Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Posts Tagged ‘action’

John Carpenter’s 1976 movie Assault on Precinct 13 opens with a cosmopolitan group of young Los Angelinos out for a walk one night. As their neighbourhood is perhaps not the swankiest, they have opted to play it safe and are all carrying automatic weapons. Unfortunately, when they bump into a group of police, the officers of the law are likewise not inclined to take any chances and mow them all down with pump-action shotguns, apparently before the youths manage to get a shot off. These days this sequence feels rather provocative, though it was probably never intended to.

The rest of the movie takes place in the course of the next twenty-four hours. The leaders of the street gang whose members were killed meet and swear a blood oath to exact vengeance for the deaths of their friends – quite who is never made entirely clear. Initially it seems to be anyone who crosses their path, particularly ice-cream men, before they settle for ‘anyone sheltering someone we don’t like’. This is a plot device, to be honest, but a very functional one.

Carpenter goes on to introduce the various characters who will populate the story: Lieutenant Bishop (Austin Stoker), a Highway Patrol officer on his first night’s duty – a decent, principled man, keen to make a difference, Bishop isn’t completely delighted to be given a posting supervising a near-derelict police station on the verge of being entirely shut down. All he has to do is answer the phones, redirect anyone who comes in to the new station, and make friends with the secretaries (Laurie Zimmer and Nancy Loomis).

Meanwhile, a group of prisoners is being transferred from one penal institution to another. Amongst them are Wells (Tony Burton), a fairly undistinguished crook, and Napoleon Smith (Darwin Joston), a celebrity multiple-murderer with a bit of an attitude, not to mention an ego. Also going about his business is Mr Lawson (Martin West), a man taking his young daughter to visit his mother. And, of course, the gang warlords are on the prowl, looking for trouble.

Needless to say, all these characters eventually come together at the virtually-abandoned old precinct: Lawson has a shocking run-in with the gang and ends up killing one of them. With the others on his tail he takes refuge in the precinct, where the bus carrying Wells and Smith has made a brief stop. Before anyone realises what’s happening, the building has been surrounded by dozens of heavily armed gang members, all apparently out for Lawson’s blood, and all of them totally psychotic.

The movie basically treats the gang members like something out of a horror movie, which makes the ensuing alliance between Bishop, one of the secretaries named Leigh, and the two convicts more plausible. The quartet have to work together in order to fend off the waves of attacks the gang throw against the precinct, all the while trying to raise the alarm or find a way to escape…

The last time I wrote about a John Carpenter movie, I was unfortunately obliged to be fairly unkind about it, and proposed the standard thesis: that Carpenter is one of those people who for some reason has done his career backwards. It’s perfectly understandable for people’s work to improve over time, as they practise and learn from their mistakes – the fact that this happens is one of the very few benign laws of nature – but there is something a little bit baffling about people who get worse as they progress through their career. Carpenter started with this film, Dark Star, Halloween, The Fog and The Thing, but then unaccountably seemed to go off the boil, and what ensued is essentially – oh, dear, I feel awful for saying this – a long slide into creative irrelevance.

But this movie – oh, boy! If we’re going to go with the ‘backwards career’ notion, it follows that Carpenter’s first proper movie should be amongst his best – and so it is. Halloween is the early Carpenter film that gets all the attention, not least because it was a huge hit and consolidated a new horror subgenre (I hesitate to say it actually invented the slasher movie, because, you know, Psycho). I fully see why Halloween is so acclaimed, but for sheer pleasure and entertainment value, this is the Carpenter movie for me.

Of course, watching it now, you can see that this was a director who would at some point do something noteworthy in the horror genre – the faceless, silent gang members have something of George Romero’s zombies about them, and the precinct-under-siege of course recalls the embattled farmhouse in Night of the Living Dead (Carpenter has acknowledged the debt). But you might also anticipate there would be a proper western somewhere in Carpenter’s future, given Assault kind of resembles a mash-up of a zombie movie and a cowboy film – I’ve heard it described as an ‘urban western’, which strikes me as as good a description as any (always assuming we’re still allowed to use the word urban figuratively, anyway).

What we can learn from a film like this is that sometimes a script doesn’t need a lot of subplots and subtext and character motivation: it sets up the situation and characters with supreme economy, and, once it has brought them together, proceeds to play out virtually in real time, apart from a couple of cutaway sequences. Even then, there is barely a wasted moment or line – virtually all of Darwin Joston’s dialogue in the first part of the film is setting up a pay-off near the end. Carpenter has said the final script was put together in not much more than a week, which only goes to show that an intense creative blitz can sometimes pay dividends.

Having the right neighbours probably helps, too: Carpenter was living in the same building as Darwin Joston at the time, and Joston knew Austin Stoker from other acting work, and this was how the film found its two male leads. It is almost impossible to look at this film now and not wonder why Stoker, Joston and Laurie Zimmer did not go on to much more substantial movie careers – Joston in particular is effortlessly charismatic, but the others aren’t far behind him. The pay-off to the whole movie comes in the final shot, when Bishop and Smith walk out of what’s left of the precinct side by side, and it’s one of those moments which almost lifts you out of your seat.

The rather charged by-play between Joston and Zimmer, not to mention some of their other dialogue, does betray Carpenter’s great fondness for the films of Howard Hawks – Assault also owes a debt to his Rio Bravo – a classic Hollywood touch to what is still clearly a low-budget exploitation movie with some notably graphic violence. There’s still a film-school-punk edge to Carpenter’s work at this point, most obviously in the ice cream scene – the censor insisted Carpenter remove this, or the film would be given an X certificate (Carpenter obliged, but then put the offending moment back in for the film’s wider release). Even the director has since admitted he perhaps goes a little too far at this point.

Well, maybe: but it’s the combination of traditional virtues and restless edginess that gives the film its energy and ability to relentlessly grip and entertain. It occurs to me we are sometimes a bit too hard on John Carpenter, and are too inclined to judge him based on his later films: if you or I happened along and made a film as good as Assault on Precinct 13, then promptly retired, we would still be acclaimed as having made a significant contribution to cinema. Assault on Precinct 13, Halloween, and The Thing go to comprise a very impressive legacy, to say nothing of Carpenter’s other movies. But for me, this is the one at the top of the pile.

Read Full Post »

One of the great what-ifs of cinema history is the question of what kind of career Bruce Lee would have enjoyed had he not passed away, aged only 32, a month before the release of his first major American movie in 1973. Certainly one gets a sense that big things were planned for Lee (perhaps not least by himself): the title of Enter the Dragon doesn’t really mean anything in the context of the film itself, but does make some sort of sense if you think of the film as Lee’s calling card for mainstream cinema. As it is, the card marked a departure rather than an arrival, but what a card it is.

Directed by Robert Clouse, the film opens with a mysterious British chap turning up to watch Lee (whose body appears to consist of something in the region of 90% sinew) put the smackdown on a rather less athletic member of his own temple (the proof that a successful career is not just the preserve of people who work out is that this actor, Sammo Hung, went on to become a martial arts superstar in a series of films with titles like Enter the Fat Dragon).

The spectator turns out to be Mr Braithwaite, a representative of British intelligence. Braithwaite wants Lee to attend a martial arts tournament to be held on the private island of the reclusive Mr Han (Shih Kien), and try to turn up evidence that Han is a drug-dealing white slaver. Lee’s own tutor takes him to one side and reveals that Han is actually a corrupted renegade member of Lee’s own Shaolin temple. On a quick trip home before heading off to the tournament, Lee’s dad reveals that it was Han’s men who drove his little sister to commit suicide some years earlier. It is fair to say he heads off on his mission feeling very well-motivated.

Other people on the boat are less burdened with back-story, but then this isn’t a vehicle for them. Chief amongst these are charmingly roguish (or possibly roguishly charming) American gambler Roper, (John Saxon), and his mightily-Afro’d old ‘Nam buddy Williams (Jim Kelly).  (This isn’t a particularly forgiving script for the various Asian actors: the Enter the Dragon drinking game includes taking a sip every time someone refers to the mysterious ‘Loper’ or ‘Wirriams’, two characters who are occasionally mentioned but never seen.)

Well, soon enough everyone arrives on Han’s island and gets down to the business of kicking great lumps out of one another. Will Han succeed in luring Roper and Williams (or even Loper and Wirriams) into joining his nefarious organisation? Will Lee succeed in his mission? Will everything come to a peaceful conclusion? (Clue: of course it won’t.)

Enter the Dragon has a bit of an image problem amongst my immediate family: when my father came across me watching it, he was moved to start leaving me slightly sarcastic notes around the house suggesting I might want to reconsider my choice of recreational viewing. My sister refused to stay in the room during a subsequent viewing some years later. The case that the movie is essentially just schlock, a kind of soft-core pornography of violence (and perhaps not just violence) is, at first glance anyway, a difficult one to answer. My answer would probably be: yes, but what schlock! What violence!

It is the case that this is not a film aspiring to heights of erudition and a sophisticated insight into the human condition. It is emotional, kinetic, superficial and visceral. ‘Man, you come right out of a comic book,’ says Williams to Han at one point, scornfully, but he overlooks the fact that he himself and every other character and plot element has been derived from comics and pulp fiction. The Bond series seems to have been a particular donor: at one point Han gives Roper a tour of his secret base (he keeps his own skeletal severed hand in a display case, or so it is implied), and of course he is carrying a white cat around with him as he does so.

There is something bizarrely reductionist about the plot: the film establishes characters and setting in the most minimal way. Lee, driven martial arts guru, is playing Lee, a driven martial arts guru; Han, it is made absolutely clear, is a very naughty man; and there is a kung fu tournament which will provide many opportunities for violence. Perfunctory doesn’t begin to cover it, but then the film is primarily a vehicle for Bruce Lee and his martial arts choreography.

You do get a strong sense that the producers of the film are playing it very safe and don’t fully appreciate what a talent they had on their hands in Lee – this is not the most demanding of acting roles for him, but he still manages to find places to play scenes against expectation and find comedy in unlikely moments. Given his natural charisma, it’s easy to imagine him carrying off a much more sophisticated role very successfully. He certainly doesn’t need to be teamed up with John Saxon, who is presumably here to do the heavy lifting in the acting department and present a Caucasian face for audiences resistant to a Chinese lead actor. Saxon gives a decent performance considering he is essentially supernumerary to the film. I only found out recently that the actor is in real life a karate black belt; nevertheless, his fight scenes in this film have a distinct whiff of dressage about them as he hops about somewhat inelegantly.

Any action involving Lee is on a different level, however, whether it’s an individual fight or the sequences in which he takes on armies of opponents singlehandedly (Jackie Chan is somewhere in the crowd, as well as doubling for Lee in a few stunt sequences). You can almost sense that the grammar of the American martial arts movie is being written as you watch, but few other stars have had Lee’s intensity and virtuosity. The fight in the maze of mirrors is one of those sequences which has been endlessly ripped off ever since. Pretty much the only complaint you can make about the fight sequences is that Clouse’s direction is often not up to scratch, filming Lee in mid-shot where the full extent of his speed and skill is often unclear (too much is going on beyond the edges of the frame).

It’s hard to imagine where an eighty-something Bruce Lee would be now; possibly still producing and directing movies, but most likely having moved on to something else – politics, perhaps, or spirituality. We shall never know. This is, of course, his most famous film for western audiences, and one designed for him. He dominates it completely, and yet for all the irresistible entertainment it provides, it somehow doesn’t do him justice. But this much is obvious even while you’re enjoying it as an irresistible piece of genre cinema, and I imagine it does a great job of inspiring people to learn more about him.

Read Full Post »

I can’t help thinking that there have been a lot of drossy movies on this blog in the last few days, and watching and thinking about all these bad movies does wear one down a little (the films I watched but didn’t bother writing about – Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, two of the Indiana Jones series, and Krull – were hardly classics, to be perfectly honest). So let’s look at some good films, for a change, undisputed works of brilliance – undisputed by me, anyway, and as this blog is run on a democratic, one-person, one-vote basis (I’m the person and I get the only vote), I get to decide what counts as brilliant.

There was a time when I was in my late teens and early twenties when I would occasionally have cause for great excitement: I was already very interested in films, and was starting to get a sense of what was agreed to be in the canon of great movies. Occasionally something I really wanted to see would come on TV (as often as not in the middle of the night, but so it goes) and so I would have the slightly nervous experience of setting the VCR, then checking the settings several times, coming down early to make sure the film had recorded okay, and then finally watching it (frequently to discover it didn’t quite live up to expectations – for example, it took me many years to learn to appreciate the quality of an oddball film like Phase IV).

One film that did live up to expectations was Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (J-title: Shichinin no Samurai), which played very late one Sunday night just before my last few A-levels. It felt like a very well-timed reward for the end of my school education, although it was a few days before I could secure the TV for long enough to actually watch it. I had already seen a couple of Kurosawa movies by this point – Yojimbo and Ran had both been on in the previous couple of years – but I knew that Seven Samurai was the big one, already guaranteed a place in cinema history simply because of the number of other films and TV episodes that had, essentially, ripped it off (three of those, Legend of the 7 Golden Vampires, Battle Beyond the Stars and the 2016 remake of The Magnificent Seven, I’ve looked at already).

The movie opens with a brief caption explaining the strife-riven nature of sixteenth-century Japan, then fades up on a black horizon under a gloomy, overcast sky. Armoured horsemen rise into view, silhouetted in long shot, and the thunder of hooves is the only sound. These are the bandits who are the chief driver of the plot. They halt atop a hill overlooking a small village, and have a shouted discussion as to their plans: the villagers will have nothing worth taking at the moment, but if they return once the crops are harvested…

The bandits ride off, and will not appear again until the second half of the movie. But their plan has been overheard by a villager, who tells his fellows, and there is a fraught debate as to what to do – try to appease the bandits? Mass suicide? Attempt to resist them? Every option seems to end with the destruction of the village. The oldest and wisest man in the village has another idea, however: recalling a similar situation where the bandits were driven off by samurai warriors hired for protecton. But how are they to pay for the services of these elite, aristocratic warriors? ‘Find hungry samurai,’ is the old man’s advice.

This proves to be slightly trickier than expected: on going to the nearest big town, their first candidate proves to be a lazy, craven slob. But things turn around when they meet Kambei (Takashi Shimura), a vastly experienced warrior prepared to make sacrifices if the cause is right. He is soon joined by Katsushiro (Isao Kimura), a young boy looking for training; Gorobei (Yoshio Inaba), a strongman who becomes Kambei’s lieutenant; Shichiroji (Daisuke Kato), an old comrade of Kambei’s; Heihachi (Minoru Chiaki), an irreverent clown; and Kyuzo (Seiji Miyaguchi), a supremely skilled swordsman. Also tagging along, and bringing the numbers up to that all-important seven, is Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune), who affects to be a samurai but is really an uncouth, unpredictable slob.

You’re probably already familiar with this story, even if you haven’t seen any of the various remakes and reimaginings that have followed it: the samurai return to the village, where they gradually win the trust and respect of their new employers. Preparations are made and then the bandits finally return, in which the skill and determination of the defenders is tested to the utmost. It is such a sturdy story-structure, with its various sub-components (for instance, the recruiting of the team) able to be extracted and repurposed as well. And Kurosawa seems to have invented it virtually from scratch, even if he did apparently get the idea for the film from an actual historical incident.

Apart from the fact that this film was made by one of the masters, there are a couple of things that elevate it above the films and TV episodes that followed (and, it must be said, some of those are also very good indeed). The sheer length of the film – getting on for three and a half hours – gives space for a plethora of subplots and character moments, giving each of the seven – and many of the villagers – a chance to develop into a genuine character. They play off each other in a variety of combinations throughout the film; no-one is there just to make the numbers up, everybody gets at least one big moment. This may be a long film but it is also supremely economical: there is barely a wasted moment.

The other thing that distinguishes it is that most of the films that followed are fantasies, one way or another: even the original version of The Magnificent Seven, which is supposedly a ‘straight’ western, is obliged to engage in some awkward plot contrivances to preserve Kurosawa’s structure (keeping the Mexican government on-side may also have been a factor). This version, however, is set in a specific historical context, which heavily informs the story. Many of the subplots arise from the tensions arising between the farmers and the samurai, who are basically from different social castes and are initially somewhat suspicious of each other (perhaps with good reason). You possibly have to be Japanese to appreciate all the nuances of this, but you can get a strong sense of what’s going on no matter where you’re from.

In the end it resolves with the famous battle in the rain, a last-man-standing struggle to the death between the samurai and villagers on one side and the last few bandits on the other. Obviously, the technical capacities of the 1950s were different from those of today, and this is reflected in the special effects and fight choreography, but in terms of movement and composition and editing, there are still few things to match the battle sequences of this film for fluency and energy.

You probably know how it concludes: there are winners and losers, possibly on the same side. But there is still something about the ending that seems very satisfying and appropriate, for all of the sadness that comes with it. Sadness for the fallen villagers and their defenders, and sadness that not even this film can go on forever. Although, to be perfectly honest, I think it probably will.

Read Full Post »

The gravity of the current situation didn’t completely sink in with me until this weekend just gone, especially when I made one of my regular visits to the cinema. Everything was ostensibly the same as normal, but it had all changed, especially when it came to the trailers for coming attractions: there was something very detached from reality about studios boldly promising their next blockbuster would be coming out in April, May or June; even the ones offering a less-specific ‘Coming Soon’ seemed hopelessly optimistic. As previously mentioned hereabouts, some big movies are being pulled from the schedules and it’s hard to imagine others won’t follow suit, even if the cinemas stay open. Even Marvel Studios may finally have met their match in the coronavirus; whether this results in a fender-bender of their unreleased films piling up on top of each other remains to be seen – at the time of writing, they seem intent on hanging tough and sticking with a May date for Black Widow.

Universal, on the other hand, are being ultra-cautious and Fast and Furious 9 has been pushed back by a whole year (and this follows its release date being delayed to accommodate last year’s spin-off). Never mind the pandemic – what is the world to do without its regular fix of Vin Diesel driving crossly and quickly? Well, this particular sub-crisis could be potentially be ameliorated by the fact that Vin has had another go at a non-F&F movie (what’s that quote about doing the same thing again and again and expecting different results…?) and it is available to view in cinemas now: Bloodshot, directed by Dave Wilson, a co-production between the often badly-named Original Film Company and  Bona Films (which sounds like something out of Round the Horne).

Diesel, resembling as ever a cross between Telly Savalas and a Cape buffalo, plays Ray Garrison, an elite US special forces soldier whom we first encounter shooting some bad guys with great aplomb in Kenya. That all sorted out, he heads off for a holiday in Italy with his lovely wife (Talulah Riley). This occasions various scenes of Vin trying to play the romantic lead, which finds the big man some distance from his comfort zone, and could be considered a gruelling experience for the audience, too.

Luckily enough, the two of them are soon kidnapped by some bad guys out for revenge, led by a character named Martin Axe (Toby Kebbell). Kebbell comes on and does a little dance number to ‘Psycho Killer’ by Talking Heads, just to make it quite clear he is a psycho killer. He proves his psycho killer credentials by killing not just Vin’s missus but Vin himself (this barely qualifies as a spoiler as we haven’t even reached the opening credits yet).

Well, it probably will not come as a shock to you if I reveal that it takes more than being killed to keep a man like Vin Diesel down, especially when his body is donated to private industry by the US government. That mighty carcass falls into the hands of cyber-boffin Dr Emil Harting (Guy Pearce), who brings Vin back from the dead by replacing his blood with robots (look, I just write this stuff down). Now he is super-strong, heals like Hugh Jackman, and his new robo-blood can log onto the internet and do all kinds of improbable things. Harting wants Vin to join his team of cybernetically-reconstructed forces veterans (Eiza Gonzalez plays the obligatory ass-kicking babe), but Vin is having trouble getting his shiny head around all of this, not least because dying has given him amnesia. He wanders off by himself a lot and sits looking aggrieved, occasionally putting his head in his hands (viewers of the film may be doing the same by this point).

But then someone plays some Talking Heads on the radio and it all comes back to our man. Off he trots to exact a violent revenge on Kebbell, making full use of his robo-blood and other special faculties. But isn’t this all just a bit convenient? Could there be more going on than Vin is aware of…?

Yes, I know: the world is gripped by a pandemic, with everyone encouraged to exercise social distancing and avoid unnecessary travel, and this is the movie I spend my Sunday evening watching: not just a non-prestige superhero movie based on a comic book even I have never heard of, but a Vin Diesel vehicle to boot, and one with a very silly name. Well, what can I say: every trip to the cinema is a potential gamble nowadays, and I never was very good at knowing when to fold ’em and when to hold ’em.

Of course, in this case the odds get rather longer, because Vin Diesel’s record outside of the F&F franchise (and, I suppose, his work with Marvel, such as it is) is so variable he has pretty much given up on making other movies. This is his first non-Toretto, non-tree lead role since The Last Witch Hunter five years ago – a film which made a small profit, but was critically reviled. Quite what attracted him to this project I don’t know – but the fact it potentially gives him a chance to be in at the start of another proposed ‘superhero universe’ based on comics from Valiant (no, me neither) must have had something to do with it.

I did turn up to Bloodshot expecting not just junk, but bad junk, but I have to say this movie is not quite as poor as one might reasonably expect (someone in the theatre audibly said ‘Let’s see just how **** this movie is’ as it got underway), nor as it probably sounds from the synopsis. This is mainly due to things that happen in the second and third acts of the movie, which would really count as spoilers, so you’ll just have to trust me on this. There are some interesting ideas in the mix here, mainly connected to Vin’s unreliable memory and the way in which this affects his character. There’s something almost existential about this – if you don’t trust your own memory, how do you make any kind of decision? – and while the film certainly doesn’t dwell on the notion or explore it more than strictly necessary, it was still a touch more thoughtful than I was expecting.

In the same way, while the revenge vendetta element of the plot may sound hackneyed and predictable, there’s almost a suggestion that this is intentional – that this is a narrative intended to function on a number of levels, as a predictable, no-brainer action movie, but also as a knowing deconstruction of this kind of story. Unfortunately, mainly due to a clumsy script and direction that seems more interested in always getting to the next action sequence as fast as possible, this falls a bit flat: the whole movie is hackneyed and predictable, just not on purpose.

There are other problems too: some of the supporting performances are rather over-the-top, and there are places where the tightness of the budget just can’t be hidden – a foot chase with Vin being pursued around central London has clearly been filmed in suburban South Africa, and it’s absurd that anyone thought for a second this substitution would work.

That said, the meat-and-potatoes action stuff is reasonably well-presented. Vin Diesel is kind of an odd outlier as an action star, as he doesn’t seem to have any kind of wrestling or martial arts background (when his peers were off at the dojo, Diesel was busy playing Dungeons & Dragons) – his signature move, if that’s the right way to describe it, seems to be to hurl himself bodily at his opponents and crush them with his sheer bulk (something which perhaps achieved its apotheosis in the ‘dolphin’ headbutt demonstrated in Fast & Furious 6). Nevertheless, he is reasonably effective as the relentless human bulldozer of vengeance the story here requires.

In the end, though, this is not a great movie, for all that it ticks all the boxes and passes the time in a reasonably diverting way. If it feels particularly disappointing, that’s because there are signs here of a film with genuine wit and intelligence that never got made – instead, it’s just very routine genre stuff, aiming low and just about hitting the target, possessed of a belief that lavish CGI is a good substitute for a proper script. Who knows, we may see future appearances by Diesel as this character, or further movies in this setting – but I don’t think we’ll be missing much if they never happen.

Read Full Post »

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read Full Post »

Normally, counter-programming is the name for what happens when the cinemas are all clogged up with big dumb studio movies and the smaller distributors sneak out an intelligent documentary or arthouse drama for people who fancy going to the cinema but don’t particularly want to have their brain turned into soup. This being January, however, it’s almost as if the opposite state of affairs is in effect – there are almost too many intelligent, thoughtful, classy and serious films on release, and so to attract people who just want to go and watch a piece of complete mindless junk, Sony have considerately gone ahead and put out Bad Boys for Life, directed by Adil El Arbi and Bilall Fallah. Gee, thanks.

All right, full disclosure: I went to watch Bad Boys for Life in the evening of a day when I had already seen A Hidden Life and Waves (the three films were playing virtually back-to-back) and so I may not have been entirely fresh when I came to it. (It had been a long day, the other two films were both arguably a bit dour, and so on.) But even so: watching Bad Boys for Life straight after Waves, in particular, it was a little hard to process that both films were part of the same art form – compared to Waves, Bad Boys really just resembles an unusually violent and inane piece of children’s entertainment.

You want to know the story? Well, Will Smith and Martin Lawrence have both been in a career slump for years, which results in them being caught trying to resuscitate this old franchise (dating back to 1995), and (you would expect) embarrassment all round…

Oh, sorry, you mean the story of the actual movie? Whoops. Well, it opens with Miami cops Mike Lowrey (Smith) and Marcus Burnett (Lawrence) zooming through the streets of the city in a sports car, cracking wise with each other all the time. As is standard in this kind of sequel, time has in most respects frozen for the seventeen years since the previous film, so they are both still cops, Lowery is still a daredevil playboy, Burnett is still a more twitchy family man, and so on. But needless to say they are both still ‘bad boys’.

However, the punchline to this opening sequence is that they are racing to the hospital, where Burnett’s first grandchild is about to be born. Yes, this is a movie called Bad Boys where one of the ‘boys’ has just become a grandfather. You might expect this to indicate a film with a certain self-awareness deficit, and you would be absolutely correct about that. Having established the character points it will repeatedly return to – Lowrey refuses to grow up and take responsibility, while Burnett is rather too keen to retire – the film then kicks off with the plot proper. Some bad hombres from Mexico show up in Miami, intent on exacting vengeance on various law-enforcement officials while taking over the city’s underworld. (I honestly thought this might be a call-back to the plots of one of the previous films – which I’ve seen, I just can’t remember very much about either of them – but apparently not. In the same way, a character played by Paola Nunez is introduced, who apparently has a long history with Smith, but she is also new.)

It turns out that Lowrey is on the bad guys’ hit list, which makes him as cross as two sticks. However, Burnett has already retired and refuses to help him on the case, which inevitably drives a wedge between the two friends. It also means that Martin Lawrence is considerably less prominent than Will Smith throughout the first part of the movie, and one wonders to what extent this is a calculated decision. One also can’t help wondering how the paychecks of the two leads compare, given Smith still has reasonable star clout and Lawrence’s last major role was in Big Momma’s House 3, nearly ten years ago.  Sadly data is not available.

Well, anyway, what happens is that… you know, it’s literally a day and a half since I saw this movie and already the actual details of the plot are fading from my memory. I do recall that even at the time I was thinking that this was not the most cohesive of stories, being heavily dependent on contrived plot devices to keep the narrative going. What it basically is, is a succession of action sequences, laboured comedy bits between Smith and Lawrence, and queasily sentimental ‘dramatic’ scenes, cobbled together in fairly strict succession. To make it all slightly more palatable, given this is a glossy and superficial movie fronted by two guys with a combined age of 105, various hot young actors and actresses have been drafted in to stand near them and occasionally provide feed lines: Vanessa Hudgens gets third billing, despite having a very minor role in proceedings.

I was all set to say that no matter what the shortcomings of Bad Boys for Life are (and they are numerous), at least it isn’t a Michael Bay film. Then Michael Bay actually turned up in it, apparently feeling what it really needed was a cameo appearance from him. Gee, thanks again. The directors do seem to have studied at the feet of the Prince of Darkness and the new movie is every bit as blandly superficial and vacuous as an actual Michael Bay movie tends to be. To be fair, the script does manage to contrive one plot development which is startling without seeming contrived or risible, and – I am typing this with gritted fingers – there is the odd reasonably funny line. But on the whole this is a depressingly crass and predictable film,  seemingly unaware of how uncomfortably its violence and its sentimentality sit together.

Everyone involved can surely do better. Audiences deserve better. So why not at least try to do better? I suppose that’s why they call it commercial cinema, and Bad Boys for Life has already recouped its budget in its first week of release: apparently we are threatened with a fourth installment. What may be even more depressing is that this film has been relatively well-reviewed by many legitimate critics. I can only put it down to nostalgia for the mid 1990s. Dearie me, we may be in even more trouble than I thought.

Read Full Post »

As previously noted, nothing which was once popular – no matter how briefly or how long ago – can ever be allowed to die a dignified death and slide quietly into oblivion any more. No, it must dragged back from the brink, propped up in front of a new audience, given a vague attempt at a new coat of paint, and forced to rake in a few more shekels. This seems to be an iron law of modern culture. I can think of no other explanation for the re-emergence of yet another new version of Charlie’s Angels.

The last couple of years have, after all, apparently brought about a complete rethink about the role and representation of women in popular media. They are no longer mere ornamental objects present only for the gratification of male viewers. Well, fair enough. But even at the time, the original Charlie’s Angels TV show was derided by critics as ‘jiggle TV’, for reasons I hope I don’t have to go into. ‘When the show was number three [in the ratings], I figured it was our acting. When it got to number one, I decided it could only be because none of us wears a bra,’ observed original star Farrah Fawcett. It was a show built around the exploitation of attractive young women.

And yet Elizabeth Banks’ new movie bloody-mindedly attempts to retool it as – according to a proper critic, in The Guardian – ‘weaponised feminism’. My head hurts. However, the new Charlie’s Angels movie is definitely aimed at independently-minded young women, which is surely the equivalent of trying to sell hamburgers to cattle. You can only be doing it for one of two reasons: you’ve radically reinvented the product, or you think your audience is very, very stupid.

In the end it’s probably the first one, I think – by which I means that if the film does treat the viewer as thick, it’s not intentional, just something that many Hollywood movies do without really thinking about it. The paradox inherent in the movie does become apparent from the first scene, which features Kristen Stewart talking a lot about her self-determination and formidable polymathic talents and so on, all the while wearing a sparkly pink mini-dress and a long blonde wig.

Soon enough the movie moves on to something a bit less intellectually demanding and some martial arts action breaks out. ‘I’m your new girlfriend!’ cries Stewart, headbutting a bad guy into insensibility. It certainly gives a whole new charm to the notion of remaining self-partnered. More importantly, Patrick Stewart wanders in, playing Bosley – the implication seems to be that he is playing the David Doyle character from the original show (Stewart is somewhat artlessly inserted into photos alongside the original TV cast and that of the early 2000s movies).

Normally Stewart wraps himself in gravitas and integrity like a cloak, but on this occasion he just twinkles a lot, which is a little wrong-footing. I think it is safe to say that his performance in this film is not quite of the same stature as all that work with the RSC or playing Sejanus, Jean-Luc Picard or Professor X, but on the other hand CGI has been used to carefully remove the dollar-signs appearing in both eyes throughout all his scenes.

On with the plot. Patrick Stewart’s Bosley retires, and is replaced by Banks herself as another Bosley – yes, the world is now so feminist that even the token man is a woman. More importantly, perhaps, over in Berlin nice young computer expert Naomi Scott discovers the revolutionary clean energy technology she is working on has dangerous potential as a deadly weapon, which bad actors are taking an interest in (I mean criminal agents, not the cast, but now you mention it…). It’s up to Banks-Bosley, Stewart, and Ella Balinska (playing another new Angel) to save the day.

This involves whizzing around Berlin, Istanbul, and various other locations, in a style which is some way sub-Mission: Impossible and even further sub-Bond. To be fair to the movie, Elizabeth Banks puts together a functional set of action sequences – chases, fights, sneakings-in-and-out-of-secure-places, and so on – but when the gunfire and revving engines fade away, all one is left with is the sound of comic banter falling flat and people expositing blandly at each other, interspersed with the occasional somewhat obtrusive you-go-girl moment.

It brings me no pleasure to report this, as Elizabeth Banks strikes me as a talented person who makes interesting creative choices: apart from this film, just this year she has appeared in Brightburn and the second Lego Movie, both of which were well worth watching. However, as Banks not only directed the film, but also wrote the final screenplay and co-produced it, it is her name which is most prominent on the charge sheet. As an actress, at least, she appears to be trying hard, and emerges from the film with as much credit as anyone else involved in this department.

However, the name of the game is Charlie’s Angels, and it really stands or falls by the quality of the central trio. Quite what philosophy was adopted by the casting team for this film seems a bit of a mystery, as there is – to put it delicately – a bit of a disparity when it comes to the profile of the stars. Whichever way you look at it, Kristen Stewart is globally famous and has done many big movies; Naomi Scott was very prominent in Aladdin earlier this year; while Ella Balinska is effectively a complete unknown. The effect of this is, again, a bit wrong-footing. However, I have to say that the film does prove again that, no matter how bad some of the later Twilight films were (and some of them were very bad indeed), Stewart does have genuine screen presence and star quality: you do find your eye drawn to her when she’s on. I’m not sure the same is true of Naomi Scott, at least not to the same extent, but I discern considerable potential for a future career playing kooky best friends here. Ella Balinska, on the other hand, can’t deliver a joke or a piece of exposition to save her life, but she is about eight feet tall, which was probably useful for the fight choreography.

Whatever you think of the wisdom of the film’s attempt to reinvent Charlie’s Angels for the post-Unique Moment world, or its gender politics in general, the biggest problems it has are that as a comedy it isn’t funny and as an action movie it never particularly thrills. I would be more tolerant and responsive to whatever subtext it is trying to put across if the actual text of the thing was competently done and entertaining. It is not, and perhaps the most indicative thing about it is that there is no sense of great potential being squandered: it just feels like mechanical Hollywood product, with even its big message closely calculated to appeal to the target audience. I remain convinced, though, that even a brilliantly-executed feminist take on Charlie’s Angels would be a deeply, deeply weird film.

Read Full Post »

It’s always a sure sign that the year hasn’t got long left to run when the independent cinemas start cranking out their seasons of traditional Christmas favourites. Frankly, my response to this depends what they show: I was much taken by the Phoenix’s decision to revive Blood on Satan’s Claw and The Company of Wolves a couple of years ago, but more traditional choices seldom light my tree. Perennial over-exposure has left me indifferent to The Muppet Christmas Carol and even It’s a Wonderful Life, while they could put every copy of Love Actually into a shipping container and dump it in the ocean and I would not be especially troubled.

Die Hard, on the other hand – now that’s my idea of a proper Christmas treat, especially back on the big screen. I know that its status as such has been a bit debatable on occasion in the past – ‘it’s not a Christmas movie! It’s a goddamn Bruce Willis movie!’ is the considered judgement of, er, Bruce Willis – but in addition to leaving you with a warm feeling inside, it is ultimately about a family being reunited, the forces of goodness and justice being triumphant, and people recapturing the joy of living (by the end, Reginald VelJohnson has rediscovered how satisfying it is to gun someone down in the street). It’s still the only Christmas favourite to feature someone being repeatedly shot in the crotch at close range, but that just makes it all the more distinctive.

It seems a bit odd to recap the premise of a film as iconic as Die Hard, but the form demands it. Wiseacre New York cop John McClane (Willis) flies into Los Angeles on Christmas Eve to attempt a reconciliation with his wife Holly (Bonnie Bedelia) – see how Christmassy this is already? – and is taken to the skyscraper where she works, where he mingles with various archetypal yuppie scumbags (this is 1988, after all) at her office party – see, yet more Christmasiness. Needless to say, not all goes well at the office party, with the appearance on the scene of a truck full of armed, mostly European miscreants, led by the eminently hissable Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman).

Through sheer good fortune McClane manages to evade capture by the bad guys, and soon figures out there is more going on here than initially meets the eye. Very soon the upper reaches of the building become a battlefield as Gruber’s men hunt McClane through the corridors, elevator shafts and air vents of the tower. How long can he manage to stay one step ahead?

Die Hard is one of those rare movies which, seemingly ex nihilo, manages to create its own subgenre – and one which was virtually done-to-death within ten years, with endless new variations on the formula – Die Hard on a train, Die Hard on a plane, Die Hard up a mountain, Die Hard on a battleship, and so on. Yet the origins of the film are remarkably obvious once you become aware of them – author Roderick Thorp saw The Towering Inferno, had a dream where the fire was replaced by men with guns, and turned it into his 1979 novel Nothing Lasts Forever, which was eventually turned into this film.

One consequence of this was that, for slightly obscure contractual reasons, they had to offer the lead role in the movie to Frank Sinatra. To say it is difficult to imagine Ol’ Blue Eyes hurling himself about in a vest and blowing away terrorists at the age of 73 is something of an understatement, but thankfully he said no. It seems like they offered almost every actor in Hollywood the part of McClane before they reached Bruce Willis, but reach him they eventually did, much to the film’s benefit. If nothing else this film shows that great Hollywood careers can start long before people reach Hollywood itself, for at the heart of Die Hard are two actors, neither of whom had starred in a major movie before, and one of whom had never appeared in a movie of any kind: Willis’s background was in American TV, while Alan Rickman had been a stalwart of the RSC and the BBC classic serial.

Much of the film’ energy and excitement comes from the clash of these two very different actors, playing very different characters. Hans Gruber is sleek, composed, and has clearly planned everything down to the last detail; McClane is sweaty, frantic, and obviously making it all up as he goes. There is perhaps the faintest touch of Clint Eastwood’s Harry Callahan in McClane’s characterisation, but apart from this he is a very different kind of action hero, compared to what had been seen prior to this point – he is defiantly rough around the edges, a blue-collar hero.

This element is essentially carried through into another of the film’s more crowd-pleasing features, namely the way in which it is openly scornful of pretty much every authority figure on the scene outside the tower: police chiefs, news reporters and FBI agents alike are all depicted as self-serving idiots who are really only pawns in Gruber’s elaborate scheme. (The film arguably improves and refines Thorp’s book, where it is implied that if the McClane character had not become involved, the situation would have resolved itself without anyone actually dying.) McClane is there with a pithy, probably profane wisecrack, keeping it real (I believe that’s what the kids are saying), doing what needs to be done to save the day.

McTiernan makes it all look very easy, naturally, although even the most cursory examination reveals that the script for this movie is every bit as clever and intricate as Hans’ brilliant plan to steal $640 million – both of them depend for their success on very specific things happening in a specific sequence. Quite apart from this, the director mounts some brilliant action sequences, which are still genuinely thrilling nowadays.

It is customary, when thinking of how the reputations of some genuinely great movies have effectively been slimed by their proximity to horrid, tossed-off latter-day sequels, to discuss things like RoboCop, Alien, Predator, and The Terminator – it does seem that eighties action movies are particularly prone to this sort of thing. And yet it does seem to me that Die Hard is very deserving of its place on the same list. True, most of the sequels aren’t too bad – although the most recent one was a bloody awful mess – but they still don’t come close to the immaculate near-perfection of the original. A tremendous Christmas movie, but also a film for all seasons, and the ages.

Read Full Post »

Let me tell you a story about the power of a great movie. It was late summer 1991 and my family had gone away en masse, leaving me alone in the house. I was in my mid-late teens and they were a bit twitchy about leaving me to my own devices for so long, so they had arranged for someone to look in on me . This was Doris, a senior citizen of our acquaintance, not exactly family but closer than ‘friend of the family’ implies; the mildest, nicest, kindest person you could imagine. Fond though I was of her, I was a bit narked at being under supervision (even of the gentlest and least intrusive sort), but as she was driving past the house of a friend of mine to come and check on me I made the most of things and got her to pick up a VHS tape I was particularly keen to see.

She duly arrived with the tape, we said all the usual things, and then I said I was going to watch the movie on the tape. Doris didn’t fancy driving back home just yet and decided to stay and watch the start of the film. I wasn’t sure it would be her cup of tea but, as noted, I was particularly keen to see the movie, as the sequel opened a couple of days later and I wanted to watch them in the right order. The movie was, of course, James Cameron’s The Terminator.

107 minutes or so later we stopped and sat back. Doris had found herself unable to contemplate leaving before the end of the film and had coped with the violence, profanity and sex scene with admirable aplomb. ‘That was very good,’ she said. I agreed and promptly forgot about it for a couple of months, until we were having lunch with her one Sunday.

‘Do you remember that film we watched, about the man who came back in time,’ she said.

‘What – oh, yes, Terminator,’ I said. I remember my father looking slightly thunderstruck as I had neglected to mention our movie night to him on his return.

‘Well, I noticed there’s another one, and I wanted to go and see it – but none of my friends will come with me,’ she said, looking slightly pained.

Well, septuagenarian members of the Women’s Institute are hardly James Cameron’s target demographic. Gallantly, and also because I quite fancied seeing Terminator 2 again myself, I volunteered to take Doris to see it. And so a tradition was forged, where every time Arnold Schwarzenegger had a new movie out either I or my sister would take Doris to the cinema. A poster of the big man appeared on her bedroom wall, and she was able to talk quite knowledgeably about the different entries to the canon – Predator was ‘a bit gruesome’, for instance. I recall a very congenial evening round at her house watching Raw Deal on VHS over a plate of sausage rolls (hospitality was one of those things she never neglected). Her interest never quite extended beyond Arnie’s work, though – I lent her Highlander, and I think she enjoyed it, but not to the point of wanting to take it any further.

By the time Terminator 3 came along, Doris wasn’t really able to go to the cinema any more, and she had moved on to the next plane of existence when Terminator Salvation and Terminator Genisys were released. I saw them all, of course, and I always wondered what she would have made of them – not very impressed by Salvation in particular, given it is the most Arnie-light entry in the series, I would imagine. Perhaps it is for the best that she never saw them, for the consensus is that the quality of the Terminator series dropped off a cliff after James Cameron departed following the first sequel.

But now, of course, Cameron is back on board, as producer and storyliner at least, so could a revival in the franchise’s fortunes be on the cards? The answers lie in Terminator: Dark Fate, directed by Tim Miller.

The first thing to be said about the new movie is that it doesn’t fall prey to that problem whereby the whole plot ends up in the trailer. The film opens with a game-changing sequence which none of the publicity even alludes to, which certainly made me sit up and wonder if, against all odds, this movie was going to do something genuinely surprising and distinctive with the Terminator mythos. After this, we basically go back to a bit of history repeating, but done effectively. A young Mexican girl, Dani (Natalia Reyes), finds herself the target of a robotic assassin from the future (Gabriel Luna), with her hopes of survival largely dependent on a cyborg protector who has likewise come back in time (Mackenzie Davis).

Soon enough the various parties come together, and the fight/chase sequence that ensues is an absolute cracker, rolling through a factory and out onto the local freeway. However, Dani and her guardian soon find themselves hard-pressed, not least by the new terminator’s ability to be in two places at the same time, and things look bleak for them. But wait! Who is this turning up to help with a dizzying array of heavy-duty weaponry? It’s Theresa May!

Oh, hang on, no it’s not – it’s Sarah Connor, another woman of a certain age with a history of finding herself trapped in endless, futile battles. On-the-ball readers may recall that in recent instalments Sarah Connor has either been dead or Emilia Clarke, but now she is once again Linda Hamilton (the continuity has been rebooted, for whatever that’s worth). Soon the trio are on the run from the terminator, following a trail of clues which leads them to an unlikely ally whom Sarah kind of has history with…

The last couple of Terminators have been so dismal that it really wouldn’t take much to improve upon them, and so to suggest that Dark Fate is the best film in the series for quite some time isn’t necessarily saying very much. Certainly, the plot is of the breathe-on-it-and-it-collapses variety, the writers operating on the principle that if you start at speed, then keep going and accelerate, no-one will have time to notice the various contrivances and implausibilities in the storyline. The fact that it is generally very good-humoured and you’re never very far from another top-notch action sequence also helps a lot.

There are a couple of noteworthy creative choices along the way – the plot entails a sequence where the characters are obliged to sneak across the border between the US and Mexico, tangling with the relevant authorities along the way. This can’t help but come across as feeling a bit politically charged in the current climate, but you can sense the movie working hard to stay on the fence (or possibly the wall) about this. Any suggestion of implied pinko-liberalism is surely offset by the general Second Amendment-friendliness of the film (characters trundle about with automatic weapons and rocket launchers and no-one bats an eyelid).

Needless to say, the Progressive Agenda Committee also appear to have had some input into the shape of the film, which presumably explains why your actual biological human males are entirely peripheral to the story. I know I’m probably slipping into thunderous misogynist mode, but one of the distinctive things about James Cameron’s scripts is that he’s always written strong and resourceful female characters, without the films seeming heavy-handed or on-the-nose or trying to push any kind of agenda. Compared to them, Terminator: Dark Fate feels leadenly reductionist in its gender politics.

And one consequence of this is that the eventual appearance of Arnie almost feels like it’s unbalancing the film. You can’t do a proper Terminator film without the big man, after all, and there is a sense in which the film doesn’t completely feel satisying until he turns up. But when he does, it’s so late on that he barely counts as a main character – yet he is still given lots of important stuff to do.

One mustn’t grumble too much for this is Arnie’s best outing in ages. Not only can he still body-slam someone to the floor and then machine-gun their face off like nobody else in the business, one is reminded of his underappreciated talent for comedy – he turns up in the unlikely role of Carl, a T-800 terminator who has now reformed and spent the last couple of decades living a quietly domestic existence while working as an interior decorator. There is, obviously, vast potential for humour here, which Arnie plays to the hilt, making the most of delivering lines about hanging curtains and bringing in groceries, but also quieter and more reflective moments where he does not let the film down.

I don’t think you’re ever going to make a sequel as good as the original Terminator; all that these subsequent films have done is to play with the component parts of that film, occasionally buffing them up or reorganising them, but never quite managing to have the same effect. (The success of this film stems largely from the fact it has identified the most easily reproducible element of the best sequel – Sarah Connor’s transformation into an unhinged bad-ass – and run with it.) Maybe it’s time to just bite the bullet and do a straight remake. And while Dark Fate does not disgrace the memory of that first film, it’s hard to see where else they can take this particular riff on the story that won’t feel contrived and repetitive. Still, on its own merits, this is an effective and enjoyable SF action movie – I think it would certainly have won Doris’ seal of approval, and that’s good enough for me.

Read Full Post »

There was a point, during the Great Late Summer Interesting Movie Drought, that I took to hanging around the local library in the afternoons while waiting for the evening Almodovar revival to get under way. One of the books I dipped into was The Greatest Movies Never Made, an account of just exactly what went wrong with the production of Brazzaville, Superman Lives, The Defective Detective, and many others. Of course, ‘never’ is a big word, and I must admit I derived some amusement from the fact that at least two of these ‘never made’ projects had of course either been finished or were well on course to make it to the screen – Orson Welles’ The Other Side of the Wind, long a near-mythical enigma, is currently available on Netflix, while Gemini Man, for decades a resident in Development Hell, is out at the moment, finally dragged to the screen by Ang Lee.

A list of all the people at one time tipped to star in this movie reads like a who’s who of Hollywood leading men and action stars: Sean Connery, Clint Eastwood, Schwarzenegger, Mel Gibson, Harrison Ford, and so on. The fact that we have eventually received a version starring Will Smith… well, I suppose it depends on what your opinion of Will Smith is, but I can’t help feeling that he does not have quite the same legendary status as someone like Connery or Eastwood, at least. One must try not to dismiss a film just because another possible version sounds more interesting.

For once, this is not a TV remake and has nothing to do with Ben Murphy turning invisible for 15 minutes a day. Smith plays Henry Brogan, one of those either very trusting or morally flexible chaps who has had no problem with making a career out of being an assassin for the US government, on the understanding he only has to shoot baddies. However, now Brogan is knocking on a bit and decides to retire, rather to the dismay of his handlers. It turns out he has left this just one job too late, as he discovers his last target was not a terrorist as advertised, but a genetic scientist. Dark forces within the military-industrial complex, chiefly personified by private security contractor Clay Varris (Clive Owen), decide that he knows too much to be allowed to live. But how are they going to take out the world’s greatest killer?

Well, it turns out that Varris has got just the man for the job: he’s young, gifted, and black, not to mention the owner of an impressive set of ears. But hang on just a minute here! What can this possibly mean? Well, you’re probably way ahead of me, or have read the publicity for the movie: Owen has sneakily had Smith cloned, and is sending the younger version out to eliminate his progenitor. Older Smith is obliged to go on the run in the company of friendly agent Danny Zakarewski (Mary Elizabeth Winsome) and an old comedy-relief buddy (Benedict Wong). Will the day be won by age and experience or youth and commitment?

As noted, the script for Gemini Man has been doing the rounds since the late 1990s, and the finished movie does have a weirdly old-fashioned vibe to it – perhaps that’s just because it stars people whose years of greatest star wattage do seem to be rather behind them – before Aladdin this year, Will Smith hadn’t had a significant hit in a long time, Clive Owen’s years of being talked of as a potential Bond-in-waiting are long over, and even Mary Elizabeth Winstead seems to have been focusing on her TV career of late. But perhaps it’s more than just the personnel choices – the script is functional enough, but the whole film feels glib and superficial, about surfaces rather than details.

This is, by any reasonable metric, an SF movie of sorts, but the opening section at least feels much more like a slightly hackneyed action film about an aging hitman beginning to grow a conscience. In this respect it has a definite Bourne Identity feel to it, with rather less grit – the presence of Owen probably adds to this. As such it trundles along quite cheerfully. But the clone element is badly fumbled in all sorts of ways – the big reveal that Smith’s pursuer is, well, him, has minimal impact, the revelation sort of seeping into the film rather than being a significant, discrete plot point. The script fails to engage with any of the potential of the idea of being confronted with your own double – it doesn’t address nature versus nurture, the desire for second chances, the potential for resentment, and so on.

The script may not be much cop but what I must concede is that Will Smith does give an unexpectedly good performance – as the older Brogan, anyway. He manages to find some soul and depth and is probably rather better than the script deserves. Everyone else struggles a bit – Owen plays a cartoon baddie, while Winstead is stuck in a largely decorative, transactional role: box office considerations mean there is no prospect of her and Smith, er, getting jiggy with it.

As for the junior Smith – well, the special effects involved in rejuvenating him are somewhat variable, to be honest. In places they are astonishingly good – at one point Smith engages in a complex fight sequence with himself, and the deep-fakery involved is virtually flawless. Other scenes, particularly ones with the two of them wandering about in wide shot, are less than fully convincing. This may also be a consequence of the way the film’s been made – it is available in super-high-frame-rate-3D (I gave it a miss and saw the regular version, as six dimensions of Will Smith is far too many for me), and to make this work it has been shot on special cameras. The end result is crisp and bright and colourful but also strangely lacking in atmosphere. The fact the whole screen is in pinpoint focus all the way through is also strangely distracting and unnatural – it’s not just Smith who spends half the time in the Uncanny Valley, the whole film is there throughout.

Still, as noted, it does work quite well as a weirdly old-fashioned thriller, and there is some well-choreographed action at several points in the movie, even if the climax is vaguely unsatisfactory in a couple of ways. Gemini Man isn’t exactly a bad film, it’s just that given the premise and the talent involved, you would be forgiven for expecting something rather more substantial.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »