The Limey (1999)

2016 #72
Steven Soderbergh | 89 mins | streaming (HD) | 16:9 | USA / English | 18 / R

There’s an argument to be made that, from a cinematic perspective, mainstream US cinema these days is boring. Look at the kind of films American auteurs were producing in and around the studio system in the ’90s and early ’00s: Pulp Fiction, Fight Club, Memento, Requiem for a Dream; films that experimented with how they told their stories, the shots they used, how they were edited. Does anyone do that now? Or does anyone do it successfully?

Personally, I’ll be adding Steven Soderbergh’s The Limey to that list. At its most basic it’s a straightforward thriller, in which a British crook played by Terence Stamp is released from prison and travels to L.A. to find out the truth behind the death of his daughter (played in flashbacks by Melissa George, which is kinda weird because she has little to do and no dialogue), and probably take revenge on those responsible. By all accounts, the screenplay by Lem Dobbs was indeed that run-of-the-mill. In the hands of Soderbergh, however, it becomes an arthouse-ish experience, mainly thanks to the editing.

It’s the kind of cutting that’s hard to accurately describe on the page without overdoing it. The movie jumps back and forth in time — not from scene to scene, but from shot to shot. For instance, Stamp’s arrival at the home of his daughter’s friend, and the conversation that follows, is jumbled up with shots of him on the plane, driving in the city, the people his daughter was associating with, and even within the conversation itself, sometimes speech continues on the soundtrack while we watch the characters not talking, or doing something else. This isn’t a conceit Soderbergh uses for one scene, or wheels out now and then, but an overall approach. Some sequences are more thick with it than others, but it’s always right around the corner. It creates a unique sensation. Not disconcerting, exactly, but mysterious and querying. It has you constantly question what you’re watching — is it a memory? A plan? A fantasy? A delusion? It draws connections back and forth across the timeline of the story, bringing out thematic angles. At its most key, it helps explain what happens at the end (too bluntly for some reviewers, I should add). This collage-like style — which unlike, say, Memento’s back-to-front narrative has no obvious in-story point — will certainly not be to everyone’s taste, but it presents an interesting challenge to our usual ideas of how a film should be constructed.

This led to a somewhat infamous commentary track on the film’s DVD release. The A.V. Club even included it in their New Cult Canon series — not The Limey, that is, but The Limey’s commentary track. In it, Soderbergh and Dobbs discuss the filmmaking process, understandably focusing on how screenplays get transformed, and how screenwriters get screwed over. The Limey that ended up on screen is very different to Dobbs’ screenplay, having been aggressively filtered by Soderbergh. This isn’t hard to believe — the film on screen is a very film-y film; how would you go about conveying the crazy editing style on the page, even if you wanted to? By the sounds of things the whole track is basically a friendly argument, and makes me wish someone somewhere would get round to releasing this on Blu-ray so I could hear it (the film looks great in HD, so I don’t much fancy settling for a DVD, thanks).

Despite the visual trickery, The Limey still works pretty well as a straightforward thriller. You have to be prepared to accept the slippery editing, because there’s no avoiding it, but the throughline of Stamp tracking down bad men and how he deals with them is still here. Personally, I’ve never much rated Stamp as an actor, but somehow he fits here. He’s a fish out of water, a man out of place — way out of place — and possibly out of time, too, seeming like a ’60s or ’70s British gangster transported to turn-of-the-millennium L.A. It’s no discredit to the supporting cast that they mainly exist to bob around in his wake.

At a guess, I’d say some would criticise The Limey for being a basic revenge thriller with a veneer of artistry applied in the form of its editing, while others would be turned away from its basic revenge thrills thanks to that editorial veneer. I’m always up for mashing together arthouse and mainstream, though, and here Soderbergh does just that, and in a way I found consistently thought-provoking, too. It’s discoveries like this that are the reward for digging into less-heralded corners of interesting filmmakers’ back catalogues.

5 out of 5

This review is part of 1999 Week.

The Limey placed 7th on my list of The 20 Best Films I Saw For the First Time in 2016, which can be read in full here.

Valkyrie (2008)

2015 #41
Bryan Singer | 108 mins* | TV | 16:9 | USA & Germany / English | 12 / PG-13

On the 70th anniversary of Hitler’s death, the true story of some people who tried to kill him…

ValkyrieAfter abandoning the X-Men franchise for a Superman reboot/continuation that was retrospectively branded a commercial and critical flop (it actually grossed $391 million worldwide (more than Batman Begins, for example) and has a fairly strong Rotten Tomatoes score of 76%), director Bryan Singer returned to more traditionally dramatic fare — and Nazis — with this true-story war movie about a German plot to assassinate Hitler.

Tom Cruise is Colonel Claus von Stauffenberg, an army officer who believes Hitler needs to be removed for the sake of Germany’s future. Invalided home after an RAF raid, he discovers he’s far from alone in his beliefs when he’s recruited into a conspiratorial group who have already failed to assassinate Hitler several times. There he concocts a plan to take out Hitler with a bomb during his weekly briefing at the Wolf’s Lair, blame it on the SS, and use the Führer’s own Operation Valkyrie contingency plan to seize control before any of his cronies can do it first.

There’s no point beating about the bush: they don’t succeed. We all know that. The film’s marvel, really, is in making us believe they might. Well, not believe it — we’re not stupid, are we? — but invest in it. It’s also a revelation how far they got. No, Hitler isn’t killed, but the associated confusion engineered by the plan (they cut off communications from the remote Wolf’s Lair, meaning the news that Hitler survived takes a long time to come out) means an awful lot of Valkyrie is enacted. In the end, they’re done for by bad luck — some people make some decisions which undermine the plan, whereas if they’d gone the other way it might have succeeded even with the Fuhrer still alive. What might have been…

Edge-of-your-seat tensionOne of the stated aims of the conspiracy is to show the rest of the world that not everyone in Germany believed in what Hitler and his inner circle were doing. It may have taken us a long time to realise that, for fairly understandable reasons, but quality films like this help get the message out. Singer has crafted a proper thriller here, replete with scenes of edge-of-your-seat tension. Many a filmmaker can’t manage that with a fictional storyline, never mind one where we know exactly how it turns out.

A top-drawer cast help keep the drama ticking over too. Complaints that accompanied the theatrical release, about the German characters all speaking English, feel thoroughly bizarre. How many movies in history have foreigners all speaking English? I mean, what about Schindler’s List, for just one broadly-related broadly-recent example. Have we really reached a point where everyone is so accepting of subtitles? No, of course we haven’t. I think it’s a baseless criticism to latch on to; one that misses the point so severely it’s difficult to think how to rationally argue against. It’s just wrong. Anyway, most of the cast are British thesps — Kenneth Branagh, Bill Nighy, Tom Wilkinson, Kevin McNally, David Schofield, Tom Hollander, even Eddie Izzard — so you’re guaranteed quality. Even Terence Stamp proves that he can act, in spite of what some other performances would have me believe. Cruise is a suitable leading man. This isn’t one of his greater acting performances, Brave men who tried to do the right thingbut nor is he in simplistic action hero mode.

Elucidating a sometimes-overlooked aspect of an over-covered era of history, managing to tell its story with all the thrills and tension of a narrative where we don’t know the outcome, Valkyrie is a film to be commended. It’s also a fitting tribute to very brave men on the ‘other side’ who tried to do the right thing.

4 out of 5

* I always try to list the running time of the version I watched, but I feel this one needs a quick explanation, because it’s a full 13 minutes less than the listed running time. Was it cut? Probably not. I watched it on TV, with PAL speed-up and end credits almost entirely shorn. PAL gets you down to 115 minutes; I can well believe there were seven minutes more to the full credits. So there you go. ^

Young Guns (1988)

2011 #37
Christopher Cain | 102 mins | TV (HD) | 1.85:1 | USA / English | 18 / R

Young GunsWay back in March, the ever-excellent Colin at Ride the High Country covered a series of films about Billy the Kid, including this late-’80s effort. To quote from the comments section: “I would have been in that target demographic too when I first saw it… around 20 years old or so… I wonder how it would play now to an audience of a similar age.” Well, as someone who watched it when closer to 20 than 30, I shall step up to the task.

Considering this is ‘the Brat Pack Western’, one might well expect a modernised, sanitised West; something like Wild Wild West or Jonah Hex; something rated PG-13. Instead the film seems to have begun life as a serious attempt at a Billy the Kid biography, right down to bloody violence that earns it an R in the US and even an 18 over here. This intention seems to survive — bar a music-video-styled opening, a couple of lines of dialogue, and the wailing ’80s guitar score — but how successful it was is another matter.

I don’t know about historical accuracy in this case, not knowing much more about Billy the Kid than I’ve gleaned from… well, this film, and Colin’s series. Playing loose with facts can work in a film’s favour — as many a filmmaker has noted in the past, they’re making entertainment not documentary — but it can be galling to one who knows the truth. In the way it presents events, this one feels accurate — things like characters appearing only to die immediately; the kind of thing that doesn’t sit well narratively but might be the truth. If it isn’t accurate, this is all the more dangerous: there’s a difference between changing facts so something works as a film narrative and presenting the wrong thing as the truth. Guns of the youngThough if someone was planning to use Young Guns to research the real-life facts of these events, more fool them in the first place. Wikipedia says (without citation) that “historian Dr. Paul Hutton has called Young Guns the most historically accurate of all prior Billy the Kid films”. We’ll leave it at that for now.

As a film in itself, then, the narrative is a bit scrappy. Our heroes wander around killing some people, racing about the country sometimes for no discernible reason and with chunks apparently missing. For instance, they head to Mexico just for the challenge of it — we’re told it’s a hard road, laden with bounty hunters out to get them — but the film cuts from their decision to make this journey to their arrival with a rapturous welcome. Eh? I have no idea if this stuff was shot and cut for time, or if someone needed to have a long hard look at the screenplay. Or even a quick glance.

The finale is also implausible. One assumes the characters who survive must have survived in reality and the others must’ve died, but the way it’s played here it doesn’t make a great deal of sense. How did they defeat those overwhelming odds? How did they pull off that escape? It might pass muster with The Hero Is Invulnerable movie logic, but not as a claim to depicting real-life events. Billy the GrinAnd that’s without mentioning the overuse of dated slow-motion that descends upon its eventual climax.

As for the Brat Pack themselves, Emilio Estevez’s version of Billy the Kid seems to descend during the film from above-himself hot-head out for revenge to giggling loon. This isn’t really character development, more as if halfway through Estevez realised how much fun it was to laugh and so kept doing it. Charlie Sheen gets the honour of (spoilers!) being killed off halfway through. As one of the most recognisable members of the ‘Brat Pack’, here playing the leader of the gang, it works as an effective surprise.

Kiefer Sutherland has the best part though. He’s given the only subplot that approaches anything meaningful and also almost all the best lines (not that there are many). The remainder go to Jack Palance, who isn’t around enough to create a great villain but makes a commendably good hash of it in his brief time. Equally brief is Terence Stamp’s part. I have to say I’m no fan of Stamp — everywhere I’ve seen him he seems awkwardly flat, often phoning it in — but here he’s not bad. This may be because his role’s quite small and relatively subdued as it is. Patrick Wayne appears as Pat Garrett for a knowing cameo; the kind of small role which any viewer can tell Means Something, but if you don’t know what he means there’s no explanation proffered (until the final scene, anyway, when Sutherland narrates a “what happened next” for the surviving characters).

This film does not occur in real timeYoung Guns is not a particularly likeable film, managing to miss both its potential target audiences: it’s not serious-minded enough for Western enthusiasts, let down by the Brat Pack cast and (it seems) historical accuracy; but it’s surely not fun or modernised enough to appeal to a younger (or younger-minded) crowd. Though clearly it did well enough as it spawned a sequel two years later. I didn’t hate it, I just didn’t particularly like it.

2 out of 5

Young Guns is on Channel 5 tomorrow, Sunday 13th November, at 11:15pm.
Young Guns is on 5USA tonight, Tuesday 30th December 2014, at 9pm. It’s sequel, Young Guns II: Blaze of Glory, follows at 11pm.

After four years and three months doing 100 Films, this became the first new film I’ve seen which has a title beginning with the letter Y — the last unaccounted-for letter. Hurrah!

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