A Champ, A Vamp, And Some Cars Jumping Over Things With The Aid Of A Ramp
Hello again, everyone, and yes, you're right - such a contrived title can mean only one thing, a triple-bill of reviews. As ever, the deepest thought has gone into every aspect of this column and a subtle common thread runs through all three.
Screenwriting remains one of the most popular second-career choices for people who are never going to actually leave their first one, but coming up with ideas for a script can sometimes be tricky. But, fear not, as it's a common misconception that you actually have to come up with an original idea out of your own head. Many other options exist, to wit...
#1: Write About Something From Real Life You Saw On The News (or: Bowling for Torquay)
It seems a bit fatuous to write about a low-budget British comedy that's just about finished its run on the big screen even as I write, but what the hell. Mel Smith's Blackball is breezy good fun, and features a rare big-screen outing for the legendary Bernard Cribbins (Cribbins' status as a comic genius should be evident to anyone who's seen Daleks: Invasion Earth 2150AD), so let's have a look at it anyway.
Based, admittedly quite loosely, on real-life events, this is the story of crown-green bowling1 prodigy Cliff Starkey (Paul Kaye) who, despite his enormous talent for the game, scandalises the bowling grandees of his native Torquay with his irreverent attitude towards it. Chief amongst his enemies is the Basil Fawlty-esque reigning champion Ray Speight (James Cromwell). Cliff beats Ray in the county championship, but after (justifiably) calling him a rather rude name, finds himself on the wrong end of a fifteen year ban. But the incident also makes him a bit of a celebrity, and before long the siren song of wealth and fame is calling him...
To be honest, any claim to a basis on true events which this film may have evaporates after about twenty-five minutes, at which point the appearance of a rather incongruous Vince Vaughn heralds its transformation into a rather cartoonish parody of many sports movies and a satire on the way many sports have been glitzed up for the media. The comedy is broad, knockabout stuff, but performed quite well by a cast containing many familiar faces off the telly. Bernard Cribbins is, predictably, great as Cliff's grandad, and so is Johnny Vegas as his best mate - even if he's simply just recycling his standard comic persona for the occasion.
This is a fun film, but an substantial one. The near-total lack of depth or realism jars with the 'too much, too young' arc of the middle section of the plot, which in any case seldom strays very far from predictability. The jokes do get increasingly daft as it proceeds, and it does strongly resemble a shambolic 1970s comedy film in a couple of places. But it's very likeable, and does make a few astute observations about the commercialisation of sport along the way. Enjoyable.
#2: Pinch Lots Of Bits Of Other Films And Stuff And Write A Script Around Them (or: World of Leather)
The remarkably derivative nature of Len Wiseman's Underworld has already been widely commented upon. And the film-makers, quite respectably, aren't bothering to dispute this much, as Underworld is a film which wears its influences very openly on its sleeve: the opening seqeunce alone sees the main character wearing a full-length black coat while engaging in a bit of pistol-in-each-hand action. The Blade movies also appear to have been watched in some detail, and - while this may be a coincidence - the basic setting and plot are very reminiscent of the World of Darkness role-playing setting.
In a city of seemingly perpetual rain and darkness (probably Manchester) an age-old war between vampires and werewolves is being played out. The vampires look elegantly wasted, like the better class of goth, while the werewolves just look like roadies. Our protagonist is Selene (Kate Beckinsale), a vampire warrior dedicated to exterminating the 'lycans', as she calls them, a task which seems to mainly revolve around posing and looking concerned. But events take an unexpected turn when, just prior to the arising of a slumbering elder vampire, she discovers the werewolves are pursuing young doctor David Corwin (Scott Speedman). Is their interest connected with the rising of the elder? Can the two sides ever learn to get along? And did Selene remember to put enough talcum powder inside her rubber catsuit before getting dressed?
Well, anyway, concepts don't get much higher than this one, and with some terrific cinematography and art direction, and a ferociously ambitious script, this should have been a terrific piece of action-horror. The fact that it's merely fairly watchable is therefore a real disappointment. Part of the problem is that the story has virtually no grounding in reality - nearly every character is a vampire or werewolf, thus depriving the story of that vital frisson which happens when the fantastic and the mundane interact. And while the script is by no means simplistic or dumb - quite the opposite, the story has loads of characters, each with their own agendas and backgrounds, and incorporates vast chunks of back-story remarkably well - the characterisation is rather one-dimensional.
In particular, while Selene cuts a very striking figure, all handguns and reflective buttocks, we're given no hint as to her background or motivation until well into the film, which makes it difficult to empathise with or care about her. It doesn't help that Kate Beckinsale is (sorry, Brian, if you're reading this) arguably badly miscast as an icy undead killer, resembling more closely a nursery school teacher who's got lost on the way to a fetish party. That said, Michael Sheen isn't half bad as the leader of the werewolves and Bill Nighy (an actor long respected in our house for his brilliant performance in the BBC's Lord of the Rings) adds a much-needed touch of class as a ruthless vampire lord (though he looks a bit awkward in his fight scenes).
And, as I said, it does look very good, and the special effects and makeup are very impressive and imaginative. It's just a pity the script can't match this level of ingenuity: the set piece battles between vampires and werewolves should be breathtaking and surprising, but (with the odd honourable exception) they all boil down to people in leather jackets firing automatic weapons at each other from opposite ends of corridors. Yawn. It's a failing that pretty much sums up Underworld - nice idea, shame about the execution. But commendably ambitious all the same.
#3: Re-use Someone Else's Idea (or: It's A Mini Adventure)
'Hold on a minute, chaps, I've thought of something!' 'This is the mutual appreciation society..,' 'You're only supposed to blast the flipping roof off!' Yes, one way and another the 1969 movie The Italian Job has unforgettably embedded itself into the cultural landscape, so it's hardly surprising the Americans have gone and remade it - really, really loosely.
The new Italian Job, directed by F Gary Gray, kicks off with Marky Mark Wahlberg, who has great hair but very little screen presence, masterminding a bullion heist in Venice with the aid of his gang (who include Donald Sutherland, Seth Green from Buffy and Austin Powers, and that charismatically rotten actor Jason Statham). The scheme, involving dustbinmen, scuba gear, and exploding paint, goes according to plan until one weaselly gang-member (Edward Norton, phoning it in) tries to kill everyone else before running off with all the gold. One year later Marky Mark tracks Norton down to LA and comes up with a new scheme to steal the gold back, recruiting beautiful safecracker Charlize Theron to help out (a case of the bland leading the blonde). The initial plan, which involves sneaking up behind Norton with a sock full of sand, is put on hold when Mini manufacturer BMW offers a skipload of cash in exchange for some serious product placement...
For all that it's become a much-loved favourite, I've always thought that the original Italian Job was a rather crass and jingoistic film which wouldn't have been made had we not won the Cup in 1966. It's a shameless bellow of 'England is best!!!', utterly contemptuous of every other nationality, and (I'd be prepared to bet) a firm favourite of many soccer hooligans. This is what the original film is about, it's encoded into its' DNA. So an American remake, mainly populated by Americans (okay, so there's a Canadian, a South African and a Brit in there, but let's not quibble), and set in America, seemed to me to be entirely missing the point.
Well, take this how you will, but there's very little of the original Job left in the remake: only a couple of character names and, of course, a new version of the famous car chase with the minis. So comprehensive is the re-imagining that the elements of the original movie are the ones that seem peculiarly incongruous. Far better to look at this film on its own merits, which are not inconsiderable - it's slick, it's funny, there are some nice performances and the action is well-staged. Admittedly there are some slightly nauseating faux-paternal bonding moments between Sutherland and Marky Mark, but not enough to spoil things completely.
Having said that, Marky Mark really is terribly dull as the main character. This isn't helped by the fact that a perfectly serviceable leading man for this kind of dumb caper movie is growling and mugging away at his shoulder for most of the movie: yes, it's Jason Statham, folks. Attentive masochists will know how much I enjoyed The Transporter, Statham's last vehicle (ho ho), and he's on the same winning form here. Gallantly, he's also persuaded the producers to give a tiny cameo to his fiancee, the equally talented Kelly Brook. That said, Seth Green is also extremely funny as the team's computer geek - he and Statham should both be looking at serious career boosts on the strength of this.
Apart from Marky Mark's charm shortfall, the film only really disappoints when it comes to the concluding car chase, which is a bit lacklustre compared to the original, and the ending, which inevitably can't compete with 1969's literal cliffhanger. But as I say, this is smart and funny and very entertaining in its' own way. Strangely enough, though, the truth remains that the 1969 Italian Job, while not a particularly great film, is undeniably a classic, and the 2003 version, though not a particularly bad one, isn't. Funny old world, innit?