Tag Archives: blockbuster

Priest (2011)

31 Jul

Once again, 3-D is a panacea for a floundering industry rapidly running out of ideas. Though the technology had existed in various forms since the 1890s, 3-D was rolled out by Hollywood in the post-war doldrums, when the flight to the suburbs and the growing popularity of TV dealt business a double blow. As with its initial commercial incarnation, 3-D in 2011 is adhering to the law of diminishing returns; the spectacle on which the early films coasted rapidly palling. Running parallel to this is the primacy of the Nerd Paradigm: what was once a risible fringe has become the dominant pop cultural discourse. There is, of course, a societal dimension to this; as people withdraw from the world and retreat from reality, they seek solace in uncomplicated, morally unambiguous fantasy worlds populated by mythical figures and heroic protectors. ‘Priest’ is a product of both these phenomena: a long-delayed 3-D spectacular based on – what else – a little-known comic book depicting – what else- a post-apocalyptic world where humans and vampires do battle; it reunites director Scott Charles Stewart with leading man Paul Bettany, who collaborated on the equally underwhelming ‘Legion’ (2009).

‘Priest has the feel of a project that was overseen by a focus group of ‘typical cinemagoers’ – i.e. teenage boys. It is a disjointed mess of second and third-hand visual and conceptual tropes – an Orwellian dystopia that is pure ‘Blade Runner’ (1982), a lawless wilderness that is firmly in ‘Mad Max’ territory overrun by faceless creatures borrowed from both the ‘Alien’ and ‘Resident Evil’ franchises, Matrix-lite fight sequences and quasi-Western window dressing that is more Marilyn Manson than Sergio Leone. If you see the film, I’m sure you’ll be able to come up with your own list of influences; it is one of the few joys to be had from the film. ‘Priest’ is Tarantino’s magpie sensibility taken to its high-concept extreme; shorn of wit, irony and humour.

Despite being considered one of the most exciting actors currently working, Bettany’s filmography is littered with clunkers like ‘Wimbledon’ (2004), ‘The Da Vinci Code’ (2006) and ‘The Tourist’ (2010). His portrayal of the heretical killing machine here will do little to enhance his standing; but given the trite material with which he had to work, it is hardly surprising that his performance has all the emotional depth and intensity of a video game cut scene, growling hackneyed lines and seething beneath his cassock. Brad Dourif and Christopher Plummer are wasted in peripheral roles, Maggie Q is here merely to advance the clunky romantic subplot, clean-cut pretty boy Cam Gigandet seems to have been airlifted in from a daytime soap to play the dutiful sidekick and Karl Urban is more Giorgio Armani then Lee Van Cleef as a high-camp vampire desperado hilariously named ‘Black Hat’.

Cory Goodman’s script is one of the most ineptly written in recent memory – at least ‘Drive Angry’ (2011) didn’t take itself too seriously. A kernel of a good story resides within ‘Priest’; but it presents ideas without seeing them through, resulting in a cliché-ridden mish-mash. All the high-octane violence that action fans hunger after is here, but it is forced into an ill-fitting allegorical,  cod theological straitjacket. The characters are so poorly defined that their fate is a matter of supreme indifference; delivering painfully contrived dialogue that has no emotional hook and is merely there to advance the plot, such as it is.

‘Priest’ is indicative of the creative entropy that has gripped mainstream cinema, highlighting the stultifying effects of the corporate mindset; a brash, brainless, cut-and-paste exercise that takes the surface elements of superior works and revels in its palpable lack of originality. Its financial failure will thankfully spare us a slew of sequels, but as Hollywood continues to operate like a high stakes casino, be prepared for more of the same.

Black Hat: Pure Evil!

The Expendables (2010)

18 Sep

Boasting a cast filled with names that would have come with a considerable pricetag in around 1987 but now come as part of a nostalgia package, ‘The Expendables’ finds ‘Sly’ once again at the helm. Considering that his directorial credits include clunkers like ‘Staying Alive’ and ‘Paradise Alley’, his continuing ability to be allowed behind the camera can only be put down to the puzzling popularity of the recent ‘Rocky’ and ‘Rambo’ retreads.

In keeping with Hollywood’s current fondness for all things ‘80s, ‘The Expendables’ takes us back to the days when ‘Sly’ could overthrow a South-East Asian regime with only a headband, a vest, a machete and a snarl. While ostensibly set in the present, the film is a paean to the heyday of gung-ho actioners, when ‘Sly’, ‘Arnie’ and the like dispatched a raft of foreign baddies single-handedly, without a UN resolution in sight.

Our eponymous heroes are a band of hotshot mercenaries sent to a fictional Island in the Gulf of Mexico to depose a puppet regime controlled by a former CIA agent. There endeth the plot. ‘The Expendables’ is a testosterone-charged, loud, violent, ludicrous mid-life crisis of a movie, featuring a cast of Harley riding, tattooed, facially immobile men of advancing years desperately trying to convince us that they can still do everything they could do twenty years ago.
Replete with car chases, decapitations, explosions, physics-flaunting stunts and fiercely heterosexual male bonding, one can only hope that those involved are aware of just how silly the whole thing is. It stretches credibility to breaking point that these men, most of whom probably need help getting out of the bath these days, are capable of performing the physical feats on display here.

Stylistically, we see the usual bag of tricks at play; slow-motion brutality, rapid-fire editing, giddy camerawork, a bombastic score and some very conspicuous stuntmen – this film must have been an overtime bonanza for its stuntmen, who no doubt had to fill in for any strenuous activity its cast were required to perform; climbing flights of stairs, bending over, chewing, etc.

Stallone slurs his way through the film like a punch-drunk Rocky as gang leader Barney Ross, delivering his barely decipherable lines with all the animation of a sedated bear. Bruce Willis and the Governor of California provide blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameos as Mr. Church and Trench, smirking their way through a string of smug in-jokes and laboured badinage. Jason Statham treats us to his usual mangled mix of accents as the wonderfully named Lee Christmas, hovering between South London and Southern California throughout. Dolph Lundgren delivers most of the memorable lines as the maverick outcast Gunnar Jensen, including such gems as ‘life’s a joke, Shitbird!’ and ‘need a facelift, pretty boy?”. Martial arts legend Jet Li’s sole role is to be the butt of jokes about his size as the appallingly named Yin Yang and Oscar nominee Mickey Rourke is totally wasted in an inconsequential peripheral role; though both make the best of the paltry material they’re given. But it’s Eric Roberts who steals the show as rogue agent James Monroe; evidently relishing this opportunity to get his teeth into such a hilariously over-the-top role and hamming it up accordingly.

Part of the problem is that there are too many people trying to do too much in too little time, with the consequence that every character is poorly developed. A perfunctory effort is made to give them some dimension – Christmas is in the midst of relationship strife, Yang has financial problems and Jensen is battling drug addiction – but it’s merely window dressing for the film’s real focus.

There is also some first-rate misogyny on display; the film features two women, both of whom are ‘damsels in distress’ relying on the big, strong men to protect them. At one point, Christmas says to his ex-girlfriend, “you should have waited for me, I was worth it,” after beating the tar out of her abusive new partner.

The final twenty minutes is a relentless cacophony of gunfire, explosions, burning flesh and jets of blood spouting from gaping flesh wounds; the film takes almost pornographic delight in the hundreds of corpses it racks up.

One has to wonder whether South and Central America is about to usurp the Middle East as the new home of the action movie villain; with a new generation of leaders antithetical to US objectives in the region. The General Garza character is firmly in the Chavez/Morales mould and, in the same way that Rambo’s right-wing fantasies chimed with Reagan’s worldview, ‘The Expendables’ seems to echo the feelings of the hawks in the State Department towards those regimes.

For all its bravado, ‘The Expendables’ is a depressing watch, akin to a veterans sporting event where men who were once at the top of their profession struggle to relive their glory days.

Just keep laughing an he'll put us in the sequel!

American Gangster (2007)

17 Sep

Ridley Scott has turned his hand to a multitude of genres: Sci-Fi, Sword and Scandal Epic, Jingoistic War Film, Factually Dubious Historical Action Spectacular, Feministic Road Movie and whatever ‘Legend’ was supposed to be. Scott is a director with an unerring gift for taking the lacklustre and the hackneyed and swathing it in a carapace of lush, pulchritudinous visuals and dense, arresting backdrops.

‘American Gangster’ is his first foray into the world of the crime drama since the ludicrous ‘80s gloss-fest ‘Black Rain’. Does ‘American Gangster’ rectify this glaring rebuttal to his reputation as the ultimate genre director? In a manner, it does, ‘American Gangster’ is a perfectly proficient piece of film-making, but it isn’t without its faults.

‘American Gangster’ charts the rise of Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington), from local flunky in 1970s Harlem to international druglord and organized crime kingpin. Following the death of his mentor, ‘Bumpy’ Johnson (Clarence Williams III) Lucas vies for control of Harlem with a plethora of rivals – most notably Idris Elba as the cocksure Tango. Lucas begins smuggling a cheap and potent new strain of heroin out of Vietnam, bringing his family from the Carolina sticks to back him up. Parallel to this is the turning point in the life and career of Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) an ambitious detective and aspiring lawyer swimming in a cesspit of corruption. When he discovers a million dollars in cash in the trunk of a car, he is vilified for deciding to turn it in. After being outcast by his crooked brethren in the force and losing his partner to an overdose, Roberts is asked to head up his own unit, investigating the source of this new drug, named Blue Magic. The higher Lucas rises, the more he contravenes his own rule to remain inconspicuous, which brings him to the attention of the Special Narcotics Bureau, as well as some less upstanding sections of law enforcement.

Washington exudes his customary poise and charisma, solidifying his reputation as the most dependable leading man in Hollywood; it seems that there is no film he cannot elevate by his mere presence. Crowe turns in his best performance since ‘The Insider’, imbued with a focus and pathos missing from his more grandstanding, Oscar-coveting roles. Also of note are the performances of Josh Brolin as the unctuous Trupo – which bears favourable comparison to Nick Nolte’s hard-bitten turn in ‘Q&A’ – Chitewel Ejiofor as Frank’s guileless brother, Huey, Ruby Dee as the long-suffering Mama Lucas and fully paid-up member of the Wu Tang Clan, RZA, as Moses Jones.

But not even this profusion of talent can compensate for the feeling that ‘American Gangster’ has nothing at its centre. He may be a great technician, but Scott’s films are not renowned for their emotional depth. A Scorsese or a Lumet may have been able to endow the film with some heart, to unearth some truths in the midst of the chaos and carnage. Indeed, ‘American Gangster’ is at its best when it explores the socio-political factors behind the characters’ actions.

Lucas pursues an idiosyncratic variant of the American Dream; the determination, hard work and entrepreneurialism at the heart of its mythology. He is a portent of the coming decade, of corporate hegemony; Reaganomics incarnate. Roberts, on the other hand, is the honest man whose good intentions go unrewarded, beset at every turn by entreaties to fall in line and look the other way. Sadly, this is not explored in any great detail, taking a backseat to the usual cat-and-mouse template.

‘American Gangster’ draws on all manner of influences, from blaxploitation classics like ‘Superfly’ and ‘Black Caesar’ to New Hollywood gems like ‘Serpico’ and ‘The French Connection’. The problem is that, by invoking these films, it simply serves to remind us how great they are and how ‘American Gangster’ lacks the vivid grittiness, urgency and brutality of its progenitors, feeling more like a compilation of classic clips than a coherent whole.

Like anything Ridley Scott is involved in, it looks amazing, but its resplendence is part of its weakness, with the trademark ‘Scott sheen’ having a distancing effect, wrapping the characters in a layer of honey. Another shortcoming is Steve Zaillian’s screenplay, which does little to rectify some of the clichés that have bedevilled the genre: the violent, ruthless ganglord who is a devoted family man at heart, the obsessed cop whose personal life is falling apart around him, etc. While it at least resists the temptation to glorify the ugly realities of Lucas’s milieu or present a black-and-white morality, it treads a familiar path and it’s disheartening to see so many archetypes being perpetuated yet again.

A little more ‘artistic license’ could have benefited the denouement; the scenes between Washington and Crowe fall below expectation after so much build up. Strict verisimilitude is not always the preferred course. The end result is a sprawling endeavor with epic pretensions and a misplaced sense of importance for what is essentially a stylized, big budget B movie.

Denzel and Russell recreate their favourite scene from 'Heat'.