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.

Old School Reviews: Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998)

I think what I love about British crime movies is that they have no issue with building their film around a cast of good honest villains. Career criminals who don’t feel the need to lament their lot in life or the cycles of poverty, abuse and violence that led them to a life of crime, who don’t need to show guilt over their violent, thieving ways, to be likeable. American gangsters are relatable and empathetic. British crims, proper British crooks, are entertaining.

Case in point we have Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, Guy Ritchie’s 1998 classic (I’m pretty sure it made it into 1001 Movies to See Before you Die) about four mates, a crooked card game, violent loan sharks, drug dealers, the guys who rob drug dealers, and a pair of antique shotguns. Y’know, guns that fire shot.

Now, I don’t think at any point do any of the characters show any real remorse for the life they’d lived. Well, not ’til it all goes to shit at least. Even then, as the threads come together and the bodies start dropping no one blames ‘the life.’ For our four central characters this isn’t one final score that goes horribly wrong. This was a chance at the big leagues that goes horribly wrong, and you know they’re going to go straight back into scamming and thieving as soon as they’re out of the Barney Rubble. Heh, cockney rhyming slang.

Real funny thing though is that the points that in a Yank film would lead to a heel-face-turn (my family/friends/only people I care about are in danger!) and cause the career criminal to make a determined effort to get out the life (go legit, go to the cops, fake their own death) don’t even register. Shit, Big Chris (Vinnie Jones) takes his son out debt collecting with him, despite the danger this can and does lead to. At the end of the film though, the kid’s still coming along, even if the business has changed slightly.

Guy Ritchie has long set himself up as a solid (even if not always necessarily brilliant) director and writer, and his feature length debut will always be remembered as one of his best. He gets great performances out of the actors, most notably debuts Vinnie Jones as Big Chris and Jason Statham as Bacon (both of whom are now staple British hard men), and the script is tight and unapologetic of its origins. It starts with Statham rattling off a sale pitch for stolen jewelry (“It’s not stolen, it just hasn’t been paid for!” and according to the legend part of Statham’s audition) and in one notable scene preferring to use subtitles over dumbing down the language. Shit mate, that scene right there is how you do a character introduction. Forces you to pay attention, then reveals cunning, creativity and a predilection towards violence. Everyone’s solid though, sometimes a little stilted on occasion but they carry the emotional parts well. Then of course there’s the soundtrack. Guy Ritchie knows how to pick a song for a scene, switching through jazz, funk and rock’n’roll to pull you into a and a mood, and when to not bother with any noise at all.

But it all works out in the end. Except for the people who died, of course, but most of them deserved it. Not that anyone really judges, it’s just part of the life. The only lesson really learned for our luckless antiheroes is to pick their battles better.

So you should watch this film. It’s fun, a little absurdist, Sting tells someone to fuck off, and you get to watch some villains being villains. And then there’s a girl named Gloria with a Bren gun. Even if the rest of the movie was shit, it’s worth is for Gloria with a Bren gun.

Old school reviews: Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (2003)

It’s funny, once upon a time the only folk that could be regularly relied upon to turn beloved books into television series were the Poms. They’d often start (or remain) a made-for-TV movie and, if it earned enough interest from the right people, would eventually become a series. Murder mysteries for the most part, as with the Yanks for a long time, but there was also a much firmer place for fantasy and/or period pieces. The Discworld books, some stuff by Neil Gaiman, the odd bit of Arthurian legend, whatever work by the Bronte sisters was most popular that year (I really need to sit down and read Pride and Prejudice one of these days), and of course the works of C.S Forester and Bernard Cornwell. And that is what I find to be most peculiar about Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, that fact that it was a proper work of cinema and not a TV series.

Not to say that it’s a bad film. Quite the contrary, I think it’s fuckin’ fantastic. The violence is excellent. Damage to the ship is big and brutal, splinters flying, ropes snapping and masts cracking. At the same time it’s an intimate thing, closeups following the men as they fire the cannons and receive fire. Easy to follow, tense, and with little-to-no plot armour (name another film that will cut off a boy’s arm within the first half hour), but most of all detailed. The good doctor calling for more sand to make the floor less slippery, doors removed from the captain’s cabin to allow access to the guns stored there, ignoring the swords and grabbing the captain’s silver to be stored safely during an action. Good stuff, humanising stuff.

The soundtrack adds. Simple strings to fit the mood and drums that provide a rhythm to every desperate battle and gambit, with dead silences used to ramp up the tension right before something is due to happen.

The best part is the characters. Russell Crowe, Paul Bettany and Max Pirkis are the peak of an enormous and excellent cast. Director Peter Weir does a great job of getting so many great performances out of so many great actors creating so many great and (most importantly) memorable characters. The ship is a closed environment, with different politics, relationships and superstitions presented across four perspectives: the crew at the bottom, cannon fodder, driven by rum, fear of the lash and loyalty to their commander; the junior officers, the midshipmen, terrified and uncertain, walking a fine line (not always successfully) to earn the respect of the men beneath; the good doctor, outside of the traditional hierarchy and often in opposition to Naval discipline (in many ways a surrogate for the audience); and at the top of it all the Captain, the commander, bound by tradition, duty and his own orders.

Crowe does a fantastic job as “Lucky” Jack Aubrey, a charismatic captain able to summon incredible loyalty from the men beneath him, yet one that struggles to find his tongue when faced with the horribly maimed son of a dear friend who still idolises him. Bettany plays the doctor, the forward thinker, the only man on the ship allowed to question Jack’s command (within reason), but one that can never truly understand the men around him and whose protestations often fall on deaf ears. Their relationship is brilliant and real, arguments are common but the care is genuine. The bromance is probably the best part of the film.

But, as much as I enjoy this film and going back to what I was saying in the first paragraph, I cannot understand why and how this film was made. This is a film about relationships punctuated by the odd bit of action, based on a book from a series I’d never heard of until well after the first time I watched this movie. It lacks the epic scale of other period action-dramas like Gladiator, or the famous source material of other based-on-books like the Lord of the Rings trilogy or The Green Mile. Yet they spent 150 million dollars turning this into a film. A highly rated film, that made back its money, but still.

And it’s funny, ’cause I doubt I would have thought so back in 2003, before the current golden age of television shows was even a twinkle in HBO’s eye. I watch the film now and can’t help but feel that the adventures and relationships of the crew of the HMS Surprise would have made a fantastic television show, though of course when it was greenlit that wasn’t even close to an option. It’s funny how perspectives change like that. Maybe it’s because the film now feels far more like it was planning on becoming a series. Yes, the plot is self-contained, and half the named crew… well, yeah, lack of plot armour, but there’s still this air that they were hoping on bringing Jack, Stephen and the HMS Surprise back for another cruise around the Atlantic and/or Pacific. Maybe it’s just the second part of the title, The Far Side of the World. You don’t usually stick a colon there unless you’re planning on using the first part of the title again later.

Anyway, watch this film. Tell me if you agree, tell me why if you don’t and we can argue a bit. Regardless, it’s a film worth watching.

Old School Reviews: A Knight’s Tale (2001)

I recently found myself reading a book called Agincourt: The King, The Campaign, The Battle by Juliet Barker, a fascinating look into King Henry V’s famous victory over an overwhelming force of the French nobility. Great book, really interesting stuff, bloody hard to remember all the Johns, Henrys, Thomases and (delightfully enough) Lancelots. Anyway, it got me in the mood for some knights and chivalry, and I narrowed my choices down to a bit of Shakespeare or 2001’s Heath Ledger-led rock’n’roll-anachronism laden romantic-action-comedy/sports film, A Knight’s Tale. I made a decision, and I believe it was the right one.

As I said, Heath Ledger stars as William Thatcher, a peasant who poses as a noble born in order to compete in that most medieval of sports, jousting. Along the way he and his fellow peasant squires, Roland (Mark Addy) and Wat (Alan Tudyk), are joined by blacksmith Kate (Laura Fraser) and Geoffrey fucking Chaucer (Paul Bettany), love interest Jocelyn (Shannyn Sossamon) and mortal enemy the Count of Adhemar (Rufus Sewell). He achieves fame, fortune and a loyal fanbase, including the Black Prince himself (James Purefoy). Gotta love the Medieval name drops.

There is a lot to love about the cast. Perfect fits across the board, fantastic chemistry and even the accents aren’t too bad. Shannyn Sossamon is able to convey so much through a coy smile or an irritated frown, and seems to be having an absolute ball in the role. Paul Bettany is always a delight to watch, a showman playing a showman with a gambling problem and an absolute conviction that his place in history is assured even if no one else can be convinced. Rufus Sewell plays the subtle arsehole like few others, maintaining a keen poker face so that every small display of overt emotion seems far more dangerous. Even smaller roles are well filled. James Purefoy makes for a prince who understands and respects the points and price of chivalry and knighthood. Scott Handy, playing Adhemar’s herald Germaine, is excellent, a little out of his depth compared to the swagger of Chaucer but a professional entertainer nonetheless. You feel quite proud of him when he gives his final introduction of the film. And of course there’s Heath Ledger. We lost a good one there and I will say no more.

The script is excellent. I mean the story is okay but the dialogue, the lines and delivery are brilliant. It’s actually surprising that this film never became one of my go-tos for quotes. I mean, “The pope may be French but Jesus is bloody English!” How fucking good is that? Very good. The answer is very good. And “why don’t I use some variation of that more often?”

The really genius part of this film though is its understanding of the subject matter, as demonstrated by, amongst other things, the music. Y’see, A Knight’s Tale is a sports movie. That’s what it is, dealing with class and privilege while pushing morals such as the joys of ambition, courage, bravery, determination and that good sportsmanship will always triumph over being a dickhead. We hear this in the music, with great rock anthems playing between, during and after the matches just as they do at any arena today. The film starts with ‘We Will Rock You’ and ends with ‘You Shook Me All Night Long.’ ‘The Boys are Back in Town’ plays during a parade and they dance to ‘Golden Years’ at a feast. And it’s fucking brilliant. Not just a fantastic soundtrack but one that forces the viewer to accept the analogy and frame of reference. The familiar absorbs the distant.

Sport is sport is sport. Something that I noticed reading that book I mentioned about Agincourt was that many of these nights and princes were, in fact, the honest to god sports stars of their time. Codes of chivalry and knighthood crossed borders, cultures and religions, and people of all classes held onto stories of epic deeds, duels and jousts. Fashion, sledging, rivalries and WAGs were as much part of the sport then as they are now. It’s honestly just a surprise that no one thought of this before (and no one’s really done it since). At the same time the film never forgets its time frame, the religion, filth and racism, making it all the grander.

If you like a sports film, watch this. It’s more light-hearted than Gladiator and just as quotable.

Good God! Are we getting back onto our regular schedule? We’ll see. We will see. 

Old school reviews: Young Frankenstein (1974)

Not long before I left Australia the family gathered around and slid our copy of Mel Brook’s 1974 monster movie satire, Young Frankenstein, into the player. Early in the film, Frederick Frankenstein, is giving a lecture to a group of medical students only to have one of them stand up and begin asking questions about the work of his late grandfather, the famous Victor Frankenstein. The scene goes on, poor Mr Hilltop gets kneed in the balls (“give him an extra dollar”) and irritating medical student becomes even more irritating. And then, at some point as he brings up Dr Frunk-en-shteen‘s heritage, my dad points out that “He looks like Kevin Rudd!”

We all watch the scene, and the actor a little closer. “Oh my god,” I think it was my mum then said, “he even talks like Kevin Rudd!” The whole family cracked up laughing. Then cracked up again when Gene Wilder stabbed himself with a scalpel.

There’s no point to this anecdote really, beyond saying that loving this film has always been a family affair. Y’see, this is my dad’s favourite film. It’s not all that hard to make my dad laugh, but when he really loves a bit of comedy, when he’s really enjoying himself, well, let’s just say it’s fucking infectious. As a result Young Frankenstein became something of a family meme. I’ve talked about how my best mates and I are able to talk almost entirely in movie and Simpsons quotes, but amongst my family the go-to was always something from this movie.

Goddamn, especially that scene where he’s dreaming in bed. “DESTINY! DESTINY! NO ESCAPING THAT FOR ME!”

I think that a great film, a really great film, always has this communal aspect. That ability to fit the jokes into other situations, or simply cause a chuckle by invoking memories. Group reverence rather than individual reverence.

This is also the mark of a great actor. It’s an amazing thing that even, what, twenty years after he was last in a cinema, Gene Wilder’s death has marked so many people so deeply. He had and still has such a profound influence on the popular consciousness. I mean shit, every actor that plays the role of Willy Wonka from now until forever will be compared to the Gene Wilder version, a role that has become subject to some of the longest running memes I’ve seen on the constantly evolving internet.

A true entertainer and clown, and I say that in the best way possible. Watching him be hilarious seemed like the best tribute I could think of. Watching with my family will be one of the first things I do when I get home.

Old school movie reviews: The Three Musketeers (1993)

Way back in the tail end of the nineties and beginning of the aughts there was a bunch of movies that would be played (it seemed) every few months during the ‘family’ slots on the commercial free-to-air stations, basically 7:30 on a saturday evening. For a good few years one of these films was the 1993 version of Alexandre Dumas’ swashbuckling epic, The Three Musketeers.

I can’t in good conscious call this film epic. It’s not big enough, not grand enough. Too localised, too personal. But it is swashbuckling good fun, and that is all it needs to be.

The acting, while nothing I would call Oscar worthy, is cheerful and entertaining. Kiefer Sutherland broods appropriately as Athos and Charlie Sheen plays the relaxed, smooth-talking Aramis fantastically straight. A much younger Chris O’Donnell plays a rosy cheeked and curly-haired D’Artagnan that is endearing instead of annoying (which often seems a challenge for the generally much younger, less experienced actors required to play a brash, naive and often foolish character). Rebecca De Mornay hits the correct notes as Milady De Winter and Gabrielle Anwar does a decent job with Queen Anne, both of whom are badly underused characters. The three that I really enjoyed, however, were Tim Curry, Michael Wincott and Oliver Platt as, respectively, Cardinal Richelieu, Captain Rochefort and Porthos. Lotta commas in that last sentence. I am not rewriting it though. Anyway, Tim Curry as always brings his wonderful voice, sense of timing, flair for the dramatic and smug smile to the maniacal villain. He’s always a joy to watch and he looks fantastic in red. Michael Wincott is fantastically menacing, an appropriate foil for the fast-talking musketeers and has such an excellent voice for villainous roles as well. And Oliver Platt gets Porthos so right. I don’t know if I should be surprised that the talented character actor is able to bring such a larger-than-life persona to, well, life, but he does. Someone who revels in battle and destruction, the one who laughs in the face of danger and jokes around death, so that you never actually believe them to be in danger in the first place.

The plot is a little nonsensical but it hits the right notes (D’Artagnan pissing off and planning to duel the musketeers, Cardinal bad, possible war with England and the Duke of Buckingham, Queen Anne may or may not want to fuck someone other than the king, D’Artagnan finally becomes musketeer), but a film like this doesn’t need to be perfectly accurate to either history or its source material. You don’t expect it to, and at least it doesn’t have any fucking moronic flying warships. The fights are entertaining. Generally on a smaller scale than what we tend to expect in out swashbucklers these days, but that makes them more intimate, allowing us to see more of the characters in each fight.

It’s definitely not perfect, of course. My biggest gripe is that Milady De Winter, Queen Anne and Constance, three excellent female characters, are largely delegated to the sidelines. We’re told that Milady is dangerous, but we don’t actually see her being particularly dangerous. Queen Anne spends most of her time being threatened and terrified by Cardinal Richelieu or complaining about how long it’s been since she last got some. Constance appears, I dunno four times? Once to tell D’Artagnan her name, once to tell the queen how bad she wants in her bloomers, once to pass D’Artagnan a sword and then at the very end for him to kiss her. Not exactly a compelling character, aye?

But yeah, I enjoyed watching this movie. It’s a little dated but not horribly so, and the characters are, for the most part, wonderful fun to watch hamming about on screen.

Reviewing the Old School: Braveheart (1995)

I’m not sure if I like this film or not. I used to. Loved this film actually, but I’m not sure I do anymore.

This was another one of those films that my mates and I would just casually quote in conversation. Seriously, we can have complex discussions on current affairs in Simpsons, Family Guy and movie quotes. One mate could pull off a pretty solid Scottish accent and another rocked an impressive Edwards Longshanks. “You dropped your rock,” was a common response to queries and commentary, as was “Bring me Wallace. Alive, if possible. Dead, just as good.” Amazing how easy it is to fit that into casual conversation.

Rewatching it, Braveheart is still really bloody quotable. Especially Stephen, played wonderfully by David O’Hara with some of the best lines in the film. “The Almighty says don’t change the subject, just answer the fucking question!” I fucking love Stephen, still get’s me laughing.

But the biggest problems I have with this film are also with the script, which was very obviously written by a Yank. Obviously being because Mel Gibson won’t shut up about freedom. It’s all “they cannae take our freedom” this and “lead us to freedom” that. I mean, yeah, I get that most of the Scots we see in this film are supposed to be illiterate and uneducated, but William is supposed to speak four different languages (I assume he speaks some version of Gaelic, even if we never hear him say anything Gaelic), surely he has a wider vocabulary than that? In all honesty though the rhetoric we see in this film takes a heavily American slant, focusing on that single word, painting broad strokes with that single brush.

It’s funny, when you study nationalistic movements even the groups that have “Freedom” in their name don’t just blanket the word around. They talk about independence, self-governance, civil liberties, rule of law, places within the law, ethnic superiority, tribal loyalty and protecting tradition. The slogan of the French Revolution was ‘Liberty, Equality and Fraternity’ not ‘Freedom, Freedom and Freedom.’ Basically what I’m trying to say is that I’m old enough to now know how stupid most of the ‘inspiring’ dialogue is, and rewatching the film was, well, disappointing.

There’s more to be said about this film, but I don’t want to say it because it’s not going to affect my opinion of the film. The historical inaccuracies (the Scots would have been wearing trousers not kilts, and the Battle of Stirling was actually the Battle of Stirling Bridge) and the tacked on romances (I wonder if they’d still get an Oscar for fridging Wallace’s sort-of wife in this day and age – also, Wallace fucking a French princess) are more than a little jarring, but these things don’t matter nearly as much to me as the fact that the speech in front of the gathered army at Stirling is not nearly as epic as I remember it to be.

But it’s still really, really fucking quotable. Or at least Stephen and Edward Longshanks still are. I don’t know what to tell you mate. I just can’t decide on this one.

Gonna throw it out there as well: this film is pretty homophobic.

Let’s call this one a “make up your own mind” and leave it at that, yeah?

Reviewing the Old School: Down Periscope (1996)

There was this period in the eighties and nineties where films about groups of ragtag misfits in the US military are able to achieve seemingly impossible success thanks to the unorthodox efforts of the misfit-in-chief. This era of screwball military comedies probably started with Private Benjamin (1980) and Stripes (1981) but saw a real renaissance through the nineties with Renaissance Man (1994), In the Army Now (1994), Major Payne (1995) and – that great Steve Martin vehicle – Sgt. Bilko (1996) just off the top of my head. Not always great films, but usually enjoyable enough.

Down Periscope – released in 1996, directed by David S. Ward – stars Kelsey Grammer as Tom Dodge, a navy veteran with two decades of experience and a tattoo on his penis. Yep. As you might expect from such a person, he’s known for his lack of discipline and relaxed leadership style. Having been prevented from taking command of his own submarine for years by a vindictive commanding officer, Admiral Graham (played by Bruce Dern), he’s finally given an opportunity by Admiral Winslow (Rip Torn) with an impossible task: sneak a diesel sub (a recommissioned museum piece) into two heavily guarded US Navy bases, launch flares and blow up some dummy warships. He’s given a handpicked crew of the submarine fleet’s losers, washouts, dropouts and special cases and the wargames begin. Hijinks ensue.

I don’t know. It’s sort of like if Tom Clancy wrote comedies. I mean, it probably doesn’t have the same sort of accuracy that Mr Clancy put into every detail of his books, but the jargon, the tension, the obstacles at times remind me of The Hunt for Red October except, y’know, funner. The ruses are clever and not completely unbelievable. You believe that, as outrageous as it seems at the time, Dodge has always got a plan, one that relies on both research (keeping an eye on the schedules for civilian traffic for example), experience (he knows how his fellow commanders think) and instinct (adapting on the fly). Looking at it, Dodge is a remarkably sympathetic character. He’s someone who cares about the wellbeing of his crew, and tries to get the best out of them by listening and encouraging them as individuals with individual strengths and weaknesses. He acts the father figure and it works well. You want him and his misfits to win.

The acting is good. Kelsey Grammer is the standout, but everyone brings a level of enthusiasm to their roles that makes them a delight to cheer for. Or cheer against. It’s not perfect. Far from it. Too many stereotypes and typecasts. Rob Schneider is playing exactly the kind of character you’d expect Rob Schneider to play in this film. He doesn’t do it badly per se, it’s why they kept on giving him these roles. But it breaks the suspension a little bit, if you take my meaning. Same with a few other characters but he’s the obvious example. Nothing movie breaking, but perhaps some a little better casting would have been in order.

And then there’s the ultimate question we have to ask about any comedy: Is it funny? Yeah. Yeah, it’s alright. Nothing gut-busting, I didn’t even really laugh out loud. But most of the jokes land right and I enjoyed it all the way through. A few lines fall flat, but nothing I’d write home about. Plenty of screwball and a bit of dry wit. Good stuff.

So yeah, go watch it. Remind yourself of a time when we made military comedies. We don’t really seem to make them any more, do we? Well, Hollywood doesn’t at least. I mean, it’s pretty understandable. America’s basically been in a state of war for the past fifteen years (and it ain’t ending anytime soon). The number of dead and wounded, veterans languishing in bureaucratic nightmares and unable to make the transition to civilian life has skyrocketed. The films being made, movies and series like Hurt LockerJarhead and Generation Kill kinda reflect that. Maybe that’s not a good thing. Maybe we need to laugh at the ridiculousness of it all sometimes. Maybe we need to have a look at the military films of the nineties. Maybe I don’t know what the fuck I’m talking about.

Ah well, have some fun with Down Periscope at least. The Village People sing at the end.

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.

Reviewing the old school: Thank You for Smoking (2005)

Do you remember this film? I didn’t remember this film until quite recently, and I can’t for the life of me think of why. Thinking back to when Thank You for Smoking was released all the way back in 2005, it was a pretty big deal. Not like in a blockbuster, Transformers or The Dark Knight kind of way, but, I mean, I was in fucking high school and I was hearing about what a brilliant film it was. That’s not normal, is it? I don’t think that’s normal. This film though, this film was special. This smart little indie film all about arguments and talking, without any explosions and only a little sex, had us teenage Aussie millennials talking or at least my circle of friends, and for good reason. Because my friends are weird. And it’s a great film. So why’s it so forgettable?

The film, fantastically written and directed by Jason Reitman, stars Aaron Eckhart as Nick Naylor, the chief spokesman for what is essentially big tobacco. Nick is suave, charming, good at what he does and loves his job. Since his job is convincing as many people as possible to smoke cigarettes, in most other films he’d probably be the bad guy. And he sort of is. But he’s so rationally proud of it that you can’t help but cheer for him and his cohorts to win over that bastard senator from Vermont who’s only thinking of the children. The film follows Nick at his highest (getting the film industry involved in making cigarettes cool – cooler – again) and lowest (an article is released revealing all the secrets he’d told to the writer, who he’d been sleeping with… also kidnapping and attempted murder) points while clearly explaining how political argument and debate work, the art of lobbying and the importance of making informed decisions.

The acting is fantastic. Aaron Eckhart owns the role of Nick Naylor, and you never for a moment doubt his sincerity or self-awareness. Katie Holmes as the above mentioned reporter who really shouldn’t be trusted with sensitive information plays her role with a casual, professional glee. JK Simmons and William H Macy carry their roles with skill, as always, as Nick’s boss and sorta nemesis respectively and deliver some of the best lines in the movie, as do Maria Bello and David Koechner as Nick’s best friends Polly Bailey and Bobby Jay Bliss (alcohol and gun lobbies respectively). Smaller roles are perfectly cast, like Robert Duvall as The Captain and Rob Lowe as Hollywood fixer Jeff Megall. Even Cameron Bright, the (at the time) child actor playing Nick’s son Joey does a great job (though there was one or two moments that felt a little flat). Jason Reitman did a fantastic job with this. The dialogue is well written and the editing switches from long, drawn out moments to rabid flashes expertly. The music is excellent, and I loved the song playing over the opening credits.

What’s great about this film is the moral ambiguity of its theme: mainly, to make your own informed choices and come to your own conclusions. Nick Naylor may be working for the ostensible bad guys, a big corporation that cares more about profits than human lives, but he does so with surprising moral conviction and (I think mostly because of his frank narration) far more honesty than what we’d normally expect. He definitely seems more honest than the manipulative Senator Finistirre. But what I love about this film, what I really love about this excellent piece of satire, is that it is incredibly self-aware. The information it is providing is nothing new, and it knows that it’s nothing new. Admits to it cheerfully and wittily. At the end, at the climax of the movie when Nick sits in at a hearing about putting a skull and crossbones on all cigarette packs he acknowledges that he knows cigarettes are bad for you. In fact everybody knows cigarettes are bad for you. Similarly, the audience already knows about what the film is apparently revealing. We know that big corporate powers use films and celebrities to sell their products. We know that they use misleading scientific studies to continue lying to the consumer. We know that they have huge teams of lawyers to tie down opponents in legal red tape. We know that they lie, cheat and bribe. And the film knows we know. Thank You for Smoking is not about revealing the dangers of the world. It treats us more intelligently than that. The film is about the power of argument and persuasion, and whether you’re right or wrong depends on how convincing you are. Nick Naylor is the hero of this film because he is the best at arguing. That’s all. Mind you I’m a fan of arguing (love a good fight), so maybe I’m just reaching my own conclusions (see what I did there?)

So, you remembering this film now? Maybe saying I’d forgotten this film is going a bit too far. I don’t know what made me think of it the other day, but I remembered it immediately, and enough where I was able to start thinking about what I was gonna write down before the rewatch. But it still feels like it should be far better remembered than what it is, up there with other political satires like Wag the Dog or… shit… I can’t think of any similar enough examples at this exact moment. Point is, if you haven’t you should watch this film. If you have, watch it again. It’s an easy film to over-analyse and under-analyse, and it’s a great piece of smart cinema regardless. Funny too.