Hopes, dreams and more than a few memories: On Age of Empires 4

I must have been ten years old when I was given the Age of Empires deluxe pack. I can’t remember if it was Christmas or my birthday, but I remember it was my Aunt who gave it to me. First game, second game and their respective expansions across four CD-Roms, an artbook and a manual. Goddamn, remember when there were manuals? Lotta kids don’t.

It’s what we had before wikis were a thing, children.

Anyway, I played hours and hours of those two games, especially the second. The first was and remains a classic, of course, but Age of Empires II: Age of Kings stands in my mind as the pinnacle of real time strategy games, something that I reckon a lot of people would agree with. And it wasn’t just me: my parents played almost as many hours as I did (mum, in particular, was fucking ruthless). I remember watching that opening cinematic for the first time, the excitement and joy, the exuberance at what I was going to be able to do. What I would build and what I would destroy. The theme became a key part of the soundtrack of my childhood.

After Age of Empires came Age of Mythology. Again I found myself disappearing into an epic world of Ensemble Studios’ creation for days at a time, leading armies of Centaurs, Valkyries and Anubites against the poor bloody infantry of my many, many enemies. The first time I watched a cyclops pick some unfortunate pixel bastard up and toss him across the map was pure magic. It was about this time that my brother started playing video games – too young to fight a campaign, he’d park himself on the scenario creator and put together epic battles of blue versus red. Christ, I wonder if he remembers that. He must do. I should ask him one of these days.

Finally came Age of Empires III. Fuck me dead, the base game came out in two-thousand-bloody-five. That’s twelve years ago. I’m getting old. Anyway, whereas the first three base games (and their expansions) from the franchise were instant classics, AoE III was not. Now I’m not denying a bias on my part, I was deeply disappointed by this game and its expansions, but it received mixed reviews across the board and hasn’t found its way onto any “best ever” or “most influential” lists that I’ve ever seen. Don’t get me wrong, I played through the game. I built up my home city, burned my enemies’ colonies and bought all the expansions hoping that it would get better, but it never did.

For me, I think the most disappointing thing about it was the campaign, a fucking ridiculous tale about multiple generations of a family fighting an evil secret society that wants to obtain the fountain of youth. No, really, that was what the campaign was about. Compared with the simple yet stunning campaigns of AoE II, which allowed me to follow in the footsteps of William Wallace, Atilla the Hun, Joan of Arc, Frederic Barbarossa and Saladin, it was ridiculous and riddled with cliches. Even when AoE III‘s second expansion, The Asian Dynasties, brought the story campaign back to actual history, they failed to understand that a bit of solid voice over work, a decent script and a couple of sketches will create far more emotional investment than watching a tiny rendered figure, indistinguishable from all the other tiny rendered figures around him, committing seppuku ever could. Whereas Age of Kings cemented in me a love of history and will forever stand as one of my favourite examples of the possibility of interactive education, AoE III will forever stand as one of the games that left me the most disappointed.

Regardless, that last expansion was released in 2007. Microsoft would announce the closure of Ensemble Studios a year later, and one of the greatest franchises ever (despite a disappointing younger sibling) seemed to go out with a whimper.

Then 2013 came and an HD version of Age of Kings was released through Steam, to much fanfare. Not only that but two new expansion packs, The Forgotten and The African Kingdoms, have since been released. I can tell you right now, they hold up. But they weren’t a new game, and it didn’t seem like we were going to get one.

Until now.

Ye-heh-eah you gorgeous bastards! Ten years on and being developed by a different studio, but I haven’t been this excited about an announcement trailer in I don’t know how long.

Months. Years maybe. Man, I used to get so excited about new releases. I mean, I still do, but I’m not quite the rabid fanboy I used to be. Is that another sign of aging? Shite, it probably is.

Moving on, with Ensemble Studios no longer being a thing the reins have been passed over to Relic, famous for the Dawn of War and Company of Heroes franchises. Considering that this is really the only information we have so far, we really know fuck-all about the game. I mean, yeah, we don’t know the era or the art style, but we also don’t know much about the mechanics beyond that it will be an RTS. Of sorts. Whereas you know more or less what you’re going to get with other studios (you know roughly what a Firaxis turn-based game will look like, or how a Creative Assembly grand strategy game will work), Relic constantly shake up the formula, even within the same franchise as is perhaps most clearly demonstrated by the profound difference between the first Dawn of War game (which had fairly standard RTS base-building and resource collecting mechanics) and the second (which played more like an isometric action RPG). In all likelihood Relic won’t shake up the classic AoE formula that much, but we can’t be certain.

I’m excited to learn more though. To find out how the mechanics will work, what era/s the game will be set in and how the campaign and single player will work. Who will I be able to play as and who will I be able to crush.

But as excited as I am, all this is tempered by the fact that I probably won’t be able to play it, at least not soon. I’m a Mac user, y’see, and this is a Microsoft game. There is every chance that this game will not be released on my platform of choice, at least not until well after the initial release. Yes, yes, I am aware that there are emulators and Bootcamp, but the former is generally pretty shit while my computer is getting too old and fat to adequately run the latter. It might be released on the X-Bone, but my experience with Command & Conquer: Red Alert 3 on the 360 was not a positive one. So yeah, bit of a mood killer that. Almost as bad as how old I’m feeling as I write this.

Anyway, I’m still happy to see one of my favourite franchises, the series that more than any other got me into gaming, is returning; I’m glad to see it given to a studio with such a fantastic pedigree; and I’m hopeful that I’ll be able to add another AoE game to the ‘Best of…’ lists. We’ll just have to wait and see.

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So about what happened on Tuesday

So I honestly don’t really want to add to the noise, but this is sort of my wheelhouse so I guess I kind of feel duty bound to not let the moment pass without writing a few words on the subject. And here they are.

Certainty.

I’m gonna start by saying that I’m not gonna claim to be one of those people who predicted Donald Trump’s victory. Give it a week, there’s gonna be tonne of them. Economists, pollsters, analysts, ignoring the pages and pages they wrote about Hillary’s inevitable victory and claiming that they just knew somehow that Mr Trump was gonna pull ahead. They just knew it in their bones. It always happens, just check the literature in the aftermath of the GFC.

Nah, I’m not one of those. But like a lot of far smarter people I wasn’t surprised by the victory, and that’ll make all the difference in the next few weeks, months and years for a lot of folk.

Y’see from an international perspective, I reckon what we’re gonna see real soon is two distinct types of planning: those who assumed that The Donald had a snowball’s chance in hell of winning the presidency and those who realised that hell had frozen over right around the Brexit referendum. Both sides are scrambling, but one side at least had an idea of what to do next.

I understand why so many governments didn’t plan for Mr Trump’s ascension. Most pollies come at government from an economic perspective, and if there’s one thing that economists strive for it is certainty. When you decide on policy you want to be certain that the world will conform to your desires and the results will be what you expect.

Personally I like the saying, “expect the best, plan for the worst.” We’ll see who else agrees.

Who benefits?

As a white Australian (who thank god is about to watch it all unfold from across the fucking Pacific Ocean), I’m gonna come right out and say that it is not going to be alright for a lot of people. Specifically women and sexual, racial and religious minorities. Even if Mr Trump and his cabinet of cunts aren’t terrible for everyone who isn’t a white Christian upper middle class male (ha!), there’s a lot of very hateful folk in the US and the rest of the world (I’m looking at you France) who are gonna be feeling very empowered right about now. And that’s gonna make things very dangerous for a while. Stay safe folk. Maybe look at taking a four year holiday to Australia for a while. Or Mexico. Mexico is nice, and the irony would be fantastic.

As for who else loses and benefits from this election? We’ll just have to wait and see what policies and promises Mr Trump decides to keep. Not all that many of them by the looks of it.

Who’s to blame?

Good question. The head of the FBI, Hillary Clinton herself, dumb Americans and ignorant Americans (there’s difference and crossover), and of course Bernie Sanders. Yeah, Bernie Sanders. Look, I like the guy, but he should have conceded sooner and with more grace when it became obvious to everyone that he wasn’t gonna win the Primaries. Sorry mate, but you fucked up and now the Republicans control all three sections of the government headed by a bright orange egomaniac.

Final thoughts.

Is the world gonna be alright? Dunno. Maybe. We’ll see in a few months. Honestly, it’s too early to tell and I’m tired, full of gin and about to climb onto a plane home (woo). I’ll probably expand on all these subjects in the future (I want to) but right now it’s hard to guess exactly how fucked the international order is. It might not be fucked at all. I mean, it probably is at least a little, but maybe it isn’t.

Things might be about to go to hell in a handbasket but, in the immortal words of Dr Zoidberg, at least it’s not boring.

Old School Reviews: The Magnificent Seven (1960)

I’ve had a little trouble opening this review because it comes with a troubling (for me at least) admission. I’d never watched this movie until a few days ago. I mean, sure, I’d caught a couple of scenes over the years – a snippet here, a moment there – but I’d never actually sat through longer than a few minutes of The Magnificent Seven, and never on its own merits. I couldn’t even make my usual claim, that I’d watched “beginning, middle and end, but not in that order and not in one sitting” like I can with so many other movies. Why does that trouble me?

Well, for one, I have a soft spot for Westerns. I find it to be one of the most adaptable genres in fiction (fuck I love a good space western, from Firefly to the Borderlands games), and even love the works that thoroughly tear apart the mythology built around it (Blood Meridian, or the Evening Redness in the West still stands as one my favourite books ever and I was probably way too young to read it when I did). The second reason is that The Magnificent Seven is such an excellent movie and I cannot believe it’s taken me this long to find that out for myself.

Based on classic 1954 Japanese film Seven Samurai (which I also really need to watch, given how many films it’s influenced over the years) and released in 1960, The Magnificent Seven tells the story of unemployed gunslinger, hired by a small Mexican village to help defend themselves from bandits. He finds six others willing to help, and are paid a pittance of 20 dollars (“That won’t even pay for my bullets!”), food and board for six weeks of bloody work. In time, the seven fall for the village, coming back to defend it in a climactic battle even after (spoiler alert for a fifty-fucking-six year old movie) some of the villagers betray them to the bandit leader, Calvera.

There’s such a huge cast that going through everyone would take longer than I’m willing to put the effort into, so let’s just mention the ones that stood out. Yul Brynner as the Seven’s leader Chris, who brings gravitas, kindness and practical authority to the role. A character with a firm grasp of the benefits of “teaching a man to fish.” Steve McQueen as Vin Tanner. Fuck, do I need to say anything else? Just, those eyes mate. Those eyes. Jorge Martinez de Hoyos as one of the leading villagers, Hilario, a brave man desperate to create a better life for his children and people, incredibly loyal, intelligent and overall one of the most well-rounded characters in the film. He also shares one of the most endearing scenes in the film with Steve McQueen, while they’re hunting a trio of Calvera’s snipers. Eli Wallach as Calvera is something great as well, swagger and smalltalk unable to hide his willingness to commit violence at a moment’s notice, and utterly unable to comprehend why such talented killers are defending a pisspoor village with nothing to offer but three squares and gratitude, who then don’t even show a great deal of gratitude for most of the film.

The direction and fight choreography is about as good as you’d expect from 1960, and in more than a few ways even better. The deaths are over-dramatic and ridiculous, clutching and staggering and swooning in grand, sprawling heaps. But let’s not discount the absolute talent that was required to be shot off a horse without breaking your neck. Seriously, stuntmen were fucking amazing people, and still bloody are. The final battle is big and chaotic and as gritty as they could be before stuff like squibs were seeing wide use, and the fights before that are just as dramatic. There’s one moment in the first big fight between the Seven and Calvera that just made my jaw drop. Calvera and one of his henchmen are racing their horses through the village, perfectly synchronised as they hurdle over stone walls and whatever else is in their way, the camera following them as they go, and it’s both an amazing example of horsemanship and camerawork.

But what I really love about this film, what I really love, is the honesty of the film. I mean, the characters are all open about their motivations for the most part. Charles Bronson’s character is broke and desperate. Robert Vaughn’s Lee has lost his nerve and is on the run, and simply needs somewhere to hold up. Brad Dexter as Harry Luck thinks there’s more value to the village than what Chris is telling him (a gold mine, precious jewels, something) and that he’ll get a piece for defending it from Calvera. James Coburn as the lanky, laconic Britt is looking for a fight. As for Chris and Vin? Well, they’re never quite clear on why. This is just the work they do, and this cause is good as any other excuse to do it. Better, in Chris’ mind. The only one who seems to be there in some quest for heroism and glory is Chico, played by Horst Buchholz, something that is heavily discouraged by the others.

It goes further than simple character motivations though, greed or a lust for violence. Calvera’s men are starving, they need the villager’s corn or they wouldn’t survive the winter. We meet Chris and Vin driving a hearse to a graveyard, simply because they’re the only ones willing to risk getting shot by a bunch of angry bigots who don’t want an Indian buried on a ‘white’ hill. Charles Bronson’s character, Bernardo O’Reilly, berates a group of boys who call their fathers cowards for doing their very best trying to protect their sons, that being willing to back down for the right reasons requires its own kind of bravery that O’Reilly certainly doesn’t possess. When Chico discovers one of the village women, and learns that they’d been sent to hide in the hills because the village men said that the Seven would rape them he’s outraged by the lack of trust. Chris just goes, “well, yeah, we might” (paraphrasing here). He’s not saying they’re going to rape the villages women, but he acknowledges it as a valid fear that a bunch of well-armed, underpaid strangers might feel entitled towards taking additional payment from the village women. Shit, can you remember the last time a movie acknowledged this? That male heroes are often depicted being entitled to sex? I can’t. And here’s this guy not angry, just going, “I completely understand and you made the right decision given the information available to you.”

This film rips the shit out of toxic masculinity. And it’s a fucking western from 1960, the genre and tail-end of a decade that is responsible for so many of the most harmful tropes. I mean, yeah, there aren’t a whole lot of female characters, but still. This is definitely going in the pool room. Somewhere besides Mad Max: Fury Road.

Seriously, why have I not watched this film before now? This is my jam.

View from across the Ocean (18/9/2016)

Gotta say, when the chips are down and he’s against the wall Mr Turnbull doesn’t back down from anyone.

Except for the right-wing arseholes of his own party of course. Seems like he’s willing to do anything they fucking well tell him too, like a well-groomed sixteen year old boy for a Gold Coast retiree in the steamy imagination of a certain Queensland Senator we all know and suspect is a collection of King Brown snakes wearing a human suit possessed by the soul of a xenophobic blowfish. Fucking Queenslanders.

Watching the Battle of the Marriage Equality Plebiscite unfold from over here in Canada (where it’s been legal for quite some time now) has been one of the most entertaining things I’ve seen in the rather drab and dreary first year of Mr Turnbull’s stint as ‘Captain.’ I mean, yeah, I had a great time during the election, but that was probably because I only saw the good bits (*cough*fake-tradie-memes*cough*) without having to endure the actual campaigns themselves. But watching the Plebiscite fail before it even had a chance to be voted on has been just fuckin’ wonderful. And terrible, because there’s a very good chance that the failure of the plebiscite will push back marriage equality for another couple of years.

It doesn’t take a professional journalist with decades of experience reporting, predicting and commentating on Australian politics to figure out that the plebiscite was going to fail before it even reached a vote. I’m certainly not a professional journalist with decades of experience and I’ve figured it out. Shit, I reckon even a collection of King Brown Snakes wearing a human suit possessed by the soul of a xenophobic blowfish would have figured it out by now. I mean, there’s evidence suggesting that a particularly stupid collection of King Brown Snakes wearing a human suit possessed by the soul of a particularly xenophobic blowfish might not have, but let’s give Mr Christensen the benefit of the doubt.

The Greens, the Nick Xenophon Team (I’m sorry mate, you’re a decent pollie and I know the acronym can be pronounced ‘next’ but could you not have come up with a better name for you party? How about the Nick Xenophon Experience?) and a few other crossbenchers have all said they’d block it in the Senate, while the first openly gay Liberal in the Australian Parliament (also in the Senate) has clearly and passionately said he would not support such an “abhorrent” bill. As for Labor? Well, they haven’t outright said that they’d block it. But there are a few signs…

Meanwhile public opinion in favour of the plebiscite has fallen, not least because while the Coalition plans on making it compulsory they have no intention of making it binding. Which means that Coalition MPs would still be able to “follow their consciences” and vote however they want in Parliament. As far as I can tell it means there would be no legislative trigger whatsoever, so we still might not get marriage equality in Australia until Labor wins the next election (and they will win the next election) even if the ‘Yes’ vote wins. Funnily enough, people don’t like the idea of wasting 160 million dollars on a decisive “opinion poll.” At least that’s what the opinion polls are saying.

But shit guys, both Mr Turnbull and Attorney-General George Brandis* have said they’re open to compromising on the bill! I mean, not on the policy, question, legislative impact and the fifteen million dollars to be split between the two campaigns. That shit’s non-negotiable. But they’re willing to make changes to… the colour of the ballot papers I guess? Yeah. Maybe they can be coloured a nice, ironic rainbow. Labor’s response to this we’re-only-now-realising-how-embarrassing-losing-this-is-going-to-be-so-we’re-getting-desperate olive branch? Well, since shadow Attorney-General Mark Dreyfus’ first instinct was to call both PM and AG dishonest and lacking backbone, the signs are not positive.

So, why has the PM taken this so far? Good question. Apparently the Coalition believe they had a mandate to see this thing through, and the Coalition doesn’t back down when it has a mandate! Except when it comes to superannuation reform. They’ve gone awfully quiet about that, haven’t they? Despite the fact that changes to super are something they could actually negotiate with Labor and the Greens and pass in a timely manner, saving the budget billions of dollars. But surely members of the Coalition (Tony Abbott’s old mob and collections of King Brown Snakes wearing human suits possessed by the souls of xenophobic blowfish) wouldn’t try and stop prevent something that the Coalition brought to the election and therefore has a mandate to see through?

I feel like I’ve been asking a lot of rhetorical questions in this post. I apologise.

It’s funny, Mr Brandis came out today saying the Malcolm Turnbull could go down as one of Australia’s greatest Prime Ministers, alongside Menzies and Howard (and I’ll just throw in Whitlam, Curtin, Hawke, Keating, Billie Hughes – who’s actually, technically a Coalition great – and Julia Gillard). I can’t help but feel he should show some leadership first. Stand-up to the King Brown Snakes wearing a human suit possessed by the souls of xenophobic blowfish that occupy the right wing of the backbench. Of course, nothing scares a PM like the thought of being courageous.

Then again, maybe we should really stop electing them. Fucking Queenslanders.

One thing you can be sure of is that Bill Shorten is laughing his arse off right now (SCHADENFREUDE!) as the Coalition hands them yet another easy win and a boost onto the moral high ground. This is going to haunt Mr Turnbull, no matter the result.

*More articles from the Sydney Morning Herald being linked than I usually like – for balanced readings sake – but they were the first ones that came up when I did searches.

Thoughts at work: Mr Bean

So about a week back a friend comes into the bar I work at – the girl who taught me how to sling drinks properly in fact – for a sneaky bellini (in Vancouver that means an alcoholic peach slushy) and a quick chat. We hadn’t been able to talk much since she’d had to leave the restaurant (hospitality industry leads to some fucked up hours) so it was nice to catch up. Anyway, she told me a story a few stories about her recent adventures cat-sitting. Nothing crazy, mostly “I told my [family member] not to pay me so she filled the fridge with gourmet food that I have to eat before it goes bad” and the like, but one thing made me laugh.

My friend had been shopping (groceries) and had some other things that she needed to bring up to her [family member’s] apartment. Not wanting to make more than one trip (because no one ever wants to make more than one trip) she’d managed to sling all the bags and such over her shoulders until she resembled a hippopotamus waddling around on its hind legs, only to realise that she’d parked like an asshole (I’m using the North American spelling since she’s Canadian). Still within the lines but close enough to the person on her passenger side would have trouble opening their door. Like an asshole.

Now my mate, who actually tries not to be an asshole when she can, decides to move her car little to the side. Good on her. What she doesn’t want to do is put all the stuff she’s carrying down though. It took ages to load herself up and she doesn’t want to go through packing her shoulders and arms up all over again. So my friend does the only thing that makes sense at the same time. She swings the door open as wide as she can and stands half outside the car while she moves it. One hand, one foot inside the vehicle, the other foot on the street and the other hand sticking up into the air to keep a mess of shopping bags slipping off. And she got the bastard moved.

At this point in the telling of the story I’m watching her demonstrate the manoeuvre in the bar (it’s late and the place is basically empty) and I give her the best possible compliment I can think of.

“That is some Mr Bean shit right there.”

And it was, specifically reminding me of that time he bought a new chair. If you don’t know the one I’m talking about don’t worry. I got you covered.

Excuse me for four and a half minutes while I laugh my arse off (notice the proper spelling there).

Alright, I’m back.

One of the all time great role models, amiright? No, seriously. Mr Bean is great role model. I mean, I’m not gonna start suggesting you tie a sofa chair to the top of a mini and ride it home. Or blow up a paint can in order to rapidly redecorate. Or one of the many other ridiculous things that Rowan Atkinson’s incredible character has done. Seriously, don’t blow up paint cans when you want to redecorate. But if you’re looking for an example of ingenuity, determination, being able to both plan ahead and deal with crises on the fly, and – most importantly to an Aussie like me – practicality, then you can find no better.

So if I ever compare you to Mr Bean, there is a very good chance that it’s unironically one of the nicest things I could think of.

Old School Movie Reviews: The Man in the Iron Mask (1998)

I don’t normally do sequels, do I? I mean, I can’t think of any I’ve done so far. Definitely none in the next review after the original. So this is a first.

Released five years after The Three Musketeers, 1998’s The Man in the Iron Mask is more spiritual rather than direct sequel. Different actors, slightly different relationships, some similar treason.

In this case we have Gerard Depardieu as Porthos, John Malkovich as Athos and Jeremy Irons as Aramis pitting themselves against Gabriel Byrne as D’Artagnan in a plot to replace King Louis the IV, played by Leonardo DiCaprio, with his twin brother Philippe (the titular Man in the Iron Mask), also played by Leonardo DiCaprio. We also have Anne Parillaud as the Queen Mother and Judith Godreche as the lovely Christine, who becomes Louis’ mistress after he murders her fiance (Athos’ son Raoul, played briefly by Peter Skarsgard). Great actors at the worst of times, some of them obviously having an absolute ball with the characters (Jeremy Irons and Gerard Depardieu in particular). The best has got to be a young but still talented Leonardo DiCaprio, going from the petulant and arrogant Louis to the gentle, kind and generally overwhelmed Philippe. He plays two genuinely different characters and showed his skill early on. Great actor.

The action is, if I’m to be perfectly honest, a little disappointing. There are fewer fights than you’d expect, and most of them are honestly a little disappointing, except for the final desperate fight against the King’s Musketeers in the bowels of the Bastille. It’s meant to be more of a heist film, more character driven rather than a straight up action film and it more or less works. But you still expect a little more swashbuckling from any movie that involves the famous musketeers (something that even Porthos complains about at one point).

I don’t know. This film is a weird one. It’s not as good as I remember it being but I can’t exactly put my finger on why. Probably lot’s of little things. Like, it’s got a good sense of humour but a few of the jokes fall a little flat. It does a good job of setting up Louis as a monster who believes his crown (ordained by god) makes him immune to consequences both in this world and the next, but a couple of his decisions are just stupid for the plot’s sake. At one point some rotten fruit is thrown as D’Artagnan and he skewers it with his sword. This is used as a moment to remind both the audience and a mob of rioters what a fucking badass D’Artagnan is supposed to be, but the fruit spends so much time flying through the air (while shocked rioters look on and D’Artagnan decides which piece of fruit he’s going to skewer) that it becomes less impressive than it should have been. Little shit like this, it adds up.

But, as good as I remember or not, I still like this film. Helps that I’m a big fan of Jeremy Irons though. I’ll push through some pretty awful fucking movies if it means I get to enjoy a bit of Jeremy Irons, and this is far from awful.

Reviewing the Old School: Collateral (2004)

We all knew that Tom Cruise was crazy back in 2004, yeah? Well y’know, celebrity crazy. Which is still pretty crazy, but it’s entertaining and eccentric instead of the heartbreaking sight of some poor bastard with no family and no real idea when or where they are asking for spare change from the edge of a needle-strewn alleyway… But yeah, we’d started making jokes about Tom Cruise jumping up and down on Oprah’s couch and arguing about his Thetan levels all the way back in 2004, right?

Why am I bringing this up? Mostly because I remember that being the reason I didn’t watch Collateral straight away. I mean aside from me being a broke-arse teenage high school student (as opposed to all those high school students in their late twenties – hey look at film and television, it’s a serious problem). Tom Cruise had made a bunch of bad films, he’d broken up with Nicole and married whats-her-face (sorry, just googled that and he married whats-her-face in 2006), and he’d gone crazy. That matters to a kid who reckons they’re a film snob while secretly thinking that Shrek was the greatest masterpiece in cinematic history. I blame my dad. I’ve got less of a problem with that now, and apparently Tom Cruise is just super-lovely. One of the nicest guys in Hollywood. Top bloke. But separating Tom from the characters he was playing, it weren’t easy at the time. It wasn’t until this film came highly recommended by a mate that I sat down and watched it.

And it’s good. Really good. The tale of a relationship that develops between an LA cabbie and his charge as they drive from stop to stop. It just so happens that the customer is a contract killer working for a drug cartel, murdering witnesses before a major indictment. Jamie Foxx plays Max, the cabbie in question, the terrified ordinary citizen who desperately wants to get through the night alive but at the same time is smart enough to know how unlikely that is, and does a great job of it. He’s a character that has to constantly push through shock, panic and sheer terror while having a man who’s probably going to murder him also try and befriend him. Tom Cruise plays Vincent, the private sector murderer without a conscience. His hair is greyed to make him look older but it’s bloody Tom Cruise, you can put him in a clown suit made of daffodils and he’ll still bring a powerful presence to the screen when required.

The other actors all do a fantastic job as well. Jada Pinkett Smith plays Annie, a lawyer for the prosecution, appears briefly at the beginning but leaves such a great impression and has such good chemistry with Jamie Foxx that you aren’t at all surprised (and can’t possibly be displeased) when she appears at the end. Mark Ruffalo looks surprisingly different with facial hair as Detective Fanning. Barry Shabaka Henley talks jazz as Daniel with Vincent and Javier Bardem talks about Black Pedro as Felix with Max. Director Michael Mann knows how to get the best out of his cast, and it is a stella cast (Tom Cruise included). The music, the angles, the closeups which reveal intimacy and the wide shots that show isolation.

But this is a film all about conversation, and writer Stuart Beattie writes some really excellent stuff. It’s not the fast-paced banter you’d expect in a Tarantino or Ritchie film, rather it’s a slow boil deconstruction of a decent man’s soul as that man is on the verge of panic while another man puts a gun to his head and tells him to calm down.

The movie is all about the relationship between Vincent and Max, and it’s funny how well Foxx and Cruise pull it off. There’s not much chemistry between them, and that seems largely intentional. There’s always a distance, at first caused by their relationship as client and cabbie and then by Vincent’s pistol. The weird part is how likeable Vincent is. He actually seems like a pretty good guy aside from being very willing to shoot anybody and everybody he runs into. He helps Max deal with an overbearing boss, buys his mother flowers and encourages him to “call the girl.” It’s weird how he tries (tries so hard) to be a good friend. And that’s the thing. It’s the reason why he doesn’t just shoot Max as soon as the luckless cabbie finds out about Vincent’s career goals. Because he’s so starved for human contact that he’ll spend hours trying to connect with a bloke he’s probably gonna top at dawn.

Good stuff. Great film.

Anyway, point is that you shouldn’t always judge a film by the actor playing in it. Now Tom’s come back and he’s done some great stuff in the past couple of years, so I’m not too worried about people prejudging his stuff. Some real shit as well (Oblivion), but a lot of absolutely fantastic (Live Die Repeat) and fun (Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, his cameo in Tropic Thunder) roles in the main. He’s a good actor and a good guy.

But, y’know, don’t judge whatever new Nicolas Cage film comes out before you see it? I guess? No, no. You can prejudge Nicolas Cage all you want.