Split Second (1992)

2020 #135
Tony Maylam | 91 mins | digital (HD) | 16:9 | UK / English | 18 / R

Split Second

I confess, I hadn’t even heard of Split Second before a remastered Blu-ray release was announced a couple of months ago (more details about that at the end). A sci-fi/action/horror hybrid starring Rutger Hauer is the kind of thing that sounds interesting to me, but the fact I’d never come across it before seemed like a red flag. Fortunately, it’s on Prime Video, so I didn’t have to make a blind buy, and this is a recommendable course of action for anyone similarly unacquainted with the film. I did go on to purchase the Blu-ray, but I can see why others would not. Split Second isn’t exactly in “so bad it’s good” territory, but it has a distinctive quality that will not be to everyone’s taste.

Set in the future-year 2008, when London has been flooded thanks to global warming and pollution has turned day into night, Hauer chomps cigars, chocolate, and scenery as Harley Stone, a badass rogue cop on the hunt for the serial killer who murdered his partner three years ago. Assigned to keep him in check is rookie cop Dick Durkin (Alastair Duncan), and together the pair realise their quarry may not be altogether human…

And if you’re wondering what the film’s title has to do with any of this… yeah, bugger all. One of the working titles was Black Tide, which suits the film so much better. I mean, it’s still not wholly fitting — the global warming/pollution stuff is dystopian-future scene-setting without any true bearing on the actual plot — but at least it evokes the tone and style of the film more than “Split Second”, which sounds like a Steven Segal movie.

Stone Dick

It’s almost hard to describe what that tone and style is, mind. It starts out almost like budget Blade Runner — it’s the future (so we’re told); it’s night; it’s raining; a hardbitten cop visits a seedy nightclub; etc. But then we get Stone’s first line of dialogue, which comes after a guard dog barks at him. He flashes his warrant card — at the dog — and says “police, dickhead.” To the dog. It’s hilariously terrible and awesome in one fell swoop. Hauer doesn’t give it an overtly comical delivery, and so you can’t quite tell if Stone is deadpanning or genuinely offering this information… to a dog.

This kind of almost-a-comedy-but-not-actually tone pops up increasingly as the film goes on, as if it was shot in order and the cast gradually realised how ridiculous it all was. By the time you get to the point where a deranged Durkin is demanding bigger guns, you’ll be cackling. Or you’ll be thinking “what is this godawful crap?!”, which goes back to my initial point: some people will delight in it all, while others will feel they’ve wasted their time on a low-budget no-mark that should’ve been left forgotten in the early ’90s.

I’m the former. You couldn’t reasonably call this a great movie — parts do border on “so bad it’s good”, and there’s much joy from the cast clearly realising it’s ludicrous. Plus, there’s a sense it’s not quite sure what it wants to be. It jumps from genre to genre as it goes on, and even the final monster (designed by Stephen Norrington, who’d go on to direct Blade and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen) looks to be a mishmash born of uncertain direction, part hell-demon, part tech nightmare (is that a motorcycle helmet?!) But good golly does that crazy mix make for some barmy fun.

Watery London

I tell you what, though: the underlying concept isn’t bad. This is exactly the kind of movie I think someone should actually spend the money and effort to remake: something with decent ideas and intentions, but which didn’t come off on the first go. Iron out the plot (mixing genres is fine; jumping between them feels “made up as we went along”), smooth out the tone (keep the deadpan humour, up the thrills and scares), and give it a decent budget (this one has a rough-around-the-edges feel), and you could have something special. Especially if you retitle it Black Tide.

3 out of 5

Split Second is released on Blu-ray by 101 Films in the UK today. A matching edition will be released in the US on August 11th. It’s also currently available on Amazon Prime Video in both the UK and the US.

Blade Runner: The Director’s Cut (1982/1992)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #13

The original cut of the futuristic adventure.


For clarification: as I didn’t see The Final Cut until after 100 Films started, and I’ve still not seen the theatrical cut, it’s only the 1992 Director’s Cut that is eligible for this list.

Country: USA, UK & Hong Kong
Language: English
Runtime: 116 minutes
BBFC: 15
MPAA: R

Original Release: 25th June 1982 (USA)
UK Release: 9th September 1982
Director’s Cut Release: 11th September 1992 (USA) | 27th November 1992 (UK)
First Seen: DVD, c.2001

Stars
Harrison Ford (Star Wars, Raiders of the Lost Ark)
Rutger Hauer (Soldier of Orange, The Hitcher)
Sean Young (No Way Out, Dr. Jekyll and Ms. Hyde)
Edward James Olmos (Wolfen, Battlestar Galactica)
Daryl Hannah (Splash, Kill Bill)

Director
Ridley Scott (Alien, The Martian)

Screenwriters
Hampton Fancher (The Mighty Quinn, The Minus Man)
David Peoples (Unforgiven, Twelve Monkeys)

Based on
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, a novel by Philip K. Dick.

The Story
L.A., 2019: cop Rick Deckard is dragged out of retirement to hunt and ‘retire’ a gang of Replicants — genetically-engineered androids, almost indistinguishable from humans, used for menial work off-world — who have come to Earth to extend their lives. As Deckard investigates, he comes to question what it means to be human…

Our Hero
Rick Deckard, former blade runner — which means nothing but does sound fairly cool. May or may not be a Replicant. (“He is!” “He isn’t!” “He is!” “He isn’t!”)

Our Villain
Roy Batty, definitely a Replicant. Committed the crime of wanting to live.

Best Supporting Character
Rachael — secretary, love interest, Replicant but believes herself to be human. Do we see a theme developing here?

Memorable Quote
“I’ve seen things you people wouldn’t believe. Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched C-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhauser gate. All those moments will be lost in time, like tears in rain.” — Roy Batty

Memorable Scene
At the imposing headquarters of the Tyrell Corporation, blade runner Holden sits employee Leon in front of a strange machine. He begins to administer a Voight-Kampff test, a series of questions designed to provoke a response that the machine analyses. “You’re in a desert, walking along in the sand, when all of a sudden you look down…” “What one?” “What?” “What desert?” Leon’s test isn’t going to go according to plan…

Memorable Music
The synthesised score by Vangelis should by all rights sound terribly dated and oh-so-’80s by now, yet it’s somehow timelessly futuristic.

Technical Wizardry
Visually, Blade Runner is a non-stop marvel: the noir cinematography, the vehicle and set design, the lived-in world, the believable effects… The entire thing is imaginatively conceived and magnificently realised with unwavering plausibility.

Truly Special Effect
The realisation of future-L.A. airspace — packed with giant skyscrapers, videoscreen adverts, flying cars, at night and in the rain — is literally faultless, and only gains impact for being achieved for real with models.

Making of
The Director’s Cut came about after a 70mm print was discovered in storage and an LA cinema got permission to screen it at a film festival in 1990. Only then did anyone realise the print was the workprint version of the film. Warner Bros organised more screenings, advertising them as a “Director’s Cut”. Ridley Scott wasn’t best pleased, which led to some screenings being cancelled. The rest sold out, however, and so Warner decided to create a genuine Director’s Cut. With Scott busy on other projects, film preservationist and restorer Michael Arick was put in charge, using notes and suggestion from Scott to do the best he could. Although Scott considered it better than the theatrical cut, he was never wholly happy with the ’92 version, which ultimately led to the creation of The Final Cut another 15 years later.

Next time…
Between 1995 and 2000, Philip K. Dick’s friend K.W. Jeter continued Deckard’s story in three novels, which apparently attempt to resolve the differences between Blade Runner and Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? In 1997, Westwood Studios and Virgin Interactive released a “sidequel” point-and-click adventure game, where you play as another blade runner in a storyline that takes place alongside the movie (it’s excellent, by the way, though I imagine you’d have a nightmare making it run today due to its age, which is a shame). Finally, a long-mooted sequel is in development for a January 2018 release.

Awards
2 Oscar nominations (Art Direction-Set Decoration, Visual Effects)
3 BAFTAs (Cinematography, Costume Design, Production Design)
5 BAFTA nominations (Editing, Make Up Artist, Score, Sound, Visual Effects)
4 Saturn nominations (Science Fiction Film, Supporting Actor (Rutger Hauer), Director, Special Effects)
Won the Hugo for Best Dramatic Presentation.

What the Critics Said
“This is, [Scott] says, the version he would have released in 1982 if he could have. The Ford narration was added because the studio feared audiences would not understand his story of a futuristic Los Angeles. The new ending, which is ironic and inconclusive and gives Ford an existentialist exit line, was of course dropped by studio executives for a more standard violent outcome. I watched the original Blade Runner on video a few years ago, and now, watching the director’s cut, I am left with the same over-all opinion of the movie: It looks fabulous, it uses special effects to create a new world of its own, but it is thin in its human story.” — Roger Ebert

Score: 89%

What the Public Say
“Its such a dark movie, but such a sad movie too. The sadness threatens to overpower everything. A character has her whole life undermined when she learns she isn’t real, not even her memories or experiences. It’s all a lie, a fabrication, as she is herself. Rick Deckard may not even be real. He might be just the same as Rachael. It’s not an idea I subscribe to, but it’s there, a possibility hanging over everything, underlined by the origami unicorn that he finds at the close of the film.” — ghost of 82

Elsewhere on 100 Films
I reviewed The Final Cut in 2009, noting that it was “undeniably one of the most significant films of the last quarter-century thanks to its enduring influence. […] its dystopian future — all constant night-and-rain, busy streets, neon advertising, canyon-like decrepit skyscrapers towering over dirty streets, high technology rubbing with the everyday detritus of humanity — has been copied everywhere. Without this there’d probably be no Ghost in the Shell, no Dark City, no Matrix, no re-imagined Battlestar Galactica, no thousand other things that have nothing close to the brains but do have the look, the style, the feel.”

Verdict

Blade Runner remains something of a divisive film: its thoughtful pace is not to everyone’s taste, especially if they’re expecting a sci-fi action-thriller starring Future Indiana Jones. Instead, it’s a philosophical sci-fi noir, as concerned with issues of what it means to be human as with chases or punch-ups. Remixing sci-fi and film noir influences in a fresh style, realised with some of the greatest design, set-building, and special effects of all time, it’s been inestimably influential on swathes of sci-fi that followed in its wake — and yet, almost 35 years on, it still looks futuristic and feels unique.

#14 will be… Troubled.

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.

Ladyhawke (1985)

2015 #78
Richard Donner | 121 mins | Blu-ray | 2.35:1 | USA / English | PG / PG-13

This is one of those films that crops up in the daytime TV schedules now and then and I’d always paid little heed to, because no one else seemed to. Then I read this write-up on Movies Silently and my interest was piqued. (There are many films of interest or recommendation that I haven’t got round to years after hearing of them; other times, I learn of something and watch it more or less instantly. What this says about me I don’t know, but we’ll just have to live with it.)

Ladyhawke is an ’80s medieval fantasy, though relatively light on the fantasy — it’s not Conan the Barbarian. It’s more like an old romance, in the “classical literature” sense rather than the “movie genre” one. (Apparently Warner Bros even marketed it as being based on a real medieval legend, until the screenwriter who actually came up with the story complained to the WGA. Reportedly they paid him off and continued to claim it was a legend. Ah, Hollywood. (Though he has a “story by” credit on the poster, so this may be apocryphal.)) The story concerns fugitive thief Philippe (Matthew Broderick) finding himself indebted to hawk-wielding swordsman Etienne of Navarre (Rutger Hauer), who wants revenge on the bishop (John Wood) who had also imprisoned Philippe — the fact Philippe escaped those dungeons is Navarre’s key to getting in. To add intrigue, that night Philippe is almost murdered by a giant wolf and encounters a mysterious beautiful woman (Michelle Pfeiffer), who disappears with the beast.

“What’s so fantastical about all that?” you may be asking, if you a) have never seen any promotion for the film, and b) didn’t decode the title. So let’s forge ahead with ‘spoiling’ it: the woman is a hawk by day, the man a wolf by night, and they are cursed lovers. See what I mean about “classical-style romance”? The revelation of their situation is played in-film as a mystery and then a twist, and yet it’s central to the film’s concept, how it was marketed, and how it’s discussed today. I always find it weird when movies treat as a big reveal something that’s been readily given away in advance. Here, there’s a good 45 minutes or so of mystery before said reveal. Obviously, therefore, it would work better as a fresh viewing experience if you didn’t know that going in; but it’s so fundamental to the setup (despite the focus on Philippe, it’s their story) that I wonder if anyone has ever seen it without knowing? On the bright side, it doesn’t really matter: this is not a film where the ‘big twist’ is the point.

Indeed, there’s so much to commend Ladyhawke that I remain baffled as to why I wasn’t more aware of it. Well, there’s one possible explanation: the score. Oh, the score. It’s so reviled that I think it single-handedly explains the entire film’s lack of recognition. The work of prog rocker Andrew Powell, it’s very “of its time”, which means it now doesn’t seem to fit the genre… though, based on people’s comments, I’m not sure it ever did: the music one associates with “the ’80s” has very little in common with what we think of for “medieval fantasy”. It does have its moments though, usually once individual cues have got underway. You’d think you’d get used to it, but no: every time a new bit starts, it still jars. Ah well.

Nonetheless, a terrible score (or “debatably terrible” — it has its fans) is no reason to write-off an entire movie — just look at GoldenEye. Ladyhawke’s many enjoyable elements include some absolutely stunning locations and scenery, often beautifully lensed by Vittorio Storaro. There are good action sequences, in that more freewheeling, less hyper-choreographed way older movies have. They’re also not an end to themselves: this is a story, not a series of set pieces strung together. Concurrently, the screenplay (credited to three writers) is nicely balanced. It’s not a comedy, but it doesn’t feel the need to be po-faced either; the romantic adventure storyline is played straight, but Philippe occasionally addresses amusing asides to God, for example. It even wisely dodges special effects… most of the time. The few occasions on which it does make motions in that direction, it demonstrates why it was wise not to attempt them more thoroughly. These days they’d slather on the CGI, but shying away from such things is not just due to a lack of technology: it’s far more magical to not be too explicit.

The film also offers an array of likeable characters and performances. For starters: Rutger Hauer as the good guy! Wonders will never cease. In fact, he was originally cast as the villainous captain of the guard, but when the original Navarre, Kurt Russell, dropped out, Hauer got a promotion. It’s a shame, in a way — no offence to Ken Hutchison, who does a solid job, but I wager Hauer would’ve given the villain more presence. Equally, he lends the heroic knight something of an edge that other actors might not have brought. As for the rest, Broderick is a likeable lead; you can believe everyone falls in love with Pfeiffer; Leo McKern turns up as a suitably wise old hermit; and oh look, it’s Alfred Molina, with crazy hair and some prosthetic scars playing a wolf hunter. John Wood’s nameless bishop is an odd primary villain, though. Not afforded much screen time after a couple of scenes early on, we mainly learn of his evil deeds from other characters. Come the climax, he mostly stands there in silence while he’s defeated.

I do wonder if, had I seen Ladyhawke as a kid, among all the other family-friendly ’80s SF/F I watched back then, would it be a beloved childhood favourite? I think it might. That’s the kind of age when one might be liable to fall in love with it; or, at least, people of (very roughly speaking) my generation would — I suppose Kids These Days fall in love with copious CGI, be that animated or ‘live action’. Anyway, I think it deserves to be less overlooked, and if you’ve never caught it (or not for a while) it certainly merits a chance.

4 out of 5

Sin City: Recut & Extended (2005)

aka Sin City: Recut ∙ Extended ∙ Unrated

2014 #126
Robert Rodriguez & Frank Miller
with Quentin Tarantino | 142 mins | Blu-ray | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 18

Sin CityAdapted from a series of graphic novels by Frank Miller, Sin City is a noir homage, replete with high-contrast black-and-white cinematography, dialogue so hard boiled you couldn’t crack it with a sledgehammer, and all the requisite downtrodden heroes, corrupt authority figures, dangerous dames, etc. There’s also the very modern inclusion of shocking ultra-violence and nudity, but I guess a fair degree of that would’ve crept into classic noir if the mores of the time allowed — pretty much the point of the genre is the dark grubbiness of the world, after all.

Anyway, Sin City: The Film is probably best known for its slavish faithfulness to Miller’s original comics; or rather the way that manifested itself: the film was shot digitally (when that was still remarkable rather than the norm, as it has become since) and almost entirely on green screen, with cast members who share scenes sometimes not even meeting, and whole roles being recorded in a day or two rather than the usual couple of weeks. It helps that the movie is a collection of short stories, meaning no one person is in it for more than about 40 minutes. The point of this was to then emulate the comic’s visuals: black-and-white with minimal grey in between, but occasional splashes of colour and other striking effects — blood is sometimes stark white, sometimes red; one character has blue eyes, another golden hair; plasters or necklaces are sometimes rendered as flat white blocks; and so on.

Hartigan got a gunThe DVD-premiering extended version, dubbed Recut & Extended (or, in the US, “Recut, Extended, Unrated”) is even more faithful to the comics than the theatrical version. Some of the books’ scenes that were excised are now included, and the structure has been rejigged to present each of the four stories one by one in their entirety (whereas the original version had a small amount of intercutting). The total running time is 17 minutes and 40 seconds longer, an increase of some 14.2%… which is a thoroughly misleading figure. As a presentational choice, each of the four stories is offered for individual viewing, plus option to “play all”. However, rather than that showing them as a single film, they play as four shorts back to back, with a full set of section-specific end credits rolling each time. The actual amount of new material in the film itself is reported to be 6 minutes and 55 seconds, or only a 5.6% increase from the theatrical cut. I’m sure the extensions are great for die-hard fans, but for most the additions are all but unnoticeable — look at that Movie-Censorship.com list and you’ll see there are only three or four new bits that could reasonably be described as “scenes” (ranging from under 30 seconds to about two minutes), and then just a bunch of extended ‘moments’.

The lack of notable new material isn’t the issue, though. The real problem is the re-structure. Let’s not beat around the bush: it scuttles the film. Individually, each of the three longer narratives is fine, but when watched back-to-back as if it were still one film, the structure is unbalanced. Then there’s the shorter story, The Customer is Always Right, starring Josh Hartnett as The Man. In the original cut, his character features in a standalone pre-titles style-establisher (both for the visuals and the kind of tough tales we’re about to be told), and then a neat coda bookend before the end credits. These two scenes have been placed together in this version, and it sucks.

They've got a bigger gunFor one, the second scene belongs more truly to The Big Fat Kill (the final story, starring Clive Owen’s Dwight and the whores of Old Town led by Rosaria Dawson). For another, because this recut purports to be in chronological order, The Customer is Always Right plays second. So we get 47 minutes of Bruce Willis protecting Jessica Alba from a paedophile in That Yellow Bastard, then we get a one-scene story that rightly belongs at the beginning (complete with title card, now 50 minutes into the ‘film’), then we get a scene that, actually, belongs in a completely different place. The next full story is The Hard Goodbye (the one with Mickey Rourke under a slab of prosthetics as Marv), followed by The Big Fat Kill — and it’s after this that the second scene with The Man belongs. Divorced of that context, the scene is robbed of almost all its meaning.

I guess Sin City: Recut & Extended isn’t really meant to be viewed as a single film — hence why there are four sets of end credits, and why the cool opening titles featuring Miller’s original art is nowhere to be seen. Even allowing for that, though, I think the second scene with The Man has been badly placed. A chronological cut of a non-chronological film is an interesting idea, but this doesn’t even get that right. And even if it weren’t for the regular interruption by lengthy credits sequences, the re-order makes for a very stop-start viewing experience, something the theatrical version avoided by divvying up one story and having characters make brief cameos in each other’s tales.

Tits 'n' effectsIn the end, I enjoyed Sin City considerably less than I did nine years ago in the cinema. This is partly down to the restructure, but I’m not sure wholly so. I don’t think it’s aged particularly well, as things produced at the forefront of emerging technology are wont to do: some of the CGI looks dirt cheap, the shot compositions are often unimaginatively flat, and there’s an occasional internet-video style to the picture quality. It’s not just the visuals, sadly, with amateurish performances from reliable actors, possibly a result of the hurried filming schedule. Just because you can capture an entire part in a single day doesn’t mean you should. Then there’s Jessica Alba, who’s just awful here.

For all that, there are shots that are striking, when the elements come together to make something that still looks fresh and creative even after nearly a decade of the film’s visual tricks being emulated by lesser movies or integrated into general cinematic language. One thing that struck me was that the most memorable moments were all from the trailer — Sin City did have one helluva trailer. The stories and characters aren’t bad, thanks to the hyper-noir style being a deliberate choice, though perhaps it sometimes goes too far with the voiceover narration. Maybe, again, this is the fault of watching the longer cut; maybe there’s just a little too much of it in any version.

Quite often an extended cut will become the definitive version of a film — these days, it’s often a way to get the originally-intended cut past a studio who insist on a shorter running time or PG-13 certificate; or it’s a chance to revisit and improve a project that hadn’t quite worked. Not so with Sin City. This is a version for fans of the books who want to see every last drop included… but even then it falls short, because apparently a few moments are still nowhere to be found. That yellow so-and-soNone of the present additions are game-changing, and though some are good in their own way, there’s nothing noteworthy enough to compensate for the destruction of the original cut’s well-balanced structure. For the average punter — and certainly for the first-time viewer — the theatrical cut is unquestionably the way to go.

4 out of 5

This year’s sequel, Sin City: A Dame to Kill For, will be reviewed tomorrow.

Both reviews are part of the 100 Films Advent Calendar 2014. Read more here.

Sin City: Recut & Extended received a “dishonourable mention” on my list of The Five Worst Films I Saw in 2014, which can be read in full here.

The 10th Kingdom (2000)

2014 #104a
David Carson & Herbert Wise | 416 mins* | DVD | 4:3 | USA, UK & Germany / English | 15**

The 10th KingdomCreated by British screenwriter Simon Moore (writer of Traffik, the Channel 4 miniseries that went on to inspire Steven Soderbergh’s Oscar-winning film, and the first Dinotopia miniseries, which could not-too-inaccurately be described as “The 10th Kingdom with dinosaurs”), The 10th Kingdom is a miniseries that I seem to remember Sky made quite a fuss about when they aired it over here, nearly 15 years ago. Sadly it flopped on NBC in its native America, so we haven’t been treated to the mooted sequel(s), but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth investigating now: unlike the abundance of Lost-inspired rolling TV narratives that are ruined when (almost inevitably) they’re cut short, The 10th Kingdom tells a complete self-contained story.

Said story takes place in both present-day (well, turn-of-the-millennium) New York and the fantasy world of the Nine Kingdoms — unlike the depiction in the title sequence, New York doesn’t mutate into a fantasy kingdom. Although it may not be storyline-accurate, I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that’s one of the greatest title sequences of all time. In just a couple of minutes it conveys the style and theme of the show with effective, striking imagery. OK, the CGI is a little dated now, looking kinda rough around the edges, but it’s not so bad that it diminishes the sequence’s impact. It won an Emmy for Outstanding Main Title Design, and it was well deserved.

ManhattanitesAnyway, the Nine Kingdoms is the place all our fairytales come from — the part of the narrative set there takes place “almost 200 years” after the “Golden Age”, when the events we know from stories actually happened. We’re led into this world by Virginia (Kimberly Williams) and her dad, Tony (John Larroquette), after indolent monarch-to-be Prince Wendell (Daniel Lapaine) flees to our world while escaping the Evil Queen (Dianne Wiest) and winds up taking the two New Yorkers back to his world. Along with Wolf (Scott Cohen), a chap with animalistic tendencies, the quartet try to stop the Evil Queen’s evil machinations.

So it’s a quest narrative, the staple of fantasy storytelling; but, in this case, that allows Moore to explore a fair chunk of the world he’s created. It goes about that at its own, somewhat literary, speed. Published alongside the miniseries’ airing was an epically-sized novelisation by Kathryn Wesley (a pen name for couple Kristine Kathryn Rusch and Dean Wesley Smith), which is how I first got into the programme. Unlike the innumerable sub-par novelisations published in the history of moviedom, this one was very good (and well-reviewed, if I recall, so it’s not just me). It’s ironic to me, then, that the series itself feels like a page-for-page adaptation of a novel. It’s something to do with the pace and style — the amount of time it’s prepared to devote to certain scenes or story elements, the way big twists and developments aren’t perfectly timed for episode endings (for example, our Manhattanite heroes enter the Nine Kingdoms just before the one hour mark — right in the middle of the first episode as originally aired, somewhere early in episode two of the ten-part version). Mummy dearestIt also means the way it’s been edited into one long movie on DVD feels quite natural: it’s one long story with arbitrary breaks, not a series of finite episodes. (If you’re thinking, “of course it’s one story, it’s a miniseries”, plenty of single-narrative series and miniseries still function as discrete episodes that build to a whole.)

Like a certain recent TV programme, the Nine Kingdoms is a world stitched together from numerous familiar stories; but, unlike that programme (the less said about which the better, in my opinion), it isn’t a land of po-faced ‘adventure’. Instead, it’s loaded with wry humour — after all, “fairytales are real and all took place in the same place” is a pretty silly concept, so why not mine it for laughs? As one character informs us, “things have gone down hill a bit since [the Golden Age] — happy ever after didn’t last as long as we’d hoped”. Rather than that meaning things are Serious and Troubling (and, based on how Once Upon a Time turned out, inadvertently laughable), things have gone to pot in a way that is amusingly reminiscent of our own world. This is mainly through a witty appropriation of real-world tropes: it begins at Snow White Memorial Prison, for example, with a worldmap that features a large arrow proclaiming “you are imprisoned here”; when some trolls believe they’ve been trapped in a witch’s pocket, they hope that if they behave they’ll be let out after serving only half the spell; later, there’s a cocktail bar that serves “A Long Slow Spell Against the Wall”; and so on (I don’t want to spoil them all!)

Wolf for the chopThis gives the whole thing a heightened comedy tone, emphasised by many of the performances. A gaggle of troll siblings are irritatingly over-played, but Cohen’s meat-obsessed Wolf is a hammy delight (pun very much intended). The entertainment value means we quickly warm to the characters, so that when more perilous aspects of their quest do come into play later on, we care what happens. Plus, like most of the original fairytales (as opposed to Disney-style sanitised re-tellings), there’s the odd darker undercurrent. For instance, you may think the story of Snow White ends with a kiss and “happily ever after”, but here we’re told how the stepmother who poisoned Snow White was made to wear fire-heated iron shoes and ‘dance’ at the wedding until her feet were burnt raw, before being thrown out into the snow. Very dark and grim (and possibly from the original tale, for all I know).

In the main, however, The 10th Kingdom takes fairytales, not for their grimness, but for the chance to subvert, play with, or expand on them. So, for example, when Wolf and Tony come across a woodchopper who’ll tell them what they want to know if only they can guess his name — and if they get it wrong, he’ll chop off one of their heads — Tony signs them up without a second thought: he knows this one. With Wolf’s head on the block, he declares “Rumpelstiltskin!” The woodchopper replies, “wrong!” Uh-oh. This feeds into Tony’s growing annoyance with why people in this world can’t just tell you things, or exchange money for services, but instead always pose riddles — real-world logic clashing with the fairytale tradition. And it has a funny pay-off, too.

My precious...Little details in this vein abound: an apple tree has grown by Snow White’s cottage (don’t eat those apples!); the site of her glass coffin is now a tourist attraction; if you break a mirror, you genuinely get seven years’ bad luck… There’s also a pair of golden shoes that can turn you invisible, but the more you wear them the more you desire to use them all the time — what a precious idea (wink wink nudge nudge). These subversions also manifest in a strain of pleasant practicality; for instance, the abundant magic mirrors aren’t “just there”, but instead have been manufactured by dwarves. It lends the feel of a fully-conceived and rule-bound world, rather than an “anything can happen”, “just because” environment.

Even with all this, there remain a few major fairytales that aren’t touched upon. The Little Mermaid is one; another obvious omission is Beauty and the Beast — except there is a version of that included: the romance between Virginia and Wolf. The comparison isn’t drawn out in the text, particularly as Wolf isn’t an ugly hairy monster (though he does have a tail), but the similarities are there: his first encounter is actually with her father; he pursues Virginia even though the attraction isn’t mutual; she gradually comes around to him; there’s a third-act complication (spoilers!), before they eventually end up together (surprise!) It doesn’t have the same thematic heft as a proper retelling of Beauty and the Beast because it doesn’t have the whole “seeing the true beauty inside” thing — Wolf may give in to his urges once or twice, most notably in a storyline set in a town dominated by the Peep (as in Little Bo) family, where prejudice comes to the fore and Virginia has to defend him, but he’s never a full-on monster. There are elements of the tale’s other subtext, about a woman having power and control (or not) over her future, but, again, not in quite the same way: Wolf is besotted with Virginia and she doesn’t (initially) reciprocate his numerous advances — Animal attractiona world away from being locked in a castle until you change your mind. If this sounds like criticism, it isn’t. I’m not arguing the love story element of the series is unsuccessful — I’m sure it engages plenty of fans as the series’ primary attraction, even — but, on reflection, I’m not sure reading it as a Beauty and the Beast variation is actually that illuminating.

That’s fine, because the value of The 10th Kingdom lies not in how it retells its fairytale inspirations, but how it takes their familiar symbols and tropes and then reconfigures and expands on them, how it follows their implications through with real-world-logic, or mashes them up against the banalities of our world, often to comical effect. It’s a series that requires a basic knowledge of the tales used as its basis — not in an academic way, but in the way most of us have, thanks to exposure through childhood story-time or endless Disney movies. By playing on such ingrained knowledge, the pay-offs can be huge. Put those amusing subversions alongside likeable characters and a story that is at once world-endangering and deeply personal for our heroes, and you have top-drawer entertainment.

5 out of 5

This review is part of the Fairy Tale Blogathon. Be sure to check out the many other fascinating articles collated at Movies Silently, and come back here on Tuesday for my second contribution, a review of Jean Cocteau’s 1946 adaptation of La Belle et la Bête.


* That’s just under seven hours to you and me. Most DVD releases present that as a non-stop movie, however in the US it was originally aired as five two-hours (which is reportedly how it’s presented on the 2013 DVD re-release), and in other regions (including the UK) as ten one-hours. ^

** Yes, it really is a 15. That must be thanks to some kind of technicality (use of knives, imitable violent techniques, etc), because it feels completely unwarranted. ^