The Sting (1973)

2016 #127
George Roy Hill | 129 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English | PG / PG

The StingSet in Chicago during the Great Depression, The Sting follows a young street-level con artist (Robert Redford) as he seeks revenge for his murdered partner by teaming up with a seasoned big-con pro (Paul Newman) to scam the mob boss responsible (Robert Shaw).

If that sounds like a somewhat violent crime movie… well, it kinda is. Although The Sting is often billed as a caper, sometimes even as a comedy (look at those grinning mugs on the poster!), it actually has more of an edge. I mean, it’s not The Godfather, but it’s not Ocean’s Eleven either. The star power and chemistry of Redford and Newman are what give the movie a buoyancy to overcome the storyline’s inherent darkness, though I wouldn’t say that reaches far enough to regard the film as a romp, which is the impression I’d obtained over the years.

Indeed, I wonder if it suffers from its age more broadly. Not because the filmmaking quality has dated (they may not make ’em like this anymore, but great filmmaking is timeless), but because it was so influential that it’s been copied to death. It still has a lot of points to commend it, but the heist — the driving force of the plot — lacks freshness to modern eyes. Newness is not the be-all-and-end-all, of course, but the con only really comes to life in a flurry of last-minute twists… most of which have also been copied ad nauseam, of course.

The Sting is certainly not a bad movie — and, for all my talk of it being mercilessly copied, it did manage to con me in a couple of places — but it wasn’t exactly what I’d anticipated. Perhaps I’ll like it more on some future re-watch.

4 out of 5

The Sting was viewed as part of my What Do You Mean You Haven’t Seen…? 2016 project, which you can read more about here.

Spy Game (2001)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #87

It’s not how you play the game.
It’s how the game plays you.

Country: USA, Germany, Japan & France
Language: English, German, Arabic, French & Cantonese
Runtime: 126 minutes
BBFC: 15
MPAA: R

Original Release: 21st November 2001 (USA)
UK Release: 23rd November 2001
First Seen: DVD, c.2002

Stars
Robert Redford (The Sting, All is Lost)
Brad Pitt (Twelve Monkeys, Ocean’s Eleven)
Catherine McCormack (Braveheart, 28 Weeks Later)
Stephen Dillane (Welcome to Sarajevo, The Hours)

Director
Tony Scott (Crimson Tide, Man on Fire)

Screenwriters
Michael Frost Beckner (Sniper, To Appomattox)
David Arata (Brokedown Palace, Children of Men)

Story by
Michael Frost Beckner (Cutthroat Island, Prince Valiant)

The Story
When a retiring CIA agent’s one-time protégé is captured by the Chinese, he recalls their years training and working together, while battling internal agency politics to free his former friend.

Our Heroes
Nathan Muir is on the cusp of retirement, a former CIA field agent who’s now desk-bound and disregarded by his superiors. Previously, he recruited sniper Tom Bishop into the agency, training him to be a spy with Muir’s own values — which Bishop didn’t necessarily share, and his reaction against has ultimately led him into the hands of the Chinese. But how? Well, that’s what flashbacks are for.

Our Villains
Lots of Johnny Foreigners — but also some factions within the CIA itself…

Best Supporting Character
One of the CIA agents handling Bishop’s capture, and so attempting to handle Muir, is his oleaginous colleague Charles Harker. He’s played by the always-excellent Stephen “Stannis Baratheon” Dillane, who is perfectly snide in the role.

Memorable Quote
Bishop: “You don’t just trade these people like they’re baseball cards! It’s not a fucking game!”
Muir: “Oh, yes it is. It’s exactly what it is. And it’s no kid’s game either. This is a whole other game. And it’s serious and it’s dangerous. And it’s not one you want to lose.”

Memorable Scene
After an asset is killed, Bishop confronts Muir on a rooftop about the morals of what they do and why they do it. See also: Memorable Quote; Making of.

Technical Wizardry
The cinematography and editing haven’t yet reached the crazed heights Tony Scott would later display in Man on Fire and Domino, but it’s not without its affects. The flashbacks occur in a few different eras, so Scott decided to give each period a distinct look to remind the viewer of that time. For example, Vietnam is desaturated to a “strange sepia green”, while the colours in Beirut are heightened to mimic news clips from 1985. Conversely, Scott found the talky scenes within the CIA to be the “most challenging part of the movie” — without all his usual tricks, he had to rely on the quality of his actors to bring the scenes to life.

Making of
For the Berlin rooftop confrontation between Muir and Bishop, Tony Scott asked for more money to rent a helicopter. The producers refused — not unreasonably, when you consider it’s a dialogue scene. But Scott believed it was important and so rented the helicopter with his own money. Robert Redford was reportedly baffled by Scott’s use of a helicopter to film such an intimate conversation, but when he saw the final result he was impressed by how dynamic it made the scene.

What the Critics Said
“beneath the film’s nostalgic veneer and tooth-rattling visual and aural effects lies a mature ambiguity that’s unusual for a holiday blockbuster — and all but unheard of in a Tony Scott movie. […] the portrayal of Muir, Bishop, and their employers as significantly less than moral beacons makes the film surprisingly demanding as a whole. Rather than requiring us to take its desperate heroes and their dubious redemption entirely at face value, Spy Game slips in a refreshing dose of uncertainty with its cinematic jolts.” — Mark Holcomb, The Village Voice

Score: 66%

What the Public Say
“I have seen it three times now, and I still don’t have a full grasp of all the phone calls and cutaways and violent edits. This aspect, rather than being a distraction, is one of the film’s virtues. The idea is that Redford’s Nathan Muir is so smart that he is hoodwinking the CIA. Part of the game that the movie plays is that we the viewers are given just enough of a hint that we can appreciate his cleverness, but even we aren’t intended to fully ‘get it’. Tony Scott’s hectic, pulse-pounding visual style is largely responsible for this mesmerizing and confusing effect. Similar to (but far superior to) Guy Ritchie’s penchant for seemingly random visual tampering, Scott hits more often than he misses in Spy Game” — Ian Kay, Taking a Look

Verdict

Spy Game is not normally considered the pinnacle in the careers of anyone involved, but there’s something about it that really works for me. In part it’s the chemistry between Redford and Pitt, a pair of actors who look like they could be father and son and exude a similar level of connection. The dual timeline structure keeps things rattling along, with Redford entertainingly running rings round the CIA in the present, while the flashbacks consider “the greater good” — how far should they go, and is it ever worth it? Possibly such questions weren’t appreciated on the film’s immediately-after-9/11 initial release, but they’ve since become more relevant than ever.

That’s no moon… it’s #88.

All is Lost (2013)

2014 #130
J.C. Chandor | 102 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

All is LostRobert Redford on a boat with no dialogue for over an hour and a half. That’s not a spurious way of describing All is Lost — that is what it is. Well, OK, he does say a couple of words — more or less literally “a couple”, though.

Redford plays “Our Man”, who’s pleasantly drifting around on his small yacht when it strikes a shipping container that’s just floating in the middle of the ocean. Now with a massive great hole in the side of his boat, he has to repair it using what he has to hand. The radio is damaged too, so he can’t call for help. And then an almighty storm rolls in…

It’s hard to succinctly pigeonhole All is Lost. It’s a survival movie, if that’s really a genre; man vs the elements. It’s an adventure movie, a little bit in the old-fashioned sense, as here’s a man who, through no choice of his own, has what you might describe as “an adventure”. He doesn’t have a companion to natter to, which would’ve surely been easier to write and more readily palatable to audiences; nor is there any narration of his thoughts, besides opening with the reading of a letter he will write later, which is, frankly, a needless addition to the movie. Redford doesn’t need to speak, because he conveys his character’s every thought, emotion, fear, indecision, and resolve through his face and his movement. Some viewers may overlook it because there’s no dialogue for him to emote with, but it’s a sublime example of acting.

Indeed, it’s testament to Redford’s performance (much discussed but ultimately overlooked during last year’s awards season), J.C. Chandor’s direction, and the work of the special effects and stunt teams, that the film remains gripping throughout. A bit choppyThrough chance, coincidence, bad luck, but never forced tension-mounting on the part of the filmmakers (at least, not obviously so), our man’s fortunes go from bad to worse to even worse to even worse than that. Despite his best efforts, he’s on a downward spiral, a seemingly irreversible series of unfortunate events. If you ever had an interest in solo sailing, this is liable to put you off.

It all leads to an ending that has proven divisive. I shan’t spoil it, but I was fine with it. I don’t think it’s in any way a betrayal of what’s gone before. I will say that it provides a resolution, rather than leaving things open-ended, which I give away purely because some reviewers have stated a preference for a lack of resolution here. Why? Once our man finds himself in this situation, there are all of three possible outcomes: he gets himself out of it, he gets rescued, or he dies at sea. Not telling us which happens would be a contrivance on the part of the filmmakers — if this were a real story, for example, we’d know which happens, so why deny it in fiction too? I’m not saying unresolved/ambiguous endings are always bad, because I think they do have a place, but this isn’t one of those places. Indeed, I’d argue that to leave it open would have been a cop-out. Fortunately, Chandor is man enough not to do that. As to which of the three aforementioned options he went with, they all seem fundamentally just as likely to me, so I also don’t object to the one he did pick.

SeamanSometimes self-imposed filmmaking limitations lead to an exercise in competency over good moviemaking — “can we pull this off?” rather than “can we make a good film?” Chandor and co do pull their limitations off, I suspect not because someone set out purely to make a film with one character and no dialogue, but because it’s a gripping, exciting, tense movie, carried by a powerful near-silent performance and first-rate direction.

5 out of 5

The Conspirator (2010)

2014 #54
Robert Redford | 117 mins | TV | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 12 / PG-13

The ConspiratorAlthough John Wilkes Booth is famous as the man who assassinated Abraham Lincoln, he was merely the person who pulled the trigger: eight people were tried for conspiracy to kill America’s 16th President; this is the story of what happened to the only woman among them.

Or, rather, it’s the story of the young lawyer who is forced to represent her. Rather than cave to pressure and more-or-less let the prosecution have their way, he fights her corner against a ludicrously biased system that would execute her without trial if only they could. The sheer weight of this bias — and the fact the story is from history, rather than a created-for-the-movies tale (with all the idealism that would bring) — means there’s a sort of crushing sense of inevitability about how it plays out. Some have criticised the film for lacking tension, a complaint that I think is to some degree misplaced — especially as, not knowing what happened, I felt it was fairly tense towards the end.

As the lawyer, James McAvoy has to lead the film against a few experienced names, but he can hold his own (which I suppose shouldn’t be a surprise at this point) and is easily the best thing in the movie. OK, so he’s saddled with a well-worn “lawyer so dedicated to the case he sacrifices his personal life” character arc, but that doesn’t mean he plays it so half-heartedly. The only acting weak link is Alexis Bledel, who somehow seems far too modern; Co-conspirators?or rather, like an actress versed in playing modern characters struggling gamely with a period one, and coming up short.

The Conspirator takes a footnote from history and turns it into an engrossing legal drama. What it lacks in originality is made up for through compelling performances and the exposure of little-known facts and incidents surrounding one of American history’s most famous events.

4 out of 5