Rating: The Good – 77 Genre: Crime Duration: 121 mins Director: Denis Villeneuve Stars: Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin, Benicio Del Toro
Cold and sinister narco-thriller with Emily Blunt top-lining as a FBI agent recruited by the CIA for a series of clandestine operations against a powerful Mexican cartel. As the missions begin to increasingly circumvent the law, the beleaguered agent grows suspicious of Josh Brolin’s lead agent and ever fearful of his mysterious cartel expert, Benicio Del Toro. After an admirable attempt in Prisoners, director Denis Villeneuve succeeds in crafting a morally bleak thriller with sufficient traction and believability to keep the audience engrossed all the way through. The war on drugs is articulated almost completely through the actions of the protagonists. The drama is shot with a slow-thudding realism while the dialogue chills the story a couple degrees lower. Left of centre to the plot, Blunt is subtly magnificent as she manages to stay relevant even while her character is necessarily marginalised. On the other side of things, Brolin is quietly having a ball but Del Toro is just plain scary. The narco-wars are very much in vogue at the moment but on several occasions, Sicario peels off a layer or two and reels us towards a world not often seen. Yes, the narrative moves inescapably towards Hollywood’s notion of closure but there are a sufficient number of unfamiliar twists and turns to intrigue the most ardent fans. Roger Deacons’ crisp textures and contrasts are central to this experience as is Joe Walker’s editing but it’s Villeneuve’s steely focus that makes this so darkly compelling.
Rating: The Good – 83.6 Genre: Crime Duration: 122 mins Director: Michael Mann Stars: James Caan, Tuesday Weld, Willie Nelson
Michael Mann’s seminal crime thriller focuses on James Caan’s master thief who, in an effort to attain the family he always wanted, eschews his independence and reluctantly agrees to work for a crime king-pin (Robert Prosky) only to find himself locked into an interminable contract. Caan rated this as his best performance outside of Sonny Corleone and he is utterly mesmerising as the balls-of-steel Frank who is willing to sacrifice everything rather than lie down for anyone. Prosky is immense as the old mobster who can switch from genial father-figure to ruthless monster at the drop of a hat. Thief has all the trademarks of the great Mann films. The ultra-real dialogue, the technical proficiency of the criminals, a subtle yet powerful score (courtesy of Tangerine Dream), and slick night time shots of Chicago’s mean streets. Moreover, Mann’s films are often based on the study of obsession and disciplined dedication to one’s craft and nowhere is this better realised than here. The set pieces are as innovative and disciplined as we’ve come across and when combined with the searing performances and inspired dialogue, it becomes truly captivating. Thief is a crime classic and arguably one of the genre’s greatest representatives. It achieves a gritty realism that movies of that genre are always in search of but rarely attain.
Rating: The Good – 77.8 Genre: Crime, Drama Duration: 112 mins Director: Sidney Lumet Stars: Sean Connery, Trevor Howard, Vivien Merchant
Sidney Lumet is not a man you’d expect to direct a dark psychological drama set in the north of England but The Offence is in many ways one his most brilliant films. Sean Connery plays a hard case veteran detective whose most recent case has finally pushed him past his breaking point. What follows is a dark and disturbing exploration of a scarred and tormented psyche. Connery is superb in a role that shoulders most of the drama and together with Lumet’s gritty direction they slowly reel the audience into that psyche resulting in a fascinating yet deeply uncomfortable experience.
Rating: The Ugly – 66 Genre: Action Duration: 92 mins Director: Louis Leterrier, Corey Yuen Stars: Jason Statham, Qi Shu, Matt Schulze
A meticulous driver and all-action bad-ass in the form of Jason Statham transports illicit cargo around the French countryside but gets sucked into a people trafficking racket when he breaks his own rules and looks inside the package. Written and produced by Luc Besson but directed by Louis Leterrier, The Transporter still bears all the hallmarks of the legendary director’s most enjoyable work. An action comedy with a quirky energy that flirts with the laws of physics and slaps a couple of charming characters right in the centre. Statham delivers the goods in more ways than one with his usual mixture of suave wise-cracks and kickboxing acrobatics and Qi Shu makes for a worthy co-star as his endearing yet unintended sidekick. The plot is daft as a brush and you may even struggle to recall what the whole thing was about but with two strong leads, a considered screenplay, and more breathless car-chases, bullets and grenades, and kicks and punches than you can keep up with, The Transporter will race into the good graces of even the most cynical of movie fans.
Rating: The Good – 74.9 Genre: Action, Comedy Duration: 126 mins Director: Martin Brest Stars: Robert De Niro, Charles Grodin, Yaphet Kotto
About as much fun as you can have watching one guy drag another cross country, Midnight Run is a minor triumph on the résumé of Robert De Niro who stars as a bounty hunter attempting to bring in Charles Grodin’s crooked accountant while being pursued by the mob, the FBI, and a competing bounty hunter. The movie is chockfull of motley characters played with an abundance of personality (not to mention a generous comedic license), from Yaphet Kotto’s testy FBI agent, John Ashton’s indefatigable pain-in-the-ass bounty hunter, to Dennis Farina’s hilariously baleful mob boss who spends most of the movie threatening his hapless goons with various forms of highly imaginative corporal punishment. De Niro embraces the easy comedy of George Gallo’s classy screenplay and drives the movie with an acerbic moxie but, despite a well balanced chemistry, Grodin (along with Farina) steals the show with his usual combination of dry warmth and laconic delivery. Martin Brest directs it all with an understated panache adding little touches here and there that contribute richly to the overarching sense of fun – such as Robert Miranda’s big lug of a henchman mock boxing with Richard Foronjy as the latter pleads with Farina over the phone for forgiveness. Everything skips along to Danny Elfman’s mirthful score in an unapologetically lighthearted style but there’s enough drama wrapped up within Gallo’s neat plot to justify Midnight Run’s status as one of the 1980’s best comedy thrillers.
Rating: The Good – 75.9 Genre: Film-Noir Duration: 91 mins Director: William Keighley Stars: Mark Stevens, Richard Widmark, Lloyd Nolan
Thrilling undercover detective noir that sees Mark Stevens’ FBI agent infiltrate Richard Widmark’s methodical gang of thieves and murderers only to find himself in a highly organised underworld where every recruit is screened and validated through illicit access to confidential police files. Joseph McDonald (he who shot My Darling Clementine) brings an irresistible neon glow to the damp and murky streets of the fictitious Central City that ranks with the seminal look of that noir classic Murder My Sweet. Director William Keighley utilises every bit of it too as he frames many a dramatic moment around that glitzy grey world. Perhaps even more remarkable is Harry Kleiner’s script that, when enacted through McDonald’s lens and Keighley’s conceptualisation, was to become a major influence on everyone from Scorsese to David Chase. And it’s the inimitable Widmark who is chiefly responsible for its most potent realisations. As the quirky kingpin with a serious distaste for draughts and colds, Widmark’s “Alec Stiles” was to personify a new kind of American mobster whose intelligent yet impatient control over his gang led to many a violent reprimand and foreshadowed that of Goodfellas‘ Jimmy Conway and later on, one Tony Soprano. As the thorn in his side, Stevens is actually quite strong given that he could sometimes fall flat in the lead. Even if one is left with the impression that a more substantial actor would’ve made more of the role, it remains a playful turn as the streetwise detective and nicely complements the sophistication of Stiles’ clever helmsmanship. Where this piece of crime fiction falls short of the classics, however, is in its hokey championing of the FBI as a glowing beacon of honesty in the criminal justice apparatus. It was a feature of a peculiar type of movie being made at the time where the cooperation of the justice system in providing locations and on-set advice seemed to be repaid with an unabashed adulation.
Rating: The Good – 77.5 Genre: Film-Noir Duration: 73 mins Director: André de Toth Stars: Gene Nelson, Sterling Hayden, Charles Bronson
Another top class crime thriller from the annals noir, this one coming courtesy of maverick director André de Toth, who fought tooth and nail with Jack Warner so that Sterling Hayden could take on the role the latter wanted for a certain Humphrey Bogart. Hayden stars as the cynical detective on the tail of two escaped prisoners who are forcing an ex-con gone straight and his wife to help them in a bank robbery. Ted de Corsia is the brains of the nasty outfit, a young Charles Bronson is the volatile brawn and a host of other gnarly faces of the time (including an even spacier than usual Timothy Carey) provide the backup. Needless to say, Hayden chews the scenery about as much as does the toothpick sticking out his mouth in place of the cigarettes the doctor has banned. There’s rarely been a more grizzled character actor so well suited to gritty street noir but he tempers that nicely here with a veiled compassion for the two victims at the centre of the tale. Relatively unknown at the time, Gene Nelson and Phyllis Kirk are genuinely excellent as that couple and provide the perfect platform to connect both sides of the law. Crane Wilbur’s hard bitten screenplay simply oozes class and funnelled as it is through de Toth’s focused momentum, it gives the movie a palpable energy. Choosing to shoot on location in LA, de Toth dresses his film in that priceless atmosphere that was an unfortunately rare feature of the majority of studio shot thrillers of the day. From the first person perspective of the daytime driving sequences to the fleeting shadows of the nighttime encounters, he turns Crime Wave into the cinéma vérité masterclass of the LA noir.
Rating: The Good – 74.8 Genre: Film-Noir Duration: 93 mins Director: John Sturges Stars: Ricardo Montalban, Sally Forrest, Bruce Bennett
One of the earliest police procedurals, this wonderful little thriller focuses on the attempts of a detective to solve a Jane Doe case using the help of forensic medicine expert. Ricardo Montalban puts in a composed shift as the young detective and manages to work much of the charm he’d be later renowned for into a personality driven by perfectionism and the anguish of potentially being wrong. Bruce Bennett is slightly more languid as the learned expert who instructs the police on the science behind the clues. Forensics was still in its infancy at the time Mystery Street was made so one could’ve forgiven director John Sturges and co. for framing the movie entirely around the investigation but it’s to their credit that they made a proper drama of the characters and plot. As the investigation develops multiple strands, each is fleshed out by some memorable personalities. Jan Sterling makes a relatively brief appearance as the soon to be victim but sets a brass tone for the more heartless side to the story. The perennially eccentric Elsa Lanchester is delightfully untrustworthy as her greedy landlord while Betsy Blaire, as her kind neighbour, is a ray of sunshine in those otherwise murky digs. And then you have Sally Forrest almost stealing the show as the desperate wife of the man who the police have mistaken for the killer. Such casting provides a solid base to what was happening on the other side of the camera and, in fact, it’s perhaps the technical side to the film that most impresses what with its sly plot and Richard Brooks’ equally cynical dialogue dripping from the tongues of the good and bad alike. Bringing it all together is a pre-prime Sturges exhibiting the controlled energy of his later work but with a welcomed levity. Of course, having the great John Alton shooting the film is no small bonus and the lighting and use of perspective throughout is of surprising quality for a small feature, not to mention, a genuine treat. All in all, there’s little fault to be found here, just a cracking good story shot with plenty of class.
Rating: The Good – 74.4 Genre: Crime, Thriller Duration: 115 mins Director: Mike Figgis Stars: Richard Gere, Andy Garcia, Nancy Travis
One of the more underrated crime thrillers of its era sees Andy Garcia taking on the role of the high-strung Raymond, a driven Internal Affairs detective who gets drawn into a deadly game of cat and mouse with nasty LAPD veteran Dennis Peck (in a thrilling turn from Richard Gere). As Raymond works hand in glove with his no-nonsense partner, played by the wonderful Laurie Metcalf, Garcia’s relationship with his wife (Nancy Travis) begins to unravel as Peck uses the young detective’s insecurities against him.
Henry Bean’s story has all the hallmarks of the great cop dramas and Mike Figgis proves more than capable in teasing out all the latent tension of its earlier stages and the troubled psychology of its latter scenes. A sophisticated touch reveals itself in the soft lit photography and edgy composition but, most of all, it’s the manner in which the film is sewn together that gives the movie its more seductive qualities. Figgis and editor Robert Estrin throw a hazy vibe over the proceedings that seems coded to the humidity of the LA streets and imparting a grittiness that graced the likes of To Live and Die in LA and Colors (which Estrin also edited). Within this aesthetic, Bean’s dialogue seems all the more subjective and the cast almost universally rise to its level. Garcia strikes just the right balance between vulnerability and intensity and Metcalf is a rock of supporting class by his side. Actually they serve each other rather well and share a wry chemistry. Travis has her moments of misjudgment but, in the main, she seems to ably represent the ambiguity that Figgis wanted from her. William Baldwin is surprisingly engaging as Peck’s burnout partner and it’s nice to see Faye Grant get a big screen run out worthy of her talent as Baldwin’s beleaguered but not so innocent wife (a small few will remember her as Julie in V). Gere is the unquestionable star of the show, however, and it’s an insidiously menacing turn that rivals any bad guy from the genre. It’s his sly streak that runs most clearly through the movie and backdrops its overall dark tone. An interesting if ultimately one sided sexual politics adds even more nuance to his character before Figgis overplays that particular hand in the final act.
Though serving up some tidy action sequences amid this thick dramatic soup, Internal Affairs still manages to just fall short of its ambitions. Bean attempts to draw an interesting parallel between Raymond and Dennis’ antagonists which the actors do their best with but there’s just not enough meat on the story to do it justice. A few less moments of pensive reflection and a few more subplots accented towards their complicated rivalry would’ve gone a long way in giving us the type of central confrontation that marked The French Connection or Heat.
Rating: The Ugly – 61.8 Genre: Horror Duration: 118 mins Director: Scott Derrickson Stars: Eric Bana, Édgar Ramírez, Olivia Munn
Laudable effort at a modern possession story starring Eric Bana as a New York cop who gets involved in a case that has spiritual and demonic overtones. As his life begins to crumble around him, he teams up with an atypical priest (Édgar Ramírez) in the attempt to get his head around the evidence. There’s not much in the way of originality here but Bana always adds a level of class to his movies and together with some deft touches from its writer-director Scott Derrickson along the way, Deliver Us From Evil should keep you invested despite the overall familiarity. One of these involved the decision to avoid explicit demonstrations of the supernatural for longer than most, and it elevates the intrigue substantially. However, like most genre films these days, Derrickson gets so bogged down in the premise that he forgets to make (or at least wasn’t interested in making) a movie out of it. The movie rarely strays from the straight line of the plot and so the most important factors in any horror movie, the context and the story, aren’t afforded the opportunity to flourish. There’s little for the premise to be at odds with, little to colour it real, and therefore little to remember it for. Save for Bana’s more than decent turn that is.
Rating: The Good – 78 Genre: Crime, Action Duration: 120 mins Director: Tony Scott Stars: Christian Slater, Patricia Arquette, Brad Pitt
Tony Scott’s finest hour came when he purchased a young video store clerk’s script and executed it with much of the panache and dry wit that the same clerk would soon become renowned for. It tells the story of a geek-come-wild boy Christian Slater who falls in love with prostitute Patricia Arquette, kills her slightly deranged pimp, accidentally steals his cocaine, and then attempts to sell it to some rich Hollywood producer before the coke’s real owner, mob boss Christopher Walken, tracks him down with prejudice.
True Romance quickly became a cult classic because it cut across genres with the same audacity as Reservoir Dogs did. Colourful characters posing hip monologues, an unlikely romance at the center that flavours the entire movie with an essential unreal vibe, and more fists and guns action than you can shake a stick at ensures that the entire caper is bags of unpredictable fun and looks a treat too. With the verve that Scott’s movies were always reaching for coming pre-loaded with Quentin Tarantino’s white hot script, the former commercial director softens his touch and lets the dialogue do the talking. Free from intrusive editing and over the top score, his consistently outstanding scene composition is finally given the room to breathe and the time to be appreciated. Smokey slats of light grace everything with a cosy noir-esque ambiance, perfectly backdropping the lyricism of Tarantino’s words and the enthusiastic performances that bring them to life.
In that last regard, Slater has never been better and he shares a magnetic chemistry with the even better Arquette. Walken is Walken (in the best way possible), Hopper is in fine form as Slater’s estranged father, Oldman is forgivably over the top as the crazed pimp with an epic inferiority complex, and Brad Pitt is a riot as Slater’s L.A. stoner buddy. However, in one of the smaller parts, it’s James Gandolfini who nearly steals the show as the very real (in a wonderful contrast to practically everything else) and very scary enforcer. The last word should go to Hans Zimmer though who, on his own, seems to give this movie a tenderness that raises it above your standard actioner. Okay, not quite in his own, Scott, Tarantino, and Gandolfini helped, a lot.
Rating: The Good – 84.4 Genre: Crime, Drama Duration: 167 mins Director: Sidney Lumet Stars: Treat Williams, Jerry Orbach, Richard Foronjy
Sidney Lumet’s second instalment in his unofficial trilogy on NYPD corruption is his most excavating and downbeat – and that’s saying something given the first was Serpico! Treat Williams stars as a narcotics detective who volunteers to help a task force take down a litany of crooked cops by wearing a wire and acting as general go between. The only condition: they overlook any wrongdoing perpetrated by him and his partners. However, after the initial adrenaline rush, he starts to see the toll his work is taking on his family and partners and ultimately his own wellbeing. Things get worse when the federal government take over and draw him into a seemingly endless series of cases culminating in the prosecution of his old partners.
Prince of the City is a dark and pensive thriller that almost incidentally seems to serve up some of the best cop to cop drama this side of the French Connection. The gritty one-on-ones, the back-of-diner meets, the greasing of stoolies all reek of so much grimy reality that the audience would be forgiven for feeling like they were the ones putting themselves in the crosshairs. With so much wiretapping going on, it gets to feel like we ourselves are listening in on the dirty deals, the hits, and the extortion (a device Lumet had used before in The Anderson Tapes), where every conversation is a lesson in the actuality of crime. Shooting the movie in much the same style as he did with Serpico, Lumet uses his flat palette of colours to starkly enhance the inward loneliness of his central character’s existence. And armed with such material, Williams is stunning, the perfect embodiment of anxious inertia and frenzied exhaustion. Among others, Lindsey Crouse as his wife and Jerry Orbach as his partner pitch in with some terrific supporting turns but this is Williams’ vehicle from start to finish.
At over two and a half hours long, this one requires much investment but even a moderate love for the great crime dramas of the 70’s & 80’s will elicit that naturally. That it feels like a slog for the audience (albeit a welcomed one) is perhaps the film’s greatest achievement, however, for it mirrors profoundly the tortured commitment of his central protagonist.