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Posts Tagged ‘Harrison Ford’

If an alien or someone fresh out of long-term hibernation were to cast an eye across the cinematic landscape and try to guess who amongst the actors currently working was, by some metrics, the most successful movie star in history, the chances are they would go for one of the Toms (Cruise or Hanks)  – which would be a reasonable guess, but not quite right. In the end it all comes down to how you measure these things, and many people would suggest that Samuel L Jackson’s string of cameo appearances in huge movies from the Marvel and stellar conflict franchises, not to mention Jurassic Park (and many others), puts him on the top spot, but others reckon it to be someone who has a rather lower profile these days: Harrison Ford.

Now, as with all right-thinking men of a certain age, I loved Harrison Ford when I was younger – or, more accurately, I loved the movies he made as Han Solo and Indiana Jones, and those movies made me go on to watch many other Ford performances in films like Witness and The Fugitive. At this point I was all set to do my usual thing of bemoaning the fact I haven’t done a good job of keeping up with Ford’s more recent movies – but then I checked out his recent filmography and it turns out that I have seen every film he’s made in the last seven years, and only missed eight of the twenty he’s appeared in this century. He just doesn’t crank ’em out any more.

How he picks his projects I’m not entirely sure (though I imagine an enormous paycheck was a factor in his last couple of appearances for Lucasfilm), but it does seem that he still has proper movie star clout and consequently draws the salary one would expect. Chris Sanders’ new version of The Call of the Wild has Ford’s name above the title, and he is prominent on the poster – though in some of the advertising he is definitely playing second banana to a dog.

Then again, this is par for the course with The Call of the Wild, which – again, according to some of the advertising – is based on ‘a classic family adventure’. I’m not sure what Jack London, who wrote the original novel, would have made of that. I’m not entirely sure I ever actually finished reading The Call of the Wild – I can only imagine I bought a copy as background material while planning out a Werewolf RPG chronicle – but I don’t recall it being particularly gentle or family friendly. The new movie rectifies this, of course.

This is the story of Buck, an enormous St Bernard-Scotch Collie dog who as the film begins is living a pampered existence in California in the late 1890s, as the pet of the local judge (Bradley Whitford, briefly appearing). He is good natured but disruptive, and generally a bit of a softie. But Buck’s life changes when he is dognapped and sent north to Alaska, where the Gold Rush is in progress and dogs are required for all sorts of jobs. Here he briefly encounters grizzled, grumpy, but ultimately likeable prospector John Thornton (played by grizzled, grumpy, but ultimately likeable actor Harrison Ford), before being bought by a couple (played by Omar Sy and Cara Gee) running a dog-sled mail route. Can Buck find a place for himself in the savage north? Will destiny bring him and Thornton back together (hint: yes)? Can he resist the call of the wild (hint: no)?

I imagine the thinking behind the new version of Call of the Wild (this is a much-filmed tale) was basically that the CGI version of The Jungle Book was based on a classic novel and made a ton of money, and so a CGI-heavy version of London’s book was likely to do the business too, especially with the cachet brought to it by the presence of a superstar like Harrison Ford. It all makes sense when you put it like that, but the fact remains that Call of the Wild looks likely to lose the studio (it is the first film released by the newly-rechristened ‘Twentieth Century Studio’) a nine-digit sum. Maybe people will only go to see Ford playing either of the characters who made him famous, or maybe people don’t have the same kind of warm associations with London that they had with the Disney take on Kipling. Either way it’s a shame, as this is a solid movie that I found to be rather more satisfying than I expected.

Of course, it is a movie of the modern day, with all that goes with this both narratively and technically. The most striking thing about it is that much of the time the dogs and other animals in the film are all CGI, which I suppose cuts down on trainers’ fees but also lifts the whole thing into the realm of being effectively part-animated. Buck is ‘played’ (through the wonders of mo-cap) by Terry Notary, who I suppose is the American answer to Andy Serkis: other mo-cap roles include parts in the last King Kong film, along with the Hobbit trilogy, the most recent Planet of the Apes films, and (almost inevitably) a bunch of films for Marvel. You really have to get on board with the fact this is a CGI/mo-cap heavy film, or it will just do your head in; it mostly does look indefinably fake, but it’s a pretty enough fake to be tolerable.

Needless to say, the Progressive Action Committee have also made an appearance in the course of the production and various diversity quotas have been met, with characters given racial and gender makeovers. For once I’m not too inclined to grumble about this, because the actors employed as a result – Omar Sy and Cara Gee – are both very able and engaging. The role of bad guy has been taken from some native Americans and – of course – given to a privileged white man (played by Dan Stevens).

The other main departure from London is that the film has been softened up quite considerably – there’s a lot of whipping and clubbing and biting and clawing, if memory serves, and the story doesn’t shy away from some brutal realities. The hard edges have been sanded down quite considerably for the screen, though, with the result that the film rests comfortably in the PG bracket. It is mawkish and sentimental in places, but the moment I was dreading, when the dogs would start talking to each other, never arrives. The animals are allowed to be animals to this extent at least.

And the humans are allowed to do some decent acting, too. Whatever else you want to say, the film does seem to lift considerably whenever Harrison Ford comes on the screen. He’s never been the most extravagant of performers, but his ability to give heart and heft to unlikely material remains undiminished and it is a pleasure to watch his slightly earnest performance in this movie (I should say the movie itself is determinedly earnest and somewhat old-fashioned in its storytelling). For a while I was wondering why this movie was making me feel quite so nostalgic, but the fact it features Ford partnering up with a co-star who is enormous, hairy, and doesn’t have any dialogue should have tipped me off. Eventually I remembered the Russian word for dog is sowbacca and it all fell into place.

Let’s be clear: The Call of the Wild isn’t going to rock your world or give you a thrilling night at the movies you will never forget. But it is a well-made movie in its way, which is clearly trying hard to be respectful to the source material, and in the end it is very engaging and satisfying entertainment. And it’s always good to see Harrison Ford in a movie. Hopefully it will find some kind of audience.

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It’s easy to talk too much about cinema in rarefied terms of its themes and value as pure art, but I think it is important to remember that it also serves a valuable purpose by cheering people up when times are especially hard, as they are at the moment. The world feels like a tough old place at the moment. Will this rain never cease? It is enough to make one permanently miserable. This is before we even get to the ceaseless glare and noise from the giant billboards everywhere, or the perpetual whine of the cars zipping about overhead. It is no wonder that virtually anyone who can afford the fare and pass the medical is choosing the emigrate to one of the outer space colonies, even if they are stuffed with homicidal androids. At a time like this one has to get one’s pleasures where one can, such as in the form of a revival of Ridley Scott’s eerily accurate dystopian thriller Blade Runner, originally released in 1982.

The movie is set in present-day Los Angeles, shortly after a group of synthetic human beings – known as replicants – have illegally arrived on Earth. They appear to be trying to infiltrate the Tyrell Corporation, which originally created them, for reasons which are not immediately clear. The business of finding and eliminating replicants is entrusted to a special corps of investigators known, for no very obvious reason, as blade runners. The blade runner initially assigned to this case is murdered by one of the replicants at the start of the movie, and as a result jaded former blade runner Deckard (Harrison Ford with an unflattering haircut) is essentially blackmailed into taking over.

Deckard’s investigation is made a little more complicated by an encounter with Rachael (Sean Young) a woman at the Tyrell Corporation’s HQ who eventually proves to be another replicant herself – just one who believes herself to be human. Is the distinction between natural and artificial humanity really as clear cut as his job requires him to believe? Rachael takes badly to the news of her true nature and drops out of sight, giving Deckard another target to locate. He ploughs on with the case regardless.

Meanwhile, the surviving replicants, Roy (Rutger Hauer) and Pris (Daryl Hannah), persist in trying to get to Tyrell himself. They have been constructed with a drastically limited lifespan and their time is almost up. Can they find of way of extending their existence before the blade runner catches up with them?

I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve seen Blade Runner – it must be at least three or four – and, to be honest, of all the different versions of the film that have been in circulation over the years. On this occasion we were treated to The Final Cut from 2007, which is one of the ones without Harrison Ford’s voice-over. This is obviously a film of significant cultural importance, and I have never watched it and come away thinking it was outright bad. But at the same time I’ve never quite been able to see what all the fuss is about. I know at least one person who says this is their favourite film of all time (I once encountered them smoking a very nervous cigarette outside the cinema as they waited for the sequel to start), but… it always leaves me oddly indifferent. I have struggled to have a strong opinion about it of any kind. Part of the reason I went to see this revival was the hope that encountering it on the big screen might help me to finally connect with it.

And did this happen? Well, not really. There was obviously some additional amusement value this time around, simply because the film’s vision of the future is (joking apart) so much at odds with how things have actually turned out – although it turns out it was spot on about all this rain we’ve been having lately. Overall, though, no matter which version I see, I always have the same response to Blade Runner, which is the same one I have to a lot of Ridley Scott films, especially the early ones: this is a director obsessed with the visual impact of his films, to the point where the actual narrative suffers badly.

I don’t deny that Blade Runner is one of the most visually and striking and dense films of its time, and very influential as a result of this – although, as I have noted in the past, all of these dystopian urban hell-scapes ultimately find their roots in Lang’s Metropolis. The screen is packed with fascinating incidental detail, rather as in the first couple of stellar conflict movies, but this being a Scott movie the camera is inclined to dwell on these vistas rather than treat them as a casual backdrop to the ongoing narrative. Impressive though the look of the film is, it still strikes me that some of the imagery is remarkably clumsy in its symbolism: the theological subtext of Roy’s quest to meet his maker is quite obvious before we get to the point where he starts inflicting stigmata upon himself, and the moment with the dove is about as subtle as a brick through a window.

I mean, there’s nothing wrong with making a very pretty film, as long as the pictures don’t start eclipsing the story. Arguably, here they do: the plot, on reflection, is remarkably thin, with Deckard in particular coming across as a rather drab and only borderline sympathetic (not to mention competent) individual. Ford does his best with the material, but Deckard does recede into the scenery a bit. It probably doesn’t help that the typically offbeat elements of the character from Philip K Dick’s original book have almost all been excised (in the novel, Deckard is unhappily married to a wife obsessed with acquiring robotic animals, which represent a status symbol in their society – he spends a lot of the novel worrying about whether the bounty he will get for killing Roy and the others will allow him to buy her the replicant sheep she has her heart set on).

As a result, the film is dominated by Rutger Hauer’s striking (and one might even say career-defining) performance as Roy. As he himself admits, this is a character who does some very questionable things, but he still comes across as a vivid, sympathetic individual, perhaps the only one in the film. As noted, the film’s focus on the visual and aesthetic elements means that its more philosophical ideas get rather neglected – a shame, as this is the very purest kind of SF, reflecting on what it really means to be human – but Hauer manages, almost single-handed, to make you think about this.

So, well, maybe I did see something in Blade Runner that I didn’t before. I must confess I am one of those people who always preferred the original version anyway – the voice-over by Ford gave the film a kind of identity as a Chandler-esque private eye pastiche, which I thought gave it a sense of identity and a level of accessibility it wouldn’t necessarily otherwise possess. As a piece of visual art, and in terms of its production design, this is obviously a hugely successful and important film. But as a conventional drama it frequently feels underpowered and rather hollow; the surface detail is remarkable but beneath it there is a distinct lack of substance.

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The recent long weekend here in the UK was afflicted by more bad weather (too much heat and sunlight) but at least there was some respite to be had within the local cinemas. Almost by coincidence, we were treated to a mini-Steven Spielberg festival over the weekend – the UPP’s Summer Holidays season took an offbeat turn with another showing for the film that announced him to the world at large, 1975’s Jaws, while the Phoenix has been showing a succession of well-regarded films to mark the thirtieth anniversary of a prominent film magazine, and this week’s choice was Raiders of the Lost Ark from 1981 (I have to confess to a slight pang that the schedule had not been just a bit different: next week’s revival is Magnolia, which I would love to see again, but my schedule just won’t stretch to let me attend that).

If I were asked to choose two early Spielberg movies to watch again (and by ‘early Spielberg’ I would include everything up to E.T. or possibly Temple of Doom) it would probably be these two, although Close Encounters of the Third Kind would be challenging hard as well. These films arguably bookend a period during which Spielberg and a few others (most notably George Lucas, one of the inceptors of Raiders of the Lost Ark) redefined commercial American cinema and in many ways created the medium as we know it today. If they happen to share a few other features, well, that is only to be expected in the circumstances.

Jaws is one of those movies that everybody knows: or perhaps it’s more accurate to say that you can start playing John Williams’ famous theme and within a few bars virtually anyone will get the reference. It is well-documented that Spielberg has said he was effectively compelled to use the music to stand in for the physical shark, as the prop itself was so problematic to get working. That said, the theme is used relatively sparingly; less than you might expect.

Still, for form’s sake: based on a potboiler novel by Peter Benchley (who turns up in the film for a cameo, along with the other credited screenwriter, Carl Gottlieb), Jaws is set on and around Amity, an island off the coast of New England which is gearing up for its summer season. Newcomer police chief Martin Brody (Roy Scheider) is still learning the ropes, and doesn’t quite know what to do when a young woman’s body is found on the beach, apparently having been a late night snack for a passing shark. His instinct is to close the beaches and call for expert assistance, but he is talked out of the former step at least by the town’s slimy mayor (Murray Hamilton), who is perhaps too conscious of the potential impact on the town’s income. Tragedy inevitably ensues, and Brody finds himself all at sea on an expedition to find and kill the shark, accompanied by keen young scientist Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss) and very salty sea dog Quint (Robert Shaw), three men in a boat which may prove to be of inadequate size…

Jaws is acknowledged to be the first summer blockbuster in the sense of the term as it is used today, something which is probably connected to the fact it was one of the first films to go a simultaneous wide release across the USA, with a correspondingly energetic promotional strategy. It certainly has many of the characteristics of blockbusters today, in that it was not originally written for the screen and is essentially a genre movie which has been tarted up a bit. The makers of modern blockbusters do this by throwing huge sums of money at their projects; Jaws takes a different approach. This is really just a horror movie about a monster on the loose, and sticks to the structure of the form with great fidelity – there is much misdirection and many false alarms in the orchestration of events, and the film isn’t afraid to fall back on the odd jump scare, either. By the climax it has become the stuff of fantasy – giant sharks don’t make a habit of systematically attacking boats in order to eat the crew. And yet perhaps Spielberg’s smartest trick is to disguise this horror movie as much more of a mainstream drama, certainly in the first half – it is low-key, it is naturalistic, there is even a hint of a grown-up subtext in the film’s cynical attitude towards elected officials (this was made only a couple of years after Watergate, after all).

Of course, the second half of the film operates in a rather different way, as a kind of inverted chamber piece with the three men out on the water slowly realising that while they may have bitten off more than they can chew, this is not a problem likely to afflict their quarry. This whole section of the film is superlatively constructed, paced, and executed – the shift from three men on a somewhat intense fishing trip, to a desperate fight to the death is handled so deftly you barely notice it. The change in tone between the two halves of the film is still very obvious, but the results more than justify the atypical narrative structure.

If we’re talking about films with odd scripts, then that moves us neatly on to Raiders of the Lost Ark, a film I have written about before in a limited sort of way (my thesis on that occasion was that, irrespective of its other numerous and considerable strengths, one of the things that makes Raiders so notable is that it is one of the few mainstream Hollywood movies apart from biblical epics and a few supernatural horror films to be predicated on the existence of God). Looking at it more generally, though, it certainly seems to give the lie to the suggestion that a classic film has to start with a perfect script. I love Raiders of the Lost Ark, not least because one does sometimes get the impression while watching it that, like Indiana Jones himself, the film-makers are making it up as they go. There are moments where characters make questionable decisions, there are some fairly outrageous plot devices, there is even the odd hole in the plot. The plot itself resolves with the most literal example of a deus ex machina ending imaginable. (I am aware of the school of thought which suggests that the actions of Jones himself have a negligible impact on the plot until the final couple of minutes following the climax.)

And yet the breathless, amiable rush of the film disarms any criticisms one might be minded to make: not for nothing was it nominated for Best Picture that year – and, with all due respect to Chariots of Fire, with hindsight the eventual result does look like another case of the academy calling it wrong. Then again, this is not from one of the genres that Oscar is sweet on – although quite what genre it belongs to is another question. The story, which concerns archaeologist Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) and his attempts to stop the Nazis from seizing control of a priceless and possibly supernatural biblical artefact, is a bit difficult to pin down. There are elements of Bond-style action movie (there is something quite knowing about the way that Sean Connery turns up in a later film as Jones’ father), but also there is also fantasy, comedy, and romance. But above all one is aware not of genre but an attitude – an unashamed nostalgia for Golden Age Hollywood, whether in the form of prestige pictures like Casablanca or the weekly serials which are an equally obvious inspiration. You feel like you are watching something classic and familiar even when the film is inventing a new kind of action fantasy.

The thing that makes Raiders of the Lost Ark truly special is the way it combines a series of absolutely first-rate set pieces – fights, chases, death-defying leaps, and so on – with equally immaculate character work and exposition. Jones is never in danger of becoming a cipher, thanks equally to Ford’s performance and Lawrence Kasdan’s screenplay. There is always something slightly hapless and shambolic about Indiana Jones – he remains entirely human and relatable throughout, which is surely the secret of the character’s success and longevity (a fifth film is promised for next year).

Is the film about anything, or just cheery escapism for those yearning for a less complicated world? (One thing you can say about Nazis, they make very good villains – and Ronald Lacey’s Toht is possibly the most totally evil Nazi in screen history.) Perhaps unsurprisingly, it does feel tonally not dissimilar to the best of George Lucas’ stellar conflict movies, and one thing it certainly shares with them is a central journey for the protagonist concerning the finding of faith – Jones starts the film happily dismissing his colleagues’ concerns about the Ark, but by the end he genuinely seems to have become a believer, surviving through an act of faith.

It would be nice to make one more link and suggest that Brody’s final hopeful shot at the shark in Jaws is another example of this, for it would create a pleasing unity for the films we have been discussing (as well as connecting them to several other Lucas and Spielberg films from this period). Best not to push it, though: at the very least, these are both excellent films, marvellous entertainment and as fresh and enjoyable as they were when they first appeared. There is a reason why Steven Spielberg has been such a dominant figure in entertainment for nearly half a century now, and these films provide good evidence for it: the man is a master of his craft.

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In all my years of going to the cinema, I have seen an enormous variety of Dicks. I have seen disturbingly malformed Dicks. I have seen insignificant and forgettable Dicks. I have seen the occasional moderately impressive Dick. But, I feel it must be said, currently showing on a screen near you is what’s almost certainly the biggest Dick in the history of cinema, Denis Villeneuve’s very expensive and equally lengthy Blade Runner 2049. (I use ‘Dick’ in this case to mean a film derived from a novel or short story by the SF writer Philip K Dick, and also to facilitate some very cheap double entendres.)

It is doubtless time for gasps and glares as I once again reveal that I’m lukewarm at best about the original 1982 Blade Runner. What can I say, maybe it was the circumstances in which I first saw it, which was split in two at either end of a school day when I was 14, after it showed in the graveyard slot on TV. Subsequent viewings didn’t do much to make me reassess the movie, either, not least because in the meantime I read the source novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which has that atmosphere of quotidian weirdness which for me is quintessentially Phildickian, and which is nearly always the first thing that disappears when Hollywood gets their hands on one of the master’s works.

At least this means I have not spent the last couple of weeks having kittens about the prospect of having one of my very favourite films smeared by an incompetent reimagining (sometimes it feels like all my favourite things have already been screwed up over the last few years, anyway; hey ho) – I know several people who have been in this unenviable position. Given the way the last couple of Alien prequels worked out, I suppose they had a point, but then I was never much of an Alien fan either.

Anyway, off we went to the cinema on the first day of release for Blade Runner 2049 (yes, I missed the first 2047 sequels too, ha ha). The obligatory (and rather dauntingly detailed) prefatory captions fill in the somewhat complicated goings on which have occurred since the first film, which was set (somewhat quaintly, these days) in 2019, but basically things are much the same: the environment and society are going to hell in a handbasket, and everyone has become somewhat reliant on synthetic people known as replicants. The Wallace Corporation, which manufactures the replicants, has naturally become immensely wealthy as a result, but their use is controlled and unauthorised models are hunted down and ‘retired’ (i.e. violently terminated) by specialist cops known as blade runners.

Our hero is KD/3:6-7 (Ryan Goosey-Goosey Gosling), a blade runner who is himself a replicant (presumably from a production run where the eyes didn’t quite turn out symmetrical, but I digress). During a routine case, K stumbles upon evidence of something almost unbelievable – the remains of a replicant who died in childbirth. The supposed inability of replicants to reproduce themselves is one of the things that enables the uneasy settlement between the synthetics and natural people, and K’s boss (Robin Wright) is very clear that K is to make very certain the now-grown replicant offspring is found and made to disappear, even as the head of the Wallace Corporation (Jared Leto) and his factotum (Sylvia Hoeks) take an interest of their own in the investigation. One of the few leads that K has is a connection between the mother and another, long-since-vanished blade runner, named Rick Deckard…

Yes, as you’re doubtless already aware, Harrison Ford does indeed reprise his role from the original movie (he’s not the only one to do so, but he gets most screen-time). That said, he doesn’t show up until quite late on, and when he does it is as a fragile, largely passive figure, only ever waiting to be found, or interviewed, or rescued. The focus is only ever on Gosling as K (even so, this is possibly not the vehicle for the star that some of his fans may be hoping for – a couple of vocally keen Gosling devotees were sitting in the row behind us, but left halfway through the film), and the actor is customarily good in the role.

That said, this is a notably accomplished movie in most departments, with Villeneuve handling a reasonably complex SF narrative with same kind of skill he showed with Arrival last year, and a hugely impressive piece of scoring and sound design from Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfisch. The combination of striking images and music is quite immersive, and (I suspect) will not disappoint fans of the original film.

And it faithfully continues the themes and ideas of the original film. The most recent trailer doing the rounds makes Blade Runner 2049 look rather like a non-stop action blockbuster, but this is not really the impression given by the actual movie. Instead, it is a combination of thriller and dystopian SF, handling some very Phildickian ideas to do with the nature of what it means to be human, the whole concept of authenticity, and the ethics of treating people as property. One expression of this comes in the form of K’s girlfriend (Ana de Armas), who is a self-aware hologram, and the film’s treatment of their slightly unusual relationship. (We agreed this element of the film clearly owed a huge debt to Spike Jonze’s Her.) Again, the SF content is handled deftly and reasonably subtly.

I can really find very few grounds on which to criticise Blade Runner 2049: it may even impel me to go back and give the original movie yet another chance. And yet I still find this film easier to admire than to genuinely like, and I’m wondering why – it doesn’t seem to be quite as in love with its own stylish prettiness as the typical Ridley Scott film, certainly. I think in the end it is because the new film, while extremely clever in the way it manipulates story threads from the original and also audience expectations, doesn’t really apply the same degree of intelligence to the ideas at the heart of the story. The plot has various twists and turns, some of them properly startling, but the film itself has no genuinely surprising new ideas to offer.

But, hey, Blade Runner 2049 is a big-budget Hollywood SF movie, so you have to manage your expectations accordingly. This is an extremely good-looking and well-made film which develops its inheritance of ideas and characters ingeniously and convincingly, even if it never quite finds the spark it would need to become something really special. Denis Villeneuve made the most impressive SF film of 2016; it looks like he’s in with a very good chance of repeating that feat this year, too.

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I wonder how many slightly drunk or otherwise confused people will end up going to see Lee Toland Krieger’s The Age of Adaline by mistake? The title is, after all, not entirely dissimilar to that of another prominent film of the day – the Age of part is interchangable, while the other key words share rather similar alveolar laterals, plosives, and occlusives in more or less the same order. Anyone who does wander in by mistake is probably in for a disappointing time, for while the two are both very broadly in the fantasy genre, The Age of Adaline is a rather more reserved affair which appears to be pitching for a more refined (and probably older) audience.

Or, if you prefer, it’s a chick flick. Certainly filmgoers of the distaff persuasion outnumbered the blokes five or six to one at the screening I attended. I certainly felt a bit out of my comfort zone, and – I have to say – the thorough-going awfulness of all the trailers for other chick flicks which preceded this one does not really incline me to repeat the experience.

The-Age-of-Adaline-2015-Poster-Wallpaper

But on to this film, which is based on a premise that the trailer can’t help but spoil. Blake Lively plays the titular character, Adaline, a woman living in present-day San Francisco. As things get underway she is preparing to relocate to Oregon, but also involved in some rather odd situations – she’s buying a fake ID, for one thing, and also has slightly peculiar relationships with a couple of apparently older women (most  prominently Ellen Burstyn), the tenor of which does not really match her age.

One of the problems with The Age of Adaline is that it is saddled with an omniscient voiceover, which jumps in to fill in plot points with no warning at various junctures in the film. Normally I would say this was an example of telling rather than showing, and thus bad storytelling, but given some of the stuff it has to impart I’m less inclined to be severe. Basically, we are told, Adaline was born in the last hours of 1907 and lived a perfectly normal life for nearly thirty years, until she was involved in an accident, and, well, according to the film a combination of rapid cooling and high voltage electricity (wait for it) electro-compressed her RNA and locked her telomeres in a non-flexible configuration. What this means is that ever since she has been completely immune to the ravages of time and hasn’t aged a day (though, we are invited to infer, she is still potentially a martyr to car crashes, disease, beheading, and so on).

Somehow the FBI got word of Adaline’s peculiar condition in the mid 50s and she has been living under a succession of fake identities ever since, somewhat to the dismay of her now-elderly daughter (Burstyn’s character). Naturally she feels she can’t get seriously involved with anyone, or live too prominent a lifestyle, but inevitably this changes when she meets Ellis Jones (Michiel Huisman), a… oh, well, for the purposes of both the review and the film all that matters is that he is a lovely, attractive, kind, rich bloke who clearly has a thing for her. She might even find she has a thing for him too, if she just relaxes a bit and lets her guard down. But is there any future in it? Oh, what’s a 107-year-old woman to do sometimes?

Yes, this is one of those films where two gorgeous young (or in this case seemingly young) people have a cute-meet near the start and then spend most of the film contriving reasons why they can’t actually be together after all. If the film made a serious attempt to be funny it would be a rom-com, but it isn’t, so I suppose it must just be a rom. As you may have guessed, I came to see The Age of Adaline solely because of the fantasy element – stories about immortals and other very long-lived people of any stripe do interest me. (And this is clearly a fantasy, by the way – all that stuff about telomeres and electro-compression makes about as much sense as her unknowingly being an alien from the planet Zeist, and they should just have gone with her being hit by magic lightning or something.)

Lively gives one of the best performances as someone who is effectively out-of-time and much older than her appearance suggests that I can remember : she has a slight sense of detachment and aloofness, in addition to convincingly being a fearsome polymath with Sherlockian powers of ratiocination and an encyclopedic knowledge of recent history (maybe having compressed RNA boosts your brain function, too). However, as the film goes on the story requires her to increasingly show a more accessible and human side to the character, and the actress manages this without making it too obvious or abrupt. The script, meanwhile, manages to come up with a few new angles on this kind of idea, in addition to actually having a strong subtext all about history, heritage, and nostalgia.

Essentially, however, all this stuff is just window-dressing to the central conflict of the story, which – as I say – is a they-can’t-be-together romance. As you may have gathered, my expectation going into this film was that it was basically going to turn out to be Highlander for girls, and in the absence of implausible Scotsmen and broadsword-wielding heavies crashing through the scenery, all we would be left with was the ‘Who wants to live forever?‘ beat of the older film dragged out to feature length. Happily, this does not happen: schmaltz and sentiment is pretty much kept under control and this remains a fairly credible drama for most of its length.

To be honest, it’s almost exclusively Lively’s film, the only other character with any real depth being William, Ellis’ father, who is played by Harrison Ford (given the actor’s famous care when it comes to rationing his appearances, this must be the one and only film we’ll see him in this year). Ford gives his character a bit of gravitas and the whole film a bit of ballast, and, well, it’s just always nice to see him, isn’t it? Actually, the youthful version of Ford’s character (extensive flashbacks are pretty much a trope of this sort of story) is played by Anthony Ingruber, who does such an astonishingly good job that a lucrative association with the Disney Corporation must surely beckon.

In the end, however, given that the premise of the story is predicated on a fairly outrageous deus ex machina, it’s not entirely surprising that its resolution should feel fairly contrived as well. What occurs between these two points is, for the most part, fairly well written, directed, and performed – with Blake Lively being especially good, as I mentioned. Personally, I found the film’s assumption that the most important consequence of potential immortality would be the impossibility of chocolate-box romance, and that unnatural longevity was therefore at least as much a curse as a blessing, to be rather questionable, but it would take a very different and rather less commercial film to tackle such ideas. The Age of Adaline is not that film – but, for what it is, it is a very pleasant, classy, and well-made picture.

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It is, as Barry Norman always used to say, football results time down at the local cinema, with the current score being Expendables 3, Inbetweeners 2. I know I alluded to going to see Inbetweeners, and I expect I probably will at some point, but there are more important things to consider when there is a new Jason Statham movie on release – even if it is one where the great man shares the screen with about a dozen other people.

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I mean, look at that thing, that’s not a film poster, that’s a school photograph. There are probably more people on it than there were in the screening that I attended, although this was probably no bad thing as the theatre PA was, for some reason, playing the theme from Terminator on a loop prior to the film starting. Now there’s nothing wrong with Brad Fiedel’s magnum opus, but listening to it more than three times in a row puts one in the vein for running amok (it’s a bit like surreal French comedy-dramas in that respect). You could feel the tension ratchet up every time it started over again. (By the way, judging from the crowd I was in with, the demographic Expendables 3 is most successfully reaching consists of middle-aged men, Saudi Arabians, and drunks.)

Anyway, the film finally got underway, thankfully. Proceedings open with chief Expendable Barney (Stallone) and the boys busting a new character named Doctor Death (Wesley Snipes) out of prison, on the grounds that he is an old mate (and so he should be, after Demolition Man and Chaos). Snipes hasn’t really been in a major movie for about ten years, mainly due to his going to jail for real on charges of tax evasion – which this film duly cracks wise about – and he seizes on his role here with gusto. And it is nice to see him back.

After some more of the laborious bromance between Stallone and Jason Statham they all go off to Mogadishu to bust up an arms deal but are shocked when their target turns out to be evil ex-Expendable Conrad Stonebanks, who used to be a respected and popular figure until he revealed what a horrible person he really was. He is played by Mel Gibson, and you can write your own joke at this point. Gibson puts a bullet in one of the minor team members, causing everyone else no end of distress (they obviously still haven’t really thought this ‘Expendable’ thing through).

Confronted, somewhat ridiculously, by mortality, Stallone gathers everyone down the pub and announces that they are sacked, on the grounds that they are too old. Yes, that’d be Stallone (68) sacking Statham (43) on the grounds of unforgivable dodderiness. Hmm. If they all carry on, Stallone declares, it’ll end up with ‘everyone in a hole in the ground and nobody giving a ****’. It did occur to me that even before anyone ended up in a hole in the ground, there wasn’t a great deal of evidence of people actually giving ****s, but this was just ungenerous of me.

The Expendables’ former CIA liaison, Church, has departed (mainly because Bruce Willis wanted a million dollars a day to turn up, which Stallone refused to give him) and been replaced by a new guy named Drummer. He is played, barely credibly, by Harrison Ford. Ford offers Stallone another chance at bringing in Gibson, which of course he jumps at – even if it means assembling a new team of young Expendables to help him do so…

Something really odd starts happening to the film at this point, although it has been on the cards since the start of the film. As you can see, Stallone has run out of superannuated 80s action movie heroes to recruit for these movies (I’m guessing Steven Seagal is too busy hanging out with Putin to answer his phone) and the net has been cast a bit wider, with performers like Ford, Gibson, and Snipes signing up. This continues with the appearance of Kelsey Grammer as a mercenary recruitment agent and Antonio Banderas as a rather excitable Latino Expendable. Not only are these people not known solely as action stars, but most of them are actually charismatic and can genuinely act, and so there are a number of scenes which are genuinely involving or funny in a non-ironic way.

This really wasn’t what I turned up to an Expendables movie to see, to be perfectly honest: I just wanted cheesy old hulks staggering around bleating out one-liners while stuff blew up in the background. Now, it’s true that Stallone is the main character, and there’s also a significant appearance by Arnold Schwarzenegger, so there’s always a degree of cheesy old hulkiness going on, but even so. The new young Expendables are a highly forgettable bunch – if I say that the most charismatic of the lot of them is a guy who used to be in Twilight, you will get a sense of just how anonymous they are.

And, as I say, it was almost as if I was watching a proper, semi-serious action movie for a bit: the script comes within spitting distance of serious topics connected with deniable government interventions, the use of mercenary troops as a foreign policy tool, and the ethical underpinnings of the concept of ‘war crimes’. And again, this was not at all what I expected. The film was turning out to be much less stupid and ridiculous than advertised, and I wasn’t sure what to make of it.

Thankfully, this attempt to drag the Expendables franchise into less ludicrous territory only lasted for the duration of the second act, at the end of which everything went back to normal and the film became as absurdly predictable as it had ever been. Serious talk of dragging Gibson off to stand trial for war crimes is dismissed by Stallone with a hearty cry of ‘Screw the Hague!’ and everything proceeds to blow up at quite absurd length.

That said, Patrick Hughes’ direction of the action sequences that are crucial to the movie is deeply uninspired, and most of them are just like watching someone else play Call of Duty, which isn’t a great spectator sport. To be fair, he doesn’t let the massive number of characters become a real problem, but it is true that some of the people feel a little underserved – and not just Mr S, either.

There must surely be some serious pruning of the ranks, in the event of this series grinding on for subsequent installments (we are told Pierce Brosnan and Hulk Hogan are already in talks, plus Stallone has been sending up balloons concerning a female-fronted version entitled – oh, God – The Expendabelles). The Expendables 3 isn’t an actively bad film: it’s not as depressing as the first one, or as ridiculous as the second. But the joke is showing serious signs of wearing too thin to be funny, and all concerned might do well to stop while it still has the capacity to amuse or entertain.

 

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A few months ago I had a curious and somewhat exasperating experience on one of the world’s premier social networking websites (you know – the one which had the thing about the thing). Someone who I used to know quite well made a rather grave announcement along the lines of ‘For anyone planning to see Ender’s Game – Orson Scott Card has announced he will donate some of his profits to anti-gay marriage lobby groups‘ (or words to that effect), the unspoken assumption being that no humane person could now possibly consider going anywhere near the film.

Well, I happily go and see movies by all the big studios (as you may have noticed) which means that some of my cash ends up in the profits of people like Rupert Murdoch, who no doubt have views to which I would take exception. Bearing this in mind I suggested to my friend he was being a bit naive and over-reacting by singling out Card for this sort of boycott (Ender’s Game alone has seven other producers). I didn’t really mind the days of wrangling which followed, just the fact that after having repeatedly criticised Orson Scott Card for refusing to respect the rights of others, my friend concluded by casually mentioning he was going to illegally download the movie anyway. Sigh. Is this what counts as the moral high ground nowadays?

I don’t agree with Card’s socially conservative personal beliefs, but I don’t think that having such beliefs automatically makes one a homophobe, and I don’t think that this necessarily makes anything he’s associated with a valid target for picketing and criticism. Nevertheless, this seems to have been the case with the movie adaptation of Ender’s Game, certainly earlier in the year, and this may be why the film’s release feels to me to have a faint sense of lack of commitment. This is a big old lavish SF blockbuster, which could surely hold its head up amongst the typical crop of summer films, or the slightly-more-critically-respectable bunch showing up around Christmas every year. And yet it has been snuck out at the beginning of November, and at a time when it is likely going to get hammered by the latest Thor.

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I find this a bit of a shame. Written and directed by Gavin Hood, this is the story of Ender Wiggin (Asa Butterfield), a child prodigy attending military academy at some point in the future. To begin with we are in Backstory Voiceover Mode, as we learn how the world was devastated by an assault by insectoid aliens (in the book these are known as Buggers, but for fairly obvious reasons the movie has opted to change this to Formics). The aliens were driven off, but the threat of another invasion continues to loom. As a result, the government of Earth is training its young people to lead battle fleets should hostilities resume.

Senior military figure Graff (Harrison Ford) identifies Ender as a tactical genius, and potentially the one great leader Earth’s navy has been waiting for. So he gets shipped off to an orbital training facility, which is basically a very stern version of Hogwarts but with ray guns, where he is forced to participate in all manner of zero-G battle simulations and other training scenarios. But does Ender have it in him to do all that the high command require…?

Okay, so on one level it is a bit like Harry Potter in space – there are competing houses, various fraught relationships between the pupils, strict teachers, and so on – but I found it rather more reminiscent of something else. The incipient threat from alien arthropods, the authoritarian global culture, the militarisation of the young – very soon I was thinking ‘this is like the movie version of Starship Troopers, but played straight’ (so rather more like Heinlein’s original novel, then).

Having said that, where the novel of Starship Troopers is an unapologetic manifesto for a certain kind of muscular libertarianism, the movie of Ender’s Game always seems aware of the implied morality of its characters and story – indeed, it’s central to the film. This is, I think, a film with an undeniable awareness of its own morality, and that morality is by and large a laudable one. And it’s sophisticated, for a lavish SF movie – this is a movie about child soldiers, and the morality of conflict, but it doesn’t deal in terms of moral absolutes. It’s quite ironic, then, that this film has been subject to a boycott on ethical grounds when rather more dubious, brainless ones have sailed onto the screen unopposed.

Technically it’s proficiently done too. The visual effects have that immaculate, heftless quality we’ve come to expect from big productions, but it’s well performed by a strong cast – Butterfield is very good indeed, and Ford is pretty good value too. Hailee Steinfeld doesn’t quite get the material she perhaps deserves, though. Popping up in the closing stages is Ben Kingsley as a tattooed veteran warrior. Kingsley has a bit of a reputation for being, perhaps, self-regarding and pretentious, but regardless of this the fact remains that he is simply a very, very fine actor and all that is on display here as usual.

Throughout the film one gets a sense of a big book being hacked down for the screen, but what emerges is a film with a coherent storyline that is pretty involving throughout. I haven’t read Ender’s Game, and I must confess I don’t plan to, but simply judged as a film I think this works rather well.

One of the annoying things that happens to you as a hack critic now and then is coming up with a snappy line in advance of seeing a film and then having to discard it because it doesn’t fit the facts. In this case I was all set to go with ‘You shouldn’t avoid Ender’s Game because of Orson Scott Card’s political beliefs. You should avoid it because it’s a lousy film’, but obviously that’s not going to work now. Okay: whether or not you boycott Ender’s Game because of Orson Scott Card’s political beliefs is between you and your conscience. But if you do, you’ll be missing out on a quietly superior SF movie.

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…which is to say that the Wild one meets its Final cousin in Jon Favreau’s Cowboys & Aliens – a self-consciously silly title which the film, for some reason, does its best to belie.  Nevertheless, this is what it sounds like: a mash-up of the venerable old Western genre with its upstart (and some would say illegitimate) offspring, the sci-fi action movie. (More on this later.)

Clearly working hard to establish the right tone of quintessentially American ruggedness, Favreau has cast a British actor best known for playing someone posh in the lead role. Daniel Craig plays a tough, rootin’-tootin’ kinda guy who wakes up in the desert, bereft of his memory but possessing a jazzy wristband, a photo of a woman and a funny-looking wound. Making his way to the nearest town he learns he is in fact feared outlaw Lonergan.

Lonergan is on the hit list of ruthless cattle baron Dolarhyde (Harrison Ford), who pretty much owns the town, and whose son is a public nuisance there. The sheriff slings Lonergan in the town jail, ready to be shipped off to the federal marshal with Dolarhyde’s son.

A showdown threatens when Dolarhyde and his men ride in, demanding both prisoners be handed over to them, but things are disrupted by the arrival of – and it’s not quite as abrupt and bizarre as it sounds on paper – alien ships, also intent on making a nuisance of themselves. The mash-up threatens to become a literal one as the aliens start behaving like cowboys and the cowboys start acting like aliens. The aliens start physically lassoing the townsfolk and dragging them off while Lonergan discovers a death ray about his person and rapidly learns how to use it.

When the dust settles the aliens have been driven off, but not without having taking numerous local worthies with them. Quite properly, Dolarhyde decides to raise a posse and go in pursuit (his son being amongst the abductees), recruiting Lonergan to his cause, along with the local preacher (Clancy Brown), the barkeep (Sam Rockwell), and various others – including one of those tediously enigmatic young women (on this occasion, Olivia Wilde) who you just know will be reporting for exposition duty somewhere in the second act.

Well, to some extent this is a combination of excerpts from the Big Book of Sci-Fi Cliches with a selection from its little-read Western counterpart, but as genre fusions go it’s a curiously unsuccessful affair. This seems odd, as there is a long and fairly distinguished history of splicing Western DNA into SF stories: Westworld itself, the Tatooine section of the first Star Wars, Outland, Battle Beyond the Stars, and more recently Firefly have all partaken of Western themes and imagery (let’s not mention Wild Wild West). Having said that, none of these films have what you’d honestly describe as an American west setting, which to me suggests that what true Westerns are really about is nothing to do with deserts and six-shooters and hats, but personal freedom and morality, and the clash of different values.

Cowboys & Aliens isn’t about anything like that, really. It works hard to establish an authentically nasty and grimy Western atmosphere – the films it reminded me of most were Unforgiven and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, both great movies even if the latter isn’t a very typical Western – but the characters are all very thin and anonymous, the cast resembling people on a Wild West dress-up holiday. The only person who effortlessly convinces is Harrison Ford, who’s an impressively nasty piece of work to begin with, that familiar old growly whisper modulated into a vicious rasp. But as soon as the aliens show up he turns into a bit of a cut-out and really doesn’t get the material that such an icon really deserves.

For this kind of film to work, both the donor genres really need to have a strong identity of their own. You would think this wouldn’t be a problem with the case of the Western and the SF film, but as I’ve already mentioned the Cowboy element is wholly superficial, and the Alien element… well, it’s not really a proper SF movie, but an effects-driven summer blockbuster, a style of film which is fundamentally superficial anyway.

(The Aliens here, by the way, are an anonymous bunch, their glistening appendages and deceptively-weathered technology marking them out as close cousins of the ones in Independence Day and Spielberg’s version of War of the Worlds. Why have they come to Earth and started behaving so badly? I will refrain from giving away too much of the plot, but suffice to say that when the expositing eventually occurs, Ford’s character responds by snarling ‘That’s just ridiculous!’ and I was with him all the way.)

So what we end up with is a fairly empty-headed FX blockbuster with some strange tonal and pacing problems: the film-makers seem desperately keen to show this is a Proper Western on some level, resulting in long sequences where everyone’s a bit dour and homespun and not much happens, involving aliens or not. It’s not visually very surprising, nor is the plot particularly involving. It’s all a bit dull, if I’m honest, without much humour or indeed a sense of fun about itself. Occasionally there’s a briefly arresting moment (the one inevitably springing to mind is when Olivia Wilde walks naked out of a bonfire, but that may just be me) but on the whole there’s nothing here you won’t have seen before.

And I suppose on some level you could argue that all this really is, is an attempt to mash a genre up with itself: many people having argued that – in cinematic terms – the rise of the sci-fi blockbuster in the late seventies coincided rather neatly with the demise of the western as a going concern, with the resulting conclusion being that one simply transformed into the other. I’m not completely sold on that, to be perfectly honest, but beyond it simply being a coincidence I’m not quite sure how to explain it.

Anyway. Cowboys & Aliens probably sounded like a great idea for a movie, and there may indeed be a good film to made around the theme of extraterrestrials in the old west. But this isn’t it: the story and characters are too thin for it to engage as a drama, and it just isn’t fun enough to work solely as a blockbuster (needless to say, Favreau’s Iron Man did both). Given the talent involved this is really a disappointment, and one of the weaker movies of the summer.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published 31st October 2002: 

It came as quite a surprise to me recently when I realised that I hadn’t actually seen a new Harrison Ford movie on the big screen since 1989. This is a man, after all, who’s been voted the greatest movie star of the 20th century, someone whose track record where the box-office is concerned has few peers – and someone whom my generation spent their childhoods watching, either in the Star Wars franchise or as Indiana Jones. But somehow none of his 90s output ever lured me into the theatre. I mainly wanted to see his new film, K-19: The Widowmaker, because of the track-record of its director.

K-19 is directed by Kathryn Bigelow, who over the past fifteen years has been responsible for some of the most interesting and intelligent SF, horror, and action movies to come out of Hollywood. Sadly, her last couple of movies haven’t done so well and with the new film she seems to have taken a leaf from the book of her ex-husband James Cameron and entered the realm of true-life maritime disasters.

Russia, 1961: with the USA and USSR seemingly intent on forcing a nuclear confrontation, Captain Polenin (Liam Neeson) of the Soviet navy is struggling to ready his new vessel, the K-19, for sea trials. Believing he’s ideologically suspect, the Kremlin impose another captain on the project – Captain Vostrikov (Harrison Ford), a strict disciplinarian. The ship acquires a reputation as being cursed, something which seems to be true as no sooner have they left harbour than the ship starts sinking! Fortunately it turns out the K-19 is a submarine and so this is not the drawback it might otherwise be. As Vostrikov starts running a punishing series of drills and tests on both sub and crew, warning signs from the nuclear reactor are overlooked – a mistake that will cost all on board dear…

One of the more interesting things about K-19 is that it’s an American picture about Communist Russians, who were still supposedly the bad guys until a relatively short time ago. Their intrinsic Russian-ness is indicated by the cod-Slavic accents employed by everyone in the movie and also by some fairly gratuitous vodka-drinking, caviar-guzzling, balalaika-playing and Cossack-dancing below decks, but the film’s approach to their Communism is rather more subtle. The crew themselves are depicted first and foremost as heroic sailors without much in the way of ideological commitment (the ship’s Commissar, on the other hand, is pretty much a bad guy), let down by the Communist Party high-ups who send them out on their mission (and just so the audience knows they’re villains, they’re played by the British actors Joss Ackland and John Shrapnel). And while the crew are seen watching anti-American propaganda, this concerns things that every true-blue American dislikes about their country anyway: Richard Nixon and the Ku Klux Klan, rather than JFK and Disneyland.

But the nationality and politics of the crew are a fairly secondary consideration given the disaster that they’re caught up in. Well, eventually caught up in: this is a long movie and the reactor doesn’t really start doing its thing until about an hour into it. Prior to this there’s a lot of material about the sub in dock and then the first sea trials, which ideally should have been the time to build the characterisations of the crew… but this doesn’t really happen. The crew (all played by unknown actors) remain anonymous for the most part, and even Neeson and Ford can’t give their characters too much depth. Still, Neeson gives a typically powerful performance.

Harrison Ford, on the other hand… well, for one thing he just doesn’t convince as a Russian. Typecasting it may be, but that craggy (and now faintly grizzled) face seems as American as Monument Valley. Ford’s never been the most nuanced performer at the best of times and here he never manages to bring the complex Vostrikov to life: he’s not nasty enough as a Captain Bligh-type at the start of the film to make his conversion to a more human figure in the closing stages really interesting, and it wasn’t until very near the end of the film that I warmed to him.

Ford’s performance sums up much of K-19. I found myself thinking ‘hmm, this bit’s like Crimson Tide… this bit’s like Hunt for Red October…’ It only really comes to life intermittently, but when it does it’s truly gripping. The sequence where the young reactor team are forced to enter the lethally radioactive reactor compartment to effect repairs, without protective gear, is horrific and very powerful.

This is a frightening story, and one that deserves to be told. But this treatment of it is perhaps too worthy and reverential. Bigelow directs with her customary muscular panache, the film looks suitably lavish, and the script has a flair for the telling details of submariner life. However, K-19: The Widowmaker is too often drab and over familiar to really succeed as a movie. By Bigelow’s admittedly high standards, this is sub-par.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published April 20th 2006: 

Hello again, everyone and welcome to another edition of the film review column you really shouldn’t get your hopes up about. This week we take a look at a thriller with aspirations to be Hitchcockian, but which instead comes perilously close to falling several syllables short of that ambition.

Ah, when I was a lad, Harrison Ford was probably the biggest movie star on the planet, battling evil and standing up for the decent thing to do, all the while using that funny hoarse-but-rumbly voice he’s got. He still is a big star, of course, but — to paraphrase Norma Desmond — of late the pictures he’s in have become smaller. So it is with Firewall, a rather conventional thriller directed by Richard Loncraine and apparently a bit of a remake of a TV series he made back in the 1980s. Here, our erstwhile megastar plays Jack Stanfield, the head of computer security at a small but prosperous bank. (Making the audience accept that the now-slightly-wizened Harrison Ford is actually a computer programming whiz is but the first of several knotty credibility problems the movie is forced to navigate.) Jack has a palatial house, a lovely view of Seattle from his office window, a beautiful — and obviously much younger — wife (Virginia Madsen, who in her own way is equally a movie veteran, but less wizened), two cute and fairly well-behaved kids, etc, so you just know he’s in for a hard time in the rest of the movie.

Well, after a tough day fending off the hackers and standing up for the integrity of his bank against the corporate slimeballs who want to merge with it (key amongst them Robert Patrick, who’s only a bit wizened), Jack is talked into having a quick drink with a young and thrusting all-American entrepreneur, Bill (the ever-watchable Paul Bettany, not wizened at all). But no sooner does Jack excuse himself so he can shoot off home for Pizza Night with the family (all say ‘Aaaah’ and/or copiously vomit), than Bill casts aside his American accent and reveals himself to be British — and as we all know, British people in this kind of movie are always callous, brilliant and occasionally slightly gay evil geniuses! So it proves, for Bill is a bank robber whose lunkheaded fratboy henchmen have kidnapped Jack’s wife, kids and dog and turned their lovely mansion into the Big Brother house! Bank robber, bank manager — I’m sure our founder would appreciate how wonderfully their two jobs dovetail. Bill’s plan is fairly simple: he’s going to hold Jack’s nearest and dearest hostage until Jack lets him into the server room at the bank so he can download all the money. But Jack, being played by Harrison Ford, didn’t get where he is today by taking any nonsense off uppity Brits and eventually the moment comes when he whirls ferociously into action against his tormentors. Although there is of course a limit to the amount of ferocious whirling that can reasonably be expected from a 64-year-old bank manager.

Now, you may very well be asking yourself the following question: beyond the fact that it’s a snappy and techno-literate-sounding name, what reason can there be for calling this film Firewall, given that the robbery in it still revolves around the bad guys physically sneaking into the bank? And the answer consists of two words, the second of which is ‘all’, and the first of which we have all had surgically excised from our brains, being the conscientious h2g2 habitues that we are (well, you’ve a number of options, but they’re all equally likely to deprave, so purge the lot of them). The fact is that Firewall is incredibly desperate to show how modern and zeitgeisty it is, which is why the plot revolves around (to name but a few) identity theft, online gambling, camera phones, iPods and GPS tracking. This is a largely futile attempt to conceal how incredibly old and hackneyed this particular story is, not to mention silly and predictable (well, to some extent — I was slightly startled when, after Harrison Ford attempted to escape roughly fifty-seven times in the first day of their acquaintance, Paul Bettany’s response was to start shooting members of his own gang, although this may explain why he hasn’t got further in the bank robbery line).

Of course, Harrison Ford looks fairly old and hackneyed himself these days, as I believe I may already have mentioned. He is in fact probably a bit too old to be doing this sort of thing: towards the end, where a younger actor would be doing a flat-out sprint, Ford restricts himself to a moderate trot. This is before we even get to the concluding bout of fisticuffs. But for all this, he still has presence and charisma — star quality, in fact. It’s only Ford that keeps this from being a totally forgettable and routine straight-to-video thriller. There are signs that it could have been more: there’s a very effective segment where Ford is on the run from his former colleagues and the police, having been neatly framed for all sorts of rum doings, and he desperately has to avoid them while simultaneously hunting down Bettany and his gang. But this is only a short section very near the end of the film, rather too little too late. Also quietly effective is Mary Lynn Rajskub (even less wizened than Bettany) as Ford’s much-put-upon secretary, who has nearly as bad a time as him in the film but doesn’t get to growl about it as much.

Firewall is not actually a bad film, it’s just tremendously average and predictable. It’s interesting that it should be in UK theatres at the same time as Inside Man, another film concerning a rather unorthodox bank robbery. The two films are of course different in almost every way, but it’s the unrepentantly retro and traditional Inside Man which is by far the superior piece of work, while the achingly contemporary Firewall very definitely gets the second prize. But it’s watchable, and I suppose it’ll keep Ford in shape in case two-fisted archaeology ever comes back into vogue…

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