(On DVD, February 2017) So; what happens when you start watching a crime thriller and an existentialist drama breaks out? Watch Revolver to find out. The weight of expectations clearly runs against the film: This is a Guy Richie movie! Starring Jason Statham and Ray Liotta! Featuring high-powered criminals! How can it not be another Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrel, Snatch or Rock-and-rolla? Well, it turns out that under the trappings of a crime thriller, Revolver wants to be something else. It messes with Kabbalistic symbols, deconstructs the inner psyche of a criminal, plays with components of the self, and, quite visibly, loses track of what it meant to do. Seeing Luc Besson’s name on the script is a warning more than a feature. Richie’s typically dynamic direction here feels disjointed if not actively unbalanced—the unreality of the heavily processed opening sequences eventually lead to the depiction of a mental breakdown as seen from the inside. It’s not pretty, and Revolver is equally remarkable for the way it’s willing to deglamorize strong actors. Statham has unflattering hair and an even worse dramatic arc, while Mark Strong has to contend with equally terrible hair and a surprisingly wimpy character. Self-important and pretentious to a fault, Revolver is an experience more than a film, and the right response at the end is something along the lines of a wary “okay…” Even the “reworked” American version barely works on the surface level of a crime thriller—and it’s exhausting enough that it discourages any attempt to go beyond the surface. I used to think that Swept Away was the worst thing that Madonna ever did to Richie (well, except for the pain of divorce, etc.) but Revolver has to be a close second.
(On Cable TV, October 2016) There are two movies competing for attention Grimsby, and one of them is far better than the other. There’s the somewhat energetic spy thriller, featuring Mark Strong doing what he does best as a no-nonsense special operative trying to stop a terrorist plot. That part of the movie is directed with glee and energy by Louis Leterrier (a veteran when it comes to special-effects-heavy spectacle), goes by smoothly even as it doesn’t reinvent the genre. But then there’s the other movie, the crude gross-out comedy that focuses on Sacha Baron Cohen usual brand of comic vulgarity. Racing to the bottom of offensiveness, Grimsby features … well, I’m not going to describe it if it’s going to either disturb or intrigue you. Suffice to say that as the film uses the spy-movie framework for lowbrow gags, Grimsby becomes increasingly dispiriting. If there’s a case to be made about wasted time, money and effort in the service of something that makes the world worse for existing … yes, this is a serious contender for worst-movie-of-the-year status. Or would be if it wasn’t for the few sequences that manage to shake off its particularly revolting humour in favour of some solid action beats. Oh well; at least the movie was a box-office failure, mitigating the risks that we’ll ever see a sequel.
(Video on Demand, July 2016) At first glance, Approaching the Unknown has a kernel of potential. The trailer promises a somewhat introspective look at space exploration, alongside an astronaut travelling alone to Mars. There’s been a recent mini-boom in space-exploration films, and while no-one expected this low-budget production to match Interstellar, it could have found a place alongside Europa Report. But even after a few minutes, it becomes horribly clear that Approaching the Unknown is a big heap of nonsense choked in pseudo-profound meandering and then smothered in interminable pacing. I don’t often fall asleep during boring movies, but Approaching the Unknown got me, and it got me good: I actually had to go back and re-watch the second half, which made it even worse given how the film disintegrates even further in its second half. It’s a multifaceted failure, from nonsense science (I could give you a list of ten things from the movie that are actually dumber than the Transformers series) to meaningless musings to a direction job that kills any interest the film may have held. It’s just a terrible movie-watching experience that I wouldn’t wish on anyone else. It even made me think less of Mark Strong for choosing the role, as well as Sanaa Lathan and Luke Wilson for showing up in supporting roles. I get that the film is meant as a meditative character piece about sanity, exploration and self-discovery, but as the old SF truism goes, if the literal level doesn’t work, the metaphorical level can’t either. I don’t particularly like to dismiss low-budget passion projects, but Approaching the Unknown is a damning debut for writer/director Mark Elijah Rosenberg and I hope he’ll be able to do better the next time around. (I’ll at least acknowledge that the film may be best suited to people who liked Under the Skin.)
(Video on Demand, March 2015) I have a bit of a fondness for films in which exotic afflictions are used for thrilling effect. (See; Faces in the Crowd; Memento) Before I Go to Sleep starts by describing the plight of a woman who loses her memory every night, only remembering events from long-ago. Every morning, she reads notes to orient herself; every morning, her husband reassures her; every morning, she discovers who she was. But, of course, some clues accumulate suggesting that what she is told to remember isn’t what really happened to her… and the thrills begin. Who is her husband? Does she have a son? Is the doctor she’s seeing without her husband’s knowledge there to help or hurt her? So many questions to be answered during a delirious third act! Nicole Kidman isn’t bad as the protagonist and Mark Strong is his usual menacing self, but it’s Colin Firth who turns in the most remarkable performance with a somewhat unusual turn for him. Rowan Joffé’s direction has a few stylish moments and if the story is wild enough to compensate for odd turns of logic, the film does suffer from a bit of a middle-third lull and some late-movie clichés. Still, given that Before I Go to Sleep had a fairly low profile in North America, it’s most likely going to be a pleasant surprise for fans of the two lead actors, and offer a reasonably competent late-night thriller for audiences with low expectations.
(On Cable TV, January 2015) As it turns out, there is a thinner line than I thought between cool and ridiculous. This can be best shown using Welcome to the Punch, a British crime thriller that tries so hard to look cool that it eventually become laughable despite itself. Much of the film isn’t too bad, though: The cinematography of the film (finding surprising beauty in the blue-hued glass buildings in night-time London) is stylish and striking, and James McAvoy has seldom looked more self-assured as a once-wounded police officer forced to ally with a career criminal (Mark Strong, also good) in order to take down a bigger operation. Director Eran Creevy scores a few great sequences, including a grabbing opening sequence, and a mid-movie slow-motion living-room confrontation. Unfortunately, the wheels start coming off mid-way through as a sympathetic character is badly killed (maybe even excessively killed, if it’s possible to overstate it), and the film then incongruously ramps up the cool factor until it exceed maximum pretentiousness levels shortly before the night-set loading docks ending sequence. By the time the protagonist (again) rises up (again) in slow-motion with (again) a shotgun, it’s hard not to laugh at the film’s expense. Which is too bad, because McAvoy and Strong are pretty darn cool when they don’t have to overplay their moments, and the direction has its moments before falling off the cliff of obnoxiousness. It’s hard to avoid thinking that with a slightly defter touch, Welcome to the Punch could have been much better.
(Video on Demand, June 2013) If you feel that there’s been a dearth of desert-adventure films out there, then take heart in Day of the Falcon’s existence and enjoy a trip to 1930s Arabia for an old-fashioned epic. Tahar Rahim stars as Prince Auda, a bookworm son who eventually learns to lead an army and uphold progressive values at a time when the West is taking an interest in the oil reserves under the sand. A co-production involving four countries, Day of the Falcon has a decent budget and a refreshingly earnest viewpoint toward traditional values in the face of western imperialism. Directed with competence by veteran French filmmaker Jean-Jacques Annaud, the film can be enjoyed for its epic scope, interesting visuals and sympathetic characters. It’s hardly perfect: there are a few pacing issues, and as much as I like Mark Strong and Antonio Banderas, casting them as warring emirs feels like a bit of a wasted opportunity for ethnicity-appropriate actors. (The same goes, to a lesser extent, for Freida Pinto, except that she’s sultry enough to make anyone believe that the hero would wage all-out war simply in order to come back home to her.) Historical parallels with the early days of Saudi Arabia are interesting (albeit not to be taken at face value) and so is the obvious commentary on the dominance of the oil industry in the region. Parallels with Lawrence of Arabia are obvious, especially considering that the film offers a few desert-war sequences not commonly seen elsewhere in movies. The stilted dialogues and acting definitely take a back seat to sweep of the film’s adventure. For a film that probably flew under the radar of most north-American moviegoers, Day of the Falcon definitely qualifies as an underappreciated gem.
(On-demand video, July 2012) As the Cold War recedes from popular consciousness, it’s slowly taking on a nice historical patina. Judging from Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, the color palette of that patina is going to be made of dull browns with the occasional flash of garish orange foam. Well-adapted from John le Carré’s classic novel about the hunt for a Soviet mole within the British spy establishment, it faithfully sticks to the author’s portrayal of English spies as dull grey bureaucrats fighting for the realm from little drab offices. It’s a refreshing antidote to the overblown portrayal of spies as action heroes, but it does require a willingness from viewers to adjust their entertainment expectations. This is a slow film, and it doesn’t have much in terms of conventional thrills: The biggest suspense sequences of the film (sneaking documents from the archives, waiting for the mole to show up) are moments that would have been glossed-over in an action film. So it’s no surprise if Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy works best as an atmospheric period piece, featuring two handfuls of capable actors and a mature view of the reality of the intelligence game that is far closer to reality than most other films. Information here is far more important than bullets. Gary Oldman is mesmerizing as George Smiley, a spy who does his best work by interviewing people and then thinking really hard about what he has learned. The surrounding cast is very strong, from Mark Strong’s atypical performance as a wounded ex-spy to Colin Firth’s unrepentant seducer to Toby Jones’s slimy ladder-climber. The adaptation from the novel is skillful, as it seems to completely re-structure the chronology of the story while keeping much of the plot points intact. The result may not be up to everyone’s favored speed, but it’s a skillful film, and one that does wonder in terms of pure atmosphere. It works much like the novel does, as a counter-point to espionage fantasies.
(In theatres, December 2009) It had to happen sooner or later: a retelling of Sherlock Holmes (suspiciously absent from the big screen since 1985’s Young Sherlock Holmes) in the mode of the action thriller. No, it’s not even trying to be an adaptation of Arthur Conan Doyle’s stories: This Sherlock Holmes knows how to fight, has abandoned deerstalker hat restraint for debonair nonchalance and enjoys the company of a hot ex-girlfriend. Pre-made for slash fiction writers, explosion connoisseurs and steampunk enthusiasts, Sherlock Holmes has little to say about its character, and a lot about modern blockbuster filmmaking. It generally works, despite Scooby-doo plotting and inconsistent use of dramatic devices. At least we’re spared an origin story, as the story picks up well into Holmes’ career. Robert Downey Jr. seems to be channelling Tony Stark with an irresistibly arrogant portrait of a super-genius (it works because he’s charmingly roguish rather than super-nerdy) while Jude Law does his job as the level-headed foil. Rachel McAdams, for some reason, always look better in historical movies (must be costumes), while Mark Strong turns in another performance as the bad guy. Director Guy Richie reigns in some of his usual tricks but manages to deliver a satisfying action film. Only the sound seems a bit soft (the mumbling doesn’t help): viewers without an ear for soft English accents may want to wait for DVD subtitles or sit closer to the screen. The CGI-enhanced portrait of 1880s London is suitably grimy, mechanical and interesting. Sherlock Holmes may be a travesty of the original stories and a by-the-number mainstream thriller, but it’s pretty good as such. Bring on the sequel, and let’s see Holmes square off against Moriarty.
(In theaters, November 2008) It may be that marrying Madonna was the worst artistic mistake Guy Richie ever made, and his partial return to form with this film in the wake of his divorce will only intensify this supposition. Going back to Richie’s London-underworld roots, RocknRolla isn’t quite as good as Snatch or Lock, Stock And Two Smoking Barrels, but at least it’s quite a bit above Swept Away. The flashy direction is back, as is the rock-and-roll soundtrack. From the first few intense minutes, the story steadily complexifies, until you can’t tell the good from the bad guys. And there lies the biggest of the film’s problem: For all of the crazy narrative energy, bravura set-pieces and Thandie Newton’s purring performance, it’s never too clear who, exactly, we should be cheering for. There are no everyman protagonists in this crazy gallery of ever-crazed criminals. Mark Strong may be admirable in his second breakout performance of the year (mere weeks after Body of Lies), but his crime-lord personae isn’t one to empathize with. Unlike Richie’s two best films, RocknRolla is a performance to be watched rather than a film to like. It’s quite a bit of fun, and a really promising step back up in his career, but it’s still missing something underneath the surface gloss.