Talking Movies

April 3, 2020

Miscellaneous Movie Musings: Part XXX

Filed under: Talking Books,Talking Movies,Talking Television — Fergal Casey @ 5:59 pm
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As the title suggests, so forth.

This could be how I see Tenet in 70mm later this year, if it or any other blockbuster gets released at all in 2020

The polling suggests cinema may be done

It seems somebody had the good sense last week to poll Americans on whether they would return to cinemas once this coronavirus unpleasantness has blown over. The answer was yes. Certainly. But not right away. Rather like the beach on the 4th of July in Amity Island everybody would stand back and let someone else be the first to paddle out into the water and make sure there were no killer sharks lurking thereabouts. But if people are serious about waiting three weeks or three months before they’d dare venture into a packed cinema again, how can the cinemas survive? How many days can you survive as a going concern when your biggest screens showing the biggest blockbusters at the height of summer garner an attendance more usually seen at an Alex Ross Perry movie in the IFI? Big releases have been pushed into 2021 with abandon: Fast & Furious 9, Ghostbusters: Afterlife, Morbius. I’d be surprised if MGM didn’t get nervous and shove No Time to Die from November to next April if they think that by November people will still be readjusting to the idea that going to sit in the dark with 300 sweating sniffling coughing strangers packed like sardines in a crushed tin can isn’t like asking for rat stew during the Black Death. I for one like the idea of taking a coffee into an obscure French film and listening to Jazz24 in screen 3 of the IFI after normal service has been resumed – but the kicker is, that would be a fairly empty screening. And too many years of press screenings, matinees, and unpopular art-house choices have made me unaccustomed to truly packed cinemas. I was already frequently exasperated at bustling audiences before the coronavirus; because of the constant talking, shuffling in and out to the toilets and sweets counter, and, above all, the feeling that I was looking out over a WWII night scene as the light from endless phones strafed the roof of the cinema on the watch for incoming enemy aircraft. To put up with that, and then be paranoid that anybody, not just the people sniffling or coughing, but asymptomatic anybody could have the coronavirus and I could end up with scarred lungs and no sense of smell or taste from watching a film makes me hesitant to go before the second wave.

Further thoughts on the xkcd challenge

A couple of weeks ago I mentioned re-watching Aloha and thinking about the xkcd challenge [https://xkcd.com/2184/]. To wit, it is easy to prove your independent streak by disliking films universally beloved, but less easy to prove your independent streak by liking films universally reviled. Randall Munroe gave a critical score under 50% on Rotten Tomatoes as the target, the other two parts of his trifecta being that the films came out in your adult life post-2000, and are not enjoyed ironically. Well, gosh darn if I didn’t find these ten films rated between 40% and 49% by critics on Rotten Tomatoes. And you know what, their critical pasting is, I would argue, largely undeserved. Some of them are rather good, some of them are not nearly as bad as reputed, and I would happily watch all of them again.

What Lies Beneath

I was astonished to see that Robert Zemeckis’ 2000 Hitchcock pastiche was so critically pasted when it features some sequences; in particular the agony in the bath tub; that rise to the height of genuine Hitchcock level suspense. Zemeckis’ increasing obsession with CGI-enhanced technical wizardry hasn’t yet completely swamped his interest in his characters, as he overtly toys with Rear Window expectations.

Orange County

Colin Hanks and Jack Black are the main players in Mike White’s knockabout comedy about a hopelessly bungled application to Stanford, courtesy of Lily Tomlin’s guidance counsellor, and increasingly ludicrous attempts to get the admissions kerfuffle all sorted out by any means necessary. It may not be as sharp as other White scripts but it’s always amusing for its less than 90 minutes.

xXx

Vin Diesel has valiantly kept the memory of this ludicrous 2002 film alive by somehow making it his only successful non-Fas & Furious franchise. The premise of an extreme sports dude being recruited into being an amateur CIA spook makes no sense what-so-ever, but it had better action, jokes, and humanity than the Bond film of its year by some measure – “Bora Bora!”

The Rules of Attraction

It was a genuine shock to see that this film was so critically reviled when I enthusiastically featured it in my list of best films of the 2000s. It stands beside American Psycho as the best adaptation of a Bret Easton Ellis novel, and Roger Avary draws career highlight turns from leads Ian Somerhalder, Shannyn Sossamon, and James Van Der Beek.

Daredevil

One of the last examples of the big blockbuster movie with the big blockbuster song complete with a big blockbuster video; the at the time inescapable Evanescence hit ‘Bring Me To Life’; this is an only semi-successful attempt at knockabout nonsense with the villains all trying to out-ham each other (and Colin Farrell’s Bullseye winning), but Jennifer Garner shines as Daredevil’s love interest Elektra.

Switchblade Romance

I will die on this weird Gallic hill! Alexandre Aja’s utterly blood-soaked shocker starring Cecile de France (and a chainsaw that spooked the next crew to use it) is a goretastic virtuoso thrill-ride, and the final twist, which was presented as it was on the advice of Luc Besson that it would be funnier that way, makes the film even more preposterously entertaining!

The Village

This was the final straw for critics when it came to M Night Shyamalan, but it’s actually a very engaging and deeply creepy film with a star-making lead performance from Bryce Dallas Howard. Sure the final twist is probably over-egging the pudding, and indicated that M Night was now addicted to twists, but it doesn’t undo the effectiveness of all the previous suspense.

Constantine

Keanu Reeves’ chain-smoking street magus powered a supernatural thriller with exquisitely deliberate pacing, courtesy of future Hunger Games main-man Francis Lawrence; here making his directorial debut. It had a fine sense of metaphysical as well as visceral horror, featured outstanding supporting turns from Tilda Swinton and Peter Stormare, a memorable magus versus demons action showdown, and was easily Keanu’s best film since The Matrix.

Super

I can’t believe that writer/director James Gunn’s delirious deconstruction of the superhero genre could actually have been this lowly esteemed by critics on release in 2010. Rainn Wilson and Ellen Page both give tremendous performances as the delusional heroes who decided to dress in absurd costumes and fight crime; suicidally going up against Kevin Bacon’s gangster, who is very much not a comic-book villain.

The Green Hornet

I will often stop on this if I catch it late at night while channel-hopping. It may not be a very smooth or coherent film, but it has scenes, lines, and ideas that still pop into my mind frequently; “You brought a gas mask?” “Of course I brought a gas mask!” “Just for yourself?”; and Seth Rogen’s DVD commentary is a hoot.

You didn’t build that, Disney

It’s been quite maddening to see bus after bus pass by in the last few weeks with huge ads on their sides for the launch of Disney+ and know that this lockdown is a gift from the universe to a mega corporation by making their new streaming service an obvious choice for harassed parents eager to occupy the time of housebound children with the Disney vault while they try to get some work from home done. Not of course that it’s really Disney’s vault, as is made plain by the attractions listed on the side of the bus. The Simpsons, which is to say 20th Century Fox. Star Wars. Pixar. Marvel. National Geographic. That’s Disney+? These things aren’t Disney. Matt Groening created The Simpsons, and I highly doubt Walt Disney would have approved. George Lucas created Star Wars and changed the cinematic world with ILM, and it was from Lucasfilm that Pixar was spun out, with the help of Steve Jobs. Not anybody at Disney. Stan Lee and Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko are responsible for most of the characters of Marvel, and without James Cameron and Bryan Singer and Sam Raimi there probably wouldn’t have been an MCU for Disney to buy. And Disney sure as hell didn’t found the National Geographic Society in the milieu of Alexander Graham Bell in the 1880s. Disney bought these. They didn’t build them patiently, they didn’t put in hard work, or exercise quality control over decades to build up a trusted reputation, they just waved a cheque book, and somehow regulators looked the other way at the increasing monopoly power being acquired. Disney bought these to accumulate monopolistic power and make mucho money, and in the case of Star Wars when they have attempted to build something themselves they have spectacularly managed to kill the golden goose, as can be seen by looking at the downward trajectory at the box office of the late unlamented Disney trilogy.

December 4, 2019

From the Archives: Hitman

From the pre-Talking Movies archives.

Hitman does not achieve the sublime nonsensicality of its trailer. A pity, I hadn’t laughed as hard for quite some time as I did when the ‘Ave Maria’ played over sub-Matrix slow motion carnage, or as much as you can hint at in a 12’s rated trailer. Timothy Olyphant is 47, the titular assassin, who has precious little dialogue and is there purely to look cool with his shaved head. Which he succeeds in doing, obviously he took lessons from Bruce Willis during Die Hard 4. The sheer simple joy this film takes in firing off bullets in slow motion hasn’t been seen since The Matrix, which is explicitly referenced in a scene where 47 shoots up a room full of coked out, sub-machine gun wielding drug lords, and waits behind pillars that are blown to pieces to reload before emerging to splatter more drug-lord blood. Do we see anything new? Not in the slightest. This does not have the ambitions of The Matrix. It is merely a cheap, stylish computer game adaptation with a surprisingly logical plot.

French director Xavier Gens is channelling the spirit of his countryman Luc Besson, director of Leon and subsequently one-man studio for absurdist action fare. There’s an awful lot of tracking shots following armed characters down hallways, and Gens makes his film look Eastern European with lingering shots of un-American interiors. The obligatory eye candy, frequently topless Olga Kurylenko, has a thankless task as Nika. 47 is assigned to kill her but decides not to and instead asexually protects her while he hunts down the client who betrayed him and then put out a contract on his life. Wearing the same eyeliner and outfits as Asia Argento in xXx, Kurylenko confirms to that ridiculous Hollywood stereotype for Eastern European femmes fatale. This woman needs to get a new agent after also appearing mostly topless in a similar role in The Serpent before being quickly killed off.

Robert Knepper, best known as T-Bag on Prison Break and best loved as the opportunistic radio reporter in Carnivale, is wonderfully slimy as Yuri, the crooked FSB (new KGB) chief agent covering up the truth about the ‘fake’ assassination of a Russian premier and trying to hunt down 47 before he can expose the deception. LOST star Henry Ian Cusick (psychic Scot Desmond) has a tiny cameo but obviously enjoys himself while his countryman Dougray Scott is on fine form as the Interpol agent doggedly pursuing his ‘ghost’ despite official resistance and a brutal warning from 47 himself to let the case drop. There are scenes in this film which no one will be able to resist loving, such as a Mexican stand-off that turns into a Mexican sword-off to allow for some dignity in dying… Hitman succeeds admirably on its own preposterous terms. Huzzah for that.

3/5

September 26, 2018

From the Archives: Taken

Ten years ago today Taken was released in Ireland.

Liam Neeson admitted that he only took this part because at 56 he didn’t expect to be offered an action role again, from such inauspicious beginnings comes an unexpected joy as Neeson has the time of his life in Taken as effectively he gets to play Jack Bauer at age 56.

His operative secret agent (or “preventer” as he describes himself, think CTU…) has retired to spend more time with his estranged daughter. She is living with her aggravatingly wealthy stepfather Xander Berkeley (yes, that’s right Jack Bauer’s boss George Mason in 24) and Neeson’s bitter ex-wife Famke Janssen, a thankless role which is becoming so prevalent that someone really needs to have a character riposte “Well, if you’re ex is that much of a loser, it doesn’t say much about you that you married them, does it?” to get rid of it. LOST’s Maggie Grace plays Jack’s daughter Kim. Yes that’s right, French writer/producer Luc Besson has brilliantly pre-empted the planned 24 movie to the extent of having a permanently in peril daughter Kim. Kim travels to Paris with her friend Amanda (Katie Cassidy) and, Kims being Kims, they get kidnapped by a gang trafficking in sex slaves. It’s worth sighing at this point that both actresses are far too old for their roles and ‘act young’ by jumping around a lot and screaming, which is not much of a stretch for Grace it must be admitted but is quite disappointing from Cassidy given her very cool role as a taciturn demon on Supernatural.

Neeson, as you might have seen from the absurd trailer, talks Kim through her kidnap and threatens the kidnappers before they hang up on him. He jets over, courtesy of the private plane belonging to Berkeley’s wealthy businessman, and gets medieval on the kidnappers. This isn’t “ooh look at our fancy fight choreography” fighting, this is down and dirty “how many punches, jabs and kicks do I really need to give in order to cripple this person?” fighting and bone-crunchingly realistic it looks too. This is the adrenaline rush that 24 provided before it got ridiculous. Neeson is superbly cast for this, his 6, 4” frame dominating any room he walks into, while his boxing past makes his fight scenes more plausible than is usual in a Besson produced action flick. Neeson finds the gang holding his daughter through a mix of dogged detective work, old contacts (including a mentor who features in a scene outrageously lifted directly by Besson from Day 5 of 24), old fashioned brutality and yes, you guessed it, one very nasty torture scene involving a lecture by Neeson on the joys of a constant supply of electricity when trying to beat confessions out of bad guys. Besson sure knows his 24… By the end of this film you feel sure that Neeson has killed or maimed half the Parisian underworld and, quelle surprise, the big bad turns out to be an evil Arab.

If one wanted to gripe about all this one could say that Pierre Morel’s film endorses the sort of pop-fascism espoused by 24 but analysing the politics of this nonsense would really be pushing it. This is not high art. What it is is gripping, plausible, brutal and ultimately awesome fun. Highly recommended.

4/5

May 25, 2018

At least we still have…

The first in an occasional new series in which I try to cheer myself up by remembering what still exists in the world and cannot ever be taken capriciously away.

For starters, there is this delivery of one single word by Gary Oldman in Leon, which still floors me with laughter no matter how many times I see it. The deliberate OTT take, that Oldman warned the sound recordist he was about to do, which of course Luc Besson ended up using in the final cut, launched a thousand GIFs.

And then there is the ‘Ode to Joy’ finale of Beethoven’s 9th Symphony, which I am going to experience in person for the first time in the National Concert Hall tonight. I think I can make a good case that this piece of music which permits of no encore, was written by a composer who had completely lost his hearing, requires considerable resources to perform, and triumphantly promotes a spirit of universal brotherhood, is the very pinnacle of Western Civilisation.

September 4, 2015

The Transporter Refuelled

Luc Besson reboots his Transporter franchise with a younger version of Frank Martin, but without the State in the lead, things just aren’t the same…

transporter-refueled03

Ed Skrein replaces Jason Statham as Frank Martin, and, in a transparent attempt to give proceedings a Last Crusade vibe, Ray Stevenson is his retired spy father Frank Sr. But the film’s all about Anna (Loan Chabanol), a traumatised hooker on the French Riviera who comes up with an audacious plan for revenge on her pimps, which begins with the dispatching of Bond henchman Anatole Taubman’s Stanislas. She plans to get out from the under the thumb of the Russian mob, and take her sisters in prostitution with her, by turning junior bosses Yuri (Yuri Kolokolnikov) and Leo (Lenn Kudrjawizki) against their more successful colleague Arkady (Radivoje Bukvic). But if Anna and her comrades in arms Gina (Gabriella Wright), Maria (Tatiana Pajkovic) and Qiao (Wenxia Yu) are to pull this off then they will need the help of both Franks.

It seems silly complaining about the 19 year age gap between Stevenson and Skrein given only 12 years separated Connery and Ford, but Stevenson is the same age as Keanu Reeves; it almost feels like he’s there as back-up in case Skrein couldn’t carry the film (and indeed he displays little of his Game of Thrones’ swagger). This is a double redundancy as Anna controls the film, to the point where, following Mad Max: Fury Road, it must be said this peculiar bait-and-switch manoeuvre is as unacceptable as any other. Alexandre Dumas’ The Three Musketeers features prominently, copies even being left lying about lairs, but another key 1840s text seems more apposite given that the logline for this movie could be ‘Hookers of all countries unite, you have nothing to lose but your pimps, you have a world to gain’.

There is a nice fight involving some business with filing cabinets, but too often Frank is a supporting player, while Frank Sr gets kidnapped twice to aid plot mechanics; as a spy he’s more Kim Bauer than Jack. And then there’s the action directing of Camille Delamere, who edited Transporter 3 and Taken 2 before helming Brick Mansions. Some of what should be the film’s best moments (car landing in an airplane tunnel, Frank jumping off a jet-ski into a jeep) become conceptual stunts, where there’s a nice physical set-up, only for a digital pay-off to leave you feeling cheated. The under-used Inspector Becatoui (Samir Guesmi) leaves you pining for the absurdist comedy of previous Transporters, and wondering why Besson decided that Bill Collage and Adam Cooper, writers of Tower Heist and Exodus: Gods and Kings, fitted this knowing franchise

The Transporter Refuelled has some fun fights, but if the Transporter becomes a backseat driver in his movie what exactly is the point of rebooting the franchise at all?

2.75/5

January 7, 2015

Taken 3

Liam Neeson returns for a final instalment of Besson nonsense; outrunning cop Forest Whitaker to escape a bogus murder rap by finding the real perpetrator.

tak3n-gallery2-gallery-imageTaken 3 begins with Eurotrash criminals Oleg (Sam Spruell) and Maxim (Andrew Howard) delivering a chilling message to a business partner who owes them money. Meanwhile Bryan Mills (Neeson) is once again earnestly buying an inappropriate birthday present for daughter Kim (Maggie Grace); a giant panda. Ex-wife Lenore (Famke Janssen) confides in Bryan that her marriage to millionaire Stuart (Dougray Scott) is nearly at an end, despite much couples therapy, and a desperate Stuart then visits Bryan to beg him to not see Lenore anymore to give him a chance at salvaging the marriage. Bryan honourably agrees, but has already given Lenore his keys in case she wants some me time while he joins Sam (Leland Orser) on an out of town job. Det. Dotzler (Forest Whitaker) finds the key to be damning evidence when he starts investigating Lenore’s murder…

It’s over 6 years since I gave Taken a 4/5 review, enthused by its brutal fun riff on 24. Taken 3 is a very different kettle of fish, afflicted by many of the problems of Taken 2. The PG-13 neutering hurts immensely. Lenore’s neck wound looks barely painful let alone fatal, a man blows his head off with no blood splatter, and a shirtless man is shot in the abdomen twice; with no blood… Olivier Megaton has handled PG-13 action entertainingly in Colombiana and Transporter 3, but the absurdity of toning down Pierre Morel’s original R vision of this franchise seems to unnerve him; even the harder cut of Taken 2 saw action director Megaton fail as a director of action. Time and again Megaton films a set-up well, but then bungles the pay-off in a flail of incomprehensible editing.

Luc Besson and Robert Mark Kamen’s script is very awkward. The panda shows Bryan having learnt nothing since the first film’s first scene, Kim deflecting her surprise pregnancy into a conversation about a puppy is excruciatingly ham-fisted, and the first act’s lengthy inanity makes you long for Taken’s efficiency. Whitaker, despite being lumbered with a chess knight, elastic band, and bagels as props masquerading as character traits, is on good form. Scott, however, gives the worst villain performance in a Besson production since Joseph Gilgun’s unbearable turn in Lockout. Indeed an early tearful scene of desperation rivals Colin Farrell’s essaying of guilt in Cassandra’s Dream for the hammiest screen acting I’ve ever seen. Scott takes over the role of Stuart from 24 and Nikita mischief-maker Xander Berkeley, and it is impossible not to daydream about what Berkeley would have done.

‘It Ends Here’ is a tagline that sounds exhausted, and the franchise, despite an awful villain and disappointing action, falls over the line with its dignity just about intact.

2.5/5

June 20, 2014

3 Days to Kill

Kevin Costner tries to do a Liam Neeson and escape blockbuster supporting roles by fighting international villains in Paris while looking after an estranged daughter.

4d129f52-9ca0-4c07-83b7-b52dff337b64Wallpaper1

CIA asset Vivi (Amber Heard) is dispatched to Eastern Europe to kill The Wolf (Richard Sammel), who will be at a hotel overseeing a transaction by his lieutenant The Albino (Tomas Lemarquis) (yes, the names are absurd; Luc Besson spits on reality). The transaction, a dirty bomb, will be sabotaged by local CIA agent Ethan Renner (Kevin Costner), and Vivi is not to interfere. The operation, however, goes gruesomely sideways. Ethan wounds The Albino, but collapses before capturing him. Diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, Ethan retires and returns to Paris to reconnect with his estranged wife Christine (Connie Nielsen) and daughter Zooey (Hailee Steinfeld); and awkwardly share his CIA hideout with Malian squatters. But Vivi knows Ethan is the only person who can identify The Wolf. She offers an experimental drug to prolong his life in return for some freelancing…

One-man studio Besson produces demented action films: Mark Millar’s bombastic comics moments (Black Widow catching a gun dropped from a chopper above while she’s jumping between buildings in The Ultimates) threaded together with basic plotting. But 3 Days to Kill, from a surprisingly sadistic early killing, isn’t the house style of knowing nonsense and crunching violence. McG fashioned some amusing sequences in This Means War, but, bar some moments in the hotel cold open, his action directing in a washed-out Paris is not very impressive. More worryingly this is an action movie that is seriously lacking in actual action. 3 Days to Kill can come across as an early draft of Taken; written as a serious drama about estranged father-daughter parenting. Except that such ‘serious drama’ includes ludicrous unfunny business with a purple bike, and electrocuting fixers for parenting advice.

All I can think is that Besson and Adi Hasak wrote tongue-in-cheek, but, bar a pointedly directed comedy scene with a ‘real Italian’ accountant for The Albino, that tone just got lost in McG’s shooting; which prevents Mitat (Marc Andreoni) from emulating Inspector Tarconi in The Transporter. Amber Heard tragically disappears for lengthy stretches, but in her occasional appearances Besson seems to be tapping into the hypersexualised persona she’s honed in films like The Rum DiaryThe Informers, and The Joneses. Vivi’s always dressed in some sort of leather and outré hairstyle, attends Crazy Horse cabaret to flirt with naked girls, makes both driving and injecting a cancer drug seem sexual, delivers what may be 2014’s filthiest PG-13 gag, and (in what may or may not be a hallucination by medicated Ethan) does rifle drills under Roger Rabbit red spotlights.

Costner was always a still centre as a leading man rather than a warm presence like Neeson, and his tonally confused Bessoner surely won’t reinvigorate his leading man career.

2/5

May 2, 2013

Dead Man Down

Niels Arden Oplev, director of the Swedish Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, makes his American debut with a thriller starring Colin Farrell and Noomi Rapace.

Dead-Man-Down-11

Victor (Farrell) is a low-ranking criminal working alongside fellow foot-soldier and friend Darcy (Dominic Cooper) in the gang headed by Alphonse Hoyt (Terrence Howard), a sharp-suited villain who specialises in clearing buildings of tenants for the Mob. Hoyt is coming apart at the seams due to a three month barrage of cryptic notes, and surveillance photos with his eyes crossed out. And that’s before Paul, the trusted lieutenant he tasked with identifying the mystery stalker, turns up dead in the basement of Alphonse’s mansion. As Alphonse goes on the offensive Victor strikes up a low-key romance with his high-rise neighbour Beatrice (Noomi Rapace), a beautician horribly scarred by a car accident who now shuns the world and lives with her mother Valentine (Isabelle Huppert). But embittered Beatrice may hold the key to solving the mystery of who is harassing Alphonse…

Dead Man Down’s best feature is its patient drip-feeding of surprising information in the first act. There is one truly extraordinary scene in which a victim is revealed to be a predator, and Terrence Howard’s villain on the make interestingly has something of Bob Hoskins in The Long Good Friday about him. Oplev defamiliarises NYC to an astonishing extent; making it a city of warehouses in deserted urban locales, docklands overgrown with green trees, and lush vegetation surrounding high-rise apartment blocks. There are a number of nail-biting sequences in the film as Darcy takes over Paul’s investigation and gets closer to the truth which got him killed, but somehow Oplev doesn’t milk the tension from them Fincher would, while his action sequences are staged efficiently rather than dazzlingly. Really this is TV’s Revenge, writ large, and not quite as attractively.

Fringe writer JH Wyman’s dialogue clunks almightily at times, not helped by Oplev shooting those scenes with lengthy pauses where the piano tinkles helpfully to suggest emotional epiphanies are being had by characters who don’t look like they’re even thinking. Oplev incredibly sabotages a scene where the voice of a dead girl says “Daddy got rid of all the monsters”, by showing us a board of photos of all the mobsters still to be killed. We got it, stop flourishing your Diploma from the Oliver Stone School of Subtlety. Wyman’s script has good intentions, but just when you’re thinking about quotes by Confucius and Gladiator on revenge the finale changes gears completely, almost as if a draft by Luc Besson of the Colombiana showstopper had got mixed up with the final pages of Dead Man Down, and profundity is banished.

You couldn’t say that Dead Man Down is a bad film, but you could only give it a very qualified thumbs-up because it so aggravatingly wastes its abundant potential.

2.5/5

May 24, 2012

Better Safe than Statham

Filed under: Talking Movies — Fergal Casey @ 5:22 pm
Tags: , ,

Does Safe represent the start of a push by Jason Statham to broaden his acting range by appearing in a film that’s decidedly more thriller than it is an action?

Writer and director Boaz Yakin, who also scripted and lensed Remember the Titans, certainly seems to have ambitions that don’t fit with the State’s usual mindless fun. The opening of Safe deploys a structure I can’t recall encountering anywhere else other than Tom Stoppard’s radio-play Artist Descending a Staircase – a boomeranging back in time and then returning to the present, albeit done with a good deal less intelligence and rigour than Stoppard displayed. If Statham is quite deliberately playing a character who is more emotional and vulnerable than his usual persona, then these opening flashbacks are a good deal more complicated than the usual ‘2 days previously’ that might be used as a noirish hook to an overly dramatic high-stakes start. Yakin though ends up with less of a noir feel than sheer confusion as he tries to blast through two backstories in flashback before linking them up ‘where we came in’.

Statham plays Luke Wright, a cage fighter in Jersey who accidentally pulverises an opponent in a fight he was supposed to throw, and is punished by the Russian mob; who execute his pregnant wife and hope to drive him to suicide by promising to kill anyone he establishes any sort of friendship with in the future. A year later Luke is about to jump in front of a subway train after the Russians have ruthlessly made good on their word when he spots Mei (Catherine Chan) being chased by the same gangsters. Mei who we have met first being terrorised by the Russians, was originally abducted by the Triads in Nanjing, and sent to America by Han Jiao (James Hong) to do the book-keeping for him mentally using her prodigious math abilities. In the present she has been entrusted with a new number by Jiao but has been abducted from her adoptive father Chang (Reggie Lee) by the Russians, who want that number. When she escapes, courtesy of some unintentional help by the corrupt NYC captain in charge of SWAT (John Lee Burke), she runs straight into Luke’s path…

Safe isn’t nearly absurd enough for the usual Statham thrills. It has a very complicated plot, which is only disclosed at a late stage; and really does try to emulate NYC crime thrillers of the 1970s rather than Luc Besson’s 2000s nonsense actions. This tension is never quite resolved. There is a nicely staged subway attack during which Statham delivers one of his greatest ever action one-liners in killing off a Russian mobster who’s aghast that a garbage-man should have such skills: “You had bad information; I never collected garbage, I disposed of it.” Similarly when Chris Sarandon mutters at Statham “You’ve got some balls” only to be met with “Yeah, I’m amazed I can walk,” we’re defiantly in Besson-land. Yet at the same time we have Hal Hartley regular John Lee Burke as the corrupt NYPD captain and some noticeably arty action sequences. There is an assault on a car composed as a long-take reminiscent of Cuaron’s Children of Men, and another subsequent attack involving great tricks with wing mirrors and rear view mirrors as the camera plays around with locating and hiding characters in the mayhem, as well as a showy long-take where Statham arrives.

Can Jason Statham break out of the action ghetto? Perhaps, but I think he’s more likely to do so by appearing in a film which is entirely devoid of chop-socky fights and devoted to showcasing his acting chops than by doing compromise pieces like Safe.

April 16, 2012

Lockout

Writer/producer Luc Besson’s one-man studio continues with an entertaining sci-fi actioner starring Guy Pearce attempting to rescue Maggie Grace from 500 scumbags.

Pearce is Snow, an ex-CIA agent in 2079. Snow is arrested by Secret Service supremo Langral (a wonderfully ambiguous Peter Stormare) when Snow’s mentor is killed after requesting him as back-up on an undercover operation. Snow is unable to retrieve vital exculpating evidence in a briefcase he passed to his partner Mace (Tim Plester) just before his arrest. Meanwhile First Daughter Emilie Warnock (Maggie Grace) is visiting new maximum security prison space station MS1 to ensure humane treatment of the sedated convicts. Some joyfully dumb coincidences see her taken hostage along with the crew by the newly awakened prisoners, headed by Scottish brothers Alex (Vincent Regan) and Hydell (Joseph Gilgun); who have different ideas about how to bargain their way home. Snow’s CIA friend Shaw (Lennie James) persuades Langral to send Snow to MS1 as an implausible one-man army to rescue Emilie, and only Emilie…

Lockout wastes absolutely no time in setting up its plot. Indeed it features one of the most arresting openings this year as a handcuffed to a chair Pearce is repeatedly punched out of frame to allow the credits to pop up, before he sits back up to deliver another witticism and get punched out of frame again. He even delivers a wonderful gag about why punch-lines are so titled. It’s odd to see Pearce rather than Statham in a role like this, but, following sparkling supporting turns in Animal Kingdom, The King’s Speech and Justice, it’s great to see him headlining. Pearce swaggers his way thru this film with sardonic wisecracking gusto. Grace improves once she starts to act opposite him, especially with short, dark hair; which she gets courtesy of the application by Snow of scissors and a mix of engine grease and coffee.

This is a knowing genre piece. The basic concept is a riff on Escape from New York, the friction between Snow and Emilie the girl he wished he hadn’t rescued pure Han Solo and Leia, and the sympathetic Shaw talking Snow thru the operation on MS1 obviously Die Hard. This is silly action with a wink. The ‘spectacular’ CGI motorbike chase at the start is hilariously poor, as Pearce runs from the Secret Service on what is the Bat-pod, even down to lifting the crashing thru a shopping mall shot from The Dark Knight. Such entertaining hokum is derailed by Mancunian Gilgun’s quickly irritating turn as Hydell. A cross between twitchy-twitchy Jeremy Davies as Trainspotting’s Begbie and Andy Serkis as Gollum at his most self-pitying it’s just too much for a cipher; the violent loose cannon ruining Alex’s negotiating plans.

Irish directors and co-writers Stephen Saint-Leger and James Mather got Besson’s attention with their short film Prey Alone. Lockout should get Hollywood’s.

2.5/5

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