Posts Tagged ‘Aaron Eckhart’

Things have got to the point where, if you’re not paying close attention, you could almost start to get Woody Allen and Clint Eastwood mixed up with each other: both hugely respected actor-directors, both of about the same vintage, both rather less frequently seen before the camera these days… and, it should really be said, both of them perhaps not quite delivering the goods with quite the same consistency as was the case back in the 70s and 80s (your mileage may obviously differ, and it would be remiss of me not to admit that Eastwood is currently on the biggest hot streak of his career in terms of simple commercial success). It’s still quite rare that either of them serves up something genuinely bad, but as often as not these days their films are most likely to make you go ‘Mm,’ and change the subject onto something a little more prepossessing. I offer as the latest exhibit Clint Eastwood’s new movie Sully, which rather puts me in mind of an episode of the long-running medi-soap Casualty.


Or, more precisely, something I once heard said about Casualty by a writer who briefly worked on the show. Doing his research, by both watching old episodes and hanging around in A&E departments, he came to the conclusion that Casualty (the show) was filled with people who had accidents which conveniently allowed them to articulate whatever personal and emotional issues they happened to be going through, while Casualty (the department) was simply filled with people who had had inconvenient (at best) accidents. So he started writing episodes which he felt were truer to life – ones where the central crisis, rather than serving to unveil a secret conflict or enable personal growth, just happened to unsuspecting, undeserving people. And he lasted about two episodes before they sacked him. Fiction ideally demands outrageous drama.

Reality generally has different requirements to fiction, of course, which is one of the main things you notice about Sully. This presents itself as a docudrama about the 2009 ‘Miracle on the Hudson’ incident in which a passenger jet made a water landing on the Hudson River after both its engines were disabled in an encounter with a flock of birds. Tom Hanks and Aaron Eckhart play the pilots of the troubled plane; Eckhart has the bigger moustache but Hanks gets the bigger role, as Chesley Sullenberger (our research indicates this really is his name), a hugely experienced aviation professional who finds himself wholly unprepared for the media and administrative circus which consumes his life immediately after the crash – or, as he is very careful to describe it, ‘water landing’.

I’ve already inflicted one overelaborate metaphor on you, but never mind: here’s another one. Imagine watching two men build a dry stone wall. Between them these guys have been building things for seventy or eighty years. You are in the presence of two of the greats. Every move they make is nothing less than measured and precise and immaculate. What they are doing is effectively beyond criticism. However, they are still building a dry stone wall, which is not the most exciting structure in the annals of architecture, and nothing they do can really distract you from that for too long.

In other words, while Chesley ‘Sully’ Sullenberger – careful, reserved, precise, particular, dry as an old biscuit, an unlikely candidate to even have a nickname – may be exactly the kind of man you want flying the plane next time you travel by air, he’s not exactly sparkling material when it comes to a true-life movie drama. All right, so he has a few traumatic flashbacks and nightmares, and it’s suggested he’s a bit economical with the actualite when it comes to using his first job to promote his second (aviation safety consultant), but that’s still pretty slim pickings when it comes to putting together a movie even as brief as this one (a practically bite-sized 96 minutes).

It may also have been an issue that all the really exciting stuff in this film technically happens at the start of the story, which would explain a slightly curious structural choice where the actual movie begins post-crash – sorry, post-water landing, and then goes on to showcase the incident and its aftermath in the middle of the movie. And then show the plane going down once again just before the closing credits, presumably because it’s such an exciting bit the audience aren’t going to complain about watching it a second time.

And I suppose they’re right, because the post-goose-meets-jet stuff is far and away the most interesting and engaging part of the film. The rest of it is just grey and lacking in a clear focus: it could be about how the media sensationalises everything, even things which were pretty sensational to begin with, or about the loss of trust and simple human decency in a machine-dominated world, or the importance of remembering to take our basic humanity into account. It certainly feels like a film with A Big Message, it’s just not certain what that message is. Like any other American film about a plane-related incident these days, it also feels just a bit po-faced and reverential. I’m not surprised that the transport safety people have been complaining about this movie, given they are presented as a sort of Spanish Inquisition (no, I didn’t expect that either), but this entirely contrived plot thread is all the film can come up with when it comes to generating actual conflict and drama. However, it’s telling that their pursuit of Sully, which forms the closest thing the film has to a conventional climax, is essentially resolved by watching people play Flight Simulator, which isn’t that exciting when you play it yourself, let alone watch as a spectator.

Tom Hanks is one of the great actors, and he’s on full power here – and Clint Eastwood is one of the great directors, and likewise he does nothing wrong (and, fair’s fair, this film has given him the biggest domestic opening of his career). Nobody really drops the ball here, not Eckhart, not Laura Linney as Sully’s wife… well, I suppose you might want to have a word with the screenwriter, perhaps. It’s just that, as Sully himself observes, the incident only lasted 208 seconds, and the rest of the events just aren’t that dramatic enough to sustain a full-length movie narrative. All the things that make this exactly the sort of air-travel incident you’d choose to be involved in are the same ones that keep it from being a genuinely gripping drama.


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With Awards Season pretty much over (nice job, Spotlight) we can hopefully get back to more quotidian fare for a bit – although, as previously mentioned, Blockbuster Season seems to be creeping outwards in both directions – not that long ago we routinely got a couple of months’ breathing space between the Oscars and the first big popcorn movie of the year – it’s down to about three weeks now. Frankly, I was glad of the change of pace and so along I trotted to see Babak Najafi’s London Has Fallen, the latest vehicle for (deep breath) GERARD! BUTLER!


Extremely long-term readers may recall my one-time enthusiasm for GERARD! BUTLER! and concern for his career, following winning supporting turns in otherwise dodgy films like Reign of Fire and Tomb Raider 2, but then a couple of things happened: firstly, Jason Statham came along, and just as you can only really support one football team, so you can only really get behind one slightly ridiculous action star, and secondly, GERARD! BUTLER! made 300 – so I figured he should be okay from now on, firmly established as a proper leading man.

Hmmm, well. On paper, London Has Fallen looks like silly popcorn fun, a good Bad Movie in the making. You hope to come out of it feeling slightly ashamed but nevertheless generally entertained, but there are always the possibilities of it either being simply dull and foolish, or – perhaps most remote of all – actually a pretty accomplished film. You don’t expect to emerge feeling genuinely appalled and quite angry, and yet this is more or less what happened to me.

The film opens as it means to go on with a US drone strike blowing up the wedding of an arms dealer’s daughter in Pakistan, and instantly one gets a strong sense of taste barriers being well and truly breached. We skip forward a couple of years and encounter (or catch up with, for those who’ve seen Olympus Has Fallen, to which this is a sequel) US President Asher (Aaron Eckhart) and his ace bodyguard, swivel-eyed maniac Mike Banning (Butler – I’m going to stop shouting now). A number of rather mechanical character beats follow, as we learn that Banning’s wife is heavily pregnant and he is considering resigning from the Secret Service to raise his child.

Then, however, the British Prime Minister unexpectedly drops dead, leading to a short-notice funeral gathering in London, attended by numerous world leaders (at one point the movie describes this as a ‘state funeral’, which is almost certainly wrong, but this is a tiny, tiny issue compared to everything else going on here). Obviously the dead PM is not Chinless Dave, but the film-makers have a bit of nudge-wink fun in their depiction of the various statespeople – the German chancellor is a severe-looking middle-aged blonde woman, the Italian premier is a bit of a lady’s man with a much younger wife, and so on.

So far the film has been a bit of a hard slog, with a lot of plot and character stuff being rather laboriously plumbed in, and no particular sign of a sense of humour on display. Then, however, in the space of a matter of seconds, the film executes an astonishing change of gear and soars off into a realm of howling absurdity. It turns out that most of the emergency services of London, not to mention the British army itself, has been heavily infiltrated by terrorist fanatics, and the whole funeral has been arranged as a massive trap for the visiting dignitaries. The scale on which this happens is utterly ridiculous: every passing ambulance driver pulls out a grenade launcher and starts trying blow Banning and the Prez up. The bearskin-wearing soldiers who guard Buckingham Palace start mowing down onlookers. Every tower block in London suddenly has a terrorist packing a missile launcher on the roof. Logic and credibility are completely discarded in the cause of finding new things to shoot at and/or blow up.

Well, of course, that arms dealer whose daughter got blown up at the start is back for revenge against the forces of the west, and he and his family will not stop until they’ve completed their sweep of world leaders by taking out the US President too. However they have reckoned without Banning and his swivel-eyed mania!

And, um, yuck. To be honest, it’s almost enough to make you long for the omni-competent president of Clinton era films like Independence Day and Air Force One, because I suspect we would then have been spared a dreary, ugly character like Banning at the centre of the film. I wonder how much Eckhart is being paid to essentially play second banana: he inevitably comes across as a rather soft and ineffectual figure, simply because Butler looks better as a result. (Eckhart doesn’t even get to make the big stirring speech at the end of the film – that job goes to Morgan Freeman’s Veep, because you always want Morgan Freeman making your big speeches if you can manage it.) I say ‘better’: I found the character almost impossible to like. There’s a scene where Banning gives someone a painful, drawn-out death by stabbing, mainly so the victim’s listening brother can hear it. ‘Was that really necessary?’ cries the President, aghast. ‘No,’ says Banning. It’s a sign of London Has Fallen‘s lack of self-awareness that one plot element is the difficulty people have in telling good guys from bad guys; well, I know how they feel.

I’m not sure such an uncompromising character would be improved by being played with more of a twinkle in the eye and an attempt at warmth, but Butler doesn’t even seem to try. At one point he’s about to set off to butcher another squad of terrorists, ordering the Prez to hide in a cupboard while he does so. ‘What happens if you don’t come back?’ bleats the leader of the free world. ‘You’re ****ed,’ says Banning, and again it’s not clear if this is supposed to be funny or not.

Then again, as I mentioned up the page, London Has Fallen has serious tone issues throughout. There’s nothing wrong with a crazed action movie sensibility, with one man crunching his way through legions of faceless goons and lengthy sequences resembling nothing so much as a shoot ’em up computer game, but I think that kind of disqualifies you from attempting to make serious points about contemporary geopolitics and the attendant ethical issues. This won’t be the year’s only film where drone strikes are a plot point, but hopefully it’s the most messed-up one. The villains are, of course, pretty much presented as evil incarnate once they start bumping off world leaders and tearing down London, but you would have to be some kind of sociopath not to feel that they kind of have a point – the movie starts off with a wedding being bombed by the ostensible good guys, after all. The film concludes with another drone attack, and while it’s probably supposed to be interpreted as the righteous vengeance of the good guys, I just got a queasy sense of an endless cycle of bitter violence gearing up for another iteration.

In short, any moral ambiguity in London Has Fallen is almost certainly not an intentional creative choice – the characters and dialogue are too gung-ho cartoony for that to be credible – but actually the result of artistic incompetence. I mean, the film is technically proficient, but that’s meaningless as a piece of praise these days, it’s like saying ‘well, at least they remembered to turn the cameras on’. There’s also a sense in which the film is actively disingenuous – the bad guys are, we’re repeatedly told, super-villain arms dealers, not motivated by any other religious or ethical creed. Hmmm, yeah, but they’re arms dealers with a middle-eastern surnames and complexions, much given to beheading prisoners on live internet feeds. You would have to be thicker even than this film’s target demographic not to figure out what’s really going on.

We live in a more dangerous world than was the case a few years ago – or at least that’s how we perceive it, which may amount to much the same thing. Spectacular terror atrocities on the streets of western nations are not just the stuff of fantasy any more, and there are arguably worthwhile and interesting films to be made on this topic. But just making a bone-headed video-game style shooter with fantastically thin characters and no sense of moral compass or the actual issues involved isn’t just crass, it’s dangerous and insulting. It’s just exploiting fear and feeding it, rather than trying to take any steps to improve the situation (unless you genuinely believe that blowing people up is the answer to every problem – funnily enough, the bad guys in this film would seem to agree with you).

At the end of the film, Gerard Butler’s character cradles his new-born daughter and asks ‘What are you going to be passionate about?’ Well, jingoistic nonsense, human rights violations and stabbing people to death, if she’s anything like her dad. I would have the mite taken into care forthwith. Whether the same measures would help Gerard Butler’s film career, I don’t know, but it’s probably worth a try. This movie is horrible, and I’ve a nasty feeling that left to his own devices, Butler is only going to get worse.

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If, like me, you’re one of those people who feels like they’ve spent a fair chunk of their life trying to impress upon people the fact that, no, the iconically flat-topped and electrode-necked techno-revenant whose creation was documented by Mary Shelley is not actually called Frankenstein (that honour, of course, going to the Genevan medical student responsible for the beast), then you are going to be entirely exasperated by Stuart Beattie’s I, Frankenstein, which is troubling cinemas as I write. On the other hand, if we’re discussing popular misconceptions, this film is halfway there.


Victor Frankenstein himself is briefly in the movie, played by Aden Young, but only at the very start. He pegs out somewhere arctic while pursuing his creature, who has taken the shine off Frankenstein’s honeymoon by strangling his bride. The cobbled-together creature is played by Aaron Eckhart, which just leads one to wonder where Frankenstein found its chin. But anyway.

So far, so surprisingly faithful to Shelley (relatively speaking, and bearing in mind this is up against some very dodgy competition). Needless to say, I, Frankenstein rapidly casts loose from the anchor of authenticity, and quite possibly coherence, when the Creature is attacked by demons in human form while burying his creator. Things look bleak in the ensuing battle until he is rescued by… oh dear… some angelic gargoyles.

The gargoyles, who spend their non-CGI’d moments looking like a bunch of models, whisk the Creature off to their headquarters, which is a big cathedral in an unspecified major city. There we meet the Queen of the Gargoyles (Miranda Otto) who delivers a big and slightly steaming info-dump – another of those hidden supernatural wars is raging, on this occasion between the Queen of the Gargoyles, who basically works for God, and the Prince of the Demons (Bill Nighy), who presumably is in the employ of the other chap. For some reason the demons want to get their claws on Frankenstein’s Monster, and the gargoyles are opposed to this on principle. The Creature himself declares he has no stake in the matter either way and clears off into seclusion.

Two hundred years later he changes his mind though: not for any particularly good reason on his part, but from a marketing point of view it at least stops this from being a costume picture. In the meantime Nighy has recruited a comely young electro-neurologist – does anyone honestly believe that’s a real job? – played by Yvonne Strahovski, intending to replicate Frankenstein’s work. The reappearance of the original creature is bound, therefore, to have some influence on the unfolding events…

Radical reimaginings like Splice notwithstanding, we’ve been waiting a couple of decades for a really imaginative and interesting new version of Shelley’s famous and hugely influential classic. And the wait continues, for I, Frankenstein is thorough-going cobblers of truly epic proportions (having said that, I must express a certain gratitude to the film-makers for limiting the thing to a commendably brief 90 minutes or so in length).

I mean, here’s the thing – we’ve already got the Underworld series floating around in our collective consciousness, and it’s not all that long since the Blade franchise was a going concern, either. So why would you possibly think that making a film which closely apes the look and style of both these things was a good idea? It’s not just derivative, it’s actively dull: and it’s not even as if the makers of this film can claim ignorance, given that I, Frankenstein and Underworld share the same writer.

They also share the same murky modern mise-en-scene and total lack of anything resembling a sense of humour about themselves, not to mention the presence of Bill Nighy as the main villain (it must be said that Nighy’s ability to lift this sort of lamentable material is in and of itself virtually supernatural). Beyond this there is little overt acknowledgement of the rich history of screen Frankensteins – there’s a nod to the famous ‘It’s alive!’ moment from the James Whale version, while a mention of electric eels may be a wink to the Kenneth Branagh take on the story – nor much sign of any real understanding of what makes Frankenstein work as a story.

It seems to me to be a much-overlooked fact that Frankenstein’s Creature is potentially a really good part for the right actor, given the right script. Too often, however, he’s just a grotesque, grunting brute (the Hammer movies in particular were repeat offenders on this score), and the only actors I’ve ever seen give the character the right mixture of intensity and pathos are Boris Karloff (of course) and – here comes an out-of-left-field pick – Michael Sarrazin. Did Aaron Eckhart ever have the potential to join this select band? Well, maybe; Eckhart is a likeable screen presence even in a dog of a movie like this one. But he doesn’t get the material or the direction he needs.

The Frankenstein story is about a lot of things, which is why it has lasted for centuries: it’s about paternal responsibility, man’s relationship with technology and the environment, and so on. But what it isn’t about is endless 3D battles between the CGI’d forces of heaven and hell. You can do a lot of very interesting things with Frankenstein’s Creature, but turning him into a demon-stomping martial arts superhero is not one of them. The action sequences are unengaging and Eckhart isn’t allowed to give the character the presence he requires, nor really the depth – we’re repeatedly reminded that this is someone who once murdered an innocent woman, but the Creature’s moral responsibility isn’t addressed.

I could go on and on. I know this is just meant to be a genre action movie, and not meant to be taken seriously, but if you’re going to use the name of a serious classic novel then you’re opening yourself up to serious criticism. I recall recently bewailing the glut of heavy, lengthy, based-on-reality movies that have been filling up the cinemas of late, and hoping something solely intended to entertain would come along. Well, this may be an attempt in that direction, but it’s a thoroughly botched one. I, Frankenstein sets the bar for this year’s silly action fantasies impressively high – or, depending on your point of view, startlingly low. Steer clear.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published July 31st 2008:

And finally, just when you thought you could get through an entire column without one of those movies showing up… yes, it’s Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight, which has finally rumbled into public view trailing the kind of rapturous notices most producers would happily cut off a limb to receive – and I’m not inclined to disagree with the consensus on this occasion.

For those of you recently returned from a holiday on Neptune, this is another tale of goings-on in Gotham City. The crusade against crime launched by the Batman (an apparently laryngitic Christian Bale) and Lt Gordon (Gary Oldman) seems to be bearing fruit, in the form of the city’s new fiercely idealistic and dedicated District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) – even if he is dating Batman’s old girlfriend Rachel (Maggie Gyllenhaal). However, the city is about to be plunged into a nightmare as Batman’s continuing harassment of the mob forces them to accept the assistance of a demented psychopathic genius calling himself the Joker…

Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker has, for obvious reasons, attracted a lot of attention – but one would hope that this would have been the case anyway, as he is utterly mesmerising. The Joker is hilarious and terrifying at the same time: he does a piece of business with a pencil that left the audience I saw this movie with trying to gasp, groan, and laugh at the same time, while later on there’s a scene where he wanders out of an exploding building in (comically unconvincing) drag that’s simply jawdropping in its audacity and confidence. This is the first screen version of the character who can credibly take on Batman in a physical confrontation, something Nolan fully exploits. Even more impressively, Ledger manages all this without seeming obviously hammy or over-the-top like some Nicholsons – sorry, I meant to say actors – who have played the part in the past. He’s aided by a script which allows the character a chance to actually develop in the course of the movie, progressing from a (relatively) simple insane killer to the more complex Joker of recent comics.

But, surprisingly, he isn’t allowed to dominate the film – although he does rather eclipse the movie’s other classic villains, who either make cameos (a blink-and-you’ll-miss-him appearance from Cillian Murphy as the Scarecrow) or show up rather near the end. Eckhart gives an intelligent and plausible performance as Dent, and it’s a bit of a shame he doesn’t get more room to display all the facets of the character. The biggest miracle of all is that Christian Bale, who as Batman doesn’t get to properly use his voice or most of his face, isn’t reduced to an onlooking cipher as happened in the 90s Bat-movies, although his performance is necessarily understated. Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman show up from the last movie as well, and give neat demonstrations of how to steal scenes from the younger actors.

The technical virtuosity of Christopher Nolan’s direction shouldn’t really have surprised me as much as it did, but this is probably simply because he gets Batman right in a way other directors have never managed. For example, rather than being merely a menacing icon waddling around in inch-thick rubber, here Batman is a convincingly agile and skilled martial artist. Nolan also opens the movie out to a global scale, giving his hero a brief but typically energetic encounter with the Hong Kong Triads on their home turf. There seemed to me to be a bit less reliance on Bat-gadgets than usual, too, with the obvious exception of the new Batpod – which looks undeniably cool but struck me as rather silly in both name and concept. Such is Nolan’s command of the medium that, for a few shocking minutes, he even had me believing that he’d been allowed to permanently and properly kill off one of the central Batman characters. The only real weakness in Nolan’s direction, in fact, is his slight awkwardness when it comes to comic relief: Caine and Freeman have no problems delivering their one-liners but elsewhere his editing is a bit too staccato.

This is a piddling little criticism considering the colossal level of crash-bang-wallop the movie delivers, especially when coupled to its interest in the deeper morality of the issues involved. This finds its most obvious articulation when the film repeatedly asks how a principled man can hope to counter one wholly without moral compass, and intersects rather neatly with a meditation on how one can repeatedly confront evil without becoming contaminated by it (one would have expected this Nietzschean line of thought to turn up in a Superman movie, but never mind). Implicit in the film is the notion that it’s the mere existence of Batman himself that has conjured all the maniacs he must battle into existence, and that all the death and destruction which occurs is ultimately his fault. On this level, The Dark Knight isn’t an especially cheerful movie: its view of human nature for most of its running time is so relentlessly bleak that when it does attempt to offer a ray of hope it almost doesn’t ring true.

So, yes: we have a new and very strong candidate for the title of best superhero movie ever (not that this isn’t much more than just a superhero movie). One is obliged to wonder just how on Earth Nolan and company can possibly top this one (not least because most of the classic Batman villains aren’t really usable for various reasons – my money’s on the Riddler showing up next time, though), but they’ve already repeatedly demonstrated that no-one else is better qualified to try. Highly recommended.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published January 29th 2004: 

I don’t know about Daredevil 2… You’ll know my career is really on the slide when I start resurrecting the franchise. – Ben Affleck

For a writer who isn’t especially well-known out amongst the normal real-world public, Philip K Dick has achieved an odd sort of ubiquity when it comes to SF movies. Well, perhaps ‘ubiquitous’ is stretching it a bit, considering we’re talking about four movies in twenty or so years, but – off the top of my head – I can’t think of another writer in the genre with that kind of recent track record.

It doesn’t hurt that, broadly speaking, three of the four were quite well received – Blade Runner regularly scores in top ten popularity lists (although personally I haven’t much time for it and prefer the original cut – or, better yet, the source novel), Total Recall was a big smash hit, and Minority Report was rapturously hailed as a return to form for Steven Spielberg and Tom Cruise. However, the latest Dick movie, Paycheck, has arrived on UK screens to be met with notices verging on the toxic.

As director John Woo has many cheerleaders in the States (more likely as a result of his terrific Hong Kong-based movies than the rather mixed bag he’s presided over since going Hollywood), and this film isn’t utterly wretched, one can only presume the knives are out simply because Paycheck stars Ben Affleck. Ah, Ben Affleck. For a while now I’ve found having a pop at Ben to be a bit of a guilty pleasure, because in interviews and the like he comes across as a decent bloke with terrible instincts as to which scripts he should make.

This time round Ben plays Michael Jennings, a highly-paid expert in taking things to pieces and copying them. This is a much valued ability in the world of industrial espionage, but for Ben the downside – or maybe not – is that he has to have his memory of each assignment wiped after completing it (you can imagine the scene – ‘While you’re at it, could you get rid of Pearl Harbor, Gigli, and that full-page ad to J-Lo I put in the national press, please?’). His trusty sidekick Shorty (Paul Giamatti) is responsible for microwaving his brain on each occasion.

Ben is recruited by his old mate Rethrick (Aaron Eckhart) to do a special job that will take three years to finish but earn him nearly a hundred million dollars. Ben is happy to sign up, especially as he has a bit of a thing for another of Eckhart’s employees, hatchet-faced biologist Rachel (played by that leading grand guignol comedienne of our time, Uma Thurman, in an unflattering hairstyle). However three years and one memory-wipe later Ben is alarmed to find he has chosen to waive his fee in favour of a envelope full of junk. It transpires that the pre-wipe Ben has built Eckhart a precognotron for seeing into the future, and, having sneaked a peek himself, has realised that the junk comprises the objects his future self will need in order to avoid meeting a sticky end at the hands of his evil boss…

Well, yes, it’s hokum of the highest order, but it’s an engaging enough idea and not without its’ thoughtful moments. While the plot bears similarities to Total Recall (hero has his memory messed about with) and Minority Report (hero sees vision of future he’s not too keen on), it’s closer to the former in style. This is just as well, as the lack of Minority Report‘s ponderous self-importance makes the occasionally incoherent plotting a lot less annoying. On the other hand, this never quite takes flight as a Hitchcock-style ‘innocent man in peril’ caper, as Ben’s character just isn’t likeable (or innocent) enough at the start of the movie for the audience to really warm to him. Ben himself turns in another stiff-upper-lipped performance. (In fact a lot of the time his entire face is utterly immobile.) But there’s not much meat here for any of the actors – Giamatti goes into twitchy overdrive as the comic relief, before vanishing entirely for most of the second half of the film, while quite a way down the cast list Joe Morton and Michael C Hall are solid enough as FBI agents chasing Ben.

There isn’t actually very much here to distinguish Paycheck as a John Woo film, except perhaps several scenes revolving around people sticking guns in each others’ faces, and an inexplicable sequence with a dove. The action isn’t that great and a long car-chase is actually rather pedestrian. But, as action techno-thrillers go, this is really pretty competent stuff, rather retro in an odd way (the suits and hairstyles of many characters look like seventies-vintage), quite well paced and not without some interesting ideas about memory and predestination.

But Ben’s clearly going to have to come up with something else if he wants to arrest his slide towards becoming the 21st century’s answer to Charlie Sheen [written long before it became clear that Charlie Sheen still had a lot to offer the world. Sort of – A]. If, as seems the case, mediocre movies are now getting completely trashed simply because he’s in them, it’ll have to be something special. A serious rethink is called for, or he’ll be slipping on the red leather jumpsuit sooner than he’d like…

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Given the scenes of devastation still daily on my TV as I write, both in Libya and Japan (a country with a very special place in my heart), part of me is inclined to dismiss Jonathan Liebesman’s enthusiastically apocalyptic Battle: Los Angeles simply on the grounds of tastelessness. But that would hardly be fair, given that film-makers can hardly be expected to predict the future. Unfortunate timing aside, this film deserves as fair a crack of the whip as any other. 

So, then. Battle: Los Angeles boldly breaks extremely well-trampled ground by being an alien invasion movie in which the military of the world must contend with a better-armed extraterrestrial foe. It has one of those slightly annoying openings which has a snippet of the action in full flow, before jumping back in time to establish how everything got to that point. (I don’t really see why this plot structure has become so popular – do directors think people are going to walk out of their movie just because it’s a slightly slow starter?)

Aaron Eckhart plays troubled USMC Staff Sergeant Nantz, who’s on the verge of quitting the forces on the grounds that a) he has personal issues to resolve and b) he’s past it. However, retirement plans are put on hold when peculiar meteorite showers landing off the shores of major cities herald the onslaught of another load of intergalactic metal gits dead set on taking possession of the Earth. (They’re after our water, hence the amphibious assault on coastal cities – although London is also apparently on the hit list. The aliens must have route-marched up the river – once again the Thames Barrier proves a massive white elephant.) Nantz finds himself under the command of an inexperienced new officer, taking a team into an enemy-held section of LA to evacuate civilians prior to a massive bombing operation. Suffice to say that not everything goes to plan.

If we’re going to make a go of this describing-films-in-terms-of-X-meets-Y business, then Battle: Los Angeles is quite clearly ‘Black Hawk Down meets Independence Day’. Fatally, however, it lacks the directorial precision of the former and the crowd-pleasing spectacle and sense of fun of the latter. It is, to be perfectly frank, really, really dull.

It’s not as if nothing happens: most of the film is the story of Nantz and his comrades battling their way to safety while trying to impede the enemy advance and keep some civilians safe. (The divine and radiant Michelle Rodriguez pops up as an Air Force techie they bump into – it’s getting to the point where I can’t think of a film where ‘Chelle doesn’t get to cut loose with a machine gun at some point. It’s not as if she doesn’t scrub up well, I have a collection of photos to prove it.) But it’s simply monotonous. Someone barks some orders. They walk down a street. Alien stuff flies overhead. Someone mutters something plot-related about the situation. Guns go off for a bit. Someone makes a heart-felt speech about their friends and family. They walk down the street. Someone barks orders. Aliens fly overhead. Repeat, for well over an hour.

This only really stops when the film pauses to do Character Stuff. This is not necessarily a good thing, as the film clearly wants to get to the alien invasion stuff in a hurry and the only character to be introduced in anything even approaching two dimensions is Nantz. Eckhart is pretty good, and seems to be trying a bit harder than the script probably deserves, but he’s still been much better in many other different films. Everyone else’s Character Stuff is just out of a trite and overfamiliar soap-opera.

The other problem is that – look, I don’t know any US Marines. They may indeed all be, as the film suggests, heroic, laudable, selfless individuals, simultaneously managing to be elite, fearless warriors and yet subtly flawed, identifiable human beings. This may be a qualification to get into the USMC; I’m not eligible and I can’t swim anyway, so I’ve never bothered to find out. However, even if this incredibly flattering depiction of them is spot-on accurate it doesn’t necessarily make for an interesting set of characters. They all look much the same (except for Eckhart and his chin) and tend to blur into each other, so identikit are they. Even Rodriguez doesn’t make much of an impression.

(The only moment when the Marines aren’t being selfless heroes comes when they happen upon a wounded alien, and – rules of war be damned! – cut it to pieces while still alive in an attempt to find any weak spots it may possess. More of this kind of morally-dubious pragmatism and fewer recruitment-ad platitudes might have made a better movie, but the USMC probably wouldn’t have been so keen to co-operate.)

And this film is almost wholly lacking in subtext. It doesn’t seem to really be about anything, except how wonderful the US military is. It’s a virtuoso piece, technically speaking, but it’s by no means the first film in this fake-verisimilitude style, most notably being beaten out of the traps by the somewhat-similarly-themed Skyline last Autumn.

The makers of Battle: Los Angeles and Skyline are, thrillingly, engaged in a court case claiming that the latter film ripped off material from the first. I don’t think I’m exaggerating too much if I suggest that this behind-the-scenes stuff is probably the most interesting thing about Battle: Los Angeles. (For the record, Skyline is eerily similar in some ways – and while it’s ultimately disappointing and almost wholly absurd, it’s still a more interesting movie than Battle: Los Angeles.)

Of course, I am frequently wrong about these things, and even though I think it’s a crashingly tedious and rather predictable film wasting the talents of two fine actors, Battle: Los Angeles may well go on to be a big hit. In which case no doubt a franchise will result in which our valiant human heroes will engage the alien menace in a variety of water-rich locations. Battle: Leamington Spa, anyone?

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