(Netflix Streaming, February 2016) I remember that xXx: State of the Union got terrible reviews upon release, but watching the film lately is enough to make anyone wonder why the reviewers were so vexed. Of course, time has been kind to lead actor Ice Cube, who seems even more iconic today thanks to his anointment in Straight Outta Compton: Part of State of the Union’s charm comes from seeing his gruff demeanour clashing with the usual nonsense of a typical dumb action movie. It’s worth highlighting that Ice Cube has personality and the film distinguishes itself (even a decade later) by featuring it as best it can. There is some daring in State of the Union’s premise of a coup building against the US government, and a sprinkling of action sequences (especially a purely nonsensical but fast-paced bullet-train sequence at the climax of the film) are enough to keep things interesting to the end. Under Lee Tamahori’s direction, State of the Union is not a film that takes itself seriously, and so becomes one of those movies in which absurdities act as features rather than problems. It’s easy to feel some odd affection for it, especially if you’re already an Ice Cube fan and find much postmodern fun in contemplating an NWA founding member saving the US government from rogue elements.
(On Cable TV, February 2014) Perhaps the most interesting thing about dictators is how they represent a case study in what happens with humans given almost-unlimited power. So it is that The Devil’s Double imagines a fanciful story about an ordinary man coerced into becoming Uday Hussein’s doppelganger. Along the way, he discovers the insanity of the man, tries to escape and take revenge for what he has seen. Dominic Cooper doubly stars as both Uday and his double, relying on basic but effective acting tricks so that there is never a moment’s hesitation in knowing who we’re dealing with. The Devil’s Double is never as interesting as when it becomes an excuse to dramatize the life of excess in which Uday Hussein lived: fast cars, faster women, unchecked power and blatant sadism all abound here. What’s less compelling is the by-the-numbers nature of the story, which adheres faithfully to the good-old templates for innocents brought near sources of raw power –it does feel a lot like a gangster film. Also rather less than interesting is the film’s raw violence, which often crosses far beyond the necessary to indulge into sheer gore. Director Lee Tamahori keeps things moving briskly, and gets a great performance from Cooper… but the end result does feel too conventional. Worse yet: The Devil’s Double is based on a book that pretends to be a true story, but investigations have revealed no evidence that this ever happened. At least we get a passable thriller out of the fanciful story.