action

Review: The Raid (Serbuan maut)

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The Pitch: Attack the block.

The Review: Once in a generation, a film comes along that defines everything that follows, and few films have been as influential in terms of concept as Die Hard. Rapidly becoming a shorthand for the succession of action movies that followed, everything from Die Hard On A Bus (Speed) to On A Boat (Under Siege) was given a convenient high concept to relate to the audience. It seems we’ve gradually come full circle; earlier this year we had Die Hard On A Ledge and now The Raid presents a riff that takes a lot from the original concept: tall building, police officers, master criminal, high stakes… It should come as no surprise to the cynical, based on that description, that The Raid is actually nothing like Die Hard at all.

If I were to pick a more recent comparison, I’d liken The Raid more to Scott Pilgrim vs The World. A series of fights, highly choreographed, with a videogame-like level structure and regular boss-style battles. A dilapidated Indonesian tower block might seem an unlikely setting for an action movie; even more so once you consider that the very Welsh named Gareth Evans is in the director’s chair. Gareth’s actual style is almost the polar opposite of Edgar Wright, for although they might share an active camera Wright relies on the medium he’s paying homage to, be it fast cuts or videogame framing, to get his effect. Evans sweeps around the building more serenely, but when the fights come the camera locks in and fights of increasing length are captured in single takes to impressive effect.

The action is undeniably impressive to watch – it’s the first 18 rated action movie I can recall in a while that justifies that rating – and should set even the most action movie-hardened of hearts racing, but The Raid falls down in two key areas. When compared to classic action movies, The Raid has ramped up the excitement and pared down the dialogue and story to the bare minimum. What’s left is a little too threadbare, not quite providing enough to invest in the characters or why they continue to beat seven shades of crap out of each other. The actors are generally better fighters and stuntmen than they are actors, which is not to say they’re bad actors, rather that they probably won’t be troubling the main acting categories come awards season. The one standout is Ray Sahetapy as the big boss Tama, oozing menace and not being afraid to get his hands dirty, but the remainder are serviceable and nothing more.

All of these might be unfair criticisms of an action movie, but the best examples of the genre manage to balance explosions, fighting and talking, and in this case it is possible to have too much of a good thing. It’s also possible to say that of individual sequences, and while the Indonesian martial arts on display are fierce, every punch landed carries with it the weight of repetition. One of the final fights runs for over six minutes, and becomes a war of attrition as the characters involved wear each other down, leaving the audience at risk of knowing exactly what that feels like. The Raid will satisfy anyone with a craving for a rush of pure cinematic adrenaline, but it might just be a single hit rather than a repeat visit, as The Raid isn’t quite the classic that the hype would have you believe. 

Why see it at the cinema: No doubt in my mind that the visceral impact of the fights will lose something at home, so best to immerse yourself in the building, and by that I don’t just mean 15 storeys of criminals.

The Score: 8/10

Review: Man On A Ledge

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The Pitch: Die Hard On A Ledge.

The Review Tick-List (contains very mild, generic spoilers):

Why see it at the cinema: It’s just about passable Friday night entertainment, which won’t tax a single one of your brain cells or spring any nasty surprises. It is more enjoyable than it has any right to be given the total lack of effort involved in its conception; put in a similar amount of effort and you might just find yourself enjoying Friday night at the flicks.

The Score: 5/10

Review: Haywire

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The Pitch: Of Woman Bourne.

The Review: Steven Soderbergh films are like buses; you wait ages, then two come along at once. In some ways they’re actually better than buses, as if there’s one you don’t like the next one will probably be completely different. So it should be no surprise that after last year’s taut but slightly underwhelming Outbreak-remake Contagion Soderbergh has arrived on an entirely different bus, but actually one that left the depot two years ago. (I think I’d better park this bus metaphor now.) The difference between Contagion and Haywire is a prime  example of Steven Soderbergh’s experimental and varied nature, but it also means that you can’t guarantee that you’re actually going to like every Soderbergh film. This time, the Soderbergh experiment is to take a female mixed martial arts star and to attempt to make her a movie star; but does this attempt to put the fair fight in My Fair Lady actually work?

A lot of that rests on Carano’s broad but still delicate shoulders. Coming off somewhere between Jet from Gladiators and Cynthia Rothrock, what she lacks in personality and acting ability and more personality she makes up for with a steely glare,  a slight grumpiness when asked to wear a dress and an unerring ability to beat the senses out of men twice her size. Sensibly, the story constructed is very much designed to show off the sense-beating, grumpiness and steely glares and minimise the need for personality and acting ability. It’s pretty much a Bourne clone; there’s running, fighting, driving, all in the name of Carano finding something about about the people who she’s fighting, driving past or running away from. The fights themselves have a real physicality and heft about them, and when Carano and Michael Fassbender start laying into each other, it’s verging on cartoon violence and quite satisfying, if you like that kind of thing.

In order to draw attention away from any perceived lack of abilities on Gina Carano’s part, Soderbergh has surrounded her with some of the finest acting and action movie talent known to man. Ewan McGregor sports a dodgy haircut and his usual unlikely American accent and does most of the exposition, and the likes of Antonio Banderas, Michael Douglas and Bill Paxton also pop up in supporting roles. Here lies the first of two major problems with Haywire: the bits in between the running and the fighting are deathly dull, written as if the Enigma machine had turned its hand to screenplays. There’s lots of obtuse references to lots of things which aren’t stated explicitly, and then in the last ten minutes reams of further exposition turn up to make sense of it all. By that point, if you didn’t enjoy the fighting and the running, you may have also stopped caring.

The other drawback of Haywire is that, for all of Steven Soderbergh’s experimental nature, it actually feels about as fresh as a three day old nappy at times. There’s a little Ocean’s meets Bourne feel going on, thanks to David Holmes’ unmistakably trendy, januty score which creates a familiar ambience, but Soderbergh has been experimental so many times, and often much more so than here, that actually the familiarity of the material can breed contempt in the quieter stretches. There’s a great stretch in the middle of the film where Carano goes on the run across Dublin, beating up security guards and running over rooftops, and somehow an extended version of this sequence, stripped of the babbling exposition and filling the short but overstretched run time, might have actually been an improvement. Soderbergh’s talking about taking a sabbatical after his next two films and on this evidence he might need to recharge his batteries, as Haywire’s a lot of fun when its star is handing out violence like it’s going out of fashion, but the rest of the time you’ll wish you had Jason Bourne’s Swiss-cheesed memory, as the non-violent scenes deserve to be forgotten.

Why see it at the cinema: Yay fighty bits! Yay running about on rooftops! The rest might be a little scrambled, but whenever Carano’s kicking butt or running about in pursuit of some other low-life, then you’ll thank yourself that you saw it on a screen that did it justice.

The Score: 6/10

Review: Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol IMAX

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The Pitch: All together now! Duh-duh-da-da, duh-duh-da-da, duh-duh-da-da, duh-duh-da-da, diddloo, diddloo, diddloo, duh-duh… BAH-BAH-BA-BA-BAH-BAH-BA-BA-BAH… (Sorry.)

The Review: Some franchises manage to knock out films like they’re going out of fashion; others prefer to take their time, attempting to mature like a fine wine. It took us seventeen years to see four Alien films, eighteen years to get to four Die Hards and ten more than that again for the fourth Indiana Jones film to roll around. There’s often a feeling, especially when looking through lists like that, that by the time a franchise gets to number four it might not as well have bothered. Even if you have a strong central idea, finding ways to take the story for a fourth trip round the block can be tricky; when your third film was five years ago, and your star had such a public bout of crazy that audiences stayed away in droves, then you might be forgiven for thinking that someone, somewhere, was still channelling that crazy. But you know what? Mission: Impossible – Ghost Protocol might be up there with the best in the franchise, possibly even the best, so how did that happen?

First off, it has a lot to do with the star. He might do a passable impersonation of a Tasmanian devil on a couch from time to time, but Tom Cruise is still The World’s Biggest Movie Star™ (no pun intended). Part of the reason that the series has never been less than watchable is Tom himself; for any perceived faults offscreen, when he turns on the charisma onscreen he has the star power to cause the rest of the movie to gravitate to him. In the M:I series, he’s brought something else, a willingness to commit to his own stunts which has given the films that added sense of danger. Whether running through an exploding fish tank or hanging off a mountain, he’s absolutely committed to his craft, and suitably for the fourth film he’s taking things, quite literally, to new heights, running about on top of the world’s tallest skyscraper with an energy and a madness that would shame most men half his age. He’s a little more dialled down here, skimping on the goofy grinning and instead showing off muscles and smoulder, but still he’s the nexus which links the series and the film itself together.

The other secrets have been renewal and a sense of personal craft. Mission: Impossible was completely and unmistakeably a Brian De Palma film; John Woo’s fingerprints and JJ Abrams’ lens flare (ow, my eyes) were all over the sequels. Brad Bird might not be quite the auteur of his predecessors but he has a gift for storytelling and can shoot an action sequence to within an inch of its life. Sadly, the first area is a slight let-down here, attempts at grafting personal conflict coming over as half hearted, and Mission: Protocol – Impossible Ghost, or whatever, is better when it sticks to being a Cold War throwback film, almost as if the last twenty years never happened in the real world. The emotional arcs also result in a coda that feels tacked on and unnecessary, rather than the satisfying resolution to the plot it could have been. The only other slight failing is Michael Giacchino’s score, so relentlessly staccato that it might induce a form of aural epilepsy by the time you attempt to leave the cinema.

But everything else works a treat. Simon Pegg gets a promotion to field agent and but still manages to leaven the film with a streak of mild humour without unbalancing the tone, Paula Patton and Jeremy Renner have just about sufficient character to round out an enjoyable team, and the story never tries to get too much in the way of the string of set pieces that keep the momentum moving nicely. You feel it might have been nice to give Michael Nyqvist’s Eurotrash bad guy a few more juicy lines, but it doesn’t derail the rest of the film. Brad Bird has achieved the seeming impossible, breathing new life into this fourth entry but in a way that has echoes of all three previous films, and the actions sequences are well framed and, especially in the case of the skyscraper caper, genuinely tense and utterly thrilling. From the time the opening credits unspool with the traditional highlight reel and Lalo Shifrin’s iconic theme blasts out, Mission: Ghost – Thingummy Whatsit kicks into a high gear and never lets up. Jeremy Renner was brought in to take over the mantle, but on this evidence here’s hoping the Cruiser’s got one more in him before he stops accepting missions.

Why see it at the cinema: Action films are an increasingly rare commodity these days, big studios preferring to spend their money on costumed crusaders rather than old-fashioned car chases and shoot-outs. So when one does come round, and it’s as enjoyable as this, then make it your Saturday night priority, and don’t forget the popcorn.

Why see it in IMAX: If you even have the tiniest fear of heights, the moment when the camera follows Tom Cruise as he steps out of the window of the 130th floor of the Burj Khalifa and then pans down to see the ground in the far distance, in the crystal clear quality of the IMAX image, should cause your heart to leap up through your chest, out of your mouth and to head for the nearest exit forthwith.

The Score: 8/10

Oh, and what about that Dark Knight Rises prologue? If you’ve not heard by now, it’s the opening six minutes of The Dark Knight Rises, plus a brief teaser trailer lasting about a minute. If you saw The Dark Knight in IMAX, then the prologue is easily the equal of anything from that, and without giving away anything much, if they did what they did for real, then wow, and if they didn’t, then CGI has developed to a point of such total realism that you’ll no longer care that you can’t tell the difference.

There is an issue with Bane’s dialogue (I was paying close attention, and I think I caught about 75% of what Tom Hardy actually says, but it looks to be another character study to rival Heath Ledger’s – Nolan seems to know how to get the best out of his actors), but somehow Nolan is such a perfectionist that it feels like a deliberate ploy at this stage, rather than something careless in the sound mix. Only seven and a half months to found out…

Always Read The Fine Print

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I’ve always been a fan of action movies, but as I’ve gotten older my tastes have broadened out. I can’t imagine the 14 year old me being interested in Mike Leigh or Michael Haneke, but the 14 year old me didn’t like broccoli or chicken either, and thankfully I’m now able to watch more mature movies and eat Nando’s. But the action movies of my teen years were missing one thing that today’s explosionfests have, and that’s proper actors.

The likes of Schwarzenegger, Van Damme and Stallone might have all become icons to a generation, but (possibly Stallone excepted) they’ve never been renowned for their thespian skills. So the idea that we can live in an enlightened 21st century where people renowned for their talent as well as their ability to look good rolling around on the floor while firing two guns fills me with joy. The idea of a film where Tom Hardy and Chris Pine, the soon-to-be-Bane and the hopefully-will-be-again-Captain-Kirk in an action film, even an action comedy, makes me feel like we’re living in a more enlightened time, where films can be the best of both worlds. Eat your heart out, The Renaissance.

But while it sounded great in concept, the trailer that was released this week seemed to be lacking something. Actually, the poster on iTunes that accompanied the trailer wasn’t great – Pine and Hardy look like they’re auditioning for a Twilight remake and Hardy not only looks like he’s sporting a failed comb-over but has the dead-eyed look normally associated with bad motion capture, possibly because the photo was taken after he signed his contract. Things were looking up in the trailer – for at least the first thirty seconds or so, which looks to have all the requisite explosions, moody looks and men and cars diving off high places. But then…

Two minutes of mirth-free, cringe-enducing mugging follow. Jokes fall so flat you imagine that the CGI budget’s been spent on removing the tumbleweeds and the kind of embarrassing set-ups that make even Jennifer Lopez rom-coms look the height of sophistication. Yes, at one point, the dastardly Tom Hardy shoots Chris Pine with a tranquilliser to cause him to fall asleep mid-date. Oh, the hilarity. If you’ve recently had any kind of surgery in which you had to have your side split in order to reach internal organs, rest assured that nothing in this trailer will leave you in any danger of your wounds re-opening or those stitches coming out.

So what could possibly have gone so wrong? I watched the trailer again, in the forlorn hope that actually I was in a bad mood, and that this was a quality action comedy which I had just misjudged, but no, it unfortunately looks so toe-curlingly desperate that it could set the careers of both its stars back five years. But on re-watching the trailer, I noticed one very small name in the end credits.

Oh. That’ll be it then.

If you still don’t believe me, watch here, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.

Review: Fast Five

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The Pitch: It’s between The Rock and some real hard cases.

The Review: Can it really be ten years since Rob Cohen gave us The Fast And The Furious? It seems so long ago now that it’s difficult to remember what it was all about all those years ago, and as the series has gone on it’s become more and more removed from those humble beginnings. Sorry, did I say humble? I meant to say outlandish, garish and injected directly into your eyeballs. Very much style over substance, it did see Vin Diesel at the height of his early career (and, for that matter, Paul Walker, but since his career has consisted almost entirely of these movies, that’s maybe a little misleading), and they seemed to be heading the way of almost every other diminishing returns franchise. Then something strange happened: Justin Lin, director of the third movie in the series, also got the fourth and persuaded both Walker and Diesel to return for the first time together since the original, he widened the scope of the movie and took it away from street racing a little, and it romped to the biggest opening weekend in April in US box office history, and the biggest take of the franchise. So Fast Five does what every good big budget sequel does, and takes those successful elements and cranks them up a couple of notches.

This time, then, rather than just Walker and Diesel (and Jordana Brewster as Walker’s girlfriend and Diesel’s sister), pretty much everyone who’s had a speaking part and is still alive among the good guys is back. Indeed, death is not an obstacle, as one of the crew died in the third outing, Tokyo Drift, making this a sequel to the prequel to that film. Still paying attention? Well don’t worry, the movie opens directly where the fourth one finished, just in case you’ve forgotten (I had) and from there the pace doesn’t let up, at least for the first half an hour or so. Now on the same team again, Brian O’Connor and Dominic Toretto attempt to pull a job in Brazil, which goes wrong, so to get the bad guys and the cops off their backs they attempt one last job, which requires the intervention of the whole crew. But remember that job before the last job that went wrong? That’s attracted the attention of the Feds, and when they want someone caught (not that often, it would seem), there’s only one man they call for.

Special Agent Brian Hobbs. Better known to us, of course, as Dwayne Johnson, and even better known as The Rock. The testosterone is ramped up to hitherto unprecedented and frankly dangerous levels, and most of the middle of the movie consists of planning, scheming and a fair bit of posturing. The series has survived and thrived by evolving, so street racing is almost now an afterthought – you get one, and even that’s glossed over fairly quickly, and a second happens off-screen – and Fast Five comes over as the mutant love-child of Heat and Ocean’s Eleven, set in Rio. The cop / criminal face-off in which no-one gets arrested, the massively weighty cast, and even a high-powered shoot-out in the favelas all call to mind a dumbed-down version of Michael Mann’s finest, but the nature of the heist itself, some tricky reversals and the dialogue all give mind to a similarly low rent version of Steven Soderbergh’s movies.

Yes, the dialogue. Let’s test your level of potential interest for Fast Five. If quotes such as “This just went from Mission: Impossible to Mission: In-freakin’-sanity” or “Sexy legs, baby, what time do they open?”, at which point said sexy legs owner pulls a gun on their admirer, don’t put a giant smile on your face at the sheer dumb bravado of it all, then this is not the film for you. Similarly, if you’re not impressed by films that defy the laws of physics, ignore the fact that to pull this job, our heroes have a seemingly limitless supply of cash or that people swap sides almost at will, then this also isn’t the film for you. But if you’re looking for one of the most enjoyably simple, ridiculously hyped action movies of this or any other summer, then step right in. There’s a ten minute sequence around an hour and a half in where it all takes itself far too seriously, but other than that this will slap a big cheesy grin on your face and keep it there right through to the extended finale and a credits sequence that twists the franchise into the shape ready for its next inevitable outing. Fast Five features some of the most wanton destruction ever committed to celluloid, and if you’re looking for a way to disengage your brain ready for the summer season, then look no further.

Why see it at the cinema: The action scenes are what modern cinemas were made for, with director Lin making the finale look like Bad Boys 2 times The Blues Brothers in terms of carnage, and there’s plenty of sweeping vistas to make the most of the screen. It’s also the closest to a party atmosphere you’ll get in the cinema this early in the summer.

The Score: 7/10

Review: Source Code

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The Pitch: Quantum Loop.

The Review: Two years ago, Duncan Jones announced his arrival as a film-maker of note with his debut feature, Moon. If you’ve not seen it, then (a) shame on you, and (b) it was a wonderful marriage of some hard sci-fi concepts with a very old school feel and story telling method, even eschewing masses of CGI for honest-to-goodness model making for the spaceship shots, for example. When crafting something so distinctive, there’s a risk that expectations increase unfairly for the follow-up, and that the audience is either expecting more of the same or a complete departure. What Jones has produced is a half-way house, still grounded in some chunky sci-fi concepts, but with a slightly bigger budget and a change in both tone and pacing. That change is just different, but it shows already that Jones is comfortable working in more than one style.

Two years ago, Duncan Jones announced his arrival as a film-maker of note… no, hang on, I seem to have gone back to the beginning. What did we learn first time? Duncan Jones has made a sci-fi mystery thriller, instead of a sci-fi mystery drama. Actually, that may be all you need to know going in, as part of the joy is discovering Source Code for yourself; half of the action is set in or around a train bound for Chicago, and while Moon was relatively fixed in its position, Source Code moves, quite literally, at a hundred miles an hour from the word go. Which is shortly followed by the words “my train just exploded.” You can almost feel the inevitable comparison with Inception, and this is another example of British guided invention with some big concepts on the big screen, but here instead of one world with many layers, all of which are built on self-defining principles, we have two worlds presented to us, and through the eyes of Capt. Colter Stevens (Jake Gyllenhall), we have to try to understand not only what’s actually taking place, but also how the train and the Source Code are connected.

Two years ago, Duncan Jones… right, film-maker of note. Change in style. Will get unfairly compared to Inception. Simultaneous mysteries. Comparisons have also been made to Groundhog Day, and those might be slightly fairer, but only in the sense of what that film did so well and what Source Code also achieves, in that repeating the same actions over and over sounds like it could be horribly repetitive, but actually it’s only the framework that repeats, and the central character takes a different route through it each time, while the plot continues to advance at a significant rate. No doubt helping that transition are Gyllenhall and Michelle Monaghan, neither a stranger to having to insert depth of character into the action movie or thriller, and both do excellent work here, Gyllenhall especially managing to invest both realities with sufficient variations to keep it interesting. Vera Farmiga is also noteworthy as the voice of authority, and brings emotion to a role that could have been clogged up with exposition. It’s just a shame that the film is set at breakfast time, as Jeffrey Wright appears to be tucking into his first meal of the day; sadly chewed scenery gets eaten each time we go through another scene with him. Thankfully it’s not enough to unbalance the film too much.

Two years ago, Duncan Jones was the son of David Bowie. Now he’s a film maker in his own right, and he has two movies of equally high quality to show for it. There are obvious connections between the two, not least a few of the director’s trademarks, including the odd inclusion of Chesney Hawkes’ “The One And Only” and Jones’ excellent choices in voice casting, here the supremely self-referential voice of Stevens’ father, but otherwise there’s a complete difference in tone; yet in the same way that Rear Window and North By Northwest happily spring from the same hand, so Source Code is a worthy companion piece to Moon. While comparisons to the work of Nolan and Harold Ramis are the obvious ones on the surface, look deeper and you’ll see themes picked up by everyone from Paul Verhoeven to David Cronenberg, yet it still feels fresh. The plot isn’t by any means predictable, taking plenty of satisfying twists and turns but moving fast enough that you’ll have to consider the moral ramifications once you’ve left your seat and headed for the exit. That’s no bad thing, though, and Source Code is superior entertainment, working both as good sci-fi, top notch thriller and believable romantic drama, marshalling its resources expertly and leaving you keen to see what Duncan Jones has to offer next. Let’s just hope it’s another original – he’s one man who’s shown he doesn’t need to keep repeating himself to have success.

Why see it at the cinema: Duncan Jones has a fantastic sense of the visual, there’s plenty of audience-reaction-inducing good lines along the way and with this kind of mystery, half the fun is attempting to work out if you have sussed what’s going on before your neighbour.

The Score: 9/10