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Posts Tagged ‘Bob Hoskins’

Ahem. Please be aware: plot spoilers, not to mention effing and jeffing, lie ahead. 

When George Harrison died in 2001, as well as all the tributes and remembrances relating to his musical career, many tributes were paid to his work in the film industry as well. It is fair to say that, as proprietor of Handmade Films, Harrison was responsible for several examples of the kind of wrong-headed extravaganzas that did the British film industry no favours in the 1980s: Water, Shanghai Surprise, and Bullshot, as well as numerous even more obscure films. Set against this, though, one must consider his role in some of the very best films made in the UK in the same period – starting with Monty Python’s Life of Brian, and going on to include Time Bandits, Mona Lisa and Withnail & I, any one of which would be a source of pride for the average producer.

One gets the impression that Harrison and his company made a habit of riding in like the cavalry to save a production in peril after the initial backers got scared. Handmade was only set up in the first place because Harrison really wanted to see Life of Brian and could only guarantee that if he paid for it himself. Another early Handmade release was of a film struggling for political rather than religious reasons, despite the title: John Mackenzie’s The Long Good Friday. Made in 1979, by 1980 the original distributor had got cold feet and was attempting to sell a hacked-down version to a TV network. Handmade took the film off their hands and thus secured the reputation of one of the greatest British thrillers. (Yeah, I know I should have done this one last weekend, when it was, you know, Good Friday. Hey ho.)

Bob ‘Oskins plays Harold Shand, an upwardly-mobile London entrepreneur. Despite having a somewhat chequered past, things are looking up for Harold – he and his partner (Helen Mirren) are prosperous,  and his contacts in local government and the police are paying off, with a major redevelopment of the docklands planned, to tie in with London’s bid for the 1988 Olympics. All this will take place provided he can secure the assistance of some foreign backers: some gentlemen from New York City, representing a large family concern. No-one in this proposed agreement is using the word ‘gangster’, of course…

But then, in the space of a few hours, Harold’s Rolls Royce is destroyed by a car bomb, his best friend is stabbed to death, and two other bombs are left at establishments he has an interest in. Someone is attempting to muscle in on Harold’s manor, and they’re not playing by the usual rules. Then evidence comes to light suggesting that the bombs have come from Belfast: the newcomers are not just crooks on the make, but an IRA detachment – an enemy the like of which Harold and his firm have never faced before…

Well, the problem the original financiers had with this film was that it might be perceived to be pro-IRA in its politics. I don’t think it is, really: it’s more a case of it being anti-Thatcherite. Certainly Harold Shand has the kind of go-getting, fiercely aggressive entrepreneurial spirit that in some ways defined the 80s. His eagerness to go into business with the Americans, and his attitude to the Irish problem are also very reminiscent of the UK government of the time. While all this is astute, it’s also remarkably prescient given it was made in the same year Thatcher was first elected. It doesn’t reflect British politics of its time so much as predict them, with great accuracy.

The film’s crystal ball extends to the casting department, as The Long Good Friday is a bonanza for Before They Were Famous fans – lurking down the cast list of this film are well-known British faces like Kevin McNally, Dexter Fletcher, Derek Thompson, Gillian Taylforth, Paul Barber and Karl Howman. Famously, though, this is Pierce Brosnan’s first film. I’ve seen it listed in the paper as a ‘crime thriller starring Bob Hoskins and Pierce Brosnan’, which is pushing it a bit, as Brosnan’s in it for less than five minutes and has only one word of dialogue.

This was no doubt a source of some regret for Pierce as the dialogue in this film is uncommonly good. Barrie Keeffe’s script is tight (you have to work out a few details of the backstory for yourself, but this is not an onerous task) and filled with good lines that manage to be blackly comic while still ringing true to character and situation. ‘Right! Frostbite or verbals!’ Harold shouts, interrogating the opposition in a refrigerated meat locker. Also, appalled at the ruthlessness of his opponents: ‘You don’t crucify people outside a church! Not on Good Friday!’ And berating his former associates for their lack of commitment to the cause, ‘A sleeping partner’s one thing, but you’re in a fahkin’ coma!’

One could go on and on, but beyond the script is a ferociously committed performance by Bob Hoskins. Doing Super Mario Bros. really seems to have been the death blow to Hoskins’ career as a leading man in big movies, which is a terrible shame as this movie proves he is an immensely talented actor. Throughout the film, Harold’s predicament sees him sliding back into methods and attitudes he clearly thought he’d left behind him. And this is an unthinking regression – Hoskins plays the brutality of the gang boss chillingly (and this is a savagely violent film in parts), but he’s also affecting in the moments when Harold realises just how he’s behaving. As the film goes on, you doubt his wisdom and future prospects more and more, but you never completely lose your sympathy for him. The film’s politics are implicit, but Harold’s story grips from start to finish.

And what a finish it is: one of the best in cinema, five minutes perfectly conceived and executed, a brilliant conclusion to the story and a dark prediction as to the future of British attitudes – towards Northern Ireland, and much else. It works as well as it does because of Hoskins – a barnstorming monologue of arrogance and hubris is followed by a long, silent shot in which Harold’s world falls apart. I’ve talked about notable moments of screen acting quite a bit recently – Richard Benjamin and Yul Brynner in Westworld, Claire Danes in Stardust – but the final shot of this movie is exceptional. Hoskins’ character convincingly runs the gamut of emotions from shock, through rage and horror, and then finally to grim acceptance, and you always understand exactly what he’s feeling despite the fact he barely moves and never says a word.

To be honest, this single moment is so good it tends to overshadow the rest of the film for me. This is a shame, as The Long Good Friday is filled with great lines, interesting moments, and has a huge amount to say for itself. I tend to find American gangster movies get a little bit lost in the dubious mystique of the mob: the food and the clothes and the rest of the lifestyle are presented just a little bit too alluringly. But like Get Carter, The Long Good Friday isn’t afraid to present a rather different and much grimmer portrait of organised crime. This is a serious film and a seriously good one.

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One of the more interesting phenomena in cinema is when power and success goes to a young director’s head somewhat, with the results generally being interesting, if possibly not that person’s best work: the ensuing films are ambitious, startlingly off-the-wall, but also frequently overblown and audience-unfriendly. It happened to Spielberg with 1941, it happened to Edgar Wright with Scott Pilgrim vs The World, and – I recently discovered – it happened to Neil Marshall with the 2008 film Doomsday.

This was the (relatively) big-budget follow-up to Dog Soldiers and The Descent, a couple of pared-down but effective and well-received horror movies about people going off to the woods and being jumped on by monsters. The events of Doomsday take place on a wider canvas. When a lethal and highly-contagious viral outbreak takes place in present-day Glasgow (the exact cause is not delved into, but I expect someone tried deep-frying something they shouldn’t have), panic and violence rapidly spread. The British government quickly order the construction of an armoured wall separating Scotland from the rest of the UK, and leave the country to its own dark fate (all this, by the way, without any bickering over referendum dates or wrangling about a possible ‘third option’ – food for thought there for Alex Salmond, methinks).

Anyway, in the year 2035 Scotland is a barren, desolate, uninviting wasteland (insert your own joke here), while the aftereffects of the catastrophe have transformed England into a decaying, repressive autocracy, ruled over by grasping crypto-fascists like the prime minister (Siddig el Fadil) and his advisor (David O’Hara), and policed by security chief Nelson (Bob ‘Oskins) and his top agent, Eden Sinclair (Rhona Mitra). When there is another outbreak of the virus, this time in central London, disaster looms. But there is one slim hope: there are signs that human life has survived north of the border, in which case they must have discovered a cure. Sinclair and a crack team of squaddies are loaded into a couple of APCs forthwith and packed off to the ruins of Glasgow in search of a top virologist (Malcolm McDowell), left behind there during the quarantine. Sinclair’s orders are clear: come back with the antidote or not at all!

Doomsday is one of those movies where you can spend a lot of time thinking ‘I’ve seen this bit before… and this bit… and this bit…’ While the opening scenes clearly owe a debt to the 28 … Later movies, as the film progresses the influence of John Carpenter (particularly, Escape from New York) and George Miller (Mad Max, rather than Babe) becomes rather more dominant – though to be fair the film openly acknowledges its sources by naming a couple of minor characters after the directors in question. To begin with, at least, the film manages to take all these elements and mash them together to make something with a semblance of originality to it, and the first act of the film is rather engaging. It reminded me most of all of the original Cursed Earth comic strip from the British comic 2000AD, and it strikes me that the producers of the new Judge Dredd movie have really missed a trick in not getting Marshall involved in the production: on the strength of this film, he has exactly the right kind of sensibility for it.

Possibly best not to let him write the script, though: the first-act set-up is perfectly serviceable here, but as the film goes on it increasingly falls to bits, with elements included seemingly on a whim or because Marshall thought they would look cool, and key elements of the plot not properly articulated. Most fundamentally, the driver for the narrative here is the search for the cure – and when Sinclair finally catches up with Macdowell’s character, he rather vaguely waffles on about how ‘natural selection’ has given him and his followers ‘immunity’ to the virus. That, I think you’ll agree, is a stroke of good luck, given he’s an expert on viruses and all (even if it makes sense, which I strongly doubt). We’re talking about a Maguffin, obviously, but does it have to be such a blatant one?

One gets a sense that narrative cohesion was less of a priority for the film-makers than the startling excesses which run through this film from beginning to end – right at the start, the tone is set when someone gets shot, but they’re not just shot: their hand is messily blown off. Dismemberments and decapitations are frequent, rabbits get blown to pieces, well-known British actors are barbecued alive and eaten, and so on. (To say nothing of the scene with the naked blonde packing a pump-action shotgun.) I don’t have a problem with any of this stuff per se, but it does make Doomsday very difficult to take seriously as an actual SF action movie rather than a lurid piece of exploitation junk.

Matters are not helped by the fact that the senior members of the cast (and here I’m thinking of Hoskins and Macdowell) don’t get a great deal of screen time. (Adrian Lester is lumbered with a curiously underwritten role as the main character’s sidekick.) The bulk of carrying this movie falls on the shoulders of Rhona Mitra, who is agreeable enough to look upon, but not conspicuously equipped (on the strength of this performance) with either acting ability or screen presence. She is basically playing an undistinguished exponent of that tedious mainstay of the dimbo SF/horror action genre, the Ass-Kicking Babe – much like Kate Beckinsale in Underworld and its sequels, Milla Jovovich in Resident Evil and its spawn, or Sanaa Lathan in Alien vs Predator.

Those last two examples should be setting alarm bells ringing in the heads of right-minded folk, as they are both part of the oeuvre of the king of the trashy mid-budget genre movie, Paul W.S. Anderson. Even though I wasn’t much impressed with the way Doomsday unravelled throughout its length, eventually becoming not much more than a lumpy pastiche of its sources, I am still hesitant to describe it as basically resembling a Paul W.S. Anderson film, for fear of sounding too harsh. The fact remains that it does – an unusually imaginative and well-mounted Paul W.S. Anderson movie, to be sure, but still part of the canon. I suppose that if Anderson himself was responsible I’d be praising it as a great step forward – but he wasn’t, Neil Marshall was, and as a result Doomsday, though fairly entertaining, is inevitably a bit of a disappointment.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published September 1st 2005: 

Hello again everyone, and welcome to another edition of the film review column that’s slightly rippled with a flat underside. Brain cells are strictly optional this week as we examine the latest offering from two of cinema’s premier knuckleheads, Jet Li and Luc Besson. Well, that’s probably a bit unfair, as both have been involved in making some rather good movies in the past – but then again they’ve both also been involved in some frightful yappers in their time. So, is their new film Unleashed (directed by Louis Leterrier) a triumphant fusion of Hero and Leon, or an appalling mixture of Lethal Weapon 4 and The Fifth Element?

This being a Besson-scripted movie it is of course a stylised and extremely violent thriller without, it must be said, much of a stranglehold on reality. The alternative title Danny the Dog sums up the premise rather well: Jet plays a guy called Danny who has been raised as a dog by gor-blimey Cockney gangster Bart (Bob Hoskins, slumming it). Bart has trained Danny to attack on command, which he appears to have to do rather a lot in the course of Bart’s protection-racketeering lifestyle – this seems a bit contrived seeing as Bart is supposed to have been a senior crook for about thirty years, has he only just started the racket as a new thing? Anyway, eventually Bart and his other cronies get very seriously shot up by an ambitious rival low-life, leaving Danny to wander off on his own. And who should he fall in with but blind piano-tuner Sam (Morgan Freeman, slumming it too) and his perky stepdaughter Victoria (Kerry Condon) – look, I’m really not making this up. Sam rehabilitates Danny, and soon it looks like only a hugely implausible reappearance by Bart and his crew can stop Danny from forging a new life and leaving the way of regular and protracted brutality behind. And you’ll never guess what happens then.

(All this supposedly takes place in Glasgow, by the way. All the Scots must be away while it’s happening as everyone in it’s either Cockney, American, Chinese, or Emma Thompson’s mum.)

It has to be said that this is a very silly thriller-cum-kung fu movie redeemed by the presence in it of two formidably talented actors. Having said that, neither Freeman nor Hoskins is especially well-served, as both their roles are rather two-dimensional. Morgan Freeman can probably get away with doing a piece of fluff like this as he’s already contributed to several impressive films this year alone, but Bob Hoskins hasn’t had a good meaty role in a high-profile movie for absolutely ages, which is a crying shame. However even here he does a terrific job of investing Bart with what humour, pathos and reality he can, and ends up probably sneaking the acting honours. Then again, this is the kind of movie where the actors are cast just to recycle their standard screen personae – so Morgan Freeman’s character is a font of undiluted wisdom and decency, Hoskins does his snarling Cockney brute from The Long Good Friday yet again, and Jet Li kicks everyone’s head in. It’s not so much a distillation of their best-known traits as a puree.

But it’s a film that sits easily in the Besson canon, as several of his better movies revolve around loners who are forced by events to rediscover their human sides – it’s the theme at the heart of Leon and The Transporter. Unleashed is this story taken one step further, arguably into the realms of the bizarre. I’m tempted to say that any film which makes a major scene out of Morgan Freeman and Jet Li going on a shopping trip to their local branch of Spar (Morgan spends his time sweet-talking the checkout girls while Jet happily drums on their melons) is worth seeing just for novelty value alone. The long and violence-free middle section is full of this sort of thing, it is incredibly and unashamedly sentimental and jars considerably with the extended fight scenes which essentially bookend the movie.

That said, there are few things in the cinema as reliably exhilarating as watching Jet Li whirl into action and the action sequences here are no exception. A daft subplot about pit fighting permits Besson and Leterrier to sneak in a set-piece ruck as good as anything in Li’s English-language movies, but all the rest are top stuff, particularly the climactic encounter between Li and Michael Lambert (which culminates in possibly the world’s first kung fu fight to the death in a toilet cubicle). The fights are what this film is ultimately all about and they don’t disappoint. The rest of it is admittedly extremely unconvincing, but Freeman and Hoskins always keep it watchable and it’s very difficult to actually dislike. Louis Leterrier does a very competent job with both the action and the dialogue scenes. He’s clearly a cut above the usual minions Besson gets in to direct his movies lately, which makes me particularly happy that his next project is not only a Jason Statham movie, but – could it be true? – an actual sequel to 2002’s The Transporter. Yes, there is a God! As for Unleashed – well, it probably won’t win many awards, but it will probably make its intended audience very happy.

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