The Recap Edition
Hello again everyone, and welcome to another edition of the film review column you can safely ignore. Apologies for my absence for the last couple of weeks, but looking on the bright side at least it may force me to keep to the point instead of waffling on as usual this time around...
Faint echoes of both The Terminator and Speed reverberate through Michael Mann's Collateral, which features an always-welcome appearance by one of this column's favourite leading men. Unfortunately, Jason Statham is only in the movie for about a minute, as the director has (for reasons best known only to himself and the massed moviegoing public) decided to give the lead role in his latest thriller to some schmuck called Tom Cruise.
Collateral is a return to territory, both physical and narrative, that Mann has visited before. It's a Los Angeles-set crime drama revolving around a masculine battle of wits. On this occasion the combatants are Max (Jamie Foxx), a cab driver who's been on the verge of doing something with his life for the last twelve years, and Vincent (Cruise), a contract killer he is unlucky enough to pick up as a passenger. Vincent has five stops to make in the course of the night and decides to get Max to chauffeur him around between them. Originally this is done purely through financial incentives, but once Max rumbles what Vincent is up to (his first target is unhelpful enough as to fall out of an apartment block onto the roof of Max's cab) sterner measures are in order. Will Max get through the night in one piece? Will Vincent complete his hit list? Will the LAPD (unstandably alarmed by the trail of corpses the pair leave in their wake) figure out what's going on and get involved? One thing's for sure: it was never like this in Carry On Cabbie.
As one would expect from the director of Manhunter and Heat, this is a tautly-directed movie with barely an inch of fat on it. It's built around a neat central idea but for all that I suspect screenwriter Stuart Beattie had to work horribly hard to flesh it out into the credible and complex story this film tells. Only in a few places does it seem contrived or improbable (for instance, at one point Vincent decides he and Max will visit Max's elderly mother in hospital). It's expertly paced, mixing hard-edged action with much longer, almost laid-back sequences of the cab just cruising nocturnal LA. The city has seldom looked so beautiful on the big screen, for all the darkness of the story... The cinematography is gorgeous, digital cameras and conventional film meshing nearly flawlessly.
But while the movie looks great your attention never wanders too far from the lead characters and their slightly peculiar relationship. I must confess to being unfamiliar with Jamie Foxx before this film but he does a very fine job here as a regular person who gradually realises exactly how far over his head he's ended up. He is, however, inevitably overshadowed by Tom Cruise, who gives his best performance in quite some time. It would, of course, make perfect sense for Vincent to put a bullet in Max's ear the moment he realises what's going on, and so in order for the movie not to be half an hour long and quite depressing the assassin is written as a man with a deeply skewed but still binding moral code. Not only does he keep his reluctant companion alive, he even attempts to give him personal and career advice, and seems rather offended when his help is rejected. This injects some welcome humour into what's quite a taut and grim story, and allows Cruise a chance to shine. For once all the smarm and narcissism doesn't get in the way of the performance, and he's very effective indeed in portraying a man who, on the face of it, seems almost non-descript, but is underneath is deeply psychologically flawed.
To be honest, when the two leads aren't in the taxi, and especially when they're apart, the film has a slight tendency to drift, but not enough to spoil it. The climax is a tiny bit identikit-action-movie fodder and the final showdown inevitably seems a bit implausible. But on the whole this is a hugely impressive movie, a strong candidate for thriller of the year.
Five Colours Jet
Long-term readers of this column have had to put up with a lot, but they may recall my increasing despair at the inability of Jet Li to find himself a decent English-language vehicle. I'm inclined to suggest he gives up and sticks to working in China if all his movies there are as classy as Zhang Yimou's Hero. Now apparently this is a wu shu movie, as opposed to the kung fu movies we're all familiar with. Far be it from me to prevent anyone else from making a pretentious arse of themselves, but - please.
Anyway, Jet plays an fearsome warrior named Nameless (something Bertrand Russell would doubtless have approved of) living in what is now China during the third century BC. At the time the country was divided into several warring states. One of these is Qin, whose king plans to conquer all the rest and unify the land. The other states aren't quite so keen on this idea, particularly Zhao, whose population appears to consist entirely of calligraphers and supernaturally gifted assassins. But Nameless turns up at the King's palace claiming to have done him a big favour by eliminating his three most dangerous enemies, warriors named Sky, Flying Snow, and Broken Sword. Nameless tells the tale of how he achieved this momentous feat, but the King is unconvinced and proposes an alternate version of what went on...
Hero is being touted as mainland China's retort to the American-backed Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but for all that it claims to be 100% authentically Chinese, to me it seems rather influenced by foreign cinema of a different kind. The central story, built around the conceit of the characters taking it in turns to tell alternate versions of the same events, strikes me as distinctly reminiscent of the very famous Japanese film Rashomon - and the suspicion that Akira Kurosawa's movies were a big influence is only intensified by Hero's fondness for big scenes of armies sweeping across plains, banners flapping in the wind.
But for all of this, Hero is a movie with its own very distinct style. This is largely due to the way that each iteration of the story is told, with a different colour dominating the sets and costumes. There doesn't seem to me to be any explicit symbolism going on here, but the impression is still striking and it only adds to the stylisation of the picture. This is a story told in a very formal, almost rigid way, and as a result it occasionally feels a little stifled and artificial. This is partly made up for by the action, which is always impressive and in places astonishing, mixing genuine martial arts prowess with wirework and visual effects wizardry.
Even so, it's mainly to the credit of the actors that it does grow increasingly involving as the story progresses and the true nature of the characters emerges. Li gives a cleverly neutral performance as a man whose true motives and agenda remain unclear until almost the very end of the film, and he's supported by what's effectively an all-star cast: Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung, Donnie Yen and Zhang Ziyi. Some of these people have, like Li, made movies in the west, but even the best of these had a faintly trashy whiff about them, while the worst (Romeo Must Die, Highlander 4) were genuinely wretched fiascos. Hero, by comparison, is a classy and clever movie, and (to western eyes at least) an exotic curiosity.
However this extends to the subtext and moral of the film, which is one that will probably seem very strange and unfamiliar to most western audiences. Exactly how much its presence is due to fact that this is a film made technically under the auspices of the Chinese government I don't know - but it's a message I suspect they would enthusiastically endorse. It's probably stretching a point to describe Hero as out-and-out totalitarian propaganda, but there are elements of that there. Not enough to make the film unpalatable to watch, but a definite reminder that there are other perspectives to be had - and so, rather appropriate for a film of such moral and narrative complexity.
New Balls, Please
Pop-quiz, everyone: if you had a film to release about the Wimbledon tennis tournament, which happens every June, when do you think would be the best time to release it in order to cash in on its popularity? Would it be a) early summer b) Christmas or c) the back-end of September?
Well, anyway, I expect the makers of Wimbledon (directed by Richard Loncraine) have their reasons because it's out at the moment. The ever-watchable Paul Bettany plays Peter Colt, an ageing British tennis player coming up to his last Wimbledon as a wild card. Retirement beckons, something he's not keen on. However, a chance encounter with top American player Lizzie Bradbury (Kirsten Dunst) leads to sparks a-sizzling and a certain steely quality appearing in Peter's forehand. Before you know it he's thundering into the second week. However, Lizzie's dad (the equally watchable Sam Neill) takes the quite reasonable view that all this soft-focus fumbling to a David Gray soundtrack is putting his daughter off her game. But if she can't win if they're together, he can't win while they're apart... so what's a boy to do?
I normally try and avoid spoilers in this column but I don't think I'll be ruining anyone's day by revealing that Bettany wins Wimbledon and ends up with Dunst. This is of course a rom-com, possibly the most predictable genre at the movies, where the conclusion is never really in doubt, and the film's success or failure is mainly determined by how entertained you are along the way. And, to be fair, Wimbledon does a pretty good job. For all that he's second-billed, this is largely down to an engaging performance from Bettany. He's not the most obvious choice of romcom lead (and, let's face it, were a certain floppy-haired performer whose name rhymes with Lou Brant ten years younger he'd be the obvious star of this film) but he does a very solid job, bringing an appropriately fraught quality to the less romcommy elements of the story. Dunst is fine as his love interest, but never quite manages to bring her character to life. There's a rather distinguished supporting cast (Neill, Eleanor Bron, Bernard Hill, Jon Favreau) but none of them really gets very much to do, which I suppose is a shame.
At the risk of sounding fatuously obvious, the main thing about Wimbledon that distinguishes it from all the other Working Title Brit-boy-courts-imported-American-star pictures is the tennis. The tennis sequences themselves look fine, thanks no doubt to the input of Pat Cash and some unobtrusive CGI, but more interestingly the film in passing makes some interesting and genuine-sounding points about the realities of tour life for the various pros. This more than makes up for the sense one gets that the writers were given a tick-list of Wimbledon cliches to include in their script - rain delays, strawberries and cream, dodgy line-calls, mad dads, lesbianism, etc.
Wimbledon is good-natured and entertaining fun, with a nice central performance, inventive direction, and some originality to its background. It's not quite as funny or as convincingly romantic as it would probably like to be, but if nothing else it presents us with the sight of an Englishman winning the mens' singles title - so it has novelty value as well. Worth a look.
I probably don't need to point this out in the week that William Shatner releases a new music CD, but comebacks can be a risky undertaking. The movie provoking this thought is Kerry Conran's Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow, a deliberately-old fashioned romp starring Jude Law and Gwyneth Paltrow.
This movie seems mainly to have been marketed on the strength of its slightly unusual production technique - basically the actors shot their scenes in front of a bluescreen and everything else was computer-generated. Well, I have to say, that doesn't sound especially novel given the vast quantity of digital effects work in many recent blockbusters. The fact that Conran's using it to create offices and laboratories seems peculiar rather than interesting.
Well, anyway. Set in the late 30s (or so it's implied, in which case all the characters display remarkable foresight as they keep referring to the 1914-18 conflict as World War One) this is the tale of swashbuckling mercenary H Joseph Sullivan (Law), who prefers to be known as Sky Captain, and plucky girl reporter Polly Perkins (Paltrow), who prefers not to be known as that woman who made a prat of herself at the Oscars a few years ago. Top scientists are disappearing and scientific supplies are being stolen by weird and wonderful super-scientific creations, and Joe and his old flame Polly set out to solve the mystery. It leads them to the hidden lair of not especially sane scientist Totenkopf and his mechanical minions...
The thing about Sky Captain is that it doesn't actually have very much in the way of plot. It has the feel of a short film blown up to feature length, without the script receiving a proportionate amount of work. As a result the story is extremely thin, the characters rather one-dimensional, and the dialogue a bit clunky. (That said, there's a running gag about Paltrow's camera that builds up to a genuinely funny closing gag.) As this is a loving pastiche of those old 40s movie serials (Flash Gordon, King of the Rocket Men, et al) this is technically perfectly correct, but it's still less than a contemporary audience has come to expect.
But as an experiment in style goes, Sky Captain certainly looks different. The opening, New York-set section, from which most of the stuff in the trailer originates, has a slightly murky and over-processed look to it, almost like colourised sepia or a rotoscoped cartoon, but the rest of the film is less obviously processed and as such less distracting. The production designs and animation are a bit of a treat, as giant robots march through Manhattan and squadrons of ornithopters lay waste to airfields. It all looks convincingly retro, and this extends to the story, which after a while starts making obvious visual and narrative homages to famous 30s SF and fantasy films: so we get a bit based on Metropolis, then a bit lifted from Lost Horizon, then a bit from The Shape of Things to Come, then King Kong,, and so on.
Spotting these in-jokes is possibly the most entertaining way of passing the time during Sky Captain, as once the visual novelty has worn off there's not much here to stop the mind from wandering. Jude Law is arguably miscast, Paltrow seems a bit uncomfortable, and performances of the supporting cast are variable (Omid Djalili does another one of his fun self-styled ethnic scumbag turns, Michael Gambon is okay but only in it for about forty seconds, and Howling Mad Angelina Jolie still seems to think that putting on an accent excuses you from having to actually act). In fact the only other acting appearance worthy of note is the one which provoked my opening thought: because, ladies and gentlemen, Totenkopf is played by Laurence Olivier.
Well, 'played' is probably putting it too strongly as Larry's actual screen-time is extremely limited. Those expecting a fully CGI'd rendition of one of the greatest actors of all time will be disappointed as he mainly appears as a giant crackly floating head. And, when he speaks, you cunningly only get to see him from the nose up, thus saving the effects crew from having to lip-synch his performance. It's a bit of a disappointment and smacks very clearly of gimmickry. I expect Larry was advised against it, but these dead guys, do they listen to sense? I guess not.
Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow is so beladen with gimmickry and pastiche, and so lacking in traditional narrative virtues, that it doesn't really satisfy except on the most superficial level. I suppose making a film like this at all must count as some kind of technical triumph, and it's never actually boring, but it lacks the wit and charm and energy that other films inspired by the pulpiest of pulp fiction somehow managed to retain. Possibly worth seeing as an oddity, but certainly not the shape of cinema to come.