The Hitman’s Bodyguard (2017)

2018 #61
Patrick Hughes | 118 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.39:1 | USA, Netherlands, China & Bulgaria / English, Russian & Spanish | 15 / R

The Hitman's Bodyguard

With a daft-ish title and promotional campaign that definitely amped up the comedy, you might be surprised to learn that The Hitman’s Bodyguard started life as a drama. Yep, apparently so. Then, a few weeks prior to filming, the script underwent a “frantic” two-week rewrite to be remixed into a comedy. The end result is kind of a mixed bag, which, all things considered, makes sense.

The hitman of the title is Darius Kincaid (Samuel L. Jackson), who agrees to testify against a dictator (Gary Oldman, underused) in exchange for the release of his wife from prison. While being transported through (of all places) Coventry, Kincaid and his escort are ambushed. The one surviving agent calls in Michael Bryce (Ryan Reynolds) to help. Bryce is a private bodyguard — formerly to elite clients, until Kincaid assassinated one of them. Suffice to say, the two don’t get along. Cue banter as the mismatched pair face more tribulations on their way to The Hague.

So, it’s a buddy action comedy, a well-worn genre, and The Hitman’s Bodyguard has nothing new to add to it. That said, while the antics may not be especially original, they’re not badly done. The film offers few big laughs, but there are one or two, and a couple of smiles. On the other hand, it’s a good 20 minutes too long (it needs to sacrifice some of the chatter, maybe some of the flashbacks, and definitely at least one action sequence) and some bits are inappropriately grim (random murder of parents? Photos of mass executions?) I guess those tonal inadequacies are the legacy of the last-minute rewrites, but, still, someone should’ve fixed that.

Explosion!

The action centrepiece is a rather good stunt-filled five-way chase between Jackson in a speedboat, Reynolds on a motorbike, Russian hit men, Interpol agents, and the Amsterdam police in cars. It’s not going to be challenging the John Wicks of this world for classic status, but it thrills enough. What seems like the climax is another pretty good one, as it intercuts a car chase with a hardware store fight that makes full use of the tools on hand. (I say “seems like” because it has another shoot-out after they finally make it to The Hague — like I said, it’s at least one action scene too long.)

Apparently The Hitman’s Bodyguard only cost $30 million, which is $5 million less than The Hurricane Heist (which I watched on the same evening, hence the comparison). But this film looks considerably more expensive than the other, and it has several considerably bigger-name stars too. I guess some people just know how to spend money better than others. This comparison is also relevant for my final score, because it again calls into question my non-use of half-stars on this blog. On Letterboxd I rated The Hurricane Heist as 2.5 and The Hitman’s Bodyguard as 3.5, a whole star different, but here they both get rounded to the same score. Well, no one said life was fair.

3 out of 5

Ryan Reynold’s latest law enforcement-adjacent role is as the voice of the eponymous character in Detective Pikachu, in cinemas now.

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RoboCop (2014)

2018 #151
José Padilha | 118 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

RoboCop

This reboot of the popular sci-fi/action satire wasn’t received too warmly on its release back in 2014, but nonetheless I’d been vaguely meaning to watch it (just because every high-profile sci-fi/action-y kind of movie goes on my back-burner). Then, after the news earlier this year that Neil Blomkamp had signed on to direct a new sequel to the ’87 original, I saw a fair few people say this reboot was actually quite good; that it only suffered due to comparisons with an original that’s a beloved genre classic. So I watched it, and, well, those people were being too kind.

The year is 2028, and mega-corporation OmniCorp have transformed warfare with their robot soldiers. Keen to deploy the same product as domestic law enforcement but blocked by legislation, they instead develop a proposal for a cyborg police officer — all the physical benefits of a machine, but controlled by the mind of a man. When Detroit cop Alex Murphy (Joel Kinnaman) is fatally injured in the line of duty, they have the perfect candidate; but they haven’t anticipated the emotional toll the procedure will take on its subject… So, it’s broadly the same plot as before, then. Well, it is a remake.

I wasn’t actually a huge fan of the original — I didn’t dislike it, but in my review I did say I thought it’d had its day and the idea of a remake was fine because “the concept’s a good’un and could withstand a refresh.” I stand by that assertion, I just don’t think this remake is a very good film. Reportedly the screenplay was based on an unfinished draft from 1985, which was commissioned by director Paul Verhoeven when he was considering making the film more serious. After reading that draft he realised he was wrong, returning to the original idea of “humour and brutal satire on the corporate future.” To put it another way: this film is based on a serious/humourless screenplay that was rejected because it wasn’t as good, rather than the one that was made and which garnered all the praise and fans and everything. What a bright idea.

Machine man

It’s clear that the writers (whoever they are — there were numerous uncredited rewrites) have serious things on their mind, with the film touching on various topical issues — overseas wars, prosthetics, murderous law enforcement — but instead of satirising them it mostly wants to take them seriously. There is a bit of satire left (Samuel L. Jackson ranting away as a commentator on a Fox News-esque TV network), but it lacks anything deeper than surface spoofery. Primarily, I think the film wants to say something about corporate America — about big business being above the law, and indeed manipulating politicians to set the law — but it doesn’t have anything particularly insightful on that subject. Indeed, I think my previous sentence summed up all of the film’s points on the matter. And that’s annoying because, now more than ever, takedowns of that Fox News mentality are important to how America-as-it-knows-itself is being destroyed from the inside.

The film also seems to have tried to switch satire for psychological matters, asking how this procedure would really affect a man. That aspect was in the original film too, but I felt it had greater focus here. Unfortunately, they cast personality vacuum Joel Kinnaman as the lead, immediately undercutting any attempt to effectively explore the character. He’s surrounded by an all-star supporting cast (Jackson, Gary Oldman, Michael Keaton, many other recognisable faces), who give decent performances, but the material hardly gives them a lot to work with. Oldman fares best: his character actually has an arc (unlike, well, pretty much anyone else in the movie), as he gradually sells out his ethics to attain his desired result. This brings in a theme of how good people can be corrupted bit by bit, but it’s still pretty thin. You never really feel that he’s selling his soul, meaning his redemption is kind of muddled. It doesn’t come off in the triumphant way you imagine someone had in mind when they wrote/filmed/edited it.

Shoot 'em up

If you want to block all of that out, sadly it’s not particularly satisfying as an action movie either. The attempt to genuinely focus on the morals leaves action pushed aside for most of the running time, which might be admirable if it worked, but it doesn’t. When it finally arrives, the action is as bland as the rest of the movie. In the original film’s climax, Robocop fought a stop-motion animated ED-209 that looks kinda clunky and cheap today; in this one, he fights half-a-dozen CGI ED-209s, but now they lack any weight and the sequence has no tension.

Basically, the film does nothing particularly well. It’s not outright bad, but it’s not good either. It’s fine. It’s adequate. Normally I’d now say it’s good for a couple of hours of brain-off entertainment, but is it? The action quotient isn’t really high enough for that. More likely you’ll end up pondering all the things the film itself doesn’t bother to adequately work through. It should be cutting and provocative, but it’s just bland. That’s the biggest shame, because if there’s a movie 2018 needs it’s one about corrupt businessmen hijacking the government’s decision-making while right-wing TV chatterers cheer them on and police officers are replaced by an ultimate-killing-machine robot. Put another way: 2014 probably didn’t need a new RoboCop movie, but 2018 does — but it needs one with more smarts than this.

2 out of 5

RoboCop is part of the opening night of Film4’s Fantastica season, airing this evening at 11:50pm.

Darkest Hour (2017)

2018 #182
Joe Wright | 125 mins | streaming (UHD) | 1.85:1 | UK & USA / English & French | PG / PG-13

Darkest Hour

2017 was, for no readily apparent reason, a banner year for stories about Dunkirk making it to the big screen. In April there was Their Finest, a film about people making a film about Dunkirk (how apt). In July there was Dunkirk, Christopher Nolan’s high-profile telling of the evacuation itself. Finally, in January 2018 (because, when it comes to films, January and February are part of the previous year in the UK) there was this, the story of Winston Churchill becoming Prime Minister of the UK in May 1940 and immediately having to deal with the situation in Dunkirk, alongside calls from within his own government to negotiate peace with Hitler — something Churchill was not inclined to do, despite the odds of winning the war not being in Britain’s favour.

The Dunkirk connection was certainly played up in the film’s marketing (the trailers made it look like Dunkirk 2), but while that situation does have a significant role to play (and both films climax with a recital of the same uber-famous speech), it’s only part of what this film’s actually about. Which does actually make it quite a neat companion piece to Nolan’s movie: it expands on the political backdrop surrounding Dunkirk, placing those events in a wider context. In doing that, it presents a different perspective on familiar events. Churchill is widely remembered as a great and beloved leader who saw us through the war, but here his own party treat him as something of a lame duck Prime Minister, and spend most of their time trying to convince him to take a different course of action.

In this respect, Darkest Hour seems dead set on removing the rose-tinted memory of World War 2 which says that “of course we stood up to those evil Nazis”. The film reminds us, and reminds us hard, that there were many people in positions of power who thought the best course was to acquiesce to Hitler — to give in and seek peace with him — and that, in many ways, their opinion was not irrational. Certainly, the film makes the case that it was the safer route in order to both secure the lives of our troops and hold off invasion of our shores. It’s relatively mature to both not hide from that reality and present the arguments as at least somewhat reasonable.

Never surrender

That said, the film fails to maintain the veneer of unvarnished historical reality for its entire running time. In the third act, Churchill boards a train and encounters members of the public in a sequence that is shamelessly, manipulatively, almost tweely patriotic and sentimental… and yet I kinda got suckered in by it anyway. I think that’s got something to do with these dark days we live in — wouldn’t it be nice to believe The General Public would want to stand up for what’s right in the face of overwhelming odds? Whether it’s historically accurate (maybe everyone was just better back then?) or whether it’s a nostalgic view of what people were prepared to stand for, I don’t know; but either way, it’s effectively aspirational.

A film like this is powered by it performances, and obviously Gary Oldman — subsumed in makeup to turn his slender frame into the famously rotund Churchill — is the stand-out. He thoroughly disappears into the role. Obviously the prosthetics help a good deal with that, but it’s also the voice, the gait, the mannerisms. Naturally he dominates the film, but there’s still some space for quality turns in the supporting roles. In particular, Stephen Dillane as the film’s de facto villain, Halifax, gives a performance that, in its own way, is just as mannered as Oldman’s (the lisping voice), but also just as subtly believable and well measured. Pretty much the same thing could be said about Ben Mendelsohn as King Colin Firth George VI.

But then there are other roles that are less well served. The women, mainly. Lily James’ secretary seems to be present merely to give a significant role to a female character, and to try to humanise Churchill by charting a very familiar “he’s tough to work with at first, but he’s got a heart of gold and is just super once you get to know him” arc. Similarly, Kristin Scott Thomas very nearly has an interesting part as Churchill’s wife, his long-time partner who’s been consistently overlooked in favour of his dedication to the public, but that’s an underdeveloped thread.

Supporting role

So, Darkest Hour is a strong movie in many ways — the male performances; Joe Wright’s classy direction; the way it manages to be simultaneously a more-realistic-than-most depiction of the “maybe we should surrender” debates in the early days of the war and a patriotic “we shall never surrender” entertainment — but it’s also let down by some of those lapses into cliché and sentiment. How susceptible you are to the almost-propagandist “this was our finest hour in the face of terrible odds, both at home and abroad” narrative may dictate how much you like the end result. For me, the aforementioned successes outweigh the faults on balance, but there’s no denying there are problems.

4 out of 5

Darkest Hour is available on Sky Cinema from today.

Léon (1994)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #51

He moves without sound.
Kills without emotion.
Disappears without trace.

Also Known As: The Professional (USA) *shudder*

Country: France
Language: English
Runtime: 110 minutes | 132 minutes (version intégrale)
BBFC: 18 | 15 (version intégrale)
MPAA: R

Original Release: 14th September 1994 (France)
US Release: 18th November 1994
UK Release: 3rd February 1995
First Seen: VHS, c.1999

Stars
Jean Reno (Les visiteurs, Ronin)
Natalie Portman (Star Wars – Episode I: The Phantom Menace, Black Swan)
Gary Oldman (Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy)

Director
Luc Besson (Nikita, The Fifth Element)

Screenwriter
Luc Besson (The Transporter, Taken)

The Story
When her family are murdered by a corrupt police officer, 12-year-old Mathilda runs to hide with her quiet, reclusive neighbour, Léon. Turns out he’s a hitman, and she begins to train with him so she can exact her revenge…

Our Heroes
As the title character, Jean Reno’s child-like hired killer is likeable, sympathetic, and quite sweet — traits one wouldn’t typically associate with his profession. As his young ward, Mathilda, Natalie Portman is compelling, playing a hardened, emotionally bruised kid in desperate need of support and guidance, more so than she needs vengeance.

Our Villain
Gary Oldman brings pure entertainment value to the film in one of his most iconic performances: Stansfield, the crazy copper with a penchant for both drugs and quotable dialogue.

Best Supporting Character
There’s not much room for anyone else to stand out around the three lead performances, but Danny Aiello comes closest as Léon’s kindly mafioso handler, Tony.

Memorable Quote
Stansfield: “Bring me everyone.”
Benny: “What do you mean ‘everyone’?”
Stansfield: “EV-RY-ONE.

Memorable Scene
As Mathilda returns home from buying groceries, she sees the door to her family’s apartment open and a man standing suspiciously outside. As she nears, she catches a glimpse inside — her father sprawled on the floor in a pool of blood. She keeps walking, pretending not to have seen, and approaches Léon’s door — where he’s been watching through his peephole. Trying to hold back tears, she rings his bell. Behind the door, Léon fidgets, not answering — he doesn’t want to get involved. She pleads under her breath. She rings again. The man at her door watches, suspicious. She rings again, desperate. Léon is torn… OK, you know all along what he’s going to do, but Besson’s direction and the performances from Portman and Reno ring every second of tension out of the sequence.

Letting the Side Down
Some people find the relationship between Léon and Mathilda problematic, and that gets in the way of their enjoyment of the movie. I’ve never seen it that way. Mathilda tries to inappropriately push herself on Léon, but he never takes her up on it. He’s a child himself in many ways and that side of life doesn’t seem to engage him at all, never mind in an unacceptable fashion.

Making of
The film’s second shot (still in the credits) is a tracking shot that travels along a New York road without stopping. It was only possible after studying the pattern of the traffic lights along the route to make sure the camera truck didn’t encounter any red lights.

Previously on…
The film was inspired by Jean Reno’s role in Besson’s previous film, Nikita (aka La Femme Nikita), in which he turns up in the third act as “Victor the Cleaner”, dressed in an outfit similar to Léon’s, to deal with Nikita’s botched mission.

Next time…
Besson wrote a script for a sequel focusing on a grown-up Mathilda. While they waited for Portman to age into the role, Besson left Gaumont to start his own studio, EuropaCorp. Unhappy at his departure, Gaumont have apparently refused to let him have the necessary rights. According to Olivier Megaton (the director of Besson projects like Transporter 3 and both Taken sequels) it will now likely never happen. Reportedly the script was recycled into Colombiana, which I am now 100% more interested in seeing.

Awards
7 César nominations (Film, Actor (Jean Reno), Director, Music, Cinematography, Editing, Sound)

What the Critics Said
“For Luc Besson, [Léon] is a poetic brute, a man without humanity who has lived so close to darkness for so long that he has lost all connection to the light. The universe around him, too, is a symbolic construction, an interweaving of opera, film noir and existentialism, where the larger-than-life forces of innocence and corruption explode in blood and violence. […] Reno plays it minimally; Oldman splatters his performance all over the screen. Oldman is the least inhibited actor of his generation, and as this deranged detective, he keeps absolutely nothing in reserve. When the camera gets close to him, you feel as if you want to back away. […] Stansfield’s signature is his passion for music. He thinks of everything, even his blood orgies, in terms of rhythm and color. You want Beethoven? he asks, picking up a shotgun. I’ll play you some Beethoven. Fortunately, Besson structures his film in much the same way. Not only does music play an important role in giving texture to his material, his scenes — especially the violent ones — are presented as arias, chamber pieces, symphonies.” — Hal Hinson, The Washington Post

Worst Spurious Connection in a Supposedly Professional Review
“A favorite of IMDb fanboys (who have absurdly — but predictably — ranked it the 27th best movie of all time!) and reportedly of pedophiles as well” — Matt Brunson, Creative Loafing (You’re right about one thing, though, Matt: 27th is ridiculous — Léon is top ten material.)

Counterpoint to Mr Brunson
“[It] would go on to become one of his most highly-regarded films among audiences. Sadly it was not thought of nearly as well by critics, merely receiving somewhat average reviews, giving us another sad oversight [and] proving that there are those times where the general audience can have more perception into a film than those that analyze them for a living.” — Jeff Beck, examiner.com

Score: 71%

What the Public Say
“In spite of ranking on the top ten lists of many, many movie fans since its release, my love for [Léon] was not immediate. As a matter of fact I pretty much disliked it on the first and second outings because I couldn’t quite grasp what Luc Besson was going for with this film. It’s not an action movie, it’s more of a love story set to the tone of bloodshed and corruption, a subtle poetic masterpiece that relies on characterization and artistic strokes of pure raw emotion than some shoot em up gangster flick. […] I’ve come to truly appreciate what a pure piece of brilliant filmmaking this is and the loose allusions this has toward another Besson masterpiece La Femme Nikita. Everything about this film from the performances right down to the set pieces are like pieces of moving art, and Besson is the artist with the brush. […] Besson’s incomparable film is almost impossible to beat and there’s yet to be a director who could match his magnum opus. Even after almost twenty years, [Léon] stands as the superlative masterpiece of action filmmaking and has yet to be matched or toppled by any director in the business.” — Felix Vasquez, Cinema Crazed

Elsewhere on 100 Films
I reviewed the extended “version intégrale” cut of the film in 2008, asserting that “I prefer this version. Not because there’s anything wrong with the original — far from it — but because this one has more. […] I love the film and the characters, I could happily take more of them, and I very much enjoyed all of the added material. […] Léon (in either cut) is unquestionably essential.”

Verdict

Léon delivers the kind of tense sequences of action you’d imagine of a dramatic action-thriller (i.e. not highly-choreographed punch-ups every five minutes, but the action scenes that do appear are suspenseful), but the film’s real joy lies in its characters, who are expertly performed and wonderful to spend time with (in a movie context — in real life, I wouldn’t be so sure…) As a whole, Besson brews the grittily realistic with something far more fantastical to create a film that is, perhaps, a little too unique for some to get a handle on (I’m thinking of the handful of low-rated critics reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, which fly in the face of the consensus opinion). For the majority, however, Léon is a gripping, characterful, rewatchable masterpiece.

#52 just can’t wait… to be king.

Batman Begins (2005)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #8

Evil fears the knight.

Country: USA & UK
Language: English, Urdu & Mandarin
Runtime: 140 minutes
BBFC: 12A
MPAA: PG-13

Original Release: 10th June 2005 (Russia)
US Release: 15th June 2005
UK Release: 16th June 2005
First Seen: cinema, June 2005

Stars
Christian Bale (American Psycho, The Fighter)
Michael Caine (Alfie, Harry Brown)
Liam Neeson (Schindler’s List, Taken)
Katie Holmes (Go, Woman in Gold)
Gary Oldman (Léon, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy)

Director
Christopher Nolan (Memento, Interstellar)

Screenwriters
David S. Goyer (Blade, Man of Steel)
Christopher Nolan (The Prestige, Inception)

Based on
Batman, a comic book superhero created by Bob Kane and Bill Finger. In part inspired by Batman: Year One by Frank Miller and David Mazzucchelli.

The Story
After Bruce Wayne’s philanthropic millionaire parents are murdered when he’s a kid, he dedicates his life to fighting crime, travelling the world to learn combat skills, then deciding the best way to scare the Mafia-esque scum of his home city is to dress as a bat. As you do.

Our Hero
Nana-nana-nana-nana nana-nana-nana-nana Batman! But, y’know, serious. Important crimefighting jobs include getting hold of cool gadgets your company developed, messing around in restaurant fountains with models, and perfecting a ludicrously gruff voice to use when in costume.

Our Villains
Batman really has his work cut out for him this time: there’s crime boss Carmine Falcone (Tom Wilkinson), mad scientist Dr Jonathan Crane, aka Scarecrow (Cillian Murphy), commander of a league of assassins Ra’s al Ghul (Ken Watanabe), his subordinate — and Bruce’s one-time mentor — Ducard (Liam Neeson). That’s not to mention the bloke doing something dodgy with his family company (Rutger Hauer).

Best Supporting Character
It’s a toss up between two British thesps: there’s Michael Caine as the most involved and caring version of the Waynes’ butler Alfred that we’ve yet seen, and the ever-excellent Gary Oldman as Gotham’s only honourable cop, Jim Gordon. Both are a world away from previous screen incarnations of their characters.

Memorable Quote
“Well, a guy who dresses up like a bat clearly has issues.” — Bruce Wayne

Memorable Scene
Trapped in Arkham Asylum, surrounded by police and with SWAT officers storming the building, Batman activates a device on his boot for “backup”. Moments later, hundreds of bats flood the building, allowing him to make a dramatic escape.

Technical Wizardry
Previously, the Batmobile was a sleek and desirable supercar-type vehicle. Taking inspiration from some of the comics, Begins reinvents the vehicle entirely, rendering it essentially a road-ready tank. A massive change in the very concept, but one that now seems only natural.

Letting the Side Down
Hardly a major point for the viewer, but the design of the Bat-costume meant the actor in it couldn’t turn his neck — a problem also in the previous post-’89 Bat-films. Christian Bale’s frustration with this led to it being redesigned for the sequels (and explicitly referenced on screen, too).

Making of
According to some trivia on IMDb, before shooting began Nolan treated the crew to a private screening of Blade Runner, after which he told them, “this is how we’re going to make Batman.” For more on how exactly Ridley Scott’s seminal sci-fi thriller influenced Begins, check out these interview excerpts.

Previously on…
Batman’s big-screen popularity was kicked off by Tim Burton’s 1989 Batman, but that goodwill was gradually squandered, ending with 1997’s Batman & Robin, which many regard as one of the worst films ever made. It killed a once-profitable franchise, therefore paving the way for an eventual reboot.

Next time…
The Bat-world shaped by Nolan and co reached its apotheosis in the first sequel, The Dark Knight. The trilogy-forming second sequel, The Dark Knight Rises, did that rarest of things: it gave a superhero a definitive, final ending.

Awards
1 Oscar nomination (Cinematography)
3 BAFTA nominations (Production Design, Sound, Visual Effects)
1 Razzie nomination (Worst Supporting Actress (Katie Holmes))
3 Saturn Awards (Fantasy Film, Actor (Christian Bale), Writing)
4 Saturn nominations (Supporting Actor (Liam Neeson), Supporting Actress (Katie Holmes), Director, Music, Costume, Special Effects)
Nominated for the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation, Long Form.

What the Critics Said
“If there is one Batman film anyone should see, this is it. It’s a superhero film with a dark tone that’s very well-written with nothing but incredible actors involved. In a world where most movies these days are usually either remakes or films that are made as quickly as possible to cash in on the latest trend in Hollywood, a reboot that is not only worthy of your time but tends to make you forget about every other version that came before it says quite a bit.” — Chris Sawin, examiner.com

Score: 85%

What the Public Say
“One of the best things about Nolan’s Batman is that he grasps the idea of the three personas of Bruce Wayne. There’s Bruce when he’s playing the billionaire playboy, Bruce when he’s alone in the cave or with Alfred, and Bruce when he’s wearing the cowl. This movie truly delved into this in a way that no Batman movie had before it and was performed flawlessly by Christian Bale — whether you like the voice or hate it, Bale did a great job at playing three distinct personas.” — Blue Fish Comics

Elsewhere on 100 Films
Just before the release of The Dark Knight Rises I went back over all the live-action Bat-films of the ‘modern era’, i.e. since Tim Burton’s Batman. Of Begins, I wrote that “Nolan’s first foray into Bat-world really is a stunning piece of work… The monumental achievement of The Dark Knight has come to overshadow Begins, which is now rendered as a functionary prequel to the next film’s majesty. Don’t let that reputation fool you: on its own merits, this is very much a film at the forefront of the action-adventure, blockbuster and superhero genres.”

Verdict

If there was one thing the Burton and Schumacher Batman films were collectively notorious for, it was focusing on their villains more than their hero (not least because they cast bigger name actors in the villain roles). Personally, I don’t think that’s wholly true, but there’s no doubting that Christopher Nolan’s much-needed reboot of the franchise focuses on Bruce Wayne, his reasoning and his psychology, more than ever before. In the process, Nolan and co made us believe a man might reasonably choose to fight crime and corruption by dressing up as a bat. No small feat, that.

For #9 Burton’s Bat’s back.

The Book of Eli (2010)

2012 #11
The Hughes Brothers | 118 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA / English | 15 / R

After last week’s reviews of Priest and Legion, here’s another disappointingly religious action blockbuster…

The Book of EliThe directors of From Hell (what did they do for nine years? Struggle to find work perhaps) helm the tale of Denzel Washington being a sunglasses-wearing loner mofo in a post-apocalyptic America. I really enjoyed it… for maybe 50 minutes, before it gradually slid away, ultimately degenerating to a Christianity circle jerk ending.

I warn you now, this review contains spoilers, because I don’t care if I ruin the crap bits for you. Indeed, I’d say less “ruin” and more “prepare”.

Much like the film, let’s start with the good stuff. It has a slow, almost elegiac pace early on, punctuated by bursts of violence and action. This section is very good. Then it begins to slip into more typical action blockbuster territory. A fake-single-take shoot-out might’ve seemed virtuoso filmmaking in the right film, but here it seems like director willy-waggling in preference to serving the mood and tone thus far created. Same goes for other independently cool things that follow, like the explosive destruction of a truck.

Ironically, one of the earlier good action sequences (a bar brawl… to sell it short!) is included in a beautifully-choreographed single-take form in the deleted & alternate scenes. That should’ve been left in the film. The final version isn’t bad — the Hughes brothers use a variety of static and wide shots to lens all the film’s fights in a way that reminds you that all handheld close-up shaky-jumpy super-fast-cut modern action sequences are inferior to an old-style well-staged, well-shot sequence — but if they’d had the restraint not to intercut some sequence-extending close-ups they would have had a massively more memorable sequence.

Robin HoodThe music is by Atticus Ross, which was interesting because I’d thought it was reminiscent of The Social Network. So that’s nice.

There are nice, subtle CG effects (I presume) for much of the film, making the world brown-grey and bleak with green-tinged clouds… but all that is ditched for the digitally stitched together ‘single take’ gunfight and, even more so, a vision of a desolate San Francisco during the closing minutes. It’s decent enough in itself — I’ve seen worse — but like, say, the ‘vampires’ in I Am Legend, it’s jarring and awkward because it doesn’t fit with the tone and style established elsewhere.

A bit like Mila Kunis, who is kinda fine but also an acting weak link. Washington and Gary Oldman (especially) are as great as ever. After years of Harry Potter, Batman and recently Tinker Tailor, it’s quite nice to see Oldman back as a villain! He knows how to pitch it perfectly, and while the lack of out-and-out crazy means this one isn’t as memorable as Leon’s Stansfield (well, who is?), it fits the film like a glove. It can’t withstand the blockbusterised let’s-go-get-’em second half, but then not much can. Certainly not the directors’ skills. The oft-underrated Ray Stevenson even offers a cut-above-average lead henchman figure. But there’s something about Kunis… something too present-day and preppy for someone who’s supposed to have been born and raised in a deeply post-apocalyptic back-of-beyond world. She’s nowhere near rough enough.

Old-villainLate on the film pulls out surprise appearances from Michael Gambon and Frances de la Tour. Their roles aren’t even close to needing thesps of such calibre though — they appear fleetingly, the actors underused. Particularly Gambon, who really has nothing to do except fire a gun. I know it’s usually a joke to comment that a usually-better cast member must have needed the money, but that’s the only reason I can imagine he’s here.

Worst of all is a pat ending, which doesn’t make a lot of sense in various ways. They really destroyed every Bible? He really memorised all of it? He wasn’t blind all along, surely? Because you assume he is and then no one says so you think maybe you’ve read it wrong but then it’s meant to be a twist that he’s blind — what?! Why is that facility on Alcatraz? Why have they just been collecting for 30 years? For 30 years?! I could go on.

As well as being religiousified to extremes, these attempts at giving surprising twists just don’t wash. To quote Kim Newman in Empire,

Given that the leather-bound tome Eli treasures is embossed with a crucifix, it’s not much of a surprise when we find out what it is…

Eli’s literary devotion is more giggly than inspirational. Frankly, it would be more affecting if humanity’s last hope rested in almost any other book than the one chosen here – Tristram Shandy, David Copperfield, the Empire Movie Almanac.

So, so true. This must be why American reviewers seem to have loved the film, but our more secular nature sees it as Just Daft. Thank God for that.

Let us pray. (Please don't.)Newman concludes that “you can’t help feel you were invited to a party with fizzy pop and cream cake and got suckered into a sermon instead.” I couldn’t have put it better. Eli starts off with the potential for an arty 5; slips slightly to a solid 4 when the standard post-apocalyptic trope of a gang fighting for local power comes in to play; unsteadies that 4 with an increasingly atonal second half; and quite frankly borders a 1 with its sickening ending.

I land on a generous 3, because anything less would be unfair to the good stuff it achieves early on. What a shame it couldn’t continue in that vein.

3 out of 5

The Book of Eli featured on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw in 2012, which can be read in full here.

Léon: Version Intégrale (1994/1996)

2008 #42
Luc Besson | 127 mins | DVD | 15*

Léon: Version IntégraleI first saw Léon about 10 years ago, back when video was still an acceptable way of watching things. A friend leant it to me, insisting it was a film I absolutely had to see, and he wasn’t wrong. It’s remained one of my favourite films ever since, though typically I haven’t watched it more than once or twice in the intervening decade. (It also fostered a love for Sting’s closing song, Shape of My Heart, which is criminally missing from a Greatest Hits CD my dad owned (even though his dire song from Demolition Man is on there), and in moderately recent years was indifferently reused by both Sugababes and Craig David.)

I became aware of this extended cut a few years ago, a little while before it was released on R1 DVD. Having held out for a UK R2 release for about half a decade now, I gave in and bought the (apparently superior, and also in a Steelbook, which always has a way of persuading me) German R2. It’s labelled as a “Director’s Cut” but, as Besson states in the relatively lengthy booklet (translated with the aid of [the now defunct] Babel Fish), “the second version is neither better nor worse than the original” — it’s not a preferred cut, just a different, extended one.

But personally, I prefer this version. Not because there’s anything wrong with the original — far from it — but because this one has more. Sometimes you can have too much of a good thing of course, but I don’t think that’s happened here. The additions build on the characters and relationships, primarily between the two leads, and also add extra doses of humour and action. Besson wasn’t necessarily wrong to remove these things from his original cut — the extent of Léon and Mathilda’s relationship is especially controversial for some, and the extended scenes of Léon training Mathilda as a Cleaner are arguably extraneous — but they all add to the experience. Wisely, he doesn’t seem to have touched what was already there. Everything that was great about the original — from the astounding performances of Jean Reno, Natalie Portman and Gary Oldman, to the thrilling action sequences, and plenty else in between — remains intact. They’ve not been buggered about with, just expanded around.

Ultimately, the reason I prefer this version is quite simple: I love the film and the characters, I could happily take more of them, and I very much enjoyed all of the added material. I can understand objections to the insinuations about Léon and Mathilda’s relationship, but I didn’t find it any creepier here than it was before (besides which, any paedophilic notions come from her and he quashes them). The quality of the performances in the new scenes, plus other solid additions, make all the new bits worthwhile.

The version intégrale isn’t too much of a good thing, then, just more of a great thing. To my mind, Léon (in either cut) is unquestionably essential.

5 out of 5

* The original cut of Léon was last classified in 1996 and given an 18. The longer version was classified in 2009 and received a 15. That must be a pretty rare case of a longer version (technically) having a lower certificate. ^