Talking Movies

September 12, 2012

The Sweeney

The beloved 1970s British TV cop show gets an appropriately tough makeover with Ray Winstone and Ben Drew (aka Plan B) stepping into John Thaw and Denis Waterman’s iconic roles.

Jack Regan (Winstone) is the chief of Scotland Yard’s Flying Squad, the slightly unhinged individuals who respond to armed robberies. These are police officers who, explicitly in the case of Regan’s right-hand man George Carter (Ben Drew), joined the force for the thrill of the chase that the Flying Squad provides – if there’s no Sweeney, then there’s no Detective Carter. Regan and Carter’s heavy-handed tactics, including the use of baseball bats, raise the hackles of Internal Affairs chief Lewis (Steven Mackintosh), who has a grudge as his wife (and Sweeney member) Nancy (Hayley Atwell) is sleeping with Regan. Regan’s hands-off boss Haskins (Damian Lewis) defends the Sweeney, until Regan becomes obsessed with pinning a senseless murder committed during a diamond robbery on old criminal nemesis Allen (Paul Anderson). Can Regan and Carter unravel the mystery linking a bank heist, a diamond robbery, and an execution before they’re thrown to wolves?

This is not a warm nostalgia trip infused with energy because Nick (The Football Factory) Love is directing. This is a quite brutal thriller with tons of energy. There is an edge of the seat high-speed chase along a narrow country road that conveys the insane drive of these officers to catch criminals. The action highlight of the movie is a truly spectacular gun battle in Trafalgar Square. The geography of the shootout is impeccably set up from an earlier reconnaissance trip, and the choreography of the fight spilling towards the Tube before being diverted into the National Portrait Gallery is equalled by the suspense generated by the cat and mouse chase within the Gallery. Love’s use of aerial night-shots of London is also astounding because by focusing on the skyscrapers of the City he makes this feel like a glossy Michael Mann crime movie.

Love is a better director than a writer though as the dialogue displays a bit of a cloth ear despite the best efforts of his co-writer; Trainspotting scribe John Hodge who recently won an Olivier for his play Collaborators. There are some very funny lines, and a hilarious sequence of ordering delicious food as mental torture, and there’s also a wonderful cockney geezer in Regan’s informant Harry (Alan Ford), as well as delightful usages of the “You’re Nicked” catchphrase. But too many characters are left totally undeveloped like Allen Leech’s Irish Sweeney member Simon Ellis, while the critique of 1970s style brutal police tactics being out of date in the modern world but also sometimes necessary feels a bit heavy-handed.

Overall this is an enjoyable and visually impressive British film which deserves plaudits for eschewing the glib irony that infects TV adaptations for a realistic and nicely savage updating.

3/5

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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

December 9, 2011

Violence at the Drive-In: Part I

In 2005 I wrote a piece for the University Observer titled ‘Huh Huh, Cool’ criticising the reception of Sin City. I find myself in 2011 writing much the same piece again criticising the reception of Drive. But this time I want to get deeper into the question of cinematic violence by trying to categorise the various types and their meaning.

Sin City’s poster campaign displayed with great pride a quote from a review: “The coolest film of the year”. Sin City probably was the coolest film of the year, in the sense that it was definitely the most violent film of the year. It was also grotesque witless garbage but that wasn’t said as much. I decided to position the piece as a pre-empting of the three strident defences usually offered to smack down anyone like me who had the reactionary audacity to object to something like Sin City. The first defence, endlessly aired especially by Taranteenies, holds that the violence is stylised. Stylised violence, the argument goes, isn’t real violence and therefore can’t be condemned. This argument stems from defences of A Clockwork Orange. The problem with citing that film though is that it actually undermines the whole argument about stylised violence being acceptable violence. The violence in the novel was veiled by Anthony Burgess’s parodic and inventive use of language which brought us inside the mind of Alex to whom this kind of activity is fun: “And then I stomped real hard on his yarblockas and the good vino came running out horrorshow good O my brothers”.  “And then I kicked him in the guts till his blood came gushing out” doesn’t entice us into Alex’s world of ultra-violence quite so much. Sadly this literary effect is impossible to replicate onscreen using “stylised violence” because film is a visual medium. You see the blood. Veil the visuals and you can still hear the screams. Perhaps if you were to depict a silent shadow puppet play you might succeed.

“But Frank Miller wrote graphic novels! It’s just comic book violence, not to be taken seriously at all, just like a cartoon” goes the second defence, perhaps invoked after attempts at inserting shadow puppets have failed. Sadly Frank Miller isn’t exactly typical of what comic books actually were, and are, like. This argument presupposes that The Itchy and Scratchy Show is what cartoons were really like rather than Tom and Jerry. The ‘acceptable’ level of violence has vastly increased in the last few decades. Please remember that The A-Team got in trouble in the mid-1980s for violence. That’s right, all those shootouts where no one ever dies, and all the spectacular cars-spinning-in-the-air crashes that end with everyone crawling out unharmed were considered excessively violent. Jack Bauer would laugh at what The Equaliser considered extreme actions, while blockbusters, which are films largely aimed at children, have become ever more violent. I didn’t envy parents explaining to 6 years olds exactly what Obi-Wan did to Anakin at the end of Star Wars III. But the comic-book defence overlooks a huge contradiction. Supervillains are classic villains because they live on. Superman can’t just kill Lex Luthor after struggling with him for a few issues, and the Fantastic Four were never able to simply take out Dr Doom. Buffy is a paradigm in recent years of the patience that it takes to build a classic villain: the Big Bad confronts fights Buffy multiple times, each encounter raising the stakes until a final confrontation in the season finale sees a duel to the death. But film is an idiot medium. It uses violence as a short cut to neatly resolve implacable conflicts, inserting a finality comic-books proudly abjure. Hollywood still operates under the code of the Wild West. The villain nearly always has to die.

The third defence abandoned ideas of irony or context and settled for raising a hue and cry against censorship. “But violence is part of American life, why shouldn’t it be in films?” I judged Hollywood’s beloved defence for prolonging the ethics of Dodge City a fair point, but noted that lack of health insurance and illiteracy problems were also part of American life and with the exception of John Q there weren’t too many films being made about them. Even John Q resorted to the good old familiar violence of a hostage situation in order to slip a film about healthcare under the radar. If filmmakers were sincere in using this defence then they would make films about all facets of American life. I suggested that readers should hold their breath waiting for Tarantino to make a film where a crucial plot point hinged on an illiterate character not being able to read a note left for him and just trying to stumble along according to what he thinks is written down. Then I instructed them to breathe out. It’s been 6 years and Tarantino’s remarkable propensity for violence has still yet to be leavened with any other facet of American life. Tarantino just likes violence, as does Robert Rodriguez, as does Nicolas Winding Refn, and the utter conformity of what gets to be “cool” is astounding. Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, Trainspotting, Scarface, A Clockwork Orange, all of them featuring ultra-violence if not Beethoven, are cool films and have popular posters sold to college students. Wasn’t coolness based on individuality once? If it achieved nothing else, I argued, Sin City would have done some good if it left people asking just why extreme violence, borderline pornography and drug use seemed to be the only denominations in the currency of cool.

Nobody asked those questions, and sure enough Drive’s poster featured a quote from a reviewer dubbing it the coolest movie of the year. Even more disturbing was that critics in Cannes gave an ovation to the infamous elevator scene in which a man’s head is kicked in until bone-dust rises up into the camera. The three defences I trashed in 2005 aren’t the only dams keeping violence at the heart of cinema, but my objections to Drive can’t be articulated merely by dismantling those defences again. I now want to examine cinematic violence – its uses, its varieties, and its meanings.

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