Posts Tagged ‘Channing Tatum’

Even in the rapid-turnaround world of mainstream Hollywood film-making, this is some going: having been miraculously revived by a four-leafed clover he picked up off-screen towards the end of the previous movie, everyone’s favourite mutant vigilante claws his way out of a shallow grave and shreds his way to vengeance, aided by a string of unlikely and serendipitous happenings…

This is not the premise of Logan Lucky, of course. (But if Hugh Jackman’s interested, I’m sure we can work something out.) The actual premise of the film is actually rather secondary to the fact that it marks the reconstitution of the remarkable filmmaking collective which likes to operate under the name of Steven Soderbergh (look, have you seen the Soderbergh filmography? It can’t be just one guy). The Soderbergh announced a temporary dissolution – or ‘retirement’ – a few years ago, but now they have reconjugated themselves and, to judge from Logan Lucky, and it’s like they’ve never been away.

Soderbergh favourite Channing Tatum plays Jimmy Logan, who is experiencing some financial trouble after losing his job as a construction worker. Jimmy’s brother Clyde (the bane of galactic furniture Adam Driver), who himself lost a hand in Iraq, thinks this is because the family is cursed. Jimmy is not convinced of this, despite his various misfortunes. Nevertheless, Jimmy and Clyde embark on a rather ambitious scheme to rob a motor racing track on a race day, by breaking into the system the track uses to physically transfer cash to its vault.

The problem is that to do this they need the assistance of an actual bank robber and explosives expert, who goes by the name of Joe Bang (he is portrayed by that most uncomplaining and under-recompensed of movie stars, Daniel Craig), and Joe is currently in prison, where he is likely to remain throughout the window of opportunity for their big heist. And so an already convoluted scheme becomes practically baroque, as a means of springing Joe from the slammer in order to help with the robbery, and then reinserting him without anyone noticing his absence, has to be added to the plan. What could possibly go wrong? Well, given the supposed family curse, just about anything. But, when the dust settles, will Jimmy be able to get to his daughter’s junior beauty pageant like he promised?

Seasoned Soderbergh-watchers – or perhaps that should be sniffers – have apparently smelled a rat with regard to Logan Lucky‘s script, which is credited to one Rebecca Blunt. No-one knows who Rebecca Blunt is, as she is a non-person as far her film-making history is concerned, and the only person who seems to have had any contact with her is Soderbergh himself. Soderbergh has form for doing multiple jobs on the same film under a variety of pseudonyms, and so some people are leaping to the conclusion that Blunt is actually the director or someone close to him, working under a false name. It’s such a polished and casually effective piece of work that this is very easy to believe, if such things matter to you.

One of the hallmarks of the first phase of Soderbergh’s career was the deft way in which he moved between smart, broadly commercial projects, and equally smart niche and experimental ones – thus, a moneymaking hit like Ocean’s Eleven would be followed by an audience-confounding bomb like his version of Solaris. Logan Lucky is definitely one of his commercial movies, being something of a variation on the theme of the Ocean films. It’s essentially another caper movie, albeit a caper executed by hillbillies and rednecks, and with the comic potential of that idea by no means under-exploited: most of the characters, one way or another, are comic caricatures or grotesques, and the actors attack these roles with considerable gusto.

It’s an ensemble piece, obviously, and Soderbergh has assembled an impressive cast for it – people like Hilary Swank, Katie Holmes and Katherine Waterston turn out for what are basically quite small roles. And, to be fair, top-billed Channing Tatum recedes into the background for much of the film. Dominating the centre of the film, and delivering as big a performance as I can remember him giving, is Daniel Craig. Is he wildly over the top? It’s possible some people might think so. This is certainly big acting, one way or the other.

And on the whole it’s a rewarding piece of entertainment, although one which works much better as a straight-down-the-line don’t-take-this-too-seriously comedy than an actual comedy thriller. Quite apart from the general absurdity of the plot, there are some pleasingly unexpected jokes – there’s an involved Game of Thrones-related gag which I found particularly droll, though I’m not sure what future generations will make of it – and it is never dull or slow, even if at one point the final act of the movie shows signs of losing focus. On the other hand, there are a few dead wood characters – I’m not really sure what the characters played by Seth MacFarlane and Sebastian Stan actually contribute – and you really have to cut the film some slack in fairly essentially areas – given that Jimmy Logan can’t remember what day he’s supposed to be picking up his daughter, it seems pushing it a little to suggest he is the brains behind a ferociously involved and tricksy prison-break-stroke-robbery-stroke-spoiler-redacted. But this is the kind of thing you either go with or you don’t, and I expect most people will choose to go with it, as that option is much more fun.

There’s also something very slightly Coen brothers-ish about the film’s sardonic view of the details of lower-income mid-west life: it never seems to be outright mocking its cast of rednecks and hillbillies, but at the same time this is a comedy film, and many of its jokes come out of the presentation of this section of society. Mostly it seems entirely good-natured, but at the same time it’s very clear that this is, on some level, a group of well-educated and prosperous artists, some of them not even from the USA, who are choosing to tell a story about a gang of crooks and dimwits from the lower echelons of society, which is absolutely played for laughs. It’s not outright offensive in the way it’s handled, for the film is generally good-natured, but I was aware of it.

In the end, of course, Logan Lucky is simply one of Soderbergh’s more mainstream confections, and was it not for his recent lay-off it would probably be subjected to less critical scrutiny. And as such, there is not much wrong with it – it is consistently entertaining, and beyond that it is frequently interesting (which is not always necessarily the same thing), not afraid to surprise the audience or provide unexpected moments of ambiguity. Nice to have him back.

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I am well aware that in respectable film-watching circles it is absolutely unacceptable not to like the Coen brothers. And I can see why: their films are unfailingly soundly made, well-performed, and interesting – often interestingly off-beat, of course. One of the films which impressed me most at the back end of last year, Bridge of Spies, was based on a Coen script. And yet I honestly can’t call myself a fan – there’s something just a bit too arch and mannered, too cerebral, about most of their films, as if they’re little formal exercises in film-making rather than genuine attempts at art or entertainment.

But hey ho. Their films look good and are generally well-liked and promoted, and currently drawing the usual happy critical notices is Hail, Caesar!, a film about (I suppose) the Hollywood studio system in the early 1950s. The central figure is Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a very heavily fictionalised version of a real-life studio fixer whose job basically involves managing the complicated and colourful personal lives of movie stars so nothing embarrassing or compromising gets into the papers.


As the movie opens Mannix is contemplating a move to a lucrative and less-weird job in the aviation industry, but he doesn’t have much time to think about that. In the space of one day, the filming of a major Biblical epic is jeopardised when its star (George Clooney) is kidnapped by Communists, hissy fits ensue when a singing cowboy (Alden Ehrenreich) is forcibly inserted into the cast of a serious society drama, a solution must be found for a pregnant-out-of-wedlock swimming-spectacular star (Scarlett Johansson), and so on. Will any or all of these things be resolved to the studio chiefs’ satisfaction?

I suppose this qualifies as another behind-the-scenes-in-classic-Hollywood movie, although all the actors involved are fictional, and the Coens have fun inserting pastiches of various genres which were popular in the 50s into the movie – there’s the titular Hail, Caesar!, which appears to be riffing off movies like The Robe and Quo Vadis, a comedy western, a black-and-white drama, a couple of musicals, and so on. These all seem to be very affectionate, and the attention to detail is (as you’d expect) highly impressive.

And there are also some very funny moments in the movie: one of the best appears (at some length) in one of the trailers, when Ralph Fiennes’ film director tries to coach Ehrenreich’s heroically dim cowboy in one of his line readings, while another concerns a meeting where Mannix has assembled a group of religious experts to ensure his latest Biblical epic will not prove theologically offensive.

A lot of other stuff in this film, however, is more baffling than actually funny – Tilda Swinton appears in a dual role as a pair of identical twin gossip columnists, but quite how this serves the story is never clear. The idea is odd more than anything else. The film is stuffed with little nuggets like this, most of which remain resolutely undeveloped, just as most of the storylines never really seem to go anywhere or connect with each other. The Coens have certainly assembled a great cast, but despite their prominence in the advertising, many of them only appear in one or two scenes each – I feel it would be remiss of me not to mention that this in addition to the people I’ve already mentioned, performers like Jonah Hill, Channing Tatum, and Michael Gambon are also prominent in this film – while making very unexpected cameos are people from (shall we say) different film-making traditions, for example Christopher Lambert and Dolph Lundgren (although Lundgren’s scenes appear to have been very heavily cut down).

The sheer profusion of characters and storylines, together with the period setting, rather put me in mind of Spielberg’s 1941, a far from perfect movie but still one I’m rather fond of. Hail, Caesar! doesn’t have the same kind of irresistible energy or gleeful sense of excess. The appearance of scenes where characters discuss theology and political theory (the movie deals with some of the same ideas as Trumbo, albeit in a totally different style) might lead one to assume that there’s actually some sort of serious theme going on beneath all the sketch-like comic scenes and dance routines, but if so I’ve no idea what it is. The movie ambles along amiably enough for nearly two hours and then it comes to a gentle stop.

This film is unlikely to offend anyone and as a tribute to old-fashioned Hollywood film-making it is amusing and quite charming. But it seems to me that there is very little of substance here, not just thematically but in terms of things as basic as characters and plot. Most importantly, it just isn’t funny enough: you sit there for long stretches thinking ‘hmm, this is a theoretically amusing concept’ but without actually feeling the urge to laugh out loud. Lots of talent – and I mean lots – has gone into making Hail, Caesar!, but there’s a real question mark over whether it actually provides more in the way of entertainment value than any of the corny old films it so cheerfully spoofs. I think there is less to this film than meets the eye.

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By Jove, what’s this? Another movie from the Wachowski siblings, consigned to the outer wastelands of the release schedule? (By which I mean February, of course.) At this point, all the quality movies hoping for glory in the awards season have been released (and probably re-released, in some cases), while it’s still a bit too soon for even the earliest blockbusters to be coming out. What tend to emerge at this time of year, blinking and unloved, are the films which the studio really don’t have much faith in: things which are looking like big-budget follies, in short.

The omens for the Wachowski’s Jupiter Ascending are slightly ominous, when you look at it that way. This big, lavish fantasy movie was originally scheduled for a release last June, and trailers for it had actually started to appear in front of other films. But at practically the very last minute it was pulled and knocked back to this year, supposedly so it could have its special effects and plotting touched up. Even if you buy this explanation, early February is not a prime release date for a $176 million movie made by two writer-directors of substance.


Oh well. Jupiter Ascending dispenses with the traditional voice-over and/or series of captions explaining its universe in favour of something more quirky and personal, although boiling the plot down into something easily summarised is a formidable challenge. Basically, Mila Kunis plays Jupiter Jones, a young second-generation Russian immigrant working as a domestic cleaner in present-day Chicago. She is not very happy with her lot in life.

However, things change when she finds herself menaced by strange, inhuman forces (she’s having her eggs harvested at the time, which I suppose has a vague thematic resonance, but no strong bearing on the plot). Fortunately she is rescued by Caine Wise (Channing Tatum), a half-man half-Airedale Terrier bounty hunter from space, who zaps the bad guys and whisks her off on his anti-gravity skates, before explaining what’s going on.

The truth is simple (if also somewhat bonkers): Jupiter is the genetic reincarnation of a 90,000-year-old space princess and, as a result, is de facto royalty in the strange interstellar milieu the movie depicts. She is also the recipient of a prime piece of planetary real estate (here’s a clue: you most likely live on it) and an unwilling participant in the power-games of an immensely wealthy family of space tycoons. Chief amongst these is Balem Abrasax (Eddie Redmayne), who is most put out to have lost a potentially profitable planet. However, as well as a vast fortune he also has a private army of flying space-crocodiles on retainer, which he is not afraid to deploy in defence of his interests…

You know, I’ve liked the Wachowskis ever since the first time I saw The Matrix, quite a few years ago now: I was one of those people more than willing to give the Matrix sequels a chance, I thought V for Vendetta (which they wrote) was better than many gave it credit for, and their last movie, Cloud Atlas, was probably the film I enjoyed most in 2013. Anything they do is going to be interestingly different, at the very least.

But this movie? Hooooo boy! Now, I’m not saying I didn’t enjoy it, because I did. I went with a friend and by the end we were hooting with laughter at everything unfolding on the screen. The slight problem, perhaps, is that Jupiter Ascending is not really intended to be an outright comedy film. It’s just that the film is so, so way out there in some of its ideas, and especially in the way it’s unafraid to stack them on top of one another, that it eventually simply becomes absurd.

This being the Wachowskis, the film is never less than ravishing to look at: the special effects, costumes, and production designs are all gorgeous. But it’s as though the siblings have availed themselves of a very large tank full of extravagant visuals, bizarre plot ideas, and very bad acting, and are using a high-pressure hose to spray the contents indiscriminately across the screen for 127 minutes. The results are bracing, but also very weird.

There are perhaps a few similarities with their greatest work, as this is the story of an ordinary person who discovers they are actually of great significance in a world they are initially ignorant of, a world in which human life has a slightly sinister quality, as a resource to be exploited. But the rest of it is all over the place: it looks a bit like Flash Gordon and a bit like Dune, there are lengthy discussions of galactic inheritance and tax law to gladden the heart of any Phantom Menace admirer, there’s a very Hitch Hikers-y sequence on a planet of bureaucrats that also brings to mind Brazil – at which point, of course, a heavily-disguised Terry Gilliam wanders on for a cameo appearance. And why not? It makes as much sense as anything else. In the midst of all this Jupiter’s main preoccupation seems to be coming on to her dogged (and doggy) guardian, in a manner I found slightly needy. Needless to say, he seems to have incipient republican inclinations.

Off on another sound-stage, meanwhile, the protracted squabbles of Jupiter’s extended family of comedy Russian-Americans are interrupted by flying space-crocodiles crashing through the ceiling, on a mission from Eddie Redmayne’s character. Everyone seems to be assuming Redmayne is a mortal lock for the Best Actor Oscar, for his performance as Stephen Hawking in that film I haven’t seen. Well, if he doesn’t get it, it may be because tapes of Jupiter Ascending are doing the rounds, as his performance here is quite extraordinarily OTT. I suspect the reason most of the scenery is computer-generated is simply to stop Redmayne from chewing on it, not that anyone else in the film is particularly restrained.

It’s not immediately obvious whether Jupiter Ascending is genuinely intended to be a piece of soaringly camp nonsense, or if it’s just a seriously-intended genre movie which has had something go very, very wrong with it. The fact that the plot still doesn’t quite hang together suggests the latter, but if the film has a serious message to impart it’s not very clear what it is. There seems to be a suggestion that you can be perfectly happy sponging out someone else’s bog all day, provided you know that deep-down you’re a space princess (personally, I sort of doubt this), while the film does seem to have some interesting, if half-formed ideas about how post-scarcity societies are really going to function – even to the point of implying that a truly post-scarcity society is impossible in a finite universe. This does tend to get drowned out by some bog-standard egalitarian anti-capitalism, which sits weirdly with the generally pro-monarchical tenor of the film (Jupiter gets off on Dog-boy calling her ‘your Majesty’).

I remember a review of Spielberg’s 1941 wherein the writer suggested the principal pleasure of the film was simply watching the director play with the resources of a big-budget movie like a kid with a train set. I think much the same applies to Jupiter Ascending: the plot is barmy, and in places baffling, but it looks stunning, the action is superbly mounted, and there are so many incidental pleasures along the way (Tim Piggott-Smith comes on as a half-man, half-badger alien). Jupiter Ascending is probably a terrible film, but it’s the most brilliant terrible film I’ve seen in ages. I hope it does well enough for studio bosses to keep giving the Wachowskis money: the world of cinema would be a much poorer place without their particular brand of inspired madness.


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There has been some fuss in sections of the media about the fact that this year’s Oscar shortlists are not as ethnically varied as many people would like to see. If you ask me, it’s no good complaining to the academy itself about this sort of thing, they can only respond to the films that people are making (the obvious parallel would be with complaining to the weatherman about there not being enough sun). It’s just easier and more rewarding to take a pop at Oscar than actually get the movie studios to implement change, because – for whatever reason – the films that are currently being made appear rather skewed in favour of certain demographics.

I’m not just referring to ethnicity, either: last week I saw the brilliant Whiplash, in which there was only one notable female character, and the least significant of the film’s four leads. And more recently I went to see Bennett Miller’s Foxcatcher, which again is a film dominated by men. It’s a tricky question: Whiplash and Foxcatcher are both superior films, the existence of which doubtless benefits the world at large, but I appreciate the validity of the pro-diversity argument in general. It may simply come down to the fact that most senior figures in the film industry are men, and a lot of the time it’s men who decide which film they and their friends go to see.


As films go, Foxcatcher is more about masculinity than most, though it initially looks like it’s going to be addressing the issue of class in America. Channing Tatum plays Mark Schultz, a gold-medal-winning wrestler who as the story opens is eking out a fairly miserable existence, trying to prepare for upcoming competitions, feeling himself very much overshadowed by his elder brother Dave (Mark Ruffalo), also a champion wrestler, but also a successful coach and family man. (I should point out that this film deals with what I believe is technically called Graeco-Roman wrestling, the competitive discipline featured at the Olympics, not the muscle-bound clown soap opera which formed the springboard of the careers of people like the Rock.)

Things change for Mark when he is invited to visit the palatial home of John du Pont (Steve Carell), one of the richest men in America and an avid wrestling follower – this despite the icy disapproval of his mother (Vanessa Redgrave). Du Pont proposes that Mark come to live on his estate, where a state-of-the-art training facility has been constructed, and they work together to prepare for the upcoming 1988 Olympics. Du Pont believes together they can bring about not just a sporting but a moral revival of the USA, and Mark eagerly buys into his ideas.

What follows is a strangely engrossing personal drama, with many peculiar twists and turns along the way. As you may have gathered, this is based on a true story, but not one with which I was at all familiar. I did know there was a murder at some point in events, but I’d no idea who was going to kill whom or why – and while the murder is obviously the key event of this saga, one of the things that makes it so shocking is the fact it appears to be almost wholly unpremeditated: a random, chaotic act of insanity. But that equally makes it unsatisfactory as the culmination of a developing plotline, and as a result Foxcatcher feels unresolved, somehow.

What is certain is that the film works extremely well as a character study, not just of John Du Pont but also Mark Schultz. There is perhaps the vaguest echo of the glazed intensity of Brick Tamland in Steve Carell’s performance, but for the most part he is playing (and underplaying) it utterly straight: to the point, in fact, where Du Pont becomes a bleakly funny character. ‘Eccentric millionaire’ is much too cheery-sounding a term for a man who, to put it mildly, seems to have severe issues, not least with reconciling his passion for wrestling with his position in one of America’s most senior families – something not helped by his mother’s ill-concealed contempt for the sport.

Equally troubled, in a different fashion, is Mark Schultz – a man only fully able to express himself physically, and frustrated by this, and his sense of his own inferiority to his brother. The collapse of his parents’ marriage may also have fed into his various issues, and it’s entirely understandable that he should initially have fallen so completely under Du Pont’s spell. Channing Tatum plays him extremely well. I’ve never really been able to decide what kind of actor Tatum is in the past – is he just a kind of good-looking jock action-hero or romantic lead, or does he have real acting chops in there somewhere? Foxcatcher proves the latter: this is a properly accomplished performance. Ruffalo is also very solid in a somewhat less demanding role.

Vanessa Redgrave is really only in a couple of scenes in quite a long film, and the same is true of Sienna Miller who plays Dave Schultz’s wife: I’m actually a little unsure why they bothered recruiting such well-known names for what are comparatively minor roles. The rest of the film is about men, and masculine relationships – Mark’s relationship with his brother, but also the quasi-paternal bond he develops with Du Pont. There is quite a lot of man-on-man hugging in this film, and apparently Mark Schultz did complain about the homo-erotic undertones he detected – but there’s bound to be an element of that, not to mention some comedy, in any film with quite as many men in unitards grappling with each other as this one.

Foxcatcher is a measured film and a thoughtful one, and the various scenes of people wrestling with each other are not exactly what you’d call action sequences. As a result, I’m not entirely surprised it has proved more popular with critics than audiences. I’m not sure it is honestly what you could call a great film, but it certainly contains some great performances.

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Slim pickings down the cinema at the mo’, if you ask me – so this week I was planning to go and see Ain’t Them Bodies Saints at the local Picturehouse. However, I had reckoned without the cinema’s surprising entry policy for some of its daytime screenings, namely that you need not only a ticket but also an infant child in order to get in. Being unable to lay my hands on a toddler in time, I was faced with a bit of a quandary: go and see something I really didn’t have any particular interest in, or not see a film at all this week? Well, obviously I decided to go after all, and  after surveying the film times the best fit for my schedule proved to be White House Down (beating out Diana and R.I.P.D., in case you were wondering).

In the past I’ve gone on about how day-and-date releasing is now standard industry practice. When a major movie doesn’t get a simultaneous global release, and especially when a summer movie gets pushed back into the autumn, one is inclined to start smelling something a little funky. White House Down came out in the States nearly three months ago but is only now troubling British cinemas.


Roland Emmerich’s film is – well, look, here’s the plot, see what you think. Reliable beefy lunkhead Channing Tatum plays John Cale, a vaguely-blue-collary cop with family issues – nothing at all like John McClane, vaguely blue-collary cop with family issues, right? – working in Washington DC. He wants to join the Secret Service and to that end toddles along to the White House with his young daughter, who is a monumental civics nerd and expert on the place, not to mention the American constitution.

However, the President (Jamie Foxx) has just unveiled his secret plan to bring about world peace, much to the dismay of various vested interests, and as a result a plan has been put in motion to… well, revealing the ultimate goal probably counts as a plot spoiler. Suffice to say I’ll be interested to see if this film gets an Iranian release. What really counts is that a traitor in the White House has organised a takeover of the place by a gang of mercenary nutters led by Jason Clarke, and Cale finds himself caught up in the middle of it all…

So it is, basically, Die Hard in the White House, which is fundamentally a silly idea for a film. This is not White House Down‘s biggest problem. You may recall that earlier this very year we were treated to GERARD BUTLER!!! (imagine me shouting that in a Scottish accent) in Olympus Has Fallen, a thriller which was basically Die Hard in the White House. So White House Down isn’t just silly, it’s silly in a way which doesn’t even seem very original.

I get the impression that James Vanderbilt, author of the script, has watched Die Hard itself many, many times, as pretty much every beat and reversal of that film gets painstakingly revisited here. Okay, I exaggerate, but you’re never in any doubt about how the story is going to unfold. The identity of the White House traitor is blazingly telegraphed from his first appearance (it’s James Woods, in case you were wondering), Cale is initially given a frosty relationship with his daughter so the moment when she starts hugging him and calling him Daddy has some impact, the white-collar Secret Service types are all snotty about him to begin with so he can be especially smug when he starts saving the day, and so on.

The thriller aspect, though polished, is terribly mechanical and familiar. The political aspect of this film, inasmuch as it has one, is very much in line with the way that the US President has been depicted on screen for the last two decades. If you look at Hollywood movies and TV from the mid to late 90s, it’s striking how they come across as thinly-disguised love letters to Bill Clinton: we get the Prez impressing everyone with his wit and humanity (The West Wing), wowing the ladies as romantic lead (The American President), personally punching out terrorists (Air Force One), and even jumping into a fighter jet to lead the resistance to an alien invasion (Emmerich’s own Independence Day). Hollywood loved Clinton. The Bush years, on the other hand, transformed the President into a nonentity who died off-screen (Emmerich again, in The Day After Tomorrow) or was cuckolded by the hero (The Sentinel): generally a rather less heroic figure. Now we find ourselves in the Obama era, obviously Hollywood likes the President again, although not as much as they did Clinton: Foxx here is obviously a good guy, but he still has to be looked after by Tatum’s character.

One does get a sense of a bit of a tension at the heart of this movie between its desire to be a credible political thriller and its need to tick the popcorn blockbuster boxes. There’s some interesting stuff about the constitutional chaos that ensues when the President himself is MIA, and various FBI, army, and Secret Service types squabble about who’s actually in charge – but the film can’t afford to spend too much time on this sort of thing and soon enough we’re back to the galloping, uproarious absurdity of a car chase round the White House garden with the President shooting a rocket launcher out of the window of his own limousine.

So there’s two films going on here, one rather more developed than the other. I would happily have watched either the serious, crisis-of-command one, or the preposterous crowd-pleasing President-with-a-bazooka one (although I suspect I’d have preferred the former). The thing is that putting them together, even as competently as Emmerich does, is a bit problematic. This is a film which is about terrorism and touches on genuine issues in world affairs. To do so and then include dumb visual jokes and moments of utter, unbelieveable cheesiness just seems incredibly facile and in very dubious taste. There’s a scene where a gun is put to the head of a crying child, which isn’t really something I’d expect to see in a proper, inoffensive popcorn blockbuster.

So this is a film which is not without moments of interest and entertainment: Jamie Foxx gets some funny lines as the Commander in Chief, Maggie Gyllenhaal is reliably good as someone stuck on the outside trying to take charge of the situation, and James Woods and Richard Jenkins give the sort of reliable support you would expect from them. But the basic set-up remains very, very familiar, and the film is so all over the place in terms of its tone that’s almost impossible just to detach your higher functions and enjoy it as a piece of cheesy fun. Emmerich marshals the proceedings with his usual aplomb, but White House Down is by no means one of his best films.

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I always think of this time of year as the doldrums, movie-wise: all the classy and thoughtful awards-bait has been and gone (though I note that The King’s Speech is still hanging on at the local Odeon), while the no-brainer pyrotechnic stuff that will be clogging the arteries of cinema all summer is still a few weeks off (summer seems to be starting earlier and earlier: maybe even late April, this year). In the meantime there’s a variety of mid-range releases on offer – not expected to make major money or win much acclaim. That doesn’t mean it’s all bad, by any means.

As a case in point, let’s look at The Eagle, a new movie by Kevin Macdonald (also director of the brilliant Touching the Void and The Last King of Scotland). Based on a venerable and well-respected novel by Rosemary Sutcliff, this is a gritty tale of blood and honour in the ancient past of Britain.

This is the kind of film where you know to expect two things: an opening caption filling in backstory, and wobbly historical accuracy. Channing Tatum plays Marcus Flavius Aquila, a second-century Roman officer posted to the edge of the empire: Britain. Aquila’s family has been in disgrace since his father disappeared while leading the Ninth Legion into the far north of Scotland, the disastrous loss of troops symbolised by the loss of the army’s standard – a gilded eagle. Aquila is obsessed with redeeming his family’s good name but his efforts seem doomed when he is invalided out of the army following a clash with native rebels.

Then a rumour reaches Aquila: the eagle of the Ninth has been sighted north of Hadrian’s Wall, used by a barbarian tribe in their ceremonies. He sets out into the lawless wasteland to retrieve it or die in the attempt, accompanied only by his British slave Esca (Jamie Bell). Here his life will depend on the loyalty of Esca, who has sworn to obey him – but how far can he rely on the word of a former enemy of the empire?

You might be forgiven for expecting The Eagle to be a fairly standard, blokey, sword-and-sandal romp, very much in the vein of Gladiator and films of that ilk. To some extent this is true – there is a gladiator fight at one point, and very frequent swinging-of-swords throughout – but I found this film reminding me much more of other things. The quest into unknown territory with an ally who’s an unknown quantity, motivated by family loyalty, made me think rather a lot of the recent True Grit – there are some strikingly similar images here – but I was also very much reminded of Shekhar Kapur’s 2002 version of The Four Feathers.

That was a movie with a big budget and fairly big-name stars, which failed – mainly due, I think, to misjudging the tone of the material and making a potentially rousing romp drearily earnest and political. The Eagle, I hasten to say, shows no sign of failure, creatively or at the box office, but it does contain rather more depth than you might expect from this kind of film.

The most obvious expression of this is in the casting of American and Canadian actors as most of the Roman characters, with the Brits played by locals. The decision to intentionally link ‘American’ with ‘occupying army’ is, well, an interesting one. It’s not dwelt upon, though it does produce one rather jarring moment: playing a veteran legionary, Mark Strong is thus required to put on an American accent, which does seem terribly odd. The film does refuse to take sides, too: the Romans and the British are both shown as being equally capable of what seem by today’s standards to be hideous atrocities.

To be perfectly honest, The Eagle – though not a tremendously long film – does take a little while to get going, in terms of the main plot if nothing else. This does actually work in the film’s favour as it uses this time to establish a very strong sense of atmosphere and tone. Ancient Britain is a convincingly savage and unsettling place, almost unrecognisable by modern standards. The wilderness north of the Wall is, quite frankly, horrible, and very, very wet. Horrible in a different way, and less appealing to look at, is the violence which punctuates this film, much of which seems to me to be very strong for its certificate: quite apart from the numerous scenes of burly men hewing at each other with gladii, there’s a scene where someone gets his… well, anyway… and another one where somebody… yes, umm, I think you get the picture.

I enjoyed it all rather a lot, though I wonder how much of it has any basis in actual history (the Seal People, most brutal of the native tribes and effectively the bad guys here, look utterly extraordinary, more like African tribesmen than Celts). That said, the general windswept misery and brooding tone of it all mean that it never quite takes wing as a pure adventure story (the lack of any female speaking parts didn’t bother me, though I did notice it: but it’s hard to imagine how any could have been contrived), while Macdonald quite wisely doesn’t allow the more thoughtful elements to swamp the story of the two main characters and their deepening relationship.

The Eagle isn’t quite up to the standard (no pun intended) of much of Macdonald’s past work, but it works well as an intelligent, gritty, and highly atmospheric action-drama. If most of the movies we got the rest of the year were only as satisfying as this one, I still think most people would tend to consider that a bit of a gain.

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