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Posts Tagged ‘Christopher Lambert’

This is going to sound weird – and, more than likely, it is weird – but I’ve been thinking about films which, whatever their running time may be, are most associated with a single iconic image. Sometimes this isn’t even in the film itself – and sometimes the image is much more famous than the film itself. I imagine most people in western culture are familiar with the image of Marilyn Monroe on the grating in the white dress, or Raquel Welch on the lava flow in not very much rabbit-skin, but I would also go on to venture that many of these people might struggle to name The Seven Year Itch or One Million Years BC.

I am the kind of person with the kind of brain where, once I hear a piece of information like that, it sticks with me. But sometimes the single-picture principle still applies. What’s brought all this on is recently watching Luc Besson’s 1985 film Subway – yes, it’s another Luc Besson review – for the first time. This is a film I’ve been aware of for a long time without ever actually seeing; I vaguely recall its first TV broadcast in the UK about a quarter of a century ago, remember seeing it in various arty video rental shops (remember those?), and so on. And the film is always advertised with a single, striking image: a dyed-blonde, shock-haired Christopher Lambert in a tunnel somewhere, dressed in a tuxedo, casually wielding a flourescent light tube as though it’s a lightsaber. I bet it’s on the actual film poster. Let’s find out:

subway

Well, you see what I mean. I must confess I didn’t expect Isabelle Adjani to be quite so prominently featured, but she is very photogenic, after all. There’s something strikingly odd and atmospheric about that photo of Lambert and his tube, and it perhaps creates a false expectation of what the actual movie’s going to be like – something very visually inventive and intense.

The actual movie opens with a knockabout car chase through the streets of Paris between Fred (Lambert), an enigmatic young man, and some other guys in tuxedos. This concludes with him driving his car down the steps into a metro station and taking refuge there. It transpires that Fred is some sort of loveable pathological safebreaker and has just blown up the vault of a rich man whose party he has been attending. He has nicked a lot of valuable documents in the hope of selling them back for a substantial sum of money.

The situation is somewhat complicated by the fact Fred has developed un thing for the beautiful young wife of his victim, Helena (Adjani), and would quite like to see her again. And so he attempts to romance her, while striking up a relationship with a bunch of other unlikely characters living in the subway system and avoiding the police and various agents of his victim.

The first thing you notice about Subway is that this was clearly the film to be in if you fancied moving out of the Francophone movie business and appearing in mainstream American movies in the mid 80s: quite apart from Lambert, who by this point had already made Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan and was a year away from his signature role in Highlander, and Adjani (less of a crossover star, but still appearing in Ishtar and Diabolique), the film also features substantial appearances by Jean-Hugues Anglade (later to turn up in Killing Zoe) and a young and beefy Jean Reno (Leon, the first Mission Impossible, and the 1998 Godzilla, to name but three). There’s even a semi-acting appearance by Eric Serra, who’s best known as a film composer these days (various other Besson movies and GoldenEye).

Then again, this is a Luc Besson movie, and his films have nearly always had at least one eye on the international mainstream. This is Besson near the beginning of his career, and you can almost sense that this is the work of a guy in his 20s (he was 26 at the time) – the film is vibrant with a restless, unfocused, extravagant energy. While some elements of the plot suggest a homage to French New Wave cinema, the film’s debt to American cinema is almost too obvious to need mentioning – this felt to me to be very much like the kind of low-budget punk-inflected movie coming out of Los Angeles at about the same time, and various aspects of it make it hard to believe that Besson hadn’t spent a few evenings watching and rewatching The Warriors.

The crucial difference, for me, is that films like The Warriors had a very definite sense of what they wanted to be – they were unapologetic genre movies, in short. The Warriors is an action movie, whereas Subway is… well, it’s a bit unclear. There’s a car chase, and someone gets shot at one point, and there are various scenes involving police, but on the other hand there are various light-hearted scenes, and at one point even a musical number… it’s trying to be all sorts of things, and not unsuccessfully, but one gets a sense that the plot and characters are secondary to visuals and imagery and colour.

And it’s not quite as dark or stylish as that photo of Lambert and his tube might lead you to expect. At one point it looks like the film’s about to develop into a quasi-fantasy about a hidden world of unlikely characters living out-of-sight in the underground – a more mundane version of Neverwhere – but it never quite follows through on this, and the most improbable thing you see in the course of the movie is Jean Reno in an explorer’s outfit and pith helmet, playing a full drum-kit on a subway platform (which is admittedly still fairly improbable).

All-in-all I found it a hard film to really come to grips with. If this is, as everyone claims, part of the cinema du look (or possibly cinema du Luc, in this case), then perhaps its not surprising that three decades later that look is a bit less striking. Or perhaps it’s just that I am a sucker for a film with a little bit more substance than this one. It’s a fascinating movie to watch, given how the careers of many people involved have developed, but I don’t think anyone would honestly claim it as a career high.

 

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Sometimes persistent franchises sprout from the most unlikely places. Originally released in 1986, Russell Mulcahy’s Highlander was, by modern standards, a significant flop, only recouping about three-quarters of its budget. And yet here we are, over a quarter of a century later, with five movie sequels, nearly a dozen spin-off novels, and three TV series boasting 181 episodes between them, all resulting from this same flop movie. Is this an example of a cult classic that somehow failed to find an audience on its original release? Or just a slightly duff movie that doesn’t know how to take a hint?

Well, um, er. I knew the plot of Highlander long before I first saw it, so perhaps the details of the narrative didn’t surprise me as much as the makers hoped. If so, then Highlander ingenues may wish to avert their eyes as it’s summarisin’ time. New York City in the 1980s, and a man (Christopher Lambert) in the crowd of a wrestling match is troubled by visions of a mediaeval battle. As you would, he pops out to the car park, where a man in sinister mirrorshades accosts him and whips out a sword. Luckily our man has his own weapon and the two of them go at it with gusto until the mirrorshaded gentleman is summarily decapitated. Charming mid-80s special effects ensue.

It is, shall we say, a slightly bonkers start to a film and one which the rest of the plot completely lives up to. For our hero started life as Connor Macleod, warrior of a Scottish clan, born in the 16th century. Seriously wounded in battle with a brutal Russian warrior known as the Kurgan (perennial nearly-man Clancy Brown), Macleod should die – but he doesn’t. Driven out of his clan when his miraculous recovery draws accusations of witchcraft, Macleod is befriended by enigmatic Spaniard (or is he Egyptian?) Ramirez (Sean Connery), who reveals the truth. Both they and the Kurgan are Immortals, warriors destined to battle down the ages until a final reckoning in a distant land. Until that time they will never age or sicken, and the only way they can die is through beheading…

Well, four hundred years later and the final battle is at hand – Macleod, the Kurgan, and a handful of other Immortals are all in town, with the fate of the world ultimately at stake. If only Macleod didn’t have to worry about the NYPD forensic scientist (Roxanne Hart) – who also, as barely credible plot-contrivance would have it, happens to be an expert on mediaeval weapons – dogging his steps.

On a very basic level the plot of Highlander is clearly absurd – at one point Macleod demands to know why some people become Immortal and why they have to live their lives in accordance with some rather arcane guidelines, and Ramirez’s response is essentially ‘They just do!’ (Even so, this is probably better than all the extraordinary cobblers about aliens from the planet Zeist which gets retconned into the story in the first sequel.) It’s clear that writer Gregory Widen came up with the concept for the movie first and then wrote the details in later.

And, to be fair, Highlander does have originality on its side, if not sense. The out-of-sequence storytelling works quite well in keeping the story going and it avoids most of the cliches of the standard sword-and-sorcery film (because that’s essentially what it boils down to being). The concept is a strong one with much potential.

Unfortunately, its realisation here is not exactly ideal. Some of Russell Mulcahy’s visual stylings are interesting and effective, but all too often he gets carried away and the results are frenetically shot and edited sequences that just seem over the top. The New York end of the story comes across as comic strip stuff, with some dodgy dialogue and uninspired performances from the supporting cast.

The Scottish stuff, on the other hand, is more interesting – almost reaching the mythic tone it’s clearly gunning for, properly romantic in the true sense of the word. On the other hand, it’s also wandering very close to Monty Python and the Holy Grail territory much of the time, as a man with a strange French accent wanders the landscape giving a very eccentric performance.

Ah, Christopher Lambert. For all I know he may be one of the greatest living French actors, but in English the only performance of his I’ve ever seen that wasn’t all over the place was in Greystoke (and there they let him keep his own accent). The peculiar noises coming out of Lambert’s mouth in this film do not bear much resemblence to a Scottish accent, but then neither do they much resemble anything else. The problem is only compounded by the presence in many of the same scenes of Sean Connery, a man physically incapable of not doing a Scottish accent, even when playing an Egyptian (or is he Spanish?). Connery gives a typically big (possibly a bit too big) performance, and he’s one of the best things in the film, setting the tone rather well with his opening narration (recorded, apparently, in his own bathroom, hence the echo). As the Kurgan, Clancy Brown is likewise wildly over-the-top, but given the people and performances he’s got to compete with this is a fairly understandable choice.

So it’s all more-than-a-bit-silly, knockabout stuff, but what partially redeems it – and, I genuinely believe, is a major reason for this film enduring – is the soundtrack. The one moment in the film which is genuinely moving is when Macleod’s first wife ages and dies, with him a helpless onlooker – and it derives much of its power from the song playing over it. It is, of course, ‘Who wants to live forever?’ by Queen, just one of many songs which add enormously to the atmosphere of the film. Queen’s contribution to this movie is difficult to overstate – the film’s mixture of romance, glitzy excess, grit, and nonsense seems to have been an uncommonly good match for Queen’s own style. (It probably helps that, in Freddie Mercury, the band had a front-man supremely well-equipped to deliver a line like ‘I have no rival! No man can be my equal!’ with total conviction.)

Watching Highlander you’re never under the illusion that you’re watching a great movie, but it is a consistently fun and entertaining one. The story is interesting and well-told enough to make you overlook the various more-than-usually crap bits, and the lead performances are memorable in their special different ways. Watching it with my father, he was profoundly unimpressed by the conclusion – ‘That’s all? He just gets to grow old and die?!?’ (oops, spoiler there – sorry) – and I can sort of see his point. But the thing about Highlander in general, and this movie in particular, is that it’s much more about the pleasure of the journey than the reward at the destination.

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