survives from round to round. And, in terms of the plot, why would serious gamblers (as opposed to, say, vicious psychos with an interest in snuff entertainment) bet on an event with an almost totally random outcome? At one point someone announces that experience is a key factor in the closing stages of the event – given that all that’s required is to pull a trigger as fast as possible, this seems to me to be overstating the case a bit.

Possibly the randomness of the game is indeed central to the story of the film, and Babluani is making a point about the cruel caprices of fate and the randomness of existence. If so, he’s not doing it very well or with any clarity, and in the process he’s squandering the talents of a lot of great actors: Michael Shannon, for example, spends virtually the entire film up a stepladder shouting at people in a way that feels vaguely silly. Ray Winstone and Mickey Rourke really don’t get the material they deserve (and Rourke is more dependent than most actors on the quality of the script he’s working with), to say nothing of Jason Statham. There’s no real action in this movie and his character manages to be both unsympathetic and thinly-drawn. Virtually the entire extent of his characterisation is the hat he wears throughout the movie.

I am actually slightly curious to track down the original, much-lauded version of this film and see how it can be any better than this load of old tosh. 13 is strange and inaccessible, with no engaging characters and a plot that feels laboured and disjointed. A real disappointment considering how good Mr Statham’s quality control usually is.

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I always thought that, should I ever get my own film-reviewing web presence, there would be a number of film genres which would be major presences within it: classic SF movies, golden age Hammer horror, comic book adaptations of all vintages, and Japanese movies – probably evenly split between Kurosawa-esque costume dramas and Honda-ish suitamation monster movies. Now, looking back across the 380+ film reviews which I have, to date, inflicted on the unsuspecting internet, I note that the first three are present and correct in the kinds of numbers I would have predicted. And yet Japanese movies of any sort are notably thin on the ground. I seem to recall that a look at 13 Assassins is knocking around somewhere, along with a tiny handful of Godzilla and Gamera reviews. I wonder why this should be. Just one of those things, I suppose, but I would just add that even while I was living in Japan, I only watched one Japanese movie (2007’s big screen version of Monkey). Hmmm.

Oh well – I thought I would make a very tiny attempt to rectify this by reviewing Tetsuya Nakashima’s 2010 movie Confessions (J-title Kokohaku). I didn’t catch this movie at the time it came out, probably because it didn’t get a very big release over here. This is not just because Confessions is a subtitled foreign film, but also – I suspect – because of some extremely challenging subject matter and the simple style of the thing. Never mind cinema from another culture, Confessions gives every impression of being a glittering, intimidating, recently-materialised emissary from some utterly alien domain. This is not an easy film to watch, but I found it utterly mesmerising.

The film centres on the students, teachers, and parents of one particular Japanese high school class. (The students seemed to me to be quite remarkably badly behaved for Japanese teenagers, but possibly I am underestimating the magnificence of my own classroom management technique.) One day starts very normally, until the class’ form teacher, Miss Moriguchi (Takako Matsu), announces she is to leave the profession at the end of the month. But she has another announcement to make. As the class is aware, Miss Moriguchi was until recently the mother of a four-year-old daughter, until the accidental death of the child on the school premises. She reveals, quite calmly, that her daughter’s death was not in fact an accident: two of the pupils in her class were directly responsible. Murderers, in fact. She knows who they are, but refers to them only as Student A and Student B. In her opinion, the legal system will not punish the culprits appropriately, and so she has taken what she feels to be appropriate steps herself – contaminating their class milk with HIV-infected blood.

And all this basically happens in the opening scene of the movie and doesn’t really qualify as a plot spoiler. What follows fills in the background to the murder, the personalities of the killers, and illustrates the consequences of Moriguchi’s actions. None of which, it must be said, is remotely pleasant or reassuring – there is considerable emotional violence and personal unpleasantness, not to mention a number of other deaths. There’s a case to be made that Confessions is a horror movie, and a relentlessly grim one, but the whole film has an emotional distance and measured detachment one would never normally associate with that kind of film.

The movie is based on a novel by Kanae Minato, and this can perhaps be discerned from its complex and rather formal structure – each segment taking the form of a ‘confession’ made by a major character, delivered via a first-person narration or soliloquy. That this film is to be something a bit out of the ordinary is immediately apparent, as Moriguchi – an amazing performance from Takako Matsu – remains completely calm and matter-of-fact while telling an absolutely appalling story, all the time ignoring the misbehaviour of her young charges. In a way this sets the tone for what is to follow, as the film never breaks a sweat, never loses its composure in the slightest.

It looks for a while as though this is to be an examination of the deeply emotive and morally troubling subject of children murdering children – why do such things happen, and what constitutes an appropriate punishment for them – in short, what constitutes guilt, and what constitutes justice? There’s a sense in which the film does follow up on this, but the scope does broaden as the story progresses. The premise is, as I hope I’ve made clear, arresting, but one of the things that makes the film so compelling is that it’s completely bereft of the usual narrative signals as to how events are going to play out. Is there going to be redemption, or romance, or all-encompassing tragedy, or possibly even something much more horrible? I had literally no idea what was coming next at any moment in the film, but I was always certain it was going to be interesting and striking to look at.

The first thing you notice about Confessions is that the subject matter is pretty much unremittingly tough, but the second is that this is a really beautifully designed and composed movie, with a keen intelligence and an artist’s eye going into the composition and cinematography of practically every shot. The film is enormously stylish, and even to some extent stylised – if you took all the sequences using slo-mo and ran them at normal speed, the film would probably be about ten minutes shorter – and the visual style matches the narrative not just in its rigorous formality but also its complete refusal to offer an opinion on the story or the characters. You are never invited to empathise with anyone in the story – possibly the most likeable character is a relatively minor one played by Ai Hashimoto – and it never offers an opinion or a judgement on anything that is happening. This is not the revenge thriller it sounds like: events play out coldly and forensically, each new plot development a razor-slash at any idea of common human decency.

Now, the esteemed Dr K has said that he found this film emotionally impenetrable as a result of the stylised detachment which is a fundamental element of it, and I can see where he’s coming from, but for me the contrast between the emotive and troubling nature of the story and the film’s refusal to engage with it is the source of its power, which is considerable. It’s not a naturalistic drama, and the events of the story are neither plausible nor especially coherent. (The climax in particular seemed to me to be pushing the boat out a little too far.) But as an examination of human weakness and a virtuoso display of film-making skill, Confessions is an extraordinary piece of work – absolutely not a warm film, absolutely not an easy film to watch, but a darkly compelling one from beginning to end.

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Neil Marshall’s must-have list prior to making Centurion:

  • 1 copy of the Annals of Tacitus (for research purposes)
  • 1 DVD of Lord of the Rings (ditto)
  • 1 DVD of The Warriors (ditto again)
  • four dozen assorted javelins, swords, axes, spears, and other sharp implements
  • various assorted trained horses and wolves
  • twenty Roman legionary costumes
  • six jars face paint (blue)
  • two dozen severed heads, hands, legs, etc (rubber)
  • 500 gallons of blood (fake)
  • Olga Kurylenko’s phone number

Hmmm. By 2010 the scorecard for Neil Marshall’s directorial career stood as follows – Dog Soldiers: small-cast, small-budget horror – modest popular and critical success. The Descent: small-cast, not-quite-so-small-budget horror – significant popular and critical success. Doomsday: big-cast, big-budget SF horror – bit of a cock-up. So it’s fair to say Centurion was a movie with a lot riding on it in terms of the director’s reputation and future prospects. It may therefore be telling that Marshall chose to make a film which didn’t go mad splicing different genres together, was stuffed with the cream of British acting talent, and – perhaps most crucially – only cost about two thirds of what the previous movie did (our old friends at the UK Film Council were involved in the financing, too).

Set in Britain in 117AD, this is the story of gladiator’s son turned Roman centurion Quintus Dias (homme du jour Michael Fassbender), serving on the hazardous northern frontier of the Empire. The story is… hmm, there’s quite a lot of business in this film before we get to the actual story, most of it insanely macho and violent, so I suppose it counts as establishing the tone for the rest of the movie. Basically, Quintus gets captured by the local Pict tribe, escapes, and meets up with a Roman legion commanded by Dominic West, who’s been sent by the Governor to kill the Pict king. West is being assisted by Olga Kurylenko, who’s playing a native huntress (Kurylenko’s character is mute, partly as a character point, but also – I suspect – to avoid awkward questions about her Russian accent). However things do not go to plan when the legion is lured into a trap and massacred, with the general being captured. Left in command of a tiny group of survivors, Quintus is faced with a stark choice – should he lead the men towards safety – something far from assured, with the Picts still hunting them – or attempt to rescue the general from the clutches of the barbaric Celts?

Well, no prizes for guessing which he plumps for. My expert and informed reading of this film – well, the credits, anyway – leads to me to infer that this is, in fact, a homage to The Warriors, a 1979 movie about gang warfare in New York City, which was in turn based on a story from Xenophon (whatever props Centurion earns for crediting its inspirations are instantly lost when it spells Xenophon’s name wrong). However, the obvious plot similarities – small band of brothers have to battle their way home from deep within enemy territory – are sort of obscured by the fact that in many superficial ways Centurion much more closely resembles The Eagle from 2011.

The parallels with The Eagle are almost – ha, ha, you’ll like this one – eyrie. Not only do the films share a very similar setting and tone, but they’re based on the same historical event – the apparent annihilation of the Ninth Legion somewhere in Scotland in the early second century. You could even view The Eagle as an unofficial sequel to this film, as they don’t substantially contradict each other. Even beyond this, the structure and style of the films are very similar – although Centurion is a bit less soggy and authentic, for good or ill.

However, where The Eagle is thoughtful and does its best to be atmospheric, Centurion is a much more straightforward action movie. There’s a bit near the beginning which seems to be implicitly comparing the Roman presence in Britain with the present-day British presence in Afghanistan, but the film doesn’t pursue this in any meaningful way. Instead we get lots of Lord of the Rings-inflected helicopter shots of figures in a rugged landscape, and the odd bit pinched from elsewhere (believe it or not, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is a notable donor).

But mostly what you get is violence. Lots and lots of it. On the strength of this film I get the impression that Neil Marshall can’t walk past a throat without slitting it or sticking an axe in it (note to libel lawyers reading this: I mean in a creative context). I thought Doomsday had some heavy violence in it, but this is possibly even stronger stuff. In the opening ten minutes you get a gory massacre, someone’s arm being skewered to a table with a knife, a bar brawl, and a prisoner being carved up by his captors. And it doesn’t really let up for most of the rest of the film – there’s a battle scene at one point which feels like it consists of dozens of quick shots of people being impaled on spears, shot in the eye with burning arrows, having their heads smashed with axes, chopped to bits by swords, etc, etc. I had thought that exposure to the collected works of John Carpenter, David Cronenberg, the Hammer guys, Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriguez had left me almost completely desensitized to this sort of thing – but no, there were a few bits in this film which made me go ‘Ooh,’ and grimace.

Now I’m not saying this in itself makes Centurion a bad film. But at the end I came away with the impression that there’s not much else to it except the violence: the story is so basic – dare I say it, perfunctory – that nothing else really lingers in the memory. This is a real shame as there is some top acting talent in this film. Fassbender is, of course, probably too classy an act to really be in this kind of film, but does his best regardless. Also appearing are the likes of David Morrissey, Liam Cunningham, Noel Clarke and Riz Ahmed, but those that make an impression do so by sheer force of charisma rather than as a result of the parts they have to play. Imogen Poots pops up as the love interest, and is as charming as usual, but once again she gets little to work with and the story demands she appears too late to really make an impact.

Centurion seems to have been an attempt at a serious historical action movie with an appropriately dour tone – indeed, at one point it looks as if the ending to this movie is going to be as dark as that of The Descent. It looks good and the actors are talented, but the problem is that the script can’t find anything really interesting for anyone to do for long stretches at a time, and the relentless gore makes this look like much more of an exploitation movie than is probably the case. I missed the SF and fantasy elements of Marshall’s other movies, too: isn’t there room in the world for a Roman soldiers vs. zombies film?

Oh well. Centurion is probably a better and more coherent film than Doomsday, but at the same time not quite as interesting. No word yet as to what Marshall’s next project is going to be, but the list of ‘planned films’ in his Wikipedia entry suggests he will not be going too far out of his comfort zone (suppliers of Kensington Gore up and down the land rejoice). The jury is still surely out as to whether The Descent was the one really great film Neil Marshall had in him: I hope not.

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Sometimes you hear about the concept of a movie and instinctively think ‘That’s an appalling idea, it can’t possibly work,’ despite all evidence to the contrary: doing a heart-warming musical romance about the Nazi anschluss, or making a silent film in Academy format nearly a century after the form was made obselete both sound highly dubious undertakings, but the films in question did all right for themselves.

There’s something different about the pitch for Chris Morris’ Four Lions which still causes you to catch your breath: throughout his career as a writer and director, Morris has been a provocateur at least as much as an actual comedian, but the idea of doing a comedy about suicide bombers… it’s like suggesting doing a comedy about cot death or ethnic cleansing; you wonder how they can possibly have even thought of the idea. Still, I suppose that’s why we have words like visionary in the language, to describe people who aren’t afraid to have ideas like that.

This film, the blackest kind of farce imaginable, tells the everyday story of a group of radicalised Muslims living in the north of England. Their leader, Omar (Riz Ahmed), and his friend Waj (Kayvan Novak) go off to Pakistan to attend an al-Qaeda training camp: but this does not go well and they are forced to fly home under something of a cloud. Omar decides to reassert his authority over the group, and assuage some of the uncertainty he himself feels, by planning and executing a suicide bombing attack against a spectacular target in the UK itself.

So, as you can see, it doesn’t sound like a barrel of fun. But this is, barely credibly, an extremely funny film, but also a rigorously intelligent and profoundly humane one. Discussing it with a colleague, he expressed a certain disappointment that the comedy here is not as lacerating as in some of Chris Morris’ other work: but getting the tone right must have been immensely difficult, as simply ridiculing the wannabe terrorists would just be simplistic.

There is a definite element of Dad’s Army in how the group is portrayed – Omar’s personal tragedy is that his followers are all idiots. In addition to Waj, who is just very, very thick, Omar’s group includes Hassan (Arsher Ali), a clueless poseur, Faisal (Adeel Akhtar), whose plan is to train crows to fly into buildings while wearing little exploding waistcoats, and Barry (Nigel Lindsay), a white convert to Islam who, in addition to having some rather peculiar issues of his own, seems somewhat conflicted (his barely-rationalised masterplan involves bombing a mosque). All of these are very funny characters, extremely well written and portrayed, with Lindsay particularly good.

But the wider tragedy of the film, and what makes it so genuinely involving and actually quite affecting, is that Omar himself is not an idiot. The easy pitch is that ‘Four Lions is a comedy about suicide bombers’ – and it is, but it’s also an attempt to figure out why it is that an intelligent young man would be willing to do something like that. Whatever true subversiveness Four Lions possesses lies not in its jokes about suicide bombing per se (there are hardly any) nor in its swipes against the government’s response to terrorism, but in its presentation of Omar not as some frothing jihadi psychopath but a genuinely likeable guy, saddled with a gang of morons. He’s not a comedy caricature or stooge like the other characters, but someone much more plausible.

As a result the humour of some of his scenes only registers intellectually, particularly those where we see him with his wife and son. Both of them fully support him in his plans for violent martyrdom. ‘You were a lot more fun when you were going to blow yourself up,’ says his wife (Preeya Kalidas) when his resolve falters and his mood darkens – but she herself is saying it as a joke. Suicide has become so devalued for these people, such a fact of life – and yet in many ways they seem so normal. In a further brilliant stroke, Morris introduces Omar’s brother, an (on the face of it) much more strictly observant Muslim, who utterly disapproves of what Omar is planning – but Omar comes across as the more likeable and ‘normal’ person by far.

Morris deftly skips between thought-provoking scenes like these and much broader comic material for most of the film, and as a result can get away with some breathtakingly audacious changes of tone: the genuinely moving scene where Omar goes to say goodbye to his wife is followed by one of the film’s most outrageous moments of black comedy, the group singing along to pop songs on the radio while en route to commit a terrorist atrocity.

Obviously I should not say too much about the climax of this film, except to say that – as one would expect – the laughs dry up, and events collapse into chaos and confusion on every level, from the authorities’ response to the attitudes of the bombers themselves. You could perhaps argue that Morris goes too far in his presentation of Omar here, giving him a decency and humanity genuine suicide bombers must be lacking – but the end of the film feels logical and natural, the final bomb detonation and the accompanying suicide not a moment of triumph but one of despair and defeat.

There aren’t many films that seem to get better every time I watch them, but with its incredibly assured handling of its subject matter and its perfectly-judged mixture of farce, tragedy, emotion and thoughtfulness, Four Lions is one of them. If it ultimately fails to get to the heart of its subject – why exactly would someone genuinely decide that blowing themselves up is their best option? – then this is only because such decisions are made somewhere beyond the realm of logic and reason – and to go there is to go beyond not just the limits of comedy, but in some way the limits of humanity itself.

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As fate and the vagaries of my DVD rental package would have it, we go straight from Touch of Evil‘s handling of cross-border prejudice and political corruption to another film with a slightly different take on the same themes: Robert Rodriguez and Ethan Maniquis’ 2010 movie Machete. Marching towards this review with ineluctable certainty are the words ‘from the sublime to the ridiculous’… oh look, they’ve arrived.

Machete, as you may or may not know, originated as one of the spoof trailers that accompanied the two Grindhouse movies on their various releases (a complex story). It apparently received such a positive response (I must admit I probably enjoyed it rather more than Planet Terror, the film it was accompanying) that a full movie was duly made. As such, this film is arguably a textbook definition of being an extended joke.

The meandering and not especially coherent plot concerns the exploits of a Mexican ex-cop known as Machete due to his love of sharp objects (and also of hitting people with them). He is played (well, this is a bit of an issue, which we will return to) by Danny Trejo, a leather-faced performer who has carved out a bit of a niche for himself as convicts and lowlives on movies and TV. Machete is illegally working as a labourer in Texas when he is hired to assassinate John McLaughlin (Robert de Niro – yes, that Robert de Niro), a senator whose support mainly comes from his toxically anti-Mexican rhetoric – he also associates with a gang of murderous vigilantes led by Von Jackson (Don Johnson – yes, that Don Johnson).

Accepting mainly so he can pass his fee on to an underground network for the betterment of Mexican illegals run by Lus (the divine and radiant Michelle Rodriguez), Machete sets out to kill the senator – but rapidly discovers he’s been set up by McLaughlin’s aide (Jeff Fahey), intent on creating sympathy for the senator’s views and drumming up anti-Mexican sentiment. Needless to say, our man embarks on a blood-splattered revenge against those who have ruthlessly betrayed him.

(And I haven’t even mentioned Jessica Alba as a government agent, Steven Seagal (yes, that Steven Seagal) as a drug baron, or Lindsay Lohan (yes, that Lindsay Lohan) who wanders through the final section of the film as a gun-toting nun. It’s not that the plot is especially complex – far from it – it’s just utterly all over the place.)

Well, you know, I sat down to watch Machete with reasonable expectations, willing to cut it some slack – Robert Rodriguez is, if nothing else, a consistent film-maker, I’ll watch anything with Michelle Rodriguez in it, and Danny Trejo has certainly got presence. I was hoping for a moderately OTT action movie pastiche that didn’t take itself too seriously. The problem I have with Machete is that it’s actually… well I’m not really sure what it’s supposed to be, and I suspect some of the people involved don’t know either.

Spoof, satire, parody, broad comedy, genuine exploitation (perhaps in this case that should be Mexploitation) movie: the film lurches back and forth across genre boundaries almost at random, its intelligence level going up and down wildly in the process. Particularly baffling is all the stuff about the rights of Mexican illegals in the USA – while I understand this parallels the political dimension of blaxploitation films of the 70s, it’s not in itself particularly funny if it’s here as a parody, and if it’s seriously meant then it’s horribly trivialised by its inclusion in such a determinedly stupid film (‘the most absurd thing I’ve ever read’ was the verdict of one major actor who declined to participate).

That said, some of the Mexican jokes are quite amusing – there’s a running gag where Machete infiltrates the bad guy’s house simply by pretending to be the gardener, and later on beats up a bevy of henchmen using horticultural equipment – even if the climax (our hero raises an army of illegal labourers to battle the forces of evil, and they all turn up waving the accoutrements of their jobs) is again too silly to be genuinely funny. Basically, as a comedy, Machete is only consistently amusing if you subscribe to an oh-ho-ho-isn’t-this-just-so-intentionally-crap? sensibility, and as anything else it’s undermined by the presence of all these laboured attempts at humour.

Compared to this, the film’s problems in the acting department are relatively small beer, but – come on, this is a movie with Danny Trejo in the lead role, which if nothing else demonstrates that presence and charisma are not the same thing. On the strength of this outing Trejo’s range as an actor runs from A to very nearly the far end of A. It’s like making a movie with Chewbacca playing the lead – Trejo just lumbers around making noises and everyone else either tries to copy his style or wildly overacts in an attempt to compensate for it. Almost all the other performances are paralytically lousy, one way or another, which is especially shocking given some of the people Robert Rodriguez has (God knows how) assembled.

Not that long ago, Robert de Niro was routinely being hailed as the greatest screen actor of his generation – one has to wonder what happened, given that his late-period work seems to mostly consist of deeply underwhelming extended cameos in things like this and Killer Elite. Never mind being acted off the screen by Jason Statham, here de Niro is outperformed by, of all people, Steven Seagal. Steven Seagal! To be fair, the world’s least agile martial arts star is on rather good, self-parodying form here.

When Steven Seagal’s acting is one of the best things about a movie you know you’ve slipped a long way off the map of cinematic excellence. Still, neither that nor Michelle Rodriguez kicking ass in a bikini top were quite enough to redeem the movie. At the end of Planet Terror I told anyone who’d listen that it’s all too easy to make a bad film by accident, and plenty of people do every year, and so for a film-maker like Robert Rodriguez to make a bad film intentionally felt like a terrible squandering of both time and talent. I feel exactly the same about Machete, except perhaps even moreso. Of course, I am in the minority, as usual: financing for the two sequels we’re threatened with promised at the end of this film has apparently already been secured, and production is only waiting on Rodriguez to finish writing the scripts. Don’t rush on my account, Bob.

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