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The recent long weekend here in the UK was afflicted by more bad weather (too much heat and sunlight) but at least there was some respite to be had within the local cinemas. Almost by coincidence, we were treated to a mini-Steven Spielberg festival over the weekend – the UPP’s Summer Holidays season took an offbeat turn with another showing for the film that announced him to the world at large, 1975’s Jaws, while the Phoenix has been showing a succession of well-regarded films to mark the thirtieth anniversary of a prominent film magazine, and this week’s choice was Raiders of the Lost Ark from 1981 (I have to confess to a slight pang that the schedule had not been just a bit different: next week’s revival is Magnolia, which I would love to see again, but my schedule just won’t stretch to let me attend that).

If I were asked to choose two early Spielberg movies to watch again (and by ‘early Spielberg’ I would include everything up to E.T. or possibly Temple of Doom) it would probably be these two, although Close Encounters of the Third Kind would be challenging hard as well. These films arguably bookend a period during which Spielberg and a few others (most notably George Lucas, one of the inceptors of Raiders of the Lost Ark) redefined commercial American cinema and in many ways created the medium as we know it today. If they happen to share a few other features, well, that is only to be expected in the circumstances.

Jaws is one of those movies that everybody knows: or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that you can start playing John Williams’ famous theme and within a few bars virtually anyone will get the reference. It is well-documented that Spielberg has said he was effectively compelled to use the music to stand in for the physical shark, as the prop itself was so problematic to get working. That said, the theme is used relatively sparingly; less than you might expect.

Still, for form’s sake: based on a potboiler novel by Peter Benchley (who turns up in the film for a cameo, along with the other credited screenwriter, Carl Gottlieb), Jaws is set on and around Amity, an island off the coast of New England which is gearing up for its summer season. Newcomer police chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) is still learning the ropes, and doesn’t quite know what to do when a young woman’s body is found on the beach, apparently having been a late night snack for a passing shark. His instinct is to close the beaches and call for expert assistance, but he is talked out of the former step at least by the town’s slimy mayor (Murray Hamilton), who is perhaps too conscious of the potential impact on the town’s income. Tragedy inevitably ensues, and Brody finds himself all at sea on an expedition to find and kill the shark, accompanied by keen young scientist Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and very salty sea dog Quint (Robert Shaw), three men in a boat which may prove to be of inadequate size…

Jaws is acknowledged to be the first summer blockbuster in the sense of the term as it is used today, something which is probably connected to the fact it was one of the first films to go a simultaneous wide release across the USA, with a correspondingly energetic promotional strategy. It certainly has many of the characteristics of blockbusters today, in that it was not originally written for the screen and is essentially a genre movie which has been tarted up a bit. The makers of modern blockbusters do this by throwing huge sums of money at their projects; Jaws takes a different approach. This is really just a horror movie about a monster on the loose, and sticks to the structure of the form with great fidelity – there is much misdirection and many false alarms in the orchestration of events, and the film isn’t afraid to fall back on the odd jump scare, either. By the climax it has become the stuff of fantasy – giant sharks don’t make a habit of systematically attacking boats in order to eat the crew. And yet perhaps Spielberg’s smartest trick is to disguise this horror movie as much more of a mainstream drama, certainly in the first half – it is low-key, it is naturalistic, there is even a hint of a grown-up subtext in the film’s cynical attitude towards elected officials (this was made only a couple of years after Watergate, after all).

Of course, the second half of the film operates in a rather different way, as a kind of inverted chamber piece with the three men out on the water slowly realising that while they may have bitten off more than they can chew, this is not a problem likely to afflict their quarry. This whole section of the film is superlatively constructed, paced, and executed – the shift from three men on a somewhat intense fishing trip, to a desperate fight to the death is handled so deftly you barely notice it. The change in tone between the two halves of the film is still very obvious, but the results more than justify the atypical narrative structure.

If we’re talking about films with odd scripts, then that moves us neatly on to Raiders of the Lost Ark, a film I have written about before in a limited sort of way (my thesis on that occasion was that, irrespective of its other numerous and considerable strengths, one of the things that makes Raiders so notable is that it is one of the few mainstream Hollywood movies apart from biblical epics and a few supernatural horror films to be predicated on the existence of God). Looking at it more generally, though, it certainly seems to give the lie to the suggestion that a classic film has to start with a perfect script. I love Raiders of the Lost Ark, not least because one does sometimes get the impression while watching it that, like Indiana Jones himself, the film-makers are making it up as they go. There are moments where characters make questionable decisions, there are some fairly outrageous plot devices, there is even the odd hole in the plot. The plot itself resolves with the most literal example of a deus ex machina ending imaginable. (I am aware of the school of thought which suggests that the actions of Jones himself have a negligible impact on the plot until the final couple of minutes following the climax.)

And yet the breathless, amiable rush of the film disarms any criticisms one might be minded to make: not for nothing was it nominated for Best Picture that year – and, with all due respect to Chariots of Fire, with hindsight the eventual result does look like another case of the academy calling it wrong. Then again, this is not from one of the genres that Oscar is sweet on – although quite what genre it belongs to is another question. The story, which concerns archaeologist Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) and his attempts to stop the Nazis from seizing control of a priceless and possibly supernatural biblical artefact, is a bit difficult to pin down. There are elements of Bond-style action movie (there is something quite knowing about the way that Sean Connery turns up in a later film as Jones’ father), but also there is also fantasy, comedy, and romance. But above all one is aware not of genre but an attitude – an unashamed nostalgia for Golden Age Hollywood, whether in the form of prestige pictures like Casablanca or the weekly serials which are an equally obvious inspiration. You feel like you are watching something classic and familiar even when the film is inventing a new kind of action fantasy.

The thing that makes Raiders of the Lost Ark truly special is the way it combines a series of absolutely first-rate set pieces – fights, chases, death-defying leaps, and so on – with equally immaculate character work and exposition. Jones is never in danger of becoming a cipher, thanks equally to Ford’s performance and Lawrence Kasdan’s screenplay. There is always something slightly hapless and shambolic about Indiana Jones – he remains entirely human and relatable throughout, which is surely the secret of the character’s success and longevity (a fifth film is promised for next year).

Is the film about anything, or just cheery escapism for those yearning for a less complicated world? (One thing you can say about Nazis, they make very good villains – and Ronald Lacey’s Toht is possibly the most totally evil Nazi in screen history.) Perhaps unsurprisingly, it does feel tonally not dissimilar to the best of George Lucas’ stellar conflict movies, and one thing it certainly shares with them is a central journey for the protagonist concerning the finding of faith – Jones starts the film happily dismissing his colleagues’ concerns about the Ark, but by the end he genuinely seems to have become a believer, surviving through an act of faith.

It would be nice to make one more link and suggest that Brody’s final hopeful shot at the shark in Jaws is another example of this, for it would create a pleasing unity for the films we have been discussing (as well as connecting them to several other Lucas and Spielberg films from this period). Best not to push it, though: at the very least, these are both excellent films, marvellous entertainment and as fresh and enjoyable as they were when they first appeared. There is a reason why Steven Spielberg has been such a dominant figure in entertainment for nearly half a century now, and these films provide good evidence for it: the man is a master of his craft.

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I know that some people have occasionally accused me of being unreasonably inflexible and rigid in my attitudes and principles. Well, maybe so; everyone’s got to have their red lines, after all. But in my defence, I would like to offer proof that a man can change. For quite a long time in the early and middle 2000s I was a definite cheerleader for the career of Gerard Butler, always lamenting his poor film choices and bad luck and hoping he would rise to become a genuine leading man. However, for the last couple of years I have quietly been hoping he would pack it all in and slope off back to obscurity.

What changed? Well, when Butler actually became a star he ended up making films like Geostorm, Hunter Killer, and especially London Has Fallen, and frankly I can only take so much of that kind of thing (some of the personal grooming commercials he’s been doing have been difficult to stomach as well). If it hadn’t been for the current blight in interesting mainstream films I suspect I would have given his new one, Ric Roman Waugh’s Angel Has Fallen, a very clear miss. But, you know – maybe I do have some residual affection for the lad.

The movie opens with moody scenes of men in combat gear, flames, and helicopters. They are clearly big manly men, carrying big gunly guns, but keeping well clear of the big flamey flames. (Sometimes a helicopter is just a helicopter.) It turns out this lot are all after heroic swivel-eyed psycho Mike Banning (GERARD! BUTLER!), only not really, as anyone with a switched-on brain will quickly realise. This fake man-hunt is just a device to allow the movie to open with some running around and shooting as well as foreshadowing what is to follow when the movie properly gets going (basically, more running around and shooting).

Well, with that out of the way, they have to lay in some plot, which involves Banning’s old mate Jennings (Danny Huston), a mercenary who’s feeling the pinch, and the decision of the President (Morgan Freeman) not to use private security firms to execute American foreign policy. There is also a plotline about Banning knocking on a bit, suffering from insomnia and concussion and a dodgy neck, and dreading the prospect of the desk job which is being floated before him.

All this done, it’s off to the races as someone unknown (but really very obvious) attempts to kill the President while he’s fishing, using killer drones. This is one of the movie’s big set pieces and it is certainly fairly impressive, although the fact that this is the third film this year alone to incorporate killer drones as a plot device inevitably lessens the impact. Everyone dies but Banning and the Prez (who is left in a coma), and evidence surfaces suggesting that Banning has been colluding with the Russians against the best interests of the American people. With the administration in turmoil and the threat of war looming (as usual, this is an abstract, off-screen sort of looming, an attempt to raise the stakes more than anything else), it’s up to Banning to go on the run from the FBI in an attempt to clear his name and save the nation…

So: a few changes from the last …Has Fallen movie, most visibly the disappearance of Aaron Eckhart as the President and the promotion of Morgan Freeman to the top job. You can understand why Eckhart must have found this a fairly unfulfilling gig, as all it involved was looking weak and needing to be rescued all the time, and Freeman got to make all the big speeches anyway. It is odd to realise this is only the second film where Morgan Freeman plays the US President, it feels like it’s been a plank of his career for ages (even though the first time was in a film where basically half the world blew up, not the most reassuring track record). Banning’s wife has also been recast, not that it matters very much.

Less visibly, but perhaps more importantly, this is a less ugly and offensive film than London Has Fallen, although it is still a very mechanical chase-thriller with lengthy action sequences undistinguished by any real flair or energy. It doesn’t relish gratuitous sadism in the same way the previous film did, nor does it treat serious real-world issues in quite such an offensively glib manner. So it is on some level an improvement.

However, London Has Fallen was such a bad film that being better than it doesn’t mean Angel Has Fallen is actually what you’d call a good one. It is, as noted, mechanical, and also quite predictable – it’s crystal-clear right from the start that Danny Huston is going to turn out to be the bad guy, for instance. (Not quite entirely predictable, though: a couple of characters get the chop who you wouldn’t necessarily expect.) Much of it is quite humourless, soundtracked primarily by Butler shouting profanities and grunting a lot.

On the other hand, when they do try to lighten up, the results are mixed at best. Banning attempts to go to ground with his estranged father, played by Nick Nolte. It turns out that Pops Banning is also a swivel-eyed psycho, but he is presented as the comic relief character: when he blows dozen of bad guys away or stabs them to death it is usually the set-up to a punchline of some description. (When Mrs Banning meets her father-in-law for the first time, the very first thing he does is knife two guys to death in her presence – and she still has doubts that he’s related to her husband! Has she not been paying attention for the last two movies?) This also occasions an attempt at some added depth, as Pops Banning is another army veteran left traumatised by his experiences. Not that the film is really about this or attempts to deal with it in any depth. It just sort of prods the notion in an attempt to generate some pathos and then moves on to the next scene.

The movie is of course afflicted by the same problem that has troubled any recent attempt to portray goings on at the top end of the US government. In the past the answer has always been to create a sort of roman-a-clef effect, to some degree or other – so we had heroic, charming POTUSes in films during the Clinton years, Danny Glover and Jamie Foxx in the Oval Office during the Obama administration, and so on. But what are you supposed to do at the moment? Hire the Jim Henson Company? In the end the film parts company with reality entirely, which is kind of ironic as the current US administration did that quite some time ago.

You do actually get a sense of a film not quite hedging its bets completely in this area: if anything, this is a movie pitching to an old, white, male, blue-collar crowd, more likely than not to be wearing one of those red baseball caps with the cute slogan on it. Heroic Banning, after all, is framed for colluding with the Russians and wrongfully persecuted by the FBI as a result – although there is a passing reference to Russian tampering in US elections which someone has slipped in, in an attempt at balance. There is also a scene in which a defenceless African-American woman is shot in the face by a white middle-aged man, which I would imagining playing quite well with a certain constituency of the current president’s base.

However, lest you come away with the impression that this is just empty carnage, questionable comic relief and dubious political subtext, I should mention that there is also a theme about the deep bond and fellow-feeling that exists between former brothers-in-arms Banning and Jennings. Truly they understand and care for each other, although this doesn’t stop Jennings trying to frame his buddy or have his family kidnapped. The final tussle between them is thus an oddly affectionate one and even somewhat tender, as they grapple sweatily together, holding one another tightly and gasping for breath (both have been doing a lot of running, and Banning has just copped a grenade at point-blank range), before Banning brings things to a climax and slips it in (his dagger, I mean). ‘I’m glad it was you!’ whispers Danny Huston, before flopping down to bleed out in a pool of his own bodily fluids. You almost feel like you’re intruding on them by watching this stuff.

Or possibly I’m reading too much into all of this. I suspect it is actually impossible to read too little into it, for this is ultimately formulaic entertainment, the hard lines of plot barely garnished by the odd moment purporting to bring character or depth to it. That said, Danny Huston is clearly having fun, and there’s something about Morgan Freeman that can’t help but bring a touch of class to whatever he does. The film also scores points for improving on London Has Fallen. But on the whole this is insignificant stuff. My advice to Gerard Butler now? Take the desk job, the next time they offer it.

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Until a very short time ago I would have sworn to you that the five Fu Manchu movies Christopher Lee made in the late 1960s were products of his relationship with Hammer films. They have the same kind of period setting which gives so many Hammer horrors their atmosphere, they have the same mixture of pulp and class, and, well, they have Christopher Lee in them.

Apparently not: these films were made by the British producer Harry Alan Towers, and while they still look a lot like Hammer films, they generally tend much more towards the pulp adventure genre than actual horror per se. This is not to say that elements of these films are not shocking, just that this is probably not in the places intended by the film-makers themselves.

1966’s The Brides of Fu Manchu is the second of these films, following the previous year’s The Face of Fu Manchu. Face is rather stolid; Brides is much more confident, colourful and preposterous. For a film ostensibly about a Chinese supervillain, it opens in a surprisingly Egyptian-styled lair (possibly Towers just bought a lot of second-hand Egyptian props off the set of Carry On Cleo). A sequence briskly unfolds involving various nubile damsels in distressed clothing, a snake pit, and death by haircut, which sets the tone of the film quite nicely. We meet Professor Merlin, a French scientist, played by Rupert Davies (Davies opts for the inevitable allo-mah-Briteesh-chooms accent, but we are in for a feast of dubious accentry as the film continues). Merlin’s daughter has been kidnapped by the evil Fu Manchu (Christopher Lee, of course) and Merlin is coerced into helping him conquer the world.

How is he going to do this? Well, Fu Manchu has a death ray, but as this is the 1920s he needs a set of relay stations to transmit the ray to wherever it needs to go. Hence all the kidnapped young women: their fathers have been busily building relay towers all over Europe (without anyone taking much notice, it would seem).

Next on the list for a kidnapping is Marie Lentz, daughter of a German scientist (Marie is also German for the first twenty minutes, then reverts to using the natural French accent of Marie Versini, who plays her. This is that sort of film). The first intimation that Fu Manchu may not be the machiavellian genius everyone says he is comes when it is revealed that his preferred kidnapping technique is for his dacoit henchmen to jump out on people from behind cars and other everyday objects and try to overpower them by brute force. This goes somewhat amiss as Marie’s companion Franz (Heinz Drache) drives about four dacoits off single-handed and beats one of them to death in the process. Franz is not a heavyweight boxer or commando, by the way, he is a research chemist. (The reason why there are so many German characters in this film is because it was a co-production with a West German company.)

The dead dacoit in London is enough to put Fu Manchu’s dogged nemesis, Sir Denis Nayland Smith (Douglas Wilmer), on the trail, accompanied by the faithful Dr Petrie (there is a very obvious Sherlock Holmes vibe going on here, only added to by the fact that Wilmer played Holmes on TV the previous year). Can Nayland Smith and his associates figure out what Fu Manchu is up to before he takes over the world?

There are things which are non-ironically good about The Brides of Fu Manchu, principally some of the production values – the recreation of 1920s London is handsomely done, incorporating many vintage cars, decent numbers of extras, and even a biplane for one sequence. (I should also say that there are also quite a few rather duff props and sets on display, with some distinctly wobbly death ray transmitters turning up before the end). Don Sharp’s direction is pacy and energetic, giving the film something of the feel of a Bond film with a period setting.

On the other hand, we have to acknowledge the various absurdities of the script, which above all else is heavily reliant on some outrageous plot devices to function. Most glaring of these is a character called Abdul (played by Salman Peerzada), one of the hospitality staff in Fu Manchu’s lair who decides to betray him for no apparent reason whatsoever. Nayland Smith may march around a lot looking dour and determined, but it’s Abdul who does most of the donkey work of helping the hostages escape before the end of the film. Other delights include lookalikes who bear no resemblance to the person they’re supposed to be, and an uproarious truth-drug sequence.

One comes away with the impression that Fu Manchu would have got away with it all, if not for some very bad recruitment decisions. Quite apart from hiring Abdul to do the catering, he is also saddled with a chief technician named Feng (Burt Kwouk), who has the bad manners to have a nervous breakdown and collapse onto the big red self-destruct lever in the secret lair (the fixtures in the secret lair have a lovely steampunky charm to them). His henchmen also leave a lot to be desired – German research chemists are quite capable of beating them up in droves, and at one point there’s a massed brawl between the dacoits and the escaping young women in which the guards seem to be distinctly hard pressed. Ancient Chinese saying, Fu Manchu: you just can’t get the staff.

It is, as you may have guessed, impossibly to take remotely seriously, but still hugely entertaining if you’re in the right sort of mood. That said, I fully expect that many people will be shaking their heads and sucking their teeth at the very idea of enjoying a Fu Manchu movie in our enlightened present-day society. Sax Rohmer’s original novels were allegedly directly inspired by a racist agenda, after all. (My mother was in the room while we were watching this and complained that she couldn’t tell the good and bad guys apart. ‘Anyone Chinese is a bad guy,’ I said, which is not strictly true (Nayland Smith’s house-girl seems to be on the level) but a good rule of thumb.) There’s also the fact that this racist stereotype Chinese supervillain is portrayed by a notably un-Chinese looking actor in yellowface make-up. (Students of pop culture will enjoy spotting several familiar actually Chinese actors in minor roles: apart from Burt Kwouk, these include the ubiquitous Vincent Wong and a young (ahem) Ric Young, of Transporter fame.)

Well, I’m going to do my usual thing and say that it is entirely possible to take a film like this too seriously. If it was a serious, well-written, thoughtful drama, it would certainly be unacceptably racist. But it’s none of those things – it’s an absurd knockabout pulp action movie. If you come away from it genuinely convinced that Chinese people represent a menace and want to take over the world, well – you’re so suggestibly gullible you probably shouldn’t be allowed to watch movies at all. Obviously you couldn’t make a film remotely like this one nowadays. But it’s still a mistake to judge old films by modern standards. Even if The Brides of Fu Manchu was intended as a piece of bigoted propaganda, we should also remember it was also probably meant to be a serious thriller. The fact is that it succeeds at being neither, but as an absurd unintended comedy it is immensely entertaining.

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‘Why are there two enormous bald angry men in this trailer?’

I couldn’t tell if Sagacious Dave sounded more aggrieved or suspicious. ‘Because the third enormous bald angry man fell out with the second one,’ I said (I decided not to go into details of the Vin Diesel/Dwayne Johnson tiff just at that moment).

Sagacious Dave grumphed. Once again, I couldn’t really believe my luck: having talked the ursine Head of Advanced Erudition from my workplace into going to see The Meg with me last year (as readers with long memories and short change may recall), and his making vaguely positive noises about it, I took the chance on suggesting we go and see this year’s Jason Statham film as well. He had insisted on seeing the trailer first, though.

In the end the Sagacious One said yes, and off we went to the cinema, accompanied by one of his children (I wasn’t sure if the offspring actually wanted to see the movie or just see with his own eyes what the patriarch of the family did in his spare time). As it turned out, if Sagacious Dave had known going in that this was a Fast & Furious movie, I would have had a much harder job talking him into it, as he had seen one of the duff early sequels and not enjoyed it. But he hadn’t so I didn’t and there we were watching David Leitch’s Fast & Furious: Hobbs & Shaw like two serious-minded education professionals (plus a grown-up child).

Never mind that this is officially a spin-off from the long-running Fast & Furious franchise, this coming together of genial Dwayne Johnson and Mr Jason Statham feels somehow fated. I know they’ve technically been together in the last two F&Fs, but on this occasion the movie can dispense with all the supporting cast of sidekicks and just let the pair of them get on with it, which basically boils down to frowning a lot and property damage.

There is something pleasingly purist about the straightforwardness of the plot. Some evil transhumanist terrorists have stolen a plot McGuffin and an MI6 team is sent to steal it back (some iffy editing strongly indicates their secret base is in an underground car-park under St Paul’s Cathedral in London, but I doubt this is intentional). Leading the team is Hatty Shaw (Vanessa Kirby), who is of course Mr Statham’s little sister. Things take on some of the proportions of a citrus fruit when they encounter lead terrorist operative Idris Elba, who has been given the strikingly dubious name of ‘Brixton’ and basically turned into MACH One from the old 2000AD comic. Brixton frames Hatty Shaw for the death of her own team and forces her to go on the run, having downloaded the McGuffin into her own body (of course).

Now, it turns out that Mr Hobbs and Mr Shaw are both already on the case, as depicted through a lively sequence using more split screen effects than have been seen in a movie theatre since about 1971. ‘Who are you?’ growls a bad guy, supplying this feed line with an admirably straight face. ‘I’m a giant sized can of whup-ass,’ replies genial Dwayne, who also manages to deliver this immortal dialogue deadpan. ‘Funny, I’d have thought that would have broken,’ observes Mr Statham, over in his bit of the sequence, having beaten about six people unconscious with a champagne bottle which has miraculously remained intact. Oh, friends, the joy – the joy.

Now, believe it or not, you can’t just have these two walloping people for the whole movie, and the script dutifully obliges by crowbarring in scenes establishing the moral premise of Fast & Furious: Hobbs & Shaw. Mr Hobbs gets a scene with his young daughter (who has had a facelift since F&F 8) and Mr Shaw gets a scene with his mum (still Helen Mirren, who has clearly realised this is the kind of film where you don’t have to worry too much about acting), and it turns out both of them are carrying an inner sadness, because they are estranged from their families. Could it be that all the chasing about and hitting people that will come over the next two hours will bring about a rapprochement? Hint: yes.

So, the CIA (embodied by an uncredited Ryan Reynolds, who is roaringly OTT even by the standards of this kind of film) puts genial Dwayne and J-Stat together to find Hatty Shaw and the missing McGuffin (‘No ****ing way!’ howl the duo in unison) and hopefully fend off the marauding Brixton. They chase about London for a while and blow a lot of it up. Then they go to an evil base in Russia and chase about there for a while, blowing much of that up too (the evil base is clearly meant to be under the Chernobyl plant, but this has been snipped from the script presumably because they don’t want to be seen to be jumping on the bandwagon of that TV show). Then they all go off to Samoa to blow most of there up too (Cliff ‘Maori Jesus’ Curtis appears as Mr Hobbs’ elder brother).

On the way out I asked Sagacious Dave what he’d thought of it (his son had been sitting between us so I hadn’t heard his reaction to the choicer moments of the film). ‘That was very congruent,’ he said, with a beatific smile upon his face. It turned out this meant he thought it cleaved very admirably to the requirements of the action movie genre. And indeed it does: lots of cars and even a few buildings are demolished, Mr Statham gets to beat up multiple people simultaneously in more than one scene, and genial Dwayne gets to do a Samoan war dance before dragging a helicopter out of the sky using sheer muscle power. (If, as has been suggested, the fight scenes are carefully choreographed so both stars take exactly the same number of punches, for contractual reasons, it is not at all obvious.) But it also entertains mightily as a knockabout comedy film, with the two leads sparring breezily and overcoming some very Carry On-level humour. Thankfully the film does have a sense of its own ridiculousness and plays up to this just enough: it is, of course, absurd to suggest that Dwayne Johnson (an actor so monolithic that compared to him J-Stat is described as the ‘small, subtle’ one) can evade an international manhunt by putting on a cap and a false moustache, but it’s such an amusing idea that the movie gets away with it. Only when Kevin Hart comes on to do the actual comic relief do things feel a bit laboured and you wish they’d get on with it.

They even find time to include the necessary character beats and reflective moments as the film continues, and we learn a bit of the back-story of both lead characters (Mr Shaw’s history has become a bit confusing, and his reinvention as misunderstood anti-hero kind of glosses over the fact he murdered Sung Kang in F&F 3, 6, and 7, but hey ho). But Leitch knows not to get too bogged down in this stuff and soon we are back to moments of priceless cinematic gold like Eddie Marsan running amok with a flamethrower or Idris Elba being head-butted in slow-motion.

Needless to say, the action choreography is lavish and immaculate, as you would expect from a movie on this scale. I think there is a strong case to be made that the Fast & Furious films have really displaced the Bond franchise as cinema’s big, brash, outrageous action series – they don’t have quite the same wit or classiness, but they don’t take themselves too seriously, know how to stick to a winning formula, and they are almost irresistibly entertaining, especially when they’re fronted by actors like Johnson and Statham.

That said, we are told that Fast & Furious 10 will mark the end of the series. Happily, though, it looks very much like future Hobbs & Shaw movies are on the cards, separate to all of that. Does the Fast & Furious series really need Vin Diesel and all of that Los Angeles street racer malarkey? On the evidence of this film, I would say not. This is a very silly film, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t a lot of fun, too.

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Having an orderly brain, I noted a few years ago that the gap between the first Men in Black film and the second one was five years, and further that the gap between the second and the third was ten years. It seemed a fairly reasonable assumption that there would be a twenty year gap between the third and the fourth, presumably with Will Smith moving into the role of the grizzled old veteran and someone as-yet-unheard-of providing the youthful glamour. Friends, I am shocked to have to relate this, but I was wrong. The new Men in Black film has come out thirteen years early, and I have to say that some might suggest it shows.

The title of the thing is Men In Black International, concerning the global doings of the secret agency which, for the purposes of this franchise, polices alien activity on the planet Earth. (‘But… but…’ anyone who was paying attention back in 1997 might be spluttering, ‘wasn’t it kind of established then that aliens were really just limited to the New York area?’ Good point. But shush.) The story gets going, chronologically speaking, with a young girl named Molly witnessing the Men in Black in action and wiping her parents’ memories afterwards. She grows up to be a massive over-achiever (Tessa Thompson) and through diligence and ingenuity manages to track the agency to its secret base, where she persuades the director (Emma Thompson, mostly phoning it in) to recruit her.

She is then packed off to the London branch, where there are suggestions of something not being quite right in the ranks of the persons with a wardrobe of a limited chromatic range. It seems that a few years ago there was a showdown atop the Eiffel Tower, which contains some sort of hyperspace gateway built by M. Eiffel, who was also a Man in Black. (‘But.. but… wasn’t it kind of established that the Men in Black came into existence as an exclusively American agency, in 1961?’ Another good point. But shush again.) The two agents involved (Liam Neeson and Chris Hemsworth) saved the world from an invasion by shape-shifting alien horrors, but Hemsworth’s character has been acting rather erratically ever since.

And there is some more plot following this, but I will not trouble you with the details as they are unlikely to linger much in your head, even if you see the movie. The general recipe for the film is kind of the same as before: there’s a gentle send-up of some of the tropes of B-movie sci-fi, mixed with some spy and cop movie clich├ęs, and also a few potentially slightly scary bits with an almost Lovecraftian sense of gribbly tentacled unpleasantness pressing in on the margins of the mundane world.

The thing is that this time around… well, here’s what I have been led to understand about this film. Apparently director Gray was keen to make a film with a bit of a satirical edge to it and some social commentary on the topic of immigration (you can imagine how that would work, along with some of the more obvious gags – one wonders what kind of dismal alien hell-world could have spawned the current US administration). Producer Walter Parkes (who I feel obliged to mention has some pretty decent movies on his CV) wanted something a bit more middle-of-the-road and proceeded to start rewriting the script while the film was actually in production. Chris Hemsworth and Tessa Thompson, who reputedly signed on on the strength of the Gray script, were understandably bemused and independently recruited writers of their own to polish their dialogue.

(Yes, I know, it is utterly baffling that films are made this way, and we have to assume that it is not standard practice in the industry. Even so, this is a production with a budget of somewhere in the region of $100 million, yet the creative process involved seems to have primarily been based around squabbling and bemusement.)

When you consider all this, not to mention the producer and the director both assembling their own edits of the finished film (the producer’s version won out), one does have to say that Men in Black International is a staggering achievement in the way it still manages to be a more or less coherent story without a large number of holes in the plot. This is not to say that there aren’t any – there are still a few, and to be honest they are biggies, but it is unlikely to bother most members of the audience as the clash of different visions has resulted in a film with very little sense of what it’s supposed to be beyond a brand extension and franchise instalment. No one is likely to care or be engaged enough to worry too much about whether it makes any sense.

I mean, look, there is virtually wall-to-wall CGI for most of the film, and it is all very professionally done; fights and chases turn up on a regular basis; there are plot reversals and so on too. But none of it feels as if it means anything – it is all very mechanical and uninspired. It feels like a Men in Black film produced by some sort of artificial intelligence, or a joke written by a computer – all the structural elements are present and correct, it’s just completely flat and lifeless.

Now, of course, with this kind of film, winning chemistry from charismatic leads can go a long way towards taking up any bagginess in the other departments, but the film is also afflicted with, if this isn’t too harsh a way of putting it, the Chris Hemsworth problem. I have certainly enjoyed many Chris Hemsworth films and Chris Hemsworth performances in the past (mostly the ones where he has been playing Thor, to be honest). I have no beef with him as a person, not least because I have no personal relationship with him. However, he is in the awkward spot of being someone whose films make hundreds of millions, if not billions of dollars, but only when he plays that one character he’s famous for. So just how big a star is he really? Opinion seems to be divided on the topic, especially if you consider the stories that one of the reasons the fourth Bad Robot Star Trek movie folded was Hemsworth’s involvement being judged not to be worth his very hefty asking price (he was due to reprise his before-he-was-famous role as Captain Kirk’s dad). Hemsworth’s attempts to establish himself as a leading man in his own right are not helped by the fact he is essentially giving a lightweight version of the same performance he delivered in his last couple of MCU movies (here the ratio is about 70% swagger to 30% smug), or the fact he’s paired with Tessa Thompson, one of his regular foils from those same movies, or the fact that the film brazenly includes cheesy in-jokes alluding to Hemsworth having played Thor for the last eight years. As for Thompson herself, I have to say I’m not entirely sure she has the chops to be co-lead in a big aspiring blockbuster like this one. She’s not actually bad. But you’re still perhaps a little surprised to see her there, vaguely feeling that you were expecting someone else.

This is cinematic entertainment as disposable, mechanical product. It is rarely actually dull, for at least it has been edited together to provide a good deal of pace. But it is just a succession of sounds and pictures that makes sense in a transactional sort of way. It has no resonance, no subtlety, no depth, nothing new to say or do. It almost feels like it is aspiring to be mediocre. Anything which made the first couple of films in this series memorable and entertaining has been scraped out of the carcass and what remains lurches across the screen in an almost wholly affectless way. It doesn’t engage the emotions, the brain, or the sense of humour. Nobody was demanding this film, I suspect, but it could still have potentially revitalised and updated the series. Instead, I think that in a sane world it would constitute the final swift blow to its throat. So we can probably expect a reboot at some point in the next ten years.

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The premise of Chad Stahelski’s John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum (yes, another of those punctuation-heavy sequel titles) is very straightforward. Opening scant moments after the conclusion of Chapter 2, it finds short-fused hitman John Wick (Keanu Reeves) running for his life, as the clock ticks down to the moment when open season is declared upon his person by pretty much the entire criminal population of New York City. (Wick’s faithful dog may also be in trouble.) How has he come to such dire straits? Well, this being the modern day, the film doesn’t really bother to recap – suffice to say that in the first film someone shot his (other) dog, and a roaring rampage of revenge ensued, which in the second film culminated in the world’s greatest hitman shooting someone he wasn’t supposed to shoot, apparently a grave transgression of the regulations and by-laws of the international underworld. I said it was very straightforward; I didn’t say it actually made sense.

Well, Wick’s time runs out, and he is forced to defend himself against wave after wave of attackers in a succession of unlikely places, in the process demonstrating his mastery not just of kung fu, but also gun-fu, knife-fu, horse-fu and library-book-fu. It very quickly becomes apparent that the action choreography in this film is every bit as good as in the previous ones in the series, but that John Wick 3 is – if it’s even possible – more astoundingly violent, with a savagely brutal edge that feels new. I went to a matinee showing of Parabellum, surrounded by (I would expect) a fairly hardened action movie crowd, and yet shocked oohs and aaahs and outbursts of appalled laughter drifted around the auditorium at the film’s most viciously inventive moments.

That said, this opening sequence is superlatively well put-together as a piece of entertainment, always assuming you can stand the violence, and by the end of it I was honestly starting to wonder if we needed to revise the history of the action movie to the effect that the John Wick series is really Keanu Reeves’ most impressive contribution to the genre.

However, they can’t sustain the pace (perhaps understandably, Keanu being 54 these days), and eventually the plot kicks in. This is really not the film’s strong point, and certainly not its raison d’etre, and takes a sort of twin-track approach. We get an inkling of Wick’s hitherto-enigmatic origins as he calls in a favour from the Russian Mafia (it appears he may possibly have been a ballet dancer at one point, but the film is carefully noncommittal about this) and heads off to Morocco in the hope of having a sit-down with the boss of the international underworld to sort it all out. This involves visiting an old friend and fellow dog-fancying hit-person (Halle Berry); I suppose it’s nice to see Berry again but it’s a very underwritten part she doesn’t find much to do with.

Meanwhile, in New York a steward’s enquiry as to how all of this has come to pass, undertaken by a representative of the criminal underworld authorities (Asia Kate Dillon). Having to answer some hard questions are various allies of Wick, including characters played by Ian McShane, Laurence Fishburne and Anjelica Huston. All of them carve off thick slices of ham, as does Mark Dacascos as the chief enforcer of the enquiry (Dacascos has been a very charismatic and able martial-arts actor for decades, and it is great to see him in such a high-profile role). How will it all end? Is full-scale war between Wick and everyone else inevitable? (Hint: probably, yes.)

I vaguely recall the first John Wick being a relatively down-to-earth, noirish thriller, with the sequel basically getting one foot off the ground in terms of expanding the background of the film. Well, this third movie is essentially a pure fantasy film in every way that matters, having only the most tenuous connection with reality. The first film actually featured criminals who went around committing the odd crime once in a while: everyone in this one seems totally fixated on the arcane and esoteric regulations of the criminal underworld, which come replete with their own complicated rituals and lexicon. People are always swearing fealty to each other in the most elaborate way, or ordering each other to do (usually grisly) penances. It feels a bit like a vampire movie, in a funny way; there is an odd thread of religious iconography and language running through it, and hardly anyone goes out in the daytime.

Probably not worth dwelling on any of this too much, though, as the plot (such as it is) is mostly just there to set up the third act of the film, which is another exercise in wall-to-wall mayhem, featuring many rooms with stylish glass panels and sculptures through which Reeves can be repeatedly kicked by the various bad guys. Before this there’s a first-person-shooter-ish sequence which is good but not great; but the showdown between Dacascos and Reeves is as good as you’d expect. It should really come over like something out of an Expendables movie, given it’s a kung fu fight between two guys with a combined age of 109, but it manages to stay entirely credible. There’s also a little treat for the kung fu movie connoisseur, as Reeves has a scene where he takes on Yayan Ruhian and Cecep Arif Rahan (Mad Dog and Assassin from the Raid series); this is also great stuff.

This is basically the purest kind of action movie – a string of set-piece fights and chases, held together by the most cursory and preposterous of plotting, with the whole thing slathered in stylishness. Crucially, it once again manages to hit the genre sweet spot of not taking itself too seriously, while also never completely sending itself up; Reeves again provides a rather peculiar central performance – he really doesn’t seem to be doing very much, but at the same time it’s impossible to imagine anyone else carrying the film in the way that he does here.

John Wick 3 is, once again, an outstandingly good Bad Movie; the only brick I can honestly send its way is that the saggy middle section is saggy in part because it’s setting up a potential Chapter 4. For most of the film it does feel like we’re heading for some kind of resolution, and that a proper trilogy is on the cards. But no: the door is left flapping in the wind for a potential fourth instalment, no matter how strained this feels. I really have enjoyed these films so far, but I can’t help feeling that this series has peaked and is on the point of collapsing into self-parody and excess. But I could be wrong, and John Wick: Chapter 3 is certainly good enough to convince me to keep an open mind on the subject.

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As recent events have perhaps shown into sharp relief, we as a culture don’t build many cathedrals any more. I feel this is a shame, as I love a good cathedral despite the fact I am not what you would call a person of faith. There is something about the sheer scale, workmanship and ambition of these vast spaces which I find tremendously uplifting. But, as I say, cathedral building seems to have gone into decline, and the skills that led to their creation seem to be slipping away too – wheel turns, civilisation rises; wheel turns, civilisation falls. One wonders what flavours of human endeavour will likewise disappear, or at least decline, in the years to come. Certainly many commentators have been predicting the disappearance of the big Hollywood movie as we know it for some years now: we may occasionally hear that box office income is looking healthier than ever, but this is mainly the result of inflation – actual ticket sales have been in decline for a decade and a half. There may be more really big movies than ever before, but there are also fewer medium-sized ones, and it’s questionable how long this situation can remain viable. There are many variables in play, obviously, but it does seem likely that there will be big changes over the next few years, leading to fundamental changes in the kinds of films we see and also how we watch them.

I mention all this because it is always good to appreciate what we have while it is still there. If the traditional summer blockbuster is destined to go the way of the Gothic cathedral, then we should take a moment to consider the skill and ingenuity that goes into making one of these films, especially a really good one. They are a distinct form of art, with their own conventions and requirements – not exactly high art, to be sure, and intrinsically populist, but still a form of art, and one that has brought genuine pleasure to multitudes of people for generations.

I suspect that some people may be rolling their eyes already, especially considering that I am ostensibly here to discuss the Russo brothers’ Avengers: Endgame. I do feel a little silly being quite so solemn in a piece about a film which delivers the purest kind of entertainment, but nevertheless, I genuinely think it represents an unparalleled achievement in the making of popular cinema, possibly one which will never be surpassed, and everyone involved deserves some recognition for this.

It occurs to me there may still be a few uninitiated people out there who may be wondering what I’m on about. Endgame is the twenty-second film in a franchise (or series of franchises) which began over ten years ago. The various films in the series share storylines and characters, build and riff on each other, plant seeds which only much later come to often-unexpected fruition. Just as the people who built the foundations of a cathedral often had only the vaguest conception of how they (or their descendants) were going to finish the roof, so it seems fairly likely that the makers of those first few films had little idea of exactly how the project was going to get to this point. Yet here we are, and the unity of vision and purpose the films have maintained, while not perfect, is still remarkable.

Following a couple of somewhat lightweight entries, the new film picks up shortly after the end of the nineteenth film in the series, Infinity War, which saw the cosmic titan Thanos (Josh Brolin) obliterate half the population of the universe, on sound Malthusian grounds. Left untouched by the cataclysmic finger-click were the founder members of the Avengers, although they were left scattered and traumatised by their failure to stop Thanos. The new film, you would expect, sees them regroup and attempt to either reverse Thanos’ terrible deeds or enact some kind of justice. But is it really the case that no good deed goes unavenged?

There’s probably going to be some more eye-rolling at this point, but that is all I’m going to say about the plot of the new film. I found it to be a delight, and that was largely because of my regime of (mostly) strict spoiler hygiene. Part of the joy of the story comes from the way in which the plot plays out, and the many surprises along the way. I imagine the world breaks down into two camps at this point: people who are just not on board the Marvel train, who won’t really care about the details of this film, and people who are, who will want to encounter Endgame in a state of blissful ignorance.

There are many remarkable things about Endgame, not least its sheer technical proficiency and ability to tell a story with a huge array of characters that still manages to feel personal, but perhaps the most surprising is that it genuinely manages to live up to expectations. Since this is the culmination of a story which has been playing out since 2012, if not earlier, this is an amazing accomplishment. More than that, in so many ways it even manages to surpass expectations – not just in terms of its inventiveness, either. Given the nature of the Marvel project, of which this is a landmark feature but by no means the end, I approached this film with a confident sense of knowing what was going to happen, or at least what the state of play would be at the end. Well, I was surprised by this as much as the rest of the film, for the script is not afraid to make some unexpected, tough choices, as well as providing numerous moments that left the audience of the screening I attended alternately cheering and sobbing.

It is true to say that people who decide to finally take the plunge and make Endgame their first Marvel Studios movie are probably going to be left a bit baffled, for there are not many concessions made to this audience – but this is really only to be expected, it’s the equivalent of opening Lord of the Rings a handful of chapters from the end and expecting to understand what’s going on. And given that this is not the final film in this series (there is one more to come this year, with others no doubt to follow), there are elements of this film’s story which are likely to prove problematic when it comes to scripting future instalments.

Finally, I would say that Endgame is a fantasy blockbuster, and if you don’t like the genre, you probably won’t like this film either. What makes it special aren’t exactly its own merits as a film, anyway, but the way in which it serves as a climax, a summation, a capstone, and a victory lap for the films that have preceded it. It is the boldness and confidence of the Marvel project which has been the most surprising thing about this series of films, not to mention the fact that they have generally managed to keep their standards so very high. In a very real sense this film marks the completion of something unprecedented in the world of entertainment – but it deserves to be recognised for its quality as well as its innovation. One can marvel at the mystery of how it came to be, but not to the point where one forgets to enjoy it.

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