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Can we therefore look forward to Creeds II-VII, with Jordan taking on the disgruntled children of Mr T, Dolph Lundgren, and perhaps even the son of Rocky himself? Somehow I doubt it.

your correspondent, writing about Creed and displaying the usual level of uncanny precognitive ability

Christmas works party time rolled around again, and we reconvened in a pub a short walk outside the city centre, each having filled the time between ceasing pretending to work and the start of the festivities in our own particular way.

‘Did you go to the cinema?’ one colleague (whose name I shall be withholding) asked me. ‘What did you see?’

‘Creed II,’ I said.

‘I’ve not heard of that. What’s it about?’

The imp of the perverse was whispering in my ear, I’m afraid, and being aware that she was perhaps of a High Church of England-ish disposition… ‘It’s about the Council of Nicaea and the formulation of the Nicene Creed,’ I said. Keeping my face straight was almost too easy, now I think back on it.

‘Oh, really?’

‘Yeah, it’s all about the splits in the early Christian church,’ I went on. ‘At the end of the first Creed they thought they’d figured most of it out, but in this one the Arian heresy rears its ugly head and it causes them all an awful lot of trouble.’

‘Wow! I can’t believe they did a film about that,’ she said, clearly wondering how she could have missed hearing about this.

I did consider going on to describe how the Emperor Constantine was played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Ossius of Corduba by George Clooney, but my better nature made an unexpected reappearance and I had to confess it was all a pack of lies: Creed II is actually a boxing movie, the sequel to Creed and the eighth movie in the Rocky series, directed by Steven Caple Jr and (perhaps inevitably) co-written, co-starring and produced by Sylvester Stallone. (My colleague and I are still on good terms, thankfully.)

The movie opens with Adonis Creed (Michael B Jordan) fulfilling his potential and finally becoming heavyweight champion of the world. Yet nagging doubts remain – can he really live up to the example set by his late father, legendary champion Apollo Creed (Carl Weathers, who doesn’t appear in person, but who one hopes is getting decent remuneration for the use of his image throughout the movie)? Impending marriage and parenthood only add to the pressures on the young athlete.

And then Donnie’s trainer Rocky (Stallone) is startled by the reappearance of a figure from his past: Russian former boxer Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), the man who killed Apollo Creed in the ring decades before, and who was then humiliated by Rocky in a rematch on Russian soil. Drago was left in disgrace and has spent the intervening years raising his son Viktor (the splendidly-named Florian ‘Big Nasty’ Munteanu) as a living instrument of vengeance. The Dragos challenge Donnie to what’s basically a second-generation rematch, and one which Donnie feels obliged to accept, despite Rocky’s deep misgivings (not least because his own fight with Ivan Drago left him with permanent brain damage, not that anyone mentions this much nowadays).

What follows basically confirms that the Rocky series is the great sentimental soap opera of mainstream American cinema, as the various characters struggle with their personal demons, make tough choices, cope with success and failure, and so on, all expressed through a combination of character-based scenes, training montages, people talking to graves, and protracted fight sequences. This film tells a classical narrative of hubris, nemesis, and redemption, and the fact it is so familiar may be why it feels so satisfying to watch. The trick to these films, I have realised, lies not in the fight sequences themselves, for these are almost always completely predictable – given their context in the film, you always know who is going to eventually win in any particular situation. The film’s success lies in the fact that you don’t mind knowing what’s going to happen – what’s going to happen is what you want to happen, because the film has made you root for the hero and want to see the bad guy take the beating they have been earning throughout the film up to this point. Creed II is very successful in this respect, and credit must go to the screenplay (by Stallone and Juel Taylor) and the performances, particularly those of Jordan and Stallone (even if the latter’s transformation into someone resembling Popeye seems to be accelerating). On the other hand, it has to be said that this is very much a guy’s film, its themes of parental expectation and legacy largely expressed through the relationship between fathers and sons, and Tessa Thompson ends up with a slightly underwritten part as a result, mainly just there as girlfriend and mother.

Of course, the film may also be familiar due to the fact that, in that in many respects, it basically repeats the plot of Rocky IV, albeit with one rather big modification. You could argue that in some ways the first Creed basically revisited the plot of the original Rocky, which was a solid drama and won the Best Picture Oscar for 1976 (even if it has been known to pop up on lists of ‘Worst Film ever to win Best Picture’). Perhaps the most remarkable (possibly even miraculous) thing about Creed II is that it revisits the characters and events of Rocky IV, surely the silliest of these films, and still manages to produce a credible and affecting drama. I’m almost tempted to say that this is the kind of film The Expendables should have been: there’s a genuine sense of a significant moment taking place when Stallone and Lundgren finally meet one another, and it must be said that the big Swede gives a highly effective performance as the film’s antagonist (Munteanu is largely just there as a physical presence, though his acting performance is perfectly acceptable). It’s entirely possible that this is the best acting work Dolph Lundgren has ever done (not that this is necessarily saying very much, of course). Perhaps even more startlingly, the film also sees the return of Brigitte Nielsen as Drago’s ex-wife Ludmilla, albeit in a much more limited cameo. I expect that this film’s willingness to embrace the past of the series so whole-heartedly (I would have said that if you went into a major Hollywood studio and proposed doing a movie with Lundgren and Nielsen in key roles you’d just get laughed at) will largely be lost on the young audience it is aiming for, but for those of us who’ve been following along for many years, it’s a very impressive and likeable trait.

I did enjoy the first Creed a lot, as a solid sports drama, but I have to say it’s entirely possible I had an even better time watching Creed II, for its connections to the series’ past as much as its own very real merits as a drama. Eight films in, with critical plaudits still flowing, I expect the temptation will be to keep on going – but the Creed-Drago rematch was the obvious way to go with a sequel (even if it seemed quite unlikely to me it would ever get made, two and a bit years ago). I’m not sure if they could find a worthwhile direction to take this story in – but based on the strength of the first two films, I’d happily give them the benefit of the doubt. This is excellent entertainment.

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One of the things you occasionally hear people suggesting, when it comes to films, is that some of the famous old stories that have generally proven to be bankers time and time again – you know the sort of thing: Sherlock Holmes, Dracula, Tarzan, King Arthur – seem to have fallen out of favour, at least slightly. It’s not that they always flop, goes the theory, but they’re seldom world-conquering smash hits any more.

Nevertheless, people still keep making films based on these stories, even if it is the result of some sort of reflex action: we’ve had two big-budget Sherlock Holmes so far this century, with another on the way (even if it is a spoof); a rather poor Dracula a few years ago; and two King Arthur films since 2004 (the Clive Owen version, which suggested the famous king was a Romano-British soldier, and the Charlie Hunnam one, which presented him as a kung-fu fighting London gangster superhero). And now we are on our second Robin Hood film in not much than eight years (the last one being the Russell Crowe-Ridley Scott collaboration which seemed to get considerably less interesting between the time it was announced and its actual release).

The new film is (once again) Robin Hood, directed by Otto Bathurst. Now, I am generally well-disposed to an adventure movie in the classic style, even if the story is somewhat well-worn. However, I suspect that even if I had managed to get to the screening of the new film without encountering the trailer or advertising, my expectations would have been flattened like a tax-collector hit with a quarterstaff by the opening dialogue alone. ‘I could tell you what year all this happened,’ says the blokey voice-over, ‘but I’ve forgotten. I could bore you with the history, but I won’t.’ Yes, God forbid you should credit the audience with any intelligence or attention span, writers of Robin Hood, just patronise away. It really does sound like the makers of the movie getting their excuses in first.

I can understand why, for what the film-makers manage to do is take possibly the most famous of English historical folk-legends and – well, I was about to say that they make a film totally devoid of historical content, but this would not be true. There is lots of history in Robin Hood. It is all just mind-bogglingly, preposterously inappropriate history.

Things get under way with them setting up the romance between good-hearted young nobleman Robin of Loxley (Taron Egerton, who has turned into a serviceable enough leading man) and rebellious young working-class girl Marian (Eve Hewson, who is all heavy eyeshadow and embonpoint). However, their idyll is shattered when Robin receives his ‘Draft Notice’ in the post from the Sheriff of Nottingham (Ben Mendelsohn), sending him off to fight in the Middle East. Here we have our first two bits of history – the ‘draft letter’ scene, which could quite easily come from midwestern America in the late 1960s, and the Sheriff’s full-length grey leather trench-coat, which rather leads one to assume he is serving in the Wehrmacht, circa 1940.

It gets better (by which I mean it gets worse). Robin is supposedly serving in the Third Crusade (1189-1192), but the conflict is deliberately presented in a manner designed to create associations with the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, rather more recently – it is the same vicious chaos of house-to-house fighting. Swap out the longbows for assault rifles and stone throwers for air support and the sequence would be utterly indistinguishable from something contemporary.

Anyway, Robin’s moral qualms at the execution of prisoners by his brutal unit commander results in him being sent home in disgrace, but also in his earning the respect of an enemy warrior who eventually decides to go by the name of John (Jamie Foxx). Our hero is actually quite pleased to get home and see his girl again, but gets a tremendous surprise when he discovers he has been declared dead, his lands seized, and Marian is now shacked up with a bloke named Will (Jamie ‘Sex Dungeon’ Dornan). (This, by the way, was nothing to the surprise I got when Robin’s ship sailed into ‘Nottingham Harbour’, as Nottingham is generally agreed to be some sixty miles from the coast.)

Robin soon learns that the Sheriff is manipulating the war in Arabia for his own ends (apparently Nottingham is ‘the beating heart of the Crusades’), soaking the poor and spreading dark, divisive tales of multitudes of freedom-hating killers intent on infiltrating western civilisation. He and John resolve to stop it, but this involves discovering what the Sheriff is really doing with the money he takes from his subjects as taxes. They adopt a two-pronged approach – by day, Robin will be a charming young nobleman who will slowly gain the Sheriff’s confidence. But by night he will be a bow-slinging robber known only as the Hood!

I don’t especially want to labour this point too much, because (as mentioned) the film-makers do make it absolutely clear from the get-go that they couldn’t give a stuff about historical accuracy, but, short of proceedings halting for a musical number where Jamie Foxx delivers a new version of his 2005 meteorological ick-fest Storm Forecast, it’s hard to see exactly how this film could become any more divorced from things that actually happened in English history. One of the plot drivers is the question of what the Sheriff is up to with the cash, and I honestly would not have been entirely surprised to learn he was secretly building tanks or robots, because it would have been much of a piece with the rest of the film.

Even so, you have to be somewhat staggered by something passing itself off as a Robin Hood film which features no sword-fighting, no band of Merry Men worthy of the title (there are various characters with similar names, but almost without exception they bear no resemblance to the ones from folklore), and in which you only hear the word ‘Sherwood’ and get a close-up look at a tree in the last five minutes before the credits roll. Prior to this the film is just a generic cod-historical action runaround, most obviously influenced by various computer games and superhero movies and TV shows.

I suppose the big question when one chooses to revisit a fable like this one, if one has any kind of artistic soul, is why you are doing so, given there have been so many previous versions. What is the Robin Hood legend actually about? Why has it endured, and why does it continue to resonate? For me, the legend in its purest form is about a number of things – the complex nature of English society, the relationship between the people and the land, and the national inclination towards independent thinking and natural justice.

If the new version of Robin Hood is about anything beyond special-effects set-pieces, Taron Egerton looking soulful, and Ben Mendelsohn yelling ‘I’ll boil you alive in your own piss!!!’, then it appears to be a sort of glib, one-size-fits-all anti-capitalist and anti-establishment propaganda. Parallels between the situation in the film and recent events are drawn in with broad, clumsy strokes – young people are sent off to die in a foreign war puppeteered by wealthy old men at home, the poor are screwed over by the economic system, and corrupt leaders cynically employ divisive and racist rhetoric to maintain control over the masses.

You could, I suppose, have introduced some of these themes into a Robin Hood movie, if they were handled with care and delicacy, and inserted as a subtext. But here, the whole film feels like a cack-handed attempt at allegory – not so much Robin Hood as Occupy Sherwood.

I will try to find something nice to say about this film, beyond simply that it is not quite as bad as Peter Rabbit (I still had my head in my hands at various points, though). Well – much of it is quite well-staged, and competently organised. I suppose the production values are quite good, although the costumes and sets bear no relation to any particular point in history. Ben Mendelsohn does his best as the Sheriff (too many of the supporting cast are simply wooden). The plot sort of hangs together, on its own terms. But that’s about it, really.

The Rabbit comparison is a pertinent one, actually: in both cases, a well-known tale (or body of tales) has been comprehensively gutted of anything resembling the traditional content, in favour of something which the makers presumably think is contemporary, ‘street’, and edgy, but all the charm and texture of the original has been lost in the process. This is, by any rational standard, an awful Robin Hood film. It will probably make a lot of money. But give me Michael Praed any day.

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It is, as I have observed in the past, often difficult to ensure a new movie gets enough publicity to guarantee its success, even if you are a talented director and you have the resources of a major studio backing you up. It helps to have some kind of unique angle that jaded movie critics and other journalist can latch onto and discuss in their initial reviews of the film. Well, the good news for the makers of Outlaw King (presented on screen as Outlaw/King, which I’m not sure is necessarily a better title), an aspiring historical epic currently appearing at both a cinema and on a major streaming service near you, is that the forces of the media do seem to have found something in this film to get their teeth into. The bad news is that the item in question is star Chris Pine’s winky, which makes an appearance when the actor goes skinny-dipping at one point. The winky is ‘dazzling’, in the words of one usually reputable website, and ‘the belle of the ball’ according to Vanity Fair (a curious choice of metaphor to say the least).

I would imagine that all these winky-focused reviews are not what the makers of Outlaw King anticipated when they released their film into the world, for this shows every sign of being a seriously-intentioned costume drama, directed by David Mackenzie (who in the past has made films as diverse as the laboriously weird Perfect Sense and the rather good neo-western Hell or High Water). Things get underway and we find ourselves in Scotland in the early 14th century, where bad King Edward of England (Stephen Dillane) has seized control of the country after a lengthy struggle with the rebel leader William Wallace. Now all the local nobility are being forced to swear loyalty to Edward, amongst them dour, brooding, well-endowed claimant to the throne Robert the Bruce (Pine). Just to show there are no hard feelings, the King marries his god-daughter Elizabeth (the fabulous Florence Pugh) off to the Bruce.

An uneasy peace persists for a bit, but when Wallace is finally apprehended and bits of him are posted all over Scotland to deter other insurrectionists, the country is in uproar. Robert the Bruce decides that it is time for him, as an honourable Scotsman, to stand up and do the right thing. In this case the right thing is for him to break his promise to Edward, murder his rival claimant to the throne, and have himself declared King of Scots by the local church dignitaries. King Edward is as cross as two sticks at this act of treachery and dispatches an army under the command of his son (Billy Howle) to sort the situation out. Soon enough Robert the Bruce and his band of followers are forced into hiding, desperately trying to rally support for their dream of Scottish independence (hey, the more things change…), while the new king’s wife and daughter find themselves caught in the path of the advancing English army.

This, you would have thought, would be a good place for the scene where Robert the Bruce learns the value of persistence and determination from watching a spider trying to spin its web under difficult circumstances. I would hazard a guess that this is the one and only thing most people outside Scotland know about Robert the Bruce, and yet while the story is alluded to (very obliquely) it doesn’t make it into the film. This is not the only interesting omission from Outlaw King: filmed, but not included in the final version, was an encounter between Robert and William Wallace.

I find this rather significant, because Outlaw King is clearly pitching itself very much as a film in the vein of Braveheart (Bravewinky, perhaps), with some of the same historical figures appearing in it. I might even go so far to say that this is the work of people who liked Braveheart so much they decided to make their own version (which is what this is). Obviously comparisons are going to be made, and actually having Wallace show up in the movie would only add to this.

Nevertheless, Outlaw King‘s mixture of gritty mediaeval detail and gory battlefield violence (the ‘arterial splatter’ CGI function gets a lot of use) can’t help feeling a bit familiar, and there are a lot of faces in the supporting cast who are exactly the kind of actor you would expect to find in this kind of film – James Cosmo, Tony Curran, and Clive Russell. That said, some younger faces are more prominent – as well as Pugh and Howle, Aaron Taylor-Johnson is second-billed as one of Robert the Bruce’s more homicidally zealous followers. Most of the performances are pretty solid, although the actors are somewhat hindered by the fact that they are essentially playing stock types – the ambitious young man chafing for recognition from his father, the young woman forced into an arranged marriage who slowly finds her feelings for her husband deepening, and so on.

It must be said that Florence Pugh is customarily excellent in this film: she is one major role away from global stardom, I would suggest. That said, she is excellent in a rather underwritten and unrewarding part. Her character’s role in the film feels rather like an afterthought – she’s there not because it’s particularly important to the plot (she isn’t), but because it seems to be received dogma that you can’t do a big movie like this one without at least one significant female character.

If we’re going to talk about the acting in this film, however, we should probably spend some time considering Chris Pine’s contribution. Now, regular readers may know that I am far from an unconditional fan of this particular actor – I believe in the past I may have said that on those occasions when I enjoyed a Pine movie, it’s been despite rather than because of his presence. So I may be a little biased. However, the problem here is that Robert the Bruce is a dour, internal sort of character, who spends a lot of the film brooding (he’s also arguably an ambiguous and compromised figure, although the script works hard to finesse the murder of John Comyn into an act of self-defence). Chris Pine is not a natural brooder. He is a smirker, a swaggerer, a schmoozer, and a wise-cracker. Rough-hewn Scottish monarchy is well outside his comfort zone and his performance is really only functional, which means there is an absence at the heart of the film.

Dedicated Pine watchers may feel there is an absence in other ways as well. Yes, I think the time has come when we must address the issue of Chris Pine’s winky (and those are words I never thought I’d type). Well, the first thing I must say is that the prominence of Pine’s masculine appendage seems to have been rather overstated by excitable hacks. The appearance of the winky definitely falls into the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it category, to say nothing of the fact it only appears in long shot. I would also suggest that this whole winky-related fuss only serves to highlight a rather quaint double standard in how we treat screen nudity. Florence Pugh’s exposed knockers get much more screen time than the Pine winky, but no-one’s talking about them at all – and, in the age of the Unique Moment, I imagine I would get flayed alive if I even mentioned in this review the fact that they look superb. Yet someone can go on about the ‘dazzling’ winky and the response only seems to be a mixture of amusement and bemusement.

With the Bruce himself not a particularly compelling character, and the plot being a fairly uninspired mixture of action sequences and political wrangling, the result is that Outlaw King is just not that gripping as a piece of drama. It looks great, with all the usual Scottish scenery, armies of extras, and some deft special effects. Mackenzie does a slightly showy-offy very long take at the start of the film, but on the whole he marshals the film very competently, and the climax – a recreation of the battle of Loudon Hill – is genuinely very good, really giving you something of the sense of what it was like to be a peasant infantryman facing a cavalry charge by armoured knights.

There are many good things about Outlaw King, and it passes the time fairly agreeably (I imagine many people may have issues with the violence and gore that punctuate the movie, however). I am also fully aware that many people like Chris Pine and this kind of mud-and-chainmail movie rather more than I do, so I expect the film will probably be quite successful. Nevertheless, I think it wears its influences a bit too openly, and is much more impressive in terms of its production values than its actual storytelling.

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As I sit down to contemplate Donovan Marsh’s Hunter Killer, I am minded to suggest a new rule of thumb for when it comes to predicting whether a film is any good or not. I already have a few of these: is the director so obscure he doesn’t even have his own Wikipedia entry? This is a bad sign. Does the film star Gerard Butler? This is a worse one. (Needless to say, Hunter Killer fails both of these tests, by which I mean the answer is yes.) To these I would add: does the film have more producers and executive producers than it does cleaning ladies?

This is certainly the case with Hunter Killer, which – thanks to my close examination of the credits, a result of the film putting my lower limbs into a state of temporary torpor and briefly trapping me in the auditorium – I can inform you has over twenty producers and execs (including Gerard Butler, perhaps unsurprisingly), but less than a dozen women who clean. I will have to do further research into this area, but my initial findings are that you should hire cleaners in bulk rather than film producers, should you have the option.

All this is a roundabout way of saying that Hunter Killer is about as good a movie as you would expect, given it is a mid-budget action thriller starring Butler as the ostensible hero. I was something of a cheerleader for Butler and his career up until about fifteen years ago, and was genuinely pleased when 300 catapulted him to a level of real stardom – but since then it seems like he hasn’t really been trying, just recycling the same kinds of movies and performances over and over again. I’m almost at the point of giving up on him entirely, but I do enjoy a slightly duff genre movie, so along I went to a matinee of Hunter Killer (at which I was entirely alone, I might add).

Things kick off with an American and a Russian submarine both going missing in mysterious circumstances, somewhere under the polar ice. The chairman of the joint chiefs, who is a growly cipher expertly phoned in by Gary Oldman, dispatches another sub to investigate, under the command of newly-promoted captain Joe Glass (Butler). Glass manages to be a fierce disciplinarian and an unpredictable loose cannon, whom we first meet displaying his macho chops by (illegally) hunting deer with a longbow in Scotland. He then gets to show his sensitive side by not actually shooting the cute little critters, before being whisked off to take command of his boat. Here he displays yet another aspect of his personality, being much given to making rather cryptic inspirational speeches to his crew – ‘I am you,’ he announces to the assembled company, then ‘Everyone you know is someone on that [missing] sub.’ Needless to say, Butler does not really manage to unite all these bizarrely arbitrary traits in a coherent characterisation.

Well, anyway, as the presumably somewhat-baffled crew sails into the danger zone it transpires that there is sneakiness afoot in the upper echelons of the Russian military establishment, with a coup in progress against the Russian President (Alexander Diachenko), orchestrated by the perfidious Defence Minister (Mikhail Gorevoy), who is looking to start a nuclear war with the USA for no particularly well-explained reason. However, with a US sub in the crisis zone, not to mention a special forces team (led by a somewhat unexpectedly-cast Toby Stephens), it may just be possible to save the day…

Yes, so this is not one of those films with what you could honestly describe as a stranglehold on reality. You almost wonder how long it has been in the works, given just how spectacularly misjudged its presentation of world geopolitics is – the US President is a woman, apparently named ‘Ilene Dover’ (which is a joke name, surely), who ends up ordering a rescue mission to save the Russian President (who has no tendencies to be photographed with his shirt off, in case you were wondering).

In other words it is, not to put too fine a point on it, a deeply silly film, bordering on the actually cartoonish in some places. The problem is that the makers of the film don’t appear to be particularly comfortable with making a silly cartoon of an action movie: they seem to want to make a serious and credible semi-political thriller. This desire mainly takes the form of everyone in Hunter Killer being under orders to play it absolutely straight even when the material demands at least a degree of tongue-in-cheekness. The result is regrettably predictable: when a silly film attempts to become credible by taking itself very seriously, the result is not a serious, credible film – the result is a film which manages to be both silly and rather dull.

I found myself rather missing the barking, sweating, swivel-eyed-maniac Gerard Butler of old: he’s just not that interesting when he tones it down, even if he is playing a weirdly stoical underwater nutcase at the time. On the other hand, hardly anyone makes much of an impression in this film – Gary Oldman expertly phones in his supporting turn, the rapperist Common appears as another nautical cove, and a cast-against-type Toby Stephens pops up as the leader of a US special forces unit (the movie was made in the UK, which explains the presence of a few familiar faces further down the cast list). It is, as you may have noticed, a somewhat blokey movie, with this slightly made up for by a supporting appearance by Linda Cardellini as an NSA analyst. (There are indeed some women serving on Butler’s sub, but none of them get any lines until the last twenty minutes of the film.) The late Michael Nyqvist makes one of his final appearances as a decent Russian sub captain, in a probably optimistic attempt to make it clear that not all Russians are bad guys.

That’s the thing about Hunter Killer – technically, it’s a perfectly competent movie in terms of its production and so on, but it just makes virtually no impact. There is never any real sense of danger or tension or involvement, probably because the film is just so derivative and formulaic and predictable. No doubt the film’s themes of the US military being wonderful and the deep connections felt by the brotherhood of submariners will appeal to some sectors of the intended audience, but I can’t see that translating into particularly wide appeal for anyone else. Even if you’re a really keen fan of films about submarines, Hunter Killer really has nothing new or especially accomplished to offer. But at least the sets are nice and clean.

 

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Just before I went off on this most recent trip, I made a stern promise to myself that I would stay strong, hold fast, remember my principles and not go to see any new movies in Russian no matter how much I regretted not being in the UK to see them. As it turned out, the only one that even came close to testing my resolve was Shane Black’s The Predator. There is some historical irony to this, as one of the films which led me to swear off the whole dubbed experience was watching Alien Vs Predator: Requiem in Italy, ten years ago. What can I say, I must just be a sucker for the Predator franchise.

Further proof is lent by the fact that, finding myself back in Britain, the very first film I trundled along to see was Black’s new offering, the fourth in the series – or possibly the sixth, depending on how you feel about those little-loved Alien cross-overs. Well, I say little-loved, but one of the weird things about the Predator franchise is that it seems to go on and on and on without ever making a film which is actually, um, much good or especially popular. The last (and indeed only) Predator film generally agreed to have any significant quality to it came out in 1987, which was so long ago that the likes of Emma Stone, Daniel Radcliffe and Jennifer Lawrence were not even born at the time (Jason Statham was 19), that the Tory party was still winning sizeable UK majorities, and that Donald Trump had yet to go bankrupt even once. Possibly only Highlander is a better example of something that was mildly popular a long time ago managing to hang on seemingly indefinitely, more like a cockroach infestation than an actual franchise.

The movie opens in the traditional fashion with a Predator arriving on Earth, in Mexico (presumably a deliberate call-back to the original film, but who knows), and thus spoiling the evening of US special forces sniper Quinn McKenna (Boyd Holbrook), whose mission is thrown into chaos as a result. McKenna manages to lay his hands on some of the alien’s kit, which he promptly posts off to his ex-wife and son (as you would), before he is grabbed by shadowy government types and thrown in a rubber hospital to ensure his silence. Meanwhile, biologist Casey Bracket (Olivia Munn) is recruited by the same agency to investigate some strange anomalies discovered by an examination of the Predator, whom they have managed to capture.

Well, it’s all going reasonably well (for the shadowy government types at least), until another starship shows up. The captured Pred takes advantage of the panic and confusion this causes and busts out, heading off in search of its purloined equipment. In pursuit of the creature are Bracket and McKenna, the latter having teamed up with a busload of wacky army veterans suffering from various psychiatric disorders. The hunter has become the hunted! Although, to be strictly accurate, the hunters hunting the hunter are also themselves the objects of some hunting from another hunter. What could be simpler?

‘A very large number of things’ would be an honest answer. It is slightly baffling that they have gone for this particular story for the new film, especially given that it’s the work of someone with at least a passing connection with the original (good) Predator movie – Shane Black had a small role back in 1987 as the first member of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s team to get disembowelled. The thing about the first Predator is that it is a deceptively simple story – sure, there’s a not-very-deeply-buried subtext about the Vietnam War, but mainly it’s about tough guys in extremis, in fear for their lives as they are picked off one by one by a terrifying and mysterious alien force. It’s a great SF-action-horror movie, but how are you supposed to come up with a sequel to it that isn’t just an empty retread?

They have, of course, had several goes at finding a follow-up to that classic Predator hunts people in a jungle scenario: Predator hunts people in a city, to start off with, followed by Predator hunts Aliens at the South Pole, then Predator hunts especially disgusting Aliens in small-town America, and finally Predator hunts a bunch of people on a fairly boring alien planet. Most of the preceding films are really not very good, but they are still easier to summarise than the new one, which is never knowingly under-plotted and seems to be deeply conflicted about the idea of letting the Predator ever actually do any hunting. For most of the film the only reference to this is a running gag about how the Predator is really badly named, as it actually behaves more like a trophy-bagging sports hunter than an actual predator in the biological sense – it’s a typically smart and cynical Shane Black line, but comes perilously close to the film sending itself up.

You really do get a sense of a film scrabbling around trying to find new ideas to justify its existence. Too often these come at the expense of demystifying the creatures too much, of explaining things which really did not require an explanation in the first place. There doesn’t need to be a particular reason why the various Predators have been so keen on extracting their targets’ spinal columns: it’s just a memorably scary piece of imagery. The pleasures of the Predator franchise are largely superficial anyway – once you dispense with Arnie as the leading man, you’re basically left with a banging theme tune (which gets played rather a lot in this film, especially when you consider its composer isn’t that prominently credited) and a cool monster suit. Fiddly plotting and complicated back-stories do not really find a natural home in this series.

Nor, to be perfectly honest, does Shane Black’s particular brand of humour. Here he is working with his regular partner Fred Dekker and the usual sort of scabrous, fast-talking, profane dialogue peppers the movie – if you’ve seen The Nice Guys or Kiss Kiss Bang Bang you will know what I mean (there are also some quite good pieces of physical comedy, too). But the kind of knowing and tongue-in-cheek humour that worked so well in one of Black’s detective comedies or in Iron Man 3 (one of the very few Marvel movies to attempt to succeed through wit rather than spectacle and actually succeed) always feels in danger of toppling the film over into camp or self-parody, which may be why the script is relatively restrained here: a lot of the film just feels like by-the-numbers action movie machismo. It’s almost a shame, because more and better jokes might have made up for some of the clunkier and more laborious plotting and exposition.

My instinct would be to say that, despite some good moments and interesting ideas, The Predator is a bit of a dud and unlikely to do much for the fortunes of this particular franchise: I might even suggest the films are getting worse, the stories withering away as the scripts run out of ideas. But then I would have said the same, if not much worse, about all the other sequels, and yet here we still are. I guess this is just the kind of film which will always make money, provided they don’t go too mad on the budget – and there’s no reason why they should; past releases seems to have proven that these films don’t need star names to make a profit. If so, then it is a shame that they can’t push the boat out and come up with a more interesting script, because I’m tempted to say that if Shane Black can’t come up with a more entertaining and engaging Predator movie than this one, I doubt anybody can.

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(How’s About This For Unfinished Business Dept.: No word of a lie – while getting ready for the current odyssey I unearthed from a dark corner of my luggage two sheets of aged, crinkled paper. They turned out to be a review actually written in Kyrgyzstan at some point in the spring of 2009, which I never got around to typing up and submitting to h2g2 (many possible reasons for this, none of which I care to dwell on). So here we are, better late than never – and it’s oddly reassuring to see that the core focus of my film criticism has remained unchanged in the last nine years…)

Hello again, everyone, and welcome to another edition of the film review column which proves that the words ‘unmissable release’ have become sadly devalued. As with our previous instalment, caveat lector – I’m talking about a movie I saw in a language I only have an elementary grasp of. That said…

In terms of being a tough movie to get a sequel out of, I suspect Beneath the Planet of the Apes still leads the field, concluding as it does with said planet vaporised along with every single character (or so it appears). I would have put 2006’s Crank somewhere on the same list, though, due to the ending featuring the fatally-poisoned main character falling two miles out of a helicopter into the centre of Los Angeles (thoughtfully phoning up his girlfriend to apologise on the way down).

There were of course three further sequels to Beneath the Planet of the Apes, along with two TV series and various other ephemera. The prospect of Crank becoming a similar multi-media institution strikes me as rather unlikely (not to mention deeply disturbing), but a sequel has duly appeared in the form of Crank: High Voltage, directed as before by Mark Neveldine and Brian Taylor.

Crank 2

Straight after hitting the ground, crazed psychotic Chev Chelios (perennial favourite hereabouts and Greatest Living Englishman candidate Lord Jason of Statham) is scraped off the pavement and slung in the back of a van by some Chinese gangsters. Impressed by his resistance to the adrenaline poison (the plot device driving the first film), they have decided to harvest his organs. Upon learning this, Chev responds in typically forthright style, but it’s too late: his heart has already been extracted for transplant into an ageing crime lord (David Carradine) and replaced with a battery-powered artificial one. The battery is wont to run low at the most inopportune moments, which only makes Chev’s quest to retrieve his heart even trickier…

By any even moderately civilised standards, the Crank movies are jaw-droppingly horrible – not actually badly made, just amoral, obscene, hugely violent, tasteless, profane, and thoroughly offensive. Crank: High Voltage is very much in the same vein as the original in that it is largely one headlong display of carnage and depravity on the streets of Los Angeles.

Any hopes of increased maturity this time round were dispelled by an early sequence in which Chev interrogates a somewhat-obese bad guy by inserting a lubricated shotgun barrel where the sun don’t shine. I am on record in these pages as disliking the Kill Bill films, in particular, for exactly this sort of thing, which makes my (guilty) enjoyment of Crank rather embarrassing.

So, how to defend it? Well, in addition to all the things previously mentioned, Crank: High Voltage is frenetic, ludicrous and bizarre (it’s even got Geri Halliwell in it), but it’s also frequently very funny (the great man shows signs of a comic touch that could probably be rewardingly utilised in the right role) and never, ever pretentious or under the illusion it’s anything other than junk entertainment. It’s consistently inventive and surprising in its storytelling, which is never confused (I particularly enjoyed the sequence in which Jason Statham turns into Godzilla. Honestly).

The directors deftly handle what turns into a fairly complicated story – the main thread concerns Chev and the increasingly improbable methods he uses to keep his heart going, but whirling around it like demented satellites are subplots featuring Chev’s girlfriend Eve (Amy Smart) who’s now a pole dancer, a rather excitable Chinese prostitute who’s also in love with him (Bai Ling), the twin of Chev’s original sidekick, who is also transsexual but, additionally, suffers from whole-body Tourette’s syndrome (Efren Ramirez)… you get the general idea.

As you may have surmised, this isn’t really a venue for nuanced acting, but everyone seems to do what’s required of them (well, I have my doubts about Ginger Spice, but that’s a matter of principle) and the great man does a nice job of making Chev distinct from his other franchise character, Frank Martin. (Though an in-joke where an old woman complains that she’s been molested by someone who looks like the guy from The Transporter had me rolling my eyes a bit.)

I couldn’t honestly recommend either of the Crank movies to anyone I didn’t know very well, but I hope I’ve given you some idea of what to expect should you decide to take the plunge. It will almost certainly exceed your expectations, though probably not in a good way. I wait with some trepidation the next sequel, which I note the film-makers’ have made much easier to arrange, though quite how they can sustain the concept for another full movie I shudder to think.

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It is what people used to call the silly season, when not much is happening in terms of conventional news, and so the more traditional papers are falling back on hopefully-interesting non-news stories. Catching my eye the other day was another piece speculating about the identity of the next James Bond, despite the fact that Daniel Craig has yet to retire and in fact has another film in the works. Current favourite, allegedly, is Idris Elba, which – as I have discussed before – strikes me as a somewhat questionable move (angry mob, please assemble at the usual place). I’m rather more taken by the prospect of the 3/1 second favourite, who is an actor I can actually imagine playing a recognisable and interesting version of Ian Fleming’s character – Tom Hardy.

I’ve been impressed by Hardy for quite some years now, not least by the way he has kept plugging away and overcome some dubious early career moves (his turn as the Picard clone in Star Trek: Nemesis, for instance). Talent will out, it seems – however, if you check through his filmography to see his track record when portraying suave, lady-killing spies, the first piece of evidence which leaps out at you is not in Tom Hardy’s favour. It is in a spirit of public service, and sympathy for the actors concerned, that I must speak of McG’s 2012 film This Means War.

This movie concerns the activities of a pair of CIA agents, played by Hardy and Chris Pine – it is stated quite clearly that Hardy is British, so what he is doing in the CIA is anyone’s guess, but that’s just the level of attention to detail you can expect from this film. Pine and Hardy are partners, and as the film opens they are embarking upon a mission in Hong Kong to capture a pair of international arms dealers. The level of professionalism of this pair is foreshadowed by the way they end up having a gun battle in a crowded bar, killing one of the people they were supposed to apprehend, with his brother escaping to swear revenge. The duo’s boss (Angela Bassett, basically playing the same role as in Mission: Impossible – Fallout, though I strongly doubt the two films are in continuity) confines them to their desks in Los Angeles.

It turns out that Hardy has split up with the mother of his child, and, gripped by nebulous but powerful sentiments, he joins an on-line dating site. (Yes, even though he is a top international spy.) Here he connects with Lauren (Reese Witherspoon), a sort of lifestyle guru who has trouble committing to personal decisions: it transpires she was added to the site by her wacky best friend (Chelsea Handler, saddled with some particularly subpar material). Hardy and Witherspoon are somewhat taken with each other when they meet, but what should happen then? Well, after leaving Hardy, Witherspoon goes into the local DVD rental store (I tell you, this one scene dates the film like you wouldn’t believe) and has another cute-meet with Pine, who has been hanging around in case Hardy needs a hand getting out of his date.

The DVD store cute-meet scene is particularly notable in that it is especially smugly written, with Pine and Witherspoon trading repartee about their deep knowledge of movies and preferences within the field. Except, and this is barely credible, given this film was actually (by definition) written by a screenwriter, neither of them has a clue what they’re talking about, confidently asserting that any Hitchcock film from between 1950 and 1972 is a good choice (one word rebuttal: Topaz).

Well, anyway, the final piece of set-up occurs when Pine and Hardy, both having disclosed they are in a new relationship, discover they are dating the same woman (Witherspoon, crucially, is unaware the two men even know each other). Despite initially having a gentlemen’s agreement to be reasonable about this, this naturally breaks down, with most of the rest of the film taken up with their (it says here) hilarious attempts to impress Witherspoon while sabotaging the other’s chances. (Meanwhile the vengeful arms dealer from near the start occasionally pops up in a B-story, setting up a somewhat obvious climax.)

The best thing you can say about This Means War is that it is visually appealing, on a solely aesthetic level. Basically there are lots of bright colours (garishly so, which sort of matches the cartoonishness of the plot), with extremely attractive people living in immaculately styled apartments. Should you engage with it on any level beyond the utterly superficial (and this includes actually listening to the dialogue), however, this is a very lousy movie.

I watched this movie scratching my head and trying to work out what genre it actually belongs to: it has cute-meets and allegedly comic scenes, but also gun battles and fights and a big car chase. Presumably it is intended to be a sort of mash-up of the action-comedy and rom-com genres, with something for everyone going out on date night. Well, what it really comes out resembling is a rom-com aimed at jocks, which is a novel idea, in the same sense that making ladders out of rubber would be a novel idea.

Let me explain: your typical rom-com is primarily aimed at a female audience, regardless of whether the protagonist is male or female – they are invariably sympathetic and charming enough for the audience to identify with. However, in this film Witherspoon is essentially treated as an attractive trophy for the two men to joust over, too dumb and self-obsessed to notice all the weird stuff going on around her. The two male leads are alpha-jocks and it’s really not clear whether they’re genuinely interested in Witherspoon for her own (undeniable) charms, or just overtaken by the urge to outperform their former friend.

Of course, this leads us onto another major problem, which is that the film is just not very funny. Not only is it not funny, but most of the unfunny comic material is rather questionable: both Hardy and Pine deploy the full apparatus of the intelligence establishment in order to get the girl, which means that Witherspoon spends most of the movie under CIA surveillance with her apartment bugged. Unauthorised government surveillance – that’s the stuff of real comedy gold, folks! There’s also a lot of very broad stuff about Hardy shooting Pine with a tranquiliser gun to stop him having sex with Witherspoon, Pine following their car with a drone (Hardy shoots it down with his handgun), and so on.

Reese Witherspoon, who I have always found a fairly agreeable performer, genuinely seems to be trying her best in a very unrewarding role. What’s more interesting is what’s going on elsewhere, for as well as the in-story contest between Pine and Hardy as characters, there is also the issue of which one of them takes the acting honours. Well, it may be that I am biased, but on several occasions I have come away from movies having been very impressed by a Tom Hardy performance, while the best I can say for Chris Pine is that once in a while I have been rather impressed by a film in which his performance was competent. It may in fact be that Tom Hardy is going easy on his co-star and not giving it 100%, but he still easily steals the movie from him.

The resolution of the actual plot of the film is another matter. While watching it, I was scratching my head (again; a lot of head-scratching went on during This Means War) trying to work out how they would conclude the story. Whichever one of the guys Witherspoon chose, I thought, it would risk disappointing that section of the audience rooting for the other one (although I suppose we should be grateful she even gets given a choice). For her to assert herself and (with justification) give both of them the boot would constitute too severe a violation of rom-com norms. The only other option (the three of them settling down to some kind of menage a troi, possibly involving Pine and Hardy admitting to having more than fraternal feelings for each other) would clearly be much too innovative and interesting for this kind of film. Needless to say, the movie bottles it.

Oh well, you can make bad films and still be a good James Bond (just look at some of the things Sean Connery was doing in the late 1950s), and we can only hope that This Means War doesn’t count against Tom Hardy too much. The fact remains, though, that this is one bad movie – not simply because it is unfunny, and unreconstructed, but also because of the way it treats a deeply suspect premise in such a knockabout manner. No-one emerges from this one with any credit.

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