1917 (2019)

2020 #6
Sam Mendes | 119 mins | cinema | 2.39:1 | UK & USA / English & French | 15 / R

1917

BAFTABritish Academy Film Awards 2020
9 nominations

Nominated: Best Film; Outstanding British Film; Best Director; Best Cinematography; Original Music; Best Production Design; Best Make Up/Hair; Best Sound; Best Special Visual Effects.

I haven’t been following awards season too closely this year, but from the snippets I have picked up here and there it seems to be quite a variable race — every time a frontrunner emerges, something else wins some other award and suddenly the field is open again. 1917 was one of the early tips, and now has several wins under its belt to back that up. It may not be a lock at the Oscars, where the latest works by American auteurs like Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino will give it a robust run for its money (plus the six other contenders, several in with a shot), but tonight it’s BAFTA’s turn. The British Academy may seem to be more focused on being counted among the major Oscar forerunners than anything else, but they do still have a penchant for rewarding British films — and 1917 isn’t just “a British film”, it’s a British film about a key event in British history with an all-star cast of cameos from great British actors. So, as it’s a season-wide contender anyhow, if 1917 doesn’t win the big prize this evening it’ll be a genuine surprise.

Does it deserve it? Take a sample of social media and you’ll get different answers. As with any big, much-discussed film nowadays the initial reception has been followed by waves of backlash — or maybe that’s too grand a term for it; maybe it’s just been different ‘sides’ expressing their opinion in turn. If it wins, there’ll be a vocal contingent about how it didn’t deserve it. As someone observed the other day, literally the only way to avoid such a negative reaction nowadays is to literally take the award out of the incorrectly-named winner’s hands. (If you think that’s facetious, think about it for a second: do you remember any significant backlash to Moonlight winning? I don’t. Every other winner in recent years? Yep. I’m not saying it should’ve had one — it’s a great film — but it is unique in avoiding it.)

Personally, having seen 60% of this year’s BAFTA Best Film nominees, 1917 would be my pick (the others I’ve seen are Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and The Irishman; the remainder are Joker and Parasite, which is only out in UK cinemas next week so probably doesn’t stand a chance). My view may very well change once I’ve ticked all the boxes (Parasite is supposedly the greatest film ever made, after all), but that doesn’t lessen 1917 as an achievement.

War, huh? What is it good for? Winning BAFTAs, probably.

Famously, the film is a single take… sort of. That caveat comes for two reasons. First, because it isn’t a single take, because there’s a fade-to-black in the middle. It’s an effective, well-timed event — basic filmmaking technique as narrative twist, because this is so famous as “a single-take film” and, by that point (it comes fairly late in), we’re so embedded in the technique that the sudden blackness comes as quite a surprise. Second, because it isn’t a pair of single takes, because there’s no way you could shoot a film of this scale and complexity in a genuine single shot. Rumours abound of how many hidden cuts are in the movie. One said there were as many as five. Editor Lee Smith refuses to confirm the exact number, but makes a very sensible point: the film was shot over 65 days — you can’t put together 65 days’ worth of footage with only five cuts. But that shows how well it was achieved: people thought that, gasp, there could be as many as five, when actually there are far more.

“Wait, this film had an editor? That must’ve been a quick job!” Yeah, there’s been a lot of that on social media. People have been quick to dismiss it — people who should know better, quite frankly. As with so many things in life, just because it looks easy doesn’t mean that it was. There’s more to editing than just “sticking shots together”, and planning a film as complicated as this involved Smith’s input throughout shooting, not just in post-production. Plus, they didn’t just do one take that worked for each setup and call it quits — the job still involves choosing which take has the best performances, the right lighting, making sure it matches exactly enough for the transition to the next shot, and so on. The least number of takes for any individual shot was “five or six”, the most 39, so there’s plenty for an editor to do with choosing. I’m getting this info from an interview with Smith by Catherine Springer at AwardsWatch, which is worth a read if you’re interested in getting some insight into why there is actually a lot of difficult, impressive editing work going on here. One further titbit: some of the cuts were ‘improvised’, in that there are some cuts where a cut hadn’t been planned. You can’t do that kind of thing without a skilled editor, surely.

Deakins!

And it makes it all the more impressive that the end result is so seamless — you can buy that you’re watching a single take (okay, two single takes) rather than dozens strung together in pretend. Well, I say it’s seamless — yeah, sure, any Tom, Dick, or Harry can spot places where there are surely cuts (they walk through a dark doorway; someone/thing passes in front of the camera, blocking the view for a split second; etc). But unlike other faked single cuts I’ve seen, where the action doesn’t flow perfectly across a hidden cut, it’s at least conceivable that some of 1917’s hidden-cut-opportunities don’t actually mask a cut at all. Plus, as that interview suggests, there are actually dozens of cuts in the movie, and there aren’t that many glaring opportunities (which is probably how whoever it was arrived at their total of five).

The fact I’ve spent most of this review so far talking about the film’s single-take-ness is some people’s problem with 1917 — that it’s a filmmaking stunt and nothing more; that it’s a technical achievement at the sacrifice of character or narrative or anything but “look what we can do”. I don’t agree with that assessment. I think the single take serves a purpose beyond showing off. At the most basic level, it puts us on this mission with the characters, attaching us to them and their fate in a very intimate way. The camera rarely strays far from their side, choosing to remain at eye level and near to them when it could float off to give us a godly overview. Some have taken to describing it as “like watching a video game” for that reason, but I bet those people also refer to CG effects as “graphics” and, basically, spend too much time watching/thinking about computer games and conflating them with films (I’ll move on before I get distracted into a wholly different argument…) There are plenty of other ways for filmmakers to attach you to characters, of course, but that doesn’t invalidate this method.

The other thing it brings is a tangible sense of time. Our heroes are on a time-sensitive mission, and we’re with them every step of the way — they don’t get to jump from one side of a field to the other with the magic of editing, we must walk across it with them. (The film is certainly not as boring as “watching characters walk across a field” makes it sound — there’s plenty of action and incident.) Again, you don’t need a single take to create real-time — 24 proved that over ten seasons and a movie (not that all of those seasons take their real-time conceit wholly seriously, in my opinion) — but it does emphasise and enhance it.

Walking (running) across a field (a battlefield)

Regular readers will know I love a bit of real-time, so that was right up my street. I have similar feelings about single takes (fake or not), so I loved that aspect too. Plus I’ve got a long-standing interest in World War One, which I don’t feel is represented well enough on film (at least, not as well as its sequel), so getting a big-budget high-profile movie about it is something else I welcome. And I love the work of cinematographer Roger Deakins, who is absolutely on fine form here (when isn’t he?) The long and the short of it is, 1917 was always a movie almost tailored to things that interest me. Fortunately, it lives up to them. Is it the very best picture of 2019? I dunno, I’ve not seen Parasite yet. Will it be a worthy winner nonetheless? I think so.

5 out of 5

The British Academy Film Awards are on BBC One tonight at 9pm.

Free Fire (2016)

2017 #105
Ben Wheatley | 91 mins | Blu-ray | 2.39:1 | UK & France / English | 15 / R

Free Fire

The latest film from director Ben Wheatley (he of Kill List, Sightseers, A Field in England, High-Rise, and the rest) is by far his most accessible movie yet. Set in Boston in the ’70s, it sees two IRA fellas (Cillian Murphy and Michael Smiley) arranging through a pair of black market brokers (Brie Larson and Armie Hammer) to purchase guns from some arms dealers (Sharlto Copley and Babou Ceesay), with each side bringing along a couple of chaps to carry boxes (Sam Riley, Jack Reynor, Noah Taylor, and Enzo Cilenti). But things go sideways when a couple of those minor participants have a falling out, leading to a protracted shoot-out. “Protracted” as in “two-thirds of the movie”.

If an hour-long gunfight doesn’t sound like your cup of tea, maybe Free Fire isn’t the movie for you. Conversely, this isn’t a Jason Statham flick: instead of an hour of highly-choreographed gunplay, most of the participants get injured early on and end up seeking cover around the rubble-strewn floor of an abandoned factory, occasionally taking potshots at each other. Most action movies are defined by their characters sprinting about — in this one, they crawl. The screenplay was partly inspired by FBI ballistics reports from real gunfights, so there’s actually some veracity to how things go down.

Guys with guns

So, on the one hand, it has a definite grit and reality. Bullet wounds actually hurt, leaving characters dragging themselves around in the dirt. Although there are occasional bullet-flying free-for-alls, just as often every shot counts. Similarly, their guns run out of bullets — frequently. Sometimes, permanently. On the other hand, however, it’s a bit like something Quentin Tarantino or Guy Ritchie might once have made, although thankfully without slavishly duplicating either of their overfamiliar styles. Without being an out-and-out comedy, it’s often pretty funny, thanks to the ludicrous situation and outrageous characters — all while remaining just this side of plausible, that is.

Unfortunately, the thin premise means it lags a bit in the middle. It feels in need of a clearer overall purpose and one or two more ideas. A better sense of space would help, too. We know who’s shooting at who, but for a long time we don’t really know where they all are in relation to each other. That’s not a deliberate choice to evoke the confusion of a gunfight or something — the characters all seem to know where they need to point their weapons. It’s a lack of filmmaking clarity, exposed in the Blu-ray’s behind-the-scenes featurette when it’s revealed how meticulously and thoroughly the whole thing was mapped out — it’s a real shame that doesn’t translate on screen.

More guys with guns

These are flaws that hold Free Fire back from perfection, mind. It’s still a fitfully funny, sporadically tense, gleefully violent hour-long shoot-out. And events occur in real-time, too, which I always have a soft spot for. When all is eventually said and done, I doubt critics and scholars are going to hold it up as a key film of Wheatley’s career, but I’d wager it’s the one most people will get the most enjoyment from.

4 out of 5

Free Fire is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK today.

She isn’t pictured in the review, so here’s a bonus one of Brie Larson being badass:

Badass Brie

Phone Booth (2002)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #69

Your life is on the line.

Country: USA
Language: English
Runtime: 81 minutes
BBFC: 15
MPAA: R

Original Release: 4th April 2003 (USA)
UK Release: 18th April 2003
First Seen: cinema, 2003

Stars
Colin Farrell (The Recruit, Total Recall)
Kiefer Sutherland (Flatliners, Dark City)
Forest Whitaker (Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, The Last King of Scotland)
Radha Mitchell (Pitch Black, Silent Hill)
Katie Holmes (Wonder Boys, Batman Begins)

Director
Joel Schumacher (The Lost Boys, Batman & Robin)

Screenwriter
Larry Cohen (Maniac Cop, Cellular)

The Story
Slick, smarmy Stu uses the last remaining phone booth in New York City to call the young woman he’s trying to cheat on his wife with. Then the phone rings: there’s a sniper rifle trained on him, and if Stu doesn’t follow the caller’s instructions, he’ll die.

Our Hero
Stuart “Stu” Shepard, a slimy publicist who’s trying to cheat on his wife, strings along a kid with hopes of getting in the game, wears Italian clothes to make himself look better than he is, and is generally a dick to everyone. So not a very nice guy, really… but does he deserve to be shot by a sniper, hm?

Our Villain
A mysterious voice on the other end of the phone, The Caller has some kind of moral code, has demands of Stu to fit that code, and also has a high-powered sniper rifle that he’s not afraid to use on just about anybody. Surprisingly witty, too.

Best Supporting Character
Captain Ramey, the cop in charge of the situation once the police get involved, who is at least bright enough to realise there’s more going on than meets the eye.

Memorable Quote
(After cocking his gun) “Now doesn’t that just torque your jaws? I love that. You know like in the movies just as the good guy is about to kill the bad guy, he cocks his gun. Now why didn’t he have it cocked? Because that sound is scary. It’s cool, isn’t it?” — The Caller

Memorable Scene
With both his wife and mistress on the scene, and surrounded by police and news cameras, Stu finally makes his confession. A heartfelt monologue that is definitely a showpiece for Farrell.

Making of
The whole film was shot in just 12 days: ten days inside the phone booth and two to shoot the surroundings. To do this the crew worked “French hours”, which involves not shutting down the entire production for lunch (which just sounds logical to me), and was aided further by Farrell nailing some big scenes in one take.

Awards
1 MTV Movie Awards Mexico nomination (Best Colin Farrell in a Movie — see also: Daredevil)

What the Critics Said
“The triumph of director Joel Schumacher and screenwriter Larry Cohen in Phone Booth is not just that they pull off the central gimmick but also that they fashion from it a creditable thriller. The result is a movie that combines a seriousness of purpose with a delight in craft in a way Hitchcock would have appreciated.” — Mick LaSalle, San Francisco Chronicle

Score: 71%

What the Public Say
“It’s the kind of pulpy potboiler that is often wrecked by unnecessary padding, but the brisk no-nonsense approach here combines with its short length to make quite an entertaining off-beat thriller. Kiefer Sutherland’s vengeful psychopath who is only represented by a voice-over and a red dot for the majority of the film is the stand-out performance, but everyone involved acquits themselves admirably.” — Gary Anthony Cross, Film Noird

Verdict

Regular readers will know of my fondness for the single-location thriller, and this is one of the films that helped define that love. And events occur in real-time, which is just a bonus. Colin Farrell and Kiefer Sutherland are both on excellent form as the hostage who maybe has it coming and the hostage taker who maybe has a point. Larry Cohen’s screenplay takes a simple setup and follows it through, keeping it engrossing but still relatively plausible (something other such films struggle with in order to extend their concept), with some killer dialogue to boot. It all adds up to an immensely effective thriller.

Next time… yo-ho, yo-ho, a pirate’s life for #70.

Locke (2013)

2016 #83
Steven Knight | 85 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | UK & USA / English | 15 / R

“Tom Hardy goes for a drive and makes some phone calls” is the plot of this film, which is often mislabelled as a thriller. That’s not to degrade its thrillingness, but rather to say that if you’re expecting a single-location single-character phone-based thrill-ride like Phone Booth (which I love) or Buried (which I’ve still not seen), you’re not going to get it. In reality, Locke is a drama about a man dealing with some woes that are both everyday and life-changing, but as a film it’s been made in an unusual and interesting manner.

To be more specific, the story concerns Ivan Locke (Hardy), the foreman on a huge construction site in Birmingham, and the only character on screen for the film’s entire running time. As he leaves work one evening, he’s stopped at some traffic lights. He indicates left… but, given some time to think about it, turns right. (Shades of Doctor Who season four there, but I don’t think it’s deliberate!) As he drives down the motorway for the next couple of hours, he makes a series of phone calls that completely change his life.

I could give you some indication of what those calls are about, but I think the less you know, the more entertaining it will be. As writer-director Steven Knight (Eastern Promises, Hummingbird, Peaky Blinders) says in his audio commentary, part of the idea was to construct a movie where the lead character’s big decision — which usually comes near the end — actually occurs at the start, and the whole movie deals with the repercussions of that. Locke deciding to turn right rather than left isn’t just a decision about the quickest route to his destination, but about heading to a different destination, and in the process turning his life upside down. Another part was to tell a story about an ordinary guy dealing with events that aren’t going to change the world, aren’t even going to make the papers, but are a big deal in his life. Something like this could happen to any of us, and how would we deal with it?

I’d argue that Locke is Tom Hardy’s most unusual role to date: a total everyman. I mean, unusual for him. As such, it’s probably the best demonstration of his genuine acting ability: he’s got psychos and outré characters down pat, but playing an understated, fundamentally good, normal bloke? That’s a big change of pace. What’s so remarkable about Ivan Locke is his sheer unremarkableness. He’s a softly spoken guy, a friendly guy, a nice guy; as we learn at one point, he’s the only contractor who’s ever submitted paperwork to the council not just on time but early — he’s that kind of guy. And on this night, he’s decided to be completely honest with everyone; honest to a fault, in fact, because sometimes it just makes things worse. As Knight says in that commentary, what happens to Ivan is “an ordinary tragedy, and Ivan’s solution to the problem is the thing that makes him exceptional”.

Throughout this, however, is the issue of Hardy’s chosen accent… It’s Welsh, or meant to be Welsh, chosen to be working class but not harsh, with fewer preordained associations than some working class accents have. I thought it was… iffy, shall we say; and certainly people unfamiliar with the Welsh accent are all over the place in guessing where it’s from. However, looking on IMDb, Welsh people seem quite happy with it, so… Either way, you do get used to it (or I did, at least), so that as the film goes on it grates less often. Hardy’s too busy acting up a storm for it to matter, anyway. He’s a captivating performer when he’s given the space and character for it, and while I dispute the assertion (made in the special features) that he’s the only actor you could spend 80 minutes watching like this, it’s still a rare gift.

The rest of the cast appear as voices only on the other end of the phone, and in their own way are quite starry — faces that you may recognise, mainly from British TV, in even some of the smaller roles. Not that you see their faces, so, you know, you might have to look them up, or watch the making-of. Some of the performances err a little towards radio acting for me, which is kind of understandable seeing as how that’s basically how they were recorded, but there are particularly good turns from Andrew “Moriarty in Sherlock” Scott, as one of Locke’s underlings who has to step up to the plate while his boss is on the road, and Olivia Colman, who is always brilliant so that should be no surprise. Having just seen her play an ultra-capable woman recently in The Night Manager (which I’ll cover in my TV round-up this Thursday, incidentally), this is distinctly different. As if we needed to know she had range!

One of the people Locke talks to is his dad, which is noteworthy because his dad is dead. This isn’t a fantasy movie, and he isn’t having hallucinations either — he’s just imagining talking to him, for specific reasons that become apparent. These chats seem to be the film’s most divisive part for viewers: some people think it’s forced and terrible, others think it makes for great monologues. I hew towards the latter. Partly, it seems to stem from whether you believe people talk to themselves in the car or not. Here’s an apparently-uncomfortable truth for people who think no one does that: they do.

Other ridiculous criticisms include that it should only be a radio play, or a stage play, and that it’s completely uncinematic. It’s true that it could function on radio, but you’d lose an important aspect: that what we say with words isn’t always what we say with our face, which is particularly true when we’re on the telephone and the person we’re talking to can’t see our face. The film uses this contrast more than once. As for the stage, stage plays don’t allow for close-ups, and — voices aside — this is about what’s happening on Hardy’s face, not with his whole body. And in either form you’d lose all the photography of nighttime motorways, which have their own kind of hazy beauty. For a movie about someone making phone calls, it is intensely cinematic.

It’s also in real-time, more-or-less (it lasts 80 minutes, and near the end Locke says he’s been driving for a little over two hours — that’s near-as-damn-it, isn’t it?) I’ve discussed before how I like real-time narratives — it’s why I was initially attracted to 24, and why I’m very interested in forthcoming spin-off 24: Legacy while seemingly everyone else is busy stomping their feet and bawling like a baby because they want more Jack Bauer. I digress. Part of the beauty of Locke is that we’re locked in the car with this guy experiencing what he’s experiencing as it unfolds. There is no escaping it, only limited control over it. The fact he’s driving towards something is a very clear metaphor here, emphasised by occasional shots of his GPS showing the fixed track he’s on, and the fact he speaks to his dad — i.e. his past — in the rearview mirror. These could be heavy-handed metaphors, but they’re pitched about right in my opinion: you’ll probably spot them (which is always nicer than feeling you’ve missed stuff), but you’re not battered around the head with it.

It’s possible to make Locke sound like the most boring film ever — “a man drives home from work while talking on the phone, mostly about methods of pouring concrete”. Obviously, that undersells it massively. Hardy has never been more compelling, the supporting cast are so much more than “voices on the phone” (listen out, too, for Tom “Spider-Man” Holland and a midwife voiced by Alice “Sightseers” Lowe, who’s apparently Steven Spielberg’s favourite character), and the visuals are hypnotically compelling to boot. Even though it didn’t quite convince me to go the full 5-stars, I’d rate this one a must-see.

4 out of 5

The UK network TV premiere of Locke is on Film4 tonight at 9pm.

Exam (2009)

2011 #2
Stuart Hazeldine | 97 mins | Blu-ray | 15

ExamThere’s an argument that the less you know going into any film the better. Naturally there are some films this applies to more than others, and Exam is one such film. Eight young professional types go into a job exam/interview; the next hour-and-a-half is all mysteries and riddles — which is why you wouldn’t want to know too much.

The film occurs in real-time (more or less) in a single room. These are two narrative tricks I always enjoy the potential of. I’m not saying every film should be set in a single room and/or take place in real-time, but when pulled off well either is an enjoyable feat. Exam succeeds in both. Real-time is, I think, easy enough with the right story if you put your mind to it (though the Johnny Depp-starring Nick of Time fails to make it work, in my opinion), but making an engrossing and — even harder — exciting film set in one room is a challenging prospect. Even in a film like Cube, though it takes place on one identical set, the characters are actually moving from room to room.

Writer-director Hazeldine’s screenplay is inventive enough to keep the story rolling throughout the entire film, barely pushing the tale past the natural end of its ideas, while the direction and camerawork keep it visually interesting without tipping over into pointless flashiness. I suspect he may be one to watch, though almost 18 months after Exam’s UK release he doesn’t seem to have any directing projects lined up (at least according to IMDb).

CandidatesSuch a contained story relies heavily on its characters and the actors’ performances. Largely a cast of un- (or little-) knowns, all are decent — one or two may be subpar, but I’ve seen a lot worse. I don’t quite understand how some viewers can find White, played by Luke Mably, to be a completely likeable character in spite of his obvious flaws — he has his moments, but surely he’s not agreeable overall? Not a jot. That said, his is the standout part, a scene-stealing performance from Mably. There’s no clear-cut audience-favourite, which (from reading a few reviews) seems to be a problem for some viewers. As far as I’m concerned, it’s a good thing: never mind the realism of there being one perfect person every viewer will love, audience-favourites will either predictably win or be shockingly dispatched, so what’s the point?

As it is, various viewers may root for various applicants; and even if you like none of them, it’s not necessarily a problem: the audience is more-or-less positioned as Candidate 9, solving the puzzle along with the characters on screen. It’s the mark of a good mystery that it drags the audience in to trying to guess it too. (Or perhaps it would just be the mark of a bad mystery that it couldn’t even manage that, so maybe it’s not a point of praise as much a point of not-criticising. You may take your choice on this point.) There are plenty of red herrings tossed liberally around, many of which are well-used but perhaps don’t have the part you’d expect them to play come the ultimate revelations. Which is fine — He's got this exam all tied upit’s quite nice to find a plot that doesn’t feel the need to tie everything in to its reveal; a plot that can wrong-foot you by occasionally focusing on something that’s ultimately irrelevant.

The most major flaw is perhaps the final few minutes. Exam ends with a compact array of twists, all of them well-structured — they grow neatly from what we’ve been told already, as any good twist should, rather than hurling themselves in from nowhere for the sake of it — but there’s also rather too much information. I like finding out what was going on, but ambiguity can be good too (look at Cube) — so on one hand I’m pleased we’re told things, but on the other I think it’s overdone, providing too much backstory in a rush to explain everything the filmmakers have dreamt up. Dialled back a bit it would hit the nail on the head.

I also don’t know how it well the film would stand up to repeat viewings. The advantage it has in being a small, little-seen film is that you can go in knowing virtually nothing about what’s going to happen, and play along with the guessing game the characters are involved in — this is the film’s primary joy. But with all the answers revealed, would it have as much to offer when watched again? I can’t answer that, obviously. It’s certainly possible — Cube (which I’m mentioning repeatedly because there are numerous similarities) still works — but there’s no guarantee. The story poses some thematic questions — about motivation, morals, that kind of thing — for those who care to ponder them, The other candidatesand films that invite pondering tend to invite repeat viewing; but then again it works equally well (better, ultimately) as a straight-up “what’s going on?” thriller.

Nonetheless, as a first-time experience, Exam is an intriguing and entertaining head-scratcher. It was a very early contender for my end-of-year top ten — and four months later, still is. A borderline 5.

4 out of 5

The UK network TV premiere of Exam is on Movie Mix (aka more>movies) tonight, Wednesday 18th March 2015, at 9pm.

Snake Eyes (1998)

2010 #86
Brian De Palma | 94 mins | TV (HD) | 15 / R

Kick-Ass, Knowing, National Treasure 2, Matchstick Men, now Snake Eyes — I feel like I’m seeing a lot of Nicolas Cage of late. (To be precise, it’s five films in as many months.) It’s not a conspiracy, I assure you, just an almighty coincidence.

Unlike in Snake Eyes, in which it’s no coincidence that a top boxer throws a fight seconds before the US Secretary of Defense is assassinated right behind dirty cop Rick Santoro (Cage), all in a lovely 12-minute opening take. And there’s plenty more to it than that, but I wanted the sentence to be halfway legible. Who did it? Why? How’s it all connected? Who’s involved? Such are the questions to be answered in the ensuing near-real-time neo-noir.

Let’s start with the opening take. It’s a fake (there are eight cuts), which is pretty obvious, but it’s still a nifty way of starting the film. As well as being the kind of thing I always like to see, it sets up nearly everything we need to know for the rest of the film. Almost every element of the conspiracy is tucked away in there somewhere, from the blatantly obvious to the tiniest detail we won’t even notice. It’s just one of many long takes director Brian De Palma deploys throughout the film, including one that sails over various hotel rooms for no reason other than it looks pretty cool. Which is fine — there’s nothing wrong with looking cool, especially in a crime thriller film set in an Atlantic City casino.

Another thing I always like is real-time. I don’t know why, but there’s something pleasing about a story that unfurls in exactly the time it takes to tell it, that doesn’t skip over characters getting places or cheat our sense of relative time for a nifty editing-based twist (which I’m not saying can’t work — just look at Silence of the Lambs — but there’s also a skill in avoiding it). Perhaps there’s just a thrill in the logistical challenge of making the concept — which is highly unnatural to film and TV — work. The first season of 24 paid much attention to it, to good effect; later seasons didn’t and, in my opinion, suffered. Johnny Depp-starer Nick of Time also used it, though I can’t remember much about that except it was total rubbish. Snake Eyes doesn’t stick to its real-time as rigidly as 24, but it was good enough to satiate me. By the time it begins to deviate significantly from the concept, the story’s got so involving that it no longer matters.

And another thing I always like is a bit of noir. Snake Eyes fits the bill, with ‘heroic’ characters of questionable morality, voluptuous femme fatales, vicious villains, double dealings, punch-ups in shadowy alleys, and dozens of other generic signifiers that I’ll leave it for you to discover and/or remember. I was rather surprised to discover it wasn’t on Wikipedia’s era-encompassing list of film noir (until I added it): I’m not always that good at identifying what counts as post/neo-noir (one might ask “who is?” considering the genre’s broad/nonexistent definition), but I’d say Snake Eyes is pretty much undoubtable in its noir-ness.

Based on IMDb scores and Rotten Tomatoes ratings and whatnot, it seems Snake Eyes isn’t very well regarded. Honestly, I’m not sure why. Perhaps it’s too stylised for some tastes — not everyone will like the long takes, the flashbacks, the point-of-view shots, the split screen, or Cage’s usual OTT performance — but I enjoy all of these things when used well, and here they are. Cage, for instance, isn’t permanently OTT, finding the character’s more realistic side when called upon; his style doesn’t always work, this is certainly true, but here it’s a match.

If there’s one significant flaw, it’s that the ending is too much based on convenience and coincidence; and someone in the editing room should’ve paid more attention to removing all references to the original, deleted ending in which the casino got flooded. I have no idea why that was removed — maybe someone thought it was a bit ludicrous. But it sounds more satisfying than what was included, which, as noted, relies on a handy spot of coincidence and at least one action that seems out of character. I can forgive it though, because I liked everything else. And the post-climax montage is a suitably downbeat ending to our hero’s story — another noir trait there.

Snake Eyes certainly isn’t perfect — as well as the above, I’m sure some take issue with its occasionally implausible conspiracy plotting — but if one accepts that it’s set in a slightly more noir-ish world than our own, and that half the fun is to be had from De Palma’s visual trickery, I think there’s a lot to like. And like it I did.

4 out of 5

Snake Eyes is on BBC One tonight, Sunday 26th April 2015, at 11:35pm.