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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published September 25th 2003:

‘Hold on a minute, chaps, I’ve thought of something!’ ‘This is the mutual appreciation society..,’ ‘You’re only supposed to blast the flipping roof off!’ Yes, one way and another the 1969 movie The Italian Job has unforgettably embedded itself into the cultural landscape, so it’s hardly surprising the Americans have gone and remade it – really, really loosely.

The new Italian Job, directed by F Gary Gray, kicks off with Marky Mark Wahlberg, who has great hair but very little screen presence, masterminding a bullion heist in Venice with the aid of his gang (who include Donald Sutherland, Seth Green from Buffy and Austin Powers, and that charismatically rotten actor Jason Statham). The scheme, involving dustbinmen, scuba gear, and exploding paint, goes according to plan until one weaselly gang-member (Edward Norton, phoning it in) tries to kill everyone else before running off with all the gold. One year later Marky Mark tracks Norton down to LA and comes up with a new scheme to steal the gold back, recruiting beautiful safecracker Charlize Theron to help out (a case of the bland leading the blonde). The initial plan, which involves sneaking up behind Norton with a sock full of sand, is put on hold when Mini manufacturer BMW offers a skipload of cash in exchange for some serious product placement…

For all that it’s become a much-loved favourite, I’ve always thought that the original Italian Job was a rather crass and jingoistic film which wouldn’t have been made had we not won the Cup in 1966. It’s a shameless bellow of ‘England is best!!!’, utterly contemptuous of every other nationality, and (I’d be prepared to bet) a firm favourite of many soccer hooligans. This is what the original film is about, it’s encoded into its’ DNA. So an American remake, mainly populated by Americans (okay, so there’s a Canadian, a South African and a Brit in there, but let’s not quibble), and set in America, seemed to me to be entirely missing the point.

Well, take this how you will, but there’s very little of the original Job left in the remake: only a couple of character names and, of course, a new version of the famous car chase with the minis. So comprehensive is the re-imagining that the elements of the original movie are the ones that seem peculiarly incongruous. Far better to look at this film on its own merits, which are not inconsiderable – it’s slick, it’s funny, there are some nice performances and the action is well-staged. Admittedly there are some slightly nauseating faux-paternal bonding moments between Sutherland and Marky Mark, but not enough to spoil things completely.

Having said that, Marky Mark really is terribly dull as the main character. This isn’t helped by the fact that a perfectly serviceable leading man for this kind of dumb caper movie is growling and mugging away at his shoulder for most of the movie: yes, it’s Jason Statham, folks. Attentive masochists will know how much I enjoyed The Transporter, Statham’s last vehicle (ho ho), and he’s on the same winning form here. Gallantly, he’s also persuaded the producers to give a tiny cameo to his fiancee, the equally talented Kelly Brook. That said, Seth Green is also extremely funny as the team’s computer geek – he and Statham should both be looking at serious career boosts on the strength of this.

Apart from Marky Mark’s charm shortfall, the film only really disappoints when it comes to the concluding car chase, which is a bit lacklustre compared to the original, and the ending, which inevitably can’t compete with 1969’s literal cliffhanger. But as I say, this is smart and funny and very entertaining in its’ own way. Strangely enough, though, the truth remains that the 1969 Italian Job, while not a particularly great film, is undeniably a classic, and the 2003 version, though not a particularly bad one, isn’t. Funny old world, innit?

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published October 17th 2002:

He’s back in the public eye again, even when confined to his prison cell: a literary phenomenon, a cultured gentleman, and an iconic figure of the dark side of humanity and its most depraved appetites. But that’s enough about Jeffrey Archer, let’s focus instead on the infinitely more amiable Dr Hannibal Lecter, back on the big screen once again in Brett Ratner’s Red Dragon.

In Ratner’s movie Edward Norton plays Will Graham, a retired FBI agent who formerly specialised in the profiling of serial killers. He’s persuaded to take on one more case by his boss (Harvey Keitel) – two families have already been slaughtered by an unstable psychopath (Ralph ‘Mr Sunbeam’ Fiennes, who should really think about doing a comedy or something – although if the results are anything like The Avengers, maybe not) with another set of killings due in a matter of days. As time ticks away Graham agrees to draw upon the assistance of a brilliant forensic psychologist – the only drawback being that he’s currently incarcerated in a secure facility for the criminally insane, put there by Graham himself years earlier…

It’s hard to get past the idea that this is simply one last attempt to cash in on the popularity of Anthony Hopkins’ portrayal of Hannibal the Cannibal. Red Dragon is the second film version of Thomas Harris’ novel in sixteen years, the first being Michael Mann’s Manhunter (the two films actually share some of the same behind-the-camera personnel), a clinically stylish thriller featuring Brian Cox as Lecktor (sic). Cox made a big impression in what was a fairly small part, because Lecter is very much a marginal figure in the story as written.

Red Dragon retells the story in an approximation of the style of Silence of the Lambs – it makes much use of the iconography of Jonathan Demme’s film, recreating Lecter’s cell, the image of him in the mask, and concludes with a pointless foreshadowing of the 1991 movie1. But above all it makes as much use as it possibly can of Anthony Hopkins. This isn’t very much, though, and it’s one of the film’s major problems. When Lecter’s not on the screen things often seem a bit dry, and you impatiently await his next appearance – but when he does appear, Hopkins’ startlingly camp and rather over-the-top performance, while magnetic to watch and very funny, does seem rather out-of-place in a movie that’s trying to sell itself as a straightforward psychological thriller.

Hopkins virtually steals the movie, and you get the impression he was heartily encouraged to. But Fiennes is also very good in a complex role, as is Emily Watson as a girl he befriends. (The two younger Brits seem to have modelled their performances on that of the great man, inasmuch as none of them ever seems to blink, and the array of fixed, glassy eyeballs rather reminded me of The Muppet Show). Norton spends rather too long talking to himself and wandering around crime scenes to be really engaging as the hero, and Keitel’s part is horribly underwritten and two-dimensional. It falls to Philip Seymour Hoffman to keep the US end up with a nice turn as a sleazy reporter.

The plot is quite engaging, though the climax seems a bit contrived and there are a few implausibility’s – about half way through Graham and Crawford make a mistake that has quite horrific consequences, but no-one, not them, not their superiors, not even the media, seems particularly bothered by this. But it’s neither especially scary or suspenseful, and Ratner seems a rather limited director – his main achievement is to keep a film with some very nasty subject matter down to a box-office-friendly 15 certificate (fantastic actor though he is, the most disturbing sight in the film is that of Hoffman in his y-fronts). Its finest moment by some way is the opening, a piece of black, grand guignol comedy reminiscent of a Vincent Price horror movie – but one that’s over all too soon.

Actually, this has much more in common with the horror genre than that of the thriller. Lecter is a fantastical figure, refined, aloof, fearsomely intelligent, his only weakness being his dietary peculiarities. Is there really that much difference between him and the horror icon for much of the last century, Dracula? I don’t think so. Fiennes’ character, on the other hand, is depicted as almost superhumanly strong and resilient, deformed, haunted by an abusive female relative, and drawn helplessly to a young blind girl: there are echoes there of both Frankenstein’s monster and Norman Bates (himself a split personality, a condition with its own fantastical mirror in the form of the werewolf). These are old friends in new skins, and a sign of where this movie is really rooted.

The other way in which this is a very traditional horror film is that in it, evil is presented as being synonymous with sexual ‘deviancy’. Norton must choose between traditional family life and the twisted world of the serial killers for which he has such an uncomfortable empathy, as embodied by Lecter – whose effete, preppy turn of phrase and double entendres (‘I’d love to get you on my couch’ he simpers to Graham at one point) mark him out as the ultimate predatory gay, looking to either turn or destroy his happily married adversary. Fiennes’ character, on the other hand, specifically targets the traditional, nuclear family and is portrayed as a shy, repressed mummy’s boy (another vaguely unpleasant gay stereotype) whose possible redemption comes in the form of a decent ‘normal’ relationship with a woman. Did the film-makers intend to include this homophobic subtext in their movie? I don’t know, but it’s not exactly deeply buried and I’m surprised it hasn’t drawn more criticism.

Unpleasant or not, hackneyed or not, it’s still the most interesting thing about Red Dragon. This is a reasonable thriller, with some good performances, and I quite enjoyed it (though I still think Manhunter is by far the better film). But as a film that’s being marketed and will be judged as an addition to the Lecter franchise, it’s inevitably disappointing. An entirely new outing for the doctor might have been a better idea – but as Hopkins has announced himself retired from cannibalistic service, we’ll never know.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published July 3rd 2008: 

Friends, I have a confession to make. Mild mannered though I may appear, a terrible monster lurks inside me. I try to control it as best I can because I know the terrible suffering it can create when it runs out of control… but sometimes, no matter how I struggle, events conspire against me; a horrible mist obscures my vision, and I just… feel the urge… to REVIEW! Rarrgh! Awix review!!! Awix reviews everything in sight…!!! …until the critical ire of the beast is exhausted and I can relax and watch a Milla Jovovich movie without fear of an aneurysm.

Well, as luck would have it, today I found myself watching a film about a man with a similar problem, to wit The Incredible Hulk, directed by Louis Leterrier. This movie is a bold new concept as far as a wannabe summer blockbuster goes in that it’s a special-effects-laden adaptation of a classic American comic book. A bit of a gamble, I know. Who comes up with these crazy ideas?

Anyway. Edward ‘You’re Not Just Hiring An Actor, Even If That’s All You Actually Want’ Norton plays Bruce Banner, a fugitive scientist with anger management issues, who has fled the US and is hiding out in Brazil, presumably so he can get a tan, not because the other Bruce Banner (played by Eric Bana) ended up there at the end of the first Hulk movie (this gets complicated. Stay tuned). He is hiding out from the Army, and in particular General ‘Thunderbolt’ Ross (William Hurt) and his moustache. This is because Banner has, rather nonchalantly, blasted his own brain with high-powered gamma rays (fairly unusual behaviour for a brilliant scientist, but bear in mind this is a Marvel movie), which means every time he gets ticked off or even just a bit excited he goes green, grows to about nine feet in height and demolishes everything in a two-mile radius. Banner can do without this, probably because the need to control his heart rate is wreaking havoc with his love life and there’s a very cute chick (Debora Nascimento) in his building who has a bit of a thing for him. However, the US Army, committed as ever to the precise and proportionate use of force, thinks that an army of berserk super-strong invulnerable ogres is just what they’re looking for and would quite like to talk to Banner about his giving a blood donation or twenty. As Ross is too American to be villainous enough for this kind of movie, he has recruited special forces expert Emil Blonsky to help him out in this department. Despite his name, Blonsky is British, mainly because it saves Tim Roth, who plays him, from having to do an accent. An inevitable freak accident, involving an even more inevitable cameo by Stan Lee, alerts Ross and Blonsky to Banner’s whereabouts, and off they go to Brazil to bring him home…

As you may recall this is Marvel’s second crack at a Hulk movie: the first one came out five years ago, was directed by Ang Lee, was rather overpraised by your correspondent at the time, and did rather indifferent business, probably because it was slow and talky, and the Hulk didn’t really start doing his stuff until the last forty-five minutes or so. The decision to do another movie may well come as a bit of a surprise then, but only to someone who’s forgotten the enormous name recognition and strength of the Hulk brand. (And it took Stan Lee two goes to get the comic right back in 1962, so it would be churlish to grumble.) This time, Marvel aren’t taking any chances as this is machine-tooled to be an absolutely mainstream blockbuster with some jokes, a proper bad guy, lots of stuff exploding, and absolutely no lingering close-ups of clumps of lichen growing on rocks.

This extends to completely ignoring the events of the first film, for all but that this starts roughly where that finished. The Hulk’s origin is retold in the opening credits and has been redone to be much more like the one in the TV show. The whole movie has been structured so as not to confuse people who only know the Hulk from the small screen – even Ed Norton’s hair has been redone to be much more like Bill Bixby’s (Bixby played Banner on the telly) – while still catering to purists who prefer the comic version. The movie covers all its bases to the extent that, at one point, Jack McGee and Jim Wilson (supporting cast from different parts of the franchise) cameo in the same scene. Their appearance, like that of Doc Samson (bear with me, normal people), is pretty much an in-name-only affair, solely calculated to push fanboy buttons.

Now that Marvel have their own film studio they have much more latitude to do this sort of thing. The main example of this in this movie is the way in which the origin of the main bad guy, the Abomination, has been redone. No longer is he just an evil version of the Hulk! No, now he’s a hybrid of an evil version of the Hulk and an evil mutant version of a recently deceased Living-Legend-of-World-War-Two (who’ll be getting his own movie soon, I shouldn’t wonder). It’s something to give Marvel Comics fans a nice gosh-wow moment, while not being so obviously geeky as to repel mainstream audiences. The same goes for the very final scene, which has all the hallmarks of something originally intended to run after the credits, presumably shifted into the movie proper on the grounds that you don’t put Robert Downey Jr (ooh, what a giveaway!) in the one bit most people aren’t going to bother to watch. Speaking as a comics fan, it’s a very cool moment, even if it does seem to be setting up a movie that’s still at least four or five years away. (The one time the movie oversteps the line when it comes to playing to the fans is when it foreshadows the – Box Office willing – ‘proper’ Hulk sequel. I ‘got’ the scene introducing Hulk 3‘s probable villain, but I doubt many normal people will.)

Enough fanboy wibbling! You want to know if it’s any good. Well, as I say, I overpraised the first Hulk at the time, which makes me cautious when it comes to this one. I will say Yes, it’s pretty good, in an unpretentious, CGI-heavy way. There are nice performances from Norton and Liv Tyler as his sweetheart, some amusing gags about stretchy trousers, and – as connoisseurs of the sublime Transporter series will know – while Leterrier may struggle a bit when it comes to character scenes and, to be honest, dialogue, he absolutely knows what he’s up to when it comes to doing action sequences. (Part of me thinks it’s a shame that Jason Statham isn’t in this movie, too – on the other hand, the Hulk’s hard, but he’s not that hard.)

However, Tim Roth’s part is atrociously underwritten, to the point where he can do literally nothing with it. His dialogue is simply terrible. It makes his role in the rubbish version of Planet of the Apes look like a masterpiece of character development, and I’ll bet now more than ever he’s regretting turning down the role of the Half-Blood Prince back in 2000. Purists may also complain that, for most of the film, Thunderbolt Ross is a bit too close to being actually evil, rather than the good-intentioned but thick-headed pain in the neck he generally is in the comic. And, for all its narrative flaws the Ang Lee Hulk had clearly had a lot of money thrown at it – the CGI here is impressive, but it seemed to me to lack the verve and scale of the action sequences in the earlier movie, as well as their primary-coloured comic-bookiness. Things are a little bit darker and more restrained this time round.

On the whole, though, The Incredible Hulk is solidly entertaining stuff which deserves to find an audience in a way the previous film didn’t. If you’ve encountered any version of the Hulk before and enjoyed the experience, there’s probably something here for you too. If you haven’t – well, it’s an efficient fantasy-action film, and there’s nothing wrong with that. It’s the Marvel Universe shadings of the movie that make it truly distinctive, though, and after the very-much standalone Iron Man (seemed okay to me, but I saw it in Italian, alas) it’ll be interesting to see which direction Marvel Studios opts for with future projects.

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