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Posts Tagged ‘Mel Gibson’

They say there’s no such thing as a job for life any more (personally, right now I would settle for a guaranteed six months), but that’s not the case for everyone. Once a movie star, always a movie star – which is to say that, once you achieve a certain level of success, you are always going to be guaranteed some kind of gig simply because of how recognisable your name is, as long as you don’t mind lowering your standards and possibly working abroad. Every maker of low-budget genre movies is delighted to be able to slap a proper movie star name on the publicity, often in inappropriately large print.

But why should you, as a successful movie star, contemplate demeaning yourself in this way? Well, most likely because you can’t get a decent gig any more, either because no-one is going to see your films or you have done something so unspeakable even Hollywood film producers won’t be seen in your company. Yes, we are here to talk about Mel Gibson, who managed to almost destroy one of the most successful careers in Hollywood with various bouts of alcohol-fuelled bigotry. Even through Gibson’s wilderness years, however, he was still managing to land the odd part, with the longest pause between lead roles coming between Signs, in 2002, and Edge of Darkness in 2010. This latter film appears to have been a slightly marginal release – the end of January is not a prime juncture to be releasing a thriller with an $80 million budget – and possibly Gibson agreed to do it for a reduced fee, or perhaps because he was a big fan of the original material.

The movie is directed (not entirely surprisingly) by Martin Campbell. Gibson plays Tom Craven, a veteran Boston detective who has a slightly awkward relationship with with his daughter Emma (Bojana Novakovic). Nevertheless, Craven is delighted when she comes round for dinner, even though there is clearly something on her mind. Maybe even more than that, for she is suddenly taken violently ill, and on the way to the car they are jumped by a masked gunman. Emma is shot and instantly killed and the killer makes his escape.

Everyone’s assumption is that this is someone from Craven’s past with a score to settle, but he is not so sure. His investigations lead him to Emma’s employers at Northmoor, a private company linked to the defence establishment, and also reveal that she was part of a group of activists working to limit environmental damage and nuclear proliferation. His discoveries eventually attract the attention of Darius Jedburgh (Ray Winstone), an enigmatic British security consultant employed by Northmoor and its allies in the government to keep situations like this from attracting publicity: Northmoor is illegally producing nuclear weapons for deniable use, and when they attempted to reveal this, Emma and three of her friends were murdered. Can Craven bring the truth to light or will the conspiracy silence him as well?

Yes, well, the key thing to bear in mind about Edge of Darkness is that it is based – loosely! – on a British TV serial (mini-series, I suppose) from 1985, which Campbell also directed. To call the TV series critically acclaimed is an understatement – for many serious critics as well as viewers, it remains a landmark piece of TV drama, emblematic of a time when British television drama was not afraid to be bold, ambitious, and include a touch of fantasy. Although ostensibly about a conspiracy within the nuclear industry, the series touches on a vast range of themes and ideas, incorporating the Gaia hypothesis of James Lovelock, the implication of a generational feud between rival secret societies, Anglo-American politics in the 1980s, and some genuinely fantastical elements (the original script ended with Craven mystically transforming into a tree, symbolising the coming restoration of the balance of nature by the elimination of the human race). It is a mind-boggling, frequently breath-taking achievement.

This is not true of the movie version of Edge of Darkness, which is, not to put too fine a point on it, just another bog-standard Mel Gibson revenge thriller, about a man on a mission to get justice for his daughter’s death. Forget the place of humanity within the ecology of the planet, the closest this comes to a substantive subplot is Craven’s increasing realisation that he didn’t know his daughter as well as he thought he did.

It does make you wonder what Martin Campbell really thought the core of Edge of Darkness was, for once past the initial set-up and Emma’s murder the two pieces diverge in almost every imaginable way – the characters of Craven, Emma, and Jedburgh are just about recognisable (the fact that Robert De Niro walked off the movie led to Winstone being cast, which at least inverts the nationalities of the characters from the TV version), but the character of Bennett is promoted to being chief villain, and Danny Huston plays him almost as a panto bad guy. This is another of those movies which sets up the stock figure of the private security contractor as a hissable villain – which I suppose is as good a way as any of allowing American audiences to process any ambiguity they may feel towards their country’s foreign policy adventures over the last two decades without the film criticising, even implicitly, members of the country’s armed forces.

It’s not just that the movie takes a genuinely thought-provoking and multi-faceted drama and reduces it to something not unlike Death Wish, it’s that even on its own terms Edge of Darkness is just not a very good movie. It is oddly paced, slow at the start (many scenes of Gibson wandering mournfully around empty rooms on his own) and rushed at the end. The requirements of the plot result in many very odd and often inexplicable contortions: there’s a repeated motif where someone poisons someone else, usually with irradiated milk, but as it takes a long time for someone to die from radiation poisoning the film chivvies things along by having them subsequently shot anyway.

If I say that Gibson is competent, then it may largely be because the film has obviously been tailored to suit his persona: he looks intense and beats people up a lot. Ray Winstone actually makes a fairly positive impression as Jedburgh, though this is an almost completely different character from the TV version: rather than a rogue CIA agent pursuing his own rather cryptic agenda, here Jedburgh is yet another security consultant, albeit one who has improbably grown a conscience. Hardly anyone else in the film makes much of an impression, but then the film as a whole hardly lingers in the memory much. The best I can say for it is that it made me want to watch the British version of the story. I fear it may have the opposite effect on anyone not familiar with the TV show, which is possibly the most heinous sin it commits. A bad movie, regardless.

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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.

The-Expendables-3-wallpaper

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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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published September 19th 2002:

[Following reviews of Reign of Fire and The Importance of Being Earnest.] 

And finally, we look at M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs, aka ‘I See Dead Corn’. Now I’m a bit of a fan of this director, and long-time readers may recall his last film Unbreakable did rather well in the 2001 Lassie awards. This time round he’s dispensed with both Bruce Willis and the twist endings he’s famous for – well, sort of…

This is the story of Graham Hess (Mel Gibson, as monumentally smug as ever), a priest-turned-farmer who lives with his jock brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix from Gladiator) and his two children – one obsessive-compulsive, the other precocious, and both annoying – in a quiet farmhouse. Graham has packed in being a priest as his wife has been run over by local vet (Shymalan himself – yup, he’s going all Tarantino on us). But something’s afoot out in the corn, as crop circles start appearing, strange inhuman figures start creeping around the farm at night, and Graham’s dog becomes grumpy and incontinent.

Yes, that’s right, it’s aliens! Quite why they should want to cause any of these phenomena – particularly the one with the dog – is not explained. The crop circles are apparently convenient rendezvous points for their vast armada of starships, which suggests they can manage steering all the way from Tau Ceti or wherever only to get completely lost and require landmarks as soon as they reach Earth. It also means they can only launch invasions during the summer or early Autumn months when the crops are nearly grown, thus depriving them of the plum holiday period and perhaps explaining their generally cranky disposition. Graham and the family soon get very nervous indeed, especially when the TV reports that the invasion proper has begun…

As you can probably tell, I found a lot of Signs rather difficult to take seriously: but for all the logicalities and lack of explanation in the story, it’s still in many ways a highly impressive piece of film-making. It works on a number of levels, most obviously that of an alien-invasion suspense thriller, and it’s here that Shyamalan excels both as writer and director, as you might expect. Large chunks of the film are very creepy indeed, as Graham wanders around in the corn by torchlight with strange alien chitterings emanating from the crops all around him, and unearthly silhouettes crash unexpectedly into the frame. (The braying strings of James Newton Howard’s score aids Shymalan a lot.) However, towards the end the film adopts a (relatively) straightforward action-adventure style, with which the director seems a lot less comfortable: his enormous talent lies in his ability to lull the audience into an almost lucid dream-like state, not hit them over the head with CGI nasties.

This is certainly a different take on the venerable ‘alien invasion’ theme, and it’s interesting to see the story told from the perspective of ordinary people thousands of miles from the action, rather than that of the US President or a scientific genius. But Shyamalan acknowledges his predecessors, by explicitly name-checking the daddy of them all, War of the Worlds, and also by – whether consciously or not – pinching part of the climax from the (rubbish) movie version of another classic British SF novel.

Signs had the potential to be a truly nerve-shredding horror movie, but it’s prevented from being this by a couple of slightly odd creative decisions on Shyamalan’s part. The unsettling atmosphere he creates in the key sequences of the film is almost without fail diluted by moments of strange, deadpan comedy occurring throughout, as Graham and Merrill (both of whom come across as fairly dim bulbs) struggle to comprehend events around them and are generally hacked off by their smart-aleck younger relations and peculiar neighbours. It’s almost like some strange agrarian amalgam of Frasier and The Simpsons, and for a film that already has a credibility gap this is a serious mistake.

And then there’s the ending. Shyamalan eschews the plot twists he’s become famous for in favour of a deeply didactic and folksy conclusion, preaching that ‘hey, bad things happen for a reason, just have faith and keep on trucking’. It’s glib and cloying, and it isn’t even subtext: this is out there to be seen in the meat of the movie (Gibson’s total inability to portray self-doubt doesn’t help: Phoenix’s performance is better in nearly every way). It’s here that Signs‘ status as a post-September 11th movie becomes clear: in the movie, as in life, America is under a terrible, inexplicable attack, but it’s ultimately for the best and if everyone keeps believing it’ll all turn out okay in the end. Signs sets out to comfort its audience when it would have been much better off simply trying to scare them. Even so, it’s still accomplished, engaging stuff, and only really a disappointment when compared to M. Night Shymalan’s two previous films.

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