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Posts Tagged ‘Ed Skrein’

I am not ashamed to say I have a certain fondness for many of the films of Roland Emmerich, particularly his SF and fantasy output. Let me at once qualify that by saying that I’ve never much liked Stargate, and I was in Italy when 10,000 BC came out and never got to see it, and, come to think of it, Universal Soldier was about what you’d expect from an early-90s vehicle for Jean-Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lundgren. But I did enjoy 2012, The Day After Tomorrow was likeable tosh, his version of Godzilla was a decent monster movie (just a very bad Godzilla film), and I have very little time for people who go around bad-mouthing Independence Day (even if the sequel is rubbish).

Emmerich does have a real talent for wrangling these big, slightly bonkers special effects movies; it’s his other films that I find slightly hard work. Obviously, it’s nice to be respected and treated as a serious artist – but, you know, stick to what you’re good at. Bearing this in mind I didn’t quite know what to expect from his new movie, Midway. On the one hand, this is a big, epic film with lots of special-effects action sequences – but on the other, it proclaims it is intended as a ‘true account’ of some of the events of the Second World War.

So, nothing to do with the initial marketing of Space Invaders in the US, then (though I can just about imagine Emmerich coming up with a spin on that which would suit his talents). The film is named after, and largely concerns, the naval battle at Midway in June 1942, although it opens five years earlier with a meeting between US naval attache Edwin Layton (Patrick Wilson) and Japanese navy officer Isoroku Yamamoto (Etsushi Toyokawa) in Tokyo. Yamamoto warns his counterpart that if the US leaves Japan with no other option, it will fight to protect its access to the natural resources it needs: the hawks in the ascendancy in the Japanese government will see to that.

This struck me as an unexpectedly nuanced and even-handed opening to the movie, attempting to give some context to the beginning of Japanese hostilities in late 1941. However, from here we proceed almost straight into the events of December 7th 1941 and the Japanese attack on the US Pacific fleet at Pearl Harbor. There are a few things to be said here: firstly, as a movie whole and entire, Midway is certainly better than the grim Michael Bay offering Pearl Harbor, which troubled cinemas in 2001 (it doesn’t seem that long ago to me, but I am depressingly aware that movies from that period are now old enough to drink) and covered much of the same material. However, the decision to go straight into the first of several major action and effects sequences is questionable – apart from Layton, we’ve barely got to know any of the characters and so our investment in the story is still quite minimal: it’s all just bangs and flashes and fairground thrills. There’s also the problem, which persists throughout the movie, that while the special effects are lavish and a great deal of money and talent has clearly gone into them, the movie still ends up becalmed in the nautical equivalent of the uncanny valley – it looks very pretty, but never for a moment do you feel like you’re watching something actually real.

Anyway, with Pearl Harbor out of the way, Chester Nimitz (Woody Harrelson in a wig) is put in charge of the US fleet and the movie proceeds through the events of the next few months at a brisk clip: the initial American response, which is severely limited by the fact that their main torpedo would more accurately be called a torpedon’t, the air raid on Tokyo commanded by James Doolittle (Aaron Eckhart and his chin pop up for what’s not much more than an extended cameo as Doolittle), the battle of the Coral Sea, and so on. Eventually we get to the battle of Midway itself, as American intelligence analysts figure out where the Imperial Japanese fleet are going to be making their next move, allowing the US navy to set a trap for them.

And, you know, it’s never actually dull, and it does move along very briskly, as noted. Of course, the film is kind of obliged to do this, simply because it has given itself such a lot of ground to cover, as well as the actual battle of Midway. It’s good to have a bit of context, obviously, but I wonder how much sense this actually makes to people not already familiar with the events of the Pacific war – Wilson and Harrelson rattle out the exposition heroically, but I’m not sure how much of it sticks. There is a real danger of subplot overload well before the end of the movie, which honestly feels bloated and unwieldy much of the time. Cutting a lot of the Doolittle material would have been one obvious choice, but given that a lot of this concerns the aid given to Doolittle by heroic Chinese fighters, and the Japanese occupation of part of China, I imagine that keeping all this in was stipulated by the Chinese investors who I understand provided a significant chunk of the film’s budget.

The other main problem I had with the film is that I found it rather difficult to actually warm to. There are a lot of characters to keep track of, and many of them are honestly fairly indistinguishable. Most of the movie is pitched at the same level of macho, stoic, belligerent patriotism, and most of the characters are naval personnel; there is consequently a lot of blurring together which only a few actors manage to avoid. Usually this is via some kind of prop: Wilson wears glasses and looks concerned, Harrelson has his wig, Eckhart has his chin, Luke Evans has a moustache, and Dennis Quaid turns up as Admiral Halsey with a permanent growl and a case of shingles. The de facto main character is Dick Best (Ed Skrein), one of the most distinguished pilots in American history, but the issue here is that the script makes him out to be a swaggering, arrogant loose cannon, a characterisation that Skrein happily runs with. This made him quite difficult to empathise with; I was much more inclined to identify with his co-pilot, who eventually becomes very reluctant to fly with someone who seems to have a death wish. You may be wondering who plays all the female fighter and bomber pilots: well, the Progressive Agenda Committee were clearly unable to locate the offices of the production, for they have managed to get away with not including any. The only female character of any significance is Best’s wife, who is played by Mandy Moore. I have to say this is a largely decorative role and she is much more prominent on the poster than in the actual movie.

This just adds to the sense that Midway is very much an old-school war movie, although one has to wonder if we really need all the unsubtle tub-thumping patriotism – verging, to be honest, on jingoism in places – nearly eighty years on from the actual battle. It is, of course, distinguished by modern special effects, and plenty of them, but as noted the film does often feel like you’re watching someone else playing a computer game. I haven’t seen the 1976 film based on these events – however, I would be willing to guess that it has less impressive visuals but a rather better script. This film passes the time decently, it’s interesting to look at, and it does contain a bit of history. It’s just that the actual story is not that engaging or moving – it is war as an almost totally empty spectacle. Emmerich’s films are much more fun when he isn’t trying to be so respectful.

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There’s a school of thought – which I think has some merit to it –  arguing that you can trace the death of comic books as a truly popular, mainstream medium to the middle of the 1970s. It sounds rather odd to suggest this, given that there are four Marvel and two DC movies coming out this year alone, but the theory goes that no-one has invented a truly popular new character since the 70s (one that non-comic book readers could recognise) and that while movies based on characters from the 80s and 90s have been produced (Elektra, Steel, Spawn), none of them have been artistic or commercial successes. (This of course invites the riposte that it wasn’t that long ago that the majority of comic-book movies were strikingly awful and frequently flopped, but I digress.)

Well, history may be being made in a small way, with the release of Tim Miller’s Deadpool, a movie based on a character who first appeared in 1991 – practically the day before yesterday in comics terms. Deadpool first turned up in a book called The New Mutants, which, under the arcane terms of the various licenses governing the film rights to Marvel characters, means his screen version belongs to Fox, makers of the X-Men films.

deadpool

The thing about Deadpool, an enormously popular character in comics terms, is that he to some extent is a parody or subversion of a typical superhero character. To some extent the character is a combination of two other very popular heroes, having a costume (and inability to shut up) reminiscent of Spider-Man, but a power set and worldview more like that of Wolverine. Then again, the guy is covered with swords and guns, which couldn’t be much more early-90s-comic-book. Above all this, though, is the conceit that Deadpool is aware of his own identity as a fictional character and frequently addresses the reader directly, and his various books mock and undercut those of other characters.

How are you supposed to put this in a movie? Well, when the X-Men movie people first had a go, in 2009, they didn’t much try. Deadpool sort-of appears in the first Wolverine movie, played by Ryan Reynolds, but the character is largely unrecognisable. Reynolds is back for this second attempt, and the only reference to the 2009 film is a predictably tongue-in-cheek swipe in passing.

The actual plot of Deadpool is very, very straightforward – Reynolds plays Wade Wilson, an ex-special forces soldier turned general-purpose underworld heavy, whose life changes when he falls in love with beautiful night-time-lady Vanessa (Morena Baccarin). And then it changes again, when he discovers he has terminal cancer.

In desperation, he turns to nasty British scientist Francis (Ed Skrein), who injects him with plot-device jollop and tortures him in order to activate any latent mutant genes he may possess. This works, and Wilson is left cured, with immense regenerative powers (and, it would seem, enhanced agility and reactions), but also a horribly scarred appearance. Not best pleased with Francis, Wilson adopts the masked identity of Deadpool and sets out in search of revenge…

I suspect you may hear people proclaiming that Deadpool is a radical new invention of the superhero movie that takes the genre to new and exciting places. As you can see from the plot, however, there is nothing especially innovative going on here, and – some structural inventiveness notwithstanding – the plot is ultimately procedural, with action sequences and big special effects moments in all the places you would expect.

The main new things that Deadpool does are superficial. Firstly, it drops any pretence of being made for a family audience, being chock-full of so-called mature content – heads explode, effs and jeffs are effed and jeffed, Reynolds takes his trousers off a lot, and so on. (Then again, this is far from being the first superhero movie to get a 15 certificate in the UK.) This loss of the kiddy buck seems to have spooked the studio, which is probably why the movie was made on a relatively low budget, but I suspect it’s going to do rather well.

Secondly, proceedings are brightened up considerably by the inclusion of a lot of very snarky and knowing humour, much of it at the expense of the other X-Men films (Hugh Jackman is a particular target). I laughed very hard at a lot of Deadpool, but I would also suggest that some of the jokes will be a bit impenetrable to anyone not into the comics. Deadpool talks to the audience, the shortcomings of the budget are mocked, and the conventions of the genre are ferociously spoofed.

It’s all good fun, and the film is solidly entertaining – as you might expect of a movie with Gina Carano in it. On this occasion Carano gets to have a ding-dong fight with Colossus from the X-Men (who is presented as a preachy bore on this occasion) – Carano could probably do that in real life, come to think of it. But it doesn’t figure out a way to square the circle of being post-modernly knowing and tongue in cheek on the one hand, and yet also be a properly involving story at the same time. And, one has to ask: does poking fun at your own movie for including a lot of cliches really excuse the fact that your movie includes a lot of cliches?

Deadpool will probably do very well, as I said, but I think its combination of violence, profanity, shallow cynicism, and delight in its own cleverness means it will be most enjoyed by teenagers. It’s a very cleverly and competently assembled movie, but ultimately I think it’s a lot less subversive and unconventional than its publicists would like you to believe. I enjoyed it, but if every superhero movie was like this, I think there would soon be a lot fewer of them.

 

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