Talking Movies

October 25, 2019

From the Archives: Rendition

From the pre-Talking Movies archives.

An Egyptian man resident in America (Metwally) is the victim of extraordinary rendition to Morocco where a CIA agent (Gyllenhaal) ‘observes’ his interrogation. In Washington the man’s wife (Witherspoon) tries to find out what has happened with the help of a friend (Saarsgard), an aide to a key Senator (Arkin).

Oh My God, it’s Syriana: Part 2. Once again a small army of talented actors stand around waiting for someone to throw them some dramatic meat they can get their teeth into. And again with the baffling idea that constantly intercutting between nothing happening in four different stories is an artistically impressive substitute for developing any of those plot-strands. This film may have some use as a compendium of torture techniques, from water-boarding to electrocution via naked beatings, but if it’s meant to be anything other than a CIA training manual it fails badly.

The CIA does not torture people of course. It merely hands them over to people who will. Of course Jake Gyllenhaal’s Agent Freeman has a crisis of conscience as he ‘observes’  Fawal (Kojak lookalike Yigal Naor) torturing the unfortunate Anwar. Of course Reese Witherspoon runs up against a brick wall in Washington as Peter Sarsgaard is warned off by his Senator with the line “If you want to be the guy who never compromises, go join Amnesty International!” But the logic of the French General in 1960s classic The Battle of Algiers has become unnervingly convincing, if you want to beat an enemy this hate-filled you have to go to extremes too, or you will lose.

The tricksy structure of the film revealed at the end of the film is deeply pointless. At first as it’s telegraphed well in advance it seems like a leap into poetic metaphor for the cycle of violence, then you think that it’s flat out fantasy and makes a nonsense of the whole film, then you slap your thigh and go ‘By Gad Sir I get it!’ and realise that it’s still lame even though it makes sense. It’s also quite easy to miss if you’ve dozed off as is highly likely by that point. If you have nodded off on waking you should just point at the screen, mumble “You’re the Canadian” in a stoned manner, and leave. You won’t have missed anything.

1/5

April 23, 2010

Who the Hell is … Mark Strong?

This second in a series of occasional features celebrating character actors who deserve more attention focuses on the current blockbuster villain of choice Mark Strong.

I first noticed Mark Strong when he starred as an East End Jewish gangster in 1960s London in the BBC 2 four-parter The Long Firm. After that he had minor film roles as the torturer who pulls out George Clooney’s fingernails in Syriana and as the crazed Russian cosmonaut trying to destroy humanity in Sunshine. Matthew Vaughn gave him a more substantial film part in Stardust as the surprisingly bloodthirsty villain of the fairytale who continues to duel even after his death, in a show-stopping piece of mechanical special effects. At this point Strong became a fine actor who should be getting better parts, like Linus Roache in The Chronicles of Riddick, with a minor role in another Vin Diesel mess Babylon AD. Thankfully that didn’t derail him and Vaughn’s old collaborator Guy Ritchie gave him a high profile gig in Sherlock Holmes as the evil revenant Lord Blackwood. Vaughn cast Strong again in his next movie, the outrageous Mark Millar comic-book flick Kick-Ass, as Frank D’Amico the crime-lord driven to distraction by amateur superheroes ruining his business. Vaughn has now been joined in praising Strong by Ian McKellen who called him the greatest actor in England at the present moment.

Strong, like Ben Kingsley, possesses features which casting agents deem capable of portraying a span of nationalities from Jewish to Syrian, via English and Italian. But he can do this without it seeming insulting because of his chameleon like ability to change for each role – a complete lack of vanity which saw him buried under fright make-up and shot out of focus for his appearance in Sunshine, or, as Vaughn raved to me in a 2007 interview for Stardust, to go limp like a rag-doll, be wired up to a rig overhead, and be physically puppeteered for a swordfight as a magically animated corpse. So, now that you know who Mark Strong is look out for him as The Lord Villain (not the actual character name but accurate) in Robin Hood, and as Sinestro, the renegade alien Lantern, in 2011’s long-in-development Green Lantern. Geoff Johns has been masterminding a resurgence in the comics title of late and an unreliable appraisal of the screenplay last year suggested that this was going to be the real deal. The casting of Strong along with Ryan Reynolds as Hal Jordan/Green Lantern and Blake Lively as Carol Ferris certainly bodes well for a movie as romantic, thrilling and sweeping as Johns has made the comics.

It would be a great pity if Strong was reduced to playing villains for the rest of his career but for the moment let’s just enjoy an unsung actor having his star ascend by sheer talent and hard work.

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