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.
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 Ugly – 60 Genre: Action, Crime Duration: 109 mins Director: Baltasar Kormákur Stars: Mark Wahlberg, Giovanni Ribisi, Ben Foster
The modern thriller is a tired animal indeed what with the scarcity of original plots and mind numbing dialogue that, instead of building character, is simply a vehicle for tying scenes together and abiding by an MTV archetype of cool. However, if you must turn one of these scripts into a movie then a watchable cast and able director are bare minimum prerequisites. Contraband just about pulls this off with Ben Foster and an always enjoyable Mark Wahlberg starring as a couple of drug smugglers and Giovani Ribisi as a slightly deranged wannabe tough guy attempting to pull their strings along the way. Yes, the plot swings between predictable and confused and, yes, it’s bloated with the contradictory ideas of a script writing committee but there’s some fine gunplay and car chasing to complement the cast’s chemistry. If you’re stuck for something to watch, this one will fill the void adequately.
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 Bad – 20 Genre: Crime Duration: 90 mins Director: Nicolas Winding Refn Stars: Ryan Gosling, Kristin Scott Thomas
A Thai based drug smuggler (Ryan Gosling) is co-opted by his disturbingly affectionate mother (Kristin Scott Thomas) into a bizarre revenge scenario when his brother is killed. Oh dear! It’s impossible to properly describe how embarrassing this entire affair is for writer-director Nicolas Winding Refn. After pulling the wool over many fans’ and indeed critics’ eyes and convincing them that Drive’s directorial pretensions were in fact art, the emboldened Refn threw off whatever shackles his modicum of common sense placed upon him and went full tilt into a project of pure self delusion. The result is pretentiousness of genuinely hysterically proportions. How a director can be so clueless as to mistake adolescent-like ramblings as profound cinematic statement is just plain mystifying but to go one step further and not realise that even moderately discerning cinema lovers are laughing at him boggles the mind. From his main character’s metaphorical fiddling within the stomach wound of his enemy to the hack reinterpretation of Freud’s Oedipus Complex, this one just ploughs blindly forward with a smug smile and oblivious arrogance. However, the most unfortunate aspect to all this is that the truly talented Ryan Gosling seems to have bought the knock off Kool-Aid lock, stock, and rancid barrel. One was tempted to give him the benefit of the doubt in Drive because everything good about that movie’s intentions seemed exclusively a product of his contributions. But to not stop at any point during the shooting of this mess and echo the words of Harrison Ford to George Lucas “You can write this shit George but you sure as hell cant say it!”, is truly mystifying. Gosling is an intelligent actor but he has been worryingly slipstreamed into the perversely stupid world of Refn on this one. Any marks this movie gets is for Larry Smith’s rather nice cinematography but as far as the rest is concerned, Only God could forgive it!
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.
Rating: The Good – 75.6 Genre: Crime Duration: 109 mins Director: David Ayer Stars: Jake Gyllenhaal, Michael Peña, Anna Kendrick
Blistering L.A. cop drama that rises well above its concept thanks to energetic direction and some terrific lead chemistry. Jake Gyllenhall and Michael Pena are equally excellent as a couple of hotshot street cops whose close friendship ties them to their jobs as much as their age appropriate abandon does. David Ayer makes the decision to shoot this one camcorder style (explained as a day-in-the-life documentary that Gyllenhall’s character is making) but thankfully the writer-director’s halfhearted commitment in this tiresome endeavour meant he intercut the “docu-footage” with more traditional perspective for most of the movie. The former is a great vehicle for the pair’s wisecracking banter but its exclusive use would’ve completely limited the wider drama. That said, the story here essentially amounts to a package of procedural sequences that cohere loosely around the two cops’ extended encounters with a drug cartel’s L.A. base. But what a package it is! Slickly directed, funny as hell, genuinely touching at times, and pumping with adrenaline. Ayer’s ear for bro speak is at its most incisive and although it can begin to grate, it’s an undeniably (if painfully) accurate depiction of how young males converse. In actuality, Ayer is to be commended for letting this indulgence slide because given the dangerousness of the two guy’s profession – and their deep awareness of it – the inane riffing ends up adding to their characters’ complexity. Thankfully every conversation is bookended with some sublime action or, at the very least, some side splitting interaction between the leads. A daring fire rescue and the climactic shootout are particularly stunning, shot with the type of verve and confidence of a seasoned action director. The latter is definitely hampered by the subjectivity of the intermittent camcorder shots as the inherent absurdities of the scenario (not to mention carrying a camcorder during a hit in the first place!) – that would normally be obscured behind the gloss of more distanced perspectives – are laid bare. But it’s overall impact is maintained thanks to our fervent attachment to Gyllenhall and Pena.
Rating: The Ugly – 60 Genre: Crime, Action Duration: 109 mins Director: David Ayer Stars: Arnold Schwarzenegger, Sam Worthington, Terrence Howard
Arnold Schwarzenegger plays a renowned badass leader of a crack DEA unit who are being assassinated one a time after they ripped off a cartel. Olivia Williams (in top form) is the investigating detective who gets caught up in the politics of the unit and the DEA to whom the unit are now pariahs. But the closer she gets to the case the more curious the actions of Arnie and his team become. A cracking premise, a cast loaded with talent (or at least personality), and a director coming off the back of an action classic, what could go wrong? Well, make Arnie your star, put him in the kind of dramatic role he was never going to pull off, acquiesce to the inane demands of the producers, and let it unravel from there. Such is the way of Sabotage.
David Ayer was never brilliant at writing plot and this one, though rooted in a worthy premise, is all over the place. Sure he may not have been helped by the studio’s interference but in choosing to reveal the plot gradually while not emphasising the mystery, he lets the movie meander forward with no sense of urgency for what’s to come. In the absence of a single star name, the tantalisingly cast team of Terrence Howard, Sam Worthington, Joe Manganiello, Josh Holloway, and Max Martini might’ve been able to carry the film until the plot crystallised, but Arnie’s ubiquitous presence and the tendency for the movie to follow him exclusively, is like a wet rag on a fire and douses the potentially riveting cast dynamics. All we’re left with are some barely coherent testosterone fuelled exchanges and some interesting action sequences.
At a number of points the movie threatens to break free of its problems and turn into at least an entertaining actioner but the the lack of a clear plot stops even the most basic narrative from gaining traction. With less than clear directing, the supporting cast, led by the utterly manic Mireille Enos (what were they thinking?), implodes and the movie spirals. The makings of an excellent action movie lie within the carnage though and those moments (mostly those told in flashback) when the ICE team are doing their thing (expanding on a premise introduced in End of Watch) are worth the watch thanks mainly to the characters and dialogue of those moments (Ayer’s strong-point). In the end, however, it’s all a bit like Michael Mann’s (2007) Miami Vice. Great ideas, muddled execution.
Rating: The Good – 76.7 Genre: Action, Crime Duration: 128 mins Director: John Woo Stars: Yun-Fat Chow, Tony Chiu Wai Leung, Teresa Mo
An all-action cop teams up with a slick and equally skilled undercover agent who has infiltrated a gun-running triad in an effort to take them down at any cost. Few directors have given us so many seminal action movies in such a short space of time as John Woo did in the late 80’s and early 90’s and Hard Boiled is right up there. Chow-Yun Fat, with a toothpick in the mouth and gun in each hand is dazzling as “Tequila”, the fast and loose gun fighter extraordinaire who easily ranks as one of the coolest action heroes the medium has thrown up. Tony Leung is just as impressive in a more simmering role. However, as good as they are individually, their on-screen chemistry elevates their performances to a whole other level. And wouldn’t you know it, John Woo is right up there waiting for them.
After a string of sensational hits such as A Better Tomorrow and The Killer, Woo is unleashed here and that dizzyingly creative mind of his crafts one legendary action sequence after another. He seamlessly blends the outrageous and the ferocious into a distinct and inimitable visual aesthetic so that the movie is given a thrilling but graceful momentum. Moreover, Barry Wong’s script is pure dynamite replete with über-catchy lines and genuinely endearing moments of romantic whimsy. Iconic heroes, belting screenplay, and some of the most audacious direction and stunt choreography, Hard Boiled truly is an action movie to savour.
Rating: The Good – 65.3 Genre: Thriller Duration: 116 mins Director: Scott Cooper Stars: Christian Bale, Casey Affleck, Sam Shepard, Willem Dafoe
Scott Cooper’s down and dirty small town revenge drama is a sometimes interesting film made with all the right intentions but also a lack of directorial savvy. Christian Bale and Casey Affleck are brothers struggling to get their lives on track after a jail sentence and traumatising tour of Iraq respectively. Bale is the more sensible elder brother who’s back at the local steel mill which is threatening to close for good while Affleck has taken to underground fighting to pay his debts. When the latter gets mixed up with some mountain folk and their bare knuckle and meth dealing rackets, he disappears leaving his brother and uncle, played by the evergreen Sam Shepard, to track down the vicious maniac responsible.
Cooper takes a meditative approach to Out of the Furnace, employing an extended yet concealed introduction of the main characters. Lots is alluded to but, with sparse dialogue and an abundance of secondary characters, nothing is for sure. For a film that moves as slow as this, there’s actually a lot going on in the way of character dynamics and what Cooper is trying to say about the daily lives of his working class protagonists. And with a cast like this, one would expect some powerful drama. Unfortunately, it all runs a little flat save for a handful of scenes as Cooper’s incompatible ambitions see it fall between two stools. In the first place, there’s just too many characters in play to justify that meditative style. Taking time in the buildup can be a virtue (and a rare one these days) but it hurts this movie as its focus constantly bounces around from one of the many characters to another. Furthermore, long periods without dialogue with only brief interludes of character interaction make it difficult to engage with even the main characters despite the wealth of acting talent behind them. Setting the characters amongst some palpable conflict or anxiety can offset this but Cooper and co-writer Brad Ingelsby simply allude to their troubled backgrounds and keep them completely separate from their current travails. This itself can often be an elegant approach to storytelling but again the wrong choice here as it compounds the first problem. And finally, when Cooper finally gets around to colouring in between the lines, he paints a fairly bleak picture making it yet more difficult to stay invested. On paper, he may make all the right moves but the final cut unsurprisingly fails to add up to the sum of its parts. Matters aren’t helped by some overfamiliar motifs and the equally worn metaphors used to tease them out – does cinema really need another moment of personal revelation involving a seasoned hunter’s sudden inability to shoot a cute deer?
Regardless of Cooper’s slip ups in shooting his script, the sterling cast ensures a reasonably entertaining if frustrating watch. Bale is terrific as usual and despite having to do most of it in silence, he inhabits the soul of his character in the manner we’ve become accustomed to. Affleck does what he can though both he and Bale alike would’ve benefited from a few substantial scenes together. Ditto Sam Shepard. Willem Dafoe tantalises with an extended cameo as Affleck’s bookie but Forest Whitaker’s turn as the local chief of police is utterly wasted. Woody Harrelson has won most of the plaudits as the crazed yokel and Cooper does his level best to raise the intimidation factor including a needless and unimaginatively violent introduction at the opening of the film. To be fair, the star reborn gives it plenty of oomph but again, we have to ask: is it anything we haven’t seen before?
Ultimately, it’s this level of over-familiarity that may wear most on the viewer and it doesn’t stop there. Though apparently written in 2011, the story bears strong resemblances to 2010’s Winter’s Bone, 2011’s Warrior, and 2012’s The Place Beyond the Pines right down to Masanobu Takayanagi’s moody photography. However, though it may lose points for unoriginality, following the formula set forth in those sleeper hits reaps some rewards for Cooper’s film because, like in those movies, Out of the Furnace comes alive during its tenser moments. It’s also in these moments where the actors’ contributions pay off most effectively. The inevitable showdown at the end is itself quite well handled and Bale in particular is brilliant in a scene defined by a more everyday act of heroism than those that revenge films typically play out to. And even if it does sign off with another (lets say) “nod” to The Deer Hunter – the final shot is a decent attempt to satisfy the story both narratively and thematically.
Rating: The Ugly – 64.4 Genre: Action Duration: 88 mins Director: Mark Neveldine/Brian Taylor Stars: Jason Statham, Amy Smart, Carlos Sanz
With all its flashy “CSI”-ish editing, any self-respecting movie fan should hate this film but its free-form action hilarity is liable to best even the most hardened of movie snobs. Jason Statham is a hit-man who wakes up to find himself poisoned with a drug that is slowly shutting his system down until he’s brown bread. Not the kind of guy to take things lying down, he immediately sets out on the trail of his poisoners while using any means possible to keep his system fired up with adrenaline. As wild as the premise is, it undeniably makes a great platform for a comedy-action movie and there are plenty of laugh-out-loud moments of madness along the way. Don’t think too much about this one, simply give in to the sublimely ridiculous.