Hello again, everyone, and welcome to another edition of the film review column you can safely ignore. We have a bit of a good news/bad news situation to begin with this week - the good news is that we're not looking at yet another superhero movie! On the other hand, however, it is another comic-book adaptation.
The opus in question is Timur Bekmambetov's Wanted, which boldly takes the summer action movie to places it has never been before: and indeed to places which may not have actually existed before. Whether or not this is a good thing I will leave to you to decide.
It opens promisingly enough with a solemn caption describing the foundation of a cult of assassins by some medieval weavers. I briefly wondered what weavers needed assassins on the payroll for, deciding that a) the woollen goods trade was a bit more rock 'n' roll back then and b) this was just a bit of background colour and not that relevant to the plot. Happily, I have seldom been more wrong.
After the caption we spend a lot of time in the company of hamster-like nobody Wesley (James McAvoy) who has a rubbish job where he's victimised by his boss, a trampy girlfriend who's seeing his traitorous best mate, no money, low self-esteem, etc etc. All this changes when he's accosted in the supermarket by Fox (Angelina Jolie) - it's not clear if this is actually her name or just a placeholder description they forgot to get back to. Ol' Air-bag Mouth is there to protect him from an attack by master assassin Cross (Thomas Kretschmann) and does about eight million dollars worth of property damage in the process. After this she wheels him off to a textile mill where a bloke called Sloan (Morgan Freeman, having some fun) basically re-does the red pill/blue pill scene from The Matrix with him, except this time it involves more cruelty to animals. (Wanted sort of revolves around cruelty to animals, on an epic scale. And cruelty to people, come to think of it. It's sort of comprehensively vicious. Don't say I didn't warn you.)
It turns out Wesley is the son of the world's greatest assassin, who belonged to the previously-established cadre of weaver-backed hitmen ('Do you guys kill people or make sweaters?!?' wails our hero, confused). Wesley's dad has apparently been taken out by Cross, and Sloan and Fox want him to join the business and exact revenge...
Wanted would like to be The Matrix so badly it hurts, and to be fair it gets much of the way there: the action sequences are extraordinary, although for the most part they're so ludicrously over-the-top that they're funny rather than thrilling. However, what really makes this movie distinctive, if that's the right word, is the whole weaver-hitman angle. You see, Sloan and the gang aren't your standard mercenary hired guns. They are the Assassins of Destiny, operating on some sort of utilitarian principle - it's okay to kill one innocent person if that saves a thousand others down the line somewhere. (This moral justification is somewhat undermined by a sequence where Wesley cheerfully offs virtually an entire train full of innocent people in order to get his man.) This would be quite a cool idea were it not for the somewhat unexpected mechanism by which Destiny communicates with them. The mechanism in question is a loom.
No, really. Morgan Freeman keeps the loom in his bit of the factory and by looking at all the little bobbles in the fabric it produces and doing some sort of kabbalah he can decipher who Destiny would like to have shot in the head. This is very probably the most demented and risible idea in the entire history of cinema, but at least it has originality on its side1.
Wesley, indeed, has justifiable qualms about this basis for his activities to begin with, but comes around to the company line fairly rapidly. One gets the impression that this is because if he buys the story about the predictive linen he gets to hang out with Fox, shoot guns at people, do car stunts, and basically look cool, and if he doesn't then, well, it's back to his old job for him. (The fact that the Loom of Doom keeps fingering rich fat guys for the chop rather than homeless teenage mothers may help - it certainly helps him hang on to the audience's sympathies.) This lack of any kind of coherent moral underpinning is fundamental to Wanted. In many ways it seems to be an inadvertent illustration of that old saw about power corrupting. No sooner does Wesley learn of his true heritage than he's telling his boss where to stick it and half-braining his treacherous pal, but one strongly senses that this isn't because he's suddenly and triumphantly in touch with his true self, but because Morgan Freeman has just stuck $3 million in his bank account which means he can act like a prong all he likes now without worrying about getting the sack.
This is not, however, one of those movies which rewards too much excavation. It is the purest kind of popcorn nonsense, one of the most thoroughly excessive movies of recent years (though it doesn't quite reach the astounding level of Crank), and for the most part highly - if guiltily - entertaining. The levels of sadistic violence to man and beast, the quantity of cranial splatter, the cheerful immorality and the borderline misogyny (the female characters are all cyphers, horrible, or both) may leave a bad taste in the mouth for some, though. In general, though, this is a very silly action movie whose only real message is that if you're going to base your assassination agency around looking at bits of cloth, no good will come of it. And I think we can all learn something from that.
Moving on, we come to Rob Minkoff's The Forbidden Kingdom, a much less disreputable beast, but also a lot less fun. A lot of people, myself included, got very excited upon hearing that this film co-stars Jackie Chan and perennial 24LAS favourite Jet Li for the first time. If you don't enjoy kung fu movies - well, then, this one isn't for you - but these two performers have effectively dominated the genre for decades and the prospect of seeing them together is going to be The Forbidden Kingdom's main attraction for a lot of people.
And sure enough, the movie opens with Jet Li on top of some badly-CGI'ed mountain-tops fighting some extras. Li wears a wig that makes him look alarmingly like Shakira on a bad hair day, but never mind. From here we jump cut to the bedroom of rather irritating American teenager Jason (Michael Angarano), one of those people who's watched dozens of kung fu movies but has no idea how to do it (nothing like me, obviously...). The opening titles properly start at this point and pastiche a lot of old movie posters, which if nothing else gives the slightly startling impression that in addition to Li and Chan, Bruce Lee will be appearing in the movie!
Anyway, while hanging out in the local pawn shop with the elderly Chinese owner (Jackie Chan, mugging away even more than normal), Jason lays his hands on a flash golden fighting staff. Following some rather painfully contrived and unconvincing plot machinations with the local street gang, the staff ends up spiriting Jason back to mythic China (where, after the first five minutes, everyone starts speaking English for no apparent reason).
Jason hooks up with permanently-trolleyed kung fu master Lu Yan (Chan again) who tells him the staff belongs to the Monkey King (Li in the wig), a legendary figure from Chinese folklore probably best known in the west from the cult TV shows Monkey and Dragonball Z. The wicked Jade Warlord (Collin Chou), renowned for his love for alarming evil deeds and even more alarming levels of eyeshadow, has turned the Monkey King to stone and is terrorising the country in his absence. So, it's up to our hero, Lu Yan, a slightly grumpy Monk (Li again, without the wig this time), and an itinerant minstrel girl (Yifei Lu) to get the magic staff back to him so the appropriate posteriors can be panelled and everyone can go home.
As I believe I've mentioned before, you don't really go to an English-language Jet Li or Jackie Chan movie with sky-high expectations, not least because they're both starting to knock on a bit (Li is in his mid-40s, Chan a decade older). That said, this is a rather effective showcase for them both, contrasting their respective styles and personae quite well - Li is all brooding intensity, speed, power, and athleticism, while Chan is giving much more of a crowd-pleasing performance even in his fights. The big set-piece where they take each other on is undoubtedly the highlight of the movie, but it takes place rather early, after which the story turns into a fairly routine CGI-heavy fantasy quest movie with nice art direction but no new ideas.
As action team-up vehicles go this is quite acceptable, and certainly a lot more satisfying than last year's War (a movie that didn't seem quite big enough to allow either Jet Li or Jason Statham room to comfortably do their thing), but the main problem with The Forbidden Kingdom (other than the fact that there isn't actually a forbidden kingdom in it) is that both the big stars are essentially playing supporting roles to Angarano. The main character is really Jason, who isn't that engaging, and Michael Angarano just doesn't have the charisma to compete with the rest of the cast. Every now and then the plot grinds to a shuddering halt so he can make a whiny speech about his lack of self-confidence or his father issues and you just wish he would shut up and clear off and let Jet and Jackie do their thing. (Though his presence does justify that of Yifei Lu as his love interest - she doesn't really have any other reason to be there - which is a point in his favour, I suppose.)
Jason inevitably learns to do kung fu in the time it takes to stick together a montage of him posing under a waterfall, but in the climax he is largely left to hassle stuntmen while Chan fights the chief henchperson (the splendidly named Bing Bing Li) and Li takes on Chou (Li doesn't shout 'You stole my part in The Matrix sequels, you...!!!' but it's fun to imagine him doing it). These are okay, but this is the kind of movie which is more about special effects than actual martial arts skill.
The Forbidden Kingdom has a strong message about responsibility and honour and all that sort of thing, but it's still a lot less entertaining than Wanted (not that the two movies are really competing for the same audience anyway). It's okay, pleasantly entertaining stuff, but the fact remains that many people going to see this will be expecting to get undiluted Jet and Jackie, and when they instead end up with an unwelcome load of Jason they're probably going to be rather hacked off - and I can't say I really blame them.
The Crying-on-the-Inside Kind of Clown
And finally, just when you thought you could get through an entire column without one of those movies showing up... yes, it's Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight, which has finally rumbled into public view trailing the kind of rapturous notices most producers would happily cut off a limb to receive - and I'm not inclined to disagree with the consensus on this occasion.
For those of you recently returned from a holiday on Neptune, this is another tale of goings-on in Gotham City. The crusade against crime launched by the Batman (an apparently laryngitic Christian Bale) and Lt Gordon (Gary Oldman) seems to be bearing fruit, in the form of the city's new fiercely idealistic and dedicated District Attorney Harvey Dent (Aaron Eckhart) - even if he is dating Batman's old girlfriend Rachel (Maggie Gyllenhaal). However, the city is about to be plunged into a nightmare as Batman's continuing harassment of the mob forces them to accept the assistance of a demented psychopathic genius calling himself the Joker...
Heath Ledger's performance as the Joker has, for obvious reasons, attracted a lot of attention - but one would hope that this would have been the case anyway, as he is utterly mesmerising. The Joker is hilarious and terrifying at the same time: he does a piece of business with a pencil that left the audience I saw this movie with trying to gasp, groan, and laugh at the same time, while later on there's a scene where he wanders out of an exploding building in (comically unconvincing) drag that's simply jawdropping in its audacity and confidence. This is the first screen version of the character who can credibly take on Batman in a physical confrontation, something Nolan fully exploits. Even more impressively, Ledger manages all this without seeming obviously hammy or over-the-top like some Nicholsons - sorry, I meant to say actors - who have played the part in the past. He's aided by a script which allows the character a chance to actually develop in the course of the movie, progressing from a (relatively) simple insane killer to the more complex Joker of recent comics.
But, surprisingly, he isn't allowed to dominate the film - although he does rather eclipse the movie's other classic villains, who either make cameos (a blink-and-you'll-miss-him appearance from Cillian Murphy as the Scarecrow) or show up rather near the end. Eckhart gives an intelligent and plausible performance as Dent, and it's a bit of a shame he doesn't get more room to display all the facets of the character. The biggest miracle of all is that Christian Bale, who as Batman doesn't get to properly use his voice or most of his face, isn't reduced to an onlooking cipher as happened in the 90s Bat-movies, although his performance is necessarily understated. Michael Caine and Morgan Freeman show up from the last movie as well, and give neat demonstrations of how to steal scenes from the younger actors.
The technical virtuosity of Christopher Nolan's direction shouldn't really have surprised me as much as it did, but this is probably simply because he gets Batman right in a way other directors have never managed. For example, rather than being merely a menacing icon waddling around in inch-thick rubber, here Batman is a convincingly agile and skilled martial artist. Nolan also opens the movie out to a global scale, giving his hero a brief but typically energetic encounter with the Hong Kong Triads on their home turf. There seemed to me to be a bit less reliance on Bat-gadgets than usual, too, with the obvious exception of the new Batpod - which looks undeniably cool but struck me as rather silly in both name and concept. Such is Nolan's command of the medium that, for a few shocking minutes, he even had me believing that he'd been allowed to permanently and properly kill off one of the central Batman characters. The only real weakness in Nolan's direction, in fact, is his slight awkwardness when it comes to comic relief: Caine and Freeman have no problems delivering their one-liners but elsewhere his editing is a bit too staccato.
This is a piddling little criticism considering the colossal level of crash-bang-wallop the movie delivers, especially when coupled to its interest in the deeper morality of the issues involved. This finds its most obvious articulation when the film repeatedly asks how a principled man can hope to counter one wholly without moral compass, and intersects rather neatly with a meditation on how one can repeatedly confront evil without becoming contaminated by it (one would have expected this Nietzschean line of thought to turn up in a Superman movie, but never mind). Implicit in the film is the notion that it's the mere existence of Batman himself that has conjured all the maniacs he must battle into existence, and that all the death and destruction which occurs is ultimately his fault. On this level, The Dark Knight isn't an especially cheerful movie: its view of human nature for most of its running time is so relentlessly bleak that when it does attempt to offer a ray of hope it almost doesn't ring true.
So, yes: we have a new and very strong candidate for the title of best superhero movie ever (not that this isn't much more than just a superhero movie). One is obliged to wonder just how on Earth Nolan and company can possibly top this one (not least because most of the classic Batman villains aren't really usable for various reasons - my money's on the Riddler showing up next time, though), but they've already repeatedly demonstrated that no-one else is better qualified to try. Highly recommended.