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Posts Tagged ‘Bus Pass Badass’

Current holder of the ‘Well, That’s Really Not At All What I Expected’ award is The Foreigner, one of those rather anonymously-titled genre movies you often find turning up direct-to-DVD or on streaming sites. My understanding is that this movie did get a theatrical release in some countries last year, which is doubtless due to the fact it has some proper stars in it – Jackie Chan and Pierce Brosnan – and is directed by the very capable Martin Campbell, who is arguably the director with the most consistently impressive track record in the Bond franchise. So you’re expecting a thriller, with these guys involved, but what exactly? Well, it’s clearly going to be some kind of buddy movie, isn’t it, with Chan and Brosnan possibly as superannuated spies brought unwillingly out of retirement together – Brosnan perhaps as someone a bit pompous, who’s gone respectable, and resents having to work with Chan, who comes across as a well-meaning oaf until it’s time to kick some heads in. Inevitably the two of them bond (no pun intended) through some crazy exploits, before a feel-good ending that leaves the door open for a sequel…

Amazing. Every word of what I just wrote is wrong (to coin a phrase). This is such a wholly different kettle of fish that it’s barely recognisable as a kettle of fish at all. Jackie Chan plays Quan, a single father who owns a Chinese restaurant in London (he and his family emigrated to the UK back in the 80s). His teenage daughter is his pride and joy, and so it is an appalling trauma when she is killed in a terrorist bombing just five minutes into the movie.

The bombing is claimed by the Authentic IRA, a rogue faction of the united Ireland movement, and pressure is immediately brought to bear on the political wing of the organisation to give up the men responsible for the atrocity. First in line for the squeeze is Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland Liam Hennessy (Brosnan), who was a senior IRA man before – apparently – eschewing the way of violence. Everyone, including the media, assumes that Hennessy must know who planted the bomb, which brings him to Quan’s attention.

Everyone is a bit surprised when a fairly elderly Chinese dude turns up at Hennessy’s office in Belfast demanding to be told the names of the men responsible for murdering his daughter, but Quan is not to be dissuaded by veiled threats or fobbed off by the usual platitudes. However, their surprise turns to actual amazement when Quan sneaks off to the office toilets and fabricates a bomb out of lemonade and cigarettes, rather like a more violent MacGyver. He is clearly an aging restauranteur with a bit of a past, and he’s not going to take no for an answer…

So, yes, this is absolutely not a comedy film. Instead it is another of those Bus Pass Badass movies, this time starring everyone’s favourite Hong Kong-born knot of scar tissue in an entirely serious role. Well, I say ‘entirely serious’, but the film does require you to accept that Quan – who it turns out had some kind of special forces background during the Vietnam War – has kept up with his training over the last forty years. It’s a fairly big ask, but not an unreasonable one, as seeing Chan do his stuff is partly why you’re watching the movie in the first place. The film is, shall we say, carefully constructed so that Chan does not have to participate in a great many complex dialogue scenes in English, but his performance as a man who has basically had his emotions ripped away by an inconceivable tragedy is entirely believeable.

Also operating very much against type is Pierce Brosnan. Now, it may be that one of the reasons why this film didn’t get a theatrical UK release is that it ventures into some slightly ticklish areas – I don’t just mean the fact that this is essentially a fairly lightweight thriller which features multiple bombs going off in public areas, either (I’m never very comfortable when terrorist atrocities are treated as the stuff of genre entertainment, but maybe that’s just me). Brosnan’s choice of beard, glasses, and accent makes it pretty clear that his character is intended to be a kind of roman a clef version of the Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams, and one suspects that lawyers had an interesting time ensuring this movie was not actionable – there are numerous mentions of the IRA throughout, but references to Sinn Fein itself are much less frequent and oblique.

Once you get your head around all this, though, Brosnan also gives a perfectly good performance in a somewhat tricky role – Chan is obviously the good guy in this movie, but Brosnan is playing a much more ambiguous figure, whose exact role in the plot is not immediately clear. The two of them have very little screen time together, though, which is a bit of a shame.

In fact, this rather feels like two quite different films which have been spliced together – there’s a morally ambiguous political thriller about Ulster politics and the connections between politicians and the men of violence, starring Brosnan, and then there’s a much more straightforward action movie with Chan in the lead role. I have to say I would have appreciated perhaps a little more of the latter, for the action sequences are where The Foreigner really comes to life – the film is puttering along engagingly enough in its opening section, then a bunch of IRA heavies turn up to Quan’s B&B to run him out of town, and suddenly we’re into a proper Jackie Chan action sequence with people flying out of windows and tumbling down flights of stairs. It’s a little more restrained and has a harder edge to it than you might expect, but it’s still exhilarating stuff.

In the end, though, this is still quite a dark film – apart from Quan, there are no significant good guys, and the British authorities are depicted as every bit as ruthless as their terrorist counterparts (we see prisoners tortured and executed). At the conclusion, there is a definite sense of closure, but not really that of a happy ending – the dead stay dead, no matter what, and no-one has come out of these events unscathed and untainted. It’s an unusual and downbeat note on which to end, but one entirely in keeping with the tone of the rest of the movie. This is a pretty decent thriller, once you get past the apparently peculiar casting choices for the two lead roles, and the two stars deserve credit for trying something different and working so hard to ensure it succeeds as much as it does.

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It is with some relief that I turn to a new-ish Hollywood film which doesn’t appear to be trying to make a point about any significant topical issues, political, cultural, social, sexual, or diversity-related at all – at least not deliberately, anyway. Could this be the reason why Jaume Collet-Serra’s The Commuter has been completely overlooked by the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in this year’s Oscars? Well, could be.

Or it could be that The Commuter is just another one of those slightly dubious action movies starring someone old enough to know better – in this case, Liam Neeson – which operate somewhere in the theoretical space between One Foot in the Grave and Death Wish. My personal shorthand for this sort of thing is that they are Bus Pass Badass films. Or, in the case of The Commuter, a Senior Citizen’s Railcard Badass film.

Liam Neeson even makes running to catch the train look macho.

Neeson plays Mike MacCauley, rugged ex-cop turned life insurance salesman, and all-around caring and devoted family man – which means, yes, he doesn’t have money, but what he does have is a very particular set of skills, which he has acquired over a very long career… and so on. But we’ll come to that. Neeson’s quotidian existence gets badly derailed (no pun intended) when he is laid off from the insurance company by the contemptible suit who runs the place, for no other reason than that his benefits package is too expensive.

Home he heads in a bit of a strop, wondering how he’s going to pay either of his mortgages, let alone his son’s college fees, only for the usual train ride out to the suburbs of New York to take an unexpected turn. He is approached by a mysterious woman (Vera Farmiga) who offers him a hundred grand if he’ll just do one little job for her – locate a particular person on the train, before it reaches the end of the line…

Of course, this deal is not quite as sweet as it sounds, for Farmiga is working for the bad guys and has wicked things in mind for her target once Neeson has run them to ground. Neeson, of course, is no eejit and quickly figures out what’s going on, but by this point his family are in the sights of the bad guys, leaving him with little choice but to play along and wait for his moment to whirl into action – inasmuch as a six-foot-four 65-year-old can do any sort of whirling, anyway.

Well, if nothing else, it is nice to see a film which just seems to be about regular guys doing regular guy things – going to work, having a beer together, playing cards, beating much younger people senseless, hurling them off moving trains, and so on. And it does initially seem like The Commuter is going to be another one of those films about mid-level middle-age rage, as Neeson finds himself screwed and discarded by the system and left with nothing. If you didn’t know better, you could almost imagine this turning into an update of Falling Down – but of course it doesn’t, and instead it ends up as another of those more-than-slightly ridiculous high concept thrillers, set in a confined space, with one man against the world. There are shades of rather good films like Speed here, but it’s also a bit like Non-Stop, which was Neeson and Collet-Serra’s last film together: these things do have a habit of getting very silly very quickly.

Of course, there’s also a sense in which these films, with their delicate little formal requirements and tropes, are virtually a raid on Hitchcock – you could easily imagine the great director, were he still with us, knocking out this sort of thing with great verve and wit two or three times a year. Jaume Collet-Serra, it’s safe to say, is not in Hitchcock’s league, but he keeps this thing moving along breezily enough, with enough invention for it to feel relatively fresh, and enough pace to distract you from realising the plot has the unshakable structural integrity of a soap bubble – or, if not distract you, at least make you not worry about it too much.

He’s helped by a script which just about ticks all the necessary boxes – there’s a delicate balance and a lot of plate-spinning involved, in that you have to keep throwing plot twists and developments at the audience so swiftly that they don’t have time to realise none of it makes sense, but still somehow ensure they have a reasonable grasp of what’s going on at any given moment in the story. Another major plus is a cast which, to be perfectly honest, is rather better than this sort of film really deserves. Elizabeth McGovern is in it, quite briefly, as is Sam Neill. Also on the train is the wonderful Florence Pugh, whom one hopes will soon be a big enough star not to have to appear in this sort of nonsense, and Shazad Latif, perhaps most famous currently for playing a Klingon warlord trapped in the body of Clem Fandango.

And, above all else, it has Liam Neeson. It is customary to bemoan the fact that Neeson’s work ethic and questionable script choices result in him turning up in quite so many Bus Pass Badass movies, but it’s not as if he doesn’t still do the odd quality picture – he gave a tremendous performance in Silence last year, after all – and they’re still going to carry on making tosh regardless. The Commuter is a better film for having Liam Neeson in it, even if he does plough his way through on autopilot.

It is, I would say, important to distinguish between those films which are utterly bonkers and those which are merely wildly implausible. The Commuter is definitely the latter and thus less of a joy than it could have been. It is a silly film. It is a trivial film. It somehow manages to be both completely far-fetched and yet also deeply predictable. It will fade from your memory within a couple of days of your watching it. But a bad film? I can’t quite bring myself to say so, even though I probably should.

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Someone appears to have declared this to be Old Git Action Month, for the ancient stone gods of the genre have risen from their stately thrones and are lumbering about the place making the dull honking noises that was ever their primary mode of communication. First of all we had Arnold Schwarzenegger, not exactly back with a bang in The Last Stand, and, close upon his heels, here comes Sylvester Stallone, starring in Walter Hill’s Bullet to the Head: a movie so utterly in thrall to its own genre conventions it practically reviews itself.

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This is a film with a slight problem on the Silly Name front. Stallone plays New Orleans hitman Jimmy Bobo, who is going about his business as usual with his partner (obviously, he has a code of honour, which he appears to have bought pre-owned from a character in a Luc Besson movie). However – and don’t bother to stop me if you’ve heard this one before – the duo find themselves set up while on what appeared to be a routine job, and his partner is offed.

In town to investigate the killings is strait-laced Washington PD detective Taylor Kwon (Sung Kang), whose investigative skills seem to be limited to googling people on his smartphone. Nevertheless, Kwon tracks down Bobo and convinces him that they should team up to find whoever ordered the hit in the first place.

On paper it sounds somewhat complex, and I suppose it is a bit, but what it all boils down to is Kang googling people on his smartphone (seriously, he’s never off the damn thing, and Stallone even mocks him for his dependence on it – I thought this was all building up to a climactic gag where Kang would actually use the phone to kill someone and resolve the plot, but no) so that he and Stallone can drive round there and shoot them (sometimes after roughing them up a bit). It all turns out to be about local civic corruption, but even this plot gets peremptorily switched off so Stallone and featured bad guy Jason Momoa can have a set-piece fight with axes.

Walter Hill has been knocking out movies like this for well over thirty years, and this is hardly one of his better productions. As loud, bloody, extremely macho and formulaic action thrillers go, it’s okay – red-blooded old-school fans of this sort of thing will probably find it passable, but the whole thing stews in its own testosterone to the extent that anyone else will probably find it a bit objectionable.

For example, most of the female characters, and both of the significant ones, have at least one nude scene, usually relatively lengthy. And it’s a bit bemusing that Sung Kang was specifically cast in this movie (replacing Tom Jane) in order to give it ‘wider ethnic appeal’ when the treatment of his character is arguably quite racist: Stallone gets to make numerous cracks, calling him Confucius, Oddjob, Kato, and so on. And quite apart from that, his character is just insipid – he’s not Stallone’s partner, he’s a whiny sidekick who goes on and on about his phone and about how, when all this is over, he’s going to have bring Stallone to justice for being a hitman (no prizes for guessing whether he does or not). He comes across as weak and dorky.

Then again, the film isn’t looking to give anyone equal billing with Stallone, for this is his vehicle. For a pensioner, he looks in frankly alarmingly good shape – he gets a lengthy fight sequence in his pants, which I can’t imagine any other actor of his age agreeing to, and faces off with the half-his-age Jason Momoa quite convincingly. His face appears to be permanently stuck in an expression of hangdog wounded cynicism, and his voice is virtually a gravelly monotone (he can vary the volume but not, apparently, the pitch), but I think this was probably always the case.

The thing about The Last Stand is that at least it has the novelty value of being Arnie’s first starring role in nearly a decade. Stallone’s been plugging away doing this sort of thing almost non-stop since the 80s. There’s a vague attempt to acknowledge Stallone’s back catalogue and screen persona, but he could have made this film twenty years ago with only the tiniest of changes. As a lowest-common-denominator action thriller it is perfectly serviceable, but it’s also thoroughly mediocre and a tiny bit pointless. Maybe Arnie and Sly should get together for a – oh, God, no, I’ve just remembered that they already have. As you were, gentlemen.

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There comes a moment in the career of every bona fide screen legend – provided they live long enough, of course – when both they and their fans are confronted with their Norma Desmond moment. They may still be big and famous, but the pictures in which they are appearing have inexplicably become somewhat smaller. Not necessarily badly-made or objectionable, but just – small. Like, for example, Kim Ji-woon’s The Last Stand.

This film was allegedly written by someone called Andrew Knauer, but I suspect this is just a codename for a new software package which assembles completed screenplays from pre-existing bits of genre formulae. In Las Vegas, tough-talking FBI guy John Bannister (Forest Whitaker) is in the process of transporting straight-out-of-Central-Casting slimeball drug baron Cortez (Eduardo Noriega) to prison, when the villain executes a frankly ludicrous escape plan involving an electromagnet, a 200mph car, a small portable bridge and the Dutch national football team, and heads for the Mexican border at high speed. Only the small and sleepy town of Sommerton Junction stands between him and freedom, and the personnel of the sheriff’s department there are not exactly guaranteed to strike fear into the hearts of criminals. Well, with the possible exception of the sheriff himself, who is a big old lad with a funny Austrian accent…

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Yes, this is what I suppose we must call Arnold Schwarzenegger’s big comeback – although, as I’ve already said, this is not really what you’d call a major movie. If Arnie was replaced as the star with a less iconic presence you could quite easily imagine this going DTDVD, because the story really is slight and in many places rather silly.

It doesn’t help that the film really struggles to find a consistent tone throughout its first half – the narrative cuts back and forth between Cortez making his escape, and Arnie’s relaxed and somewhat bucolic routine as a small-town sheriff (it turns out he used to be a supercop in LA who’s retired to the sticks, of course). The former is glitzy and outrageous, and has a hard, gory edge to its frequent violence, which is very much at odds with the mildly comic and low-key material with Arnie and his various sidekicks. In the end the full-on violent stuff becomes predominant – if the intent was to strike a contrast between the two, it doesn’t really work, as there just isn’t enough small-town-routine stuff, and most of it is blatantly laying in plot for the second half of the film.

That said, the movie is competently executed and usually quite well played. None of the good guys or bad guys actually turn into what you could honestly call three-dimensional characters, but then again this isn’t the kind of film where you would expect them to (not that it wouldn’t have been nice if they had). The good guys are mostly quite appealing, with the exception of Johnny Knoxville, who plays an annoying, over-the-top character… actually, this is Johnny Knoxville we’re talking about, so you can take the annoying and over-the-top parts as read, obviously. No surprises there.

One thing which did surprise me was my own positive reaction to seeing Arnie back in action on the big screen. He may not open up at the bad guys with a Vickers machine gun or wrestle somebody off the roof of a building with quite the same speed or fluidity as back in his heyday, but he acquits himself very respectably. It’s easy to make jokes about Arnie’s choice of comedy roles or his political career, but this is a guy who made some absolute classic action movies once upon a time.

And his acting is certainly as good as ever it was – those familiar features reconfigure themselves to suggest Shock, Concern, Anger, and Determination much as they ever did, which is to say one is reminded of someone operating a slightly sticky gearbox. The big guy still has charisma by the bucketful, particularly in the climax of the film. There’s a bit where the villain has had the temerity to suggest Arnie’s past it, tried to bribe him, and then resorted to fighting dirty. Schwarzenegger, pausing only to beat him (somewhat laboriously) to a pulp, responds rather gently with ‘My honour is not for sale.’ And it’s a lovely moment, worthy of the genuine star he remains.

Now, the script here is brave enough to acknowledge not only that Arnie is an immigrant, but also that he is knocking on a bit, and it’ll be interesting to see whether his future projects continue to play with this. By the time Clint Eastwood had hit his mid sixties he was making films which engaged with and made use of his iconic status and history. If Arnie attempts something similar we could end up with films which are at least interesting – but, disregarding rumours of new Conan and Terminator movies (oh, Lord), the only leading role on Arnie’s slate of upcoming projects is in an Agatha Christie adaptation (he’s not playing Poirot, in case you were wondering).

Oh well, judging from this movie Arnie’s got quite a few more movies left in him (some of those will probably turn out to be future episodes of The Expendables, but you can’t have everything), and I’ve no doubt some of them will be enormous monster trucks of films of the type we would expect. The Last Stand is a much more modest vehicle, and hardly very memorable, but as a way of getting reacquainted with Schwarzenegger it does what needs to be done efficiently enough.

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