The Russia House (1990)

2016 #158
Fred Schepisi | 123 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English & Russian | 15 / R

The Russia House

Sean Connery and Michelle Pfeiffer are on fine form in this romantic spy thriller adapted from a John le Carré novel.

Although it takes a little time to warm up, it soon reveals a typically intricate Le Carré narrative, with everyone playing everyone else as the intelligence agencies try to use Connery’s publisher to extract a Russian defector, with Pfeiffer as the go-between he begins to fall for. It all comes to a head with one of those delightful sequences where you’re not sure who’s conning who and how, and an ending that is, shall we say, pleasingly atypical for Le Carré.

The central performances are superb — I’m not sure Connery, playing against type as a washed-up ageing no-name, has ever been better. There’s a top-notch supporting cast too, including Roy Scheider as a CIA agent, James Fox as Connery’s MI6 handler, plus Michael Kitchen, Klaus Maria Brandauer, David Threlfall, and even Ken Russell. It looks fantastic as well, at least to me, in an unshowy, not over-processed, grainy, very film-y way. Thanks to digital photography, they literally don’t make them like this anymore; heck, thanks to digital grading they haven’t made them like this for about 20 years.

Is that a manuscript in your pocket or are you pleased to see me?

The Russia House is a much overlooked film, even within the small (but, recently, exponentially expanding) canon of Le Carré screen adaptations. However, with its engaging, uncommonly humane espionage story, driven by strong performances, I think it merits a degree of rediscovery.

5 out of 5

The Russia House placed 16th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2016, which can be read in full here.

Advertisements

Mission: Impossible II (2000)

100 Films’ 100 Favourites #62

M:I-2

Also Known As: M:i-2

Country: USA & Germany
Language: English
Runtime: 123 minutes
BBFC: 15
MPAA: PG-13

Original Release: 24th May 2000 (USA)
UK Release: 7th July 2000
First Seen: cinema, July 2000

Stars
Tom Cruise (Top Gun, Jack Reacher)
Dougray Scott (Ever After: A Cinderella Story, Enigma)
Thandie Newton (Besieged, Crash)
Ving Rhames (Pulp Fiction, Dawn of the Dead)

Director
John Woo (Hard Boiled, Face/Off)

Screenwriter
Robert Towne (yes, the author of The Most Perfect Screenplay Ever™, Chinatown)

Story by
Ronald D. Moore (Star Trek: First Contact, Battlestar Galactica)
Brannon Braga (Star Trek: First Contact, Star Trek: Enterprise)

Based on
Mission: Impossible, a TV series created by Bruce Geller.

The Story
When rogue IMF agent Sean Ambrose steals every sample of Bellerophon, the only cure to deadly man-made virus Chimera, his former colleague Ethan Hunt is assigned to get it back. His team includes Nyah Nordoff-Hall, Ambrose’s former lover, who Hunt must send undercover in the villain’s operation. Ambrose plans to blackmail Biocyte, the company behind Chimera, and potentially unleash the virus on the world — unless Hunt & co can destroy it first.

Our Heroes
Daredevil IMF agent Ethan Hunt is back, this time with floppy hair! Basically a one-man team, the film nonetheless nods to Mission: Impossible’s original team-based format by having him recruit thief Nyah Nordoff-Hall and his computer expert chum from the first film, Luther Stickell. There’s also pilot Billy Baird, but I’d completely forgotten about him until I looked up a plot summary.

Our Villain
A former IMF agent gone bad, Sean Ambrose therefore has access to some of the same skills and tech as Hunt, like those (basically magic) masks. Not so fond of dangling from ventilation shafts, though.

Best Supporting Character
For some reason Richard Roxburgh has always stuck in my mind as Ambrose’s South African henchman, Stamp. It was the start of a very successful few years for Roxburgh, in which he had leading roles in high-profile movies like Moulin Rouge, The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, and Van Helsing, playing Dracula in the latter, and was also Sherlock Holmes in a major BBC adaptation of The Hound of the Baskervilles. I guess the lack of critical success that greeted most of those is why he’s somewhat fallen off the radar since.

Memorable Quote
“Mr. Hunt, this isn’t mission difficult, it’s mission impossible. ‘Difficult’ should be a walk in the park for you.” — Swanbeck

Memorable Scene
At the sale of the cure, Ambrose’s henchman, Stamp, captures Hunt and drags him before his boss. As Ambrose gloats, Hunt can only mumble in protest because Stamp broke his jaw. With great glee, Ambrose unloads his gun into Hunt… and only then spots his little finger, which is missing its tip — just like Ambrose did to punish Stamp earlier. He approaches Hunt and pulls his face off to reveal the real Stamp, his mouth taped shut. Meanwhile, ‘Stamp’ is running off with the cure, and as the Mission: Impossible theme surges on to the soundtrack he whips his mask off to reveal (of course) Hunt. #owned.

Memorable Music
The rock version of the main theme, composed by Hans Zimmer and also turned into a song (a song! with lyrics!) by Limp Bizkit, was ever so cool at the time, at least to my teenage ears (I loved the entire soundtrack, actually). It all sounds terribly dated and turn-of-the-millennium now, but hey, that’s music and the ravages of time for you.

Technical Wizardry
For the much-trailed close-up shot where Ambrose nearly shoves a knife in Hunt’s eye, Tom Cruise — in a typical daredevil move — insisted a real knife be used and that it stopped just a quarter-inch from his eyeball. To achieve it with some degree of safety, that knife was attached to a cable that was carefully measured to ensure it wouldn’t, you know, half-blind a major movie star.

Letting the Side Down
“All of it!” Oh, hush, you.

Making of
John Woo’s final cut was 3½ hours long. The studio balked at this (understandably!) and ordered a final length of no more than 2 hours. According to IMDb’s trivia, “this could explain why there are so many plot holes and continuity errors in the theatrical cut.” I’ve never noticed those, personally, but now I’d be fascinated to see that longer version. Considering it’s 16 years later and the film isn’t well liked, I guess we’ll never get the chance.

Previously on…
Part of the James Bond-provoked spy-fi craze of the ’60s, the original Mission: Impossible TV series ran for seven seasons, was revived for two more at the end of the the ’80s, and then relaunched as a Tom Cruise film franchise in ’96. (That film narrowly missed out on a place here.)

Next time…
To date, three more sequels, with a sixth (at least) in development. The third also missed out on inclusion here, while the fourth and fifth are part of 100 Films.

Awards
2 Razzie nominations (Worst Supporting Actress (Thandie Newton), Worst Remake or Sequel)
2 MTV Movie Awards (Male Performance (Tom Cruise), Action Sequence (the motorcycle chase))
2 Teen Choice Awards nominations (including Wipeout Scene of the Summer)
[Thandie Newton was also nominated for Female Newcomer at the Blockbuster Entertainment Awards, British Actress at the Empire Awards, and Supporting Actress at the Image Awards. Take that, Razzie!]

What the Critics Said
“The first Mission: Impossible (1996) had a plot no one understood. Mission: Impossible 2 has a plot you don’t need to understand. It’s been cobbled together by the expert Hollywood script doctor Robert Towne out of elements of other movies, notably Hitchcock’s Notorious (1946) from which he takes the idea that the hero first falls in love with the heroine, then heartlessly assigns her to resume an old affair with an ex-lover in order to spy on his devious plans. […] If the first movie was entertaining as sound, fury and movement, this one is more evolved, more confident, more sure-footed in the way it marries minimal character development to seamless action.” — Roger Ebert, Chicago Sun-Times

Score: 57%

What the Public Say
“compared to the wildly complicated and almost infuriatingly labyrinthine plot of DePalma’s Mission: Impossible it seems like nothing is happening in M:I-2, but the plot here is actually pretty top-notch. […] what I once considered emotionally unsatisfying and intellectually sub-par now seems kind of fascinating. I still tend to not like plots that revolve around a man-made disease as a MacGuffin — I have no idea why, but they always seem lazy to me — but the Cruise/Newton/Scott love triangle holds some very honest beats […] Scott plays a very interesting, unique kind of villain, one I can’t entirely explain. But I think he succeeds in humanizing somebody who is written to be despicable. Scott’s tearful intensity when he learns of Thandie’s betrayal is almost sympathetic.” — Marcus Gorman, 10 Years Ago: Films in Retrospective

How M:I-2 Makes More Sense If You Consider It In a Different Context
“Fully asserting the series reboot mantra, M:I-2 eschews the original’s ethos in favour of […] traditional, near self-parodic Woo bombast (not enough for some fans, but there’s set pieces here that are among his very best). It’s often dopey, but then, to be fair, so are a lot of Hong Kong action films that don’t tend to get flak for that attribute, including Woo’s own action masterpieces made there. Fifteen years on and three more sequels later, it’s curious to observe how Woo’s film is even less like a traditional Hollywood action blockbuster than De Palma’s.” — Josh Slater-Williams, Vague Visages (the full piece has more analysis in this vein)

Verdict

M:i-2, as we used to call it, is pretty much everyone’s least-favourite Mission movie, a place only cemented by the two excellent instalments that have been released during this blog’s lifetime. To be honest, I’ve never really been sure why. It’s very much a John Woo movie, all overblown action and melodramatic stakes, and I’d be tempted to say that turns people off were it not for the love Face/Off receives. Personally I like his style, and I always thought it neat that the Mission series aimed to avoid having a “house style” by hiring distinctive directors for each instalment (a plan that went out the window almost as soon as it began thanks to tapping the bland J.J. Abrams for the third one, but hey-ho). For my money, M:I-2 has a strong storyline (as action-thrillers go), a threatening villain (particularly with his IMF-recruited ex-girlfriend undercover in his operation), and entertaining action sequences. For its genre, what more do you want?

#63 will be about… truth, beauty, freedom, love.

Spy: Extended Cut (2015)

2016 #106
Paul Feig | 125 mins | streaming (HD) | 2.35:1 | USA / English | 15

The cinema was blessed — or, depending on your point of view, blighted — by an abundance of espionage-related movies last year (see: the intro to my initial thoughts on Spectre for more on that), and even writer-director/star team Paul Feig and Melissa McCarthy got in on the act with this comedy.

McCarthy is Susan Cooper, a CIA agent who provides desk-bound support for Bond-esque super-spy Bradley Fine (Jude Law). When Fine is killed while investigating the villainous Rayna Boyanov (Rose Byrne), Cooper insists she go into the field to finish what he started. This doesn’t impress experienced agent Rick Ford (Jason Statham), who goes rogue to deal with Boyanov himself.

Technically speaking, Spy is a spy comedy rather than a spy spoof — a perhaps subtle distinction, but one that does inform the kind of comedy you’re getting; i.e. rather than a send-up that relies on you knowing the material being parodied to get the jokes, this is almost a workplace comedy… just one where the workplace is international espionage. Put another way, less Naked Gun or Austin Powers, more Kingsman with the comedy dialled up higher in the mix.

This is perhaps why it’s sporadically amusing rather than regularly hilarious; on the bright side, it only occasionally slides too far into dull toilet/gross-out ‘humour’. Similarly, it means that there are a handful of fun and/or exciting action beats scattered throughout the film, which you might not expect. They’re typically brief, but — even more surprisingly — there’s a fight between McCarthy and a henchwoman in a kitchen which is a genuinely good action sequence. It’s also surprisingly gruesome. Yes, it’s R-rated, but in the world of comedy that usually just means an overabundance of the F-word. Here we have at least one clear headshot, a dissolving throat, a knife through a hand, and more photos of a henchman’s penis than you ever needed to see. (That last one’s only describable as “gruesome” depending on your personal predilections, of course.)

Apparently Feig is a fan of James Bond and developed, wrote, produced, and directed Spy because he knew no one would ever let him do a real Bond movie. I guess that explains why some of it does work passably well as a genuine action/thriller. Composer Theodore Shapiro does an equally good job of evoking Bond’s musical stylings throughout his score. In my experience most comedies don’t show such consistent commitment in their music. Talking of music: as I mentioned in my June monthly update, there’s a random cameo by Verka Serdyuchka, Ukraine’s Eurovision entry from 2007. That gets the film some bonus points in my book.

The quality of the cast’s performances are variable in ways I didn’t expect. Statham almost steals the film, playing essentially himself — but exaggerated, I’m sure. McCarthy is a solid lead, at her best when sparking off Rose Byrne, who makes anything more watchable. Miranda Hart has a large supporting role as McCarthy’s CIA colleague, but I’m not sure that her strengths are wholly played to. I guess if you like her you’ll like her here (and if you don’t…) Peter Serafinowicz’s lecherous Italian is disappointingly overplayed, however, and I’m not sure why you’d cast ever-so-British Jude Law as a James Bond type and then give him an American accent.

The extended (aka unrated) cut contains almost 10 minutes of extra material, detailed here. Reading that list really demonstrates how some bits were tightened up for the theatrical release. I’d even wager that some parts are the result of improvising to find one good line, but in the extended cut they’ve strung half a dozen of the options together. I don’t think any casual viewer would miss much by sticking to the theatrical cut. That said, despite it running to two hours, I didn’t find it to be too long. It still wouldn’t hurt if it was tighter in places, but I didn’t get that “oh dear God why is this longer than 90 minutes?!” feeling you can get from 120-minute comedies.

Amusing rather than hilarious, but with a pleasing commitment to its genre, Spy isn’t going to tap into the zeitgeist in the way Austin Powers did almost 20 years ago(!), but it does provide a largely entertaining couple of hours.

3 out of 5

Feig and McCartney’s latest collaboration, the Ghostbusters reboot, is in UK cinemas from today, and launches around the world over the coming weeks.

The Independent Monthly Update for June 2016

In? Out? Pretty sure “shake it all about” won the referendum.

(It was a toss up between a Brexit joke and a Game of Thrones one, and only one of those wouldn’t constitute spoilers. Well, depending on your definition of “spoiled”.)


#102 Cop Car (2015)
#102a Independence Day (Special Edition) (1996/1998)
#103 The Revenant (2015)
#104 Legend of the Guardians: The Owls of Ga’Hoole (2010)
#105 Beverly Hills Cop III (1994)
#106 Spy (Extended Cut) (2015)
#107 Deadpool (2016)
#107a Bambi Meets Godzilla (1969)
#108 Ip Man 3 (2015), aka Yip Man 3
#109 Steve Jobs (2015)
#110 Fantastic Four (2015)
#111 Barry Lyndon (1975)
#112 Ivan Vasilievich: Back to the Future (1973), aka Иван Васильевич меняет профессию
#113 The Bank Job (2008)
#113a The Present (2014)
#114 The Lobster (2015)
#115 Pan (2015)

.


  • WDYMYHS continues apace with Stanley Kubrick’s 7th film on the IMDb Top 250, Barry Lyndon. It’s getting a 40th anniversary theatrical re-release towards the end of July, so expect a review nearer the time.
  • #1 thing I didn’t quite get round to this month: Zootropolis, aka Zootopia. It’s not out on UK DVD/Blu-ray until the end of July, but I imported it from the US (before 37.4% of the electorate went and knackered the value of the pound).
  • The Bank Job finally carries the number of films I’ve seen from my 2008 ‘50 Unseen’ list past the 20 mark. Ridiculously, last year’s list also passed that marker this month.
  • Independence Day is the first non-main-list film I’ve watched for review this year, and Bambi Meets Godzilla is the first short film.


It’s funny: having passed 100 last month, the whole statistics / how far I’ve got / predictions for the future shebang has been much less on my mind of late (which has been more occupied with writing 100 Favourites posts, because I’m no longer far ahead on them). Nonetheless, here are a couple of observations.

With 14 new feature films watched, June bests last month’s 13 (just), but sits behind all other months of 2016. It’s also not quite as good as last June, which scored 16, but it well surpasses June’s average of 8.25. It’s the 25th consecutive month with over 10 films, too, so that’s nice — still on track for that to hold until this December messes it up, at least.

As ever, the end of June marks the year’s halfway point. With my year-to-date monthly average at 19.2, the obvious forecast places me at 232 by the end of the year, which — in almost the opposite of last year, when these predictions kept proving undervalued — I don’t expect to reach. Taking the average of the last two months as a better guide, that gets me to 196, which seems more plausible. Really, I’m only in the habit of making these predictions from the years when it took me ’til December to reach #100, and so trying to guess if I was going to do it ‘mattered’ — these days, what does it matter? I’ll get where I get.

And on that downbeat note…



The halfway point of the year also means the halfway point of my 100 Favourites. The (alphabetical) first 50 is completed by:



The 13th Monthly Arbitrary Awards

Favourite Film of the Month
A couple of 2015 Oscar contenders caught my attention this month, and The Revenant or Steve Jobs would certainly be a worthier pick… but I called this category “favourite” rather than “best” for a reason, and dammit if I didn’t enjoy Deadpool more than a man of my age (i.e. older than teenage) reasonably should.

Least Favourite Film of the Month
I didn’t love every film I watched this month, but I did at least like the vast majority. Some may think last year’s much maligned Fantastic Four reboot would be a shoo-in here, but no, I quite liked it. So the only bad film this month — and therefore an easy ‘victor’ in this category — was unnecessary sequel Beverly Hills Cop III.

Best Moulin Rouge Rip-Off of the Month
Smells Like Teen Spirit in Pan. (Sorry if I’ve now spoiled that surprise for you.)

Most Unexpected Appearance by a Eurovision Song Contest Entrant… Ever
The word “most” feels a bit redundant here — how many Eurovision entrants have ever turned up in movies? Well, aside from Abba. Anyway, I’d never seen a Paul Feig film before, but he earns a shed-ton of bonus points (enough to wipe out Ghostbusters? We’ll see) for not only featuring Ukraine’s 2007 submission by Verka Serdyuchka in Spy, but for setting an action sequence to it too.

The Audience Award for Most-Viewed New Post of the Month
A close one this time, but it ended with victory for a 100 Favourites entry, for the second month in a row: my generation’s Star Wars, the enduringly popular Jurassic Park.


Historically, July is my lowest-totalling month, and the only month where I’ve ever failed to watch a single new film (in 2009). 2016’s iteration should do better than that, at least.

Bridge of Spies (2015)

2016 #60
Steven Spielberg | 141 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | USA, Germany & India / English, German & Russian | 12 / PG-13

Oscar statue
2016 Academy Awards
6 nominations — 1 win

Winner: Best Supporting Actor.
Nominated: Best Picture, Best Original Screenplay, Best Score, Best Sound Mixing, Best Production Design.



Steven Spielberg’s true-story Cold War drama stars Tom Hanks as insurance lawyer James B. Donovan, who is tapped to defend captured Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance). After Donovan insists on doing his job properly, he manages to spare Abel the death penalty — which comes in handy when the Soviets capture spy-plane pilot Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) and a prisoner exchange is suggested, which the Russians want Donovan to negotiate.

The most striking aspect of Bridge of Spies is how much it’s a mature, equanimous work. It would be easy to take a tale like this, fraught with issues of patriotism and the threat of foreign agents operating on domestic soil (which therefore screams “topical relevance!”), and give in to the same histrionics that some of the supporting characters demonstrate. Indeed, a director like Spielberg — oft criticised for the vein of sentimentality that is ever-present, and sometimes dominating, in his movies — might be expected to err in that direction, even if it was only slightly. The film itself manages to maintain the same calm demeanour as its two headline performances, however.

Don’t misconstrue that as meaning it’s a boring watch, however. Far from it. Despite its fairly lengthy running time, Bridge of Spies actually rattles through events, at times to a surprising degree: Abel’s trial is practically glossed over. In some respects this is an intelligent decision — the verdict is a foregone conclusion, and there’s far more going on than the trial of one spy — but it is a little jarring to have it so abruptly skipped past. The same effect occurs when Donovan appeals to the Supreme Court, a process so rushed its inclusion feels merited only by it being an event that happened so has to be there, rather than because it was a part of the story that interested Spielberg or screenwriters Matt Charman and Ethan & Joel Coen.

If we’re talking storytelling oddities, another is the manner in which Powers’ backstory is integrated. As Donovan continues to defend Abel, the film suddenly becomes subjected to scattered interjections, in which we see pilots being selected and then trained to fly secret reconnaissance missions in a new kind of plane. Any viewer who has read the blurb will know where this is going, but it’s so disconnected to the rest of the narrative that it felt misplaced, at least to me. The same is true when we suddenly meet Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), an American student in Berlin who’s mistaken for a spy and arrested by the East. It turns out we need to know about him because Donovan attempts to use his negotiations to get a two-for-one deal, exchanging Abel for both Powers and Pryor. Knowing the stories of the men Donovan will be negotiating for is not a bad point, but I can’t help but feel there was a smoother way to integrate them into the film’s overall narrative.

These clunks aside, Bridge of Spies is certainly a quality film. Spielberg’s direction is restrained, with familiar directorial flourishes severely limited (one very Spielbergian moment in the film’s coda sticks out precisely because of its Spielbergianness after 130 minutes of that not happening). That’s not to say his work is characterless, merely unobtrusive. The same is certainly true of Rylance’s Oscar-winning performance as the Soviet spy, so much so that some have asserted he was doing nothing at all and didn’t deserve any awards for it. Well, anyone at all familiar with Rylance’s oeuvre knows that can’t be true. His Abel is unquestionably understated, a calm and quiet man who only hints at emotions under the surface rather than declaiming them. A lesser film would’ve made a point of this — would’ve had Hanks’ lawyer struggling to understand and relate to his client’s low-key nature — but, instead, Donovan is a man who can identify with this mode of being, at least to an extent. There’s a reason they talk a couple of times about the ‘stoikiy muzhik’.

If the first part of the narrative belongs to Rylance, Hanks is in charge for the second, when Donovan finds himself in a wintery Berlin as the wall is being constructed, flitting between East and West as the go-between for a Russian spy posing as a diplomat, a German lawyer, and the CIA, who could care less about retrieving a lowly student when a pilot who might spill secrets is at stake. Also without being showy, Hanks is able to navigate a story that may be about secret international diplomacy, but which requires comedy without blatant mugging, and clever legal negotiation without grandstanding. Throughout the film, he creates in Donovan an upstanding, honourable, kind-hearted, and admirable human being, without the movie needing to make a song and dance about showing us how wonderful he is.

I may, on reflection, or re-watching, consider Bridge of Spies an even better film than I do now. Hanks and Rylance both offer nuanced performances, while Spielberg’s mastery of technique allows the whole film to be equally as subtle, even as it remains gripping and entertaining. However, the storytelling quirks are a mixed success, the pace they sometimes lend offset by the almost non sequitur style of the captured Americans’ backstories. Nonetheless, this is a classy but still enjoyable dramatic thriller, which takes a seat among Spielberg’s better works.

4 out of 5

Bridge of Spies is released on DVD, Blu-ray, and the rest, in the UK today.

Spooks: The Greater Good (2015)

aka MI-5

2015 #139
Bharat Nalluri | 104 mins | Blu-ray | 2.40:1 | UK / English | 15 / R

The BBC’s long-running spy thriller series Spooks (aka MI-5 in the US) came to a close a few years ago, and instantly sparked rumours of a big-screen continuation. Unlike most such rumours, that one actually came to fruition: this result hit UK cinemas in the summer, and is now making its way across the pond — under that Mission: Impossible-esque title, of course.

The TV series is probably best remembered for the way it regularly killed off its leading characters in shocking fashion, thanks to the most infamous of them all: the “deep fat fryer incident” from the second-ever episode. It was about a lot more than that, though. Beginning in 2002 in the wake of 9/11, a series about the security service defending the country from terrorism couldn’t avoid being ultra-relevant, and it ran for a decade during which such issues never ceased to be pertinent (and haven’t since). That other famous British spy institution, James Bond, was at the tail-end of the Brosnan era when Spooks began, and the lower-key TV series was — like Tinker Tailor and others before it — pitched as a “real world” version of what the security services got up to. Storylines were “ripped from the headlines”, often with eerie prescience: after one early episode, the series’ lack of end credits led some viewers to believe the real BBC News bulletin that followed was still part of the drama.

Early seasons focused at least as much on things like the mundanity of spycraft, or how one went about having a personal life while also being a sometimes-undercover agent, as they did on the exciting action of counterespionage — as evoked in the memorable tagline “MI5 not 9 to 5”, of course. As the years rolled on, things got increasingly outlandish and grandiose, just as almost every spy series that starts out “grounded” is wont to do. In season three, an entire episode was spent on the moral dilemma of whether it was acceptable to assassinate someone; a couple of years later, assassinations would just be a halfway-through-an-episode plot development. The one constant through all this was section chief Harry Pearce (Peter Firth), the M figure to a rotating roster of “James Bond”s, including Matthew “Ripper Street” Macfadyen and Rupert “Whitechapel” Penry-Jones, as well as other actors who didn’t go on to lead Jack the Ripper-derived crime series, like Richard “The Hobbit” Armitage.

Now, a couple of years since the TV series wrapped up its ten-year run, Spooks has attempted to make the leap to the big screen. Although they’ve roped in the fella who directed the first-ever episodes, the screenwriters are the final two seasons’ showrunners, so the movie follows on from where the series ended up rather than re-establishing itself in where it all began. What does that mean in practice? Sub-Bourne action in a film that often appears more like a well-budgeted TV movie than a proper feature film.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. The story begins with Harry running an op that goes wrong, during which terrorist Adam Qasim (Elyes Gabel) is sprung from custody just before being handed over to the CIA. Cue international incident. Naturally the blame is pinned on Harry, who consequently throws himself off a bridge. Except no one buys that, so they drag in Will Holloway (Kit Harington), a disenchanted one-time protégé of Harry’s (i.e. the series’ latest “younger man who can do the running around”). He knows nothing about it (obviously), but they want him to track Harry down nonetheless. Turns out Harry suspects there’s a mole in MI5 (because it’s a spy thriller — there’s always a mole) and it might be one of the very people who brought Will in (who include David Harewood, Tim McInnerny, and Jennifer Ehle). Harry and Will must work together to, a) find the mole, and b) stop whatever atrocity Qasim has planned next.

In case it isn’t clear, you don’t need to have seen the TV series to follow the plot, which is standalone in every aspect that seriously matters (there are certainly nods to the show, especially to its final season, and one fan-pleasing cameo. More would’ve been nicer.) However, a familiarity might help manage your expectations: The Greater Good feels like a wider-screen, (slightly-)bigger-budgeted version of the show, for good or ill. “Good” because, well, it should really, otherwise why call it Spooks? “Ill” because anyone expecting an action-packed thriller to rival Bond, Bourne, or Mission: Impossible will come away disappointed.

The trailers attempt to promise some of that kind of action, but they’re a bit of a cheat: what adrenaline the film has is mostly released in tiny bursts, scattered throughout. That strategy is fine if you’ve got the money to make each little burst a solid sequence, but when the entirety of some sequences is “jumping through a window” or “climbing a wall to get into a flat”, well… Sure, it looks good in the trailer — it promises lots of action in different places at different times — but that’s also a promise the movie can’t fulfil. The Greater Good certainly isn’t just a low-rent action movie — it’s driven by its plot — but if they’d saved up the filmmaking time, effort, and expense afforded to those single-dose action moments and poured it all into one sequence (in addition to the two or three fully-realised action sequences that the film does have), it might’ve paid dividends.

So what of that plot? As mentioned, the exciting contemporaneousness of Spooks’ storylines went increasingly AWOL as the series wore on, trading real-world issues for ludicrous government conspiracies or revived Cold War rivalries. Unsurprisingly, given the writers involved, the movie continues in that latter tradition. That’s a shame, because Spooks’ ability to engage with real-world issues in a thriller context was one of its best elements. It’s not as if we’re lacking in spy-related storyline-fodder in the real world — something Edward Snowden-y or about radicalised nationals would’ve been a good starting point. (Based on his accent, I guess Qasim is supposed to be an American who was converted, but that facet of his character isn’t explored.) At least they try to sub in some thematic relevance, raising questions related to doing what’s right versus doing what’s expected. Sadly that dichotomy isn’t explored as fully as it could have been either, but it’s definitely a constant and repeated factor.

You might not believe it from this picky review but, fundamentally, I did enjoy the Spooks movie. It largely retains the feel of the TV series (albeit without the moderately-memorable theme music — honestly, it’s like someone forgot to compose anything for the title credits. What were they thinking?!), and if they manage to produce a sequel then I’ll be sure to see it; but in this outing I can’t help spotting ways I thought it could’ve been even better. Consequently, as a film in its own right it comes across as a Bourne wannabe. On the bright side, it’s still better than The Bourne Legacy.

3 out of 5

Spooks: The Greater Good MI-5 is available in the US through DirecTV from today, and in theaters and on demand from December 4th.

Scanners (1981)

2015 #93
David Cronenberg | 103 mins | TV | 16:9 | Canada / English | 18 / R

If you’re versed in sci-fi/fantasy cinema, you’ve heard of Scanners even if you haven’t seen it: it’s the one with the (in)famous exploding head. That moment is distinctly less shocking for those of us coming to the film as a new viewer at this point: gore perpetuates genre cinema nowadays, so it’s less striking,* and the scene it’s in is quite obvious, so you know it’s coming. Fortunately, Scanners is so much more than one famous moment.

Social outcast Cameron (Steven Lack) can hear other people’s thoughts. When he’s apprehended by weapons firm ConSec, he discovers from scientist Dr Ruth (Patrick McGoohan) that he is far from alone. ConSec have been attempting to control these so-called scanners and weaponise them; one, Darryl Revok (Michael Ironside) has other ideas, and is waging a counter war. Ruth wants to enlist Cameron to stop Revok. So begins what I suppose you might call a sci-fi espionage thriller, as Cameron finds his way into the underground scanner community and Revok’s spies in ConSec learn of their plans…

Scanners seems to have a mixed level of appreciation within writer-director David Cronenberg’s CV — even going no further than Wikipedia, you can find review quotes that swing between calling it “an especially important masterwork” and a movie that “might have been a Grand Guignol treat [but is marred by] essential foolishness”. Whether it’s a masterwork or not I wouldn’t care to say, but as a rough-round-the-edges genre thriller, I found it mightily entertaining.

As our hero, Lack isn’t much cop. If you were being kind you could write his oddness off as a product of Cameron’s reclusive lifestyle, but I’m not sure that was a deliberate choice. There are worse performances in the history of genre cinema though, and it’s not like his emotional journey or something is the core of the film. As if to make up for it, McGoohan is of course excellent, acting everyone else off the screen, while Ironside makes for an excellent villain, naturally. Some say that the final psychic battle, between Lack and Ironside, is underwhelming, but I thought it was excellently realised, a tense and effective struggle. Such brilliant effects and sequences are scattered throughout the film.

I do like a good genre movie, and Scanners manages to mash together a couple of my favourites — primarily, science fiction and espionage/undercover mystery-thrillers — in a way that, unless I’m forgetting something, we’ve seen surprisingly rarely. It’s not quite “a Bond film with telekinetics”, but if it were, that’s perhaps the only way I’d’ve found it more enjoyable.

4 out of 5

Scanners is on the Horror Channel tonight at 9pm, and again tomorrow night at 2:15am.

* Though, in isolation, bad enough that I changed my mind about using it as the header image for this review. ^

Kingsman: The Secret Service (2015)

2015 #76
Matthew Vaughn | 129 mins | Blu-ray | 2.39:1 | UK / English | 15* / R

Kingsman: The Secret ServiceThe team behind Kick-Ass bring that same reverent irreverence to the spy genre in this comedy-action-thriller that aims to bring the fun of ’60s/’70s spy-fi back to a genre that’s become oh so serious.

Developed alongside the Mark Millar/Dave Gibbons comic book The Secret Service, Matthew Vaughn’s film casts Colin Firth as Harry Hart, an agent for an independent intelligence operation, Kingsman, who recruits council estate kid Eggsy (Taron Egerton), the son of a fallen comrade, into the group’s elite training programme. As Eggsy battles tough training challenges and the snobbery of his Oxbridge-sourced competitors, Harry investigates suspicious tech mogul Richmond Valentine (Samuel L. Jackson), who is secretly kidnapping people of importance and publicly giving away free SIM cards to everyone on the planet, but for what nefarious purpose?

There are several things going on in Kingsman that make it a uniquely entertaining proposition, especially in the current blockbuster climate. Part of the setup is “My Fair Lady with gentlemen spies”, as chavvy Eggsy is reshaped to be an old-fashioned besuited gent, inspired by the story of how Dr. No director Terence Young took a rough young Scottish chap called Sean Connery under his wing and taught him how to dress and behave as a gentlemen in preparation for his star-making role as the original superspy. It’s one of those ideas that you wonder why no one thought of developing into a fiction sooner. It could have come across as datedly classist, but Vaughn and co-screenwriter Jane Goldman nail it as a 21st Century character arc: being a gentlemen is not about speaking correctly or lording it over the lower classes, but about a universal level of good behaviour, politeness, and doing the right thing. It successfully and acutely dodges any potential accusations of classism.

Classy mealAn even bigger part of the film’s triumph, and what likely led it to over $400 million worldwide in spite of its higher-than-PG-13 classifications (it’s Vaughn’s highest-grossing film to date, incidentally; even more so than his X-Men instalment), is that it takes the ever-popular James Bond formula and brings it up to date. However much you might love Casino Royale and Skyfall (and I do), the Bourne influence is undeniable. They’re not Bond movies in the same mould as the Connery and Moore movies that established the franchise’s enduring popularity around the globe; they’re modern thrillers, faithful in their way to Ian Fleming’s creation, but also zeitgeisty. Vaughn and co have looked at the DNA of those ’60s and ’70s Bond classics and given them a fresh lick of paint. So we have just-beyond-possible gadgets, a megalomaniacal supervillain, complete with epic mountain base, his own personal army, a physical tic, a uniquely-gifted almost-superhuman henchwoman, and a tongue-in-cheek tone that isn’t all-out spoof but lets you know no one believes any of this could actually happen and that’s OK.

Despite the overall tone of modern blockbusters, I don’t think the appetite for movies like this ever went away; or if it did, it quite quickly made a resurgence: a similar itch has been scratched in recent years by superhero movies, especially the Marvel ones. Audiences — or, perhaps, studio execs — seem currently more ready to accept outlandish action sequences, melodramatic stakes, and an occasionally-humorous tone if they were dressed up in colourful suits and pitched in the realm of sci-fi/fantasy, A little swimrather than the supposed real-world universe of spy movies. What the worldwide success of Kingsman proves is that audiences don’t need the set-dressing of superpowers to accept an action movie that’s less than deadly serious. It’s a place I don’t think the Bond movies could go anymore — not without accusations of returning to the disliked Moore or late-Brosnan films — but it’s one many people clearly like, and Kingsman fulfils it.

Another clever move by Vaughn and co was to aim it at adults. Every blockbuster is PG-13 these days to keep the box office high, but Kingsman shows you can cut loose and still make good money. By specifically setting out to make an R-rated version of the classic Bond formula, everything gets ramped up to 11. On the one hand, that earns the controversy of That Joke in the final act (as Vaughn has said, not wrongly, it’s a variation on the classic Bond film finale; Mark Strong’s Merlin even closes his videoscreen, Q-style), but on the other it allows for crazed action sequences. The (faked-)single-take church massacre has to be seen to be believed; a highly-choreographed orgy of violence that is a marvellous assault on the senses, demonstrating the benefits of clear camerawork and highly-trained professional stunt- and effects-people over fast-cut close-up ShakyCam handwavery. Later on, a certain sequence set to Land of Hope and Glory would be inconceivable in any other movie. Things like this perfectly demonstrate why the world needs these less-than-serious kinds of film: they let creativity loose, crafting moments and sequences that are exciting, funny, unique, and memorable.

The first rule of Fight Church...Criticisms of the film tend to pan out to nought, in my opinion. Is there too much violence? There’s a lot, certainly, but part of the point of that church sequence (for instance) is just how long it goes on. Other excellent action sequences (the pub fight you might’ve seen in clips; the car chase in reverse gear; the skydiving) aren’t predicated on killing. Similarly, Samuel L. Jackson’s baseball-capped lisping billionaire is a perfect modern riff on the traditional Bond villain, not some kind of attack on Americans or people with speech impediments. Some have even attempted a political reading of the film, arguing it’s fundamentally conservative and right-wing because the villain is an environmentalist. Again, I don’t think the film really supports such an interpretation. In fact, I think it’s completely apolitical — just like its titular organisation, in fact — and such perspectives are being entirely read into it by the kind of people who read too much of this kind of thing into everything.

If there’s any fault, it’s perhaps in an overabundance of ideas. One fewer training sequence might’ve been better — but then, which would you lose? Based on the trailer, some scenes were cut as it is (sadly there’s no deleted scenes section on the Blu-ray), and the film doesn’t really outstay its welcome. For me, it wasn’t as balls-to-the-wall revolutionary as Kick-Ass and, when we have actually had lighter-toned action films in the past few years, it doesn’t reconstruct its genre quite as much as Vaughn and Goldman’s adaptation of Stardust did for fantasy.

Secret SocietyNot everything hinges on being wall-to-wall groundbreaking, though, and Kingsman has so much to recommend it. It ticks all the requisite boxes of being exciting and funny, and some of its sequences are executed breathtakingly. The plot may move along familiar tracks — deliberately so — but it pulls out a few mysteries and surprises along the way. There’s an array of likeable performances, particularly from Firth, Egerton (sure to get a lot of work off the back of this), Jackson and Strong, and Sofia Boutella’s blade-legged henchwoman is yet another why-has-no-one-done-that great idea.

I’m more than happy for the Bond series to carry on down its current, serious-minded path, but I’m ever so glad Kingsman has come along to provide the level of pure entertainment and unabashed fun that series used to do so well. If they can keep this quality up, may there be many sequels.

5 out of 5

Kingsman: The Secret Service is released on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK today, and the US tomorrow.

It placed 13th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2015, which can be read in full here.

* During editing, the BBFC advised the film would receive an 18 certificate unless changes were made. The submitted version was classified 15. Normally such edits are applied globally (despite what some websites like to claim), but this has been a less clear case: vastly different running times were posted by the BBFC and their German equivalent, but Vaughn stated in an interview that nothing was cut for the UK. Now, the UK and US Blu-rays have identical running times, so it seems likely he was (unsurprisingly) telling the truth. Another “the UK version is cut!” storm in a teacup? Yessir. ^

Ministry of Fear (1944)

2010 #70
Fritz Lang | 83 mins | TV | PG

Ministry of FearI like cake. It’s all soft and sweet and tasty. But I don’t like cake as much as Stephen Neale, the protagonist of Ministry of Fear.

Neale (played by Ray Milland) likes cake so much that, as soon as he’s released from an asylum at the film’s start, he goes almost directly to a nearby fête to win a cake. And win it he does… though as he leaves with his prize, he’s told he didn’t win it after all. But Neale loves cake so much that he pays them off so he can keep it. Then he gets on a train to London — and he loves cake so much, he can’t resist tucking in straight away. At least he’s kind enough to give a piece to the blind man who shares the car with him. Except the blind man whacks Neale over the head, steals the cake and jumps off the (fortunately, stationary) train with it. Not because he loves cake too, but we’ll come to that.

But the blind man — who isn’t actually blind, as you may have guessed — hasn’t counted on just how much Neale loves cake. He jumps off the train too, giving chase. The not-blind blind man shoots at him, but that’s not enough to deter Neale from cake. It’s only when a Nazi bomb drops on the cake, destroying it (and the not-blind blind man) that Neale finally gives up. And even then he goes back to look for the cake later in the film.

I think he's about to cut the cake...Ministry of Fear isn’t really about cake, but the opening 20 minutes or so plays out more or less as above and it is rather amusing. Less amusing — and, in fact, part of the film’s biggest problem — is a ‘humorous’ epilogue that returns to the cake theme. I found it hilariously funny, but unfortunately for all the wrong reasons. The other part of the problem is the abrupt ending that immediately precedes this brief coda. On the bright side, everything is resolved and you can imagine the post-climax resolution scene for yourself, but it still leaves the tale’s telling cut short.

To say too much about what Ministry of Fear is actually about would ruin it, which I don’t want to do because in fact it’s a great twisty little thriller, a rather Hitchcockian ‘wrong man’ tale with a baked MacGuffin. You might need a decent suspension of disbelief to get through it, as Neale races round London trying to find out the truth behind the activities of a wartime charity and its army of little old dears, but doing so rewards with a tale where you can never be sure who is on whose side and where any character will end up.

Director Fritz Lang brings his customary expertise to proceedings, with several shots and sequences worthy of appreciation in their own right. Nazi drone, perhapsThe train cake theft and chase, for instance, could be thoroughly laughable thanks to the cake element and what’s clearly a studio-built wood/wasteland, but it’s atmospherically shot and, in its main burst of genius, scored only by the drone of a Nazi air raid taking place overhead. It makes for a more tense and effective soundtrack than most musical scores manage.

In spite of the potentially laughable opening and the need to suspend one’s disbelief — or, perhaps, because of it — Ministry of Fear is a most enjoyable wartime film noir in a Hitchockian mould.

4 out of 5

Get Smart (2008)

2010 #65
Peter Segal | 110 mins | Blu-ray | PG-13 / 12

Get Smart, as you likely know, was a TV series in the ’60s, which makes one wonder how it’s taken so long to get to the big screen. I guess it didn’t have the same fanbase or perceived relaunchability that led to an endless array of big-screen versions of ’60s/’70s series in the last decade or two — Mission: Impossible, Starsky & Hutch, Dukes of Hazzard — indeed, with the likes of Miami Vice and The A-Team, these big-screen-remakes are now moving on into the ’80s. Is Get Smart too late for the party?

Well, not really, because what does it matter which decade it came from — this isn’t a continuation, it’s a modern-day relaunch with current stars (or ‘stars’, if you prefer) and a modern sensibility. Though, in fact, Get Smart acknowledges its roots with a series of relatively low-key references that won’t bother anyone who’s never seen the series (like me) but I’m sure are pleasing for those who have. It also suggests it is a continuation of the series in some ways, despite the main character sharing a name with the series’ lead… but look, it’s just a comedy, let’s not think about that too much.

Get Smart, ’00s-style, is mostly quite good fun. Not all the jokes hit home, but enough do to keep it amusing — which is better than some comedies manage. Even after three Austin Powers films it seems there’s enough left to do with the spy genre to keep a comedy rolling along, even if Mike Myers’ once-popular efforts occasionally pop to mind while watching. And to make sure things don’t get dull, there’s a few action sequences that are surprisingly decent too, considering this is still primarily a comedy.

Some of this is powered by a talented cast: Carrell is Carrell, which is great if you like him, fine if you don’t mind him, and probably a problem if you dislike him; but Anne Hathaway and Alan Arkin manage to lift the material more than is necessarily necessary. Dwayne Johnson also shows he’s remarkably good at a humorous role, which is a little unexpected. How has a former WWE wrestler, whose first acting role had more screen time for his piss-poor CGI double than himself, turned out a half-decent career? The world is indeed full of wonders. As the villain, however, Terence Stamp is ineffectually wooden at every turn. Oh well.

What really makes the film inherently likeable, however, is how nice it is. You’d expect Carrell to be the looked-down-upon wannabe-agent bumbling loser, promoted when there’s literally no one else and still a constant failure, only succeeding (if he does) through fluke. But no — he passes the necessary tests, but isn’t promoted because he’s too good at his current job; when he does get the promotion, he shows an aptitude for spying, fighting, and all other skills, and the other characters acknowledge this. They respect him, in fact, both at the beginning and later as an agent — again, you’d expect Johnson’s character to be the smarmy big shot who either ignores or specifically brings down a character like Carrell’s, but instead he’s one of his biggest supporters. (That he turns out to have been A Bad Guy All Along, Gasp! is beside the point.) The office bullies don’t actually have any power at all and are frequently brought down to size. It makes a nice change from the stock sitcom clumsy-hero-who-eventually-comes-good with irritating-and-condescending-higher-ups on the side, the pedestrian and unenjoyable fallback of too many comedy writers.

Still, Get Smart isn’t without striking flaws. The subplot about a mole in CONTROL (alluded to above) is atrociously handled, not least the ultimate reveal. Perhaps director Peter Segal realised it was pretty easy to guess who it would be and just assumed the audience would be ahead of the story, but that ignores the fact that the other characters barely react to one of their best friends being unmasked as a traitor. It’s all a bit “curse your sudden but inevitable betrayal”, only without a smidgen of the humour that one-liner provided.

But the opening half-hour or so is the film’s biggest flaw. By the time the mole plot is resolved you can almost let it slide, but being faced with a weak opening is more of a problem. Some moments in it work, but there’s the odd jump in storytelling (Max comes across the destroyed CONTROL so suddenly I assumed we were about to discover it was a dream or simulation), or an extended period with either no or too-familiar gags. Once it gets properly underway things continually pick up, but it’s asking a little too much from not necessarily sympathetic viewers.

Still, despite early flaws and the occasional shortage of genuine laughs, Get Smart is redeemed by a proficient cast and generally likeable screenplay. It’s not exactly a great comedy, but it is a pretty good one. Comparing it to the scores I’ve given other comedies recently, that bumps it up to:

4 out of 5