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The British governor of India (Ray Stevenson, from Rome and the earlier Thor movies) is visiting some of his subjects in a forest village in Adilabad. His wife (Alison Doody, who was in an Indiana Jones film aeons ago) gets a henna tattoo from a charming young girl named Malli (Twinkle Sharma): the tattoo is such a success and the girl so charming that she decides to take her on as an indentured servant, regardless of the wishes of her family. When Malli’s mother is bold enough to complain about this, she is smashed over the head with a log (mainly because the governor believes the life of an Indian isn’t worth a  bullet) and left by the roadside as the British depart.

Elsewhere, a British outpost is under siege by a huge pro-independence mob and things look bleak for the forces of the Raj. However, no-one has reckoned on the intervention of young officer Raju (Ram Charan), who leaps over the stockade (going about thirty feet in the air from the look of things) and single-handedly drives the vast crowd back using just a bit of wood. To say he is as keen as mustard is an absurd understatement.

Word reaches the governor’s staff that the villagers from the start of the story are very unhappy about Malli being kidnapped and have called in their guardian, a fellow called Bheem (Junior NTR), to rescue her. The British laugh this off at first, but as we get to see Bheem wrestling tigers in his pants we know that he is not a man to dismiss lightly. Eventually the governor comes around and offers a special reward to anyone who locates and captures Bheem. Bounding forward to accept this assignment, inevitably, is Raju, moustache positively vibrating at the prospect.

So, Bheem is in Delhi, looking for Malli, and Raju is likewise in town, but looking for Bheem (both men have adopted false identities for their missions). It looks like a calamitous confrontation is on the cards, but a strange twist of fate (actually an exploding train) leads to the two of them teaming up to save another innocent child (this is achieved through an extraordinary stunt sequence not easily or quickly described). Naturally two such superhumanly virile and powerful figures instantly become close pals, neither suspecting whom the other really is. In the course of their hanging-out, Raju helps Bheem court a beautiful young Englishwoman (Olivia Morris), which results in a huge anti-colonial dance-off contest at the governor’s residence. (Really.) But as they both pursue their missions, the moment of conflict draws implacably closer. Will the bonds of friendship survive the revelation of the truth?

This is how S. S. Rajamouli’s RRR gets going. (The title refers to the coming together of three Telugu-language cinema superstars: Ram Charan, Rama Rao (one of Jr NTR’s various names) and Rajamouli himself, though there’s also a subtitle suggesting it stands for Rise, Roar, Revolt: all three certainly happen in copious amounts throughout the movie.) I’d never heard of this film until a few days ago, when it started popping up all over ‘best films of the 2022’ lists. You don’t usually expect to find Indian movies there, and the rapturous critical notices the film has received were startling. Happily, the market-leading streaming service has acquired it, possibly inspired by the fact the film did impressive business in the US when it landed a theatrical release there.

Often, when a film has such a buzz about it, it can’t help but be a bit disappointing when you actually sit down and watch it, and the very early signs for RRR were not promising – before the action gets going there’s a very lengthy disclaimer making it absolutely clear that the film is entirely a work of fiction and the film-makers haven’t intended to upset anyone, and another one stressing that all the tigers, wolves, leopards, deer, snakes, etc, featured in the film are CGI and not subject to mistreatment. Then all the co-production partners get mentioned (this is the most expensive Indian film ever made), by which time you’re beginning to wonder if the film’s epic run-time (it’s nearly as long as the Avatar sequel) isn’t mostly just disclaimers and credits. It is not. This is indeed a very long film, but once the story proper kicks off it moves like a greasy bullet and never drags at all, barrelling from one outrageous action sequence to the next (pausing occasionally for a big musical number).

It’s almost completely ridiculous and yet at the same time irresistible: when it comes to his final rescue attempt, Bheem eschews stealth in favour of crashing a truck through the residency gates, from which he leaps (possibly forty feet in the air this time), a burning torch in each hand, surrounded by an entire menagerie of wild animals he’s brought along as a distraction. It’s absurd, and the CGI is pretty obvious – but the sheer bravura and confidence of the film is captivating. You can see the influence of western blockbusters like the Marvel movies here, and the broad-strokes plotting and characterisations aren’t usually the stuff of critical darlings – but RRR has a kind of earnestness and sincerity to it that somehow nullifies many of the normal criteria for judging a film. It is just relentlessly good fun.

There’s a fair degree of violence here which stops this from being a treat for all the family, and there are occasionally allusions to Indian culture and history which will probably go over the head of a western audience. I can imagine that some people might take exception to the presentation of nearly all the British characters as diabolically racist and sadistic, but I suppose that’s why the disclaimers are there at the start – the film may feature historical characters (Raju and Bheem are both based on real people) but the film is entirely fictional. (Again, I wonder if we aren’t cutting RRR some slack we wouldn’t allow to a Hollywood production.)

Nevertheless, I can’t overstate what a good time I had watching RRR: for sheer entertainment value it easily outshines every English-language blockbuster I’ve seen this year, and it has a vibrancy and liveliness to it which you likewise seldom find in western releases. It may not be subtle or particularly sensible, but RRR is the kind of film which makes you fall in love with the cinema all over again.

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‘You know, there is no sequel. There’s only the one story. You can have another picture about further adventures among the monkeys, and it can be an exciting film, but creatively there is no film.’ – Charlton Heston, about Beneath the Planet of the Apes

Crikey, you wait thirteen years for an Avatar sequel and then… well, only one comes along, but look at the size of the thing. This is the kind of big studio release where the sheer scale of the movie forms one of the main planks of the publicity strategy. Three hours long! A budget of knocking on for $500 million! Filmed using specially-developed technology! It needs to be one of the most successful films in history just to stand a chance of breaking even!

Yes, it’s Avatar: The Way of Water, directed once again by Jim Cameron (with any of Cameron’s projects, ‘directed’ always feels like such an inadequate phrase – perhaps ‘willed into existence’ would be better), which at the time of writing is probably inescapable at every cinema near you. Cameron, as ever a man not short on self-belief, seems to think his little baby is going to do the business, thus opening the door for Avatar 4 and 5 a few years down the line (Avatar 3 is already in the pipeline, so cancel any holiday plans for next Christmas). Even the gargantuan length of thing may indeed be part of his cunning plan: people can apparently ‘see the scene they missed [due to going to the bathroom] when they come see [the film] again.’

Well, we carefully prepared for our visit to watch Way of Water by going onto a low-fluid intake regime and draining all our bodily cavities during the commercials (this wasn’t terribly popular with the people in the next row, but at least we weren’t crunching popcorn all the way through). We’d sat down and rewatched the first film not long ago, which turned out to be a wise move as not many concessions are made to anyone who isn’t up to speed on what happened the first time around.

So: Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) is now a full-time feline Smurf living on the paradise moon of Pandora with his partner (Zoe Saldana) and their gaggle of offspring. (Saldana’s character does seem prone to going off on one, so it is appropriate she has spent the gap between films having kittens.) Scholars of the dark arts of Hollywood will be amused to note that Worthington and Saldana now share top billing, rather like Paul Newman and Steve McQueen in The Towering Inferno, presumably because Worthington hasn’t really made a notable film in a decade while Saldana is an established member of the Marvel ensemble.

Needless to say, a serpent finds its way into this particular Eden with the return of those nasty humans, whose dying planet is apparently not quite dead yet. The humans now want to come to Pandora and colonise it, not just strip it of its natural resources, and here to help them is a new incarnation of Quaritch (Stephen Lang), the bad guy from the first film (who, yes, is technically dead, but the loophole Cameron finds to revive him is acceptable enough).

Quaritch’s vendetta against the Sully family eventually forces Jake into moving house, and they all go off and live with some island-dwelling Na’vi in a part of the planet which looks rather like Hawaii: the leaders of their hosts are played by Kate Winslet and Cliff ‘Maori Jesus’ Curtis. Slowly the forest-dwelling visitors come to understand how to be one with the water and understand the wisdom of the oceans (or, to put it another way, hold their breath, swim, and fish). Needless to say, there impressive CGI beasties with those bio-USB ports for them to ride around on, too. It will perhaps not entirely surprise you if I reveal that the Sully’s pelagic idyll does not endure, for Quaritch and the other heartless exploiters of the planet eventually show up for the big third-act set pieces and climax…

You know, it’s as easy to be snotty about the new Avatar as it was the first one, for these are not subtle or complicated films, and they have an earnestness about them which is not particularly fashionable these days. The stories themselves are really not very distinctive; they exist as a visual experience more than anything else. This one is as pleasing to look at as the original, although the ‘weird alien ecology of Pandora’ element is perhaps suffering from diminishing returns, probably due to the marine setting – many Terran fish look weird, so weird alien fish are that bit less striking.

Either way, while Cameron may see himself as a visionary and an innovative artist, it’s the sequences with the full-auto gunfire and things blowing up that really pay the rent in this movie – I was getting quite restive by the point the bad guys showed up near the end, but the ensuing battle is tremendously well-executed on all kinds of levels, even if it (and the climax of the film) do feel a bit overlong.

Then again, what is overlong in this context? ‘The Way of Water has… no ending,’ says one character in the hushed tones which many people use quite a lot in this film, and it certainly feels that way while you’re watching it. If you subscribe to Cameron’s belief that the visual and sensory experience of Avatar is the main reason to see it, then you probably won’t care whether there’s enough story there to support three-hours-plus of screen time. If you think that beautiful CGI should be there to service a solid story, on the other hand, you will probably conclude that Avatar: The Way of Water is very slow in parts, sometimes repetitive (‘I can’t believe I’m tied up again!’ complains one character near the end), and doesn’t have particularly interesting characters.

Jake, for example, has lost the tension between his human and Na’vi identities which was central to the first film, and Cameron can’t find anything as interesting to replace it with: he’s just a stern, frowny dad most of the time. Something similar happens to Neytiri. Their kids are a bit interchangeable as well, with the possible exception of the one played by Sigourney Weaver, who clearly has a Special Destiny. The one character with the potential to be interesting is the new version of Quaritch, who faces a similar choice to the one Jake did in the first film – but as he is essentially a two-dimensional villain, this isn’t really explored. Most of the bad guys are lucky to make it into two dimensions; the same goes for most of the humans – although Jermaine Clement manages to make a tiny bit of an impression as a conflicted scientist.

Of course, beyond their visual appeal and adventure storylines, the Avatar movies work on another level, as environmental parables. The snippy thing to say at this point would be that James Cameron has spent thirteen years and $500 million making a film which presents the astonishing revelation that hunting whales is bad, something which Leonard Nimoy managed to communicate at least as entertainingly in Star Trek IV, in two-thirds of the time and for 5% of the budget. All right, yes, the film is very persuasive (and there’s a not-entirely surprising nod to Moby-Dick at one point), but… the sci-fi presentation of the whales here is mawkish and twee in a way that the ecological ideas of the first film usually weren’t. Having done his bit for the rainforests in Avatar 1, and now whales in Avatar 2, one wonders what Cameron has left up his sleeve for the next three episodes – I predict the Na’vi will reveal themselves as space Wombles and teach the humans the value of recycling.

I enjoyed watching the first Avatar again because it turned out to be a film with some interesting ideas embedded in its storytelling, and the resonances with Aliens were fascinating. My joke ahead of seeing Way of Water was that it was going to be another visit to Cameron’s back catalogue – watery setting? Kate Winslet? This was going to be Avatar meets Titanic. Well, rather to my surprise it turned out I was right, in several respects – but I should say that for me, Titanic was a rather pedestrian romance elevated by some terrific special effects, in terms of ideas it’s rather vacuous. Watching The Way of Water I was reminded of the Charlton Heston quote we opened with. It’s a good-looking film, often very entertaining, but there are no new ideas here, nothing that needed to be said, and certainly not in such a grandiose way. I’m curious to see if the other sequels get made, but even if they are I suspect it will all be more of the same.

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Rudyard Kipling once said that four-fifths of everyone’s work must be bad, with the corollary that the remaining fifth made it all worthwhile. By the time of George Orwell, things appeared to have shifted to the point where he (wearing his book reviewer’s hat) was obliged to conclude that in over ninety percent of cases the only objective conclusion would be that a given book was worthless. Despite all that, this truism is most often ascribed to the American science fiction writer Theodore Sturgeon (these days probably best remembered for his Star Trek scripts), who formulated it as ‘ninety percent of everything is crap’.

That seems like a reasonable and perhaps generous assessment, if you ask me, perhaps a little over-charitable when it comes to things like Christmas-themed movies. The sheer quantity of these never fails to astound me: one channel in the UK starts showing them on a daily basis round about the beginning of November, and these days all of the streamers start weighing in with their contributions too – usually inescapably glutinous tales of hard-nosed metropolitan types rediscovering the Important Things in Life, usually in conjunction with a romantic interlude with someone in chunky knitwear. There are some good Christmas movies, of course: the local arthouse is showing Die Hard again, and you’d have to have a heart of stone not to at least give a sympathetic hearing to The Muppet Christmas Carol. (I know it came out in May, but maybe Iron Man Three also qualifies.) But on the whole it seems to be one of those genres which actively discourages innovation.

Well, we must be grateful, I think, for people like the makers of Violent Night, which tries to do something a bit different with the Christmas movie. Directed by Tommy Wirkola, the movie opens with a rather boozy man in a Santa Claus outfit (David Harbour at his most agreeably ursine), sitting in an English pub and bemoaning the materialism and commercialism of the Christmas festival these days. The twist comes when it is revealed that this is not just any shopping centre Santa but the genuine, thousand-year-old article, enjoying a pre-work drink or six. The ensuing warm glow of realisation that there may yet be magic in the world is somewhat compromised when Santa projectile-vomits from his sleigh onto the head of an unsuspecting passer-by.

Meanwhile, over in the Land of Good Old Uncle US of Stateside, little Trudie Lightstone (Leah Brady) is preparing for Christmas with her family, a cartoonishly horrible clan of disgustingly wealthy monsters: her parents are somewhat estranged and what she really wants is for them to get back together. The family are too busy buttering up hag-like matriarch Gertrude (Beverly D’Angelo) and jockeying for control of the fortune, however. You might reasonably think they are in line to get what they disturb when their incompetent catering company turns out to be a group of heavily armed thieves looking to break into the family vault for the $300 million of dirty money being held there: the leader of the group, code-named Scrooge (John Leguizamo), is not one of those people inclined to be sentimental during the holidays.

But there is little Trudie to think about, who obviously doesn’t deserve to be shot by a professional criminal. And, of course, there is also Santa, who has dropped in on the Lightstone compound to deliver a gift, eat some cookies, and – most importantly – make liberal inroads into their drinks cabinet. On being apprehended by one of the bad guys, Santa’s first instinct is to zip up the chimney and flee the area, but the goon is unwilling to let this happen, something he briefly lives to regret: never mind delivering presents, Santa discovers a facility for delivering a telling head-butt.

Yes, it turns out that Santa has a bit of a past, and soon his old skills are coming back to him. For Trudie is on his nice list, unlike all the thieves, and perhaps by saving her and the family, Christmas itself can be saved. One thing is certain: the words ‘Santa Claus is coming to town’ have never before been delivered with such an air of baleful menace.

Yes, it’s basically Die Hard, but with Santa as the main character. Either this will seem to you to be an inspired idea, that we should be ashamed that no-one came up with decades ago, or you will be inclined to dismiss it as one of the stupidest, most obnoxious, and possibly even sacrilegious notions ever consigned to the screen (that said, I must reveal that my research has shown up the existence of the 2020 film Fatman, in which Mel Gibson plays a Santa who must contend with a hitman sent after him by someone off his naughty list). Coming across the trailer unexpectedly generally draws cries to the effect of ‘Is this a real movie?!?’ Yes, it is: the question is whether it’s one of those ideas that sounds good on paper but doesn’t actually work as a full-length film.

Well… I think it does, but it’s certainly not one for everybody: the traditional Christmassy elements of goodwill and redemption are there, sort of, but mixed in with them is a graphically-violent action movie and a bracingly horrible black comedy, too – the movie circles between them somewhat erratically. The idea of Santa beating people up and slaughtering bad guys by the dozen runs out of steam a little, for all the film’s inventiveness when it comes to deploying the trappings of the season as implements of destruction – tinsel used as a garrotte, pointy Christmas decorations being rammed where they really don’t belong, and so on – and it wanders off and starts riffing on Home Alone, too. (The moment, seemingly promised by the trailer, where someone opens up on Santa’s sleigh with an anti-aircraft gun, is not here, but will no doubt turn up if there’s a sequel.)

I laughed a lot all the way through, not that I’m necessarily proud of that: the action choreography is nicely done, the jokes generally land, and the actors mostly pitch their performances just right. If the film has a more serious subtext – and I’m inclined to suspect this may not be intentional – it’s a reminder that, beneath the Dickensian, Coca Colarised version of Christmas and Santa which gets rammed down our throats every twelve months or so, there’s a much older, earthier, and more primal celebration, and it’s this more savage and brutal version of Santa that the main character finds himself reverting to. (The real-life gentleman whose remains are entombed in the Italian city of Bari, and who was the real Saint Nick, doesn’t get much of a look-in.)

The film even attempts the challenging trick of working on multiple levels simultaneously – the concluding battle to the death between Santa and Scrooge is so blatantly symbolic it’s obviously intended as spoof, and yet it still has a functioning sort of allegorical power. Several other moments manage the same thing: there is, as Spinal Tap famously observed, a fine line between stupid and clever, and Violent Night manages to straddle it reasonably comfortably.

Maybe Violent Night does work better as a trailer than a two-hour movie, but then it is a particularly winning trailer. Anyway, I thought the movie was a lot of fun, in its bracingly horrible way. Bonus points for having a very accurate title; further bonus points for having Slade’s Merry Christmas Everyone on the soundtrack (song and film share a sort of lairy exuberance that makes them a very good fit for each other). It’s a little difficult to imagine it gaining admission to the canon of authentic Christmas classics, but – and, given Harbour’s involvement, no pun intended – stranger things have happened.

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Here in the UK, for a while recently you couldn’t move for people going on about queens. Queen this, queen that, it was getting ridiculous. (The only serious competition was from people talking about queues and queueing, which only leads me to suspect that for a period of about a fortnight the news was being sponsored by the letter Q.) Possibly in response to this, Gina Prince-Bythewood’s new movie is called The Woman King – less chance of it getting lost in the crowd, I suppose.

Viola Davis, with an arresting Afrohawk hairdo, plays Nanisca, commander of an elite group of warrior women in the service of the king of Dahomey – a west African kingdom in present-day Benin. The setting is the 1820s and tensions are building between Dahomey and its larger neighbour, the Oyo Empire. Despite this the two countries have a lot in common – not least a shared interest in the extremely profitable Atlantic slave trade, which has made both rulers immensely wealthy.

When the Oyo start raiding Dahomey and enslaving its people, war seems inevitable, but Nanisca has a further ambition: the end of the slave trade in west Africa. Her monarch, the king (or, who knows, possibly the Man Queen) of Dahomey (John Boyega), seems less than fully convinced, but is inclined to honour an ancient tradition and appoint her co-ruler alongside him. Though at least one of his wives may have something to say about that…

While all this is going on, the film is also following the story of a headstrong young orphan girl named Nawi (played by Thuso Mbedu), whose exasperated adoptive father eventually loses patience and gives her away to the king’s palace. Here she begins training in an attempt to join the Agojie, the royal guard led by Nanisca. Will she be able to prove herself to the older members of the regiment and distinguish herself in the looming conflict?

If nothing else, you can’t deny that The Woman King has been shrewdly scheduled – the publicity for the Black Panther sequel is just getting underway, and the similarities in themes and imagery are too obvious to really need pointing out – except, perhaps, to mention that the Dora Milaje, Wakanda’s all-female special forces group in the Marvel franchise, was inspired by the historical Agojie. I suspect that Woman King is gunning quite hard for Black Panther‘s target audience, but I doubt it can realistically hope for the same kind of success or acclaim.

We may want to talk a bit more about the whole question of the historicity of The Woman King, to be honest. Dahomey was a real place, the Agojie were real, and Boyega’s character, King Ghezo, was also an actual person. On the other hand, this is about as far as the film goes in terms of reflecting actual events and attitudes of the period. British accounts of their dealings with the kingdom in the 1840s report that the Dahomeans were still selling 9,000 slaves a year at this point (Ghezo was selling 3,000 annually himself), and the king suggested he would be willing to do anything the British required in order to secure their friendship – with the exception of abolishing the slave trade. It’s also worth mentioning, I think, that early accounts of Dahomey reveal an enduring fascination, from a European perspective, with the ‘Dahomey amazons’ as the Agojie were dubbed. Perhaps the appearance of this movie suggests that this fascination is still with us.

Or perhaps not – the Agojie are presented here not as exotically outlandish objects of curiosity, but thoroughly admirable and ass-kicking exemplars of… well, there’s the question, really. Probably something much more contemporary than was actually the case. I like to think of myself as a fairly bien-pensant individual (all those Guardian articles suggesting some of my views are shared by crypto-fascists and thunderous misogynists notwithstanding), but I am also aware that there are many people around who pense rather more bien than me. I imagine that a large (or at least vocal) constituency will be of the opinion that an action movie about African warrior-women kicking it to the patriarchy is an unqualified positive thing, regardless of the factual basis of this idea. I’m not so sure – I’m reminded of Hidden Figures, which likewise took vast liberties with historical fact in order to facilitate the message of the film. When you’re trying to make a film suggesting How The World Should Be, this surely sits awkwardly with making stuff up or misrepresenting historical events.

The historical setting of The Woman King certainly gives it some novelty value – it goes without saying that historical action movies where all the protagonists are black women are thin on the ground, to say the least – and the positive elements of the film aren’t limited just to the fact that it’s doing something new. Prince-Bythewood’s last film was the similarly progressive-themed Highlander knock-off The Old Guard, and the various action sequences and battles here are just as good as the ones in that film, if not better. The film is also buttressed by some really strong performances – John Boyega kind of vanishes into the background a bit (his character is presented as somewhat lacking in spine, which may have something to do with this), but Davis and Mbedu are both very watchable as the veteran and the new recruit, while Sheila Atim and Lashana Lynch make up the numbers as equally imposing members of the troop.

In the end, though… well, novelty value will take you some distance, and then good performances and direction a considerable way further on. But in the end, as usual, it all comes down to the script, which is to a very significant degree just a load of the usual Hollywood corn. It’s not so much a problem of the film being over-busy, though there are certainly a lot of things going on, as much as the story never doing anything particularly interesting or thought-provoking beyond retooling boot-camp cliches. It’s not completely simplistic when it comes to the historical angle of slavery and Dahomey’s involvement in it, and there is more nuance here than I would have anticipated, but it’s never as eye-opening or inspiring as it probably thinks it is, and there are some eye-rollingly implausible plot devices along the way.

The best things in The Woman King are Viola Davis, the cinematography, and the fight direction; too much of the rest of it never completely convinced me, either as a drama or a piece of history. There are certainly interesting stories to be told about the Atlantic slave trade and the various factions involved in it – but they are probably not the stuff of up-beat and positive mainstream Hollywood movies. The film passes the time engagingly enough, but it ultimately feels rather shallow and contrived.

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The other day I was a little surprised to discover I still had a checklist in my head of all those movies which the onset of lockdown back in March 2020 stopped me from seeing in a timely manner. Possibly the outstanding item on said list is a movie called Military Wives, which may sound like a niche magazine but is actually one of those uplifting true-life comedy dramas which almost invariably make me feel like opening a vein whenever I watch one. I got as far as watching the first half hour of that at the cinema before the building’s electrics blew and we were all sent home with the promise of a free ticket to a future showing. Five days later the cinemas all closed, and I’ve never heard anything about this movie since (I wasn’t actually enjoying it much so I’m not that bothered about seeing the rest of it).

Perhaps even more unlucky was Craig Zobel’s The Hunt, which had already suffered one delay to its release and came out just in time to play for less than a week. But at least The Hunt has resurfaced on one of the big streamers, where it doesn’t seem to have made a particular impression. Perhaps that’s because this is a movie which was the product of a very particular moment in American culture, which has now to some degree passed, or possibly it’s simply because it’s a rather odd film.

It opens with the audience being made privy to a chat exchange between a group of liberal friends, complaining about the latest outrages committed by (we are invited to assume) Donald Trump. (As we have noted, the film was due to come out in early 2020.) The friends console themselves by discussing an upcoming social occasion, when they will gather at the mansion home of one of them and then hunt and kill a dozen or so ‘deplorables’ – this being a rather loaded expression, derived from a disparaging comment about Republican voters made by Hillary Clinton.

A sequence set on the flight to the hunting grounds then follows, which mainly seems to be here for shock value and to pad out the film to a decent ninety-minute length: the first class passengers gang up to kill someone from cattle class who recovers from the sedative they’ve been given unexpectedly early. And from here we’re off into the hunt itself.

A dozen people wake up on the edge of woodland, close to a large wooden crate; they are all gagged. Inside the crate they find weapons of various kinds, before coming under fire from a hide nearby – several of them are gorily killed before the survivors flee into the woods, contending with booby traps (spike pits, land mines) along the way.

That’s basically all you need to know about the premise of the movie; there isn’t a great deal more to be said about it, to be honest, without getting into the realm of spoilers. There’s a weird diversion where it looks like a replica of rural Arkansas has been constructed in Bosnia to confuse the quarry in the hunt, but this once again feels a bit like diversionary filler – there’s a distinct smell around this film of it being a case of a strong premise that they really had trouble blowing up to feature length.

The idea of people hunting people isn’t an especially new one, after all – readers with serious psychiatric issues may recall that, after The Hunt had its theatrical run cancelled, I consoled myself by watching The Most Dangerous Game, another movie with a similar premise from the early 1930s. It crops up in various genre TV episodes as well – see The Snare, an episode of the Hulk TV show from the seventies. But one also gets the sense that this was conceived as a piece of satire as much as a thriller or a horror movie (it’s certainly gory enough to qualify as the latter).

Exactly which genre The Hunt falls into is a somewhat contentious issue, which has even earned its own Wikipedia footnote. I originally heard it advertised as a horror movie (not surprisingly, given it was produced by Blumhouse, the makers of the Paranormal Activity, Purge and Insidious franchises, as well as the (rather good) recent Halloween films). However, if you slap together any combination of the words horror, action, thriller, satire, and comedy, it is practically certain that someone will have described the film this way.

And the odd thing is that they all do describe the film: there’s more than enough gore for it to qualify as a horror, parts of it are very funny, and there’s at least one really well-staged action sequence. The problem is that, rather than blending all of these things into a single, coherent whole, The Hunt has a rather frenetic quality, hopping from sequence to sequence and topic to topic as if it’s afraid that if it lingers on any of them the audience will realise it’s actually a fairly insubstantial film. The irony is that if anything’s likely to create this impression it’s the fact the movie can’t keep still.

Wrong-footing the audience is often a good idea, and the film does have a go at this, being deliberately misleading about what exactly’s going on. It also attempts to do the old Psycho routine of introducing a character as, ostensibly, the lead, and then spectacularly killing them off relatively early in the film. This can work quite well – but The Hunt does the idea to death, repeatedly seeming to establish a protagonist only for them to meet a grisly fate a few minutes later. It gets a little bit wearisome, to be honest.

The scattershot approach of the film does occasionally pay off: there are some very funny moments, most of them satirical – the liberal elitists responsible for the carnage often pause in planning their mass slaughter to pick each other up for things like cultural appropriation and inappropriately gendered language. These scenes are so knowingly absurd that only an idiot could genuinely find The Hunt to be a provocative and dangerous incitement to division – it’s an exaggerated parody of the splits already existing in modern America.

Needless to say, Donald Trump weighed in and suggested an upcoming film was intended to ‘inflame and cause chaos’ (possibly that very stable genius was concerned about demarcation issues). To be honest, The Hunt is very small potatoes on that particular score, but the central idea – liberals hunting conservatives – was always going to be a bit controversial. The script does attempt to subvert audience expectations, by turning out to have as its main target the tendency of some people to believe anything they read on the internet, and the inflexible and nuance-free nature of so much modern political discourse. But this turns up rather late in the day, and feels like a bit of an afterthought.

Nevertheless, I did rather enjoy it: there are solid performances from what’s largely an ensemble cast (Hilary Swank, Wayne Duvall, Ethan Suplee, Betty Gilpin, Emma Roberts and Justin Hartley all get their moments of prominence) and the piece does have pace, energy, and a degree of wit about it. I’m not sure it hangs together as a coherent political thesis but there are certainly some very nice moments along the way.

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Is it my imagination or are we still seeing a dearth of really big popcorny movies at the moment? It might make sense: given the long lead-times involved in a really big film, the blockbusters of 2022 would probably have been in the works a couple of years ago, which was of course the height of the recent unpleasantness. Perhaps it’s telling that the biggest film of the year so far, the Top Gun sequel, was originally slated for a 2019 release and was made pre-virus. In any case, the result seems to be that more oddball movies are enjoying a high profile this year.

Such as David Leitch’s Bullet Train, which kind of resembles the kind of high-concept genre movie that usually surfaces in the spring or autumn. But here we are in August – this is probably due to the presence of some proper A-list stars and a director whose last few movies have all done rather well for themselves.

As the title might lead you to expect, the film is set in Japan, and mostly takes place on the shinkansen between Tokyo and Kyoto. Enjoying the sights of the capital at the start of the movie is a bucket-hatted dude who goes by the codename of Ladybug (he is played by Brad Pitt); Ladybug is a philosophically-inclined, firearm-averse freelance security operative, recently returned after taking some time out for personal reasons. (He is guided about his business by his handler-cum-life-coach, played by a mostly unseen Sandy Bullock.) Ladybug’s new assignment is to board the titular locomotive and steal a briefcase containing a large sum of money, ideally with a minimum of fuss and bloodshed. What could be simpler?

Well, quite a few things, as it turns out: the money is the recovered ransom fee for the recently-rescued son of a terrifying international crime lord (Michael Shannon), who is on the train and being babysat by an unlikely couple of brothers who go by the nicknames Tangerine and Lemon (Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Brian Tyree Henry); one of them happened to shoot Ladybug in a non-significant manner a few years earlier. Also on the train is a grief-stricken and vengeful Mexican gang leader known as the Wolf, a notorious poisoner codenamed the Hornet, a master-manipulator going by the title of Prince, and various other assassins and mercenaries all with their own conflicting agendas.

If that seems a fairly unlikely scenario to you, then I commend you for your astuteness; it’s fair to say we are not in the realm of the reality-adjacent action movie here. Bullet Train is the kind of fantastical beat-’em-up which is at least aware of its own unlikeliness, and indeed leans into it somewhat. But then the briefest glance at the CV of David Leitch could have told you as much – he co-directed the first John Wick, and went on to do Atomic Blonde, Deadpool 2, and Hobbs & Shaw, none of which are films that anyone would describe as having a stranglehold on reality.

We’re not that far into the film before the first of Pitt’s fellow passengers tries to punch his ticket in a pretty terminal way, from which point the film progresses in frenetic style. There is something rather commendable about the intricate plotting of the story, absurd though it is: this is the action movie performed as farce, with set-piece fights and shoot-outs taking the place of the usual pratfalls and sight-gags. It’s also inventive enough to keep most of the major characters alive until the third act, which is no mean feat considering that nearly everyone’s main objective is to kill someone else (or, indeed, everyone else).

There is, as you’d expect, a significant level of violence and gore as the film progresses, though nothing too extreme (although by most people’s standards I have probably become quite desensitised to this sort of thing). Some of the visual stylings are a little bit hackneyed, and there’s an element of fetishisation as far as Japanese culture is concerned (mostly in a superficial way); this is all really just to say that the film functions in a kind of para-Tarantino manner, though it is thankfully free of pretensions to being high art; there, is, however, one extremely protracted running gag based on a fairly unlikely cultural reference – on one level, there is a kind of logic to a film set on a train including an extended allusion to Thomas the Tank Engine, but, on the other hand, if the Reverend Wilbert Awdry was still alive, the shock of having his creations co-opted by a film like this would most likely kill him.

The film does come across as frantic and colourful and more than a bit silly; I did actually find myself wondering what the point of it was while I was watching it. The closest it gets to having any kind of depth or underpinning comes by way of some rather laborious ruminations on the workings of fate and destiny – Ladybug is frequently bewailing his own consistently bad luck, Prince is quite smug about being blessed in quite the opposite manner, some of the other characters pause to reflect on the sheer unlikeliness of everything that is going on (the ridiculous coincidences more than anything else), and so on. It’s a pretty thin pretext for a serious movie.

Then again you could certainly argue that Bullet Train isn’t really a serious film, it’s too far-fetched and cartoony for that. This is not to say that most of the performances aren’t well-pitched and effective; Pitt and many of the other members of the cast certainly manage to lift the material. The production values are good, and I did find myself laughing a lot of the time. But on the other hand this doesn’t feel like a film with a burning need to exist – it’s a collection of ideas from films like Kill Bill, Train to Busan, and Free Fire all jumbled together and touched up in the hope that nobody will notice it’s actually quite a derivative piece of work. I can see why Bullet Train has struggled at the box office – it’s good as what it is, but as what it wants to be, it’s just not quite good enough.

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Dan Trachtenberg’s Prey (probably not showing at a cinema near you, but available to stream on Mouse+) is set in the early 18th century somewhere in continental North America. Naru (Amber Midthunder) is a young Comanche woman who burns to be taken seriously by the rest of her tribe – every day she goes off and practices with the tomahawk she inherited from her late father, and with which she has attained an alarming degree of proficiency, but there never seems to be much question of her being allowed to hunt with the young men of the tribe. This is particularly galling given that her brother Taabe (Dakota Beavers) has just been chosen as their war chief.

One day Naru is about her illicit practice when she is disturbed by an ominous rumbling from the sky: fire flashes there. Not long after, another young hunter is attacked by a lion and disappears. Taabe leads a party of young men to find the lost hunter and kill the beast, and Naru manages to persuade them to take her along. But something has scared the big cat off before it can finish off the wounded man. Taabe and the others see this as good news – only Naru pauses to wonder what could be responsible. Huge footprints and strangely-mutilated animal carcasses only add to her concerns.

Still no-one will listen to her, as she is only a young woman and not taken seriously by the men around her (there may possibly be a bit of a socio-political subtext here), and so she and her dog end up going off into the wilderness in pursuit of whatever this strange new beast may be. She is naturally more than a little surprised when it proves to be an horrific ogre which takes body parts as trophies from the men it hunts, has phosphorescent green blood, and can turn invisible at will…

The cockroach-like qualities of the Predator franchise are, of course, well-known – John McTiernan’s original movie is a no-debate-necessary classic of action sci-fi, but as far as all the sequels go… well, let’s just say that every time it seems like the bottom of the barrel has been reached and the series has finally expired, something new crawls into view. But the consistency of the downward trajectory, in terms of quality, is actually quite impressive – the only uptick, probably, being that 2010’s Predators was better than the second Alien Vs Predator movie (it would be difficult to be worse, or at least more revolting). I suppose we can credit the franchise’s refusal to do the decent thing and just expire to the sheer quality of the first film.

Now, however, I find myself obliged to do a complete rethink of my attitudes here, as Prey – which is, as you have probably figured out for yourself, technically Predator 7, a prequel to all the other films – is the first entry in the series which isn’t somehow a bit dispiriting in at least 30 years. I might even go so far as to say that it’s actually rather good.

Novelty goes a long way when it comes to revitalising these old franchises, of course. Doing a ‘historical’ Predator movie is, with hindsight, such a no-brainer that one wonders why it has taken so long for it to happen; if Prey does well then I would expect a slew of these things over the next few years. This film, set in the great American wilderness against a backdrop of conflict between Native Americans and French trappers, sometimes feels rather as though the Predator has crashed into the middle of The Revenant – an intriguing and rather exciting idea. (It got me thinking as to what other worthy historical movies could be thus improved by the insertion of hostile extraterrestrials. I’ll let you know what Julian Fellowes thinks of my pitch for Downton Abbey 3: Flayed Alive.)

The shift in setting has necessitated a slight rejig in the usual aesthetics of one of these films – there is still gore and dismemberment aplenty, but less heavy firepower: lances, arrows, axes, and so on, do most of the work. In a nice touch, the Predator’s own equipment is a bit less high-tech than in the present-day movies – the Yautja don’t seem to have invented that shoulder-mounted plasma cannon yet, but the (dare I say it) iconic invisibility screen is still present and correct. In many ways this is absolutely all the things you want to see from a Predator film, with none of the extraneous stuff that started to creep in from the first sequel onwards. (Well, now that I think on it, the classic Alan Silvestri theme isn’t there.)

The really neat thing about the premise of Prey is that not only does it shake up and revitalise a franchise which has felt moribund for over a decade, it also allows 20th Century Not-Fox to score some easy points for making a film which is built around a powerful message of feminine empowerment and also showcases performers of Native American heritage. (An alternate dub of the film where the Comanche characters speak their own language, rather than English, is also available. I gave that a miss, but I can see how it might work better than the ‘mainstream’ version.)

I would be lying if I said that Prey handles its feminist subtext with enormous grace and subtlety, but I’ve seen this sort of thing done much worse elsewhere, while the tribal background to the story only seems natural given the premise of the film. It’s a very different presentation of Native American life to most that I can think of – I watched the movie with the spousal co-unit and she was quite complementary about the careful depiction of just how the Comanche lived – and I almost regret the decision to advertise the film as a Predator movie in advance; getting the audience to watch what seemed to be a rather earnest drama about Native American society only to confront them with a ravening big-name monster would be tremendous coup de theatre.

As it is, it can still come across as worthy and perhaps sometimes just a little bit slow – the beautiful landscapes and Midthunder’s engaging performance go some way to making up for this, and the script is also quite cleverly constructed. The action sequences and visual effects are also well up to expectations. It’s a shame this film isn’t getting more of a cinema release, but nevertheless – I’m not sure it quite qualifies as an exciting new dawn for the Predator series, but it’s still the most interesting thing to have happened to it in decades.

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Waiting thirty-six years to do a sequel is fairly ridiculous – if the gap before Downton Abbey 3 is that long, it will be coming out in 2058 – but then again fairly ridiculous things do seem to be the wheelhouse of Tom Cruise these days. To be fair to the makers of Top Gun: Maverick, the inordinate delay is not entirely their fault – the film was originally supposed to come out nearly a decade a go, and was delayed by the death of the first film’s director, Tony Scott. (He has been replaced by Joseph Kosinski, who previously worked with Cruise on the good but derivative sci-fi movie Oblivion.) Then it was scheduled to come out in Summer 2019, only to be pushed back a year for technical reasons, and we all know what happened to the slate of releases for Summer 2020.

Hence the fact that the trailer for Top Gun: Maverick feels like it’s been a fixture at my local cinema forever; I’m actually slightly surprised it’s being released at all. Just let the trailer run indefinitely as a tribute to… oh, I don’t know what. It’s not a terrible trailer, after all. Anyone subscribing to the Muppet Theory (i.e. ‘everybody knows the sequel’s never quite as good’) could be forgiven for the odd qualm as the new film taxis into view – as I have previously observed, Top Gun is a bit like Dirty Dancing in that it is undeniably iconic, the subject of immense nostalgia, and not actually much good when you actually sit down and look at it properly.

The new film opens with virtually a carbon-copy reprise of the beginning of the 1986 film – same caption, same footage of planes trundling around on a carrier deck, same austere bonging on the soundtrack. This is a bit of a cheat as the aircraft carrier doesn’t properly feature in the film until well into the second hour. It soon becomes clear that, rather than flying a jet fighter off a warship, these days Tom Cruise has been assigned to Area 51: not because that’s where all the weird alien life forms get sent for examination, but because he’s now a test pilot for the Very Fast Planes Indeed Project. Here he promptly ticks off Admiral Ed Harris for flying one whole Mach faster than he is supposed to.

Harris is duly landed with the thankless task of reprising the scene where he supposedly wants to kick Cruise out of the Navy but ends up sending him on a special prestige assignment instead. This turns out to be teaching at the Top Gun school where most of the original film was set. No-one is pleased to see him there except for the landlady at the local pub, and this is not because Cruise is on the booze but because they have a romantic history together. She is played by Jennifer Connelly, who doesn’t get a lot to do to keep her interested, and the script attempts to finesse the awkward issue of parachuting in a new character with whom Cruise has an established relationship by making her someone who was mentioned but never seen in Top Gun.

Anyway, Cruise is there to train pilots for a suicidal mission to bomb a new uranium enrichment centre in enemy territory, which involves zig-zagging down a valley, flying over a mountain, hitting a thermal exhaust port with a bouncing bomb, etc etc. Being Cruise he accepts this assignment without batting an eyelid, but is finally given pause when he learns that one of his trainees is the now-grown son of his former buddy Goose, whose death provided what little emotional ballast the 1986 film possessed (the gosling is played by Miles Teller, who has been issued with what’s possibly the very same wispy moustache worn by Anthony Edwards wayback in the formerwhen). Can the pilots pull together and reduce the casualty risk from suicidal to merely insanely dangerous? Can Cruise bond with with his buddy’s kid and strike a blow for human pilots in an age of drone warfare? And can the film really get away with never mentioning exactly which country Cruise and the others are bombing?

I mean, really. The first film played a kind of nudge-wink game when it came to who exactly it was that Cruise was shooting down in the climax, but the new film keeps an entirely straight face on the topic, which feels particularly bizarre given a war is now in progress in Europe in which the US is very pointedly not participating. Admittedly, the bad guys are flying Su-57s, which are a primarily Russian jet, but they also have F-14s sitting around the place. Based on the landscape it looks like the Americans are bombing Norway, or possibly New Zealand. It’s undeniably problematic – it clearly wants to be a war film but it doesn’t seem that interested in what the actual war is.

It isn’t quite enough to properly spoil a slick and enjoyable action movie, which is – and this will surprise Muppet Theory adherents, even though the bar on this occasion is very low – appreciably better than the first one. It’s not just a vacuously good-looking film about how fantastic Tom Cruise and the US Navy are; it feels like there are proper stakes, the characters feel actually developed, and there is a genuine moral premise of sorts – the idea that human character and spirit have not yet been eclipsed by technology.

Admittedly, the film doesn’t handle this theme with a great deal of subtlety or nuance – the first two thirds of the film, and the beginning of the final act, are admirably restrained and gritty and everything is quite credible. But then the plot resolves through a sequence of such jaw-dropping silliness it’s hard to believe it hasn’t been edited onto the end of the film by some disgruntled junior producer as a prank. On the other hand it does feature some superb action and one of the best air combat set pieces I’ve ever seen. But it does feel like a film that was heading in a particular, quite sombre but nevertheless satisfying direction has been hijacked and sent somewhere a bit more cheery for the popcorn audience.

So in the end this is just a superior action movie rather than something which actually functions as a credible drama, for all that it is generally well-played and contains unexpected moments of humour and genuine emotion (that said, I found there to be something inescapably awkward about Val Kilmer’s cameo). Nevertheless, as an action movie it is often properly thrilling, which is what you want from this sort of thing, and I imagine it will satisfy fans of the original film and also those of Cruise in general. How the war-film element is handled is a bit problematic, but in other respects this is a fairly impressive piece of machine-tooled entertainment.

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It’s probably getting it all a bit backwards to suggest that Dirtier by the Dozen bears a peculiar resemblance to various episodes of Monty Python’s Flying Circus – one of the things that the original Python shows did was to systematically make the whole look and style of TV in the seventies seem risible by emptying out all the content and replacing it with finely-judged nonsense. Dirtier by the Dozen is also nonsense, but alas not especially well-judged, at least not by Clemens’ usual standards.

It opens with a group of butch men in khaki led by a steely John Castle (in an eye-patch) pretending to be soldiers somewhere abroad (the illusion of a foreign shoot is attempted by waving a tropical plant in front of the camera while jungle noises are edited onto the soundtrack, but it’s still very clear they’re no further afield than Borehamwood or somewhere similar). A cameraman films them surreptitiously then runs off when he is spotted. Meanwhile a British army general (Michael Barrington) drops in for an unannounced spot-check on the 19th Special Commando unit at their barracks, only to find the place almost completely deserted. The one soldier the general and his assistant encounter is insubordinate enough to imprison them both (the squaddie in question is played by Brian Croucher, who amongst other roles in a long career also played Travis the Second in Blake’s 7).

It eventually turns out the 19th Special Commando unit is really is special, as their commander Mad Jack Miller is a genuine nutcase and has been leading his men (the worst scum in the British army – it’s basically a penal regiment, to judge from the descriptions we hear) off to do various bits of fighting in other people’s wars on the quiet, all for a handsome fee. If Miller had attempted this spot of military self-sufficiency in the Thatcher era he would probably have received a commendation for enterprise and creative thinking, but we are still lodged in the late 1970s and so he is just a not particularly interesting or plausible loony.

Nevertheless, film of the 19th moonlighting abroad eventually reaches Gambit, while someone in the army contacts Steed about the missing general (whom Miller has dastardly plans for) – Patrick Macnee gets the best scene of the episode as he and Stephen Moore heroically grapple with expository dialogue in the middle of a battlefield (Steed is of course in full brolly and bowler rig). What follows, for rather longer than it should, feels a bit like one of those interludes in an RPG session where all the players consistently fluff every roll they need to make in order to progress through the narrative – Steed, Gambit, and Purdey basically just wander about going ‘Well, I wonder what this all means,’ without ever seeming to be in danger of finding an answer. Meanwhile, the plot trickles along as one of the soldiers recently back in the country comes down with blue parrot disease (or something similar) and is snuck off to a tropical diseases specialist (in contravention of orders), leading to a commando raid to get him back before the truth is exposed.

In the end Purdey turns up at the squaddies’ local and charms them all into nearly revealing their illicit activities (the mad colonel turns up and prevents this), while the regiment gets a new ADC in the form of one Major Gambit, a man with a dismal disciplinary record of his own. As I say, it’s largely nonsense – perhaps Clemens’ energies were flagging this close to the end of the season – and not particularly funny or imaginative nonsense. Perhaps the most striking thing about the episode is the astonishing supporting cast of familiar faces it has been blessed with – apart from the names I’ve already mentioned, there’s an early role for Alun Armstrong as the man whose mate has blue parrot disease, and an uncredited appearance by John (Boycie) Challis as another member of the regiment. It still doesn’t save an episode with a lot of military hardware on display but a distinctly squishy script.

Something remarkable is on the cards as we turn our attention to Sleeper, another Clemens script: your correspondent revising a previously-given opinion. I previously indicated that this tale of bandits using magic knockout gas to rob a sleeping London was a bit too outrageous to really work. Well… again, young nephew didn’t have a problem with it at all (this was the last of the episodes we watched together), and while the plot is basically just a load of contrivances and set-pieces strung together, it’s done with such style and confidence, and such attention to detail (both naturalistic and offbeat) that the story really works. It even functions as a sort of kinder, gentler take on the ‘dead London’ story-type so often found in British SF (see also Day of the Triffids, Survivors, 28 Days Later, and so on). Perhaps a bit heavy on the chicka-chicka-rumbra-dumbra music, but not to the point where it becomes a real problem. A very watchable episode; by no means one of the weakest of the series.

The first season wraps up with a reasonable episode, in the form of Three-Handed Game, another Spooner and Clemens collaboration: whether it is more or less implausible than their previous team-up Faces is probably a matter of personal taste. Steed has come up with a method of safely transferring long and valuable documents by splitting them into three chunks of unintelligible gibberish (one chunk has the first word of every three, the next the second of every three, etc), each of which is memorised by someone with perfect photographic recall. The couriers can’t make sense of the info, and nor can anyone else unless they can identify all three members of ‘the Triumvirate’. It all sounds fine until a sinister-looking South American villain named Juventor appears on the scene (played by Stephen Greif, who has always had a nice line in vaguely exotic-looking heavies – he is probably best remembered for playing Travis the First in Blake’s 7. Yes, I know, you wait ages for a Travis to come along and then they both show up in the same post).

Yes, that’s what his other eye really looks like.

Juventor has got his hands on a brain-draining machine which allows him to extract anything he fancies from the brain of a victim and then transfer it into that of another. He demonstrates this by kidnapping a tap dancer and then transplanting his terpsichorean virtuosity into the incredulous ambassador of a shady foreign power, just to prove it works. The ambassador (Terry Wood) seems to enjoy being able to tap dance much more than he ever did being a suspicious foreigner, but agrees to buy the brain-drainer for an astronomical sum, if Juventor first uses it to extract the secrets of the Triumvirate…

The oddball spin given the episode is that by this point Steed and the others are already closing in on Juventor in his base, leading him to take extreme (and not quite believable) measures: he uses the machine on himself and transplants the totality of his personality and memories into the kidnapped tap dancer, leaving only a dead husk behind (and saddling himself with the problem that his new legs just won’t quit tapping). Quite disregarding the fact that he appears to have stumbled onto a practical, though crude, method of achieving actual immortality, Juventor presses on with his plan to get rich by knocking off the Triumvirate, while our heroes are left to ponder just what’s going on and why they keep hearing someone tap dancing…

It’s… okay. There’s nothing actually wrong with it, per se, but it’s a very strange coming together of a rather grim and serious story (numerous people are left as vegetables by the brain-drainer) and a very twee and laboured approach to the material – too many things are just wildly implausible or contrived (such as the silly tap-dancing fight at the end). Someone who didn’t understand how The Avengers works would complain that the mind-transfer gadget seen here is clearly much less advanced than the one in use nearly a decade earlier in the episode Who’s Who?, but not me, obviously. I hadn’t watched this one in about a quarter of a century and don’t feel this was a particular mistake. There were worse episodes to end the season on (the best episodes of which I would probably suggest are Cat Among the Pigeons and Target!), and as a whole this is still a relatively consistent and solidly entertaining set of shows – all credit due to Clemens, Spooner and the main cast.

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For a film to become a genuine object of nostalgia, one important factor is that – ideally – it shouldn’t have any dodgy sequels dragging down its reputation in a sort of guilt-by-association way (or at least, no high-profile ones). Well, it’s an idea, anyway, and bearing it in mind it will be interesting to see if people’s attitudes to Top Gun change from this point forward. We have discussed in the past the notion of the Optimum Interval Before Sequel; if James Cameron is pushing it with a 13-year gap between the first and second Avatar films, what are we to make of the 36 year wait for a Top Gun film? But perhaps this is a discussion best saved for when that movie is the one in our crosshairs (the blog’s Anglo-Iranian affairs consultant is very keen to see it, hence the fact I’ve finally got around to watching the original).

Top Gun, released in 1986 and directed by Tony Scott, is remembered for many things, including its aerial photography, Tom Cruise’s teeth, Giorgio Moroder’s soundtrack, Tom Cruise’s underpants, the fact the US Navy treated it as the world’s most lavish recruitment video, and – possibly – a profoundly homo-erotic subtext. (It also established Cruise as a major star, if you really care about that sort of thing.) But it seems to be fairly overlooked as the film which really launched Tony Scott’s career as a director – his previous film The Hunger didn’t make much of an impression, and it was this one which paved the way for a successful (if not always critically popular) career turning out (for the most part) good-looking mainstream thrillers. (Scott never had quite the versatility of his brother Ridley.)

Certainly it’s the look of the film that strikes you from the start: jet fighters taxi about in silhouette, surrounded by support crew, the sky is a rich yellow-orange, it’s all very glossy and attractive. We eventually figure out we’re on an American aircraft carrier in the ‘present day’ (i.e. the depths of the Reagan Era) in the Indian Ocean, where those pesky Commies keep flying where they shouldn’t. A tense stand-off ensues between a flight of American jets and some (fictional) MiG-28s; unorthodox flying from pilot Maverick (Cruise) sees them off, but the squadron’s lead flier Cougar is severely rattled by the incident and needs coaxing down out of the sky.

A rather identikit scene follows in which Maverick and his sidekick Goose (Anthony Edwards in a wispy moustache) are dragged over the coals for their undisciplined behaviour by the commander, but, because the premise of the film is predicated on this, he is still obliged to send them off to Top Gun school, where the Navy’s elite fighter pilots receive advanced tuition.

Whatever shortcomings Maverick may have in terms of shortness, he makes up for them with an ego the size of an aircraft carrier, which does not initially endear him to either his classmates at the school (his most prominent rival is Iceman, played by Val Kilmer) or the instructors (the film is given a bit of heft by the presence of Tom Skerritt in a rather more luxuriant moustache and Michael Ironside, who is clean-shaven). Maverick, however, is more concerned with getting in the good books of civilian tutor Charlotte Blackwood (Kelly McGillis), even if she is a little bit older than him (what can I say, maybe Maverick’s former buddy isn’t the only cougar in the film). Can Maverick win the Top Gun prize and convince the Navy, not to mention the rest of the world, as to how brilliant he really is?

Well, yes, of course he can. One interpretation of Top Gun is that it’s essentially the story of a man who begins the film utterly convinced of his own brilliance and ends it with that confirmed and praised by everyone around him. Perhaps I’m just being very British but that kind of character arc is a bit of a hard sell for me: I’d find someone like Maverick very hard work to be around (then again I find quite a lot of people hard work to be around, and I’m sure they’d say the same about me).

Of course, it’s not quite as simple as all that: Maverick doesn’t have it all his own way, and experiences the requisite major wobble at the end of the second act of the film, at which point he duly contends with a bout of self-doubt. What is telling, however, is that he’s never really called upon to reflect on any flaws he may have in his own character – said wobble, even though it the results in the (inevitable and rather predictable) death of Goose, is not his fault; everyone goes out of their way to say as much. Any griping about Maverick could just be sour grapes or jealousy on the part of the gripers; the film is always on his side. The result of this is that some parts of the film feel a bit unpalatable nowadays, due to their boisterous jockishness – the sequence near the start, for instance, when Maverick takes a bet on whether or not he can have sex with McGillis on the premises of the bar where they first meet.

So the story is pretty slim and mostly about how great Tom Cruise (and/or Maverick) is. (The much-discussed gay subtext to Top Gun seems to me to be one of those things which is only there if you look for it: there are a lot of men in towels, and the love interest is called Charlie, but even so – it’s not as if all of the ‘evidence’ really stands up. The scene in which McGillis is supposedly dressed as a man and wearing a baseball cap looks the way it does because this was a reshoot done weeks later and the actress had different hair.) However, one must not underestimate just how appealing the general aesthetics of the film are, nor the fact that there are some decent character turns occurring amongst the supporting cast.

The element of Top Gun which everyone seems to agree about is the aerial photography, which is indeed highly impressive and often quite exciting. Anyone wanting to watch jets going back and forth very fast in the sunlight will have no cause for complaint here. What I would suggest is that Scott and his editors haven’t quite figured out a way to present an actual dogfight in cinematic turns – there are lots of cuts between planes whizzing about in different directions and the heads of the actors in the cockpits, but in order to know what’s actually going on you’re fairly dependent on following the dialogue (and even here it is more a question of tone than detail).

Nevertheless, I can see why this film did so well at the time, although I remain to be convinced that so many years on we really need a sequel to it. For the time being (a period we can now realistically measure in days) it remains a well-liked piece of superficial, cheesy, 80s kitsch, the closest thing to Dirty Dancing it’s acceptable for a man to like. I don’t think it’s a particularly good film, but I did sort of enjoy it.

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