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One of those genuinely gritty and realistic New Avengers episodes we have heard so much about but so rarely seen shows up in the form of To Catch a Rat, not written by either of the show’s main scribes but Terence Feely. It opens with a flashback to Germany in 1960, where British agent Irwin Gunner (Ian Hendry) is laying a trap for a mole within the organisation. It doesn’t quite come off, but he still manages to put a bullet in the traitor’s leg. Gunner’s cover is as a trapeze artist (possibly inspired by Hendry’s own circus background, which also informed the first-season Avengers episode Girl on the Trapeze) and, rather unfortunately, the man whose job it is to catch Gunner, Cledge (Barry Jackson), is in league with the mole. Gunner plunges to the ground, suffering serious injuries and amnesia.

Nevertheless, he somehow makes his way back to Britain (his banged-up body turns up on a ship for some reason) and ends up in a nursing home for the perpetually confused – until, sixteen or seventeen years later, a random bump on the head makes his memories come back. Gunner is determined to expose the mole, but still isn’t sure which of his old colleagues he is – the leg wound is the only clue.

Nevertheless, he is still trying to make radio contact, using outdated call-signs and other protocols, which is how Steed and the others come into the story. What ensues is basically them trying to find Gunner, while Gunner tries to find the traitor, and the traitor and his minions try to get to him first. It’s not quite as much of a runaround as that probably makes it sound, but it is notable as the first episode that doesn’t easily lend itself to a ‘this is the episode where…’ summarisation, unless you go for ‘this is the one where Ian Hendry comes back’, which doesn’t tell you much about the plot but at least communicates the main point of interest for long-term watchers of the show.

Those long-term watchers are often wont to regret the fact that Hendry isn’t playing David Keel, which from a certain perspective would have been the logical thing to do with him. Then again, maybe the script was written first, or Hendry refused to countenance the idea, or the producers made the reasonable decision that the majority of The New Avengers‘ audience wouldn’t have been familiar with the first season of the parent show. Apart from depriving the fans of their little thrill, the only problem with casting Hendry as Gunner is that he’s a slightly unhinged character with an odd accent, neither of which really play to Hendry’s natural strengths as an actor. I can imagine him being equally good in, say, Edward Judd’s role (this episode is a bonanza for British movie stars of a certain vintage). Judd is also quite as good as you might expect given his work elsewhere.

This time it’s both Steed and Gambit who get pushed into the background just a little bit, and it surely is a huge missed opportunity that Patrick Macnee and Ian Hendry only get one very short scene together. It’s a push to call To Catch a Rat a flat-out bad episode, but it feels a little flat and unimaginative compared to what the series has already done.

Another low-concept runaround happens along in the form of Brian Clemens’ The Tale of the Big Why, which is basically a fun-in-the-countryside romp with a slightly harder edge than would have been the case in the 60s (I’m put in mind of the Rigg episode Dead Man’s Treasure, which would also have been a decent title for this one). It also sees the inauguration of the animated title sequence where the figures of the lead trio eventually morph into a slightly jingoistic Union Jack-hued British lion.

A man named Brandon (frequent heavy George A Cooper, third of three) is due to be released from prison after a lengthy sentence for spying; he has been trying to make a deal all this time, claiming he has something valuable to trade with. Everyone naturally wants to know what it is; Steed has Gambit inserted into the prison as Brandon’s cellmate but doesn’t learn much. Also on the trail are a couple of nasty pieces of work known as Roach and Poole (Roach is played by Gary Waldhorn, an actor best remembered as stuffy authority figures in various sitcoms, but an effective villain here) – there is a bit of fluff about them being Russian agents who have gone native – ‘Capitalism rubs off’ says Roach – but this hardly informs the plot.

Anyway, Brandon leaves prison, clearly having some kind of a plan to capitalise on the mysterious leverage he possesses, pursued by all the interested parties (Purdey doesn’t seem to have entirely grasped the concept of undercover work, as she is wearing a jumpsuit with her name written on the back). This doesn’t stop Roach and Poole from ambushing and killing him – but there’s no sign of the package he previously retrieved. Where has has it gone, and – more importantly – what’s in the box?

Once again, I feel this episode misses the strong ‘the one where…’ hook that the most memorable instalments possess, but it looks great, is very nicely directed, and has an interestingly twisty-turny narrative to it. You do have to cut the story some slack: Steed and the others know quite early on that Roach and Poole killed Brandon, and are now shadowing them, but do absolutely nothing about this simply because the structure of the episode demands events unfold this way. And it does allow for some decent set-pieces: the bad guys attack Steed in his lovely home, and Steed avoids being blasted by Poole’s shotgun by the simple expedient of sticking his armoured bowler over the end of the barrel (the backblast sends the villain flying). It’s not good for the hat, though – ‘He should see a phrenologist,’ says Gambit. ‘He needs a phrenologist like a hole in the head,’ counters Purdey. (I feel I haven’t acknowledged how consistently good the repartee between the three regulars is on this show, both in terms of the writing and their performance of it.)

It’s entertaining stuff, but – as is the case with the previous episode – I’m not just watching The New Avengers for rolling countrysides and twisty plotting and the three stars being witty; I’m also here for the borderline fantasy and SF elements which were present in the earlier episodes of the season. These more ‘realistic’ episodes always pale in comparison to them, for me.

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Every once in a while a film comes along which you can tell that the usual channels of publicity and distribution are struggling to cope with – it’s a bit left-field, in other words, possibly doing something weird with genres, and it’s not at all clear who the actual target audience is. One pretty reliable sign of this is that the trailer for it starts showing up in all sorts of odd places, as the result of a ‘enough mud sticks’ advertising strategy.

The current case in point for this sort of thing is Tom Gormican’s The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent. The title itself is perhaps a bit indicative as it sounds like it might be a reference to something else, but it’s not clear exactly what – The Unbearable Lightness of Being? Incredibly Loud and Extremely Close? Something else entirely?

Things start off conventionally enough, as a young woman is kidnapped at gunpoint. The film pays an unusual level of attention to the film she’s watching at the time, however (it is the rather good 1997 action movie Con Air), particularly its star, Nicolas Cage. However, we are soon off into the strange netherworld where The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent takes place.

We find ourselves at a meeting between film director David Gordon Green (David Gordon Green) and actor and movie star Nick Cage (Nicolas Cage). Cage is, it seems, an insecure, self-obsessed, and almost pathologically needy egomaniac, who insists on performing selections from Green’s latest script in the restaurant where they are having lunch. (Nick Cage is haunted by the spectral figure of his own uninhibited younger self; the actor credited in this role is ‘Nicolas Kim Coppola’.) Barely credibly, he does not get the part, which has an unfortunate influence on Cage’s contribution to his teenage daughter’s birthday party. His latest ex-wife (Sharon Horgan) throws him out as a result, sending him into a bit of a slump. (I feel the need to make it clear that Nicolas Cage and Sharon Horgan have never actually been married in what is generally agreed to be real life.)

Salvation, financially at least, comes when Cage is invited to Mallorca for the birthday party of an immensely rich super-fan, Javi (Pedro Pascal) – basically a paid personal appearance. It doesn’t do much for his mood, however, and Javi is appalled to discover that Cage is considering giving up acting – especially as he hasn’t even read the screenplay Javi has written for him yet.

But Nick Cage finds he has bigger problems, when he is picked up off the street by the CIA. Lead agent Tiffany Haddish reveals that Javi isn’t just an innocuous multi-millionaire, but the head of an international criminal cartel which has recently kidnapped the daughter of an influential politician. The CIA needs someone on the inside of Javi’s compound to locate and free the missing girl – could this be the role that Cage has been waiting for?

Well. Deciding whether this film is for you or not is a fairly straightforward question, and that question is ‘Do you want to spend one-hundred-and-seven minutes watching Nicolas Cage send himself up?’ Clearly someone believes there is a large enough audience that does, although this same someone may also have spent too much time on the internet and listening to the dozens of podcasts which concern themselves with the actor and his career. It is quite hard to imagine this film being made with any other actor in the lead role, mainly because Cage has become such an outlandish and mockable figure over the few years or so – stories abound about his ‘nouveau shamanic’ acting method, while his career trajectory over the last few decades (from Oscar-winning Hollywood A-lister to a string of DTV movies with titles like Jiu Jitsu and Kill Chain) would also indicate a career experiencing a degree of crisis. (I should perhaps mention that a Cage renaissance may well be in progress: Cage’s most recent movies have received favourable reviews and – perhaps more importantly – played in theatres.)

Whatever else this film has going for it, it is built around an immensely game and extremely funny performance by Cage himself, although of course it’s hard to be sure just how much of a stretch it is for Nicolas Cage to play Nick Cage. (Fictional-Cage’s personal history is slightly different from real-Cage’s.) It’s probably also worth mentioning that this is an essentially generous film, with no sign of any desire to really mock or deride its star (it’s doubtful whether Cage himself would have been dumb enough to sign up for such a role.

Beyond that, it’s a little unclear exactly what the idea behind this film is, beyond perhaps just being the Nicolas-Cage-iest movie ever made. There’s something quite meta and undeniably clever about the way the film manages to combine elements of the sort of semi-experimental film Cage was occasionally appearing in twenty years ago – he played a fictionalised version of Charlie Kaufman, not to mention Kaufman’s entirely fictional twin, in Adaptation – with the kind of action-movie nonsense which has bulked out his career since parting company with the mainstream last decade. But the emphasis is always on knockabout, broad comedy and Cage hamming it up; there’s a suggestion of something cleverer and more subtle – Nick Cage and Javi start collaborating on a screenplay, which as it develops takes on a suspicious resemblance to the plot of The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent – but this extra layer of self-referentiality is not as central to the movie as it would be if this really was a Kaufman script.

Nevertheless, it’s all ridiculous enough to be consistently entertaining, and Cage is well supported by Pascal and Horgan (who is as majestic as ever). The Javi role is a tricky one, as it calls for someone who can work opposite Cage without being completely overshadowed, but who still isn’t what you’d call an actual star in the same way he is. Pascal is a shrewd choice for this, as he’s currently experiencing a bit of a career moment, but also best known for a role where he has a bucket on his head most of the time. He is clearly a smart enough actor to figure out that he’s here to support Cage rather than actually co-star in the movie, but manages to do so in a way which should earn him some credit.

In some ways a knockabout, acutely self-referential comedy is the last film you would expect to find Nicolas Cage appearing in – but then this actor’s cult has largely been born of his willingness to make unusual choices. It would be nice to think that such a distinctive and charismatic performer has another act left in his career that will see him return from the DTV wilderness and do some genuinely interesting work again. It’s quite hard to tell whether The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent is a step on that journey or just another nail in the coffin of the whole idea of Nicolas Cage as a serious actor, but – always assuming you enjoy watching Cage – it’s a lot of fun while it lasts.

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It’s entirely possible I haven’t watched The Midas Touch since the last time The New Avengers was on terrestrial TV; it’s certainly not one of the episodes I would automatically reach for as an example of the series at its best. Why this should be is all in the carpentry of the story, I would suggest: the premise is a decent one and there are some nice touches, but the core of the episode is somehow not quite sound.

The plot proper gets underway with a squad of armed men searching some wasteland near London, under the command of this week’s villain, Professor Turner (David Swift, second of two). They are watched with some concern by a tramp (John Carson, fourth of four) whom has already been established as a burnt-out former colleague of Steed’s (this is done in a very nicely written and played scene between Carson and Patrick Macnee). The gag is that the heavily-armed and cautious bad guys are actually searching for a cute little white bunny – the further gag is that when the little critter nips one of the soldiers on the hand while being picked up, Turner has the man shot on the spot.

Off in another part of the story, Steed and his partners have received word that emissaries are on their way to London to negotiate for the services of someone or something known as Midas, for which substantial sums will be changing hands. They apprehend one of the envoys after an attempt is made on his life; he is played by Ronald Lacey (third of three), which would be fine were he not meant to be from Hong Kong. Lacey’s attempt at a Chinese accent – he sounds like a bad Peter Lorre impression – just makes a really awkward element of the plot even worse.

Oh well. With the Chinese off the scene the field is wide open for someone else to hire Midas, who is of course Professor Turner’s creation: Turner is an expert in bacteriological warfare, late of ‘Pilton Down’, and has hit upon the idea of making someone who is an asymptomatic carrier of every deadly disease known to man – just touching Midas’ skin results in a rapid and painful death (‘They died of everything!’ cries a bizarrely-accented Chris Tranchell, playing a doctor examining some of Midas’ victims). But who is Midas’ target and how can they stop him?

Well, the idea of the assassin as a sort of pandemic on two legs is an arresting one, but it obviously doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny (at least not as a precision weapon – even Midas’ own handlers have to wear a 70s version of a hazmat suit around him). Nor does much of the rest of the plot, which is convoluted without being especially interesting and heavily reliant on coincidence (Steed’s old friend just happening to stumble across Turner’s plan, for instance). On the other hand, this is something of a showcase for the stunt team (some good car chases and running around – lots of the action shots from the first series’ opening credits come from this episode) and there are some witty moments (Gambit and Purdey casually discuss John Huston movies in the middle of a hot pursuit). On the other other hand, there’s all the stuff with the non-Asian Chinese casting and yet more tacky moments with people lusting after Purdey. In the end I suppose it just about passes muster, but it does feel like a central gimmick in search of a better plot.

Someone else finally gets their name on a New Avengers script next, in the person of Dennis Spooner and the shape of Cat Amongst the Pigeons. The facts that this is possibly the best episode yet and that Spooner is, in my opinion, one of the great underrated geniuses of British fantasy TV may not be unrelated – though the fact it seems to be consciously trying to emulate the style of a Philip Levene script from the old show may have something to do with it, too. It opens with a pet shop owner hearing an eerie whistle, which is closely followed by the mysterious disappearance of all his bird stock. Elsewhere, this week’s doomed-colleague-of-the-trio is trying to call in a plan to assassinate one Hugh Rydercroft (Basil Dignam, second of two), a senior figure at the Ministry of Ecology. He hears the same mysterious whistle and next he is jumping off a cliff to escape… something. (At least he doesn’t actually die, but he’s too injured to spill the beans.)

Steed and the others double-check Rydercroft’s travel precautions, much to the annoyance of his own security people, and eventually let him fly off on a trip to Europe, piloting his own plane. But at the appointed time something happens and the plane falls out of the sky for no immediately apparent reason. But the wreckage is festooned with feathers and a guest character with something to prove finds a bird ring from a nearby sanctuary, which he promptly goes off to investigate alone without telling anyone else. Will he survive to the closing credits? Or even the last ad break? (Hint: no.)

Once it is revealed that Rydercroft and a few colleagues have been working on a plan to savagely cull bird numbers (doesn’t sound very ecological to me, but I digress), old hands will probably be able to write the rest of the episode for themselves. A bird fancier and former magician named Zarcardi (a great role for Vladek Sheybal, probably best known for playing SPECTRE’s strategic genius in From Russia With Love) is trying to stop the plan using his uncanny ability to control birds with a special flute: he can cause bird-strikes, sneak birds of prey into people’s offices and cars, call down ravenous flocks to peck people to death, and so on. Needless to say someone makes a reference to The Birds at one point.

To be honest, the mid-section of the episode unravels into a collection of set-pieces rather than a developing plot, but they are such good set-pieces: directed like a horror movie, with good work from the bird trainers (though it’s obvious on subsequent viewings the actual number of birds involved is minimal) and some good performances from the guest cast: Peter Copley (third of three) is one of the scientists, Hugh Walters plays a nervous crash investigator, and the great Kevin Stoney (second of two) doesn’t get enough to do as a creepy plot-expositor who’s been blinded by (we presume) a bird attack. It follows the structure of a classic Levene script very closely, even concluding with a reprise of the ‘Pussy Galore!’ gag from The Hidden Tiger (perhaps its most obvious antecedent). It’s not surprising that this is an episode which bears comparison with the original series.

The same is true of Target!, which I originally wrote about towards the end of 2014: it’s the one where the robot firing range has been suborned by enemy agents. What can I add at this point? Well, only a few things: research now indicates it is quite unlikely that the police box in this episode is the one from the Dalek movies. Also, in an attempt to drag my young nephew away from brain-rotting YouTube videos, we ended up watching a handful of episodes of The New Avengers together, including this one. I am happy to say he seemed to find it entertaining and engaging. Also, when you watch these episodes in order it is quite obvious that most of the action sequences are being given to Joanna Lumley and Gareth Hunt (perhaps understandably, given Macnee was in his mid-fifties at the time) – Gambit getting the hero role and saving the day isn’t quite as incongruous in context.

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There’s something oddly familiar about the opening sequence of Robert Eggers’ The Northman, and it took me a moment to figure out what it was: smoke belches from the bowels of the earth into an ominous sky, thunder rumbles, and a gravelly-to-the-point-of-being-impossible-to-understand voice-over proclaims we are about the hear the legendary story of a prince and his quest for a terrible revenge in a long-past mystic era…

And I was a bit thrown when a thunderously bombastic Basil Poledouris score didn’t crash in and drive the movie on through the opening credits (like an increasing number of modern movies, it doesn’t even have a title card until the very end). The opening of The Northman recreates the beginning of John Milius’ version of Conan the Barbarian so carefully that it doesn’t seem possible that this is a coincidence – in fact, you could argue that in some ways this is the most authentic recreation of the original Conan stories brought to the screen for many years, right down to individual scenes recreating moments from the text (provided you ignore the fact the film has no explicit links to Robert E Howard’s creation and is specifically set in a different time and place).

Ethan Hawke plays King Aurvandill War-Raven, a Dark Ages king from modern Norway, who is knocking on enough to be thinking about the succession issues that will inevitably occur when he eventually takes an axe to the guts he just can’t walk away from (it comes to us all eventually). He duly takes his young son Amleth down into the cavern beneath the local shrine to Odin where, together with Willem Defoe, they put on leather shorts and bark like dogs for a while (this is by no means the last unexpectedly startling scene in the movie). It turns out that Aurvandill was right to be concerned, as not long after he is murdered by his brother Fjolnir (Claes Bang), who seizes the title and also his brother’s widow (Nicole Kidman).

Well, the only option left for young Amleth is to swear to avenge his father, rescue his mother and kill his uncle, and make his escape across the North Sea by rowing boat until he’s big and strong enough to mount a decent roaring rampage of revenge. He ends up, as luck would have it, somewhere in eastern Europe, becoming a member of a band of berserker warriors and turning into the strapping figure of Alexander Skarsgard somewhere along the way.

All the howling at the moon and tearing people’s throats out with his teeth seems to have distracted Amleth from his oath of vengeance, but luckily a passing seeress with a very impressive hat made of corn (she is played by Bjork, who may well have provided her own costume) reminds him of the destiny that awaits him, and obliging reveals that Fjolnir has been booted out of Norway and settled down in Iceland. Instantly deciding to get on with the whole avenging deal – in fact, so instantly one is almost inclined to raise an eyebrow, but there are many things about The Northman you just have to sit back and go with – Amleth sneaks aboard a boat taking slaves off to Iceland, where he meets Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), who is not just a slave but also a Slav. However, etymology is not key amongst the topics they discuss during the trip, just her potential usefulness to his plans and the prospects for a Scandi-Slav hook-up before the movie is over…

As you can perhaps tell, this is the kind of historical epic that Hollywood used to regularly make not very well, frequently starring people like Tony Curtis or Alan Ladd. Those old movies tended to be enjoyable only as pieces of camp; The Northman is a bit melodramatic in places but in general it seems to expect to be taken seriously. Whether or not this is possible is another question – it’s certainly an impressive-looking and powerfully atmospheric movie but in its best moments it is so outrageously and concertedly over-the-top it can be a little difficult to keep a straight face while watching it.

The on-the-ball reader will already have figured out that the legend of Amleth, his dead father and his usurping uncle has already inspired not just Hamlet but also The Lion King, so it’s not like we’re dealing with a bold new story idea here (although the treatment is obviously different – ‘to behead or not to behead, that is the question’). However, in many ways the story structure keeps on ringing bells – the treatment of a pagan, viscerally brutal world is powerful, but the underlying narrative keeps on hitting very traditional beats. Supporters of the film will probably say that this is the point – it’s an archetypal story drawing on the same folk-legends that have inspired many previous writers (Robert E Howard amongst them). Nevertheless, I think it’s a shame that a film which is obviously the work of people with real vision and creativity should also be quite so predictable.

That said, the kind of audience that seems most likely to respond to The Northman probably won’t be going along in search of great narrative subtleties. Anyone without much of an appetite for crunching violence, heavy gore, and frequent mutilation may find the film tough going, for all that the film also has visual imagination in spades. Eggers himself was apparently a bit concerned before taking the project on that the film would tap into too many stereotypes of white supremacist culture: a particularly bonkers flavour of Caucasian hetero-normativity.

Certainly the film is striking in its adherence to a particular vision of life in the Dark Ages. All the things that usually get slipped into this kind of film when they’re made by a big studio are absent – there’s no comedy relief, no attempt to import modern sensibilities or present past cultures as somehow analogous to modern societies. This is the sort of thing that almost sounds logical, given we’re talking about a historical drama, but it marks The Northman out as niche rather than mainstream entertainment, and potentially controversial entertainment at that.

Let’s just say it likely has cult status in its future. There is a lot here to enjoy – Nicole Kidman gives one of her best performances in ages, and the rest of the cast are also strong; the action is often superbly mounted; and Eggers creates a coherent and convincing world for the story to unfold in. It’s just that it’s all a little bit too predictable, almost coming across as another headbangingly macho action movie even though it’s clear that Eggers has slightly more elevated concerns. In the end there remains a question mark over whether it’s possible to take The Northman seriously as a drama, given the setting and the subject matter. Some people may be able to – but I’m not sure I can, at least not completely. But I did have a good time watching it.

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As I think I’ve mentioned several times before, sometimes I just want to go to see a movie – not a particular movie, not a specific film, I just want to have the experience of watching a film. At this point my usual critical standards necessarily take a bit of a hit, and indeed in some cases I go along to see a film I know virtually nothing about, in the hope of getting a pleasant surprise. This week I was going to go and see the new version of Cyrano de Bergerac, but the light of my life expressed the desire to see it as well and we couldn’t get our schedules in sync. And so I ended up going along to Ruben Fleischer’s Uncharted instead.

I’m going to make the reasonable assumption that you’re an intelligent and rational person (despite the fact you’re reading this blog) and you don’t necessarily wander along to see any old movie that’s on just because you can get a bit obsessive about your film-going. Is that fair? If so, it’s probably quite unlikely you’ll have considered watching Uncharted, because it’s just not that kind of film.

Normally when I write about a film, at the back of my mind is the faint hope that I will be able to help someone make their mind up about whether or not to watch it, and thus in some small way make a contribution to the sum total of their happiness. But you don’t need me to tell you whether or not to watch Uncharted – I suspect you’ve already concluded not to, a decision I would probably applaud. So what are we all doing here? Well, you may be wondering just what it’s like to watch this movie. What is that fabled and ephemeral thing we call experience in this case?

Well: the movie starts by doing that slightly annoying thing where it opens in media res with an action sequence from the third act. This finds young Tom Holland mixed up in an extravagant action-and-stunt sequence that rather puts one in mind of the Bond movies, back in the days when they were fun rather than glum. It’s all quite ambitious and visually interesting, although it was clearly done almost entirely inside a computer rather than with actors and physical objects.

Very soon the film jumps back a decade and a half to when young Holland was… well, even younger. As one of Tom Holland’s most prominent talents is the ability to look about two-thirds of his actual age, the producers have a bit of a challenge when it comes to finding someone to play a younger version of him who looks appreciably less mature but is not in fact a mewling infant. I never really bought into the idea of this being a younger young Holland, but this bit is mainly just laying in exposition and back-story.

It turns out young Holland is playing Nate Drake, a cocktail barman, petty thief, expert on mediaeval history, gymnast, and morally-flexible treasure hunter. (Now that’s what I call a diversified CV.) He also has a bit of a tragic family history just to obscure the fact he’s essentially a collection of plot functions. Into his life trundles roguish chancer Victor Sullivan (Mark Wahlberg – it will tell you how long this film has been stuck in Development Hell if I reveal that Marky Mark was initially supposed to be playing young Holland’s part, rather than the more character-based role of his mentor/tormentor). Sullivan is on the trail of the fabled gold of Magellan (everyone in the film pronounces Magellan with a soft G, which I must confess really annoyed me), which young Holland just happens to be an expert on. ‘I’m not teaming up with you to find the gold,’ says young Holland, but of course by the very next scene he has had a complete change of heart and the two of them are planning to knock over an international auction house in search of a Maguffin, or possibly Majuffin, that will help them get the treasure.

It turns out that the family who financed this Majellan guy’s original trip are still around and wanting payback for their support – this is very long-term thinking – and have hired various bad guys to make the lives of young Holland and Marky Mark more stressful than they could have been. Antonio Banderas pops up as a wealthy scumbag – off in the distance, you can just faintly hear a cry of ‘I told you so!’ from Almodovar as he recalls telling Banderas he would just end up wasting his talent in America – but only briefly, as the film is partly Spanish-financed and they wanted a local star in it for a bit. Most of the villaining is done by Tati Gabrielle, while in a more ambiguous and rather transactional role as another dodgy treasure-hunter we find Sophia Ali, whose accent goes on a bit of a voyage of discovery of its own.

Well, there’s a bit in New York and then they all fly off to Barcelona – there’s a scene on the plane where Holland and Wahlberg discuss at length the fact they’re going to Barcelona, followed by a smash cut to a panoramic view of Barcelona with a huge caption reading ‘BARCELONA’ over it, because this is that kind of film. The film has sort of hit its groove as a Bond-Indiana Jones-Robert Langdon knock-off by this point so you can imagine the sort of things that go on, but the product placement is probably sillier than you’re thinking. Then it’s off to the Philippines for the final act.

As you may be able to tell, Uncharted hadn’t really done a lot for me up to this point, feeling almost entirely procedural – characters run around in search of plot coupons, doing exactly the things you’d expect them to, without any real sense of peril or significance. It’s literally so bloodless that one character has his throat slit on camera without there being any mess or spillage at all. In the final section, the film goes beyond inane into the realms of the actually silly – all the way through the story is stuffed with contrivances that don’t make sense if you think about them; by the climax, the film is not making sense even if you don’t think about it too hard.

Occasionally I wonder if I do have some kind of unjustified bias against computer game movies – it’s true that I can’t remember ever seeing a good one, but it doesn’t necessarily follow that a good one doesn’t exist somewhere out in the wilderness. Or perhaps the form itself is inherently compromised – plot and characterisation are always secondary concerns in a computer game, with the main focus being on gameplay and graphics (which reach the screen as action and imagery). Uncharted is agreeable to look at and there’s always something going on, but you never really care what it is.

Perhaps this is why the producers have taken the reasonable step of engaging young Holland (who is himself an engaging presence, after all) to lead the movie. The lad does have a definite charm, but he’s got virtually nothing to work with in terms of a coherent character. Initially his performance as a wise-cracking cocktail waiter turned globe-trotting treasure hunter is virtually identical to his turn as a wise-cracking adhesive teenage superhero; eventually he finds the odd grace note of swagger, but not much. The Sullivan role is likewise crying out for someone with real charisma and a strong persona of their own, just to paper over the cracks between the different plot functions he’s required to carry out – but Wahlberg just isn’t up to the task.

There’s nothing wrong with mainstream popcorn movie entertainment, there’s nothing necessarily wrong with making the most of a popular franchise property. Uncharted hits all the minimum criteria as a functional movie, and has clearly had quite a bit of money spent on it. But at no point did I ever care about what was happening; I was engaged, in a minimal sort of way, but never actually entertained. Nevertheless, calling it a bad movie would be unfair, because that would suggest it is much more interesting than is actually the case.

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What a terrible testament it is to the passage of time and the ravages of age – that once trim and athletic figure now looking a touch flabby and creaky, that face, its formerly Adonis-like beauty now seamed and masked by a straggly beard and greying hair. Someone who once epitomised cutting-edge cool, now struggling to make sense of the modern world.

But that’s enough about me, though I can’t deny that twenty years of online film criticism have taken their toll. We are here to discuss (amongst other things) Keanu Reeves and his new movie The Matrix Resurrections, directed by Lana Wachowski. I’ll be honest and admit that my heart sank a bit at the prospect of a reappearance by this particular franchise – the original film remains a stunning classic, surely one of the best movies never to win any major awards, but the trajectory of the sequels is a classic example of how even the most exciting and innovative concept can dissolve into overblown nonsense. Like Robocop and The Terminator before it, people tend to forget just how good The Matrix is, simply because the sequels fell so far short of the same standard.

Nevertheless, here we are – and it’s telling that a lot of the initial buzz around this film discussed the possibility that this was either a remake or a semi-reboot, discarding the original sequels and continuing the story along a different path. It seems that everyone wishes the sequels had never happened, or at least been much better.

It initially seems that something odd and tricksy is in progress, as Resurrections opens with a close recreation of the opening sequence from the 1999 film, albeit with different actors. Watching this in some bemusement is a mysterious young woman named Bugs (Jessica Henwick), who seems aware that something is not quite right. It’s a breathless and intriguing sequence, though also quite challenging to keep up with; it also signals the extent to which this film assumes the viewer is familiar with the original.

Soon enough we find ourselves somewhere subtly different, where award-winning games designer Thomas Anderson (Reeves) is leading an outwardly happy life – his work on a title called The Matrix and its sequels having brought him wealth and celebrity. Still, he seems haunted by a vague sense of connection with a woman (Carrie-Anne Moss) he occasionally sees at the coffee shop, and he is having therapy after an episode in his past when he briefly seemed to lose the ability to distinguish between real life and the fantasy of the game.

Then his business partner (Jonathan Groff) breaks the news to him – their corporate overseers at Warner Brothers have decreed the time has come for a fourth episode of The Matrix, and if the original creators refuse to participate, the property will be handed over to hip young replacements, regardless of anyone’s feelings in the matter.

Apparently this is basically what happened with this entire movie, and so I suppose Warners deserve some credit for being game enough to let Wachowski include this rather damning in-joke. Regardless, it elevates the film to a level of witty self-referentiality which I found immensely interesting and promising. Various blackly comic scenes ensue as vapid focus-groupers sit around uselessly brainstorming exactly what it is that a new young audience might want from a Matrix sequel. Meanwhile Thomas starts to get text messages, apparently from fictional characters he created decades before…

This sequence, not to put too fine a point on it, is brilliant – or at least it holds the promise of brilliance, if the rest of the film can follow through on the potential of the conceit. Even while watching it I found myself worrying that they couldn’t possibly sustain this level of invention and cleverness.

Sadly, and not unexpectedly given this series’ track record, they can’t. The really dispiriting thing about The Matrix Resurrections isn’t just that it turns out to be the most pedestrian, uninspired, this-feels-like-a-contractual-obligation kind of sequel imaginable, but that it does so after showing a brief moment of real promise near the start. Not only is the new story predicated on the situation at the end of The Matrix Revolutions, but it laboriously revisits many of the story beats and situations from the original trilogy, never really adding much to them.

And yet, at the same time, it feels like there’s been a conscious effort to distance this film from the others, aesthetically at least – some of the original iconography is still present, but much has been abandoned. The absence of Lawrence Fishburne and Hugo Weaving is keenly felt – the actors cast to replace them do their best (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II is one of them, to say more would involve spoilers), but they just don’t have the chops to replace two charismatic performers who were so integral to the original film.

Elsewhere there just seems to be a profound lack of ambition and new ideas, as the plot devolves into a series of overlong fight and chase sequences punctuated by more of those scenes where people gravely discuss quite elementary questions about choice and determinism. There’s nothing here as visually revolutionary as the first film’s use of bullet time; the action sequences aren’t even as impressive or grandiose as the ones in the sequels. The climax, and really the film as a whole, is a bit of a damp squib.

Nevertheless, it’s all still recognisable as part of the Matrix brand, which was probably a key part of the brief. I would like to think that Lana Wachowski had it in her to make a film as bold and intelligent and impressive as the best of her previous work, and the reason The Matrix Resurrections is so cautious and uninspired is simply down to Warner Brothers wanting a new piece of not-too-challenging product for this holiday season. Wachowski herself seems to have been rather ambivalent about the whole enterprise – when the production was shut down temporarily as a result of the pandemic, she apparently seriously contemplated abandoning the project. I am almost tempted to say it might have been better if she had.

The villain of The Matrix Resurrections is contemptuous of sentimentality and nostalgia, which is telling, given that these seem to have been the key drivers behind the film being made at all. I am sure that fans of the series will turn out for this one, because there are fleeting moments here which are interesting and effective – and Keanu Reeves is as enjoyable to watch as ever. But if you take those two drivers away, what remains is simply a massive disappointment.

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Normally one of the iron rules of cinema – from that subset of the regulatory corpus devoted to the art of the franchise – is that successful sequels are usually a question of providing more of the same thing from the first film. The trick, such as it is, lies in adding just enough novelty to hide the fact that the film is an exercise in repetition. Long-running franchises inevitably mutate over time, but it’s quite unusual for any two films to be radically different in tone or atmosphere (this is usually the sign of a break in production, a change of key personnel, or both).

So exactly what the hell Netflix think they are doing with Matthias Schweighofer’s Army of Thieves seems to be a reasonable question. One of the arch-streamer’s big releases from early in the summer was Army of the Dead, a big-budget horror extravaganza directed by Zach Snyder in full-on taste-and-nuance-free mode. I had a fairly good time watching Army of the Dead, although I think it’s not a patch on the films that obviously inspired it. Army of Thieves, on the other hand, is a completely different proposition.

Schweighofer was in Army of the Dead and reprises the role here in addition to directing. His character is revealed to have led a former existence as Sebastian Schlencht-Wohnert, by day a bank clerk leading a repetitive, dull life, in his spare time an aspiring YouTuber and expert on safecracking and its history. Of particular interest to him are a series of legendary safes made by a man named Wagner, based on his famous namesake’s Ring Cycle of operas.

One day, he is challenged to put his money where his mouth is, when he gets an invite to a secret underground safecracking club in Berlin (my partner has lived there for many years and I don’t recall her mentioning this being a thing, but then I do spend some of the time tuned out while she’s talking). His performance there leads to an invitation to join a faintly ridiculous gang of elite international thieves. So far the overall tone of the film has simply been a bit odd – low-key character comedy with Schweighofer, mixed with bizarre background details about an outbreak of a zombie virus over in Nevada – but its influences and aspirations become a bit clearer, not least because the leader of the gang is Nathalie Emmanuel, best known for playing a supporting member of the Fast & Furious All-Stars in the last few films from that franchise. Also present are Ruby O Fee as an ace hacker and general cool cat, Scott Martin as an especially absurd alpha-male, and Guz Khan as their sandwich-loving getaway driver.

Yes, with the world’s banks on edge because of the zombie virus outbreak and money being shifted around the world, the gang have decided that this is the optimum time to carry out a series of heists on three of the four Wagner vaults (naturally, all the vaults are about to be decommissioned, meaning the robberies must be performed on consecutive days in different European countries). As the world’s leading expert, it will be Sebastian’s job to crack the safes. What could possibly go wrong?

Army of the Dead had a bit of a fridge title, mainly because the zombies were only figuratively an army, and Army of Thieves really does too, because I don’t think five robbers really constitutes an army, either. This is quibbling stuff, however, as Army of Thieves rather unexpectedly turns out to be really good fun. I must admit that when I first heard of the movie and its premise, the old brow did furrow up a bit – it’s a prequel to a zombie movie that doesn’t actually have any zombies in it? – and there is a sense in which it remains a rather odd proposition. This isn’t really a zombie movie, or any kind of horror movie – and yet they feel obliged to put in background sequences about the zombie outbreak in America, and dream sequences with the undead, and references to the zombie crisis. It’s certainly a new approach to a genre mash-up, but whether it genuinely works or not I wouldn’t like to say.

If you disregard all the stuff about zombies – which is, I have to say, a relatively minor element of the film – what you’re left with is an appealing, slick, almost entirely ridiculous caper movie, built around an engaging performance from Schweighofer and directed by him with a lightness of touch which is very appealing. The Netflix caper comedy which has been getting all the attention is Red Notice, which got a massive audience despite being largely dreadful; there are numerous points of similarity between Red Notice and Army of Thieves (there’s even a casual line of dialogue about one character having been the subject of a red notice since they were a teenager), almost to the point where you wonder if all the people working for Netflix ever actually talk to each other about what they’re doing. However, Schweighofer’s movie is much better, being less smug and lazy and taking the time to establish more rounded characters (some of these guys are well on the way to being three-dimensional) and a slightly more coherent plot. The uninitiated viewer will even learn something about the plot of the Ring Cycle, which isn’t something you can say about most action comedy caper movies.

Quite apart from all the odd bits with zombies in them, the film’s existence as a prequel does result in a few slightly regrettable effects – the storyline about the four Wagner vaults isn’t entirely resolved, because, guess what, the final safe is the one Schweighofer is hired to crack in Army of Thieves (all the Wagner music on the soundtrack in that movie finally makes sense as more than a tip of the hat to Excalibur, which is apparently Zach Snyder’s favourite movie), while some of the violence in this film is just a touch more graphic than you might expect given the overall frothy tone of it. (I must also report yet another appearance of that disagreeable trope where, given a nicely diverse group of characters, it’s always only ever a character of one gender, one orientation, and one ethnic group who turns out to be the traitorous villain – see also Eternals, for another example of the same thing.)

On the whole, though, a really entertaining and fun movie, and one which perhaps even manages to give Army of the Dead a bit of much-needed poignancy and depth, given the way it expands Schweighofer’s character. (Then again, unlikely as it seems, apparently he’s going to be in the next sequel, Planet of the Dead, as well.) This is very possibly a better film than its progenitor, but it’s obviously incredibly hard to compare the two. This is a rare example of a franchise where it’s entirely possible someone could thoroughly enjoy one film but take a violent dislike to the other.

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One of the things the last couple of years has really brought home to me is the fact that while I do, obviously, enjoy watching films, I also have a helpless passion for the theatrical experience: actually going out to a cinema, trying to sit patiently through the adverts, wondering which trailers we’re going to get, and so on. I’ve got West Side Story on DVD and have lost track of how often I’ve seen it, but every time it comes back on at a cinema I try to watch it again there, simply because the context makes a truly great film into an almost overwhelming one. I saw it on the big screen again the other night, where it was preceded by the trailer for Steven Spielberg’s forthcoming version: predictable cries of ‘Spoilers!’ from someone at the back, in addition to a vague sense of bafflement at what on earth Spielberg thinks he can possibly achieve. No film is entirely perfect, but West Side Story comes much closer than most, especially up on the big screen.

It was just as well I went, as the following day Niece tested positive for Covid (life is still not back on an entirely even keel and my family are showing superhuman reserves of patience and generosity by putting up with me for much longer than anticipated) and trips to the cinema are off the agenda for at least the next ten days. So much for an early verdict on the Ghostbusters sequel or Benedict Cumberbatch’s new western.

‘There’s always home cinema,’ someone said, but, you know, that always sounds a bit of an oxymoron to me. But I am in a minority, of course: the home cinema audience is huge, and it seems like an appreciable chunk of them spent the other weekend watching Rawson Marshall Thurber’s Red Notice, which apparently had the biggest audience share for its debut of any film in Netflix history. (It also had the tiny cinema release Netflix usually reserves only for films it hopes will win Oscars: I’m going to stick my neck out and say unless they introduce a new category for Best Film With No Substance, Identity, or Original Ideas of Its Own, Red Notice will be going home empty-handed.)

Red Notice is virtually a fridge title anyway: apparently it’s another name for the most serious kind of international arrest warrant, not that this has any relevance to the plot until the last few seconds. The film gets going with some flim-flam about fabulous jewelled eggs that Mark Antony gave to Cleopatra as a wedding present (the eggs and even the marriage are entirely fictitious, by the way); the quest to reunite the eggs is the plot device the rest of the movie pivots creakily around.

One of the eggs is in Italy, so we get a swooping drone camera shot of the iconic and unmistakable skyline of Rome, which the director then decides to obscure behind a huge caption saying ROME, presumably because he knows this film is aimed at an audience whose carpets and knuckles are frequently in contact. Leaping stoically from a hefty vehicle is genial Dwayne Johnson, whose head looks a bit like an egg these days (he was paid 10% of the very substantial budget): Dwayne basically seems to be playing a variation on his Fast & Furious character, in this case a no-nonsense FBI agent chasing a daring art thief. Johnson thinks the thief has already nicked the egg. ‘Of course not!’ sneers the museum director. But our man knows better, and the thief has made the mistake of swapping the priceless treasure for a fake which dissolves when a well-known soft drink is poured over it. Even more perplexingly, given he must have nicked the egg the previous night (the exhibit is surrounded by tourists all the time), the thief (Ryan Reynolds) has stuck around for some reason.

Still, it enables Johnson and Reynolds to chase about and swap repartee for a bit, which is really the meat of this kind of movie; it looks for a bit like Reynolds has got away, but no, Johnson turns up and nabs him properly, and he gets sent off to the Russian gulag to await trial (I think some of the jurisprudence in this movie is a bit iffy, but I expect you had already figured that out for yourself).

But lo! There is another twist, as another art thief (Gal Gadot, on another 10% of the budget) pinches the egg after Johnson recovers it, having taken on the job of finding all three in return for a huge payday. What’s more, Gadot frames Johnson for the theft, and Interpol send him off to be Reynolds’ cell-mate in Russia.

Yes, we are back in buddy-buddy land, and it falls to Reynolds and Johnson to team up, bust out of prison with virtually a single bound, and try to stop Gadot from getting the other two eggs, bickering and squabbling all the way. Can they find the other eggs in time? Will they come to respect and like each other? And just how big a slice of the budget is Ryan Reynolds actually in line for?

Let’s get one thing straight: Red Notice is a pretty bad movie, even by the standards of Netflix originals. All three stars have basically been nailed into their comfort zones and are required to work with a script where various elements of old Fast & Furious, Ocean’s Eleven and Indiana Jones films are cobbled together, all seemingly with the least demanding of audiences in mind. There are holes in the plot Dwayne Johnson would probably fit through, plot twists that are either very predictable or completely absurd, grindingly obvious expo- and info-dumps, and heavy reliance on slick and (also obvious) CGI. There are some tonal problems for what’s supposed to be a knockabout caper (at one point Gadot, desirous of information, applies electrodes to Johnson’s lower anatomy, and not in a recreational way). Such is the nature of the plot that the film doesn’t even have a proper climax or ending, just sort of crunching its way down into a lower gear while getting ready for the inevitable sequel or two. It is mechanical popcorn film-making of the least attractive kind, and shorn of the benefits of the theatrical experience there is little to disguise this.

However, it would be remiss of me not to admit that watching it was not a wholly horrible experience: genial Dwayne has become the world’s biggest star because he is an agreeable screen presence, after all, and in this film he does the sort of thing audiences like to see him do – the film only really pushes him into new territory at one point where he is required to do the tango with Gadot, which resembles what will happen if examples of industrial architecture are ever allowed to compete on Strictly. Ryan Reynolds, also, is very good at the kind of snarky, faintly camp and knowing schtick he is constantly doing throughout, and the film does have some pretty good gags in it. I must also acknowledge the presence of what I have called for some years the Kurylenko Factor: which is that any film in which someone like Gal Gadot habitually turns up in tight dresses, well-fitted jodhpurs, swimsuits, I think you’re getting the idea here, is always going to have a kind of rudimentary appeal on a very basic level, no matter how bad the script. I’m not proud of it, but it is a fact.

The thing is, though, that the idea is surely to take charismatic stars, adept light comedians, and beautiful women and put them in a film with a really good script where they shine, not just treat them as nearly sufficient in and of themselves and just do the barest minimum to cobble a story together around them. But this is what Red Notice feels like: it’s just dumb and pointless, for all the slick and lavish presentation. A shocking waste of time and talent, and a very bad omen for the future.

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I like Tom Hardy; he’s a talented guy. I also like Andy Serkis, for the same reason. I like Woody Harrelson, Naomie Harris, and Reece Shearsmith too, and I suppose I don’t have a beef with Stephen Graham or Michelle Williams either, now that I think about it. An enviably talented bunch, that lot, with some really impressive work behind them.

Quite what they’re all doing making Venom: Let There Be Carnage together, I have no idea, but I suspect the siren song of an $850 million box office return for the original film may have something to do with it. That is a slightly baffling figure for a not-especially-good film where (essentially) a pool of brain-eating slime is the theoretical protagonist and lots of things don’t actually make a great deal of sense. But here we are, with a sequel touted as featuring ‘one of Marvel’s greatest and most complex characters’.

(Yes, we are back in the realm of Marvel Comics-inspired movies yet again, though – for anyone not versed in such matters – this is not an actual Marvel Studios production, but one made ‘in association with Marvel’ – basically, Marvel sold off the rights to the Venom character years ago to Sony, who know a promising bandwagon when they see it and are pressing ahead with their at-a-slight-remove franchise of Spider-Man characters, tangentially connected to the Marvel Studios juggernaut.)

Greatest? Well, that’s a matter of opinion – but ‘most complex’? Venom’s a pool of brain-eating slime that started off as a gimmick costume for Spider-Man, so let’s not get delusions of grandeur here – we’re hardly talking about Othello or Hamlet. Thankfully, the film has little truck with this sort of pretentiousness, cheerfully chucking it out (but presumably failing to notice that things like characterisation and plot coherence were apparently packed in the same box).

Tom Hardy, who also co-wrote the story and co-produced the film, once again plays Eddie Brock, a whiny loser of a journalist who is still sharing his body with Venom, an alien symbiote with various bizarre powers, an egotistical personality, no moral compass whatsoever and an insatiable appetite for brains. (The dynamic between the two of them is oddly reminiscent of that of Rod Hull and Emu, although with more CGI.) For reasons mainly to do with the requirements of the plot, Brock is summoned to meet with imprisoned serial killer Cletus Kasady (Woody Harrelson).

This whole plot element is epically fudged, to be honest, but the upshot is that Kasady is sent to death row, for which he blames Brock. (Forget all those years of appeals and pleas for clemency you often see in movies and documentaries – on this occasion, from sentencing to execution seems to take about a day and half.) However, Kasady also manages to eat part of the Venom symbiote (don’t ask), which fissions off into an angry red blob with severe daddy issues called Carnage. Pausing only to bust his crazed girlfriend (Harris) out of an institute for mentally unstable people with mutant powers, Carnage sets off to destroy Venom, Brock, and everyone close to them…

(Yes, it is very odd that, in a film set in a world where there isn’t a superhero on every street corner and Venom and Carnage appear to be the only unusual inhabitants, someone randomly turns up with mutant powers, but no-one makes much of a fuss about it even though it feels like a stretch for this particular movie. But the whole issue of the relationship between the different Marvel franchises is a live and dynamic one right now, and this film is likely to be discussed a lot with particular reference to a moment which will presumably end up being blamed on Lokiette nuking the Sacred Timeline.)

I thought the greatest value of the first Venom movie was as a stern reminder of just how bad a lot of superhero movies were, X-Men franchise excepted, in the late 90s and the early years of this century. This one is, objectively speaking, at least as bad and quite possibly worse – it’s a toss-up as to whether the plot makes more or less sense this time around, but there’s also an undistinguished performance from Harrelson, who is perhaps a bit swamped by all the CGI, and Harris frantically chewing the scenery as an almost totally one-dimensional character.

And yet, and yet… oh dear. I have to confess that I really enjoyed a lot of this film, although I did feel a bit embarrassed about it even at the time. This is mainly because the movie isn’t afraid to really engage with the potential silliness of the relationship between Brock and the symbiote and play it hard for laughs. The bromance between the two of them and their various squabbles over who is in charge, are actually quite sweet and funny, and Tom Hardy gives a genuinely accomplished comic performance, both in terms of physical slapstick as Brock, and vocally as Venom. (Never mind Patrick Stewart or Ronnie Kray or Bane, the Venom voice is probably the most impressive in Hardy’s repertoire.)

Perhaps one of the problems of the film, for Woody Harrelson in particular, is that Carnage comes across as a slightly tedious single-issue version of Venom, with essentially the same powers and a boring personality – if Harrelson had found a way to differentiate between the two characters more effectively, the rest of the film might have been as engaging as Tom Hardy’s comedy schtick.

In the end it is really just an exercise in simple charisma and incidental pleasures; the film is paced like an absolute bullet, presumably to ensure no-one has time to think about exactly what’s going on in front of their eyes – most of the time you’re bombarded with decent gags frequently enough to keep the weaknesses of the film from seeming too obvious. (That said, the climactic CGI battle is, as usual, 10-15% too long.)

I wouldn’t bet against Let There Be Carnage’s mixture of CGI-boosted grisliness and slapstick turning out to be just as big a hit as it was the last time around, but it’s difficult to see where they can go next with the character without repeating themselves – beyond the obvious alternative, which is to do a team-up with one of the other characters they have the rights to. That would certainly be interesting. Putting Venom into a bigger world might do both him and it some good; as it stands, this film is likely headed for cult guilty pleasure status.

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The arrival of a new James Bond film has always been a very big deal, for as long as I can remember – but such is the breathless expectation awaiting Cary Joji Fukunaga’s No Time to Die that one half expects significant chunks of the population to turn purple and fall over. This is, let us recall, the production which saw Danny Boyle depart shortly before shooting began, due to script differences; various injuries besetting key cast members; and not one but two substantial postponements, the second of which was the catalyst which caused several major UK cinema chains to shut up shop last Autumn, well ahead of the second lockdown.

Now, of course, it seems that Bond is the latest movie to be hailed as the saviour of commercial cinema. So desperate, so certain is the company running the local multiplex where I’m living, that they scheduled forty-five screenings of the movie on its day of release alone (not counting the midnight showing – they started at nine in the morning and continued several times an hour until eleven at night). This is unprecedented, mad, and silly; it almost qualifies as a new level of hype and expectation. No film, not even a classic Bond, can match up to this kind of hype, surely?

Well. The film opens with the customary pre-credits sequence, but its first innovation is to shatter the record for time elapsed before the actual titles roll. Don’t hold your breath or you’ll be turning purple and falling over again. To be fair, this is a hugely confident and thrilling segment, opening with a vignette like something out of a horror movie, segueing into something unexpectedly moving, and then slamming into high gear as Bond’s trip to Italy with his girlfriend from the last movie (Lea Seydoux) hits a few wrinkles – suffice to say the famous Aston Martin DB5 gets one more glorious run-out.

Then we’re off into the plot, which starts with a resurgent SPECTRE (I know I’m the only one still capitalising the name of the organisation, but I’m a sentimental old thing) attacking a London bio-warfare lab, stealing a new weapon, and kidnapping its creator. Shadowy forces are at work inside the governments of the free world and a retired Bond is recruited by his old friend Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright) to retrieve the boffin before SPECTRE persuades him to do something nefarious with it. However, he finds himself in competition with his old paymasters at MI6, who have sent a Double-O agent from the younger generation on exactly the same mission…

And it all takes off from here, more or less. The plot is convoluted, but not impenetrably so, although it does feel sometimes that all the double-crossings and personal angst and exposition of bleak back-story is rather taking the place of the action and grand set-pieces which have always been the Bond franchise’s bread and butter. Somewhere along the way, too, exactly what the agenda of the diabolical mastermind (Rami Malek) is seems to become rather unclear. Even so, the film finishes strongly, with all the requisite crash-bang-wallop (along with a few more surprising touches) and the getting-on-for-three-hours running time more or less floats by provided you haven’t ingested too many liquids before it starts.

This is lavish, highly entertaining stuff, less glum and introspective overall than some of the Craig Bond films have been in the past, and striking an interesting balance between honouring the series’ history and engaging in some startling acts of iconoclasm – the plot draws on elements from the original version of You Only Live Twice, while the film overall is informed by one previous entry in the series in particular. Daniel Craig himself carries a huge movie with aplomb, but he is very well supported – Rami Malek is an authentically creepy and twisted Bond villain, Jeffrey Wright manages to make Leiter so much more than just Bond’s sidekick, and there’s an eye-catching extended cameo from Ana de Armas (who I think everyone was expecting to be in the movie a bit more than she actually is).

However, there are a lot of things about this film which it’s very difficult to talk about without spoiling it completely – most of them ultimately boiling down to the question of just what place, if any, there is for a character like James Bond in the world today. The producers (one of whom is Craig) seem very aware of this, which is why a number of what can perhaps be called corrective measures have been put in place – Lashana Lynch plays one of Bond’s fellow agents and the script has been given a polish by the acclaimed Fridge Wallaby, writer and star of Fleabag. Even so, one gets a sense of the decks being swept quite clean and a line firmly being drawn under the Craig era, in preparation for…

Well, that’s the question. When you really get down to it, James Bond – Ian Fleming’s James Bond 007, as the credits still put it – is the personification of a white heterosexual male power fantasy, and I can’t think of anything more problematic in modern culture. Bond has always been a bit problematic, but never more so than today, when virtually every major remake or adaptation of an older story sees characters ostentatiously having their genders or ethnicities changed.

Looking at the Craig era now, it’s clear that throughout them there’s been an ongoing negotiation between Bond-as-power-fantasy-figure and Bond-as-an-actual-credible-character; what made Casino Royale such an astounding breath of fresh air was that it did treat Bond seriously as a character; the series’ occasional problems since then have largely arisen from the limitations of this approach within the confines of a traditionally big, brash, and slightly tongue-in-cheek blockbuster action movie series. The new film really pushes this approach to its uttermost limits: one of the things I predict will prove highly polarising and divisive about it is that it is the human, flawed Bond that is central to the (rather contrived) final sequence, rather than the comforting, infallible superhero. (Not that the pay-off to this isn’t unexpectedly moving.)

The old idea of James Bond as a white male wish-fulfilment figure likely has no future, the modern cultural landscape being as it is. The problem is that the subtler Bond the Craig movies have brought to the screen, a somewhat modulated and updated, more humanised version of the character from the novels, likely has little distance left to run either: for a new actor to continue with it now would only invite deadly comparisons with Daniel Craig. But there has to be something a Bond movie provides that you just don’t get from – say – a Fast & Furious movie; call it the quintessence of Bondishness. What the people at the top of Eon have to figure out now is just what that is and whether it still has a place in the culture of the future.

I must admit to not being particular optimistic on this front, having seen too much well-intentioned cultural vandalism over the last few years. Bond is really the last of the great masculine icons; it’s a wonder he’s lasted this long. If this twenty-fifth Bond film does prove to be the last hurrah of the series before it’s reconfigured into something fundamentally different, then that’s a shame – but No Time to Die is at least a worthy and entirely fitting piece of valediction.

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