Brian De Palma and Oliver Stone’s reimagining of Howard Hawks’ prohibition-era gangster epic replaces the grime of old Chicago with the neon glitz and kitschy glow of 1980’s Miami and sets the scene for one of the most unique gangster movies of them all. Drop Al Pacino into the lead role of Cuban exile come narcotics trafficking kingpin and you can add “most explosive” to that accolade too. Pacino inhabits the gnarly skin of Tony Montero like few actors could or have as he steels the screen with his presence. An unpredictable concoction of balls to the wall attitude and psychopathic viciousness that bubbles to the boil around five minutes in and continues that way until the movie’s gargantuan close. Though everyone else falls in his frothing wake, there’s a lot of fun in their performances from Tony’s partner and incorrigible ladies-man Steven Bauer, to his reluctant self-hating wife Michelle Pfeiffer, to Robert Loggia’s weak-willed mob boss desperately trying to keep his insanely ambitious young charge on a leash.
Much has been made of this remake’s audacious production design and it’s usually this aspect that most detractors set their sights on. But regardless of criticism, there’s no denying that Scarface is its own film. Moreover, the truth is that, alongside Giorgio Moroder’s amusingly profound score, De Palma’s vision goes so far beyond cheesy that the movie exists in a fascinating kind of hyper-real haze of meta-gangsterism. And as is the case with every one of that director’s 1980’s movies, that’s exactly the point! Scarface isn’t a straight gangster narrative even though its works brilliantly as such, nor is it an action film even though its littered with sublimely staged (not to mention rather grisly) set-pieces that dwarf most of that decade’s best. Scarface is a twisted fairytale of greed and ambition funnelled through the intense personality of one of cinema’s most powerful actors at the height of his powers. Through this vessel, Stone’s crazy but endlessly quotable dialogue bristles with the megalomanic intention of a coke-fuelled tyrant and again, like all De Palma’s movies from around that time, it thus becomes a statement on the state of contemporary cinema itself. That it’s a riveting blast to experience just makes it all the more remarkable.
Rating: The Good – 70.1 Genre: Action, Crime Duration: 131 mins Director: Oliver Stone Stars: Aaron Taylor-Johnson, Taylor Kitsch, Benicio Del Toro
Oliver Stone has to work hard these days to make up for two decades of over-stylised not to mention confused pictures and such is the reason that this surprisingly slick crime feature fared poorly both critically as well as commercially. Aaron Taylor-Johnson and Taylor Hitsch star as two wildly successful cannabis dealers on the California drug scene who come up against a ruthless cartel attempting to stake their claim north of the border. As the genius botanist, Taylor-Johnson is the brains of the operation while Hitsch’s former Navy SEAL is the enforcer and together they engage Salma Hayek’s drug lord in a bloody chess game as they attempt to secure the release of their hostage girlfriend Blake Lively. Factor in an utterly loathsome and genuinely scary Benicio Del Toro as Hayek’s right-hand man and you’re left with a colourfully twisted little thriller. Nested in Lively’s inevitably stylised visual narration, Stone allows the energetic if sometimes clunky script to play out in a relatively coherent manner as he shows the most directorial restraint he’s managed since Born on the Fourth of July. Make no mistake, it’s vibrantly shot and edited with flair but with enough discipline for the visual aesthetic to not only be enjoyed, but also be complementary of the well conceived set pieces. On the acting front, the leading threesome (as improbable as their relationship is) are satisfactory without shining and while much fun is had with an overwrought John Travolta’s crooked DEA agent, it never detracts from the the darker tones that Stone’s story paints. It all adds up to a rather satisfying crime thriller that should be judged on the merits of that genre’s most essential elements.
Rating: The Good – 84.1 Genre: Martial Arts Duration: 99 mins Director: Stephen Chow Stars: Stephen Chow, Wah Yuen, Qiu Yuen
Nothing will prepare you for the breadth of imagination, style, emotion, fight choreography, and just plain good story telling that Kung Fu Hustle serves up without interruption for 95 minutes. Writer/director/star/stunt man Stephen Chow is the best kept secret in the world of martial arts movie making. With his mind-boggling talent, he should be held in the same esteem as Quentin Tarantino but few outside the fans of the genre are aware of just how good this guy is. Chow leads the cast as a petty criminal determined to make a name for himself in a world of quirky yet powerful gangsters. However, things take a turn for the surreal when circumstances bring him to a tenement block on the outskirts of the city where the inhabitants are protected by an overbearing landlady and her husband, a couple who have more to them than meets the eye.
Chow’s characters inhabit a strange Kafkaesque world of Eastern noir where the traditional martial arts concept is injected with steroids. Super-fighters emerge when you’re least expecting it and do battle in some of the most innovative showdowns the medium has offered. This is the essence of a martial arts movie, a celebration of bold concepts, graceful momentum, and some thunderously good fight scenes. Surprisingly however, the story is just as good. Chow’s character is truly hilarious as he bumbles through the early scenes but undergoes real change as the story progresses. The film comes alive when the camera is on him and we’re rooting him for him all the way. There’s even a romantic angle thrown in that works a treat, allowing Chow to tie the whole thing together in a most satisfying fashion. There’s nothing about this masterpiece that isn’t fresh and inspiring and it’ll have you laughing and exhilarated from the first frame to the last.
Rating: The Good – 87.7 Genre: Crime Duration: 115 mins Director: Joel & Ethan Coen Stars: Gabriel Byrne, Albert Finney, John Turturro
A rare gem of a film that has remained relatively unacknowledged (when compared to more commercially successful Coen films), Miller’s Crossing stands alongside The Big Lebowski as the Coen brothers’ best film to date. Based loosely on an often forgotten film-noir, The Glass Key, the film is set during the prohibition era and follows kingmaker Tom Regan (Gabriel Byrne) in his attempts to play two rival gangs against the middle for reasons that are never entirely clear. This is a film that boasts perfection from all quarters from the casting, the acting, the writing, the directing, the cinematography, to the scoring. The cast is loaded with heavy hitters with Albert Finney and J.E. Freeman (as the terrifying Eddie Dane) doing particularly well alongside Gabriel Byrne who is in the form of his career. The directing is textbook as the brothers create a flawless synthesis of Dennis Gassner’s production design, Roger Deacons’ cinematography, and Carter Burwell’s score, all of which are stunning.
Of course, the standout strength of Miller’s Crossing is the dialogue which is not only the best example of Coen dialogue but perhaps the most powerful use of dialogue in modern film. The main thrust of the film’s quick and steady pace comes from the lyrical and relentless back and forth between the film’s characters and in typical noir fashion, this is usually between Tom and someone else. The story is the usual rubix cube of crosses and double-crosses which we have come to expect from the Coens but the payoff is perhaps more sharply realised here than in any of their other movies. In fact, the manner in which it all comes together is so sublime that Miller’s Crossing isn’t just one of the Coen’s best films, it’s also one of the best gangster noirs – period!
Rating: The Good – 63.3 Genre: Crime Duration: 104 mins Director: Steven Soderbergh Stars: Terence Stamp, Peter Fonda, Lesley Ann Warren
Steven Soderbergh’s film about a British gangster who travels to LA to kill the rich music producer who killed his daughter is edited in a supremely frustrating style akin to that which Soderbergh used in the key romantic scene in Out of Sight – when Clooney and Lopez meet in the hotel bar. Dialogue and shots are desynchronised as time is stretched out and condensed simultaneously. It works wonderfully in Out of Sight because it came at a transitory point in the movie, lasted only a couple of minutes, and was accompanied by David Holmes’ lovely score. In the Limey, all it does is irritate because it is employed recurrently throughout the movie and almost entirely for the first 20 minutes. On top of that, having Terrance Stamp stopping to translate his cockney wide boy slang to the various Americans is nauseating, unrealistic (surely he just wouldn’t use it to save time), and suggests that the inclusion of said slang was merely a gimmick.
Having said that, about 50 mins in this film rights itself and the story becomes more viewer friendly. The main characters are finally established and the remaining 50 mins is really entertaining. Stamp is decent as the grieving tough guy, Luis Guzmán is good support, Peter Fonda amuses, and that man Nicky Katt pops up (as he typically does) in an interesting if under-exploited cameo. If you’re in the mood for a revenge story with a twist this is worth sticking with.
Rating: The Good – 71.4 Genre: Crime, Drama Duration: 92 mins Director: Phil Karlson Stars: Richard Conte, Dianne Foster, Kathryn Grant
A modest forerunner to mob classics such as The Godfather and Goodfellas, The Brothers Rico is a compelling crime drama centring on Richard Conte’s Florida business man and former accountant to “the organisation” who is brought back into the fold when his brothers go on the run from the big boss. In place of shootouts, The Brothers Rico falls on the more subjective side to organised crime as Conte attempts to balance his duty to his former employers with his family’s future. In a prescient piece of social commentary, the expansion of the family (he and his wife are adopting a son while his brother and his wife are expecting one) acts as a personal contrast to the semblance of family attributed to by the mob to themselves. And the more Conte begins to appreciate the former, the more the veil drops on the latter. For an actor that skirted so close to stardom as he did, this is one of the few wholly dramatic roles Conte got to sink his teeth into and he’s gives it plenty of nuance. Diane Foster is equally interesting as his wife while James Darren excels as the younger brother on the lamb. Most memorable perhaps is Larry Gates who puts in a quietly formidable turn as the crafty boss Sid Kubick. Phil Karlson adequately directed the movie but one wonders what a stronger director would’ve brought to the table for the movie’s style lacks the personality of both Georges Simenon’s story and Dalton Trumbo’s screenplay. The film’s close skips a couple of beats too in a not too subtle attempt to reel a rather dark tale into warmer waters. Again, more commitment here to the essence of the story and The Brothers Rico would probably be more than a footnote in the history of mob cinema.
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 – 75.8 Genre: Film-Noir Duration: 92 mins Director: Anthony Mann Stars: Dennis O’Keefe, Wallace Ford, Alfred Ryder
Ignore the propagandist and rather wooden introduction to the “six fingers of the Treasury Departments’s fist” and that completely unnecessary narration and what emerges within these 92 minutes is a gritty, cleverly written detective noir with a winding plot and more hardbitten dialogue than you can shake a blackjack at. Dennis O’Keefe and Alfred Ryder are the two Treasury Agents (or “T-Men”) infiltrating a counterfeiting ring operating between LA and Detroit. But, as they increment their way to the top of the organisation, they find it increasingly difficult to guard against discovery especially with Wallace Ford’s crafty “schemer” in the mix. With the great John Alton operating the camera and Anthony Mann orchestrating, T-Men is as sharp looking a noir as you’ll find. Whether it’s the neon signs reflecting in pools of rain water or their run-down backstreet locations, the grime of the city seems to be veritably painted into the cracks of the walls. Virginia Kellog’s story is a crime thriller dandy in its own right but John C. Higgins’ screenplay gives it a dynamism that rivals the most slippery of noirs. Ford steals the show as the panicky self-serving old-time crook and Ryder is every bit the wise guy/detective. While O’Keefe is perfectly solid, he’s undeniably missing the personality of the genre’s heavyweights. Throw a Mitchum, Bogie, or Widmark into that role (and remove that godawfully stilted narration) and T-Men would’ve been as good as anything the genre had to offer. As it is, well, it’s still a peach.
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 – 78.3 Genre: Drama, Crime Duration: 125 mins Director: J.C. Chandor Stars: Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, Al Brooks
The rise and further rise of writer-director J.C. Chandor continues with this bleak morality play about a resolute family man (Oscar Isaac) attempting to build an honest company in the crooked world of home oil delivery. When his trucks are repeatedly hijacked, he must resist pressure from both his mob-daughter wife (Jessica Chastain) and his desperate business partner (Al Brooks) to adopt the violent practices of the business while simultaneously trying to save the biggest deal of his life. The story plays out in 1981 New York, a historical high point in the city’s crime statistics and against this backdrop, his determined decency seems at odds with everything around him and the plot hinges entirely on his ability to maintain an even keel.
Chandor approaches this one as stoically as he did All is Lost, a 106 minute long film about a man alone on a sinking boat, and that’s saying something given the multitude of characters that we encounter here. However, because he approaches them consistently from the perspective of Isaac’s self-made man and because he is a lone island in troubled waters, the film evokes a heavy loneliness from the middle of the first act onwards. Shot in the flat lighting of the gritty 1970’s and 80’s New York crime thrillers, Chandor seamlessly conflates his film’s moody aesthetic with its central theme and then simply drops Isaac smack in the middle. The director clearly knew he had an actor who was up to the task. It’s a calm but powerful turn that maintains a razor sharp edge despite his character’s inherent inability to intimidate. That edge is no doubt tempered by Chastain’s spiky performance as the increasingly impatient other half who may take matters into her own hands at any minute and, to be fair, she supports the film substantially despite her character’s necessary marginalisation. Brooks puts in solid shift too and a host of lesser know actors fill out the rest of the cast with varying degrees of pathos and personality.
It’s far from an energised ride and the plot coalesces in a severely unorthodox manner but A Most Violent Year develops an intrigue that many dramas lack. Right now, US cinema is going through a renewed phase of self-discovery and so singular films like this one will pop up from time to time, uninfluenced by what came before and unlikely to have much affect on what follows. But for discerning film-goers, they represent a special kind of treat and should be approached accordingly.
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 – 66.1 Genre: Crime Duration: 105 mins Director: Matthew Vaughn Stars: Daniel Craig, Sienna Miller, Michael Gambon, Tom Hardy
A fair if slightly forced attempt to replicate Guy Ritchie’s magic formula for slick gangster action and sidewinding cockney slang. Daniel Craig stars as a yuppie drug dealer who, on the eve of his early retirement, gets dragged into dangerous negotiations between a kingpin and a gang of loudmouth wideboys. The plot is multi-tiered but coherent enough to withstand the numerous diversions that director Matthew Vaughn and writer J.J. Connolly take in an effort to woo us with amusing anecdotes about London gangsters and their rules-of-the-street type lessons. Ultimately, however, that effort is why this Layer Cake collapses because whereas Ritchie sewed such vignettes seamlessly, adroitly, and effortlessly into the fabric of his plot, Vaughn labours to manufacture them. Producer of the former Mr. Madonna’s early films Lock Stock and Snatch, Vaughn (Mr Claudia Schiffer as it happens) stepped behind the camera to replace Ritchie when he became unavailable and so some consideration is warranted. Overambition is typical of first time directors but the job of stepping into Ritchie’s shoes is probably more to blame for the awkwardly gratuitous scenes of violence that Layer Cake is peppered with, not to mention the painfully predictable popular music they’re soundtracked to. That said, there’s a tidy cast on show to add a sheen of polish and give the more comedic and dramatic moments their legs. Craig is more than comfortable as the suave and erudite crook (foreshadowing his later 007 transformation), Colm Meaney is terrific as the old enforcer, and Michael Gambon pops up for his usual bit of scene stealing as the big bad boss at the top of the heap. Thus, even though it comes off a touch “Ritchie-lite” and we end up craving for the real thing, Layer Cake does just enough to become a movie in its own right and even offers decent entertainment as it goes.