Old School Movie Reviews: Lethal Weapon (1987)

The movie that launched a thousand parodies, Lethal Weapon occupies a special place set aside for movies that set a standard for a formula which all others must now live up to. Even if it’s not particularly great.

I mean, it’s not bad. In fact I’d even go so far as to call it good. But it’s not great. The acting is often hammy or mediocre, the story is at best ridiculous and at worst senselessly fucking bonkers (why the hell did they use a recognisably CIA-quality bomb to blow up a hooker’s house? They could’ve just stabbed her or something), and the action is contextually over-the-top. Good fun to be sure, but that’s about it. Good fun.

And yet this film occupies a position of greatness. Believe it or not, that’s for a good reason. Now I don’t know if the buddy cop film existed before Lethal Weapon (and quite frankly I don’t wanna know), but it was the film that set the standard for what a solid buddy cop film was supposed to be. Created the formula, if you will, that all good buddy cop films follow. And most of that’s on the relationship between cranky veteran Murtaugh (Danny Glover) and young possibly-bonkers Riggs (a young possibly bonkers Mel Gibson).

Aside from the fact that Glover and Gibson have excellent chemistry together – they really bounce off one another and you buy the friendship that quickly develops between the characters – the film manages a “these guys are complete opposites” situation without falling into cliche by focusing on a difference in situation rather than a difference in values. It’s not “this guy is neat, but this guy is messy,” or “this guy is a playboy, but this guy a monogamous-to-a-fault virgin,” or even “this guy is honest and straight-laced, but this guy is cynical and not to bothered about committing the odd petty crime himself. Rather Murtaugh is a family man with everything to live for, able to put his experiences in the Vietnam War behind him, while Riggs is a widower with nothing to live for, possibly suicidal, who feels that the only time he was ever really good and useful was when he was breaking things and hurting people back in ‘Nam. Murtaugh need Riggs’ skills, but Riggs needs Murtaugh’s friendship and stability. Surprisingly brilliant for such a silly film.

Throw in the odd bit of social commentary (Murtaugh is obviously uncomfortable when a bunch a African-American children begin asking about his record of shooting black people) and there are more than a few vets these days recently returned from America’s latest failed foreign wars, and you end up with a timeless classic. Surprisingly timeless for such a silly film.

If you haven’t watched Lethal Weapon before (in which case where the hell have you been for the last thirty years?) I’d recommend giving it a go. It might not be great but it’s definitely worth watching.

Reviewing the Old School: Ocean’s Eleven (2001)

When I was young, real young, I watched the original Ocean’s 11. The one with Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr and a dozen other of the biggest names in film and music at the time. I don’t remember much about the film (I was like fucking eight years old), just that I was a bit of a fan of Sinatra at the time and the guy who put the film on, a former neighbour who was still a close friend of the family, was always more of Dean Martin fan. Or at least he was quicker to sing Dean Martin songs. Love that guy. This anecdote has nothing to do with what I think of the 2001 remake. I just like to mention when I’ve seen the original.

Directed by Steven Soderbergh and starring George Clooney as the titular Danny Ocean, Brad Pitt as his best friend Rusty Ryan, Andy Garcia as the “smart as he is ruthless” Terry Benedict, Julia Roberts as Danny’s estranged wife Tess, and nine other fantastic actors playing fantastic roles, Ocean’s Eleven is a movie about a bunch of professional crooks robbing three casinos. Impossible, we are told at the beginning of the film. A suicide mission. Can’t be done. Danny and Rusty must be nuts. Must be. And yet they seem so delightfully sane.

I wanna take a moment to praise director Soderberg and, just as importantly, editor Stephen Mirrione. This movie is beautifully directed and, just as importantly, expertly cut. The shots are intimate but inclusive of large parts of the cast (without revealing the plot), fast without ever being confusing, with perfectly timed reactions and dialogue from the characters, and it’s all put together masterfully, never breaking flow even as it cuts back and forth between time and perspectives at the end. It’s a slow burn heist film that never feels slow. And it doesn’t treat you like an idiot. When they reveal how the heist works you feel like you’re being let in on a big secret, previous lines of dialogue and focus shots suddenly make sense, like a magician revealing how they pulled off a particularly entertaining trick.

This is one of those movies that occupies a particularly nostalgic piece of my heart, as do the two sequels. It was one of those films that my best mates and I all watched and watched again, not as quoted as movies like Troy or Gladiator but still formative. On the one hand the characters in this film are the epitome of cool. Even the losers in the group – the Malloy brothers (Casey Affleck and Scott Caan), Livingstone (Eddie Jemison) and Linus (Matt Damon) – have their own sense of style and intelligence that they own. For all their quirks and bad accents (I don’t care Don Cheadle, I love Basher anyway) these people are the best at what they do. Proper villains. And you love them for it. Even Terry Benedict, the antagonist of the piece, is fucking awesome. He’s got this soft monotone, constantly cool and calm even when the shit is hitting the fan and he’s obviously seething with rage. Andy Garcia is a bad-arse. Not necessarily a great antagonist – he doesn’t seem to hinder Danny and Rusty’s plans at all – but a great character.

More importantly is the relationship between the characters. There’s a bond between them all that is just a joy to watch. Squad goals and all that. Y’see Danny and Rusty don’t finish each other’s sentences, they answer them. Knowing someone so well you can talk to someone without needing to talk? That’s a friendship right there. As it is with all the others. The Malloy brothers, constantly irritating each other yet still obviously close remind me of two of my other mates. Livingstone is that guy or gal that everyone else is constantly trying to push out of their comfort zone, watching from a distance, knowing they’ll do it but never being quite sure. Same with Linus, though they’re less sure and are planning on telling him everything he did wrong in as loving a way as is possible after their massive fuck-up. Not sure who the Amazing Yen (Shaobo Qin) is in my circle of friends. Wait, yeah I do. Don’t worry, you don’t know him. Someone who’ll occasionally voice an opinion and only one other person will have any idea what he’s saying. Shit, that might actually be me as well. Then there’s Frank C (Bernie Mac), a good guy who’s able to turn a discussion about moisturiser into a threat with a firm handshake. Quietly confident, but also the guy who knows what everyone else is up to.

I love this film.

It’s funny how it’s overtaken the memory of the original, y’know? I mean, this sort of happened at the same time as a couple of other remakes from the sixties like The Italian Job and Get Carter. I actually don’t mind the remakes all that much, genuinely enjoyed The Italian Job, but it doesn’t change the fact that they’re remakes. The originals are still the classics in everyone’s minds, while the remakes were just throwaways. That could be because of Michael Caine. It’s probably because of Michael Caine. Doesn’t change the fact that Ocean’s Eleven surpassed Ocean’s 11 in the cultural mindset. I bet there are kids right now who have no idea that there even was a 1960s original. I bet there are grown-arse adults who have no idea. And I don’t mind. ‘Cause I love this film.

Reviewing the Old School: Atlantis: The Lost Empire (2001)

So the story I heard was that way back when, by which I mean the late nineties-early naughts after their second renaissance (which began with The Little Mermaid), Disney was in the process of shifting all their animation towards CG-3D. They’d bought Pixar but weren’t completely done with the odd bit of 2D fair. So they told their Florida animation studio, whose job had been support up until that point, to go for their life. What we got out of that are some of the most unique animated films to have come out of the House of Mouse, and a real shame that it took them years to get back on the saddle (with Wreck-it Ralph) after they shut that studio in favour of strict 3D animation. One of those films was, as you might have guessed, Atlantis: The Lost Empire.

What made this film so unique? A combination of things. Something you’ve got to remember about Disney’s renaissance in the nineties was that even their weirdest stuff was still pretty cliche (I’m using the word loosely here, bear with me). The Little Mermaid and Sleeping Beauty were based on classic and well known fairy-tales (admittedly with much happier endings) and even The Lion King just takes the skeleton of Hamlet and goes, “but what if… LIONS!” and adds a soundtrack by Elton John. I mean, it’s all good shit, but they’re very basic, very old, very proven stories.

What Atlantis does is take the well-known legend of Plato’s fictionalised city (highly advanced city, destroyed in a day, sunk below the waves, possibly around the Straits of Gibraltar) but ignores the fictional tropes that the rest of us lowly mortals use when making up stories about the place. No, seriously, think about other stories regarding Atlantis. We think of mermaids floating around a still thriving kingdom or a crumbling city beneath the waves of the Atlantic. We don’t normally come up with a living community that is both sophisticated and primitive, intelligent but illiterate, with a culture that is both familiar and strange at the same time. We certainly don’t think about flying tuna fish.

Then there’s the rest of the aesthetic of the film. It’s set in 1914 and everything that the outsiders brings to the city reflects that. The trucks are recognisable for the era, the dress and digger are appropriately steampunk, as is the submarine. Bolt action rifles, belt-fed machines guns, British-style helmets and paper flying machines add a level of class to the action that actually keeps things grounded. And as I said the design of the city and clothes of the Atlanteans is excellent. A good mix of primitive but alien. You don’t have trouble believing this is where our culture came from.

The characters are excellent, both their designs and voices. I love Helga, Kida and Audrey (played by Claudia Christian, Cree Summer and Jacqueline Obradors respectively). Their designs are different to each other (shit, all the speaking characters have got a unique silhouette) and you never have trouble imagining that they were capable of fighting or working an engine. Helga is traditionally attractive but broad shouldered and speaks with an authoritative and deep voice. Audrey dresses practically and looks her age. Even Kida, the most traditionally designed since she’s the heroine and princess of the tale, has a long, triangular face that is both individual and expressive. Amongst the guys Sweet and Mole (Phil Morris and Corey Burton) are fun in different ways. Dr Sweet is both oblivious and empathetic, the Mole is just, well, the Mole. Milo Thatch, our hero excellently played by Michael J Fox, is excellent. He’s skinny and bookish, but not unfit. He’s brave when he has to be, stands up for his principles and his relationship with Kida is fantastic. They fall into friendship instead of falling in love right away (we never see them kiss, which is excellent), making it one of the healthiest romances in Disney as far as I can tell. As for Commander Rourke (James Garner)? Well, that would be spoiling it. My favourite by far would be Vinny, voiced by Don Novello. The flower shop owner turned demolitions expert. He has such a fantastic delivery of his lines and some of the most relaxed and conversational dialogue in the film. Love the guy.

The music is strong and memorable. The lines are great.

So yeah, great movie. Unique and interesting. Different to other fairy-tale fair. If you haven’t, grab someone younger and watch it. It’s good fun.

Reviewing the Old School: Lord of War (2005)

This film still stands as one of my all time favourites and I can’t quite put my finger on why.

Released in 2005 and both written and directed by Andrew Niccol, Lord of War stars Nicolas Cage as Ukrainian-American arms-dealer Yuri Orlov in a cynically comical rags-to-riches story as he deals with warlords (most notable being Andre Baptiste and his son Andre Baptiste Jr, played excellently by Eamonn Walker and Sammi Rotibi respectively), business rivals (Simeon Weisz, played by Ian Holm) and law enforcement (the incorruptible Interpol agent Jack Valentine, played by Ethan Hawke who’s worked a great deal with the director). He marries the girl of his dreams (Ava Fontaine, played by Bridget Moynahan) and loves his brother Vitaly (Jared Leto) and parents.

Perhaps I love this film because of the craftsmanship and acting. The script is excellent, the direction fantastic and the editing excellent. It’s paced so that a great deal happens without the film ever feeling rushed or overlong. Nicolas Cage is excellent in the role, as are all the others. Jared Leto plays Yuri’s limited moral compass led astray by a cocaine addiction exactly how you’d expect. Bridget Moynahan is loving and supportive yet obviously uncomfortable with the knowledge that Yuri does bad shit to support her in her own endeavours. Eamonn Walker is terrifying as the brutal dictator, able to convey barely restrained violence with a look then switching to good humour and laughter at the frightening drop of the hat, probably my favourite performance in the film. Sammi Rotibi is just crazy, but in a way where you’re not sure if his predictable predilection for violence is more or less of a threat than his father’s bare restraint. Ethan Hawke is earnest in his execution of the law and sincere in his belief in justice, you never have trouble believing him to be a character that Yuri respects.

Perhaps I like all the small details in the film. The way that the shadow of Colonel Oliver Southern (we never see more than his silhouette and parts of his uniform) is voiced by a different actor on the three occasions we see him, implying that the job is permanent even if the person filling it isn’t. Yuri revealing his lack of scruples by admitting the reason he never sold guns to Osama Bin Laden was because the Mujahadeen leader had atrocious credit. The use of loopholes and literal false flags to spirit weapons across the world and beneath imposed sanctions. Small details that build up the world in which Yuri lives and operates into something alive. Something real.

Perhaps I like the darkly comedic look at an industry that is fucking villainous if it isn’t outright evil. I love me some dark comedy. This film isn’t a laugh-out-loud kind of funny, rather it has an undercurrent of almost-surreal cynicism that surrounds Yuri’s life and worldview. His parents pretended to be Jews to escape the Soviets, and his father took to it better than most Rabbis. He hears cash register bells instead of gunshots as a mujahadeen lets rip at an unseen target with one of Yuri’s kalashnikovs. During a cocaine and gunpowder induced wander through the desert he has one of those kalashnikovs pointed at his head and fail to fire, then can’t stop apologising and offering to fix it. Andre Jr asking for “the gun of Rambo” and Yuri simply replying “Part One, Two or Three?” The flippant insanity of Andre Sr, who’ll shoot a man that displeases him on a whim and apologise for the dead man’s lack of discipline. Who jumbles up western words and idioms then smiles and says “Thank you, but I prefer it my way.”

Perhaps I love this film because of its honesty. The film shows the human cost of the arms trade, not just its victims (though  don’t worry, the movie never fails to remind us of the victims) but on the traders themselves. Yuri can’t stop, because he’s good at it and he likes being good at it, but it costs him everything else that he holds dear. His wife and child. His brother. His parents. He hates himself, but he can’t stop. It’s an addiction, cleverly paralleled by his brother Vitaly’s coke habit. And it is never glamorised. Well it is, but the film makes such glamorisation look superficial at best and crass at worst. Even when the film is being dishonest it is less an attempt to trick the audience and more like Yuri trying to trick himself. Excusing himself for sleeping around or trying to convince himself that he was merely a supplier, not responsible for the deaths his weapons reek. But we see this dishonesty, see the sincere lie, just like Yuri does when Vitaly tells him he’s a good brother, right after being provided by that good brother with one last hit before going to rehab. Yuri is an enabler, for his brother and for these warlords. And we all know it.

Maybe I just like the music. From the first song playing as we watch the life of a bullet (from twinkle in a factory’s eye to being fired into some poor kid’s head) to the final soft instrumental piece playing into the end credits every song is perfect and appropriate, affecting the mood of the moment.

Regardless I love this movie. You should really watch it.

Reviewing the Old School: The Siege (1998)

I wonder what this film would look like if it was made now. Would the villains be the same? Would the morals be the same? Would the heroes be as black and white? This is a pre-9/11 movie about terrorism after all (set in New York no less), and we live in a post-9/11 world.

Shit, we live in a post-a-lot-of-things world.

Released all the way back in 1998 The Siege stars Denzel Washington as FBI Assistant Special Agent Anthony ‘Hub’ Hubbard, essentially the bloke in charge of counter-terrorism operations in New York, as he and his team (most notably Tony Shalhoub as Lebanese-American FBI agent Frank Haddad) deal with with a series of escalating attacks in throughout New York, reprisals for the kidnapping of a major religious leader by US forces at the beginning of the film. They’re helped and hindered by CIA agent Elise Kraft/Sharon Bridger (starts with the former name, ends with the latter), played by Annette Benning, but as the situation grows worse, the FBI suffers casualties and they are unable to find the other terrorist cells martial law is declared and the army is sent in under the command of Major General William Devereaux.

This is not a perfect movie at all. The acting is solid and most of the characters are sympathetic if not likeable (I fucking love Tony Shalhoub, why doesn’t that guy get more roles?), with the sole exception of Annette Bening as the intruding CIA agent. She’s not bad in the role, and has some great moments, but the character comes off as whiny and annoying for most of the film, sounding for most of the movie like she’s on the verge of tears. Not great for the only female lead, even if it does play to a theme. There are some very action movie moments that are jarring against the realism that the rest of the film is trying to carry. When a bus is blown up at the beginning of the movie it is visceral and realistic. People well outside the blast range are thrown back and windows are shattered. Hub, who is halfway across the no-man’s land to the bus is far enough away that in most movies he’d usually just have to shield his eyes, is tossed around, deafened, blood vessels are ruptured (such as in his eye) and afterwards his nose begins to bleed in the middle of a briefing. It’s a good scene, and it seems weird when compared to moments later in the movie, such as when the army fucking blows up a building where Hub is trying to make an arrest. We’re talking grenades, machine guns and helicopter gunships launching hellfire missiles, and Hub making it out practically unscathed. It’s not a good scene.

Thing is though, The Siege still stands as one of the best examples I can think of when it comes to exploring terrorism and those who try to counter it. As I said, not perfect. I don’t think those of us over here in the relatively safe and peaceful west can possibly make a perfect film, but a decent one. The Islamic terrorists in the film have every right to be a bit miffed at the Americans. They were trained by the CIA to fight Saddam Hussein, then abandoned to be slaughtered. Many of them are from refugee camps and we are given the idea that the only hope many of them see for themselves and their families is through martyrdom. The attacks are triggered by the extrajudicial kidnapping of an important Islamic cleric by US forces. The film admits that the root causes of a great deal of modern terrorism can be traced back to American foreign policy (successes and failures), admits that these guys have the right to be pissed, though it never condones any of their actions. Blowing up innocent people is wrong regardless of the reasons.

It also shows the level of miscommunication and mistrust between the various branches of the American intelligence, counterintelligence and law enforcement services. Part of what makes Elise Kraft so annoying is her refusal to provide information to Hub and his team over the nature of the threat they faced or her sources. Devereaux makes a point of checking in on Hub and his team in the first half of the film, but otherwise is unwilling to share information with the FBI and, when martial law is declared, actively spies on the surviving members of the FBI. Getting information from other agencies is like pulling teeth, as they’re bounced from one organisation to another. Hub and his team still get the job done, but you get the distinct feeling that it could have been so much easier than it was.

The thing that got me about this film, however, is what it got wrong about us. Hub is a good guy. He cares about the law and judicial process. He privately berates a colleague for hitting a suspect. He waits for search warrants before assaulting a probable terrorist safe house. He believes that if you need to follow their rules to win, then you’ve already lost. Devereaux and Kraft disagree with him. They want to go in guns blazing, are willing to torture and fuck their way to the information they need. The film tells us this is bad. The film tells us, quite correctly, that this only makes things worse. The film tells us that polite society would not allow its morals to be eroded in the name of ‘safety and security.’

The film is wrong about that. At the end of the movie the combined multi-denominational might of Jewish, Christian, Muslim and whatever else protesters march upon the army lines chanting “No fear” in opposition to the Army’s detainment of thousands of young Muslim men for the crime of being young Muslim men. Hub is proved right, the law wins.

What happened in the real world? Well, Americans sacrificed many of those freedoms and protections the movie holds so dear to the Patriot Act after the Twin Towers fell. Guantanamo Bay is still open (the failure to close the prison down still stands as one of President Obama’s greatest failures). The Arab Spring seemed great at the time, but the failure of the USA and the rest of the West to follow it up with support and help has left the Middle East even messier than it already was, and ripe for an organisation like IS to become a legitimate power and threat. At home we’ve seen the rise of far-right arseholes and jingoistic nationalists, coming to power by spreading fear and anger. Extrajudicial killings and kidnappings are commonplace (just look at the Drone program or the assassination of Osama Bin Laden). And remember when those American nationals were illegally arrested and sent to countries like Egypt to be tortured? Yeah, that happened.

Pop-culture since then has reflected this. Zero Dark Thirty doesn’t even blink at ‘enhanced interrogation’ or assassination, and doesn’t expect the audience to either. James Bond and Jack Bauer are tasked with getting the job done outside the law. A bullet to the head fixes the problems better than due process ever did. Guys like Hub are the weak-willed scrawny pencil pushers who haven’t been through what the heroes have been through and their adherence to the rules just gets in the way.

So would a movie like The Siege be made now? Yeah. Yeah it would. But I can’t say with any certainty that it would end the same way. Be as positive or hopeful. The good guys might not win. The law might not win.

That’s a shame. I wish a few more movies were like this.

Dying to discuss: Or why I loved Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Did you know there’s a new Star Wars film in the cinemas right now? Of course you do. Aside from the massive multi-platform advertising campaign that can only be pulled of by a media super-power like Disney, it’s bloody Star Wars, arguably the biggest franchise ever with the kind of pop-culture influence that even a lot of actual wars could never compete with. I went and saw it last Monday. Highly recommend you go see it, even if for no other reason than so I can talk about it without spoiling something. Or everything. ‘Cause I really, really wanna. Talk about it that is, not spoil it. I’m not a bastard. Or am I? Maybe, sometimes.

It’s at this point that I’m gonna mention that I might be talking about events and characters in the film that probably count as spoilers. Nothing major but if you haven’t seen it yet and want to avoid all mention of the film before you do, well, you’ve been warned.

Yeah, so anyway, I get the feeling that this is gonna be one of those films we talk about for a while in a really good way. Y’see everyone who’s seen it agrees that this is a good film, but no one seems to agree on how good it is. A few people were disappointed, a few people were raving. I loved it, but Mad Max: Fury Road still stands as my favourite film of 2015. Thing is, there was a lot to talk about Mad Max as well.

What I mean is that there’s a lot to unpack with this film, a lot more going on than a shallow conversation would at first reveal. An example: one of the complaints I’ve heard is that The Force Awakens is essentially just A New Hope. Like it literally has all the same story beats. I’d argue though that this is a good thing. It keeps the film feeling familiar while the new characters and relationships (I’ve come to realise are actually the most important thing in a Star Wars story) means that it still feels fresh and new. It’s also a demonstration by the directors, writers and producers that they understand what made the original trilogy so great while setting the scene for their own (’cause I expect there will be parallels between Episode VIII and Empire Strikes Back, but I don’t think they’ll be as blatant as this one). Someone else had issue with villain Kylo Ren, that he was less ‘all powerful badarse’ and more ‘tantrum throwing bitch.’ Guy wasn’t a menacing character, especially following in the footsteps of Darth Vader. Meanwhile I think that’s the point. This guy wants to be Darth Vader so badly, but he isn’t and probably never will be. It seems to me that the film-makers themselves are pointing this out. After all, that’s a big fucking helmet to fill. But it’s also them saying that he’s a different villain. Yeah, he’s powerful, merciless, brutal and very, very dangerous, but he’s also morally conflicted and emotionally torn.

This isn’t even getting into theories about who and what are which. I’m of the belief that main character Rey, played fantastically by Daisy Ridley, is a descendant of Obi Wan Kenobi (the only other main character in either trilogy with an English accent, and with Ewan Mcgregor doing a quick bit of voiceover work telling her she’s taken the first few steps towards the Force).

Listen, she's new to the whole "Force" thing. It's a lot to take in all at once.
Listen, she’s new to the whole “Force” thing. It’s a lot to take in all at once.

Shit, there’s stuff to talk about with all the characters. John Boyega as Finn, the Stormtrooper turned hero who may or may not be force sensitive (I don’t reckon he is, but we’ll see in the next few movies) but clearly forges a unique bond with Rey and Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron. Following that up, what do we think Poe’s role is going to be in the future? He didn’t have a huge amount to do in The Force Awakens, though he was established as a key character moving forward (guessing surrogate son for General Leia). To be clear, the whole thing is well acted (Adam Driver goes from calm to enraged excellently as Kylo Ren and even Harrison Ford seems to be enjoying himself) and I loved all the characters in different ways.

You get what I’m saying though, right? There’s a lot to talk about with this film. Love it or merely like it, I think we’ll be discussing the characters, the intricacies and the story mechanics for a while. And we’ll probably start doing so in about a week’s time.

Y’know, 2015 was actually a pretty good year for films worth talking about long after they’d finished their theatrical run. The above-mentioned Mad Max, for instance. Wonder what 2016’s gonna be like.

So, yeah, go see Star Wars. Be part of the conversation.