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The other day I was a little surprised to discover I still had a checklist in my head of all those movies which the onset of lockdown back in March 2020 stopped me from seeing in a timely manner. Possibly the outstanding item on said list is a movie called Military Wives, which may sound like a niche magazine but is actually one of those uplifting true-life comedy dramas which almost invariably make me feel like opening a vein whenever I watch one. I got as far as watching the first half hour of that at the cinema before the building’s electrics blew and we were all sent home with the promise of a free ticket to a future showing. Five days later the cinemas all closed, and I’ve never heard anything about this movie since (I wasn’t actually enjoying it much so I’m not that bothered about seeing the rest of it).

Perhaps even more unlucky was Craig Zobel’s The Hunt, which had already suffered one delay to its release and came out just in time to play for less than a week. But at least The Hunt has resurfaced on one of the big streamers, where it doesn’t seem to have made a particular impression. Perhaps that’s because this is a movie which was the product of a very particular moment in American culture, which has now to some degree passed, or possibly it’s simply because it’s a rather odd film.

It opens with the audience being made privy to a chat exchange between a group of liberal friends, complaining about the latest outrages committed by (we are invited to assume) Donald Trump. (As we have noted, the film was due to come out in early 2020.) The friends console themselves by discussing an upcoming social occasion, when they will gather at the mansion home of one of them and then hunt and kill a dozen or so ‘deplorables’ – this being a rather loaded expression, derived from a disparaging comment about Republican voters made by Hillary Clinton.

A sequence set on the flight to the hunting grounds then follows, which mainly seems to be here for shock value and to pad out the film to a decent ninety-minute length: the first class passengers gang up to kill someone from cattle class who recovers from the sedative they’ve been given unexpectedly early. And from here we’re off into the hunt itself.

A dozen people wake up on the edge of woodland, close to a large wooden crate; they are all gagged. Inside the crate they find weapons of various kinds, before coming under fire from a hide nearby – several of them are gorily killed before the survivors flee into the woods, contending with booby traps (spike pits, land mines) along the way.

That’s basically all you need to know about the premise of the movie; there isn’t a great deal more to be said about it, to be honest, without getting into the realm of spoilers. There’s a weird diversion where it looks like a replica of rural Arkansas has been constructed in Bosnia to confuse the quarry in the hunt, but this once again feels a bit like diversionary filler – there’s a distinct smell around this film of it being a case of a strong premise that they really had trouble blowing up to feature length.

The idea of people hunting people isn’t an especially new one, after all – readers with serious psychiatric issues may recall that, after The Hunt had its theatrical run cancelled, I consoled myself by watching The Most Dangerous Game, another movie with a similar premise from the early 1930s. It crops up in various genre TV episodes as well – see The Snare, an episode of the Hulk TV show from the seventies. But one also gets the sense that this was conceived as a piece of satire as much as a thriller or a horror movie (it’s certainly gory enough to qualify as the latter).

Exactly which genre The Hunt falls into is a somewhat contentious issue, which has even earned its own Wikipedia footnote. I originally heard it advertised as a horror movie (not surprisingly, given it was produced by Blumhouse, the makers of the Paranormal Activity, Purge and Insidious franchises, as well as the (rather good) recent Halloween films). However, if you slap together any combination of the words horror, action, thriller, satire, and comedy, it is practically certain that someone will have described the film this way.

And the odd thing is that they all do describe the film: there’s more than enough gore for it to qualify as a horror, parts of it are very funny, and there’s at least one really well-staged action sequence. The problem is that, rather than blending all of these things into a single, coherent whole, The Hunt has a rather frenetic quality, hopping from sequence to sequence and topic to topic as if it’s afraid that if it lingers on any of them the audience will realise it’s actually a fairly insubstantial film. The irony is that if anything’s likely to create this impression it’s the fact the movie can’t keep still.

Wrong-footing the audience is often a good idea, and the film does have a go at this, being deliberately misleading about what exactly’s going on. It also attempts to do the old Psycho routine of introducing a character as, ostensibly, the lead, and then spectacularly killing them off relatively early in the film. This can work quite well – but The Hunt does the idea to death, repeatedly seeming to establish a protagonist only for them to meet a grisly fate a few minutes later. It gets a little bit wearisome, to be honest.

The scattershot approach of the film does occasionally pay off: there are some very funny moments, most of them satirical – the liberal elitists responsible for the carnage often pause in planning their mass slaughter to pick each other up for things like cultural appropriation and inappropriately gendered language. These scenes are so knowingly absurd that only an idiot could genuinely find The Hunt to be a provocative and dangerous incitement to division – it’s an exaggerated parody of the splits already existing in modern America.

Needless to say, Donald Trump weighed in and suggested an upcoming film was intended to ‘inflame and cause chaos’ (possibly that very stable genius was concerned about demarcation issues). To be honest, The Hunt is very small potatoes on that particular score, but the central idea – liberals hunting conservatives – was always going to be a bit controversial. The script does attempt to subvert audience expectations, by turning out to have as its main target the tendency of some people to believe anything they read on the internet, and the inflexible and nuance-free nature of so much modern political discourse. But this turns up rather late in the day, and feels like a bit of an afterthought.

Nevertheless, I did rather enjoy it: there are solid performances from what’s largely an ensemble cast (Hilary Swank, Wayne Duvall, Ethan Suplee, Betty Gilpin, Emma Roberts and Justin Hartley all get their moments of prominence) and the piece does have pace, energy, and a degree of wit about it. I’m not sure it hangs together as a coherent political thesis but there are certainly some very nice moments along the way.

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Is it my imagination or are we still seeing a dearth of really big popcorny movies at the moment? It might make sense: given the long lead-times involved in a really big film, the blockbusters of 2022 would probably have been in the works a couple of years ago, which was of course the height of the recent unpleasantness. Perhaps it’s telling that the biggest film of the year so far, the Top Gun sequel, was originally slated for a 2019 release and was made pre-virus. In any case, the result seems to be that more oddball movies are enjoying a high profile this year.

Such as David Leitch’s Bullet Train, which kind of resembles the kind of high-concept genre movie that usually surfaces in the spring or autumn. But here we are in August – this is probably due to the presence of some proper A-list stars and a director whose last few movies have all done rather well for themselves.

As the title might lead you to expect, the film is set in Japan, and mostly takes place on the shinkansen between Tokyo and Kyoto. Enjoying the sights of the capital at the start of the movie is a bucket-hatted dude who goes by the codename of Ladybug (he is played by Brad Pitt); Ladybug is a philosophically-inclined, firearm-averse freelance security operative, recently returned after taking some time out for personal reasons. (He is guided about his business by his handler-cum-life-coach, played by a mostly unseen Sandy Bullock.) Ladybug’s new assignment is to board the titular locomotive and steal a briefcase containing a large sum of money, ideally with a minimum of fuss and bloodshed. What could be simpler?

Well, quite a few things, as it turns out: the money is the recovered ransom fee for the recently-rescued son of a terrifying international crime lord (Michael Shannon), who is on the train and being babysat by an unlikely couple of brothers who go by the nicknames Tangerine and Lemon (Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Brian Tyree Henry); one of them happened to shoot Ladybug in a non-significant manner a few years earlier. Also on the train is a grief-stricken and vengeful Mexican gang leader known as the Wolf, a notorious poisoner codenamed the Hornet, a master-manipulator going by the title of Prince, and various other assassins and mercenaries all with their own conflicting agendas.

If that seems a fairly unlikely scenario to you, then I commend you for your astuteness; it’s fair to say we are not in the realm of the reality-adjacent action movie here. Bullet Train is the kind of fantastical beat-’em-up which is at least aware of its own unlikeliness, and indeed leans into it somewhat. But then the briefest glance at the CV of David Leitch could have told you as much – he co-directed the first John Wick, and went on to do Atomic Blonde, Deadpool 2, and Hobbs & Shaw, none of which are films that anyone would describe as having a stranglehold on reality.

We’re not that far into the film before the first of Pitt’s fellow passengers tries to punch his ticket in a pretty terminal way, from which point the film progresses in frenetic style. There is something rather commendable about the intricate plotting of the story, absurd though it is: this is the action movie performed as farce, with set-piece fights and shoot-outs taking the place of the usual pratfalls and sight-gags. It’s also inventive enough to keep most of the major characters alive until the third act, which is no mean feat considering that nearly everyone’s main objective is to kill someone else (or, indeed, everyone else).

There is, as you’d expect, a significant level of violence and gore as the film progresses, though nothing too extreme (although by most people’s standards I have probably become quite desensitised to this sort of thing). Some of the visual stylings are a little bit hackneyed, and there’s an element of fetishisation as far as Japanese culture is concerned (mostly in a superficial way); this is all really just to say that the film functions in a kind of para-Tarantino manner, though it is thankfully free of pretensions to being high art; there, is, however, one extremely protracted running gag based on a fairly unlikely cultural reference – on one level, there is a kind of logic to a film set on a train including an extended allusion to Thomas the Tank Engine, but, on the other hand, if the Reverend Wilbert Awdry was still alive, the shock of having his creations co-opted by a film like this would most likely kill him.

The film does come across as frantic and colourful and more than a bit silly; I did actually find myself wondering what the point of it was while I was watching it. The closest it gets to having any kind of depth or underpinning comes by way of some rather laborious ruminations on the workings of fate and destiny – Ladybug is frequently bewailing his own consistently bad luck, Prince is quite smug about being blessed in quite the opposite manner, some of the other characters pause to reflect on the sheer unlikeliness of everything that is going on (the ridiculous coincidences more than anything else), and so on. It’s a pretty thin pretext for a serious movie.

Then again you could certainly argue that Bullet Train isn’t really a serious film, it’s too far-fetched and cartoony for that. This is not to say that most of the performances aren’t well-pitched and effective; Pitt and many of the other members of the cast certainly manage to lift the material. The production values are good, and I did find myself laughing a lot of the time. But on the other hand this doesn’t feel like a film with a burning need to exist – it’s a collection of ideas from films like Kill Bill, Train to Busan, and Free Fire all jumbled together and touched up in the hope that nobody will notice it’s actually quite a derivative piece of work. I can see why Bullet Train has struggled at the box office – it’s good as what it is, but as what it wants to be, it’s just not quite good enough.

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Dan Trachtenberg’s Prey (probably not showing at a cinema near you, but available to stream on Mouse+) is set in the early 18th century somewhere in continental North America. Naru (Amber Midthunder) is a young Comanche woman who burns to be taken seriously by the rest of her tribe – every day she goes off and practices with the tomahawk she inherited from her late father, and with which she has attained an alarming degree of proficiency, but there never seems to be much question of her being allowed to hunt with the young men of the tribe. This is particularly galling given that her brother Taabe (Dakota Beavers) has just been chosen as their war chief.

One day Naru is about her illicit practice when she is disturbed by an ominous rumbling from the sky: fire flashes there. Not long after, another young hunter is attacked by a lion and disappears. Taabe leads a party of young men to find the lost hunter and kill the beast, and Naru manages to persuade them to take her along. But something has scared the big cat off before it can finish off the wounded man. Taabe and the others see this as good news – only Naru pauses to wonder what could be responsible. Huge footprints and strangely-mutilated animal carcasses only add to her concerns.

Still no-one will listen to her, as she is only a young woman and not taken seriously by the men around her (there may possibly be a bit of a socio-political subtext here), and so she and her dog end up going off into the wilderness in pursuit of whatever this strange new beast may be. She is naturally more than a little surprised when it proves to be an horrific ogre which takes body parts as trophies from the men it hunts, has phosphorescent green blood, and can turn invisible at will…

The cockroach-like qualities of the Predator franchise are, of course, well-known – John McTiernan’s original movie is a no-debate-necessary classic of action sci-fi, but as far as all the sequels go… well, let’s just say that every time it seems like the bottom of the barrel has been reached and the series has finally expired, something new crawls into view. But the consistency of the downward trajectory, in terms of quality, is actually quite impressive – the only uptick, probably, being that 2010’s Predators was better than the second Alien Vs Predator movie (it would be difficult to be worse, or at least more revolting). I suppose we can credit the franchise’s refusal to do the decent thing and just expire to the sheer quality of the first film.

Now, however, I find myself obliged to do a complete rethink of my attitudes here, as Prey – which is, as you have probably figured out for yourself, technically Predator 7, a prequel to all the other films – is the first entry in the series which isn’t somehow a bit dispiriting in at least 30 years. I might even go so far as to say that it’s actually rather good.

Novelty goes a long way when it comes to revitalising these old franchises, of course. Doing a ‘historical’ Predator movie is, with hindsight, such a no-brainer that one wonders why it has taken so long for it to happen; if Prey does well then I would expect a slew of these things over the next few years. This film, set in the great American wilderness against a backdrop of conflict between Native Americans and French trappers, sometimes feels rather as though the Predator has crashed into the middle of The Revenant – an intriguing and rather exciting idea. (It got me thinking as to what other worthy historical movies could be thus improved by the insertion of hostile extraterrestrials. I’ll let you know what Julian Fellowes thinks of my pitch for Downton Abbey 3: Flayed Alive.)

The shift in setting has necessitated a slight rejig in the usual aesthetics of one of these films – there is still gore and dismemberment aplenty, but less heavy firepower: lances, arrows, axes, and so on, do most of the work. In a nice touch, the Predator’s own equipment is a bit less high-tech than in the present-day movies – the Yautja don’t seem to have invented that shoulder-mounted plasma cannon yet, but the (dare I say it) iconic invisibility screen is still present and correct. In many ways this is absolutely all the things you want to see from a Predator film, with none of the extraneous stuff that started to creep in from the first sequel onwards. (Well, now that I think on it, the classic Alan Silvestri theme isn’t there.)

The really neat thing about the premise of Prey is that not only does it shake up and revitalise a franchise which has felt moribund for over a decade, it also allows 20th Century Not-Fox to score some easy points for making a film which is built around a powerful message of feminine empowerment and also showcases performers of Native American heritage. (An alternate dub of the film where the Comanche characters speak their own language, rather than English, is also available. I gave that a miss, but I can see how it might work better than the ‘mainstream’ version.)

I would be lying if I said that Prey handles its feminist subtext with enormous grace and subtlety, but I’ve seen this sort of thing done much worse elsewhere, while the tribal background to the story only seems natural given the premise of the film. It’s a very different presentation of Native American life to most that I can think of – I watched the movie with the spousal co-unit and she was quite complementary about the careful depiction of just how the Comanche lived – and I almost regret the decision to advertise the film as a Predator movie in advance; getting the audience to watch what seemed to be a rather earnest drama about Native American society only to confront them with a ravening big-name monster would be tremendous coup de theatre.

As it is, it can still come across as worthy and perhaps sometimes just a little bit slow – the beautiful landscapes and Midthunder’s engaging performance go some way to making up for this, and the script is also quite cleverly constructed. The action sequences and visual effects are also well up to expectations. It’s a shame this film isn’t getting more of a cinema release, but nevertheless – I’m not sure it quite qualifies as an exciting new dawn for the Predator series, but it’s still the most interesting thing to have happened to it in decades.

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Waiting thirty-six years to do a sequel is fairly ridiculous – if the gap before Downton Abbey 3 is that long, it will be coming out in 2058 – but then again fairly ridiculous things do seem to be the wheelhouse of Tom Cruise these days. To be fair to the makers of Top Gun: Maverick, the inordinate delay is not entirely their fault – the film was originally supposed to come out nearly a decade a go, and was delayed by the death of the first film’s director, Tony Scott. (He has been replaced by Joseph Kosinski, who previously worked with Cruise on the good but derivative sci-fi movie Oblivion.) Then it was scheduled to come out in Summer 2019, only to be pushed back a year for technical reasons, and we all know what happened to the slate of releases for Summer 2020.

Hence the fact that the trailer for Top Gun: Maverick feels like it’s been a fixture at my local cinema forever; I’m actually slightly surprised it’s being released at all. Just let the trailer run indefinitely as a tribute to… oh, I don’t know what. It’s not a terrible trailer, after all. Anyone subscribing to the Muppet Theory (i.e. ‘everybody knows the sequel’s never quite as good’) could be forgiven for the odd qualm as the new film taxis into view – as I have previously observed, Top Gun is a bit like Dirty Dancing in that it is undeniably iconic, the subject of immense nostalgia, and not actually much good when you actually sit down and look at it properly.

The new film opens with virtually a carbon-copy reprise of the beginning of the 1986 film – same caption, same footage of planes trundling around on a carrier deck, same austere bonging on the soundtrack. This is a bit of a cheat as the aircraft carrier doesn’t properly feature in the film until well into the second hour. It soon becomes clear that, rather than flying a jet fighter off a warship, these days Tom Cruise has been assigned to Area 51: not because that’s where all the weird alien life forms get sent for examination, but because he’s now a test pilot for the Very Fast Planes Indeed Project. Here he promptly ticks off Admiral Ed Harris for flying one whole Mach faster than he is supposed to.

Harris is duly landed with the thankless task of reprising the scene where he supposedly wants to kick Cruise out of the Navy but ends up sending him on a special prestige assignment instead. This turns out to be teaching at the Top Gun school where most of the original film was set. No-one is pleased to see him there except for the landlady at the local pub, and this is not because Cruise is on the booze but because they have a romantic history together. She is played by Jennifer Connelly, who doesn’t get a lot to do to keep her interested, and the script attempts to finesse the awkward issue of parachuting in a new character with whom Cruise has an established relationship by making her someone who was mentioned but never seen in Top Gun.

Anyway, Cruise is there to train pilots for a suicidal mission to bomb a new uranium enrichment centre in enemy territory, which involves zig-zagging down a valley, flying over a mountain, hitting a thermal exhaust port with a bouncing bomb, etc etc. Being Cruise he accepts this assignment without batting an eyelid, but is finally given pause when he learns that one of his trainees is the now-grown son of his former buddy Goose, whose death provided what little emotional ballast the 1986 film possessed (the gosling is played by Miles Teller, who has been issued with what’s possibly the very same wispy moustache worn by Anthony Edwards wayback in the formerwhen). Can the pilots pull together and reduce the casualty risk from suicidal to merely insanely dangerous? Can Cruise bond with with his buddy’s kid and strike a blow for human pilots in an age of drone warfare? And can the film really get away with never mentioning exactly which country Cruise and the others are bombing?

I mean, really. The first film played a kind of nudge-wink game when it came to who exactly it was that Cruise was shooting down in the climax, but the new film keeps an entirely straight face on the topic, which feels particularly bizarre given a war is now in progress in Europe in which the US is very pointedly not participating. Admittedly, the bad guys are flying Su-57s, which are a primarily Russian jet, but they also have F-14s sitting around the place. Based on the landscape it looks like the Americans are bombing Norway, or possibly New Zealand. It’s undeniably problematic – it clearly wants to be a war film but it doesn’t seem that interested in what the actual war is.

It isn’t quite enough to properly spoil a slick and enjoyable action movie, which is – and this will surprise Muppet Theory adherents, even though the bar on this occasion is very low – appreciably better than the first one. It’s not just a vacuously good-looking film about how fantastic Tom Cruise and the US Navy are; it feels like there are proper stakes, the characters feel actually developed, and there is a genuine moral premise of sorts – the idea that human character and spirit have not yet been eclipsed by technology.

Admittedly, the film doesn’t handle this theme with a great deal of subtlety or nuance – the first two thirds of the film, and the beginning of the final act, are admirably restrained and gritty and everything is quite credible. But then the plot resolves through a sequence of such jaw-dropping silliness it’s hard to believe it hasn’t been edited onto the end of the film by some disgruntled junior producer as a prank. On the other hand it does feature some superb action and one of the best air combat set pieces I’ve ever seen. But it does feel like a film that was heading in a particular, quite sombre but nevertheless satisfying direction has been hijacked and sent somewhere a bit more cheery for the popcorn audience.

So in the end this is just a superior action movie rather than something which actually functions as a credible drama, for all that it is generally well-played and contains unexpected moments of humour and genuine emotion (that said, I found there to be something inescapably awkward about Val Kilmer’s cameo). Nevertheless, as an action movie it is often properly thrilling, which is what you want from this sort of thing, and I imagine it will satisfy fans of the original film and also those of Cruise in general. How the war-film element is handled is a bit problematic, but in other respects this is a fairly impressive piece of machine-tooled entertainment.

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It’s probably getting it all a bit backwards to suggest that Dirtier by the Dozen bears a peculiar resemblance to various episodes of Monty Python’s Flying Circus – one of the things that the original Python shows did was to systematically make the whole look and style of TV in the seventies seem risible by emptying out all the content and replacing it with finely-judged nonsense. Dirtier by the Dozen is also nonsense, but alas not especially well-judged, at least not by Clemens’ usual standards.

It opens with a group of butch men in khaki led by a steely John Castle (in an eye-patch) pretending to be soldiers somewhere abroad (the illusion of a foreign shoot is attempted by waving a tropical plant in front of the camera while jungle noises are edited onto the soundtrack, but it’s still very clear they’re no further afield than Borehamwood or somewhere similar). A cameraman films them surreptitiously then runs off when he is spotted. Meanwhile a British army general (Michael Barrington) drops in for an unannounced spot-check on the 19th Special Commando unit at their barracks, only to find the place almost completely deserted. The one soldier the general and his assistant encounter is insubordinate enough to imprison them both (the squaddie in question is played by Brian Croucher, who amongst other roles in a long career also played Travis the Second in Blake’s 7).

It eventually turns out the 19th Special Commando unit is really is special, as their commander Mad Jack Miller is a genuine nutcase and has been leading his men (the worst scum in the British army – it’s basically a penal regiment, to judge from the descriptions we hear) off to do various bits of fighting in other people’s wars on the quiet, all for a handsome fee. If Miller had attempted this spot of military self-sufficiency in the Thatcher era he would probably have received a commendation for enterprise and creative thinking, but we are still lodged in the late 1970s and so he is just a not particularly interesting or plausible loony.

Nevertheless, film of the 19th moonlighting abroad eventually reaches Gambit, while someone in the army contacts Steed about the missing general (whom Miller has dastardly plans for) – Patrick Macnee gets the best scene of the episode as he and Stephen Moore heroically grapple with expository dialogue in the middle of a battlefield (Steed is of course in full brolly and bowler rig). What follows, for rather longer than it should, feels a bit like one of those interludes in an RPG session where all the players consistently fluff every roll they need to make in order to progress through the narrative – Steed, Gambit, and Purdey basically just wander about going ‘Well, I wonder what this all means,’ without ever seeming to be in danger of finding an answer. Meanwhile, the plot trickles along as one of the soldiers recently back in the country comes down with blue parrot disease (or something similar) and is snuck off to a tropical diseases specialist (in contravention of orders), leading to a commando raid to get him back before the truth is exposed.

In the end Purdey turns up at the squaddies’ local and charms them all into nearly revealing their illicit activities (the mad colonel turns up and prevents this), while the regiment gets a new ADC in the form of one Major Gambit, a man with a dismal disciplinary record of his own. As I say, it’s largely nonsense – perhaps Clemens’ energies were flagging this close to the end of the season – and not particularly funny or imaginative nonsense. Perhaps the most striking thing about the episode is the astonishing supporting cast of familiar faces it has been blessed with – apart from the names I’ve already mentioned, there’s an early role for Alun Armstrong as the man whose mate has blue parrot disease, and an uncredited appearance by John (Boycie) Challis as another member of the regiment. It still doesn’t save an episode with a lot of military hardware on display but a distinctly squishy script.

Something remarkable is on the cards as we turn our attention to Sleeper, another Clemens script: your correspondent revising a previously-given opinion. I previously indicated that this tale of bandits using magic knockout gas to rob a sleeping London was a bit too outrageous to really work. Well… again, young nephew didn’t have a problem with it at all (this was the last of the episodes we watched together), and while the plot is basically just a load of contrivances and set-pieces strung together, it’s done with such style and confidence, and such attention to detail (both naturalistic and offbeat) that the story really works. It even functions as a sort of kinder, gentler take on the ‘dead London’ story-type so often found in British SF (see also Day of the Triffids, Survivors, 28 Days Later, and so on). Perhaps a bit heavy on the chicka-chicka-rumbra-dumbra music, but not to the point where it becomes a real problem. A very watchable episode; by no means one of the weakest of the series.

The first season wraps up with a reasonable episode, in the form of Three-Handed Game, another Spooner and Clemens collaboration: whether it is more or less implausible than their previous team-up Faces is probably a matter of personal taste. Steed has come up with a method of safely transferring long and valuable documents by splitting them into three chunks of unintelligible gibberish (one chunk has the first word of every three, the next the second of every three, etc), each of which is memorised by someone with perfect photographic recall. The couriers can’t make sense of the info, and nor can anyone else unless they can identify all three members of ‘the Triumvirate’. It all sounds fine until a sinister-looking South American villain named Juventor appears on the scene (played by Stephen Greif, who has always had a nice line in vaguely exotic-looking heavies – he is probably best remembered for playing Travis the First in Blake’s 7. Yes, I know, you wait ages for a Travis to come along and then they both show up in the same post).

Yes, that’s what his other eye really looks like.

Juventor has got his hands on a brain-draining machine which allows him to extract anything he fancies from the brain of a victim and then transfer it into that of another. He demonstrates this by kidnapping a tap dancer and then transplanting his terpsichorean virtuosity into the incredulous ambassador of a shady foreign power, just to prove it works. The ambassador (Terry Wood) seems to enjoy being able to tap dance much more than he ever did being a suspicious foreigner, but agrees to buy the brain-drainer for an astronomical sum, if Juventor first uses it to extract the secrets of the Triumvirate…

The oddball spin given the episode is that by this point Steed and the others are already closing in on Juventor in his base, leading him to take extreme (and not quite believable) measures: he uses the machine on himself and transplants the totality of his personality and memories into the kidnapped tap dancer, leaving only a dead husk behind (and saddling himself with the problem that his new legs just won’t quit tapping). Quite disregarding the fact that he appears to have stumbled onto a practical, though crude, method of achieving actual immortality, Juventor presses on with his plan to get rich by knocking off the Triumvirate, while our heroes are left to ponder just what’s going on and why they keep hearing someone tap dancing…

It’s… okay. There’s nothing actually wrong with it, per se, but it’s a very strange coming together of a rather grim and serious story (numerous people are left as vegetables by the brain-drainer) and a very twee and laboured approach to the material – too many things are just wildly implausible or contrived (such as the silly tap-dancing fight at the end). Someone who didn’t understand how The Avengers works would complain that the mind-transfer gadget seen here is clearly much less advanced than the one in use nearly a decade earlier in the episode Who’s Who?, but not me, obviously. I hadn’t watched this one in about a quarter of a century and don’t feel this was a particular mistake. There were worse episodes to end the season on (the best episodes of which I would probably suggest are Cat Among the Pigeons and Target!), and as a whole this is still a relatively consistent and solidly entertaining set of shows – all credit due to Clemens, Spooner and the main cast.

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For a film to become a genuine object of nostalgia, one important factor is that – ideally – it shouldn’t have any dodgy sequels dragging down its reputation in a sort of guilt-by-association way (or at least, no high-profile ones). Well, it’s an idea, anyway, and bearing it in mind it will be interesting to see if people’s attitudes to Top Gun change from this point forward. We have discussed in the past the notion of the Optimum Interval Before Sequel; if James Cameron is pushing it with a 13-year gap between the first and second Avatar films, what are we to make of the 36 year wait for a Top Gun film? But perhaps this is a discussion best saved for when that movie is the one in our crosshairs (the blog’s Anglo-Iranian affairs consultant is very keen to see it, hence the fact I’ve finally got around to watching the original).

Top Gun, released in 1986 and directed by Tony Scott, is remembered for many things, including its aerial photography, Tom Cruise’s teeth, Giorgio Moroder’s soundtrack, Tom Cruise’s underpants, the fact the US Navy treated it as the world’s most lavish recruitment video, and – possibly – a profoundly homo-erotic subtext. (It also established Cruise as a major star, if you really care about that sort of thing.) But it seems to be fairly overlooked as the film which really launched Tony Scott’s career as a director – his previous film The Hunger didn’t make much of an impression, and it was this one which paved the way for a successful (if not always critically popular) career turning out (for the most part) good-looking mainstream thrillers. (Scott never had quite the versatility of his brother Ridley.)

Certainly it’s the look of the film that strikes you from the start: jet fighters taxi about in silhouette, surrounded by support crew, the sky is a rich yellow-orange, it’s all very glossy and attractive. We eventually figure out we’re on an American aircraft carrier in the ‘present day’ (i.e. the depths of the Reagan Era) in the Indian Ocean, where those pesky Commies keep flying where they shouldn’t. A tense stand-off ensues between a flight of American jets and some (fictional) MiG-28s; unorthodox flying from pilot Maverick (Cruise) sees them off, but the squadron’s lead flier Cougar is severely rattled by the incident and needs coaxing down out of the sky.

A rather identikit scene follows in which Maverick and his sidekick Goose (Anthony Edwards in a wispy moustache) are dragged over the coals for their undisciplined behaviour by the commander, but, because the premise of the film is predicated on this, he is still obliged to send them off to Top Gun school, where the Navy’s elite fighter pilots receive advanced tuition.

Whatever shortcomings Maverick may have in terms of shortness, he makes up for them with an ego the size of an aircraft carrier, which does not initially endear him to either his classmates at the school (his most prominent rival is Iceman, played by Val Kilmer) or the instructors (the film is given a bit of heft by the presence of Tom Skerritt in a rather more luxuriant moustache and Michael Ironside, who is clean-shaven). Maverick, however, is more concerned with getting in the good books of civilian tutor Charlotte Blackwood (Kelly McGillis), even if she is a little bit older than him (what can I say, maybe Maverick’s former buddy isn’t the only cougar in the film). Can Maverick win the Top Gun prize and convince the Navy, not to mention the rest of the world, as to how brilliant he really is?

Well, yes, of course he can. One interpretation of Top Gun is that it’s essentially the story of a man who begins the film utterly convinced of his own brilliance and ends it with that confirmed and praised by everyone around him. Perhaps I’m just being very British but that kind of character arc is a bit of a hard sell for me: I’d find someone like Maverick very hard work to be around (then again I find quite a lot of people hard work to be around, and I’m sure they’d say the same about me).

Of course, it’s not quite as simple as all that: Maverick doesn’t have it all his own way, and experiences the requisite major wobble at the end of the second act of the film, at which point he duly contends with a bout of self-doubt. What is telling, however, is that he’s never really called upon to reflect on any flaws he may have in his own character – said wobble, even though it the results in the (inevitable and rather predictable) death of Goose, is not his fault; everyone goes out of their way to say as much. Any griping about Maverick could just be sour grapes or jealousy on the part of the gripers; the film is always on his side. The result of this is that some parts of the film feel a bit unpalatable nowadays, due to their boisterous jockishness – the sequence near the start, for instance, when Maverick takes a bet on whether or not he can have sex with McGillis on the premises of the bar where they first meet.

So the story is pretty slim and mostly about how great Tom Cruise (and/or Maverick) is. (The much-discussed gay subtext to Top Gun seems to me to be one of those things which is only there if you look for it: there are a lot of men in towels, and the love interest is called Charlie, but even so – it’s not as if all of the ‘evidence’ really stands up. The scene in which McGillis is supposedly dressed as a man and wearing a baseball cap looks the way it does because this was a reshoot done weeks later and the actress had different hair.) However, one must not underestimate just how appealing the general aesthetics of the film are, nor the fact that there are some decent character turns occurring amongst the supporting cast.

The element of Top Gun which everyone seems to agree about is the aerial photography, which is indeed highly impressive and often quite exciting. Anyone wanting to watch jets going back and forth very fast in the sunlight will have no cause for complaint here. What I would suggest is that Scott and his editors haven’t quite figured out a way to present an actual dogfight in cinematic turns – there are lots of cuts between planes whizzing about in different directions and the heads of the actors in the cockpits, but in order to know what’s actually going on you’re fairly dependent on following the dialogue (and even here it is more a question of tone than detail).

Nevertheless, I can see why this film did so well at the time, although I remain to be convinced that so many years on we really need a sequel to it. For the time being (a period we can now realistically measure in days) it remains a well-liked piece of superficial, cheesy, 80s kitsch, the closest thing to Dirty Dancing it’s acceptable for a man to like. I don’t think it’s a particularly good film, but I did sort of enjoy it.

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One of those genuinely gritty and realistic New Avengers episodes we have heard so much about but so rarely seen shows up in the form of To Catch a Rat, not written by either of the show’s main scribes but Terence Feely. It opens with a flashback to Germany in 1960, where British agent Irwin Gunner (Ian Hendry) is laying a trap for a mole within the organisation. It doesn’t quite come off, but he still manages to put a bullet in the traitor’s leg. Gunner’s cover is as a trapeze artist (possibly inspired by Hendry’s own circus background, which also informed the first-season Avengers episode Girl on the Trapeze) and, rather unfortunately, the man whose job it is to catch Gunner, Cledge (Barry Jackson), is in league with the mole. Gunner plunges to the ground, suffering serious injuries and amnesia.

Nevertheless, he somehow makes his way back to Britain (his banged-up body turns up on a ship for some reason) and ends up in a nursing home for the perpetually confused – until, sixteen or seventeen years later, a random bump on the head makes his memories come back. Gunner is determined to expose the mole, but still isn’t sure which of his old colleagues he is – the leg wound is the only clue.

Nevertheless, he is still trying to make radio contact, using outdated call-signs and other protocols, which is how Steed and the others come into the story. What ensues is basically them trying to find Gunner, while Gunner tries to find the traitor, and the traitor and his minions try to get to him first. It’s not quite as much of a runaround as that probably makes it sound, but it is notable as the first episode that doesn’t easily lend itself to a ‘this is the episode where…’ summarisation, unless you go for ‘this is the one where Ian Hendry comes back’, which doesn’t tell you much about the plot but at least communicates the main point of interest for long-term watchers of the show.

Those long-term watchers are often wont to regret the fact that Hendry isn’t playing David Keel, which from a certain perspective would have been the logical thing to do with him. Then again, maybe the script was written first, or Hendry refused to countenance the idea, or the producers made the reasonable decision that the majority of The New Avengers‘ audience wouldn’t have been familiar with the first season of the parent show. Apart from depriving the fans of their little thrill, the only problem with casting Hendry as Gunner is that he’s a slightly unhinged character with an odd accent, neither of which really play to Hendry’s natural strengths as an actor. I can imagine him being equally good in, say, Edward Judd’s role (this episode is a bonanza for British movie stars of a certain vintage). Judd is also quite as good as you might expect given his work elsewhere.

This time it’s both Steed and Gambit who get pushed into the background just a little bit, and it surely is a huge missed opportunity that Patrick Macnee and Ian Hendry only get one very short scene together. It’s a push to call To Catch a Rat a flat-out bad episode, but it feels a little flat and unimaginative compared to what the series has already done.

Another low-concept runaround happens along in the form of Brian Clemens’ The Tale of the Big Why, which is basically a fun-in-the-countryside romp with a slightly harder edge than would have been the case in the 60s (I’m put in mind of the Rigg episode Dead Man’s Treasure, which would also have been a decent title for this one). It also sees the inauguration of the animated title sequence where the figures of the lead trio eventually morph into a slightly jingoistic Union Jack-hued British lion.

A man named Brandon (frequent heavy George A Cooper, third of three) is due to be released from prison after a lengthy sentence for spying; he has been trying to make a deal all this time, claiming he has something valuable to trade with. Everyone naturally wants to know what it is; Steed has Gambit inserted into the prison as Brandon’s cellmate but doesn’t learn much. Also on the trail are a couple of nasty pieces of work known as Roach and Poole (Roach is played by Gary Waldhorn, an actor best remembered as stuffy authority figures in various sitcoms, but an effective villain here) – there is a bit of fluff about them being Russian agents who have gone native – ‘Capitalism rubs off’ says Roach – but this hardly informs the plot.

Anyway, Brandon leaves prison, clearly having some kind of a plan to capitalise on the mysterious leverage he possesses, pursued by all the interested parties (Purdey doesn’t seem to have entirely grasped the concept of undercover work, as she is wearing a jumpsuit with her name written on the back). This doesn’t stop Roach and Poole from ambushing and killing him – but there’s no sign of the package he previously retrieved. Where has has it gone, and – more importantly – what’s in the box?

Once again, I feel this episode misses the strong ‘the one where…’ hook that the most memorable instalments possess, but it looks great, is very nicely directed, and has an interestingly twisty-turny narrative to it. You do have to cut the story some slack: Steed and the others know quite early on that Roach and Poole killed Brandon, and are now shadowing them, but do absolutely nothing about this simply because the structure of the episode demands events unfold this way. And it does allow for some decent set-pieces: the bad guys attack Steed in his lovely home, and Steed avoids being blasted by Poole’s shotgun by the simple expedient of sticking his armoured bowler over the end of the barrel (the backblast sends the villain flying). It’s not good for the hat, though – ‘He should see a phrenologist,’ says Gambit. ‘He needs a phrenologist like a hole in the head,’ counters Purdey. (I feel I haven’t acknowledged how consistently good the repartee between the three regulars is on this show, both in terms of the writing and their performance of it.)

It’s entertaining stuff, but – as is the case with the previous episode – I’m not just watching The New Avengers for rolling countrysides and twisty plotting and the three stars being witty; I’m also here for the borderline fantasy and SF elements which were present in the earlier episodes of the season. These more ‘realistic’ episodes always pale in comparison to them, for me.

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Every once in a while a film comes along which you can tell that the usual channels of publicity and distribution are struggling to cope with – it’s a bit left-field, in other words, possibly doing something weird with genres, and it’s not at all clear who the actual target audience is. One pretty reliable sign of this is that the trailer for it starts showing up in all sorts of odd places, as the result of a ‘enough mud sticks’ advertising strategy.

The current case in point for this sort of thing is Tom Gormican’s The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent. The title itself is perhaps a bit indicative as it sounds like it might be a reference to something else, but it’s not clear exactly what – The Unbearable Lightness of Being? Incredibly Loud and Extremely Close? Something else entirely?

Things start off conventionally enough, as a young woman is kidnapped at gunpoint. The film pays an unusual level of attention to the film she’s watching at the time, however (it is the rather good 1997 action movie Con Air), particularly its star, Nicolas Cage. However, we are soon off into the strange netherworld where The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent takes place.

We find ourselves at a meeting between film director David Gordon Green (David Gordon Green) and actor and movie star Nick Cage (Nicolas Cage). Cage is, it seems, an insecure, self-obsessed, and almost pathologically needy egomaniac, who insists on performing selections from Green’s latest script in the restaurant where they are having lunch. (Nick Cage is haunted by the spectral figure of his own uninhibited younger self; the actor credited in this role is ‘Nicolas Kim Coppola’.) Barely credibly, he does not get the part, which has an unfortunate influence on Cage’s contribution to his teenage daughter’s birthday party. His latest ex-wife (Sharon Horgan) throws him out as a result, sending him into a bit of a slump. (I feel the need to make it clear that Nicolas Cage and Sharon Horgan have never actually been married in what is generally agreed to be real life.)

Salvation, financially at least, comes when Cage is invited to Mallorca for the birthday party of an immensely rich super-fan, Javi (Pedro Pascal) – basically a paid personal appearance. It doesn’t do much for his mood, however, and Javi is appalled to discover that Cage is considering giving up acting – especially as he hasn’t even read the screenplay Javi has written for him yet.

But Nick Cage finds he has bigger problems, when he is picked up off the street by the CIA. Lead agent Tiffany Haddish reveals that Javi isn’t just an innocuous multi-millionaire, but the head of an international criminal cartel which has recently kidnapped the daughter of an influential politician. The CIA needs someone on the inside of Javi’s compound to locate and free the missing girl – could this be the role that Cage has been waiting for?

Well. Deciding whether this film is for you or not is a fairly straightforward question, and that question is ‘Do you want to spend one-hundred-and-seven minutes watching Nicolas Cage send himself up?’ Clearly someone believes there is a large enough audience that does, although this same someone may also have spent too much time on the internet and listening to the dozens of podcasts which concern themselves with the actor and his career. It is quite hard to imagine this film being made with any other actor in the lead role, mainly because Cage has become such an outlandish and mockable figure over the few years or so – stories abound about his ‘nouveau shamanic’ acting method, while his career trajectory over the last few decades (from Oscar-winning Hollywood A-lister to a string of DTV movies with titles like Jiu Jitsu and Kill Chain) would also indicate a career experiencing a degree of crisis. (I should perhaps mention that a Cage renaissance may well be in progress: Cage’s most recent movies have received favourable reviews and – perhaps more importantly – played in theatres.)

Whatever else this film has going for it, it is built around an immensely game and extremely funny performance by Cage himself, although of course it’s hard to be sure just how much of a stretch it is for Nicolas Cage to play Nick Cage. (Fictional-Cage’s personal history is slightly different from real-Cage’s.) It’s probably also worth mentioning that this is an essentially generous film, with no sign of any desire to really mock or deride its star (it’s doubtful whether Cage himself would have been dumb enough to sign up for such a role.

Beyond that, it’s a little unclear exactly what the idea behind this film is, beyond perhaps just being the Nicolas-Cage-iest movie ever made. There’s something quite meta and undeniably clever about the way the film manages to combine elements of the sort of semi-experimental film Cage was occasionally appearing in twenty years ago – he played a fictionalised version of Charlie Kaufman, not to mention Kaufman’s entirely fictional twin, in Adaptation – with the kind of action-movie nonsense which has bulked out his career since parting company with the mainstream last decade. But the emphasis is always on knockabout, broad comedy and Cage hamming it up; there’s a suggestion of something cleverer and more subtle – Nick Cage and Javi start collaborating on a screenplay, which as it develops takes on a suspicious resemblance to the plot of The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent – but this extra layer of self-referentiality is not as central to the movie as it would be if this really was a Kaufman script.

Nevertheless, it’s all ridiculous enough to be consistently entertaining, and Cage is well supported by Pascal and Horgan (who is as majestic as ever). The Javi role is a tricky one, as it calls for someone who can work opposite Cage without being completely overshadowed, but who still isn’t what you’d call an actual star in the same way he is. Pascal is a shrewd choice for this, as he’s currently experiencing a bit of a career moment, but also best known for a role where he has a bucket on his head most of the time. He is clearly a smart enough actor to figure out that he’s here to support Cage rather than actually co-star in the movie, but manages to do so in a way which should earn him some credit.

In some ways a knockabout, acutely self-referential comedy is the last film you would expect to find Nicolas Cage appearing in – but then this actor’s cult has largely been born of his willingness to make unusual choices. It would be nice to think that such a distinctive and charismatic performer has another act left in his career that will see him return from the DTV wilderness and do some genuinely interesting work again. It’s quite hard to tell whether The Unbearable Weight of Massive Talent is a step on that journey or just another nail in the coffin of the whole idea of Nicolas Cage as a serious actor, but – always assuming you enjoy watching Cage – it’s a lot of fun while it lasts.

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It’s entirely possible I haven’t watched The Midas Touch since the last time The New Avengers was on terrestrial TV; it’s certainly not one of the episodes I would automatically reach for as an example of the series at its best. Why this should be is all in the carpentry of the story, I would suggest: the premise is a decent one and there are some nice touches, but the core of the episode is somehow not quite sound.

The plot proper gets underway with a squad of armed men searching some wasteland near London, under the command of this week’s villain, Professor Turner (David Swift, second of two). They are watched with some concern by a tramp (John Carson, fourth of four) whom has already been established as a burnt-out former colleague of Steed’s (this is done in a very nicely written and played scene between Carson and Patrick Macnee). The gag is that the heavily-armed and cautious bad guys are actually searching for a cute little white bunny – the further gag is that when the little critter nips one of the soldiers on the hand while being picked up, Turner has the man shot on the spot.

Off in another part of the story, Steed and his partners have received word that emissaries are on their way to London to negotiate for the services of someone or something known as Midas, for which substantial sums will be changing hands. They apprehend one of the envoys after an attempt is made on his life; he is played by Ronald Lacey (third of three), which would be fine were he not meant to be from Hong Kong. Lacey’s attempt at a Chinese accent – he sounds like a bad Peter Lorre impression – just makes a really awkward element of the plot even worse.

Oh well. With the Chinese off the scene the field is wide open for someone else to hire Midas, who is of course Professor Turner’s creation: Turner is an expert in bacteriological warfare, late of ‘Pilton Down’, and has hit upon the idea of making someone who is an asymptomatic carrier of every deadly disease known to man – just touching Midas’ skin results in a rapid and painful death (‘They died of everything!’ cries a bizarrely-accented Chris Tranchell, playing a doctor examining some of Midas’ victims). But who is Midas’ target and how can they stop him?

Well, the idea of the assassin as a sort of pandemic on two legs is an arresting one, but it obviously doesn’t really stand up to scrutiny (at least not as a precision weapon – even Midas’ own handlers have to wear a 70s version of a hazmat suit around him). Nor does much of the rest of the plot, which is convoluted without being especially interesting and heavily reliant on coincidence (Steed’s old friend just happening to stumble across Turner’s plan, for instance). On the other hand, this is something of a showcase for the stunt team (some good car chases and running around – lots of the action shots from the first series’ opening credits come from this episode) and there are some witty moments (Gambit and Purdey casually discuss John Huston movies in the middle of a hot pursuit). On the other other hand, there’s all the stuff with the non-Asian Chinese casting and yet more tacky moments with people lusting after Purdey. In the end I suppose it just about passes muster, but it does feel like a central gimmick in search of a better plot.

Someone else finally gets their name on a New Avengers script next, in the person of Dennis Spooner and the shape of Cat Amongst the Pigeons. The facts that this is possibly the best episode yet and that Spooner is, in my opinion, one of the great underrated geniuses of British fantasy TV may not be unrelated – though the fact it seems to be consciously trying to emulate the style of a Philip Levene script from the old show may have something to do with it, too. It opens with a pet shop owner hearing an eerie whistle, which is closely followed by the mysterious disappearance of all his bird stock. Elsewhere, this week’s doomed-colleague-of-the-trio is trying to call in a plan to assassinate one Hugh Rydercroft (Basil Dignam, second of two), a senior figure at the Ministry of Ecology. He hears the same mysterious whistle and next he is jumping off a cliff to escape… something. (At least he doesn’t actually die, but he’s too injured to spill the beans.)

Steed and the others double-check Rydercroft’s travel precautions, much to the annoyance of his own security people, and eventually let him fly off on a trip to Europe, piloting his own plane. But at the appointed time something happens and the plane falls out of the sky for no immediately apparent reason. But the wreckage is festooned with feathers and a guest character with something to prove finds a bird ring from a nearby sanctuary, which he promptly goes off to investigate alone without telling anyone else. Will he survive to the closing credits? Or even the last ad break? (Hint: no.)

Once it is revealed that Rydercroft and a few colleagues have been working on a plan to savagely cull bird numbers (doesn’t sound very ecological to me, but I digress), old hands will probably be able to write the rest of the episode for themselves. A bird fancier and former magician named Zarcardi (a great role for Vladek Sheybal, probably best known for playing SPECTRE’s strategic genius in From Russia With Love) is trying to stop the plan using his uncanny ability to control birds with a special flute: he can cause bird-strikes, sneak birds of prey into people’s offices and cars, call down ravenous flocks to peck people to death, and so on. Needless to say someone makes a reference to The Birds at one point.

To be honest, the mid-section of the episode unravels into a collection of set-pieces rather than a developing plot, but they are such good set-pieces: directed like a horror movie, with good work from the bird trainers (though it’s obvious on subsequent viewings the actual number of birds involved is minimal) and some good performances from the guest cast: Peter Copley (third of three) is one of the scientists, Hugh Walters plays a nervous crash investigator, and the great Kevin Stoney (second of two) doesn’t get enough to do as a creepy plot-expositor who’s been blinded by (we presume) a bird attack. It follows the structure of a classic Levene script very closely, even concluding with a reprise of the ‘Pussy Galore!’ gag from The Hidden Tiger (perhaps its most obvious antecedent). It’s not surprising that this is an episode which bears comparison with the original series.

The same is true of Target!, which I originally wrote about towards the end of 2014: it’s the one where the robot firing range has been suborned by enemy agents. What can I add at this point? Well, only a few things: research now indicates it is quite unlikely that the police box in this episode is the one from the Dalek movies. Also, in an attempt to drag my young nephew away from brain-rotting YouTube videos, we ended up watching a handful of episodes of The New Avengers together, including this one. I am happy to say he seemed to find it entertaining and engaging. Also, when you watch these episodes in order it is quite obvious that most of the action sequences are being given to Joanna Lumley and Gareth Hunt (perhaps understandably, given Macnee was in his mid-fifties at the time) – Gambit getting the hero role and saving the day isn’t quite as incongruous in context.

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There’s something oddly familiar about the opening sequence of Robert Eggers’ The Northman, and it took me a moment to figure out what it was: smoke belches from the bowels of the earth into an ominous sky, thunder rumbles, and a gravelly-to-the-point-of-being-impossible-to-understand voice-over proclaims we are about the hear the legendary story of a prince and his quest for a terrible revenge in a long-past mystic era…

And I was a bit thrown when a thunderously bombastic Basil Poledouris score didn’t crash in and drive the movie on through the opening credits (like an increasing number of modern movies, it doesn’t even have a title card until the very end). The opening of The Northman recreates the beginning of John Milius’ version of Conan the Barbarian so carefully that it doesn’t seem possible that this is a coincidence – in fact, you could argue that in some ways this is the most authentic recreation of the original Conan stories brought to the screen for many years, right down to individual scenes recreating moments from the text (provided you ignore the fact the film has no explicit links to Robert E Howard’s creation and is specifically set in a different time and place).

Ethan Hawke plays King Aurvandill War-Raven, a Dark Ages king from modern Norway, who is knocking on enough to be thinking about the succession issues that will inevitably occur when he eventually takes an axe to the guts he just can’t walk away from (it comes to us all eventually). He duly takes his young son Amleth down into the cavern beneath the local shrine to Odin where, together with Willem Defoe, they put on leather shorts and bark like dogs for a while (this is by no means the last unexpectedly startling scene in the movie). It turns out that Aurvandill was right to be concerned, as not long after he is murdered by his brother Fjolnir (Claes Bang), who seizes the title and also his brother’s widow (Nicole Kidman).

Well, the only option left for young Amleth is to swear to avenge his father, rescue his mother and kill his uncle, and make his escape across the North Sea by rowing boat until he’s big and strong enough to mount a decent roaring rampage of revenge. He ends up, as luck would have it, somewhere in eastern Europe, becoming a member of a band of berserker warriors and turning into the strapping figure of Alexander Skarsgard somewhere along the way.

All the howling at the moon and tearing people’s throats out with his teeth seems to have distracted Amleth from his oath of vengeance, but luckily a passing seeress with a very impressive hat made of corn (she is played by Bjork, who may well have provided her own costume) reminds him of the destiny that awaits him, and obliging reveals that Fjolnir has been booted out of Norway and settled down in Iceland. Instantly deciding to get on with the whole avenging deal – in fact, so instantly one is almost inclined to raise an eyebrow, but there are many things about The Northman you just have to sit back and go with – Amleth sneaks aboard a boat taking slaves off to Iceland, where he meets Olga (Anya Taylor-Joy), who is not just a slave but also a Slav. However, etymology is not key amongst the topics they discuss during the trip, just her potential usefulness to his plans and the prospects for a Scandi-Slav hook-up before the movie is over…

As you can perhaps tell, this is the kind of historical epic that Hollywood used to regularly make not very well, frequently starring people like Tony Curtis or Alan Ladd. Those old movies tended to be enjoyable only as pieces of camp; The Northman is a bit melodramatic in places but in general it seems to expect to be taken seriously. Whether or not this is possible is another question – it’s certainly an impressive-looking and powerfully atmospheric movie but in its best moments it is so outrageously and concertedly over-the-top it can be a little difficult to keep a straight face while watching it.

The on-the-ball reader will already have figured out that the legend of Amleth, his dead father and his usurping uncle has already inspired not just Hamlet but also The Lion King, so it’s not like we’re dealing with a bold new story idea here (although the treatment is obviously different – ‘to behead or not to behead, that is the question’). However, in many ways the story structure keeps on ringing bells – the treatment of a pagan, viscerally brutal world is powerful, but the underlying narrative keeps on hitting very traditional beats. Supporters of the film will probably say that this is the point – it’s an archetypal story drawing on the same folk-legends that have inspired many previous writers (Robert E Howard amongst them). Nevertheless, I think it’s a shame that a film which is obviously the work of people with real vision and creativity should also be quite so predictable.

That said, the kind of audience that seems most likely to respond to The Northman probably won’t be going along in search of great narrative subtleties. Anyone without much of an appetite for crunching violence, heavy gore, and frequent mutilation may find the film tough going, for all that the film also has visual imagination in spades. Eggers himself was apparently a bit concerned before taking the project on that the film would tap into too many stereotypes of white supremacist culture: a particularly bonkers flavour of Caucasian hetero-normativity.

Certainly the film is striking in its adherence to a particular vision of life in the Dark Ages. All the things that usually get slipped into this kind of film when they’re made by a big studio are absent – there’s no comedy relief, no attempt to import modern sensibilities or present past cultures as somehow analogous to modern societies. This is the sort of thing that almost sounds logical, given we’re talking about a historical drama, but it marks The Northman out as niche rather than mainstream entertainment, and potentially controversial entertainment at that.

Let’s just say it likely has cult status in its future. There is a lot here to enjoy – Nicole Kidman gives one of her best performances in ages, and the rest of the cast are also strong; the action is often superbly mounted; and Eggers creates a coherent and convincing world for the story to unfold in. It’s just that it’s all a little bit too predictable, almost coming across as another headbangingly macho action movie even though it’s clear that Eggers has slightly more elevated concerns. In the end there remains a question mark over whether it’s possible to take The Northman seriously as a drama, given the setting and the subject matter. Some people may be able to – but I’m not sure I can, at least not completely. But I did have a good time watching it.

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