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If I cast my mind back into the dimmest recesses of history – we’re talking years and years ago, now – there was a time when I occasionally said something nice about Zack Snyder or one of his films. We’re talking the mid-to-late years of the last but one decade – are we really going to call it the noughties? Is that the best we can manage? – obviously, before his collision with the DC comics series movie franchise. Up to a point, I rather liked his version of Dawn of the Dead, and had a good time in 300 and Watchmen, as well. (Watchmen probably got him the DC gig, although the minds responsible don’t seem to have twigged that Moore and Gibbons’ masterpiece has an utterly different sensibility and tone to a conventional superhero film.)

So, always with the proviso that it doesn’t feature any superheroes, I should perhaps be cautiously hopeful about a new Snyder project, even if it is a Netflix original (the company continues to splash out vast sums on these big productions, but the people running it are apparently confident the massive debts incurred are manageable). It’s still not exactly what you’d call a step into bold new territory from the director, as it’s basically just another zombie movie, albeit on the kind of scale that George A Romero could only have dreamt of.

The premise of Army of the Dead (very nearly a fridge title) is that a zombie outbreak in Las Vegas has led to the entire city being walled off with the undead left inside to do whatever zombies do when there’s no-one around to eat. Obviously, this is a catastrophe waiting to happen, and so – in a blackly comic touch – the government is planning to nuke the city on the Fourth of July and thus permanently resolve the situation.

This doesn’t really affect ex-special forces hard-nut and aspiring short-order cook Scott Ward (Dave Bautista), until a slimy casino owner approaches him with a deal: in a vault underneath one of the hotels is $200 million in cash. If Ward leads a team into the city, cracks the safe, and returns with the money, he can have a quarter of it to distribute however he sees fit. Is he interested?

Well, it would be a much, much shorter movie if he wasn’t. The crew Ward assembles includes various other tough guys and oddballs, with Matthias Schweighofer as a safecracker, Tig Notaro as a helicopter pilot, and Nora Amezeder as a scout and zombie expert. There’s also a clearly dodgy character in the employ of the slimy casino owner, and – for only slightly contrived reasons – Ella Purnell as Ward’s petite and wide-eyed young daughter (who must take after her mother).

So in they all go, and you can probably guess what takes up most of the rest of the movie – lots of sneaking about with the occasional interlude of extreme violence, revelations, double-crosses, desperate sacrifices, and so on. It’s an action movie at least as much as a horror film, and a stupendously violent one – although there are also elements of a heist film in the mix, obviously, and the plot has very obvious echoes of Aliens in a few places, too.

Zack Snyder is very good at orchestrating this sort of thing. (Hey, there you go: an unqualified piece of praise for Zack Snyder.) Some people have called the film humourless, but I’m not sure I’d agree: there’s a definite element of black comedy to the initial scenes of Las Vegas being over-run by zombie showgirls and Elvis impersonators, and the whole thing has a kind of tongue-in-cheek comic book sensibility to it. If anything, it’s attempts to give the film more of a serious emotional core which are less successful, and this may be down to the casting as much as anything else.

Most of the scenes in question feature Ella Purnell, who is clearly an able young actress, and Dave Bautista, who is a hulking ex-wrestler. (I think Bautista comfortably claims the #3 spot on the current Top Movie Hulks list, after genial Dwayne and Vin.) Bautista is very good in the scenes requiring him to mete out carnage to the undead, but less effective when it comes to delivering a dramatic performance. He’s not actively bad. But it’s fair to say that he is not a revelation in this role, and the scenes between him and Purnell feel underpowered as a result.

But you could also argue this is an ensemble piece rather than a star vehicle for Bautista, and there are certainly a lot of characters in the mix. Everything present in Army of the Dead is here in large quantities: lots of characters, lots of zombies, lots of gore, lots of money. The movie ends up being a hefty two-and-a-half-hours long as a result – at one point I checked how long was left, assuming the thing was virtually over, and found there were nearly twenty minutes left to run – with a lavish prologue depicting how the zombie outbreak got started, and a fairly elaborate epilogue potentially setting up a sequel. I’m not sure these are really needed; the film is probably about forty minutes too long considering it’s a zombie action movie.

Because in the end that’s really all it is. It’s a lavish and technically very accomplished production – apparently one of the more prominent actors got Weinsteined after filming had concluded and was digitally replaced in post-production, and you genuinely cannot tell – and, you know, it has epic spectacle to offer and all that. (Not to mention a zombified version of one of Siegfried and Roy’s tigers.) But while it’s obviously inspired by a George Romero movie, it’s very hard to see any sign of the big ideas about society or culture that are such a key element of his best films. This is just rock ‘n’ roll, crash-bang-wallop stuff, with a big dollop of calculated nastiness added to the mixture. It’s undeniably an entertaining film, if zombie action horror is your cup of tea, and less actively exasperating than most of the things Snyder has directed in the last decade. But despite all of this it’s essentially just an exploitation B-movie blown up to ludicrous proportions, and ultimately vacuous.

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Retirement ages for film stars are not rigidly enforced, and so the phenomenon of the action movie starring someone really a bit too long in the tooth for it has been with us for a while – going back to the late 60s or early 70s at least. Here we must distinguish between films which are vehicles for an established star who is simply refusing to go gentle into the good night of actually acting their age, and those in which the long-in-the-toothness is an element of the story: part of the point of the film is that it’s about a person who’s getting on a bit. (For a reasonable example of the first, I would suggest the 1975 film Brannigan, and for the second the 1976 film The Shootist, both starring John Wayne.)

The question, of course, is really which category the slate of films made by Liam Neeson in recent years should go into: Neeson himself is 70 next year, but while the films do sort of acknowledge the fact that he seems like an unlikely person to be beating much younger actors up with quite such gusto, the issue of his actual age is usually skated over. Nevertheless, I have been known to refer to films of this type as ‘bus pass bad-ass movies’, as they are usually about vigilante pensioners or something of that ilk. (Not that they are necessarily bad films, I should add: Michael Caine’s Harry Brown is a fine example of the form, and a pretty good movie too.)

Heading sort of into this territory comes Ilya Niashuller’s Nobody, which really resembles a Liam Neeson movie as hybridised with John Wick (writer Derek Kolstad and producer David Leitch have form with the Keanu Reeves franchise about a short-fused hitman). The first odd thing about this film is that it is a star vehicle for Bob Odenkirk; this is strange because I had absolutely no recognition of his name or face before going into the movie. Men in their late 50s don’t just walk into the lead role of an action movie; at least, not normally they don’t. (It turns out Odenkirk’s star has been on the rise for a few years due to his being in Breaking Bad and its spin-off; clearly I should be watching more on TV than just re-runs of Civilisation and Space: 1999.)

Then again, the sheer nondescriptness of Odenkirk is really what the film is about; he is a slight chap, with an interestingly craggy face a bit reminiscent of Bob Peck but also of Hugo Weaving. In this film he plays Hutch Mansell, a middle-manager at a small family-run factory, with a nice wife (Connie Nielsen), nice kids, a nice house, and a life which is deeply mired in routine.

This changes one night when burglars break into the house and hold Hutch and his family at gunpoint. At one point Hutch has the opportunity to overpower them, but decides to resolve the situation non-violently and lets them go. (Hint: this is possibly the last time anything is done non-violently in the whole movie.) For this he is treated with condescension, pity, and contempt by his in-laws, neighbours, children, the police, and so on: a real man would have fought back, wouldn’t he?

It looks like Hutch initially manages to swallow his pride, but when it looks like his young daughter’s precious kitty-kat bracelet was accidentally taken by the burglars, something pops, or ignites, inside him. It turns out that – not entirely surprisingly – he has a bit of a past, and a set of skills he’s secretly dying to use again. He ends up sitting on a bus as a group of drunk young thugs get on, quietly praying they’re going to make trouble (the audience is probably hoping the same thing by this point). Suffice to say some top-notch violence ensues as the drab little manager puts the entire gang in the hospital, but it could be that Hutch has made a mistake – one of the victims of his righteous fury was the little brother of Russian Mafia boss Yulian (Alexei Serebryakov), who is a homicidal karaoke-loving psychopath, and now looking for an equally extravagant revenge…

Watching In the Heights was frequently a joyous experience, but I can’t remember the last time I saw a film which was quite as much fun as Nobody: it gets the fusion of accomplished, gritty action and droll black comedy just about spot-on. It’s not as stylised as John Wick nor as vicious as parts of Taken, and it’s a lot funnier than either of them.

Bob Odenkirk is consistently excellent value in the lead role, easily carrying the film. Not only is he funny, but he and the film also know when to drop in a grace note of pure seriousness as well, and this is something Nobody handles rather better than a lot of higher-profile films. There are many films about men with a history of violence who are looking to put it behind them, but find this kind of life impossible to escape. In most of them – Hugh Jackman’s Wolverine films, for instance – it’s all handled in a very po-faced sort of way, with the protagonist staring mournfully into the middle distance as they contemplate the fact they keep getting dragged into mayhem and carnage against their will.

Nobody does it differently. This film is quite open about the fact that there’s a part of Hutch which just really enjoys messing people up and destroying property, no matter how he tries to suppress it. More than once in the film he finds himself in a situation which could go one of two ways – and every time, you can see him really hoping it’s going to be the one involving property damage and a soaring body-count. Yet you also get a real sense of the conflict in him – the glimpses of regret and dismay in his face after he gives in to his darker impulses are unmistakeable.

Odenkirk’s performance gives unexpected heft and emotional weight to what’s otherwise a fairly silly, operatically violent action film, but it works superbly. He is surrounded by a great supporting cast and the action is superbly staged, and the plot, while being a bit convoluted in the early stages of the film, also hangs together. I feel compelled to mention in particular Christopher Lloyd’s extended cameo as Hutch’s shotgun-toting father – it’s another performance which is perfectly pitched for this particular film.

Quite often your mid-range action film is fairly forgettable filler, slapped together according to a formula with not a great deal of evidence of car being taken over it. Nobody feels like the work of people who appreciate that a mid-budget genre movie can still be a great film: it’s visually inventive, witty in all sorts of ways, maintains its tone with impressive ease, contains interesting characters, and is very well-paced too. I enjoyed it enormously; for once I am crossing my fingers for a sequel.

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When the cinemas started closing last Autumn, long before the second full lockdown, the reason given was the decision by Eon to postpone the release of No Time to Die: a demonstration of how dependent movie theatres can be on a just a handful of huge movies in order to stay open. Not many films pack as much clout as Bond, obviously, but when it comes to balancing box-office power with sheer ubiquity, you could do much worse than look at the Marvel franchise.

Marvel started pumping out three blockbusters a year a little while back, and the delay in the release of Cate Shortland’s Black Widow means that they have been piling up during the period of the pandemic: we can now look forward to (or nervously anticipate) the appearance of no fewer than four films under the Marvel marque before the end of this year, with another four in 2022.

Could this finally be the point at which the brains behind Marvel overestimate public demand for their products? (Bear in mind there are also a dozen TV series either in development or already available.) Well, given Marvel’s success in defying expectations and really altering the way that people engage with blockbuster entertainment, it would be a brave person who predicted their imminent demise – certainly, the appearance of Black Widow (finally) suggests that cinema is on the verge of getting back to something approaching normal.

The fact that it’s a film which makes a couple of call-backs to Bond films of yesteryear (one Roger Moore title in particular) is probably a coincidence. It opens in a very domestic mode, with two young sisters living with their parents (David Harbour and Rachel Weisz) in mid-90s Florida – but all is not as it appears and the family (if such it really is) ends up fleeing the country, pursued by the authorities: they are Russian spies. (The film does its best to skate over the fact that this is a few years too late for it to be Cold War espionage, but there’s still something a bit odd going on here: Harbour’s character is just a bit too much of an OTT Soviet ideologue.) The two girls are removed from their surrogate parents and entered into an indoctrination and training programme designed to produce elite spies and assassins: the Black Widow project.

And all this is just the pre-credits sequence. Things pick up over twenty years later, with the elder sister, Natasha Romanoff (the splendid Scarlett Johansson) on the run from the authorities following the events of 2016’s Captain America: Civil War (don’t worry, detailed knowledge of Marveliana is probably not required). Her attempts to live quietly in Norway are foiled when she receives a mysterious package from Budapest and is shortly after attacked by a silent, lethal assassin codenamed Taskmaster (Greg Davies).

Naturally, Nat pops off to Budapest to see what’s what, only to encounter her younger ‘sister’ Yelena (the fabulous Florence Pugh), now another graduate of the Black Widow programme. Yes, it’s still going, despite Nat being under the impression she had killed its prime mover, Dreykov (Ray Winstone), many years earlier. After smashing each other into the fixtures and fittings for a bit, the two women decide they both really want to stop Dreykov properly, but to do so will involve reaching out to other figures from their past, as well as evading Taskmaster and the army of Black Widows their enemy has under his control…

So, yes, many moose-and-squirrel accents on display in this one, along with quite a lot of leather catsuits (as befits a film about a character spawned from late-60s spy-fi fantasies). It’s probably worth mentioning that the Progressive Agenda Committee have been in session and Yelena’s Black Widow outfit is notably less… how best to put it? …likely to inspire impure thoughts in the audience; I suspect this sort of thing may prove to be a bit of a hallmark of the latest phase of the Marvel project.

Nevertheless, it’s good to have something as solidly, reliably entertaining as a Marvel film back in the cinema. I suspect that not even the most fanatical fan of either Scarlett Johansson or Black Widow would seriously contend that this is a film from the uppermost echelon of the series, but let’s not forget that even their weaker movies tend to be pretty entertaining.

As usual, they modulate the usual Marvel tone and structure a bit to suit whatever story they’re telling – in this case, a relatively gritty tale of shadowy covert projects, not entirely unlike one of the Bourne films but with extra retired super-soldiers and flying secret HQs – and, also as usual, the producers work their usual trick of hiring distinctive, interesting talents (Shortland, Johansson, Pugh) and then putting them to work making something which is really much of a muchness with the other films in the series. (But hey, this is no-question-about-it commercial film-making, and you can’t argue with a total box office take of twenty-two billion dollars.)

It’s such a consistently enjoyable muchness, anyway, even if the carpentry supporting the rest of the franchise is as visible as ever – one of the film’s jobs is clearly to establish Pugh as the ‘new’ Black Widow who will be appearing in future projects. The plot is deceptively slim this time around, especially for a film clocking in at nearly two and a quarter hours, but the action is rousingly done, and the comedy of Romanoff and her dysfunctional family is very effective (David Harbour in particular is good value as a bombastic, gone-to-seed ex-patriotic hero; shades of The Incredibles here a bit). The emotional subtext is surprisingly effective given the context it’s in.

What is missing somewhat is Scarlett Johansson herself, especially considering this is almost certainly the last time she’ll be playing this role. She’s front and centre throughout, certainly, but given she plays the character very straight indeed she’s prone to get upstaged by anyone else who’s prepared to push the envelope and go big, performance-wise. It’s a bit of a shame, as Johansson is obviously a talented, committed performer – but even the star of a Marvel film isn’t bigger than the larger project.

You’re allowed to revile and detest Marvel movies, obviously (but if you do so while suggesting that anyone else makes this kind of film better, your anchor has clearly slipped from the moorings of reason), and Black Widow is not the film to persuade anyone to get on board who has issues with this franchise. It has many of the strengths of the series, along with most of the weaknesses – business as usual, really. The end result is a solid piece of entertainment the like of which the last year and a half has largely deprived us of. The Marvel project may ultimately be just a grand and implacable machine, but it’s also quite nice to have it back.

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The situation has improved to the point where I feel hopeful enough to be able to resume activities…

Truly it is said that you don’t know what you’ve got until you haven’t actually got it. While there is a pleasing symmetry to the fact that my last trip to the cinema pre-pandemic was to see Vin Diesel in Bloodshot, and the first now we are entering what I can only refer to as a post-pandemic phase of life was to see the same big lad in Justin Lin’s F9 (aka Fast & Furious 9, and various other things), a far greater gulf than even that fifteen month gap suggests separates the two. Things changed; the simple act of physically getting to the cinema became much more challenging than I would have possibly imagined. Being there at all suddenly seemed like an impossibly precious experience.

But, on the other hand, it was a Fast & Furious film, so there’s a limit to how transcendental an experience it could actually be. The film gets underway with a flashback to 1989, depicting an incident from the racing career of racing driver Jack Toretto, specifically one which brings that career (and much else besides) to a spectacular and very definite end. Jack Toretto, of course, is the pappy of gravel-voiced man-mountain Dom Toretto (Diesel), and one problem the film never quite overcomes is the fact that the actor hired to play the young Dom (exactly what his name is depends on where you look: it’s either Vinnie Bennett or Vincent Sinclair Diesel, but this may be because there are various junior Doms at different points in the film) actually looks nothing like the senior version (the script even comments that Dom Toretto has ‘very distinctive features’).

Well, from here we snap back to the present day, where Dom and his wife Letty (Michelle Rodriguez) are living in rustic seclusion with Dom’s son Little Brian (who is being taught to service tractor engines at a surprisingly young age). Three of their old associates rock up with a problem, asking them to leap back into action, and the danger at this point is that the audience is too busy going ‘I remember this bit from Avengers: Endgame, and it didn’t end well for everyone’ that they miss the exposition which is being laid at this point.

It turns out that yet another secret doomsday weapon is in danger of being acquired by the wrong people, said device having been conveniently divided into discrete chunks, each of which provides a fine opportunity for the obligatory overblown stunt sequence. So it’s off to Mexico (the role of Mexico is played by Thailand, rather transparently), Edinburgh, and Tbilisi, amongst other places, for all the usual silly carnage. The big twist or emotional impeller for this film is that the most prominent bad guy is Vin’s never-before-alluded-to little brother Jake (John Cena), whose neck seems to be permanently clenched.

We’re twenty years into Fast & Furious at this point (yes, by all means take a moment to process that). I myself was relatively late to the party, not really paying proper attention until Fast & Furious 5, the point at which the series completed its unlikely transition to full-blown blockbuster franchise – but, certainly since that point, it’s worth remembering what effortlessly accomplished and agreeable entertainment these films have been, negotiating some rather formidable obstacles with relative grace.

But twenty years is still twenty years, and bigger names than this have wobbled or come undone before this point. The X Men series had already fizzled out; the Bond movies were just about to hit their late-Moore/Dalton rough patch. Nothing lasts forever, something we should all be very aware of right now; so perhaps it should not come as a surprise that for the first time in ages, we are presented with a Fast & Furious film that sputters more than it cruises.

The three big action sequences hit their marks, it’s true – but there’s an awful lot of obvious CGI, and an increasingly reliance on improbable shenanigans involving electromagnets as the film goes on. It’s not that they’re bad, as such; but the series has done better in the past.

F&F was never just about the stunts and crashes, anyway: what gave the best of these films their heart and warmth was all the other stuff with the ensemble cast and the agreeably ridiculous complexity of the ongoing plot linking the various instalments. F9, certainly to begin with, seems to be fielding a somewhat depleted side: hiving Genial Dwayne Johnson off into his own spin-off film (apparently he and Vin Diesel had a major tiff) removes one of the series’ biggest and most likeable presences, and leaves a gap they struggle to fill: giving Tyrese Gibson additional comic relief bits to do isn’t much of a solution, especially when the running gag is an excruciatingly knowing and laborious one about how implausible these films are. ‘As long as we obey the laws of physics, we’ll be fine,’ says Chris Bridges’ character at one point: obviously, this means they should all be dead, but it’s more evidence of a dift towards self-awareness that bodes rather ill – and the climax of the film features a ridiculous conceit seemingly nicked from an old episode of Top Gear, something so brazenly, stupidly absurd that it really feels like F&F drifting into the realms of self-parody.

You can see something similar happening elsewhere in the film. They seemingly try to get around the Johnson Gap Problem (Scott Eastwood has also been sacked) by mustering a slew of familiar faces from previous films: Jordana Brewster gets invited back, most obviously, while there are cameos, extended and otherwise, by various people, some of whom only the most dedicated F&F watcher will recognise (I’m talking about the main cast of Tokyo Drift, amongst others). The contrived plotting required to facilitate all of this, in addition to the main storyline, just adds to the impression that the writers didn’t care all that much about it, and they’re hoping the viewer won’t, either. But it does feel increasingly problematic that one character whose death was a major plot point in two or three previous films has been miraculously brought back from the dead, at the same time that the film is doing an awkward dance around the fact that former main character Brian O’Conner is supposedly still alive and well, but never quite appears on screen due to Paul Walker’s death (for most of this movie, O’Conner is supposedly handling everyone else’s childcare requirements).

That really sums up what I took away from F9: it’s a film which seems just a little too sure of the audience’s goodwill, and which trades on it just a bit too much. Yeah, all this is completely ridiculous, the subtext seems to be saying: but you knew that coming in, so we’re not going to bother too hard to cover any of that up. Here’s just a load more stuff like the old stuff; you liked it then, and you’re going to like it now, especially as it’s extra silly this time round…

Hum, well – to be honest, I didn’t, at least not as much: perhaps it was inevitable that the F&F franchise would pass the point at which the whole edifice started to collapse under the weight of its own implausibility. Even so, there’s not much of an attempt to disguise or counter this in evidence. Perhaps the fact that there is only one more of these films left to come is just as well. Either way, while this just about delivers what you expect from a film in this series, it’s still the weakest episode in ages.

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As regular readers will probably have gathered, in happier days it was very unusual for a big studio movie with a decent release to pass me by. (Obviously there were always exceptions: I swore off Michael Bay movies nearly fifteen years ago.) Sometimes I look back at a big film that I didn’t see on the big screen, and wonder, what was wrong with this one when it was new? (Especially considering some of the rubbish I’ve gone out of my way to see in the past.)

Hey ho. A few months ago I was on holiday with the family and the late movie on the telly was Gore Verbinski’s The Lone Ranger, which is one of those movies I’d skipped on its release in 2013 – mainly, I seem to recall, due to largely terrible reviews and a general impression that the whole enterprise was somehow laboured and a touch misconceived. Rather to my surprise, it looked, if not great, then certainly intriguingly different, and I decided to check it out on catch-up the next time I had a few hours spare. Naturally, I had forgotten about the Empire of the Mouse’s hawkishness when it comes to exploiting its various properties, and the BBC hadn’t stumped up for the catch-up rights. The modern world being as it is, though, movies seem to come around with the frequency of buses, and it turned up again just the other week.

The movie opens at a San Francisco theme park in 1933 (the year is probably a reference to the first appearance of the original Lone Ranger radio show), where a young, Lone Ranger-obsessed lad is startled to come across an extremely elderly Native American featuring in one of the exhibits. The old chap claims to be the one-and-only, original Tonto, sidekick of the Lone Ranger, and goes on to reveal the truth of this legendary figure’s origins…

The bulk of the movie occurs in 1869, with the railroads unfurling and slowly taming the old west. Idealistic young lawyer John Reid (Armie Hammer) is heading back home to see his family for the first time in years – but travelling on the same train is brutal outlaw Butch Cavendish (William Fichtner), who’s being taken to the gallows. (Also chained up with Cavendish is Tonto (Johnny Depp), who has his own reasons for wanting to stay close to the bad guy.) Cavendish’s gang appear and spring him from the moving train, nearly causing a disastrous accident which Reid and Tonto only manage to avert with the help of Reid’s elder brother (James Badge Dale), a Texas ranger.

Reid Minor is soon deputised by the rangers and a posse sets off in pursuit of Cavendish and his gang – but they are betrayed and ambushed, and all killed, apart from John Reid. Tonto, who has somehow managed to escape from jail, turns up and performs the necessary burial duties – but recognises that Reid’s ordeal has left a spiritual mark upon him. Adopting a mask and various other eccentric accoutrements, Reid assumes the identity of the Lone Ranger, intent on justice for the death of his brother and Cavendish’s many other victims…

The fact that the origins of the Lone Ranger so closely recall those of a superhero shouldn’t really come as a surprise, given the character was a product of the same era of pulp adventure stories which gave the world characters like the Phantom and the Shadow, many of whom were very influential on the first actual comic-book costumed heroes. A mask, a gimmick, and more often than not a sidekick was the formula for this type of character, and the Lone Ranger stories stuck to the formula with great fidelity.

These days, of course, you can’t really do sidekicks, and especially not sidekicks of a non-caucasian ethnic background. Even so, it’s hard to shake the sense that the reason Tonto is promoted to partner and co-lead of the movie is basically because Johnny Depp is playing the part. I suppose it could have been worse – at the time I got the impression that Tonto was actually the main character, a reasonable assumption considering that the Lone Ranger seems in danger of being crowded off his own movie poster by his erstwhile sidekick.

Looking back, I think it was the impression that The Lone Ranger had been rejigged as a star vehicle for Johnny Depp which put me off it: I’m not saying I’ve never enjoyed one of the actor’s performances or movies, but I got tired of the whole quirky-comedy-schtick thing which seems to be his stock-in-trade before the end of the 2000s. (No doubt the actor has bigger issues to worry about these days than the fact I’m not exactly a fan.) Nevertheless, Depp was still a big, bankable star back in 2013, which might lead one to wonder why this movie ended up costing Disney over $200 million.

As so often seems to be the case, the real question is not ‘why did this movie lose $200 million?’ but ‘how is it possible for this movie to expose its makers to that degree of liability?’ – I mean, to lose $200 million means the movie had to cost at least $200 million in the first place (maths isn’t exactly my forte, but the logic here seems sound to me) – and the total production costs for Lone Ranger were apparently closer to $400 million. And why was anyone spending $200 million on a Lone Ranger movie in 2013? It appears to have been a combination of a fumbling attempt to reproduce the success of the Verbinski-Depp Pirates of the Caribbean movies, together with typically risk-averse Hollywood thinking; choosing a title that everybody knows (even if very few people actually care that much about it) rather than taking a chance on something new.

Certainly, as a reasonably-budgeted (say, $130 million) blockbuster this would have done well and probably been a better movie: the version we ended up with certainly looks lavish, and has a couple of enormous set-pieces that Verbinski handles well, but it suffers from a bloated plot and concomitantly extended duration. Furthermore, the film seems to be trying to do all kinds of things, not all of which naturally go well together: the Lone Ranger itself is, obviously, a faintly absurd pulp western premise, but the film seems intent on threading it through a very dark, revisionist and arguably subversive western narrative: the Comanche are the good guys and the US Cavalry the instruments of evil. Then on top of this comes an element of the supernatural, with the suggestion that one of the characters is possessed by an evil spirit, whose presence is disrupting the natural order (there are some carnivorous rabbits at one point, and some very odd behaviour from the Lone Ranger’s horse Silver). And then, of course, they attempt to lighten it all up with the same kind of dead-pan, off-beat comedy that you find in the Pirates movies, together with some whistles and bells with the narrative voice (Tonto is a rather unreliable narrator). It’s a very peculiar concoction.

That said, it’s usually interesting and occasionally funny and even thrilling: the closing sequence, which is of course choreographed to the rousing strains of the last part of the William Tell Overture, is an almost irresistible piece of overblown blockbuster bombast – if the rest of the film had been made to this standard, The Lone Ranger would surely have been a palpable hit. As it is, rather than capping the movie, it just helps to salvage it. This is a shame, because as well as Depp and Hammer (Hammer seems to be one of those actors who has all the essential star attributes except the ability to pick good scripts), there’s an impressive cast here too, even if most of them never need to get out of first gear: Tom Wilkinson, Helena Bonham-Carter, Ruth Wilson, and so on.

But there you go. All the talent in the world isn’t enough to make a great movie if the basic conception of the thing just doesn’t quite hang together, and that’s the case here. The Lone Ranger is by no means a terrible movie, it’s just one that didn’t make enough money. But then it should never have been expected to. That’s Hollywood, I suppose.

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Just the other week I was observing with a degree of sadness that Joseph Gordon-Levitt seemed to have rather dropped off the radar in recent years: this was, of course, the cue for him to reappear in what I suppose must qualify as a fairly high-profile movie (it’s a streamer, but conventional releases still seem to be on pause while the accountants see how well Tenet and The New Mutants do in the new climate). It seems, by the way, that Gordon-Levitt took a couple of years off to concentrate on raising his family – which is highly laudable, of course, even if the fact he has this option just drives home how extravagant the salaries of Hollywood performers often are. There’s a trade-off, he suggests, saying that the professional options open to him have narrowed compared to what they were before his break.

I wonder if this could be construed as why an actor sometimes to be found in rather prestigious studio productions now finds himself in an original superhero movie made by Netflix? Perhaps I am letting my prejudices show, for I am still wary of anything which seems to undermine the theatrical experience in the way that Netflix’s business model does, while it’s hard to think of an own-brand superhero movie (by which I mean, not based on a pre-existing comic book character) with any real merit. (I suppose some people would argue for Darkman.)

The movie in question is Project Power, directed by Henry Joost and Ariel Schulman. The setting is the city of New Orleans, still depicting as struggling many years after the impact of Hurricane Katrina. But now the citizens of the Big Easy have something new making their lives more difficult: a designer drug is being sold on the streets. Known as ‘Power’, the one and only effect of it is to give the taker superpowers. There are some arbitrary genre movie rules attached to this, of course: the powers only last for exactly five minutes, and it’s not like you get a random new power every time – it’s more as if the drug activates whatever potential you have.

(Shame they can’t organise posters like this so everyone stands under their own name. Hey ho.)

So far, so preposterous but at the same time fairly generative as far as story ideas go – but, possibly to try and make it all sound a bit more credible, the writer (Mattson Tomlin) attempts to put some kind of quasi-scientific gloss on this by indicating the drug gives people powers derived from the natural abilities of various animals. Nothing too objectionable about this, I suppose, but the movie rather blows a hole in its own credibility by introducing a character whose power, when activated, is so terrifyingly destructive even he is frightened of it. And what animal has he apparently gained this from? A shrimp. You can’t beat a bit of bathos.

Anyway, the actual plot concerns a trio of characters: maverick cop Frank (Gordon-Levitt), who has taken to using Power in order to allow him to stand a chance against criminals who are using the drug; teenage drug-dealer and aspiring rapper Robin (Dominique Fishback), who is his supplier; and the Major (Jamie Foxx), an ex-military drifter who has blown into town and is determined to find the source of the drug for reasons of his own. Can they sort out their various differences and work together to get the drug off the streets?

It’s almost inherent in the superhero genre that the premise of a story is going to be fairly unlikely, and once you factor this in the premise of Project Power does not look entirely un-promising. There is the potential here for all the requisite action and crash-bang-wallopery, but in a slightly more gritty context than usual – it’s clear from the script that the writer intended to make points about the various injustices of US society and engage in other bits of social commentary too.

Well, I suppose in the end the movie’s higher aspirations are all still present, but you have to look quite hard for them as they sort of vanish into the background. I do wonder if I am unfairly prejudiced against some of these streaming movies – it’s possible that if I’d seen a movie like Project Power on the big screen, I might have been more impressed by the fact it is trying to be a bit more intelligent and thoughtful and engage with social issues as well as being a special-effects action movie. The film’s advantage in that setting would have been the faculty-numbing effect of a giant screen and huge sound system (this is all part and parcel of the theatrical experience I mentioned earlier). Watching it on a small-ish TV or laptop, it just doesn’t have the effect the makers are presumably hoping for.

In the end you are left with a movie built around lavish special effects action sequences, and while they look pretty good they are an essentially superficial pleasure. The very nature of these set-pieces and the way they are presented is really at odds with all the other things the script is trying to do: if you’re trying to make a film which has serious points about America’s drugs problem and its underprivileged citizens, you surely want to make something which is fairly gritty and naturalistic, not just another slick and glossy Marvel-style entertainment. That really would have been something new and interesting in this genre. As it is, the film’s noble intentions just seem like a fig-leaf to justify CGI overload and a lurid, colour-drenched visual style.

I could gripe about a few other things – the film can’t seem to resist beating the viewer over the head with pop-culture references, for example – but that is its main problem. That said, as this kind of film goes, I’ve seen much worse, and it has some visually impressive fights and chases (I should mention there are some rather grisly moments along the way). The presence of charismatic leads like Foxx and Gordon-Levitt is also, obviously, a plus, while everyone seems to agree that this film features a potentially career-launching turn from Dominique Fishback – I can’t argue with this, though I wonder if that career will be as an actress or a rapper (let’s face it, in today’s media landscape, probably both). In the end, though, this feels like another piece of slickly assembled and packaged Netflix product rather than anything genuinely interesting or exciting.

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We should have been deep in the summer season for big dumb movies by now, but of course things are different this year. People have been predicting the death of the traditional blockbuster for years, and if – as seems to be a distinct possibility – cinemas don’t fully recover in the post-virus world, it may well be the big dumb movie follows them into oblivion. But for the time being they are hanging on, not least because the streamers are making them as well as the traditional studios. Which brings us to Gina Prince-Bythewood’s The Old Guard, which, if not quite a big dumb movie, is certainly a medium-large slightly dim one.

Things get underway with a flashback introducing us to Charlize Theron’s character, Andy. The movie finds Theron in the ass-kicking-babe/man-with-breasts mode which seems to be her default mode of expression in most of the movies she makes these days, for Andy is the leader of a team of elite international mercenaries, made up of Frenchman Booker (Matthias Schoenaerts), Italian Nicky (Luca Marinelli), and non-specific North African/Middle Easterner Joe (Marwan Kenzari). (Andy herself is implied to be of Greek origin, not that she particularly looks it.) It seems that the team have been on a break due to Andy becoming disillusioned by the terrible state of the world (well, maybe she has a point) and is inclined to pack in their business activities (they are that particular type of movie mercenary who only does jobs for virtuous causes).

However, they are contracted for (all together now) One Last Job, courtesy of former contact Copley (Chiwetel Ejiofor), who used to belong to the English-accent division of the CIA. A bunch of innocent children have been kidnapped by a militia in Africa and are desperately in need of rescuing, and the team agrees to go in. They make their way through the guards like an especially salty dose of salts, and descend to where the children are supposedly being held captive – only to find an empty room where they are all repeatedly shot and mown down by bad guys with automatic weapons! Crikey!

Not unconnected to their fate is that of Nile Freeman (KiKi Layne), a US Marine serving in Afghanistan. She and her team are likewise looking for a bad guy and seem to have found him, but things take a regrettable turn and Nile finds herself with a grisly mortal wound she expires from in fairly short order. But no! She revives in the infirmary, completely healthy, without even a scar for her trouble – having had some peculiar dreams about Andy and the others…

Well, you know, they’ve been talking about trying to do a Highlander remake for years now – apparently Ryan Reynolds was on board at one point – but I suspect that one way or another, The Old Guard will have taken its head (so to speak). If you did Highlander again nowadays, it would probably end up looking very much like this film.

Certainly, the similarities between the two are extremely pronounced in some ways, mainly in the way they don’t seem particularly worried about coming up with a back-story that makes any sense or has any apparent logic to it. Why are some people born immortal and seemingly destined to battle their way down through the centuries? In both films, the answer is that They Just Are (with the implicit corollary Look, Don’t Worry About This, It’s Cool). Why do the immortals in this film dream of each other until they meet? They Just Do. Why is their immortality seemingly quite random and arbitrary in its limitations? It Just Is.

Of course, one has to bear in mind that this is a big dumb movie (or a medium-large slightly dim movie)  and none of this really matters: the immortality is just there to enable the story, and more importantly, the Cool Stuff (squads of heavily armed soldiers being scythed down by an ass-kicking babe with an axe, for instance). We should also bear in mind that attempts to rationalise this sort of thing never end well, as the producers of the Highlander franchise discovered when they found themselves making a script revealing their immortals were actually exiled political dissidents from the planet Zeist. Probably best not to worry, enjoy the fight choreography and remember that this is all ultimately cartoon stuff (based on a comic-book series, after all).

That said, even a cartoon action fantasy has other things to think about these days, which is why The Old Guard ticks every box you would expect it to with mechanical diligence. Nearly every demographic and minority is appropriately foregrounded, with one obvious exception: the role of bad guy is reserved for the straight white male, naturally. It’s all done without much sign of wit or imagination or self-awareness.

Now, for me the problem isn’t that this is a movie with feminist and LGBT elements. I have no problem with these kinds of themes, provided the films are well-made. The issue is that it doesn’t really feel like they inform the heart of the film at all – the heart of this film is immortal warriors being menaced by dark, exploitative forces before bouncing back and tearing their way through them, in other words cartoon action fantasy – and it just feels like the film’s meeting its diversity quotient in order to get the approval of the Progressive Agenda Committee. As a result it feels just a bit too calculated and soulless.

Perhaps this is why the film feels oddly joyless and dour too: it doesn’t feel able to enjoy the potential for romance and genuine fantasy implicit in the notion of its characters living for centuries and experiencing countless lives. Everyone is doing their serious face throughout. You can take this sort of thing too seriously, in more ways than one. As a result the good things in The Old Guard never really manage to lift the film – and there are good things in it; the action choreography is decent, and there are a number of very good performances in it, too. Layne has presence, Schoenaerts is as good as ever, and Harry Melling is a hissably evil cartoon bad guy (a villain with evil designs on immensely long-lived beings with regenerative powers? What would Mellings’ grandpa have said?). But in the end, the film never manages to shake off the sense of being rather like lots of things you’ve seen before, and calculated and glum to boot.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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