DUNE (1984) RETROSPECTIVE PART ONE

28 Sep

This December sees the release of Denis Villeneuve’s big budget adaptation of Frank Herbert’s seminal sci-fi epic Dune (if the COVID pandemic will allow it that is.) The ARRIVAL and BLADE RUNNER 2049 director is certainly a brave man. Not only did he dare to direct a follow up to Ridley Scott’s highly influential BLADE RUNNER, he is now attempting to bring Herbert’s gargantuan (in both themes and scope) to the big screen. Long described as unfilmable, DUNE was a sensation when it was first released in the 1960s.  With its thinly veiled allegory for the war for oil in the Middle East, hippyish New Age mysticism, a plot that hinges on vision quest fuelled by LSD style mind altering substances mixed with hard sci-fi and dense mythology, Herbert’s novel plugged directly into the zeitgeist. The book was highly influential, giving birth to  dozens of imitators as well as a series of sequel novels. Since the motto in Hollywood seems to be that no good story must go unfilmed, several attempts to produce a cinematic adaptation were attempted. Eventually writer/director David Lynch managed to bring DUNE to the big screen in 1984. The film was beset by creative differences, behind the scenes turmoil and a tortuous editing process. When the film was eventually released, it was met with critical derision and commercial disappointment. David Lynch was so dissatisfied with the final product that he has effectively disowned the film.

However, like many sci-fi films of the 1980’s that were initially released to worldwide disinterest, for example BLADE RUNNER and John Carpenter’s remake of THE THING, DUNE has a slowly rebuilt its reputation amongst film fans. While it has not received the status as a stone cold classic as those previously mentioned, DUNE is now perceived as an interesting failure, an outlier in the stellar career of its visionary director and an example of how one can film the unfilmable. In this article, we will take a closer look at the actual film, moving beyond the misconceptions to examine the undeniably misguided but misunderstood film underneath.

THE PLOT.

For a film that has been criticised for its departures from its source novel, Lynch’s adaptation of DUNE  follows the basic plot of the book fairly closely. The story takes place in the distant future of the year 10,000. Humanity has colonised the galaxy and are governed by the Emperor Shaddam IV(Jose Ferrer), who is little more than a political puppet for the powerful Spacing Guild. The Guild are in control of the means of interstellar travel, known as “folding space”, which is only possible due to the mind-expanding qualities of the spice Melange. The spice is only found on one planet in the Universe, the desert planet Arrakis, also known as Dune. The two most powerful families in the Universe, the villainous Harkonnens and the noble Atreides, have shared a decades long dispute and the Emperor comes to believe that Duke Leto Atreides (Jurgen Prochnow) is amassing a secret army to seize control for himself. The Emperor joins forces with the cunning Baron Harkonnen (Kenneth McMillan) to lay a trap for the Atreides family. The Harkonnens are the current custodians of Arrakis and the plan is to have House Atreides take over, with the Harkonnens and the Emperor’s forces planning a sneak attack on the defenceless Atreides. Duke Leto’s son, Paul Atreides (Kyle McLachlan), survives the attack and joins forces with the indigenous people of Arrakis, the desert tribes known as The Fremen. Paul, who may or not be a prophesised messiah with physic powers known as the Kwisatz  Haderach, soon becomes the leader of the Fremen. Paul launches a full scale guerrilla war on the Harkonnens, with the plan to destroy all spice production on Arrakis and thus forcing the Baron and The Emperor to come to the planet so that Paul can enact revenge for the death of his father. In perhaps the biggest change to the novel, at the climax of the film, Paul makes it rain on the previously arid planet and is therefore revealed to be the Kwisatz Haderach. (Herbert’s novel does not end this way and he was unhappy with the change; he felt that Paul was not a messiah but a politician and general playing at being one.)

Also Paul rides giant space worms!

DEVELOPMENT HELL

Frank Herbert’s DUNE was initially published in serial form in the sci fi magazine Analog over 1964 and 1965 before being reworked and expanded into the novel in 1965. Herbert was said to have been inspired by the political turmoil in the Middle East since the turn of the century, where the sovereign nations where being exploited by the governments of the West over their natural resources, primarily oil. Herbert based the central character of Paul on TE Lawrence, the British officer who united the disparate tribes of the Arab nations and helped to lead them in the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire in the First World War. He was also inspired by the interest in environmentalism and the emergence of New Age spiritualism in the Sixties as well as the use of hallucinogens as a means to expand consciousness. He married these ideas to a dense mythology and political intrigue that was found in the fantasy genre to create the novel. It was an instant success with critics and readers and soon Hollywood came calling.

The first serious attempt to bring DUNE to the screen was the now legendary unmade adaptation by Chilean filmmaker Alejandro Jodorowsky.  In the early Seventies, Jodorowsky had made a splash with his arthouse Western EL TOPO, which had crossed over into the mainstream due to its appearance on the midnight movie circuit. As depicted in the excellent documentary JODOROWSKY’S DUNE, the director spent years as well as millions of dollars creating elaborate designs and radically reworking the novel’s ideas. He assembled a crack team of designers including HR Giger, Chris Foss and Moebius to visualise the film and also managed to assemble a truly insane cast that include surrealist artist Salvador Dali as the Emperor, Orson Welles as The Baron and Mick Jagger as the Baron’s psychotic nephew Feyd. However, the project was soon to collapse due to the project running out of financing and creative differences between Herbert and Jodorowsky( apparently the director wanted to make Duke Leto a eunuch and the spice would now become a blue sponge (?!)). Jodorowsky would claim that his unmade film would be strip mined for ideas by Hollywood for decades to come and the unused designs for the film certainly influenced the aesthetic of hits such as STAR WARS and in particular ALIEN ( which also used Giger, Foss and Moebius as designers.) After the success of these two films, film producer Dino De Laurentiis wanted in on the sci-fi action and purchased the rights to Herbert’s novel. Ridley Scott, fresh off his success with ALIEN, was hired to direct with Giger designing the world of the villain’s home world, Geidi Prime. Due to a protracted development process and the sudden death of his older brother, Scott grew frustrated at the delays and jumped ship to work on the ready to go BLADE RUNNER.

Enter David Lynch.

The name David Lynch has now become synonymous with a certain kind of melding of the mainstream with the surreal, with his most famous works BLUE VELVET, MULHOLLAND DRIVE and the TV series TWIN PEAKS, depicting the violence and sexuality beneath the façade of society. He is known as fiercely independent and has achieved a point in his career where he can now demand (and receive) complete autonomy. In the early Eighties however, this was not the case. Lynch had begun his career as an artist and sculptor, studying at the prestigious Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Expressing a desire to “have his paintings move”, Lynch began making short animations like Six Men Getting Sick, before moving on to live action shorts. Enrolling at the American Film Institute, Lynch began making longer live action pieces before making his feature film debut with the remarkable ERASERHEAD. Filmed in fits and starts over a five-year period, ERASERHEAD is a black and white, surrealistic nightmare. Full of gruesome imagery and a terrifying soundtrack of industrial groans and clanking machinery but laced with genuinely funny moments of black humour, like Jodorowsky’s EL TOPO, ERASERHEAD became a sensation on the midnight movie circuit. Lynch was then chosen by producers Stuart Cornfeld and Mel Brooks (of BLAZING SADDLES fame) to direct THE ELEPHANT MAN, a retelling of the life of Joseph Merrick, a hideously disfigured man who became the toast of high society in Victorian London. Working with genuine industry professionals like Oscar winning cinematographer Freddie Francis and actors like John Hurt, Anthony Hopkins and John Gielgud, the film was a massive leap forward for Lynch’s career. As an example of Lynch’s singular talents THE ELEPHANT MAN is an extraordinary piece of work; the director manages to retain the surrealistic, expressionistic visual style of ERASERHEAD as well as getting to the heart of the story to create something deeply moving. Lynch was nominated for Best Director at the Oscars for the film and he was soon inundated with offers to direct big budget Hollywood pictures. After turning down George Lucas’ offer of the directing job on RETURN OF THE JEDI (imagine that!) Lynch agreed to De Laurentiis’ approach to direct DUNE. If THE ELEPHANT MAN was a huge step up, DUNE was to be Lynch’s move into the stratosphere of big budget filmmaking. For such an idiosyncratic talent, it now seems an insane move for both parties to have Lynch direct such a huge, special effects laden film and soon everyone involved was to regret their decision.

Lynch’s first task was to come up with a screenplay that would somehow condense the epic scope and complex themes of the novel into a film of reasonable length. At first collaborating with his THE ELEPHANT MAN co-writers Christopher De Vore and Eric Bergen, the initial attempts to create a workable shooting script failed. Lynch split with De Vore and Bergen (acrimoniously according to reports) and wrote several drafts on his own, with his fifth draft deemed acceptable for shooting. Dino De Laurentiis’ daughter, Raffaella, was placed in day to day charge of production and she and Lynch assembled a top-level creative team. Lynch reteamed with his ELEPHANT MAN DP Freddie Francis, ERASERHEAD cinematographer Frederick Elmes was to lead the second unit photography, Kit West (RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK) was hired to oversee the extensive visual effects and Carlo Rambaldi, who had recently won an Oscar for his puppetry work on ET: THE EXTRA TERRESTRIAL, was to design the creature effects for the mutated Space Guild Navigator and the giant sandworms found on Arrakis. Lynch himself was to provide many of the design concepts for the film, alongside production designer Stuart Craig with Bob Ringwood designing the variety of costumes, from the SS inspired, classic military look of the outfits for House Atreides to the dark leather look to the Fremen’s stillsuits. For the music, the prog rock band Toto provided the score and Brian Eno wrote a haunting, ethereal Prophecy theme for the film.

DUNE features dozens of vivid characters that are crucial to the story and Lynch set about assembling an impressive roster of experienced and unknown actors. For the central character of Paul Atreides, who has to transform from callow prince, to guerrilla warlord and eventual messiah as well as carrying the emotional weight of the film on his shoulders, the decision was take to cast “a new face”. Not wanting a known actor who would bring too much baggage to the role, a casting call was put out across America and Lynch settled on unknown theatre actor Kyle MacLachlan. MacLachlan would go on to become something of a cinematic alter ego for Lynch in later projects, most notably as the shy, awkward teenager Jeffrey Beaumont in BLUE VELVET and the heroic, oddball FBI Agent Dale Cooper in TWIN PEAKS. For the character of Paul Atreides, it was felt that MacLachlan’s soft, baby faced good looks and somewhat detached, glacial personality was a unique mixture of innocence and intelligence that would be perfect for the Henry V style boy king character. Much like with Christopher Reeve in SUPERMAN:THE MOVIE, the plan was taken to surround the inexperienced MacLachlan with established stars. The rock star and actor Sting was cast as Feyd, German actor Jurgen Prochnow (DAS BOOT) as Duke Leto as well as Oscar winner Jose Ferrer as The Emperor with well known theatre actresses like Francesca Annis as Paul’s mother Lady Jessica and Sian Phillips as the manipulative Reverend Mother Gaius Helen Mohiam. The cast was rounded out with some more up and coming actors like Sean Young and Virginia Madsen along with interesting character actors who would become part of Lynch’s repertory company like Everett McGill, Dean Stockwell and Brad Dourif. And for STAR TREK; THE NEXT GENERATION fans Patrick Stewart has a supporting role as Gurney Halleck, Duke Leto’s head of security.

Despite this highly experienced cast and crew, the production soon began to spiral out of control. Lynch was stretch to breaking point, overseeing several units who were simultaneously filming battle sequences full of complicated explosions and stunt work, an effects department overseeing dozens of miniature shots, animatronic creature effects, optical composites and an early form of CGI for the laser shields of  the House Atreides troops, as well as directing the first unit handling all of the exposition heavy dialogue scenes. To make matters worse the production was based in Mexico, due to the unavailability of large enough soundstages in the US or London. The searing heat made the shoot a misery for the crew and especially for the cast, having to perform action sequences in the leather costumes of the Fremen in the middle of the desert. The logistics of filming major sequences in the unpredictable desert climate in a strange country, Lynch admits that he soon lost his creative impetus, eventually focusing on getting the film finished as best he could.

When production finally wrapped after seven months, Lynch’s difficulties only grew. Contractually obliged to deliver a cut with a total running time of two hours and eighteen minutes and, for the only time in his career, without the guarantee of final cut (meaning that the studio not Lynch would decide what the final edit of the film would be) Lynch struggled to edit the film into a coherent whole. Initial cuts ran at four hours, which would have been commercial suicide to release, before Lynch finally found a three-hour cut that he was happy with. However, the studio would not budge on the runtime and so Lynch was forced to cut the film down further, resorting to extensive voice overs and a reshot opening to try to cram extra exposition into the severely truncated film.

On its release in December 1984, DUNE was a massive critical and commercial disaster. Marketed as a STAR WARS style sci-fi spectacular, audiences and critics alike found the film confusing, humourless, disgusting and dull. The studio even gave theatres a “cheat sheet” with key backstory and explanations of some of the terms used in the film, to hand out to audiences prior to viewing the film. This bizarre, self-defeating move ( if you have to give the audience information crucial to understanding the movie to the audience in the foyer surely there must be something wrong) did not help and the film made only $30 million from an estimated $40 million budget. Top US film critic Roger Ebert’s contemporary review shared the sentiments of the majority of critics’ feelings towards the film;

“This movie is a real mess, an incomprehensible, ugly, unstructured, pointless excursion into the murkier aspects of one of the most confusing screenplays of all time. “

The one positive review of the film came from sci-fi writer and film critic Harlan Ellison who marveled that such an unusual and challenging film was produced and released by a Hollywood studio and blamed the film’s failure on a mishandled release campaign.

Lynch’s career, which had been on a meteoric ascendancy, took a major hit. Contractually obliged to direct a sequel to the film, Lynch wrote a screenplay for an adaptation of Herbert’s follow up novel Dune Messiah but no one involved in the original had much appetite or inclination to make another one. De Laurentiis production company filed for bankruptcy  a few years later and the producer pulled the plug on David Cronenberg’s movie version of TOTAL RECALL, since the company ill afford another punt on a big budget, ambitious sci fi film from an idiosyncratic auteur. Lynch’s career recovered spectacularly, reteaming with De Laurentis to direct the extraordinary BLUE VELVET (also starring DUNE alumni Kyle MacLachlan, Brad Dourif, Jack Nance and Dean Stockwell) before finding mainstream success with the TV series TWIN PEAKS. Lynch has since distanced himself from the film, almost completely disowning it. He barely discusses it in interviews, refused to contribute on the various DVD and Blu Ray releases and has even stated he will not watch Villeneuve’s film, due to the painful memories it will illicit. On the film, Lynch has stated:

“I started selling out on Dune. Looking back, it’s no one’s fault but my own. I probably shouldn’t have done that picture…”

MY THOUGHTS ON DUNE

Now that we have gone through the tortuous development and disastrous release of DUNE, its time to look at the film away from its painful conception and birth. Before we get into some of the interesting themes and subtexts found in the film, lets look at the film in terms of its general quality, its strengths and weaknesses etc. Let’s start with the obvious: as an adaptation of Herbert’s novel, Lynch’s DUNE is a complete failure. Even though the film retains the basic story and structure of the book, every major scene in the film is taken straight from the novel and the majority of the dialogue is Herbert’s, the film compresses and brushes over everything to the point where it becomes devoid of meaning. The film comes across as the Reader’s Digest version of Herbert’s work, recreating its plot but eliminating its depths and complexities. The strongest and most faithful moments of the film can be found in its first half. The scenes set on Caladan, the Atreides lush home world, are the only moments in the film that seem to have actual scenes. By this I mean that they have scenes that have a beginning and an end, clearly defined characters with wants and needs and dramatic conflict.

The best scene in the first half, one that is slavishly faithful to the novel, is the Gom Jabbar scene between Paul, the Mother Reverend and Lady Jessica. The scene plays out all the way through (seemingly a basic filmmaking requirement but in this film this scene is the outlier)and there is an actual sense of mystery and discovery as the scene continues. There is an emotional subtext to the scene beyond the need for plot information. Paul’s need to help his mother and discover his father’s fate, The Reverend Mother’s rage and disappointment at Jessica’s betrayal and Lady Jessica’s fear for her son give the scene a clear dramatic purpose that most other scenes lack. There is a genuine sense of intimacy and chemistry between MacLachlan and Phillips; they almost feel like real human beings, in contrast to the cartoonish, camp portrayals of other characters in the film.

However, there is a serious pacing problem with the film, both within individual sequences and in the film as a whole. The first third of the novel takes up almost the first ninety minutes of screen time, leaving the second part of the novel to be crammed into the remaining 45 minutes. Whereas in the first half of the film some scenes are dragged out for an eternity, the second half, which in the novel features years of war, political intrigue and character development are reduced to little more than a montage. This has the effect of rendering the film emotionally inert, not giving the audience the time to invest in the genuinely interesting characters or giving viewers any reason to care. The most obvious example of this is the crucial relationship between Paul and Chanli (played by Sean Young). In the novel, this relationship is genuinely important to the development to Paul’s character and to the theme of marriage for political motivations versus the real love between political figures and their mistresses that Herbert works into the book(this is also seen in the relationship between Duke Leto and Lady Jessica, who is considered a concubine). In the film, we get one scene where Paul and Chanli meet, then later one shot of the two characters in an embrace superimposed over a battle montage, as voice over states: “Paul and Chanli’s love grew.” That is pretty much it in terms of the development of their relationship and is indicative of the compressed nature of the second half. Moments of monumental importance to the narrative are used to snippets in a series of extended montages which comprise the second act of the film. This is surely a result of the need to decrease the length of the film during the difficult editing process and although it undoubtedly means that the film keeps moving it causes the film to lose emotional resonance. Therefore, the attempt to keep the film interesting by making it faster works in the opposite way; it becomes boring because we have no emotional attachment to the characters.

The other major issue with the film’s storytelling is its incessant exposition. The film opens with a dull monologue delivered by Virginia Madsen, playing the minor character (in the first novel at least) of The Emperor’s daughter Irulan, which shoehorns in reams of exposition in an attempt to give the audience some kind of context to the events that they are about to see. Then we get another exposition scene, this time in the form of a video infographic that explains even more of the backstory and geography of the film’s plot. Throughout the film, there is the use of voice over to explain the character’s thoughts, feelings and motivations. Whereas most films use voice over for two reasons, either a single character giving their own viewpoints on the events of the story or an omniscient narrator offering a counterpoint to the events on screen (see BARRY LYNDON) DUNE gives almost every character their own voice over through out their scenes. Delivered in a breathy, whispered tone for the most part these voice-overs become annoying and distracting. According to Lynch, the voice overs were initially an attempt to import some of the ideas present in the mostly interior writing in Herbert’s book. You could argue that the theme of being able to read other’s thoughts is a major element of both the novel and the film and this could have been an interesting meta-commentary to the audience; in the same way that the Bene Gesserit and Paul can read peoples’ thoughts, so the audience can read the characters most intimate feelings. However, that would be giving it too much credit, since Lynch himself has stated that in the final stage of editing the voice overs were mainly used as way to add in as much exposition as possible. This is one of the main failures of the filmmakers and their key mistake. There seems to have been an obsession with explaining everything, over-correcting due to the genuine fear that audiences would become confused and frustrated at the dense plotting and myriad backstories. For a filmmaker like Lynch, who is so at home in the mysterious, the uncanny and the unexplained, it seems odd that audience comprehension took precedence over making an emotionally affecting journey. Lynch’s best work forgoes exposition to create a certain feeling in the audience, a reaction more emotional than intellectual. Think of the surrealistic ending of MULHOLLAND DRIVE which abandons the involving narrative of the first two acts to deliver a climax of devastating emotional power or how the final two episodes of TWIN PEAKS:THE RETURN folds back in on itself for a haunting, nihilistic denouement. On the DVD documentary Impressions of Dune, Raffaella De Laurentiis muses on how they were perhaps too slavish to the source material and perhaps should have taken more liberties with the book. I think this may have been a good idea as it could have helped to streamline the story but also would have allowed the film to have a sense of mystery and discovery that the relentless exposition robs from the film.

The acting in the film varies in quality although many of the problems are little to do with the talents of the cast. Lynch has shown on several occasions that he is a terrific director of actors for example John Hurt’s soulful Merrick in THE ELEPHANT MAN, Dennis Hopper’s terrifying performance in BLUE VELVET as well as Laura Dern’s and Noami Watt’ s searing, multifaceted turns in INLAND EMPIRE and MULHOLLAND DRIVE respectively. None of the cast in DUNE reach those heights but a few make indelible impressions, especially given the fact that they are given so little time to make an emotional impact. As with most films the villains get to have most of the fun: Kenneth McMillan’s Baron Harkonnen is a truly monstrous creation and he is ably abetted by Sting and Brad Dourif. Sting has little dialogue and is not a particularly well thought of as an actor but he excels in these kind of devilishly high energy bad guy roles (see also the film version of Dennis Potter’s BRIMSTONE AND TREACLE). Dourif always gives good crazy but it is McMillan has the most memorable role. Fans of the novel dislike the interpretation of the Baron as a drooling, screaming lunatic in comparison to the more calculating manipulator of the book but McMillan’s performance, pitched all the way up to eleven throughout, turns him into the devil himself. Francesca Annis, although the character is unforgivably side lined in the second half of the film, has a luminous otherworldly quality and her stillness hints at a torrent of emotions underneath, just behind her eyes. At the centre of all this insanity, Kyle MacLachlan manages to make Paul an enigmatic, quietly charismatic figure. As everyone around him camps it up, MacLachlan keeps it subtle, the calm at the centre of the storm. In the documentary Impressions of Dune, Harlan Ellison damns MacLachlan with faint praise, describing him as “a competent actor” and saying that he is “no Gielgud”. While I agree he is an actor of limited range and there is something a little inexpressive about him, which works brilliantly in Lynch’s other works, his performance here deserves more praise. He has a few great moments, especially in a few rousing speeches as Paul unites the Fremen against the powers that wish to exploit them. Again, he suffers due to the removal of crucial scenes that would help to explain his transformation from wide eyed innocent to battle hardened general.

END OF PART ONE

BREAKING NEWS- UNKNOWN CAST AS THE NEW BOND!!!

24 Sep

In a shocking development, the production company behind the Bond franchise, EON, have selected a new actor to play 007. Beating off competition from such big names as Tom Hardy, Dan Stevens, Henry Golding and Idris Elba, unknown British actor Craig Adgie will take on the role as Ian Fleming’s super spy. The move has stunned Hollywood insiders, with some calling the move “dumb” and “insane”.

Adgie was selected after the Bond producers saw his screentest that he filmed in his bedroom in his parents house and sent in to EON unsolicited. Sources claim that the EON producers said:

“Craig blew us away with his unique interpretation of the role. Whereas most actors try to be suave and sophisticated in auditions, Craig has this awkward and off putting vibe. He has this squint that makes you wonder what he is actually looking at, giving him this shifty quality that a real clandestine agent might have. Watching his audition video, we asked ourselves the question; What if Bond didn’t have any charisma? That got us excited.”

During his first encounter with the press, Adgie talked about what he plans to bring to the role. “Chest hair..” Adgie told a packed crowd, hypnotized almost to sleep by the calming monotone drone of his voice, “before Daniel and his waxed bod, all the Bonds had really hairy chests. I haven’t got loads, just in patches mainly concentrated around my nipples, but we are looking into implants with hair harvested from the homeless.” When asked whether he will try and build the ripped physique that Daniel Craig stunned audiences with in CASINO ROYALE, Adgie seemed doubtful:

“I’m more of an indoorsy type to be honest. If I work out for more than a few minutes, I tend to get a bit light headed and have to stop. I’m pushing for this script to be set in the winter so I don’t have any shirtless scenes so I wont have to work out. I’m not really an adrenaline junkie, I don’t like cars and I’m scared of heights. I used to go for walks but there were too many people out with their dogs and I didn’t like it so I mainly just stay in and watch telly.”

And what about Bond’s famous way with the ladies? Adgie had this to say:

“Er..well..yeah I suppose that is part of it. I’d like to think that I can be smooth and sexy but usually when I’m around girls I tend to get a bit nervous and, for some reason, very sweaty. I try to avoid eye contact, which is easy for me when I’m not wearing my glasses. I guess that’s all a part of being an actor. I played a sheep once in a school play and obviously I’m not a sheep so if I can do that I can probably play someone with charm and charisma.”

EON hope to begin shooting some time in the next decade, once Adgie has managed to learn most of his lines. Tentatively titled THE MAN WITH THE WONKY EYE, pundits predict this could be the biggest mistake in Bond history, at least since Madonna’s cameo in DIE ANOTHER DAY.

And what about Bond’s famous introduction? Reporters asked him to deliver the character’s signature line. “I can’t.. not with all these people watching, maybe if everyone went out of the room I could do it. I don’t like people watching me.”

EON hope that when Adgie’s first film is released, there will be lots of people watching. Only time will tell.

Licence to Kill

2 Sep

With the latest ( and most likely final) Daniel Craig starring Bond film NO TIME TO DIE due to be released this year (we hope) it’s time to look back on one of the most misunderstood and underrated installments in the franchise. 1989’S LICENCE TO KILL was the second and final time that Welshman Timothy Dalton donned the iconic tuxedo and is unfortunately remembered for being a misguided failure. It was a box office disappointment, making less than Dalton’s previous film  THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS released two years earlier and was infamous for being the most violent in the series ( whereas all of the previous Bond films were given a PG certificate in the UK, LICENCE TO KILL was given a 15  rating, still the highest age classifications in the franchise.)Many hardcore Bond fans dismiss the film as a humourless, sexless entry that eschews many of the tropes of the series ( quippy one liners, goofy gadgets, sexual innuendos) in favour of savage violence and a darker, grittier tone. However, while LICENCE TO KILL undoubtedly fails as a traditional Bond film, it succeeds as an example of late 80s action cinema with its vengeance seeking protagonist, terrific practical stunt work  and a plot involving drug lords and corrupt agents, closer in tone to LETHAL WEAPON and OUT FOR JUSTICE than DIAMONDS ARE FOREVER.

LICENCE TO KILL’s traditional Bond cold open sequence shows James Bond (Timothy Dalton, THE ROCKETEER, FLASH GORDON) on his way to the wedding of his close friend and associate CIA Agent Felix Leiter ( David Hedison THE FLY) to Della (Priscilla Barnes,THREE’S COMPANY). The groom and his best man are waylaid on their way to the chapel when Leiter gets word that the international drug lord Sanchez (Robert Davi, DIE HARD, THE GOONIES) has popped up in Florida and Bond and Felix join in the DEA raid. Thanks to some derring do by Bond, Sanchez is apprehended during a mid air chase and they manage to get to the church just in time. However, Sanchez escapes from jail thanks to the assistance of corrupt DEA Agent Killifer (Everett McGill, TWIN PEAKS). Sanchez and his men, including the deranged Dario (Benecio Del Toro, THE USUAL SUSPECTS, SICARIO), attack Felix at his home on his wedding night. Bond discovers that Della has been killed and that Felix has been maimed by a shark and sets out on a mission of revenge. Disavowed by the MI6, Bond has his licence to kill revoked. Now acting outside of the law, abandoned by his government, Bond poses as an enforcer-for -hire to ingratiate himself to Sanchez so that he can destroy his drug empire and exact revenge. Bond is assisted in his mission by two very different women, Felix’s colleague and CIA Agent Pam Bouvier ( Carey Lowell, ) and Lupe Lamora (Taliso Soto), Sanchez’s abused and unhappy wife, who are both determined to help Bond bring down the loathsome Sanchez.

For a series that has been going now for almost sixty years, its no surprise that the James Bond films have evolved over that time. Like any movie, James Bond films are a product of the time that they were made, reflecting the trends and zeitgeist of the period in which they were produced. The original Sean Connery period is pure Swinging Sixties, primarily upbeat classic pop, with vague Cold War tensions, fears around nuclear war and a liberal attitude to casual sex. In the 1970’s the Bond producers tried to match the popular trends of the time as well. Replacing Connery with the more urbane, smoother Roger Moore the films leaned into a campier, goofier tone that not only aped the popular style of the SMOKEY AND THE BANDIT films and CONVOY, but also took its cues from the archness of its new star. Moore’s first film, LIVE AND LET DIE, was an attempt to cash in on the popularity of the Blaxploitation movies of the early Seventies and MOONRAKER added a special effects laden final act set in space, clearly a cynical attempt to replicate the then recent success of STAR WARS. More recently the films of the Daniel Craig era often attempted to capture the essence of the popular movies of the time: CASINO ROYALE is a clear (and very successful) attempt to reboot the franchise along the lines of Christopher Nolan’s BATMAN BEGINS; SKYFALL at times felt like THE DARK KNIGHT of Bond, with its Joker -like villain and concerns with the role that new cyber technology will play in national security; QUANTUM OF SOLACE was a disastrous attempt to ape the lean,mean and morally ambiguous BOURNE films, including those film’s use of shaky cam and incomprehensible editing style. LICENECE TO KILL is no different, in its obvious attempt to replicate the style and tone of recent action movies like LETHAL WEAPON and DIE HARD.

The mid-Eighties was something of a turning point for the Bond series and the producers undoubtedly were unsure of how to make Bond relevant for the then modern audiences. Roger Moore’s reign had run on for far too long and had descended into self-parody long before 1985’s atrocious A VIEW TO A KILL. The time had come for a new iteration of the  character and for the series to move away from the almost CARRY ON style of the Moore films with its camp humour, over the top slapstick action and dated sexual politics of an aging Englishmen bedding dozens of much younger women. It was time for a change. In came Timothy Dalton. Dalton had been on producer Albert “Cubby” Broccoli’s radar for some time and had offered him the role when Sean Connery step way before ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE (Dalton turned it down as he felt, at 23, he was too young and inexperienced to take on the part).  Dalton had won acclaim as a Shakespearean actor on the UK stage and had memorable supporting roles in films as diverse as Oscar winning historical drama THE LION IN WINTER and the high camp cult classic FLASH GORDON but Bond was another league altogether. When he again hesitated, Sam Neill (JURASSIC PARK) and future Bond and REMINGTON STEELE star Pierce Brosnan carried out screentests before Dalton agreed to sign on. His first film THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS, managed to meld the traditional elements of the Bond film with the specific talents of the new actor in the role. Dalton’s Bond couldn’t have been more further from Moore’s: this Bond was harder, more tortured and less humourous, he  was also much more dynamic, intense and moral. In THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS, Bond was less promiscuous, possibly due to the films being released in the era of the AIDS epidemic. Sleeping around was not only no longer cool, it was dangerous and irresponsible. There was also a sense of nobility and an integrity that had been missing from the previous Bond. THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS was considered a success and now the producers were looking to push the character and the series into new and darker territory with his second film in the role.

Action cinema in the late Eighties had been dominated by the films starring such cinematic hard men as Schwarzenegger, Stallone, Seagal, Van Damme and Chuck Norris. These films, made with varying levels of budget and quality , depicted lone warriors, often ex-military types with hard bodies and souls, who go on a one man mission of revenge, usually against South American drug dealers or Soviet forces. These heroes had little time for  charm or romance; they were indestructible killing machines waging war on their enemies ( who have usually killed someone close to the hero) utilizing some seriously savage violence along the way. These types of films first appeared in the lower budget and straight to video arena but in the years prior to the release of LICENCE TO KILL, big budget Hollywood productions began to use this formula to great success. LETHAL WEAPON and DIE HARD may have had slicker direction and in stars like Mel Gibson, Danny Glover and Bruce Willis, actors who could add some layers of humanity these characters.  EON (Broccoli’s production company) decided that if Bond was stay relevant and reach a modern audience, he would have to embrace his dark side.

LICENCE TO KILL’s story has all the elements of a classic Eighties shoot em up; highly trained man of violence as hero? Check.  Said hero turns rogue to exact brutal revenge on the villain? Check. South American drug dealers as villains? Check. LICENCE TO KILL’s plot checks all the boxes. However, to achieve this the filmmakers have had to abandon the tried and tested formula for a James Bond flick. There is no supervillain with a master plan for world domination. The villain Sanchez, played by perennial Eighties bad guy and DIE HARD supporting player Robert Davi, has no crazy plans involving stealing nuclear warheads or mind control, no underwater lair- he is a ruthless drug lord, with propensity for violence as a means of self preservation and prone to paranoia. In short he is a run of the mill career criminal. In other areas of the plot, the writers, series regulars Michael G Wilson and  Richard Maibaum, are forced to adopt a deconstructionist approach to the Bond formula. To be a lone wolf, an out of control renegade Bond must be disavowed and cast adrift from his government. No longer an MI6 agent on a sanctioned mission, Bond is alone without his usual support. There is no traditional scene of M given Bond his mission, replaced instead with a scene of Bond having his licence to kill revoked (hence the original title) the 007 equivalent to the cliche of the maverick cop having to turn in his badge and his gun. Q does appear for a few scenes in the second act to give Bond a hand and a few (mostly superfluous gadgets). Miss Moneypenny is reduced to a single scene back at HQ but almost all of the other traditional elements of a Bond film are eliminated by necessity.

This abandonment of traditional Bond elements is both a blessing and a curse. On the one hand James Bond aficionados will bemoan the lack of one liners,  over the top action scenes and exotic locales. The film’s weakest moments are actually when the filmmakers attempt to shoe horn in the usual Bond tropes into a plot and tone that can’t accommodate them. The scenes with Q, although charmingly acted by Dalton and series mainstay Desmond Llewelyn, are the most obvious example. The scenes are played mostly for laughs and although even the most intense thriller needs comic relief as a valve to release the pressure, the scenes don’t gel with the rest of the film. Even the gadgets that Q provides seem unoriginal and half hearted; one is camera that is actually a rifle and a toothpaste tube of plastic explosive that is totally pointless, there’s not even a scene where a henchman blows himself up while brushing his teeth! However, the decision to reposition the film into a different genre does add some interesting kinks into a somewhat tired formula. A more streamlined plot in a grittier, more realistic setting gives the film a propulsive energy that many of the bloated Roger Moore movies lacked. There is also more room in the story for the female characters than is typically permitted. Dalton’s version of Bond is less of the misogynistic womaniser of previous films and in fact seems to see women as more than objects for sexual conquests. Carey Lowell’s Pam Bouvier, is depicted as a highly trained CIA operative and former pilot who is more than a useful ally for Bond. She shares the same motivation as Bond, revenge for Sanchez’s attack on Felix, has already made inroads with her own undercover mission when Bond teams up with her and even rescues him at various points in the story. Although this isn’t the first time the series has had a female lead who is more than a damsel in distress, in particular Diana Rigg’s Tracey in ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE, and Bouvier’s character is a bit too lovesick over Bond to be a true feminist hero but at she is far more dynamically written and played than the typical Bond girl.

Interestingly, despite the desire for LICENCE TO KILL to move in a different direction than previous films, EON decided to stick with their in house film making team. Rather than go for the premiere action directors of the era, DIE HARD’s John McTiernan say, or a old school journeyman action specialist like John Flynn (OUT FOR JUSTICE, ROLLING THUNDER) or Andrew Davis (ABOVE THE LAW, THE PACKAGE), EON rehired John Glenn. Glenn had been an integral part of the series since the Sixties, starting out as an editor and second unit director for ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE, for which he received a great deal of praise for that film’s unique, jagged edge cutting style and thrilling ski sequences. Glenn was handed the director’s chair for 1980’s FOR YOUR EYES ONLY (one of the better entries of the Roger Moore era) and directed every Bond film released in the Eighties.  As a director, Glenn is every inch the old pro craftsman, he doesn’t really have a distinguishable visual style and outside of the typically impressive action sequences that are the series trademark his handling of the non action scenes is at best perfunctory. Glenn did, however, bring a grounded, more restrained style to the series that gives a leaner, muscular feel to the action and helps to tone down the excesses of late period Roger Moore. Although he lacks the stylistic ambitions of Peter Hunt’s work on ON HER MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE or the broader comic book stylings of Guy Hamilton ( GOLDFINGER, THE MAN WITH THE GOLDEN GUN), Glenn’s Hawksian style-less technique is flexible enough to accommodate the changes in tone that was needed throughout his run.  His “invisible” directing style  allows the focus to remain on the story, the actors and the stunts. Glenn’s experience as an editor and second unit director  shows in his clear and unfussy staging of both the action and the dialogue sequences. The most impressive set pieces in the film are undoubtedly the thrilling aerial chase sequences that opens the film and the climactic tanker duel. The final action sequence, in which Bond drives a tanker filled with drugs, chasing Sanchez along a precarious mountain road,  is reminiscent of the then recent MAD MAX 2: THE ROAD WARRIOR’s finale (although not as good).

Although LICENCE TO KILL can be seen as an interesting departure from the Bond formala and as an example of Eighties action cinema it is exemplary, there is no doubt as a Bond film it is a failure. By removing much of the elements that make a Bond film a Bond film ( the gadgets, the glamourous locales, witty banter) in an attempt to imitate what was popular at the time, the film is sorely lacking in the qualities that the fans love.  The film is gripping and exciting but it is certainly not fun.  There is an unpleasant cruelty present throughout, from the callous murder of Della, the maiming of Felix by shark attack,to the gruesome demises of Anthony Zerbe and Benecio Del Toro (exploded by rapid decompression and diced by machinery respectively.) Dalton, for all his presence and intensity, is almost totally humourless. The tone is mostly dour and bleak. The film is a good example of a production company mistakenly attempting to chase current trends while forgetting what makes the series unique. Surely the appeal of Bond is the somewhat fantastical approach the spy genre: the over the top villains, the secret agent who has superhuman abilities, the gadgets that stretch believability. THE LIVING DAYLIGHTS, the previous film in the series, managed to balance the more fun elements of the series while successfully melding these elements with Dalton’s edgier take on the role. LICENCE TO KILL would work much better if the Bond elements that remain were removed and it was just a revenge thriller with better than average acting and production values. As it is, LICENCE TO KILL is too misanthropic, too violent and too humourless to be considered a classic Bond.

Following the disappointing box office and decidedly mixed critical reception of LICENCE TO KILL, it would be six years until the next 007 adventure would be released. Dalton would be gone, citing that he could not stall his career any longer waiting for EON to resolve its financial issues that were preventing them from producing another film. Pierce Brosnan would finally take the role in the much more well received GOLDENEYE in 1995. GOLDENEYE would succeed where LICENCE TO KILL failed: it successfully melded the comic stylings of traditional Bond whilst updating them for modern audiences with Brosnan a smoother and arch 007. However, LICENCE TO KILL remains an interesting departure for James Bond and as time goes by, appreciation for Dalton’s darker interpretation of the character has grown. It is a shame that he didn’t return for more films, as his films were never given the same kind of budget or attention that those starring Pierce Brosnan and Daniel Craig were given. For me, Dalton, while probably not the best Bond (that would be Sean Connery) his was the most interesting. Dalton toned down the campier, playboy aspects of the role and played him as a soldier, as a hero. His Bond was a moral force, an incorruptible hero with a strong senses of right and wrong. With his granite like features and piercing blue eyes, there was the impression of a haunted man, a man for whom death and violence as natural to him as breathing but has a solid moral core buried underneath. LICENCE TO KILL, for all its flaws and misguided intentions, is a great showcase for the talents of the most underrated 007 of them all.

SUNSHINE (2007)

22 Apr

sunshineReteaming with his 28 DAYS LATER screenwriter Alex Garland, director Danny Boyle makes his one and only foray into the sci-fi genre with the thriller SUNSHINE (if you discount the unreleased ALIEN LOVE TRIANGLE short film). The film’s spectacular visuals are even more impressive when you consider that it was made for a paltry $20 million( paltry for a special effects driven Hollywood blockbuster at least). Thanks to Boyle’s cool visual style, Garland’s typically lean and tense script and some powerful performances, SUNSHINE is a visually stunning and emotionally effecting science fiction drama. Despite a somewhat muddled third act and a difficult to swallow premise, SUNSHINE is an underrated film in both Garland’s and Boyle’s filmography and the sci-fi genre as a whole.

In the year  2057, the spacecraft Icarus II heads towards the sun, carrying a cargo of an anti matter bomb with the intention of using it to reignite the failing star. Crewed by eight astronauts; physicist Capa (Cillian Murphy), captain Kaneda (Hiroyuki Sanada), engineer Mace (Chris Evans). navigator Trey (Benedict Wong), pilot Cassie ( Rose Byrne), biologist Corazon (Michelle Yeoh), communications expert Harvey ( Troy Garity) and psychiatrist Searle ( Cliff Curtis), the Icarus II follows a previous mission that went missing years before. When the computer locates the position of the Icarus I, the crew make an attempt to recover the original mission’s bomb effectively given humanity two last chances instead of one. This proves to be a fatal mistake as this leads to a series of catastrophes that befalls the Icarus II and soon the crew will learn the terrible truth behind the failure of the first mission. Soon the crew must race against time to save the lives of billions whilst being stalked by a mysterious stowaway who plans to stop their mission at any cost.

British director Danny Boyle has had a career of ups and downs, across a variety of genres and media. His successes include the zeitgeist defining TRAINSPOTTING, Oscar winning drama SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE and his triumphant opening ceremony for the London 2012 Olympics; his missteps include his ill fated attempt at blockbuster filmmaking with THE BEACH (based on a novel by Garland) and his box office bomb STEVE JOBS (although that is an interesting misfire.) Boyle’s most profitable and critically acclaimed film is most probably 28 DAYS LATER..  a low budget apocalyptic horror movie written by Alex Garland and shot on handheld high street Mini DV cameras ( see my previous review on that film). Following on from that film’s success Boyle reteamed with Garland to make his entry into the science fiction genre having only flirted with it previously when he was initially signed on to direct ALIEN RESURRECTION but ultimately passed on that film. SUNSHINE is a much better fit for Boyle than a franchise sci-fi film due to its more intimate storyline and humanist viewpoint. Boyle is an excellent director of actors and has an eye for casting. He has helped to launch the careers of several actors through his work including major stars like Ewan McGregor, Robert Carlyle, Naomi Harris and Dev Patel. Boyle assembles a strong cast of interesting actors including 28 DAYS LATER star Cillian Murphy. Murphy is an interesting choice of male lead for a genre flick, he is not physically heroic and with his soft features and soulful, piercing blue eyes often comes across as a more sensitive and vulnerable lead character than you would normally see in your typical sci-fi action thriller. Murphy’s Capa ( based in part on physicist Professor Brian Cox, who has since become famous as a likeable presence in several BBC science documentaries and panel shows) is reminiscent of his Jim in 28 DAYS LATER, what Boyle has described as a somewhat reluctant hero, who is forced to take action simply because there is no one else. Chris Evans, in a pre- CAPTAIN AMERICA role, shows the same aura of integrity and duty that he brought to that Marvel character. His engineer Mace initially seems to be the more conventional heroic male character in the film. His is more eager to take action, more laser focussed on the mission at hand, constantly reminding his crewmates what is at stake. However there is a third act switch from Garland and Boyle, as Mace is removed from the situation, thus forcing Capa to take action. This is one of the emotional arcs of the movie: in the first act, Capa is shown to be reluctant to make key decisions and the responsibility seems to paralyse him. By the end of the film, Capa has taken decisive action and has shown his willingness to make the ultimate sacrifice. The rest of the cast have less memorable roles but all acquit themselves well, especially considering that Garland has chosen to sketch these characters fairly thinly. Hiroyuki Sanada exudes warmth and a Zen-like calm that would be appropriate for a captain of such an important mission. Benedict Wong has a few powerful moments as the ship’s navigator whose mistake leads to the near failure of the mission; while the other character’s try to exude a calm, calculated professionalism, Wong’s outburst of frustration and shame are some of the most human moments of the film, depicting the unbearable feeling of guilt that one would feel if they had made an error that had effectively doomed mankind. The cast convincingly portray a group of people who have been living and working together for several months in close proximity, with both that ease and sense of trust that would be present but also the subtle undercurrents of tension and irritation that would also occur. This is mainly due to Boyle’s decision to cloister his cast away in a house for several weeks prior to filming, thus enabling the actors to work on their characters together and to experience both the ups and down of such intimate and claustrophobic conditions.

sunshine picture

When the film was released SUNSHINE was lumped into that category of “half-great films”. This small subset of movies would also include James Cameron’s THE ABYSS and Michael Mann’s THE KEEP, films that are excellent for the majority of their running times but seem to totally collapse in the final third.  The critical consensus at the time of SUNSHINE’s release was that the film was a tense, spectacular science fiction drama that in its final act suddenly shifted gears to a stalk and slash horror flick as though it was two-thirds SOLARIS and one third EVENT HORIZON. Looking back on the film, there is undoubtedly some truth to this criticism, as the film does have a sudden shift in tone that jars with what came before. The first two acts of the film set up a mystery and dramatic tension: What happened to the Icarus I and will the same happen to the second mission? Judging by the fraught atmosphere and dedication to some sense of scientific verisimilitude seen in the first two acts, there is a feeling that the film is building up to a something more ambitious and philosophical than the actual answer. The reveal that the actual cause of the failure of the Icarus I being that one of the crew went insane (for reasons never quite explained) and murdered the crew seems depressingly low rent. The fact that the final act  consists of a deranged knife wielding maniac (played by an unrecognisable Mark Strong) stalking the remaining crew one by one whilst spewing cod musings on the nature of humanity brings the carefully built atmosphere of the first two thirds to a crashing halt.  It doesn’t help that Boyle himself seems to lose his confidence in the material, the more considered and patient filmmaking of the first half gives way visual frippery, full of freeze frames, manic handheld camerawork and the bizarre decision to have Strong’s villain appear out of focus at all times. It seems as though Boyle has lost faith in the material and is falling back on his usual box of tricks in attempt to distract from the low concept plot twists. ( Boyle has said in interviews that pre-production was a rushed process and that this meant that much needed development of the script was not carried out.)

However, the criticism that SUNSHINE completely falls apart in its final moments isn’t entirely true. Garland has demonstrated in his work as a writer/director in recent years (including the excellent EX MACHINA and ANNIHILATION) that he is a filmmaker who uses the science fiction genre to explore more humane and philosophical ideas, in the same way that the great practitioners of the genre did before him. SUNSHINE doesn’t quite hit the heights of his subsequent work, due to the aforementioned third act problems, but there are some haunting ideas present in the film’s final sequences. The main theme of the film seems to be sacrifice and in particular the old age “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few” ( obviously made famous by STAR TREK II: THE WRATH OF KHAN.) SUNSHINE seems to be posing a question to the characters and the audience: Could you make the ultimate sacrifice to save countless others? Obviously throughout history there are countless examples of courageous people who have sacrificed themselves for the good of the many and SUNSHINE fuses this with the philosophical idea of the insignificance of the individual compared to the vastness of the universe. From the first act, when Kaneda sacrifices himself to complete repairs that are essential to the mission’s survival, the film is constantly returning to the theme of sacrifice and how the characters react to it. In a later scene, some of the crew are forced to complete a spacewalk from the Icarus I back to their ship, the only problem being there is only one spacesuit for four crewmembers. The majority of the team instantly accept that Capa should take the suit, since he is the most important member of the crew as he is the only one qualified to operate the anti-matter bomb.  Harvey panics at the realisation that he will now surely die and insists that he is not disposable, being the acting commander of the mission. Mace pithily skewers his exceptions with the line ” You’re the communications officer on a ship with no radio.” In contrast to Harvey, the ship’s psychologist Searle accepts his own sacrifice willingly, allowing himself to be abandoned on the crippled Icarus I. This theme of sacrifice is most powerfully presented in the final act, as each member of the crew must face their own deaths and realise how insignificant there own lives are when compared to the fate of billions. The film ends on a touching grace note in which Capa, who was so fearful and reluctant to act at the beginning of the film, makes the ultimate sacrifice and is rewarded with a moment of peace and serenity.

VERDICT: SUNSHINE manages to navigate some crippling but not quite fatal third act errors to be an exciting, spectacular and moving sci-fi thriller. Thanks to Boyle’s typically slick direction and some committed performances and a pulsating and uplifting score by John Murphy and Underworld, SUNSHINE is a sci-fi cult classic that is more than deserving of critical reappraisal.

THE GREY

8 Apr

the greyJoe Carnahan’s existential thriller transcends its pulpy concept of a group of oil riggers stranded in the mountains of Alaska being picked off one by one to become much more than TAKEN with wolves. Anchored by Liam Neeson at his most raw and human, supported by a memorable cast of character actors and a bleak, haunting tone, THE GREY is one of the most harrowing adventures films of the last ten years. Eschewing the snarky humour of his most famous films SMOKIN ACES and THE A TEAM, Carnahan does for survival films what his 2002 film NARC did for the undercover cop movie: adding a tragic, philosophical bent to a straightforward genre narrative. THE GREY is an unbearably tense tale that feels more like a Werner Herzog film than your typical action adventure, depicting flawed men, hopelessly battling against the indifferent cruelty of their environment and being faced with their inevitable doom.  CALL OF THE WILD this ain’t.

THE PLOT: John Ottway (Liam Neeson), a lonely and suicidal man, works as a marksman for an Alaskan oil company, tasked with shooting any wild wolves that threaten the company’s workers. When a plane that the workers are travelling in crashes into the frozen wilderness, the survivors including Ottway, the anti authoritarian Diaz (Frank Grillo) and mild mannered family man Talget (Dermot Mulroney) are attacked by a pack of feral wolves. Attempting to walk back to civilisation through treacherous landscape and unforgiving weather,the men are slowly picked off one by one by their relentless canine pursuers.  Each man must come to terms with the failures of their lives and deal with their own mortality as nature closes in on them.

There seems to be two Joe Carnahans: the impish, Tarantino imitator who made the entertaining but slight comedy thrillers SMOKIN ACES, STRETCH and BLOOD,GUTS, BULLETS AND OCTANE and the director of NARC and THE GREY. These last two films mentioned are subversions of  typically macho genres, the undercover cop drama and the wilderness adventure movie respectively. Carnahan keeps the traditional elements of these genres but makes the characters more three dimensional, more human, the violence more brutal and harrowing. THE GREY takes what would normally be expected in a wilderness survival movie for example resourceful, macho characters overcoming obstacles and battling predators with courage and physical prowess and adds a philosophical bent along with an existential bleakness. One of the ways he achieves this is spending time giving the characters more shades than would usually be expected in this type of film. The screenplay, co-written by Carnahan and Ian Mackenzie Jeffers ( writer of the short story “Ghost Walker” on which this film is based) eschews the usual macho stereotypes usually seen in the adventure genre. The supporting characters, memorably realised by an assortment of talented character actors, are vividly drawn and the bulk of the film is built around the conflict between the misfit group of survivors and the characters conflicts within themselves. Diaz, played by an excellent Frank Grillo, starts the film as a cynical rebel, thumbing his nose at any kind of authority, wearing his hard man credentials on his sleeve.  Naturally, Diaz bristles against the leadership of Ottway and slowly his posturing is revealed to be nothing more than armour to protect him from his own sadness at the emptiness of his life and his fear of death.  Ottway is ostensibly the hero of the film but his is much more human and  flawed than we have come to expect. The theme of a self-hating and suicidal man who has given up on life and finding some kind of redemption through his attempts to save others is perhaps not a novel one but rarely has it been so powerfully wrought as in THE GREY. Carnahan depicts Ottway as all too human, unsure of the best course of action, liable to lose his temper or make rash decisions. Ultimately Ottway becomes a tragic, existential hero: unable to save the lives of his co-workers, struggling to find resolution to the accumulative tragedies of his life, too insignificant to hold back the dismal tide. This all comes to head in the forceful climax as Ottway, now truly alone with no hope of survival rails against God, screaming at the sky, receiving no answer, no salvation.  This leads into the polarising final scene, where Ottway finds that he was actually leading his team not away from the wolves’ den but actually straight into it ( another subversion of the infallible action hero trope). Many movie goers were frustrated at the seeming lack of resolution of the climax, where an unarmed Ottway makes the decision to stand and fight against impossible odds, However the outcome of the final fight is a foregone conclusion. It’s not important whether Ottway dies or not, but the fact that he will fight for whatever life he has left and will not go quietly into the good night.

liam neeson

The way that Carnahan depicts death and the characters reaction to it, is another reason THE GREY is so haunting. The thematic drive of the film is essentially how these supposedly hard men face their own mortality in a cruel and uncaring environment. Some die savagely, ripped apart by wolves as they scream in agony and fear. Another dies peacefully, eased into it by the calm, Zen like tones of Ottway as he exsanguinates. Another simply gives up  convincing the other survivors to leave him sitting on a rock as he explains that he is in too much pain to continue and doesn’t have much of a life to return to anyway. In the most upsetting death in a film full of such moments, one character drowns in shallow water, dying more of panic than anything else. Carnahan frames the shot in profile allowing us to see how tantalisingly close to the surface the character is, visualising the film’s ideas around the fragility of life and how vulnerable we are to knife edge turns of fate. Carnahan uses these moments to comment on the unpleasant truth that no matter how strong, how courageous and how capable we are, there is no escaping the inevitable. Death is doubly terrifying in this film, as demonstrated in the scene where Neeson cries to an absent God, there seems to be no hope of an afterlife.

The film is not without its simple pleasures however. Carnahan stages a few tense set pieces, the standouts being the initial air crash, shot in impressionistic, terrifying bursts of action and the vertigo inducing scene where the survivors must traverse a drop over a 100 ft ravine. This scene includes some terrifyingly subjective shots, using some convincing bluescreen, to place us precariously with the characters as they agonisingly inch there way across a makeshift rope bridge with nothing but jagged rocks below. The film has some impressively oppressive shots of the desolate Alaskan wilderness and Carnahan uses a gritty, handheld style similar to the one he used in NARC, rather than the visual frippery seen in his other films. The film also has a kind of gallows humour that breaks up some of the dark atmosphere, Frank Grillo especially has more than a few sardonic lines and Carnahan has fun skewering the macho posturing of the survivors. There is also an interesting symbolic link between the human characters and the wolves. In one scene, the group hear the pack of wolves infighting and Ottway explains that the Alpha male is putting down a challenge for leadership from one of the other males. In the very next scene, a frustrated and frightened Diaz challenges Ottway to a fight, which Ottway effortlessly wins. Ottway is the alpha putting down a challenge to his position as group leader. In a later scene this is made explicit, when the wolves howl at the humans and they shout back, Diaz calling out ” you’re not the animals, we’re the animals.” In the final scene where Ottway comes face to face with the Alpha of the wolf pack, who is scarred on his face similarly to Ottway. Carnahan frames their close ups in exactly the same way, visually linking the two. The very final shot of the film has the growls of the wolf heard offscreen, superimposed over the image of Ottway grimacing. These moments seem to show that Carnahan is making a link between the humans and wolves, perhaps suggesting that when everything else, family, society etc is stripped away we are at the mercy of the cruelty  of nature in the same way animals are, although we are cursed with the knowledge of our own mortality and our desire for some kind of meaning in this indifferent world.

THE GREY was not a box office success, perhaps due to the trailers portraying the film as an all out action film, ridiculously making out that the film would consist of Liam Neeson punching wolves. No wonder audiences were disappointed when they were presented with something else entirely: a haunting, brutal drama about flawed, unlikeable men who are faced with the reality of their own deaths and struggling to find some kind of peace with their demons. This is why THE GREY deserves reappraisal, few Hollywood action movies attempt the kind of philosophical and emotional depth that Carnahan achieves here, thanks to a thought provoking script, taut filmmaking and a powerful, visceral central performance by Neeson.   And yes, a scene where he punches a wolf.

DARKMAN (1990)

8 Apr

darkman posterA full decade before he helped to launch the current comic book movie craze with the megahit SPIDER-MAN in 2002, director Sam Raimi made his first foray into the superhero genre with 1990’s DARKMAN. Unlike the family friendly webslinger, DARKMAN is, appropriately enough given his name, a more sinister, harder edged character and has as much in common with classic monster movies like FRANKENSTEIN and THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA as he does BATMAN. Thanks to Raimi’s trademark energetic camerawork and penchant for dark humour as well as an unusually deranged performance from a young Liam Neeson, DARKMAN is a witty, entertaining cult classic that is as wild and unhinged as its hero.

THE PLOT: Mild mannered scientist Dr Peyton Westlake( Liam Neeson, TAKEN, SCHINDLER’S LIST) is working on creating synthetic skin but so far his efforts can only last in the dark- light destroys the artificial skin. Westlake’s girlfriend Julie (Frances McDormand, FARGO) a lawyer working for property developer Strack( Colin Friels), discovers a memorandum that shows Strack’s links to organised crime. Strack sends gangster Durant (Larry Drake, LA LAW), to retrieve the document from Westlake’s apartment/lab. Durant and his men attack Westlake and blow up his lab with him inside. Now hideously deformed and following an experimental medical treatment which means he can no longer feel pain, regulate his emotions and has augmented strength, Westlake becomes DARKMAN, using his synthetic skin to infiltrate Durant’s operation hoping to both exact revenge and rekindle his relationship with Julie. However, Westlake finds that his monstrousness may not be only skin deep.

Sam Raimi was something of a wonderkind, making his cinematic debut at the tender age of twenty-one with the controversial horror comedy THE EVIL DEAD in 1981. Although that film was initially lumped in with the video nasties of the early Eighties, THE EVIL DEAD was clearly the work of a singular talent, with impressive special effects and comic book style compositions along with a streak of black humour missing from the likes of THE DRILLER KILLER and NIGHTMARE IN A DAMAGED BRAIN. In 1987 Raimi made the slightly larger budgeted sequel/remake EVIL DEAD II: DEAD BY DAWN, a seminal horror comedy with a pitch perfect blend of comic book style action, gruesomely goofy make up effects and motored by the charismatic Bruce Campbell’s slapstick central performance. After the success of the two EVIL DEAD movies and looking to capitalise on the success of Tim Burton’s 1989 version of BATMAN, Raimi approached the studios with the plan to direct a superhero film. However, after his pitch for the rights to make a film based on THE SHADOW was rejected, Raimi decided to create his own superhero. Working with his brother Ivan, the two Raimis came up with the character of DARKMAN,  a scientist who has been horrifically deformed but can assume the identities of anyone thanks to his invention of synthetic skin. Working with his largest budget to date and higher profile actors like Frances McDormand and Liam Neeson as the titular hero ( although Raimi’s original plan to cast his EVIL DEAD star Bruce Campbell as the lead was nixed by the studio) Raimi manages to blend his own somewhat anarchic style with the expectations of a studio action film.

DARKMAN is an excellent showcase for Raimi’s idiosyncratic talents and the attributes that elevated his SPIDER-MAN trilogy to the top tier of  superhero movies are present and correct here. Raimi has mastery of tone, much like his close friends the Coen Brothers ( who co-wrote THE HUDSUCKER PROXY with Raimi), he seems to be able effortlessly shift gears from slapstick comedy, high tragedy and horror and back again. The decision to have his central character  being unable to regulate his emotions is  a smart move, which allows Raimi to justify the whiplash flips in tone as if the film itself is suffering from the same affliction as its hero. For the casual moviegoer perhaps this is a flaw ( and the film was not a huge success with audiences on its release) since the film does lurch from moments of tragic romance played deadly straight to moments of reasonably intense violence( the villain cuts the fingers off his victim’s hands with a cigar cutter), to slapstick pratfalls. The sequence at the fairground, where Westlake attempts to return to normality, hiding his deformity under artificial skin whilst on a date with Julie is a prime example. The sequence starts fairly conventionally, depicting the two tragic lovers on a stroll through a carnival, although something is off from the start. Raimi cuts between Neeson and McDormand and creepy shots of dead-eyed animatronic puppets, who seem to be laughing maniacally. As the scene continues depicting Westlake’s altercation with a cheating carny that escalates from absurdist humour- “the pink elephant if you please?” – to an collage of insanity, Raimi ramps up the surrealism with dutch angles, unsettling stop motion shots of stuffed animals coming to life and a bizarre shot utilising front projection depicting Westlake’s unchecked murderous rage. Sequences like these demonstrate Raimi’s unique gifts: his extraordinary understanding of the technical possibilities of cinema and how those techniques can be used to both thrill an audience and depict the subjective emotional states of the characters.

 

 

Raimi is ably assisted in this tonal high wire act by his game cast who understand that the film is essentially a live action cartoon and modulate their performances accordingly.  Liam Neeson is usually associated with playing more serious and quiet roles, even when he stars in shoot-em-up action films like TAKEN and NON-STOP, has rarely tried to tap into the vaudevillian energy needed for a film like DARKMAN. Neeson is unsurprisingly convincing in the more dramatic scenes, giving the tragic nature of the character real heft. However, although Neeson gives his all in the more comedic sequences, he never seems fully relaxed enough to give the truly demented performance the film requires. Neeson is not a natural comedian ( see his awkward line deliveries in THE LEGO MOVIE and TED 2) and as an actor his energy is naturally calmer than what is necessary to play a mad scientist emotionally flip flopping from bottomless despair to uncontrollable rage and back again. The lead role was originally written with EVIL DEAD star Bruce Campbell in mind and he would have been ideal for such an unhinged, unpredictable character. McDormand seems more comfortable in her role perhaps due to her experience working with the Coen Brothers, whose films require similar skills to those needed for a Raimi film. She is a lot tougher than your usual love interest seen in the late 80s/ early 90s comic book movies although her character is somewhat underwritten and perhaps is the victim of rumoured studio editorial interference.  Together Neeson and McDormand help to give the film some kind of emotional resonance, selling the Phantom of the Opera style tragedy of the romance. The villains have much more fun that the central duo, particularly Larry Drake as the somewhat effete but brutal gangster Durant and Australian actor Colin Friels as Strack.  Friels is particularly memorable as the megalomaniacal property developer Strack, affecting an impressive American accent and especially in the third act, cranking his performance up to 11. Friels is undoubtedly over the top but that fits with the cartoonish tone of the film and its a shame that the actor never made it in Hollywood, instead returning to Australian TV in shows like cop drama WATER RATS.

darkman

Liam Neeson as Darkman

DARKMAN also sees Raimi work with crew members who would become frequent collaborators in future projects. Cinematographer Bill Pope gives the film a slick, moody comic book sheen that would become his trademark in films like THE MATRIX and Raimi’s SPIDER-MAN 2. The composer Danny Elfman would also provide the score for future Raimi films like SPIDER-MAN, ARMY OF DARKNESS( AKA EVIL DEAD 3) and A SIMPLE PLAN. However, Elfman’s work on DARKMAN is unfortunately one of the weak points of the film. The score fits the mock Gothic style of DARKMAN but sounds almost indistinguishable from his work on BATMAN and DICK TRACY, all Wagner-lite sturm and drang and faux opera stylings. Elfman’s career peaked in 1989 with BATMAN and his bouncy, carnivalesque theme tune for THE SIMPSONS but his scores since seem to alternate between variations on these two (brilliant) pieces.

DARKMAN was not a box office success and these could be attributed to a number of factors. The lack of name recognition of the central character, due to him being an original creation is one reason. Another is the seemingly confused conception if the film, perhaps a consequence of the tensions between the studio and the independently minded Raimi. Is the film a tragic monster movie? Or a campy superhero movie? DARKMAN as a concept seems like it should be aimed at adolescents but the film was rated 18 in the UK due to swearing, scenes of violence and its gruesome make up effects. Raimi’s unique everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to tone in his movies often seems to sit uneasily with mainstream audiences, who tend to prefer their movies to be either serious or silly, never both at once. He did refine his skills enough to have two well received and commercially successful SPIDER-MAN films, which managed to strike the balance between goofy comedy and heartfelt coming of age drama. However, even those films are held in less esteem by many current film fans, often being dismissed as “cheesy” or “camp”. Admittedly Raimi’s sure touch deserted him with the bloated SPIDER-MAN 3, but this dismissal of the director’s unique brand of pop comic book stylings is Hollywood’s loss. Raimi hasn’t made a film since 2013’s flop OZ THE GREAT AND POWERFUL and seems to be in director’s jail. This is nothing short of a tragedy.

DARKMAN is a deliriously entertaining mix of arch romance, impish humour and comic book action. Thanks to Raimi’s unique brand of action-comedy and his talents with juggling extreme tonal shifts and energetic filmmaking style, DARKMAN is a cult classic, an artefact from a time when superhero movies had a sense of style and edge. Undoubtedly flawed and perhaps too dated and camp for the casual movie goer but a treat for both fans of off the wall comic book stories and Raimi’s sadly underrated but undeniable filmmaking abilities.

 

 

The Invisible Man (2020)

15 Mar

 

 

invisible_man_posterWriter/director Leigh Whannell brings HG Wells classic character right up to date by reimagining the story as a high tech sci-fi version of woman-in-peril genre; a kind of SLEEPING WITH THE ENEMY meets PREDATOR, which is elevated thanks to a forceful performance from Elizabeth Moss (US. THE HANDMAID’S TALE), slick, icy cinematography and a sharp rethink of the original concept, which taps into very modern concerns as psychologically abusive relationships and the violent consequences of the male ego. Much like the best remakes (THE THING, THE FLY) Whannell takes the concept of the original story and the title and makes everything else his own, spinning an entirely new story from an iconic idea.

THE PLOT: Cecilia Kass (Moss) escapes from the high tech compound of her abusive, controlling partner Adrian Griffin( Oliver Jackson-Cohen) , who is also a billionaire optics expert,and goes into hiding with the help of her sister  Emily ( Harriet Dyer) . Whilst living in secret with  Emily ‘s police officer friend  James( Aldis Hodge) and his daughter  Sydney (Storm Reid) , Cecilia is relieved to learn that  Adrian has committed suicide following their  breakup. However, Cecilia begins to notice strange events that suggest that somehow Adrian is still alive; objects disappear and reappear and she can feel the presence of someone watching her. Cecilia’s fears are dismissed by those around, who believe she is showing signs of understandable trauma caused by years of Adrian’s psychological abuse. Soon Cecilia learns the truth that Adrian has found a way to keep a threat he made to her; that if she ever left him he would find her and “she would never be able to see him coming.”

Leigh Whannell has been a presence in low -to-mid budget horror movies since the early 2000’s when he wrote and starred in SAW, directed by his friend James Wan. SAW became a surprise critical and commercial smash hit and Whannell was involved in a producing capacity in  the series of (less well received but financially successful) sequels. Whannell made his directing debut with INSIDIOUS 3 ( he wrote the previous two films in that series) but made a bigger impact with UPGRADE, a gory, eighties inspired sci-fi action thriller that made the most of its limited budget. THE INVISIBLE MAN came to Whannell after the studio Universal scrapped their plans for a MCU style Dark Universe after the disastrous remake of THE MUMMY starring Tom Cruise. Thanks to his background in stretching budgets to make his films look more expensive than they actually are (achieved by filming in his native Australia utilising local crews and unknown actors), Whannell found a novel wAy of revamping the central conceit of THE INVISIBLE MAN.  Rather than follow HG Wells’ original story of a scientist who invents a serum that makes him invisible and eventually loses his moral compass when he realises that he can get away with anything, Whannell makes the film a metaphor for an abusive relationship. Whannell, like the greatest horror filmmakers, understands that the horror works best when it touches on real life fears, not just monsters and vengeful spirits. In  his version of THE INVISIBLE MAN, Whannell uses the hot button topic of sexual harassment and abuse, as well as the way that society often ignores the complaints and fears of women. Adrian is the worst person to be given access to an invisibility suit and now he can carry on his psychological torture and power trips over Cecilia and it is Cecilia’s worse nightmare come to life, as she can never escape from his clutches and never know when he is watching her. Whannell makes the phenomenon of “gaslighting”, a form of abuse where the victim is made to feel as though they are going insane and imagining the cruelty that is being inflicted on them, part of the plot, where Cecilia has no proof that Adrian is still stalking her and setting her up for crimes that she does not commit. Much of the tension of the film comes from the paranoia of Cecilia’s character and her isolation from those around her.

Whannell also makes expert use of the skills he learnt working in the horror genre by orchestrating some perfectly executed scenes of tension and jump scares. From the very beginning of the film, during Cecilia’s night time escape from Adrian’s prison-like mansion, Whannell establishes the recurring visual conceit of static shots of empty corridors and close up shots framed off-centre with plenty of negative space. This instils the idea in the audience that something invisible is lurking in these apparently empty spaces, building the tension to gut churning levels. There is also one expertly timed jump scare halfway through the film and in one impressively choreographed one shot sequence where Cecilia is attacked by the unseen attacker, thrown around like a rag doll around her kitchen. These moments are reminiscent of a haunted house movie, much like POLTERGEIST or Whannell’s own INSIDIOUS series. Its a fun, sci-fi update of the ghost movie and one of Whannell’s canniest ideas is to remove any doubt early on that there is a supernatural element to the story or to cheaply play the idea that Cecilia is imagining the events.

Elizabeth Moss has steadily been amassing an impressive career on television with solid performances in MAD MEN, TOP OF THE LAKE and THE HANDMAID’S TALE, and THE INVISIBLE MAN should firmly establish her as a big screen lead.  Moss is charismatic and convincing throughout and much of the power of the film comes in Cecilia’s transformation from the terrified, traumatised victim to fierce, empowered survivor. By the end of the film Moss has almost take on a Ripley-style steeliness as Cecilia takes on her tormentors head on.  The rest of the cast are fine,   Michael Dorman is creepy as Adrian’s snivelling brother Tom whilst Reid and  Hodge have some nice comic moments. Whannell makes an interesting choice with Jackson- Cohen’s performance as Adrian. Appropriately for playing THE INVISIBLE MAN, Jackson-Cohen barely features for much of the movie. When he does he convincing gives an air of male entitlement and arrogance but Whannell made the interesting choice not to explicitly show his abusive behaviour, correctly assuming the audience can infer from the desperation of Cecilia’s escape in the opening sequence Adrian’s true monsterousness.

Whannell does make a few missteps  in THE INVISIBLE MAN but none that derail the film. The film is a little too long and there a few moments where the film seems to repeat itself. Much like UPGRADE, Whannell adds a last minute twist that attempts to add some ambiguity to what has just occurred and whilst this is less disruptive than it was in UPGRADE, it feels unnecessary and perhaps is due to Whannell’s seeming attempts to replicate the shock ending of SAW (Much like M Night Shymalan’s debilitating obsession with topping the twist at the end of THE SIXTH SENSE.)

VERDICT: Leigh Whannell has made slick, scary and sharp remake of HG Wells’ classic story and THE INVISIBLE MAN certainly earns its place in the pantheon of remakes that are actually an improvement over the original movies. Thanks to some icy camerawork, expertly built tension and a powerful central performance from Elizabeth Moss, Whannell has given THE INVISIBLE MAN a smart update that unlike many other slick Hollywood horrors also works as a chilling comment on real life fears; in this case the real world horrors of stalking, abusive relationships and the powerlessness felt by women in a world dominating by the controlling impulses of the male ego.

Predator 30th Anniversary Part Two: Themes and Subtext

1 Jan

THEMES

McTiernan seems to have used PREDATOR as a testing ground for the themes he would explore in DIE HARD and the ideas he would use to dismantle the typical Eighties action film and move the genre into the Nineties with the Bruce Willis classic. Not only in terms of the aesthetics discussed already but in the themes of political critique and the skewering of the macho. Much has been made of PREDATOR as an allegory of the Vietnam War and there have been several essays and Youtube videos on the subject. The parallels are obvious:  American soldiers sent into the jungle on a mission where the objective is not clear and is morally compromised by political intrigue, where they are picked off by an unseen, unstoppable enemy using guerrilla tactics.  The mid-Eighties led to resurgence in Vietnam War movies but unlike the films that depicted that conflict in the 1970s (COMING HOME, THE DEER HUNTER), the 80s Vietnam’s films often seemed to find solutions for the flaws of the war. RAMBO: FIRST BLOOD PART 2 basically restaged the war, allowing Rambo to defy his superiors’ motives to rescue abandoned POWs and defeat the North Vietnamese Army (and their Soviet backers.)ALIENS suggested that if the military was allowed to use the full force of their arsenal (one of the conservative criticisms of the Vietnam War was that the US was fighting with one hand tied behind its back) and rooted out the bad apples in the industrial-military complex the “good guys” can annihilate the enemy. PLATOON and HAMBURGER HILL illustrated the futility and misguided objectives of the war. Perhaps it was the fact that enough time had passed for some of the psychological and social wounds of the war had begun to heal and/or the bombastic optimism of the Reagan administration, that audiences and filmmaker seemed ready to explore and try to confront the perceived mistakes of the Vietnam War.

PREDATOR also critiques both the objectives and the execution of the military campaign.  The character of Dillon (played by Carl Weathers), an old friend of Dutch’s and now an CIA operative who has master minded the rescue/assassination mission, is depicted for much of the movie as the secondary villain. He is portrayed as slippery, secretive and totally out of his depth. He is mistrusted and mocked by the rest of the team, he struggles to physically keep up with the battle hardened heroes and it is eventually revealed that he has lied and manipulated Dutch into carrying out the mission. Dillon stands as a symbol for the morally questionable military-industrial complex whose machinations some felt where responsible for the failings of the war. Dutch and his men stand for the “Good soldiers” that are lied to about the operations true objectives and are morally just in their actions. In the opening scene, Dillon asks Dutch why he has rejected previous missions at the request of the CIA and Dutch responds:

“We are a rescue team, not assassins.”

When the mission’s true objective is revealed, that they are not there to rescue diplomats captured by guerrillas but to take out a Communist army about to launch a military coup, Dutch admonishes Dillon for his subterfuge. It is suggested that Dillon, and the shady characters he symbolises, who is responsible for the failures of the war, not “true” soldiers like Dutch. Dillon tries to explain the moral complexities of his motivations but this falls on deaf ears.

DUTCH: What happened to you, Dillon? You used to someone I could trust.

DILLON: I woke up. So should you.

But the film suggests that Dillon (and those like him) are the ones that need to wake up.  Dillon is given redemption of sorts, when he joins forces with the team, setting aside his differences for his own survival and dies in an attempt to hold off the Predator so Dutch can escape. PREDATOR suggests that if those at the top, the ones making the decisions would act like “good” soldiers that disasters like the Vietnam War would not happen.

McTiernan and the writers also suggest another way that the Vietnam War could have been won. The character of the Predator could be taken as a symbolic representation of the Viet Cong, an enemy who is invisible, blending in with its surroundings, use guerrilla tactics and sneak attacks to psychologically batter its enemies. Much like James Cameron’s 1986 film ALIENS, which also used its creature as a metaphor for the Viet Cong, the use of monstrous aliens as representations of the North Vietnamese is problematic. The Predator is coded as something Other, as ethnic, with its dreadlock like tendrils and tribal attire. (PREDATOR 2 actually carried on this theme of racial coding to the character, set in a futuristic LA boiling over with racial tension.)PREDATOR offers a solution to the failures of the Vietnam War in that Dutch eventually defeats the Predator by learning from his enemy. When Dutch is left as the only survivor of his team and decide to take on the alien one on one, he abandons his previous attempts of fighting the creature head on and the scorched earth approach seen in the earlier mini gun scene, where the team level a whole area of jungle with their heavy weaponry. In the final act, Dutch copies the tactics of the Predator, after discovering that by covering himself in the clay like jungle mud he is invisible to the alien’s heat vision. Dutch creates his own primitive weapons- bows and arrows, spears and traps- whilst using the foliage to blend in with his surroundings. That’s right; Dutch has become a Viet Cong soldier, using guerrilla tactics to take out a technologically superior enemy. Dutch even appears like a VC guerrilla, with his mud covered camouflage. It’s an incredible reversal, as McTiernan depicts the American soldier coded as a Viet Cong guerrilla.

PREDATOR AND THE MACHO

This leads to the final theme I will discuss.; McTiernan’s skewering of the overblown machismo of the Eighties action movie.  The Eighties was the era of the body builder and the action hero of the time was defined by being the definition of hyper masculinity. The biggest stars were the biggest men; physically imposing men with the bodies of an Adonis and limited acting ability. No one could claim that Schwarzenegger, Jean Claude Van Damme and Dolph Lungren were particularly great thespians but they weren’t required to be. These heroes didn’t show emotion or vulnerabilities, they were killing machines that would crack a joke whilst cracking bad guy’s spines. Schwarzenegger’s signature role as THE TERMINATOR even saw him playing a literal killing machine. Even protagonists who didn’t quite fit this physical mould like Sigourney Weaver in ALIENS or Peter Weller in ROBOCOP, used armour and heavy firepower to become an invulnerable machine. Perhaps this was a reflection of the way Reagan era America now saw itself: big, bad and unstoppable. At first PREDATOR seems to be taking this image to the extreme. McTiernan fetishizes the bodies of the pumped up cast, with numerous shots of their naked, sweaty torsos. The director leans into the homoerotic charge that is latent in this era and PREDATOR features such loving shots of men’s bodies that they would look out of place in Kenneth Anger’s avant-garde Queer classic SCORPIO RISING.   There is undoubtedly some gay subtext in the film, with this close knit group of men who are resistant to outsiders (the team are suspicious and threatening towards Dillon) and the incredibly close relationship between Mac and Blain hints at something more than just being brothers in arms. Mac weeps and grieves for Blain, tenderly standing vigil over his body and is driven to a deranged quest for vengeance. The relationship between Dillon and Dutch share these homoerotic undertones. Perhaps it is due to Schwarzenegger’s limited expressiveness as an actor that when he sees Dillon in the first scene his reaction is more reminiscent of someone greeting an old flame.  When Dillon betrays Dutch there is the overtones of a betrayal in a relationship given Dutch’s hurt reaction. In the final scene before Dillon’s death, when Dillon finally proves that he is a heroic, “good” soldier, they gaze at each other as Dillon’s sweaty, undulating midriff is exposed. Dutch even throws Dillon a phallic gun as he leaves. There is also the fact that a woman is brought into the cast of characters, a prisoner from the rebel camp called Anna (Elpidia Carrilo), the team reluctantly bring her along and only do so under the orders of Dillon.  It is telling that there is no sexual tension between the team and Anna, with the only exception being a brief scene where Anna smiles flirtingly at Poncho (Richard Chaves), however this is only as a prelude to an escape attempt.  Dutch and the others seem uninterested in her as a sexual object or even for the most in anyway. It is only when she shares her knowledge of the Predator that the men start to show any interest in her and by the end of the film Dutch (almost) see her as an equal. This homoerotic tension and lack of heterosexual desire in the characters has also lead to some reading the film as an AIDS allegory. In the mid to late Eighties the AIDS crisis gripped America and undoubtedly the societal anxiety regarding the disease was reflected in  the cinema of the time (Croneberg’s THE FLY is the definitive text of AIDS metaphors in Eighties horror). There are some elements in PREDATOR that do fit with an AIDS allegory reading, the (for the most part) all male cast are attacked by an unseen, unstoppable enemy that brings certain death despite the characters physical strength. (I’m aware that this is a reductive view of the AIDS crisis, the disease was an equal opportunity killer but in the media it was often coded as a “gay plague.”) I’m not sure this was intentional in the way that some of the other themes are and the reading doesn’t quite hold water as there is little to code the Predator as a disease although perhaps the way the alien is coded as foreign or Other is a nod to the fears that AIDS was brought to America by a foreigner from an exotic land. (See the demonization of Gaetan Dugas, falsely identified as Patient Zero during the AIDS crisis in America.)

This digression into the homoerotic subtext found in the film leads into the more prominent theme of the death of the macho that I think was intentional on McTiernan’s part. It is right there in the film’s opening scene with the famous image of the mid-air arm wrestle between Dutch and Dillon. The shot drew laughter in the screening I attended and there is a sense of comic book ridiculousness to the shot almost surreal in its depiction of bulging biceps. That sets the tone for the rest of the movie in particular the more comic first half. McTiernan leans into the hyper masculinity that is typical of the Eighties action genre and ramps it up to the point of parody. The macho posturing of the rescue team is played for laughs in particular the character of Blain played by wrestler turned actor Jesse Ventura. Blain is a parody of the alpha male, his pumped up muscles, handle bar moustache and cowboy hat is visually representative of a certain type of masculinity. His dialogue and character interactions also highlight his masculine credentials. Blain chews tobacco, spitting disgusting black goo on Dillon’s shoes to emasculate him. He calls the others in the team “slack jawed faggots” and refers to himself as “a sexual tyrannosaurs(sic)”.

Again this links to the homoerotic subtext discussed earlier, Blain could be seen as a closeted gay character overcompensating with macho bravado by accusing others of being less manly. In the rescue/assassination sequences he is shot which he dismisses with “I ain’t got time to bleed.” McTiernan also visualises Blain’s hyper-masculinity by giving him the largest weapon, a mini gun which according to the filmmakers is normally mounted to the side of a helicopter. Blain carries this around on his side pushing his masculine capabilities to the extreme. Blain however is one of the first to die, shot in the back with a laser bolt from the Predator. That moment is followed by  a scene  McTiernan has actually stated was an intentional parody of the gun lust of the Eighties action movie. Mac finds Blain’s body, sees the Predator and grabs the mini gun, firing wildly into the jungle. The rest of the team join him and what follows is a few minutes of nothing but gunfire as the team level an entire portion of the jungle. The sequence lasts just a few moments too long, just long enough fir the scene to become comical. The final twist is that despite the amount of destruction, the Predator escapes completely unscathed.  McTiernan is showing the ridiculousness and futility of gung ho machismo. McTiernan also delights in dismantling the macho posturing of the heroes when the Predator begins to pick them off one by one. It’s surprising how far McTiernan goes in skewering the hyper-masculinity of the characters: Mac is torn apart by grief over Blain’s death that he completely unravels, Billy (a Native American character who has some lazy qausi-mystical insight into the Predator) becomes convinced of the team’s impending doom “We’re all going die”; Poncho is badly wounded and spends the remainder of the film a whimpering wreck before being shot in the back by the Predator.

The final face-off between Dutch and the Predator in the third act features one last comment on hyper masculinity from McTiernan. Has there ever been a sequence in Schwarzenegger’s career than the final battle in PREDATOR? Due to his imposing physical stature, Schwarzenegger’s nemeses are usually more cerebral threats, normally well-spoken European bad guys who use armies of henchmen to try and take out the Austrian Oak. Rarely is Schwarzenegger’s physically outmatched and watching the final fight in PREDATOR, it was surprising to see a beaten and bloodied Schwarzenegger, cowering and whimpering at the hands of the Predator. McTiernan has always taken great pains to depict his action heroes as flesh and blood human beings who bleed and cry and show their fear. McTiernan took this idea even further with DIE HARD but the seeds of this approach can be seen in PREDATOR, although no doubt he was hampered in any attempt to create a more human character by Schwarzenegger’s limitations as an actor. McTiernan is a capable director of actors and he does get a decent performance out of Schwarzenegger in PREDATOR, mainly by playing to his strengths and by not asking him to emote too much. (LAST ACTION HERO, Schwarzenegger and McTiernan’s second collaboration was less successful as the actor struggled with the more comic elements of the film.)  The final fight between Dutch and The Predator also features one other comment by McTiernan on hyper masculinity. Stripped off his reliance on weaponry, Dutch must use his wits to survive, learning from the Predator’s guerrilla tactics. The wordless, suspenseful final battle becomes a cat and mouse battle of wills between two warriors and Dutch defeats the Predator by luring the creature into a trap. McTiernan’s view on macho posturing is clear: it isn’t guns or brawn but brains that is the most important quality in a hero.

CONCLUSION

PREDATOR is one of the best action movies of the Eighties and is the perfect example of the big is better philosophy of Hollywood genre filmmaking of that era. It certainly checks all the boxes of the 80’s action movie: muscle bound stars, big guns, over the top action, cheesy one-liners. However, whereas a lot of similar Eighties action movies did little more than check the boxes, John McTiernan’s approach to PREDATOR is anything but by-the-numbers. Not only is McTiernan a master craftsman, with a great eye for composition and a knack for careful camera movement, he is a canny storyteller. McTiernan had more ambition than your average Hollywood action director and not only knew how to strip the story to the bone into something fast paced and muscular but also brought a subversive edge to PREDATOR. McTiernan clearly wanted to elevate the action genre with his work not only with his aesthetics but also with the themes of his films. He obviously wanted to use PREDATOR to critique both the macho posturing of the genre but also to highlight the homoeroticism latent in the genre. McTiernan achieved this PREDATOR by leaning into these genre tropes, exaggerating them to the point of ridiculousness then skewering the hyper-masculine posturing typical of the Eighties action film. This meta textual element of the film and its metaphorical underpinnigs 9such as its critique of American foreign policy) raised PREDATOR above the level of ALIEN knock off that it could so easily have been. However, that isn’t to say the film is perfect. PREDATOR was only the director’s second film and McTiernan had yet to have a hit. Therefore there was a lack of trust from the studio in the relatively untested director, coupled with his own inexperience as a filmmaker. There is a tension within the film that is never quite resolved and it feels like there are two films fighting with each other. There is the typical Arnold Schwarzenegger film, with its silliness and cheesy one liners and the more ambitious, suspenseful movie the director was trying to make. Watching the film now it is the former aspect that seems most dated, in particular the A-Team style first act and set piece and moments like “Stick around”( a one liner that seems totally out of character for the taciturn Dutch.)  These cheesy moments clash with McTiernan’s more elegant style and the taut atmosphere he is trying to create. PREDATOR seems now like a good attempt by a talented but inexperienced director to elevate the action genre but it doesn’t quite manage it. The film was a commercial success which allowed McTiernan another chance at his goal with 1988’S DIE HARD. This time McTiernan was given the freedom to make the fim he wanted to make and he not only delivered one of the greatest action films ever made but one that revolutionised the genre. McTiernan managed to achieve with DIE HARD all of the things he wanted to do with PREDATOR: the sharp script makes satirical points about rampant capitalism and authority, John McClane was a more human and vulnerable kind of action hero, played by Bruce Willis an actor with far more range than Schwarzenegger and visually McTiernan was able to create a new aesthetic for the action movie (helped considerably by extraordinary photography by Jan De Bont.) However, many of the ideas and visual techniques found in DIE HARD are seen in nascent form in PREDATOR.

PREDATOR may not quite achieve the ambitions of the director and is a somewhat schizophrenic mix of a generic Eighties action movie and a taut, witty sci-fi thriller but it is still head and shoulders above most other action films. Thanks to John McTiernan’s atmospheric visuals, lean storytelling, impressive creature design by Stan Winston and at least some attempt to give some depth to typical monster movie, PREDATOR is a classic sci-fi action film and is intelligent enough to deserve its reputation as one of the best action movies of the Eighties.

Predator 30th Anniversary Review Part One

28 Dec

John McTiernan’s seminal sci-fi/ action/ horror classic returned to the big screen last month and is as deliriously entertaining as ever. Lean, mean and suspenseful, PREDATOR is a masterpiece of Eighties action cinema, a taut and witty Vietnam metaphor that contains Arnold Schwarzenegger at the peak of his powers and introduced an iconic villain to the sci-fi genre.

PLOT

Schwarzenegger plays Dutch, the leader of an elite Special Forces team (which includes hard men character actors like Sonny Landham, Jesse Ventura, Bill Duke and bizarrely, LETHAL WEAPON screenwriter Shane Black as a nerdish communications expert) who is tasked with a rescue mission in a fictional Communist South American country.  Joined by CIA agent (and Dutch’s former comrade) Dillon (ROCKY’s Carl Weathers), Dutch soon realises that he has been lied to about the missions true objective. This is the least of his problems as, when his team is trapped behind enemy lines and one by one are picked off by an unseen, seemingly unstoppable enemy. Soon, Dutch is the only one left and must face down this alien hunter in an epic showdown of two great warriors.

PREDATOR AND THE EIGHTIES ACTION FILM

PREDATOR stands as the epitome of high concept genre filmmaking from era where action movies were stripped down to their essentials. The Eighties was the era where Schwarzenegger, Sylvester Stallone, Jean Claude Van Damme, Dolph Lungren became superstars.  Short on acting talent (apart from Stallone) but big on muscles these stars lead movies that reflected their physiques; big, cartoonish and lean. High concept movies dominated the Eighties and where movies that could be described in one sentence or as Steven Spielberg called them “ideas you could hold in your hand.” ALIEN was “JAWS in space”, TOP GUN was “STAR WARS on Earth” and PREDATOR was “Schwarzenegger meets ALIEN.”  The Eighties action genre was masterful in its use of stripped down storytelling, with simplistic plots, rigid three act structure and broad strokes character arcs. (TOP GUN was so stripped down it simply named its hero Maverick.) As with all art, they reflected the political climate of the time; after the corruption and paranoia of the Nixon era and the malaise of Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan gave America back it swagger and the movies mirrored that newfound bombast. For me PREDATOR is the finest example of the Eighties action movie but perhaps what marks it out from the somewhat forgotten films of that era, is the way that it subverts and skewers much of what made the genre so popular.

Watching it again for its 30th Anniversary it struck me just how taut the film is.  The first few minutes efficient set everything up without any flab. The first shot is a brief snippet of the Predator’s ship flying towards Earth. This shot is crucial as it sets up the genre of the film: the first 25 minutes are a relatively gritty, combat movie and the Predator’s presence is only hinted at. This single brief shot primes the viewer that the film will have sci-fi elements saw that the clash of genres doesn’t jar. Then the movie features a wordless scene of the rescue team arriving at a remote military camp via helicopter. This introduces the heroes without the need for dialogue. Then we get the first lines of dialogue, General Phillips (RG Armstrong) giving Dutch his mission. Talk about stripped down; there is no backstory, no scene of the team on their previous mission, no chit chat. We just go straight into the plot. The rest of the film keeps up this relentless pace and demonstrates McTiernan’s knack for economical storytelling.

This was only John McTiernan’s second feature film, having cut his teeth on the little seen Pierce Brosnan horror NOMADS in 1984, but it is a great showcase for his talents.  There was once a time when McTiernan looked like he could become the Hitchcock of the late twentieth century. He shared the master’s  gift for suspense and action but he also shared Hitchcock’s sly wit and subversive edge. His next film after PREDATOR, DIE HARD is not only one of the greatest action movie ever made but a witty swipe at Greed is Good Reaganomics and class politics.  His 1993 flop LAST ACTION HERO was a self-referential spoof of the action genre he had helped to create and 1999’s THE THOMAS CROWN AFFAIR (his last decent film) felt like a modern TO CATCH A THIEF, with its breezy tone and palpable sexual tension (although unlike Hitchcock, more permissive attitudes allowed McTiernan to actually depict the passion between his stars in a steamy and memorable sex scene). McTiernan’s career fell away after that due to cinematic and personal reasons. The action genre moved on to BOURNE IDENTITY style chaos cinema and McTiernan’s more deliberate, elegant approach was now outdated. His career completely derailed when he was sentenced to 2 years imprisonment for committing perjury when he gave false testimony regarding his hiring of a private eye to spy on other Hollywood producers.

VISUAL STYLE

PREDATOR contains the perfect distillation of McTiernan’s unique style. He likes to use long lenses, creating extreme close ups of his actors to ramp up the tension. He also use the telephoto lens when filming high speed tracking shots, one shot in particular at the end of the film of Schwarzenegger running through the jungle becomes an almost surreal blur of motion due to the long lens.  His eye for composition is apparent throughout. McTiernan makes good use of the Predator’s heat vision POV, not only using it to increase the suspense as we see the heroes being stalked unawares but also to create surreal, impressionistic images of the characters through psychedelically bright colours. The use of the Predator’s POV is particularly memorable in the final fight, where the alien observes the angular planes of Schwarzenegger’s skull, the image coming across like an impressionistic painting.  The final act involving Dutch’s battle of wills with the alien has an almost comic book style of framing and McTiernan uses wide angle lenses and atmospheric lighting to ratchet up the tension.  His careful, elegant camerawork is made more apparent in contrast with the first action sequence of the film, the rescue/assassination scene at the rebel camp. This sequence sticks out like a sore thumb with its seemingly random cutting, over the top stunt work (lots of extras leaping up in the air as if jumping on trampolines) and some groan inducing one liners, including the infamous “stick around”.  That this scene jars with both McTiernan’s more measured style and the tone of the rest of the film is no accident: it was directed by someone else. The producers were concerned about McTiernan’s lack of experience and handed the scene over to second unit director and stunt coordinator Craig R Baxter. This is often common practice in action film making where complex action and stunt scenes are directed by more experienced, more qualified professionals when dangerous stunts and explosives are involved. Baxter was responsible for shaping much of the aesthetics of the Eighties action movie and directed several set pieces in big Hollywood productions. His style was most evident (and most mocked) in the classic TV series THE A TEAM, where his penchant for stunt men flying through the air in slow motion as flames shot up behind them became the subject of much parody.  There is nothing wrong with second unit directors handling action sequences in an action film, it makes sense in terms of safety (no one wants a repeat of the TWILIGHT ZONE tragedy) and hiring a specialist who knows how to get the most out of stunt performers  and choreography is smart filmmaking. However, it works best when the second unit director is in sync with the director of the film and ensures that their sequences math the tone and style of the rest of the piece.

In fact the main problems with PREDATOR and the flaws which prevent the film from reaching true greatness of genre films like ALIEN and THE FLY are due to the tensions within the film, where on one side it is a generic Schwarzenegger Eighties shoot em up and the film’s more ambitious director. There is the aforementioned Baxter directed A-TEAM style action sequence and the COMMANDO style scenes of Schwarzenegger mowing down scores of extras with an oversized machine gun that is the trope of the genre. The studio also denied McTiernan the chance to shoot in the Anamorphic film format and insisted he shot with conventional, spherical lenses in the 1:85 aspect ratio. This is understandable, most genre movies in the Eighties where shot spherically as it is cheaper, uses lighter equipment and is easier to use with optical effects. However, McTiernan revolutionised the action movie aesthetic (along with cinematographer Jan De Bont) with his next film DIE HARD. McTiernan’s style became synonymous with the Anamorphic format  and few filmmakers have used the specific elements of the format, the epic scope of the widescreen frame, the blue streaks of lens flare and the soft, shallow depth of field, to such thrilling effect as McTiernan did in DIE HARD. It is this lack of trust in their admittedly inexperienced director by the producers that hampers the film and prevents PREDATOR from revolutionising the genre in the way McTiernan managed with DIE HARD. However, he comes extremely close.

This analysis was separated into two parts due to its length. In the second part I will look at the themes and subtexts hidden in PREDATOR

MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS

23 Nov

murder-on-the-OE 

DIRECTOR: Kenneth Branagh

WRITERS: Michael Green(Screenplay) Agatha Christie (novel)

THE PLOT: The world’s most famous detective Hercules Poirot (Kenneth Branagh) is called to London on urgent business and hitches a lift on the legendary Orient Express. When the train is derailed in the mountains of Yugoslavia, Poirot is called into action to investigate the murder of one of the passengers, a shady art dealer with a mysterious past called Ratchett (Johnny Depp). Poirot interrogates the suspects one by one and uncovers everyone has secrets to tell and their own motives to murder Ratchett. Poirot must race against time to uncover the truth before the snow clears and the killer can escape.

REVIEW: Kenneth Branagh continues his recent run of form with a fast-paced, humorous revamp of the classic novel by Agatha Christie, breathing new life into an oft-told tale. MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS is a lavishly mounted old school romp that features some fun performances from its game cast, a witty screenplay from Michael Green,some slick visuals and a surprisingly moving denouement.

Kenneth Branagh burst onto the scene in the late Eighties with his excellent Shakespeare adaptation HENRY V, which was also his film debut as both star and director. Following the success of that film (he won Oscar nominations for Best Actor and Best Director)  and the comedy MUCH ADO ABOUT NOTHING, Branagh was bestowed with the tag of “the next Olivier.”. Obviously this was an impossible tag to live up to and his move into A list Hollywood filmmaking with MARY SHELLEY’S FRANKENSTEIN was a critical and commercial flop. He did recover his reputation somewhat with his big budget, unabridged version of HAMLET but that film was not a huge hit, mainly due to its four hour runtime, but he had lost much of his Golden Boy aura. Despite a few successes including a fun turn as the conceited Gilderoy Lockhart in HARRY POTTER AND THECHAMBER OF SECRETS and an Oscar nominated performance as (ironically)  Laurence Olivier in MY WEEK WITH MARILYN, the late 90s early 2000s was a quiet period for Branagh. This all changed when Branagh had a huge hit with THOR in 2011. Branagh was a surprise choice to direct an all action Marvel blockbuster but it actually proved to be a master stroke as he brought a sense of Shakespearean weight to the Viking mythology and added an emotional heft to the comic book film. The run continued with spy reboot JACK RYAN:SHADOW RECRUIT and DISNEY’S CINDERELLA and Branagh continues his surprising new career as A list director with MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS. He brings his usual Wellesian flamboyance to the film, with his constantly roving camera, ambitious long takes and his love for epic widescreen vistas (he shot MURDER.. on 65mm film as he did with HAMLET). He has a knack for taking unfashionable material be it Shakespeare, classic novels(MARY SHELLEY’S FRANKENSTEIN) or Norse mythology(THOR) and infusing them with a modern, energetic (though admittedly broad) style.

Branagh is a terrific actor although he has often been criticised for being overly theatrical, which is valid since he first found fame on the London stage and that is where he appears most at home. His flamboyance as a filmmaker is mirrored in his acting style and on some occasions in his career he has slipped into overacting, most obviously in MARY SHELLEY’S FRANKENSTEIN. In Hercules Poirot, however, Branagh seems to have found the perfect character for his talents, Poirot is a vain, preening character that is undoubtedly a genius in his field and Branagh nails this perfectly. Always gifted with accents,  Branagh’ s Belgian is convincing but with enough Allo Allo style camp to fit in with the heightened world of the film. One of the elements that make Christie’s books so spicy is the fact that the author was aware that Poirot was quite unlikeable: a genius detective yes, but a rigid and conceited stick in the mud. In Sidney Lumet’s 1974 version of MURDER.. (up until this film the definitive cinematic version of Christie’s novel) Albert Finney played up the unlikeable aspects of the detective, playing a dyspeptic Poirot with snap and snarl. Branagh’s reading is a few gears lower than Finney’s, a warmer and more charming version of the character. Special mention must go to Branagh’s gargantuan moustache, almost a character in its own right.

murder-on-the-orient-express

One of the most interesting aspects of Michael Green (BLADE RUNNER 2049, LOGAN) screenplay is the way it plays up the moral ambiguity of the film’s climax. Without giving away spoilers to the famous ending to the story, Christie’s denouement is a challenge to the cut and dried moralising of most detective tales. Branagh and Green use this to give the film an emotional impact that is missing from many Christie adaptations, including Lumet’s slick but cold version of MURDER.  At the beginning of Branagh’s film, Poirot states that “There is right and there is wrong.” The climax of the film actively challenges Poirot’s certainty and the final scenes, where the detective is forced to reset his moral compass, are surprisingly moving.

Branagh is obviously a great director of actors and he draws out some fun performances from the cast. Michelle Pfeiffer vamps it up as a wealthy divorcee, Judi Dench has some funny moments as a gruff Princess and the usually irritating Josh Gad (FROZEN) is surprisingly restrained and menacing as the victim’s shady assistants. Even Johnny Depp who has been in a poor run of form of late, is effectively slimy as Ratchett, the more than deserving victim of the titular crime.

The film does have its flaws obviously. Branagh’s focus on keeping things moving gives some parts of the film a rushed feeling, especially a chase sequence featuring Branagh and Gad seems to come out of nowhere and is strangely paced. It’s not usually that you would say that a film needed to be longer some moments could have done with more room to breathe. Also, the tone of the film is pitched quite high and the line between theatrical and high camp requires a high wire balancing act and there are a few scenes when Branagh goes over the edge. The shot of the suspects, perefectly arranged to mimic Da Vinci’s Last Supper might have been a joke too far but as always you have to admire Branagh’s cheek.

VERDICT: MURDER ON THE ORIENT EXPRESS is a fun, funny romp that successfully updates the classic Agatha Christie novel for a modern audience. Branagh lets rip as both star and director, creating a slick, good looking film with a great cast having the time of their lives. Branagh and his writer Michael Green puts some meat on the story’s bones by playing up the moral ambiguity of the film’s ending and actually challenging the hero’s binary viewpoint of justice. Apart from a few missteps the film stays on the right side of camp and although subtlety is not a part of Branagh’s style, that’s what makes his film so entertaining. Sometimes his reach exceeds his grasp but when he gets it right, Branagh is one of the best actors and directors around.

download (1)