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Posts Tagged ‘Joel Kinnaman’

I have commented in the past on the dangers of giving your movie a punchy, catchy one-word title: other people may have the same idea, which can be terribly confusing. Twilight, Steel, Roadkill: all of these titles have been round the block a few times and have wildly different movies squabbling over possession of them.

Short titles can be equally problematic: just now I noticed that The Black Hole was on TV, but rather than the 1979 Gary Nelson stellar-conflict knock-off, it turned out to be a Ken Badish Z-movie with Kristy Swanson. In a similar vein, I wonder how many people are going to check into their favourite streaming site and decide to watch The Darkest Hour, comfortably settling down to enjoy an Oscar-winning turn from Gary Oldman, oblivious to the fact that they have actually made a fairly significant mistake?

Not that this is likely to long remain the case, for I cannot imagine anyone watching much of Chris Gorak’s 2011 movie The Darkest Hour and long remaining under the impression it is Joe Wright’s 2017 movie Darkest Hour. One of these films has an embattled Winston Churchill trying to keep the cause of liberty and freedom alive. The other features attractive young people being chased around Moscow by invisible monsters. A definite article can make a big difference sometimes.

These days it’s a little hard to imagine a US-Russian co-production quite as brazenly commercial as this one, but there you go, the past is another country. (As is Russia. Presumably the past of Russia is several different countries simultaneously, but I’ve no idea how that would work.) Prime mover behind this enterprise appears to have been Timur Bekmambetov, reigning nutcase behind such family favourites as Wanted, Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, and the remake of Ben-Hur, and though someone else is left to do the actual directing, followers of the Bekmambetov oeuvre will know more or less what to expect.

Things get underway with aspiring young American entrepreneurs Sean (Emile Hirsch) and Ben (Max Minghella), who arrive in Moscow (everyone uses the American pronunciation, by the way) to try and find investors for their new website-stroke-app. But zounds! It turns out their perfidious Swedish business partner, Skyler – is this a common Swedish name? – has done the dirty on them and ripped off their idea. (The evil Swede is played by Joel Kinnaman, by the way.)

To drown their sorrows, Sean and Ben retire to a swanky nightclub where they meet feisty backpackers Natalie (Olivia Thirlby) and Anne (Rachael Taylor). You know, I wasn’t aware that Moscow was such a hub on the international backpacking scene, but it just goes to show you. Even Skyler ends up in the same club, where he is as objectionable as earlier.

But then! Following a mysterious power failure, everyone stumbles out into the street to see strange aurorae appearing over Moscow, and swirls of glowing light raining down onto the city. It all looks very pretty, until it becomes apparent that the swirly light things are all people can perceive of vicious alien gits intent on invading the city and disintegrating everyone in their path. There’s only one thing for an appealing young ensemble cast to do at a time like this – hide in the cellar for a day and a night!

Making their rather cautious return to the streets 36 hours later, our heroes discover that Moscow is largely deserted, with everyone either having fled or been eaten by the invisible alien monsters. Everyone decides to go to the US embassy (even the Australian and Swedish characters), but what hope is there, with aliens still on the prowl and no apparent hope of escape…?

Anyway, The Darkest Hour is an example of the kind of middle-of-the-road genre movie which occasionally slips past me at a busy time of the year: I didn’t see it back when it came out, and can’t remember a particular reason why not. Must just have been occupied with other stuff – this is certainly the kind of film I can imagine me going to see, what with it being an alien invasion SF-horror movie and all. I may have been persuaded to knock it down my list of priorities by the notices it drew at the time, which ran a fairly negative gamut from tepid to eviscerating.

This is understandable, as – and perhaps you have been able to glean this from the customary synopsis – The Darkest Hour is unlikely ever to win any awards for its blazing originality, in any department. The capsule description of this movie – ‘the one with the invisible monsters in Moscow’ – also contains every distinctive feature that it possesses, with the possible exception of the fact that it scores unexpectedly high on the ‘on their way to very slightly better things’ department – Olivia Thirlby went on to appear in Dredd (in addition to some TV stuff), Rachael Taylor has carved out a tiny niche for herself sort-of playing Hellcat in the Marvel TV shows, Joel Kinnaman later found work in the Robocop remake and Suicide Squad, and so on.

B-movies are not what they used to be. It used to be the case that in a B-movie you were more or less guaranteed substandard, or (let’s be charitable) overambitious special effects, but you kept your fingers crossed that the film-makers would do their best to make up for this by using their imagination and wits when it came to the script, and the actors would likewise try to compensate for giving interesting performances. These days, however, thanks to the development of cheap high-end computers, the one thing you are pretty much guaranteed in even a low-budget movie is that it will have good-looking special effects. On the other hand, your chances of happening upon a script which does more than hit the minimum benchmarks are much lower nowadays, and the cast often seem to be deliberately trying to be as anonymous as possible.

So it is with The Darkest Hour. It has one slightly curious quirk – the moss-cow setting – and one potentially interesting feature – the invasion of invisible energy beings – and while the scenes in a devastated Moscow are predictably well-staged in visual terms, the film has little else to offer beyond a formulaic runaround. It’s not that difficult to work out who amongst the original five is not going to make it to the closing credits, and in which order they’re going to get zapped, but the thing is that you don’t really care either, so thinly characterised are they. Only Olivia Thirlby demonstrates she has genuine chops as an actress by genuinely making you worry about her survival.

I’m not sure what to make of the fact that The Darkest Hour goes to all the trouble of being a Moscow-set SF movie, without including a single leading Russian character. It kind of reduces the setting to a painted backdrop, which I doubt was the intention of the Russian producers. I suppose you could argue that Gosha Kutsenko and Veronika Vernadskaya both appear in supporting roles and are very Russian indeed, almost to the point of stereotype, and that this makes up for a lot. Maybe.

In the end it doesn’t really make up for just how generic and forgettable The Darkest Hour is. Like a lot of movies at around this point in history, it was originally released in the odious 3D format, something which seems to have become slightly less common, but I doubt yet another gimmick would have helped its cause much. The thing about it is that this is one of those movies which doesn’t have a single element in it which you could genuinely call actively bad, but it’s so totally lacking in anything really distinctive and (apart from the effects and a single performance) actually accomplished that it simply fails to register in your head much. It’s not awful – being awful would actually make it more memorable. It just is, in that it exists – it just does very little more than that.

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I suppose I should be up front about this, and make it clear right at the start that Paul Verhoeven’s 1987 movie RoboCop is one of my personal favourites. It’s not flawless, but it comes very close, and for me it’s probably the best action SF movie to come out of Hollywood in the 1980s: better than Predator, better than Aliens – yes, better even than The Terminator. So, needless to say, my natural inclination was to give any remake the same kind of response a paid-up NRA member usually gives to burglars (perhaps this is where the expression ‘extreme prejudice’ comes from).

robocop

In other words, I approached Jose Padilha’s new version of RoboCop with expectations about as close to zero as you could imagine. On paper the story looks very much the same: a powerful corporation, based in Detroit, is looking to expand its profit margins by selling military technology to hard-pressed police departments, but there is resistance to this. At the same time, dedicated cop Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) gets on the wrong side of a particularly vicious criminal and finds himself crippled and mutilated.

But Murphy finds himself drawn into the corporation’s machinations – almost literally, one might say – as what is left of him is given a new lease of life in a hydraulically-powered, armour-plated, AI-equipped chassis, and put back on the streets to bring a whole new meaning to the expression ‘zero tolerance policing’…

So, like I say, I turned up to this new, 12 rated, no Paul Verhoeven, no Peter Weller RoboCop quite prepared to sling bricks at it for being a travesty of a classic. The opening scene, with Samuel L Jackson as a frothing right-wing media commentator, was not actively painful, which came as a pleasant surprise, and the film actually showed signs of wanting to honour the smart and subversive spirit of its predecessor. Then came an original sequence, with US Army war-robots stomping their way through the streets of Tehran blaring out ‘Peace be upon you’ through their megaphones – an image so unexpectedly audacious and darkly funny that it quite disarmed me. (The use of a few snatches of Basil Poledouris’s wonderful original score was also a welcome surprise.)

The film never quite manages to consistently hit this same tone, but on the other hand I suspect that’s not its main objective. The emphasis of this version is rather different – it’s less about violent excess and vicious satire, and much more about the personal story of Murphy himself. The key difference to the narrative this time around is that Murphy retains his original identity and memory throughout, rather than emerging from his transformation initially as an emotionless automaton and only later recovering his sense of self. This allows Kinnaman to give much more of a conventional acting performance throughout, and a pretty commendable one it is too, but at the same time it somehow robs the story of much of its pathos and depth.

Hey ho. One thing this movie is not short of is fine actors doing the best they can with the material with which they are issued: Abbie Cornish plays Mrs Murphy, who has a beefed up role in this version, while the various brains behind the RoboCop programme are portrayed by Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, Jennifer Ehle and Jackie Earl Haley. The plot has been streamlined, which may actually constitute an improvement on one of my few issues with the original, and while its not as consistently funny as its forebear there are some very good moments: I particularly enjoyed a gleeful swipe at a certain bombastic, overblown, toy-related franchise. (For what it’s worth, I’m not wild about the new black and glossy RoboCop design, but that’s just me.)

The 1987 RoboCop did a superb job at deconstructing the materialism of that decade – human flesh literally becomes property, after all – and if the 2014 film may not have captured the zeitgeist with quite the same adroitness, it certainly attempts to acknowledge issues such as the bias of the US media and the ethical issues involved with the use of drones and other battlefield robots. It may not have anything terribly deep to say, but even the thought is more than I’d honestly expected.

The new RoboCop is not a truly great movie, but neither is it a disaster nor even an especially bad one. It’s solid piece of SF action film-making with a strong sense of exactly what it wants to be and a sensible approach to being it. I was extremely pleasantly surprised (though I suppose you should bear in mind that I approached it with the lowest possible expectations, after all). If we are living in a world in which unnecessary remakes are, in fact, necessary, then this is about as good an unnecessary remake as one could realistically hope for.

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