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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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Well, many years of moaning and complaining and muttering sourly on social media have paid off – the big multiplex in Oxford City Centre has finally started showing Jason Statham movies! Long-term readers will know what a big deal this is, especially when you consider that the great man’s recent rise in status means he only seems to be making about one film a year these days. Given that this is the case, it would be churlish to complain about the fact that the actual screenings are, shall we say, a little awkwardly scheduled. Certainly the only first-weekend showing of Mr Statham’s new opus, The Meg (directed by Jon Turteltaub), that I could get to was in 3D, a format which I do have issues with normally – but then again, I’m not going to argue with the prospect of a whole extra dimension of this particular performer, so The Meg in 3D it would have to be.

Hard to believe though it is, not everyone shares my passion for Jason Statham movies, and I ended up going to see this one with Sagacious Dave, Grand Master of Advanced Erudition and Head of Self-Realisation where I work, although I should point out that literally everyone else in the office suddenly remembered a previous engagement or developed a migraine when I invited them to see The Meg with me. It was really more in forlorn hope than expectation that I extended the same invitation to Sagacious Dave, a senior colleague whose cinematic tastes, as far as I knew, extended only to the Planet of the Apes franchise.

‘The Meg? What’s it about?’ enquired Sagacious Dave, furrowing his mighty brow (imagine a slightly ursine version of Gandalf).

‘Jason Statham has a fight with a giant prehistoric shark,’ I said.

Sagacious Dave, a man with decades of experience in the field of thinking serious thoughts, looked at me as though trying to decide which one of us had gone mad. ‘Jason who?’

‘Jason Statham. British movie actor. Used to be a diver, did a lot of mid-budget action movies, now he’s parlayed his success in Fast and Furious into potential global megastardom,’ I said, with (I think) admirable succinctness.

Sagacious Dave gave this some thought for an extended period of time. ‘Yeah, all right then,’ he said, with the slightly distracted air of a man entirely unsure of what he was getting himself into.

‘Really?’ Friends, there was an actual jig of pleasure at the prospect of introducing a great intellect such as Sagacious Dave’s to the full Jason Statham experience. Then I quickly legged it to buy the tickets before he changed his mind on me.

The movie we happily settled down to watch largely concerns the crew of an advanced marine research installation off the Chinese coast, and we are introduced to the cast with admirable economy: although the fact that most of them are stock characters helps with this a bit, I suppose. There is an obnoxious American tycoon (Rainn Wilson), a distinguished Chinese oceanographer (Winston Chao), his daughter (Li Bingbing), who’s in the same line, and her daughter (Shuya Sophia Cai), who mostly seems to be there to tick some kind of cute kid box. Running the place is a strait-laced administrator (Cliff ‘Maori Jesus’ Curtis), a bright-but-rebellious tech whiz (Ruby Rose), a comic-relief African-American (Page Kennedy), and so on.

The team are sending a manned sub into a previously-unexplored aquatic realm which is beneath the sea bed, sort of; it is basically a sort of lost world, underwater. Wouldn’t you know it but the sub gets into trouble, stranding three people six miles down. Who can possibly save them? Well, someone suggests ace deep-sea rescue expert Jonas Taylor, even though an encounter with a mysterious creature at the bottom of the sea some years previously led him to abandon deep-sea rescuing and become a beach bum in Thailand.

This is, needless to say, the role given to Mr Statham. They take a swing at the scene where he initially refuses to come back but is eventually forced by his own better nature to agree, but this is such a formality than no-one’s heart seems to be in it. Soon enough, and despite apparently having been in an alcoholic stupor for the last five years, Mr Statham is piloting his own version of Thunderbird Four towards the murky depths. But there is a problem, for it seems that something big and hungry is menacing the trapped divers – an eighty-foot shark, long thought extinct. ‘It’s a megalodon,’ says Jason Statham, his grim face that of a man recognising a terrifying threat. Or, possibly, that of a man who has pronounced megalodon wrong on the previous sixteen takes and is on the verge of having a serious row with the director.

Well, there is inevitably some chomping and frantic rushing about and a good degree of defiance of death, and the monster fish ends up venturing into the upper waters where there are many more people to eat. Not unreasonably, the local authorities treat our heroes’ warnings of a giant prehistoric shark on the loose as the equivalent of a prank call, so it’s clearly up to Mr Statham to deal with the problem. But what can he do? Well, based on my own reading of the Statham canon, I was expecting him to lure the shark into a disused garage, take his shirt off, and punch the fish to death…

The Meg is a movie which has enjoyed a lengthy stay in the hotel known as Development Hell, from which it has emerged as one of those family-friendly transnational blockbusters clearly gunning for the same dollar as the Jurassic Park movies – indeed, this film is basically Jurassic Shark. (For a long time it was just known as Meg, but the title has been changed, presumably so no-one mistakes it for a film about the Duchess of Sussex.) There is astonishingly little gore, given the subject matter, and the presence of actors like Zhao and Li, not to mention the Asian settings, are an obvious pitch for the lucrative oriental market. In some ways it kind of reminds me of the recent Dwayne Johnson blockbuster Skyscraper, in terms of its tone and the very calculated way it has been rendered as commercially attractive as possible – indeed, I wonder if the producers originally tried to recruit Johnson for the project, and had to settle for the guy he spent much of Fast and Furious 8 standing next to, Jason Statham being (literally) the next best thing.

As I say, the downside of Jason Statham’s rise to superstardom over the last five years or so has been that he simply doesn’t make as many movies as he used to: basically, he just does one movie a year now, as opposed to the three or four you could expect back near the start of the decade. Of course, the movies are bigger, but I would hate to see his essential Stathamity blanded out by the demands of a megablockbuster. Happily, this does not seem to be the case, for The Meg finds our man on fine, laconic form, and the film itself has many moments of tongue-in-cheek humour and in no way takes itself at all seriously. Some of the character-based stuff feels a bit redundant – Statham’s ex-wife is one of the people he has to rescue, but this just feels like over-plotting more than anything else – but I guess that’s the nature of the transnational blockbuster: focus groups like laboriously-articulated character moments and cute kids, so they will appear in this kind of movie.

Along with all that, there’s a rather obvious three-act structure going on here: the effects-heavy deep-sea rescue sequence setting the whole thing up, then a section basically restaging all your favourite bits from Jaws in a Chinese context (this concludes with a rather so-so plot twist), and then finally the shark arriving at a big seaside resort and carving a swathe through the holidaymakers while Statham and his friends prepare to attempt to deal with it. And, you know, it’s not scintillatingly original or insightful stuff, but it’s very competently assembled and a lot of fun to watch. You’re never actually in any doubt as to what’s going to happen next, but that’s really the nature of a genre movie, which is what The Meg is.

But what, you may be wondering, did Sagacious Dave make of all the stereoscopic wonders taking place before us? (In my opinion the 3D is just as annoying and distracting as usual, but I forgot to ask him what he thought of it.) Well, I am happy to report that there were many amused huffs and chortles coming from the seat next to me throughout the film. ‘I want more death! It would add to the authenticity of it,’ was whispered in my ear at one point, and there were approving noises shortly after when a few minor cast members were summarily devoured. Audible delight followed during the shark’s rampage just offshore of a major tourist beach, and an actual cry of ‘Captain ****ing Ahab!’ at one point during the climax. (Sagacious Dave and I were in agreement that the conclusion of the film is particularly inventive and satisfying.)

So, in the end, we decided that The Meg is commercial cinema of the most unashamed kind, but none the worse for that – ‘for a genre movie, that was actually a lot of fun,’ was Sagacious Dave’s final, considered opinion. And I can hardly disagree with him on that. I am not sure the world has actually been waiting for a 3D Jason Statham movie in which he has a fight with a giant prehistoric shark, but if it has, then The Meg is definitely the one.

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It is with a bit of a jolt that I realise that I have been going to see Mission: Impossible movies at the cinema for half of my life. It doesn’t seem that long since I had only been going to see the first one for a couple of hours, at a rather lovely old cinema in Hull city centre, but there you go, that was 1996. I just wish that I had lasted in the interim as well as Tom Cruise, for he doesn’t look that different to how he did in the first film, whereas I’m honestly starting to feel slightly ravaged.

These days, a nice Mission: Impossible movie is Tom Cruise’s best shot at getting the kind of hit which sustains a career, which may be why he’s finally settled down to making them approximately in accordance with a standard blockbuster franchise release schedule – to wit, one every three years or so. The new one is as punctuation-heavy as ever – Mission: Impossible – Fallout, directed (like the last one) by Christopher McQuarrie. The first few films in the series were essentially standalones without much connecting them, but the retention of McQuarrie as director signals that a bit of a change is in the air, although ‘change’, where this series is concerned, is a relative thing.

So it’s front and centre once more for crack American fun-and-games squad the Impossible Missions Force, in this film comprising toothsome legend Ethan Hunt (Cruise, 56), comic relief Benji Dunn (Simon Pegg, 48), and computer whiz Luther Stickle (Ving Rhames, 58). Clearly the new young generation of agents just ain’t cutting the mustard, even though Luther’s ability to do all the running about and hiding in plain sight demanded by a typical Impossible Mission is somewhat compromised by the fact he looks about seventeen stone and is always wearing a selection of rather incongruous hats. Jeremy Renner, somewhat ironically, has not come back this time as apparently his commitments to Infinity War got in the way – I say ‘ironically’ as all of Renner’s scenes in the Marvel movie ended up on the cutting room floor.

Plotwise, it turns out that capturing the international terrorist mastermind Solomon Lane (Sean Harris, 52) at the end of the previous film has only annoyed his various acolytes and caused violent global upheaval and terrorism (which only makes one wonder why Cruise et al bothered in the first place), and they are now intent on getting some plutonium so they can blow things up. They are assisted in this by the mysterious John Lark, a shadowy figure intent on causing international disruption and chaos whose real identity is a mystery (I wouldn’t be at all surprised if he turned out to be a golf-loving Washington DC resident with an active Twitter account).

Well, things do not initially go to plan, as Cruise opts to save a comrade rather than secure the plutonium, and the team is obliged to proceed in the company of beefy CIA hard-case August Walker (a luxuriantly moustachioed Henry Cavill, 35 – this is the moustache that Warner Brothers had to spend a bomb digitally erasing from Cavill’s mush after the Justice League reshoots), who is under orders to get nasty if Cruise looks like going rogue at any point (which is a pretty sure thing, given he seems to go rogue on a weekly basis in these films). It turns out that securing the plutonium will involve another run-in with Lane, not to mention ex-MI6 agent Ilsa Faust (Rebecca Ferguson, 34 – one thing about these characters is that they do lower the average age of the ensemble a bit), with whom Cruise had a bit of a thing last time round…

So, anyway, another new Mission: Impossible movie. As usual, I sat there watching the movie, making mental notes of pithy little observations I could make when it was time to write this here review which you are reading (if indeed you still are). But a strange sense of familiarity, even perhaps deja vu, crept upon me as I did so. In the end I went back and re-read the reviews of Mission: Impossibles 3, 4, and 5 from this blog, just to make sure I didn’t end up repeating myself.

And, seriously, I’ll tell you what a really Impossible Mission is: it’s telling this film apart from the previous ones. Now, I know that probably sounds quite negative, and I should qualify it by saying that it’s every bit as competent a piece of glossy, big-budget entertainment as the other films in this series. There are some stupendous, absurd stunt sequences, a ridiculously byzantine plot, first-rate action, competent performances, and all the rest. But the fact remains that, just like the previous films, it primarily resembles a series of set-pieces strung together by minimal plotting, said plotting revolving around double- and triple-crosses and characters ripping off their faces at key moments to reveal they weren’t who they initially appeared to be.

The real Impossible Mission – or certainly, the very challenging one – is to identify the bits of Fallout which actually make it distinctive from the other films in this franchise. Well, initially it seems like the dramatic meat of the film is going to be built around the Big Moral Question of whether Tom Cruise is capable of dealing with a Hard Choice. Will he save a team-mate or grab the plutonium? Is he prepared to shoot a cop for the good of the mission? Is he even prepared to go head-on with Ilsa? Sounds quite promising, doesn’t it, until it becomes apparent that the script is always going to let Cruise cop out of actually making a Hard Choice, or contrive it so that whatever dubious choice he makes works out in his favour. In the end this angle just gets dropped in favour of slightly vacuous stunt sequences (although, to be fair, the film concludes with a set-piece with a couple of helicopters that is absolutely eye-popping).

The other innovation in this film is the fact that it’s much more a sequel to the previous film than is usually the case in this franchise – the same villain recurs, along with various other supporting characters. You also really need to be more than passingly familiar with the plot of Rogue Nation in order to completely follow that of Fallout (not that following the plot of one of these films is strictly necessary in order to enjoy it). The links go further back, with another appearance by Michelle Monaghan (most prominently seen in Mission Impossible 3), and the implication that a new character played by Vanessa Kirby is the daughter of Vanessa Redgrave’s character from Mission Impossible 1 (I’m not sure this is even biologically possible, given their ages, but I suppose fertility experts get assigned Impossible Missions too). In this case at least, it’s just something to reward those of us who’ve been turning up faithfully for over two decades.

When you really get down to it, Mission: Impossible – Fallout is basically just product made to meet the demands of a formula – there’s still more than a little of Bruce Geller’s classic TV show to proceedings, and there’s a particularly bombastic version of Lalo Schifrin’s classic theme this time around, but the film series has probably now eclipsed its forebear in terms of audience awareness. It basically just has all the fights, chases, stunts, twists, turns, and tricks you expect from this kind film, delivered with a lot of gloss and conviction. And the end results are undeniably entertaining, even if six months later you’ll be hard pushed to remember what this film was actually about, and probably find it blurring together with the others in your head. But this is the world of the popcorn action blockbuster – it’s not intended to be a film for the ages, but a film for the moment when you’re actually watching it, delivering a pleasant and familiar buzz. And, on those terms, it is undeniably a successful movie.

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Well, thank heavens for that: the football is over at last, meaning the ever-cautious film studios are willing to release some properly sizable films once more. (Although I note that the first two really big releases are movies aimed either at a family audience, or the more feminine echelon of the cinema-going public.) Amongst this number we should probably include Rawson Marshall Thurber’s Skyscraper, which naturally concerns a sturdy, towering edifice, or Dwayne Johnson, as he prefers to be known.

This time around genial Dwayne plays Will Sawyer, an ex-Marine, ex-FBI agent security consultant, who as the story proper gets going is in Hong Kong with his family – his wife (Neve Campbell) being an ex-military doctor who happened to steal Dwayne’s heart, round about the same time she was also amputating his leg (sometimes a hostage rescue goes a bit sideways – we shall return to the curious issue of genial Dwayne Johnson’s artificial leg later on). Why are the Sawyers there? Well, tycoon Zhao (Chin Han, who has been playing sleekly powerful Chinese dudes in Hollywood movies for a good ten years now) is just finishing up his latest project, the tallest building in the history of tallness, and needs someone to do a security and safety assessment so he can get it insured. And Dwayne’s the man for the job!

Of course, this may just be because genial Dwayne has been set up as a patsy by a gang of international mercenaries, led by the irredeemable Botha (Roland Moller, O with a line through it), who has a nefarious plan to break into the tower and set fire to it for reasons which are initially just a little bit obscure. Of course, what the bad guys have not reckoned on is the fact that, even if he only has one leg, Dwayne is still a very handy fellow. Faced with the news that his family are trapped at the top of a burning skyscraper with only a gang of gun-toting villains for company, he does not hesitate, but springs into action in the time-honoured fashion…

It’s not all that long since genial Dwayne’s last vehicle, the rather jolly (if somewhat weird) Rampage, was in theatres worldwide, so you could certainly argue that the big lad is risking overexposure by releasing another movie quite so soon – especially when there is nothing especially distinctive or remarkable about the movie. I mean, there’s very little that’s actually wrong with Skyscraper, it’s competently plotted, scripted, written, directed and played, and you can see where every penny of the budget went (the clue is in the title). It’s just that the whole enterprise feels very soulless and calculated.

As long-term readers know, I generally feel those lazy ‘this film is X meets Y’ descriptions are the work of Satan, but in this case it’s almost impossible to write about Skyscraper in any detail without saying that this is basically a remake of Die Hard with a hefty dollop of The Towering Inferno thrown into the mix, right down to the European villain (though it goes without saying that Moller (O with a line through it) is not even playing the same game as Alan Rickman, let alone appearing in the same ballpark). Many of the other decisions seem to have been influenced solely by the desire to make the film as profitable as possible – it’s very common now for sensible would-be blockbusters to attempt to crack the ultra-lucrative Asian market by including actors and locations from that neck of the woods, and this is doubtless the reason for the film to be set in Hong Kong and have a largely-Chinese supporting cast. The film’s credentials as a proper action thriller are meanwhile undermined by a distinctly discernible attempt to make this another family-oriented film: there’s a lot of attention paid to Dwayne’s plucky wife and adorable kids, and while there’s still a degree of our hero hitting people with axes, throwing them out of burning buildings, and generally putting the beat-down on the deserving wicked, the emphasis is always on how much he loves his wife and kids and just what he’ll put himself through in order to protect them. Which is, you know, a perfectly commendable sentiment, but it just feels like it’s here to tick a box.

This is that sort of script: it feels like it was written by software, or at least using some sort of spreadsheet, with all the key exposition inserted in precisely plotted locations, and key plot points appearing exactly where screenwriting dogma dictates – once again, there’s nothing particularly wrong with that, but it feels like everything remotely quirky or distinctive about Skyscraper has been ruthlessly winnowed out in case the Average Cinema-goer doesn’t like it. The only thing which is a little bit odd about the film is all the business with Dwayne Johnson’s prosthetic leg.

I’ve seen one review of Skyscraper suggesting that the film is in slightly bad taste for featuring a burning high-rise structure only a year or so after the Grenfell Tower fire – honestly, I’m not sure the two scenarios really have enough in common for that to be an issue. However, I do think there may be something a little bit off about casting Dwayne Johnson as an amputee – although I suppose that, if Dustin Hoffman can win awards for playing someone with autism, we shouldn’t be sniffy about letting Johnson play someone with one leg. You’re never far from a reminder of Johnson’s leg in this film, and the script is at least inventive in how it manages this. Dwayne’s first big fight sequence is made to seem less one-sided than usual (let’s face it, all of Johnson’s fights seem a bit one-sided, unless he’s taking on Vin Diesel or Jason Statham or Godzilla) when the bad guy steals his leg (Johnson is – wait for it – hopping mad). Later on the leg proves invaluable in jamming open doors and suchlike. How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love My Prosthetic Leg would be a good subtitle for this movie.

Johnson and the rest of the cast are clearly trying hard throughout Skyscraper, and – as I have suggested – the rest of it is at least competently put together. The problem is not just that it never really rises above the level of functional competency, but that it doesn’t really want to. It will not really surprise or engage you in any but the most superficial way. Not an actually bad movie, but simply very bland.

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I have occasionally commented in the past on the meatgrinder nature of episodic TV, the constant need to find new and interesting ideas and situations that work within a particular format. Sometimes you can tell that people are just grabbing concepts from different places and slapping them together – when this works, it can produce really interesting material. But when it doesn’t, quite…

Which leads us to Deep Shock, an episode from early in the fourth season of The Incredible Hulk, originally broadcast in late 1980. The show was sixty episodes in by this point, so perhaps it’s understandable that a) the series should feel a little formulaic by this point and b) the makers should be trying to shake things up a little bit. We find ourselves at the Tres Lobos power plant, which is currently being converted to automatic control, something causing no end of grumbling amongst the workers who suspect they are conniving in their own redundancy by making the alterations. Also helping out, which if nothing else proves there was a major shortage of labour in the early 80s, is our man David Banner, employing one of his trademark wafer-thin alibis (‘David Benton’ this week).

Well, Banner finds himself co-opted into helping the gruff-but-caring shop steward Edgar (Tom Clancy, but not the famous one) on a tricky part of the job – but it turns out that Edgar has an undisclosed heart condition and things do not go according to plan. Soon a high-voltage cable is spitting sparks everywhere, endangering both men. Despite the fact the episode has only just started and it’s really much too early, Banner turns into the Hulk and saves Edgar’s life – but in the process he is exposed to a massive burst electricity, enough to flatten even the Hulk.

After a day or so in a coma, Banner wakes up in hospital, where the attending physician (Sharon Acker) is pleasantly surprised by his resilience (Banner stays deadpan about this). But she is also concerned about his mental state – apparently being electrocuted can have strange side-effects, and she’s also noticed that his brain contains a high level of a chemical associated with split-personality syndrome – does he have any history in this department? (Banner stays deadpan about this too.) I’m not sure the neuroscience in this episode is really up to much, even by the standards of 1980.

Banner checks himself out and moves in with Edgar, just in case he does have any side-effects, and also to progress the plot. Edgar is about to be forced to retire, because of his heart, but there is still the future of his guys to resolve! And also the issue of how safe the plant will be when it’s run solely by machines. The heartless suits who run the place just don’t seem to care.

Meanwhile, Banner finds himself suffering from tinnitus, and something more – apparently, and this really is the plot, the Hulk’s electrocution has given Banner temporary precognitive powers, and now he has visions of the future (just for this episode). It’s not at all clear, but they seem to involve some sort of crisis at the power plant, with the Hulk on the rampage at the heart of the complex. Maybe it’s time to get out of town and start listening for that piano music…

It doesn’t work out that way, of course, and the episode concludes with the Hulk tearing through the odd wall and smashing up a few consoles, after Edgar basically hijacks the plant in an attempt to show how vital human involvement in managing the place is. It all feels a bit contrived, and an attempt to do the end of The China Syndrome on TV with a rather low budget (The China Syndrome was in movies the previous year, around the time of the Three Mile Island incident – I will just mention again that Banner is working at the ‘Three Wolves’ power plant). Also, with the first Hulk-out shifted to the start of the story, the episode feels like it has a rather flabby middle, with arguments about industrial relations and the usual low-comedy business with Banner and McGee just missing each other in hospital lobbies not doing much to help.

In fact, other than the movie pastiche and the slightly odd structure, the most distinctive thing about Deep Shock is the Banner-becomes-precognitive element, which is certainly a curve-ball and quite atypical of what’s usually a studiously down-to-earth programme (or as studiously down-to-earth as a programme about a green gamma monster with an infinite supply of jeans can be). I can’t help wondering if the whole psychic-powers element of the story was a late addition to pep the rest of it up. It doesn’t really impinge on the main storyline and could easily have been cut without too much difficulty. In any case, it produces an episode which is ultimately distinctive without being especially distinguished.

I’m not entirely sure the same isn’t true for the next episode, Bring Me the Head of the Hulk (not something anyone says, or seems likely to say, in the story itself), for all that it regularly pops up in ‘Top Ten Best Hulk Episodes’ lists. This is yet another shake-up-the-formula episode; the start of season four had a lot of these. I suppose it is especially noteworthy for being directed by Bill Bixby, the star of the series. You would have thought that a consummate actor like Bixby would have been a shoo-in to direct one of the more character-driven episodes, but this is almost pure action-adventure stuff.

It begins with a Hulk-out already underway, with the creature demolishing another laboratory before vanishing into the night. But news of this latest Hulk-sighting is delivered to Paris, France (stock footage from the Universal library duly sets the scene), where psychopathic mercenary La Fronte (Jed Mills) seems to be tracking the Hulk’s appearances. ‘Another genetics lab,’ says his (apparently) faithful lieutenant, Alex (Sandy McPeak), seemingly unsurprised.

The thing about Bring Me the Head of the Hulk is that it does rather ignore all the conventions of the series as established up to this point – that the Hulk is an urban legend like Bigfoot, primarily. Here it’s strongly implied the Hulk goes around wrecking genetics labs on a fairly regular basis, and that this makes it into the media somehow or other. If so, why aren’t the police and army hunting the Hulk, instead of just the lonely and quixotic McGee? The episode also implies that working out the Hulk’s real identity is not that challenging either.

Well, anyway, La Fronte goes to the offices of McGee’s paper and promises to kill the Hulk for them, in exchange for a truckload of cash. McGee demurs, partly because he has come to realise the Hulk is essentially benign, but also because he knows the creature is also a normal person most of the time. So the mercenary heads off to the paper’s competitor, who agree to bankroll his Hulk-killing scheme.

Here we do step rather a long way from credibility, if you ask me. La Fronte’s cunning plan is to set up his own genetics research lab, advertise for staff, and then give preference to hiring people who match his Hulk profile. If he’d talked properly to McGee, he’d know just to hire people with the first name David and a surname beginning with B, but I digress. Needless to say, Banner (using the cunning pseudonym David Bedford) applies and makes it onto the shortlist of Hulk-suspects, together with five other guys.

(Really? There are five other people with the same skill set and a history of being in town when the Hulk shows up? Who are these people? What must they think of their sheer bad luck? There’s potential for a whole episode here that barely gets touched on.)

Banner ends up as chief assistant to Dr Cabot, a geneticist known for her interest in phenomena such as werewolves and other odd transformations. She is played by Jane Merrow, a British actress who appeared in The Avengers, plus various Hammer horrors and other British genre movies; the kind of person who’s a fixture of the heritage section of this blog, if we’re honest. Needless to say there is a lab accident, leading to our first proper Hulk-out of the episode, and the confirmation for La Fronte that his plan is working. But with McGee on the verge of tracking down La Fronte’s operation, he may have to force the issue if he wants to get the Hulk in his sights…

Bring Me the Head of the Hulk is, obviously, a rather different episode: it has three Hulk-outs (well, two and a half, at least); it has someone actively pursuing the Hulk, with considerable success; we actually get to see Banner on the phone applying for another of the endless jobs he drifts through (and his interview technique is so dreadful it’s a miracle he ever gets work); we get to see McGee actually saving the Hulk’s life, for a change. But is there quality to match the novelty?

Well – I’m not sure, like I say. La Fronte’s plan works so quickly and perfectly that you do wonder why McGee, supposedly a brilliant investigative reporter, hasn’t managed to catch up with Banner yet. And La Fronte is such a one-dimensional loon that it does kind of hurt the credibility of the episode. This series doesn’t often do full-on villains, and La Fronte isn’t in the first rank of them – he doesn’t convince in the same way as Sutton from The Snare, or Frye from The First. (Being French can only excuse so much.)

And, to be honest, I kind of miss the down-to-earth naturalism and character stories which this series usually does so well. The closest we get to that here is a subplot about Alex and Banner becoming friends, leading the somewhat world-weary mercenary to question his allegiance to La Fronte. It’s good stuff, well played by McPeak, but rather peripheral here. The main plot is so atypical and busy that everything else gets squeezed out – this might have worked better and had more space to breathe had it been a two-parter, but this season already had two of them – the brilliant The First and the nearly-brilliant Prometheus. As I say, it’s hard to keep this kind of series fresh, so I suppose the makers of The Incredible Hulk deserve credit for trying so hard. In the end I would have to say that Bring Me the Head of the Hulk is the better of these two episode by far, but is it a classic? I’m still not sure.

 

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We talk quite glibly about ‘the war movie’ as a distinct genre, and I suppose there is some truth to that – there are enough commonalities of subject matter, setting, and theme for these films to comprise a recognisable canon of sorts, after all. And yet war films are as diverse a bunch as any other, often depending on exactly which war they concern and the accepted narrative concerning it. War movies made during actual wars are usually propaganda, plain and simple; ones made in the decade or two after a war become testimonials, usually concerned with retellings of notable deeds. After enough time has elapsed they just become backdrops for rousing adventures and/or examinations of more universal themes.

John Sturges’ film adaptation of the Jack Higgins novel The Eagle Has Landed came out in 1976, thirty years after the Second World War concluded, at a point when the myth of the war and its iconography was perhaps beginning to displace memories of the reality in terms of how it was perceived. Certainly the film itself is hardly painstaking in its attempts at historical accuracy.

 

(I have to say, respect is due to an impressively imaginative poster, which features all sorts of elements – exploding churches, strafing Messerschmitts, and so on – which do not prominently feature, or indeed feature at all, in the actual movie. Not sure they’ve got Jenny Agutter’s face quite right, though.)

Things get underway in – one surmises – late 1943 or early 1944, with the result of the war no longer in doubt, only the final score. Inspired by the rescue of Mussolini from captivity in Italy, Hitler (played by the late Peter Miles in scenes which didn’t make it into the final cut) orders the kidnapping of Winston Churchill from Britain: no-one but Himmler (Donald Pleasance) takes this notion seriously, but the head of German military intelligence is obliged to carry out a feasibility study for political reasons anyway.

The job is assigned to a Colonel Radl (Robert Duvall), who – rather to his astonishment –  discovers that there is an outside chance that the trick can be turned: Churchill is due to be spending a weekend at a secluded country house close to the east coast of England. To carry out the mission, Radl recruits IRA man and mercenary Liam Devlin (Donald Sutherland) and decorated, but now disgraced Fallschirmjager officer Kurt Steiner (Michael Caine) and his men. Soon enough Operation Eagle is underway, with first Devlin and then Steiner and the others inserted into the UK in disguise. But even the best laid plans can go awry, especially given Devlin’s penchant for romantic entanglements and the presence in the area of a force of US Rangers…

The Eagle Has Landed is very much an all-star all-action mid-seventies ITC Entertainment kind of production, and it is perhaps illuminating to compare it to the 1943 movie Went the Day Well?, directed by Cavalcanti. Both deal with the same idea, of a British village being seized by enemy paratroopers as part of a wider plot, but the treatment is quite different, as is the context of the films (of course). Went the Day Well? is a propaganda movie, and an occasionally brutal one, with precious few shades of grey as the heroic villagers (including a gun-toting Thora Hird) rise up and do battle with the vicious German interlopers. At the time the threat of invasion was still a recent memory, and the war still being prosecuted, but in 1976 things were very different.

We tend to remember the Second World War as one of the ‘good’ wars, justified by the fact it was essentially a heroic battle against the darkest of evils, but there’s little sense of that watching Sturges’ movie – this is a war movie oddly bereft of bad guys. All the German characters are rather sympathetic, Himmler excepted, and the movie is at pains to establish Steiner as a decent man revolted by the Nazi doctrine of racial superiority. The structure of the movie means we get to know these people rather better than any of the British or American characters who are ostensibly the heroes who foil Radl and Steiner’s plan – the US Ranger commander played by Larry Hagman is a vain, pompous fool, his subordinate (Treat Williams) something of a cipher.

The result is that the action sequences towards the end of the film, in which the German-held village is assaulted by American soldiers, feel like a curiously empty spectacle. They’re very well staged and directed, and do stir the blood a bit, but you always know what’s going to happen, and you don’t feel particularly invested in watching the inevitable Allied victory – you will almost certainly be hoping that Michael Caine survives, and may even be hoping that (in defiance of historical fact) he succeeds in his mission.

The question is whether this moral vacuum at the heart of the movie is a deliberate choice, reflecting the fact that there can be heroes and villains on both sides in a war, or just the result of a director not quite getting to grips with the material. Certainly Caine thought it was the latter, complaining that Sturges had no involvement with the editing of the film once shooting was complete, choosing to go fishing instead. He lamented the fact that what could have been a more substantial thriller ended up as a somewhat cartoonish action adventure.

I can see what he’s getting at, because – as someone else has pointed out – Pleasance’s impersonation of Himmler is the most credible thing in the movie by quite some distance. Caine is still good, as are many of the other supporting players, some of them better known as British TV faces – Jean Marsh is in there, also Roy Marsden and Denis Lill – but possibly a bit too prominent is Sutherland. Sutherland goes all-out for the central casting Oirishman from County Leprechaun approach, and it does make you roll your eyes a bit, as does the improbable romance between him and a young local girl (Jenny Agutter).

In the end The Eagle Has Landed seems to have become one of those largely innocuous all-star movies which regularly pops up on TV on Bank Holiday weekends, usually with its gorier moments (Hagman’s death, for instance) snipped out. Which is fair enough: it is an example of the war movie reduced to the status of simple entertainment – it doesn’t have the simplistic morality of the worst kind of war film, nor the complex ambiguities of many of the best. It just doesn’t seem inclined to deal with wider moral issues at all, focusing on its straightforward action-adventure story to the exclusion of all else. And there’s not much actually wrong with that, I suppose: but with the kind of talent involved in this movie, you could be forgiven for hoping for something slightly more substantial.

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