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
The Review: Has Hollywood finally run out of ideas? For anyone around the same age as me, if you were to start describing a film where an odd couple are forced to engage in a road trip together, you’d probably think of Planes, Trains and Automobiles, the John Hughes movie from nearly twenty-five years ago. But this isn’t a remake – or at least, it doesn’t claim to be one – but conceptually it’s so similar that the two would happily pass as related. So if we’re not to get originality in concept, we could at least hope that execution would see us through.
So casting Robert Downey Jr. in the “straight” man role taken by Steve Martin would seem to be a wise choice. Downey Jr.’s star is as high as it’s ever been right now, and if anyone can do the sardonic, oppressed narcissism required for such a role and still remain charming it’s surely the Iron Man. Or at least, it should be. He’s not helped out by a script which requires him to be graphically unpleasant on at least a couple of occasions, and while the moments in isolation are funny they go a very long way to undermining our sympathy for his plight.
Zach Galifianakis gets the John Candy role, although at times it feels as if he got a single card with the word “simpleton” on it in place of a script. He’s slightly more affable than his co-star, but his rank stupidity begins to grate when it becomes clear that it’s the only thing servicing the plot. Actually, that’s not quite true; Downey Jr. gets his own share of stupid moments, not least in his jealousy over Jamie Foxx’s character that strains credulity more than a little. Michelle Monaghan is in the movie as well, but has so little to actually do that I could have played the role in a wig with a cushion up my jumper, and you might well not have noticed.
Director Todd Philips, as well as throwing himself a cameo, keeps the action moving along, and when the script calls for actual action, the set pieces are efficient. It actually works marginally more effectively as a buddy action road movie than it does as a comedy, but it’s not really working particularly well on any level. There’s parts to enjoy, but there’s just as much that will cause you to hope that the next close scrape for our dynamic duo turns out to be fatal, so we can all be put out of our misery. There’s precious little feeling of development to cling to, either, more a sense from the characters that they’re glad it’s all over, and you may share a similar feeling. John Hughes’ original remains the benchmark in cross-country curmudgeons for the time being.
Why see it at the cinema: Some nice views of the Grand Canyon to be fully appreciated and a few chuckles to share with your fellow audience, but sadly only a few. Although if you ever wanted to see America’s highest rated sitcom on the big screen, the bizarre Two And A Half Men cameos will give you that chance.
The Score: 5/10