Posts Tagged ‘action’

As chance would have it I popped out to our local food market just before settling down to compose this latest indelible stain on the internet. The two gentlemen I ended up dealing with, when not wrangling artisan Frankfurters, were passing their time by discussing what they’d been up to; the one doing most of the talking making most of his contributions at the sort of decibel level usually associated with the crowd at a football match. ‘Best film of the year so far! I loved it! Had to go and see it twice! So exciting! Although I did miss the first forty-five minutes cos I was asleep.’

”Sa bit far-fetched, though,’ said hot-dog purveyor #2.

‘No it’s not,’ said #1, unprintably. Naturally, I enquired as to what film they were discussing. ‘Fast and Furious! It’s fantastic!’

‘It is a bit far-fetched,’ I said.


‘What about that bit where the giant neutron bomb is bouncing through Rome with Vin Diesel chasing after it in his car? What about the bit where he drags those two helicopters behind his car until they crash, then uses the burning wreckage as a vehicular flail? What about when he drives down the vertical face of a dam to escape the exploding tankers?’

There was a pause. ‘Yeah, the bit with the bomb is kind of far fetched. But it’s still fantastic.’

Personally, I was most surprised that anyone managed to sleep through any section of Fast X (directed by our old friend Louis Leterrier), given that events of the film routinely take place at jet-engine volume. But there you go. I have long since stopped being a snob about this series, because the best of these films are irresistible fun, but I know that many people still smirk and snigger. Nevertheless, a film series doesn’t last twenty-plus years, reach double-digits, and earn a combined take of over seven billion dollars without being genuinely loved by a big audience.

As ever, the answer as to why this should be probably lies in the details. There are lots of big action movies, I expect, that would build a major sequence around a giant spherical neutron bomb rattling through the via Roma on course for the Vatican, with a desperate race-against-time to save the Pope. What elevates Fast X to its preeminent position in the action landscape is the fact that the giant spherical neutron bomb, while bouncing on its way, is on fire. That’s what I call a touch of genius.

This isn’t even close to the climax of the film, coming at the end of the first act. Anyone somehow managing to sleep through the start of the film will miss a protracted flashback to the climax of Fast Five, revealing that the villain had a son (Jason Momoa), who inevitably survives and swears revenge on Vin Diesel and his Fast and Furious All-Stars. (Students of the franchise will be aware of its penchant for revising the events of previous films this way.)

Back in the present day, we find man-mountain boy racer Dom Toretto (Vin Diesel) doing his fatherly duty by teaching his son Little B to do doughnuts at eighty miles an hour, even though he is only about nine. (The film invites the audience to engage in the usual conspiracy of silence concerning the whereabouts of Little B’s namesake Big B; i.e. Paul Walker’s character, who has always been conveniently busy elsewhere or just off-screen since Walker’s untimely death about four sequels ago.) Sure enough, there is another barbeque and a gathering of the extended family and Diesel rumbling on about the importance of family; this is distinguished, a bit, by the appearance of Rita Moreno as Granny Toretto – Singin’ in the Rain, West Side Story, and now Fast X: that’s what I call a career trajectory. These scenes are, of course, objectively terrible, but they are in a very real sense obligatory for each new film in this series.

Soon enough the plot kicks in when old enemy Cipher (Charlize Theron) turns up having just come off worse in an encounter with Jason Momoa; yes, someone else is out to get them. This all leads into the bit in Rome with the bouncing neutron bomb (which is on fire) – yes, Momoa is such a loon that blowing up the Vatican with a WMD is just a sort of by-product of his real plan, which is to give Diesel and the others a jolly hard time.

From here the plot splits, or possibly unravels, into a number of storylines (possibly one or two too many, to be honest) – Diesel goes off to Brazil to rumble stoically in Momoa’s direction, Michelle Rodriguez gets chucked in the clink and has to be rescued by a new character played by Brie Larson, Little B goes on a road-trip with his uncle (John Cena), and most of the others end up in London where – oh joy of joys! – they have to ask for help from Jason Statham, whose extended cameo peps up the film just when it is starting to flag a bit.

In the end – well, we obviously have to preface any criticism of elements of Fast X by acknowledging that this is a film which is almost completely implausible from start to finish, with some startlingly poor acting in several of the key positions, and a narrative sensibility where it’s not just acceptable to switch off the plot for five minutes so Michelle Rodriguez and Charlize Theron can gratuitously kick each other in, it’s practically obligatory. Not to mention that it is now clearly apparent that no-one important ever dies in these films, assuming the actor involved is happy to come back. Anyway, despite all this, the film is still afflicted with a structure where it’s the first episode of a two-part conclusion to the series, which means it ends on a cliff-hanger, with the characters still scattered all over the landscape. This is an undeniable flaw, which I suppose will be excusable if Fast XI does the business whenever it comes along.

The rest of it finds the series back on form after the rather lacklustre F9: it’s silly and implausible, but not egregiously so, nearly all the characters show up to make a decent contribution, and the stunts and fights are as outrageous as ever. It all confirms my suspicion that, for the last ten or fifteen years at least, the Fast movies have supplanted Bond as the acme of escapist action nonsense (the closing titles of this film suspiciously resemble a Bond credit sequence). The Bond films became their own genre decades ago, and the same thing happened to this series round about the fifth or sixth film – you can try judging it by conventional standards of logic and credibility, but that’s to miss the point: it’s all about the sheen and the glamour, the growl of engines and the screech of brakes, cars doing impossible things and Vin Diesel never being caught dead in a shirt with sleeves. Fast X is not a good film as these things are usually understood, but it’s a great Fast & Furious movie, and just as entertaining as that sounds.

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The thing about some classic stories is that there have been so many film versions of them that we seem to have reached a point of creative saturation with them – there just doesn’t seem to be any desire for new ones. Recent films based on reliable old bankers like Tarzan, Robin Hood and King Arthur haven’t really paid the rent, although of course modern sensibilities are probably a bit uncomfortable with a canon which largely revolves around white male heteronormativity.

In other cases, it’s just the original story which has apparently fallen out of favour – spin-offs and derivative works continue to turn up on a regular basis. There hasn’t been a ‘straight’ movie version of Dracula in thirty years, but since then there’s been a spin-off centred on Van Helsing, an attempt at a revisionist origin story, and various low-budget films that haven’t really made an impression. I was about to suggest this was a recent phenomenon, but then of course, as we have recently seen, people were making films about Dracula’s pet dog as long ago as 1977. So the appearance of a film about Dracula’s helpmeet shouldn’t really come as a surprise.

This is Renfield, directed by Chris McKay (who previously did a rather good film about the Lego version of a different sort of bat man). Renfield, for the uninitiated, is a lunatic in Stoker’s original novel; he falls under Dracula’s sway and starts eating insects and spiders (a sort of cargo-cult version of vampirism). In the movies, when he appears at all, he usually gets amalgamated with either Jonathan Harker or Harker’s boss Hawkins. The Hammer film series largely replaced him with a character called Klove, although another character called Ludwig closely resembles the Stoker version.

As you can perhaps imagine, playing Dracula’s insane sidekick gives a performer a certain latitude when it comes to pitching their performance, and some people have gone howlingly over-the-top as a result. Keeping things a bit more under control in the new film is Nicholas Hoult, who is living in present-day New Orleans. He has been in Dracula’s service for nearly a century (there is an elaborate call-back to the Tod Browning version of Dracula) and is currently helping to nurse the Count back to health, if that’s the right word, following his latest near-demise. Dracula is played (and very much not underplayed) by Nicolas Cage.

The main gag of the new film, which is largely a comedy, is that Renfield has taken to going to a support group for people trapped in abusive or controlling relationships, clearly seeing something of his own situation in their problems. Naturally the other people there don’t realise that much of what he says about his boss having the power of life and death over him is literally true. Dracula, on the other hand, is testy and complains that Renfield isn’t doing enough to help him restore his strength – he just wants to prey on some unsuspecting tourists, or nuns, or a bus full of cheerleaders. Male or female cheerleaders, enquires Renfield delicately. ‘Don’t make this a sexual thing,’ scowls the Count.

Meanwhile, ass-kicking traffic cop Rebecca Quincy (Awkwafina) is engaged in a one-woman crusade to bring down the Lobos, a powerful crime family responsible for the death of her father. She eventually ticks them off enough for a hit to be ordered on her while she’s in the same restaurant where Renfield is looking for a snack for his master. The hapless thrall is sufficiently impressed by her steely refusal to be intimidated that he ends up saving her life; she inspires him to try and make a change in his situation and break free from Dracula’s control. The Lobos, meanwhile, are looking for Renfield and end up tracking him back to Dracula’s lair. The Count decides this band of ruthless killers may be his kind of people, and proposes an alliance…

It sounds a fairly straightforward story, but to be honest the film wanders about quite a lot in its midsection before rallying near the end. This is about as short as mainstream films get nowadays, at only 90 minutes or so, which means that it never gets slow or dull but also struggles to develop any of its ideas properly. Not that they are tremendously original: the intersection of traditional vampirism and organised crime isn’t a particularly new plot device, while the familiar-in-therapy conceit is exactly the sort of thing that they’ve been doing on What We Do In The Shadows for years now.

For something being pitched as a comedy, Renfield is never as consistently funny as What We Do In The Shadows (the movie or the first few years of the TV show, anyway). What it ends up as is a sort of knockabout action-oriented splatstick with some extremely gory bits and not much subtlety to a lot of the jokes. It may not help that two of the main performers are Awkwafina and Ben Schwartz, neither of whom are synonymous with delicate understatement; Awkwafina’s performance, I have to say, is very possibly not good enough – though she’s saddled with a character who’s two-dimensional at best.

Nicholas Hoult, on the other hand, is very good, and manages to keep his scenes very watchable as usual. But the film only really comes to life – perhaps I should say rises from the coffin? – when Nicolas Cage is on-screen. This is an archetypal Cage performance, operatically over-the-top by any conventional metric, but also containing real wit and depth. And it must be said that Cage makes a tremendous Dracula – the fact that he sort-of resembles both Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee obviously helps, but he provides the movie with its only real moments of menace. It would be wonderful – though it probably won’t happen – to see him play the character again in a less-comedic context; as it is, Cage’s turn is by far the best reason to see this film.

When Cage isn’t on, the film is a rather confused mixture of action, broad comedy, and gore, with a variable tone that Nicholas Hoult by himself isn’t quite good enough to salvage. The lengthy and elaborate fight sequences feel like they’ve been transplanted in from a different movie; they’re not bad, they just don’t feel like they belong in what started off looking like a fairly witty spoof of Dracula. But by the end this has turned into something more generic and less rewarding. It has funny moments, and it’s usually visually interesting, but less fighting, more Cage, and more ideas would have made for a much better movie.

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There are films which, by their very nature, are particularly suited to give actors a chance to shine. Other films are directors’ films. There are cinematographers’ films, special-effects artists’ films, costume and set designers’ films. There are probably editors’ films, too. John Wick – Chapter 4 is not any of these sorts of film. Given director Chad Stahelski’s former line of work, it isn’t really a surprise that this is a stuntman’s film, or perhaps a fight choreographer’s film.

The Wick films have grown impressively from a fairly modest opening episode to what surely qualifies as a major franchise, spiralling further and further away from any recognisable reality in the process (they are a bit like the Fast & Furious films in that respect). In the case of this latest offering, that growth is literal, as it clocks in at an intimidating 169 minutes in length: much longer than any of the others; longer than 2001; longer, even, than Whitney Houston: I Wanna Dance With Somebody. (In this case, John Wick: I Wanna Execute Somebody With A Point-Blank Shot To The Head would probably be an appropriate title.)

This is another of those films which has been held up by the pandemic, as it was originally scheduled to come out in 2021. The main consequence of the delay, I think, is that for those of us who are only casual Wick-watchers, the situation at the end of the end of the last film has faded that bit further in our memories. Every big franchise these days seems to assume that everyone watching it is a deeply-invested fan who has recently watched every previous film in the series, and so they don’t bother with anything as mundane as an actual recap of the story so far. I know we have Wiki for that sort of thing now, but even so, it just seems a bit discourteous to me. How hard would it be?

So let me, without the benefit of Wiki or indeed ChatbotGPT, try to recall what happened in the first three John Wick films. John Wick (Keanu Reeves), a retired and recently-widowed hitman, was very cross when some opportunistic gangsters stole his car and shot his dog. So he hunted them down and killed them all, along with many of their friends and relations. This apparently constituted a breach of the terms of his retirement, so someone called in a favour to make him do One Last Job. After this he shot the man he owed a favour, even though this was a breach of the elaborate and arcane rules hitmen operate by the strange world of John Wick. With a huge price on his head, he was forced to flee New York and seek some sort of penance, which involved chopping one of his own fingers off with a chisel. However, this didn’t seem to do the trick and he ended up having to fend off an army of soldiers in the hotel of his associate Winston (Ian McShane). In the end, however, he was betrayed by Winston and shot off the top of the hotel.

However, as John Wick seems to have the sort of resistance to injury normally only associated with Captain Scarlet or Popeye, the new film finds him hiding out with another ally, the Bowery King (Laurence Fishburne), and plotting his revenge on something called the High Table (who I suppose are like the Illuminati of gangsters and hired killers). Off he goes on his rampage of revenge, leaving a trail of corpses in his wake, occasionally pausing to deliver his catchphrase (‘Yeeahhh,’ which is a catchphrase only Keanu Reeves could reasonably hope to get away with).

The rest of the plot of the film is almost entirely abstract, I’m afraid, and concerns Wick’s convoluted quest to get to the man appointed to kill him (Bill Skarsgard). Wick has to challenge him to an honour duel to the death, but first he needs to get his credentials sorted out, which involves going to Berlin and killing a senior German criminal… comparisons to the plot of a computer game seem to me to be entirely justified, as the film boils down to a succession of set pieces, in which Reeves and the other actors (and many, many stuntmen) enter an environment (a luxury hotel, a nightclub, central Paris) and proceed to be extremely violent towards each other at great length, often inflicting significant property damage in the process. It’s a film which develops and resolves through gun battles and fist fights – while I suppose you could trim most of these down to a reasonable length and be left with a much more manageable film which still had a functional plot, to do so would be to miss the point of the film. The plot is just a mechanism to get from one action sequence to another; they are the point of the film – although mixed in with them are little vignettes of stoicism, honour, and loyalty, which is what passes for character development in a John Wick film.

I’m probably sounding a bit sniffy there, which is not really my intention. While I do think John Wick 4 definitely qualifies as too much of a good thing, it’s still in many ways a very good thing – well, if you like really long action sequences, anyway. These aren’t quite as viscerally graphic as the ones in John Wick 3, which renders the film a bit less open to suggestions that it’s nothing but a kind of pornography of violence – it’s probably more like a sort of erotica of violence, with a much greater focus on the artistic effect achieved than the act itself. Certainly, given a choice between realism and stylishness, the film always jumps the same way: attractive young people at a Berlin club continue dancing in slow motion, apparently oblivious to Reeves and a man in a fat suit (Scott Adkins) trying to beat each other to death on the dance floor.

It’s not like there aren’t other incidental pleasures, either: the man tapped by the High Table to end Wick’s reign of terror is his old friend Caine, a blind hitman who comes up with some interesting new uses for motion-activated doorbells. Caine is played by Donnie Yen, who is always good in this sort of film (it does occur to me that there may be some people under the impression that Donnie Yen is actually blind, given his high profile roles playing blind martial artists here and in Rogue One). Caine’s name isn’t the only allusion to the old Kung Fu TV show I spotted here; I was quite amused by a piece on this franchise in the legitimate media which declared ‘no-one could accuse the John Wick series of being derivative…’ – well, I can, and I do! There’s another sequence which is a lengthy raid on The Warriors, for example. But as usual, spotting this sort of thing is part of the fun.

And John Wick – Chapter 4 is fun, for the most part. It’s exhaustingly long, and most of the major sequences could do with a bit of a trim, but the tone of the thing is well-judged and it does have a sense of humour about itself. By all accounts Keanu Reeves and the other key creative individuals involved have decided that this will be the last John Wick, or at least the last for a good while. I don’t think it’s quite as successful as the second or third films, but if it is the conclusion, it’s one which does the series justice.

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Red Heat, released in 1988, is a Walter Hill action thriller starring Arnold Schwarzenegger. It is possible that it is not necessary to say all this, because it is almost exactly the kind of film you would expect Walter Hill and Arnold Schwarzenegger to make together in 1988. You probably know exactly who Arnold Schwarzenegger is already; you may not be so familiar with Walter Hill, who has had a pretty good career as the maker of thrillers of different flavours – he wrote and directed the stylish The Warriors and The Driver, both in 1979, and got writing credits on the first two Alien sequels. (He is also credited as producer on most of the Alien franchise.) One of his bigger successes of the 1980s was the buddy-cop thriller 48 Hours, which Red Heat in some ways resembles.

The movie opens in a banya, or Russian sauna, somewhere inside the Soviet Union. Banyas are traditionally not mixed, but as we are in a Walter Hill film this is not the case, allowing some nice leery shots of well-upholstered female extras lounging around in the nude (need it even be said? The men have all been issued with little aprons to protect their modesty, of course). In walks Arnie, displaying a weird-looking navel that looks like a horizontal slit across his belly, playing tough Moscow cop Ivan Danko. He is in pursuit of thorough-going scumbag Viktor Rosta (Ed O’Ross), and soon enough he is in a naked fistfight outside in the snow with some sleazy-looking dudes.

Following this is another sequence in which Arnie (now dressed) walks into a bar, picks a fight with a guy, and then tears his leg off. It turns out to be a fake leg, which is to say even more fake than everything else in this movie, which he is hiding cocaine inside. (Walter Hill has said he bought a whole other script on the strength of this scene, just to incorporate it into Red Heat, and believes it to be the high-point of the movie. We are probably about ten minutes into the film.) A shoot-out with Rosta ensues, in which Arnie’s best friend is killed. (The best friend is just in this one scene and is blatantly here just to get shot and provide more motivation for Arnie’s character.) Rosta gets away, of course.

The scene switches to Chicago, where we meet fast-talking loose cannon cop Art Ridzik (James Belushi), the other element of the film’s odd-couple pairing. He is working for strait-laced boss-cop Laurence Fishburne (looking very dapper and thin), who disparages him as a slob, but this doesn’t get in the way of Ridzik saving him from having his head blown off by a drug dealer. Ridzik and his buddies take time off from high-risk drug busts and end up arresting Viktor Rosta for a traffic offence, not realising he is looking to greatly increase connections between the US and Glasnost-era Russia by putting together a drug deal that will flood the USSR with cocaine.

Needless to say, Danko is despatched to the States to oversee the extradition, resplendently wearing his Russian cop dress uniform (which makes him look like a cross between an old-fashioned ice cream seller and Postman Pat). He is under orders to keep schtumski about the Soviet drugs problem, naturally. But of course things go wrong: Rosta’s American accomplices spring him on the way to the airport, killing Belushi’s partner in the process. It does not bode well for US-Soviet relations. It falls to Ridzik and Danko to put aside their differences and team up to crack the case – this involves Danko going undercover, or at least as undercover as it is possible to go when you look like a tree wearing a suit…

And the film proceeds more or less as you’d expect for the rest of its duration. It feels like Arnie shoots someone every twenty minutes with almost metronomic regularity, initially with an enormous (and fictitious) Russian handgun (the ‘Pobyrin 9.2mm’), and later with a .44 Magnum (mainly, one suspects, so they can do a bit where Arnie looks blankly at the camera and says ‘Who is Dirty Harry?’). There’s more gratuitous nudity from pretty much every significant female character except Rosta’s American wife, who is played by a young Gina Gershon, but this is, as I say, SOP for a Walter Hill movie – I saw one of his films about ten years ago and it was pretty much the same then too.

It’s all very much like a Walter Hill film, really, rather than the more fantastical sort of thing you perhaps associate Schwarzenegger with. The most distinctive element of the story – the Soviet connection – is only there because Hill couldn’t imagine any way to have Arnie playing an American character (he was apparently ‘tough to use credibly because of his accent’). There aren’t really the big stunts and action sequences you get in the movies that Arnie made with Jim Cameron, except perhaps for a bit with a crashing bus near the end. Nor does Hill seem interested in letting Arnie do much more than loom and look stern – it’s clear that James Belushi is here to be The Funny One.

The thing is, he’s not that funny. The poster almost seems intended to suggest that this is some knockabout odd-couple comedy film – Arnie brandishes his gun, Belushi a cup of coffee – but it isn’t that, on any level. They’re not really an odd couple: they’re actually quite a similar couple, in that neither of them is particularly funny, or interesting. They both just look stern and occasionally shoot people.

You’d honestly expect better from a film which credits Troy Kennedy Martin as a screenwriter – Martin was the creator of Z Cars, screenwriter of the original version of The Italian Job, and in 1988 was relatively fresh from writing the outstanding BBC drama Edge of Darkness. Then again, according to a source on the production, ‘there was no script,’ with scenes written as the production went along. Perhaps here we are getting to the truth of why the film is so generic and frankly indifferent: the idea for the movie is not without promise, but it feels undeveloped and hackneyed. The result is a kind of intent-free, uninspired naturalism operating on a sort of level of minimal competence. Arnie is never at his best in this kind of film, and the result is one of the least distinctive of his early movies.

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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 are 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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