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Posts Tagged ‘Toby Stephens’

As I sit down to contemplate Donovan Marsh’s Hunter Killer, I am minded to suggest a new rule of thumb for when it comes to predicting whether a film is any good or not. I already have a few of these: is the director so obscure he doesn’t even have his own Wikipedia entry? This is a bad sign. Does the film star Gerard Butler? This is a worse one. (Needless to say, Hunter Killer fails both of these tests, by which I mean the answer is yes.) To these I would add: does the film have more producers and executive producers than it does cleaning ladies?

This is certainly the case with Hunter Killer, which – thanks to my close examination of the credits, a result of the film putting my lower limbs into a state of temporary torpor and briefly trapping me in the auditorium – I can inform you has over twenty producers and execs (including Gerard Butler, perhaps unsurprisingly), but less than a dozen women who clean. I will have to do further research into this area, but my initial findings are that you should hire cleaners in bulk rather than film producers, should you have the option.

All this is a roundabout way of saying that Hunter Killer is about as good a movie as you would expect, given it is a mid-budget action thriller starring Butler as the ostensible hero. I was something of a cheerleader for Butler and his career up until about fifteen years ago, and was genuinely pleased when 300 catapulted him to a level of real stardom – but since then it seems like he hasn’t really been trying, just recycling the same kinds of movies and performances over and over again. I’m almost at the point of giving up on him entirely, but I do enjoy a slightly duff genre movie, so along I went to a matinee of Hunter Killer (at which I was entirely alone, I might add).

Things kick off with an American and a Russian submarine both going missing in mysterious circumstances, somewhere under the polar ice. The chairman of the joint chiefs, who is a growly cipher expertly phoned in by Gary Oldman, dispatches another sub to investigate, under the command of newly-promoted captain Joe Glass (Butler). Glass manages to be a fierce disciplinarian and an unpredictable loose cannon, whom we first meet displaying his macho chops by (illegally) hunting deer with a longbow in Scotland. He then gets to show his sensitive side by not actually shooting the cute little critters, before being whisked off to take command of his boat. Here he displays yet another aspect of his personality, being much given to making rather cryptic inspirational speeches to his crew – ‘I am you,’ he announces to the assembled company, then ‘Everyone you know is someone on that [missing] sub.’ Needless to say, Butler does not really manage to unite all these bizarrely arbitrary traits in a coherent characterisation.

Well, anyway, as the presumably somewhat-baffled crew sails into the danger zone it transpires that there is sneakiness afoot in the upper echelons of the Russian military establishment, with a coup in progress against the Russian President (Alexander Diachenko), orchestrated by the perfidious Defence Minister (Mikhail Gorevoy), who is looking to start a nuclear war with the USA for no particularly well-explained reason. However, with a US sub in the crisis zone, not to mention a special forces team (led by a somewhat unexpectedly-cast Toby Stephens), it may just be possible to save the day…

Yes, so this is not one of those films with what you could honestly describe as a stranglehold on reality. You almost wonder how long it has been in the works, given just how spectacularly misjudged its presentation of world geopolitics is – the US President is a woman, apparently named ‘Ilene Dover’ (which is a joke name, surely), who ends up ordering a rescue mission to save the Russian President (who has no tendencies to be photographed with his shirt off, in case you were wondering).

In other words it is, not to put too fine a point on it, a deeply silly film, bordering on the actually cartoonish in some places. The problem is that the makers of the film don’t appear to be particularly comfortable with making a silly cartoon of an action movie: they seem to want to make a serious and credible semi-political thriller. This desire mainly takes the form of everyone in Hunter Killer being under orders to play it absolutely straight even when the material demands at least a degree of tongue-in-cheekness. The result is regrettably predictable: when a silly film attempts to become credible by taking itself very seriously, the result is not a serious, credible film – the result is a film which manages to be both silly and rather dull.

I found myself rather missing the barking, sweating, swivel-eyed-maniac Gerard Butler of old: he’s just not that interesting when he tones it down, even if he is playing a weirdly stoical underwater nutcase at the time. On the other hand, hardly anyone makes much of an impression in this film – Gary Oldman expertly phones in his supporting turn, the rapperist Common appears as another nautical cove, and a cast-against-type Toby Stephens pops up as the leader of a US special forces unit (the movie was made in the UK, which explains the presence of a few familiar faces further down the cast list). It is, as you may have noticed, a somewhat blokey movie, with this slightly made up for by a supporting appearance by Linda Cardellini as an NSA analyst. (There are indeed some women serving on Butler’s sub, but none of them get any lines until the last twenty minutes of the film.) The late Michael Nyqvist makes one of his final appearances as a decent Russian sub captain, in a probably optimistic attempt to make it clear that not all Russians are bad guys.

That’s the thing about Hunter Killer – technically, it’s a perfectly competent movie in terms of its production and so on, but it just makes virtually no impact. There is never any real sense of danger or tension or involvement, probably because the film is just so derivative and formulaic and predictable. No doubt the film’s themes of the US military being wonderful and the deep connections felt by the brotherhood of submariners will appeal to some sectors of the intended audience, but I can’t see that translating into particularly wide appeal for anyone else. Even if you’re a really keen fan of films about submarines, Hunter Killer really has nothing new or especially accomplished to offer. But at least the sets are nice and clean.

 

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published November 28th 2002: 

For me there are few greater pleasures in going to the movies than watching a white circle pan across a jet black screen, simply because that means that Britain’s, and the cinema’s, greatest hero is about to start doing his thing again. And so it proves with Lee Tamahori’s Die Another Day, the 20th James Bond film, released in the year of the franchise’s ruby anniversary.

Typically, a stunt sequence most action movies would be glad to use as their climax is deployed here simply as an appetiser. Our hero (Pierce Brosnan, as ever flawlessly embodying Bond the icon) is in North Korea, as ever pursuing his own uniquely pyrotechnic brand of international relations. But when the dust settles there’s a shock in store for all concerned: rather than having it away on his toes and then having it away with, well, whoever he feels like, Bond is nabbed by the Koreans and slung in the clink. Bond spends the title sequence being tortured by his captors (the audience is particularly inclined to sympathise, as they spend the title sequence being tortured by Madonna).

It’s over a year before he gets out, a startling plot development but a very clever one. The usually invincible, immaculately turned-out Bond is grounded in reality as never before – unkempt, unshaven, and treated as damaged goods by his own superiors. And the film continues in the same gritty, realistic vein for some time, drawing you in, making you believe, making you care about the characters. And then, inevitably, once it has you, it soars off into a ludicrous realm where DNA transplants and invisible cars are entirely commonplace, taking you with it, well aware that reality has suddenly become a twinkling dot in the far distance, but really not caring at all.

There’s been much talk of how this new film contains knowing homages to many of the previous Bond films – and this is true. But, let’s face it, there are rarely more than cosmetic differences between these films anyway, and this one boils down to another retread of Bond Plot No.2: villain uses weapon in space to cause mischief. Along the way are all the things you’d expect from this franchise – girls, explosions, gadgets, girls, designer clothing, cars, spectacle, explosions, one-liners, girls, explosions and girls (quite properly, Bond does not let the malnutrition, brutalisation and psychological trauma of his prison experiences get in the way of his usual regime of conspicuous consumerism, chauvinism and carnage).

To be honest, the female characters are rather underwritten – Halle Berry rises above this through sheer force of personality and by virtue of being so damn easy on the eye, but Rosamund Pike struggles to convince. The villains have had much more thought put into them, however – there’s a great henchman in Rick Yune’s Zao, and Toby Stephens gives a fine, multi-layered performance as the oily Gustav Graves. One of the best things about the Brosnan Bond is the way the role of the chief villain has been played with – after making the villain a friend of Bond’s, and then the Bond girl, they now take the next logical step and – in a manner of speaking – make the villain Bond himself. A wonderful idea, but one wonders where they can go next without repeating themselves. The Bond regulars – Judi Dench, John Cleese, Samantha Bond and Colin Salmon – carry out their roles with customary aplomb, and there’s a cameo from Michael Madsen (an actor I’ve always had a soft spot for since Reservoir Dogs).

The only previous film of Lee Tamahori’s that I’ve seen is the brutal domestic drama Once Were Warriors, which brought both the director and Temuera (Jango Fett) Morrison to international attention, and to be honest I couldn’t see why the Bond producers had given him this assignment when I first heard he’d got the job. But they clearly recognised that talent is talent: this is the most stylishly directed Bond movie to date, with entirely novel techniques and flourishes being utilised throughout. Even more impressive is his command of pacing and tempo – starting the big set piece sequences small and controlled, before slowly building them into some of the most frenziedly exciting, over-the-top action scenes seen in recent years. Only some unconvincing CGI lets him down – also the fact that the film feels like it peaks too soon, the actual climax seeming a little routine and mundane given some of what has preceded it.

But these are quibbles. This is a stunning piece of pure entertainment, with the swagger and wit of the very best Bond movies. When the franchise is on this kind of form, it’s almost irresistible, and it’s barely credible that a film so rooted in tradition and formula can seem so vital and fresh. As far as action-adventure movies go, nobody does it better.

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