Tag Archives: dire

Kick Ass Assassins: Salt on Blu-Ray and The American on DVD


The world lacks a female super spy. Angelina Jolie has perhaps come closer than most to filling the void with her all action portrayal of sexy video game Tomb Raider Lara Croft, but this was ultimately more Indiana Jones than James Bond. Last year Phillip Noyce’s Cold War conspiracy thriller Salt, originally earmarked for Tom Cruise, morphed into a very different project altogether with the casting of Jolie as CIA agent Evelyn.

I may be veering into sexism here, but because of Jolie’s casting my expectations were drastically lowered. However I’ll defend myself with two qualifications; firstly I think of Jolie as more than merely an internationally coveted sexual icon, but as a fine and capable actress, particularly after her powerhouse performance in Clint Eastwood’s excellent Changeling. Secondly I believe I expected disappointment because of the film industry’s own sexist view of women playing action leads, rather than my own narrow and intolerant perspective on the “fairer sex”.

What I mean by this is that women rarely seem to be cast in serious mainstream action films. They’re a common feature in action comedies, such as the dire Knight and Day and Jolie’s own light-hearted romp with her equally famous and sexy spouse in Mr and Mrs Smith. But there’s no realistic and gripping female equivalent to the Bourne series, for example. Filmmakers are reluctant to showcase women, even today, as ruthless and professional killers without elements of fantasy. Watch a film about what is essentially a paid, female murderer (a “hitwoman”) and expect lots of ninja style, silly high kicking and unbelievable martial arts, alongside tight costumes, to offset such a horrific notion.

Sadly this is a formula that Salt eventually and perhaps inevitably, conforms to. The opening of the film is promising. Once we get some god awful dialogue out the way, probably ripped straight from the “how to script a film in the espionage genre” handbook, along with some forced flashbacks, we get Salt interrogating an apparent Russian defector. He drops the bombshell that there’s a sleeper agent in the CIA, and that agent is called Evelyn Salt.

Salt is dismissive at first, but all the high tech brain scans and probably some ingenious pad questioning his balls from his seat, says that he’s telling the truth. After a bit of dithering Salt decides to run, apparently out of concern for her husband, but it still seems rather daft if she really is innocent. Once she does run however, it looks as if Salt is going to be a decent film.

With the shadowy, backstabbing premise of the plot and some tense evasion of security cameras by a grey suited Jolie, Salt seems very Bourne-esque at first. And a female Bourne film would not have been such a bad thing. Boxed into an interrogation room, Salt constructs a makeshift weapon from chemicals and chairs and table legs to allow her to escape. She then flees for home to look for her husband and just avoids capture by climbing around the outside of her building. Finally she escapes the city after a standoff by jumping from truck to truck on the freeway.

During all of this action it’s easy to get swept up and the character remains believable. You sympathise with her apparent innocence and will her to succeed. But once Salt heads to New York based on information that someone will attempt to kill the Russian President at the Vice President’s funeral, the plot completely loses its way. It utterly surprised me on several occasions but purely because it becomes so absolutely ludicrous. You can no longer relate to Salt as a character and the action degenerates into ninja Jolie implausibly kicking the asses of trained security personnel in seconds.

At first I thought it was refreshing that Salt was a spy thriller based on the old Cold War rivalries and tensions. Cinemagoers could do with a little more entertainment courtesy of grand, evil schemes, rather than grim and realistic takes on Al-Qaeda. There’s nothing wrong with fantastical plots based on extravagant conspiracies and the destruction of the world, providing they’re executed plausibly. But Salt is just too farfetched and has too many holes, mainly surrounding the believability of its characters. It also strays into the absurd and hilarious; supposedly a “master of disguise” Salt looks fairly obviously like Angelina Jolie dressed as an effeminate man infiltrating the White House.

As usual with Blu-Rays, there’s a whole host of meaty special features to devour about the making of Salt. There’s a baffling section on Salt’s supposed genius as a “master of disguise” and a separate “in screen” interview with the costume designer explaining the selection process behind Jolie’s grey suit earlier in the film. Apparently it was really beneficial to visit the CIA and presumably discover they wear boring and generic corporate power suits like everyone else. The most revealing sections are interviews with Noyce and Jolie about the fact Salt was originally written for a man, which might account for some of the script’s rough and unfinished feel.

There are some pleasing references to classics of the genre in the film, for example when “defector” Orlov escapes using a blade concealed in his shoe, like Rosa Klebb in From Russia With Love. But in the end Salt resembles a mishmash parody of everything it has taken influence from. It lacks originality, quality and entertainment for most of its thankfully brief 100 minute runtime.

THE AMERICAN is the sort of serious and sombre story that sadly wouldn’t get made with a woman in the title role. It’s a slow-burning meditation on the nature of being an assassin and on loneliness itself. It’s an exercise in minimalist storytelling from writer Rowan Joffe, adapting Martin Booth’s novel A Very Private Gentleman, and particularly, director Anton Corbijn. With the lightest of brush strokes he paints what was, for me, an incredibly evocative and captivating picture. 

I had meant to see The American on the big screen but sadly its lack of success at the box office resulted in a short stay at my local multiplex. For critics the problem with The American is that it never truly ignites following such a tantalisingly drawn out simmering of tension. Many find it boring to sit through. But for anyone that loves the genre, the intoxicating idea of the lone assassin, or anyone that likes understated and subtle films, The American is wonderfully watchable.

In many ways George Clooney shouldn’t work in the title role. He is such a recognisable face across the globe, a brand rather than a name, that he shouldn’t convince as an unknown and elusive assassin. But Corbijn needed someone who could act without words and Clooney delivers a master class. When there is dialogue Clooney enthuses it with charisma; it oozes enigmatic intrigue. When the camera is entirely reliant on Clooney’s movements a pained expression, a cold glance or a precise gesture speaks more than a page of script ever could.  This has been hailed by some as the best performance of Clooney’s career for a reason. We’ve never seen him laid bare like this; robbed of the charm and the cheeky grin.

More than anything else The American is beautiful. Its soundtrack is haunting, atmospheric and touching. Every other shot would make an arty still in a gallery; in Corbijn’s second picture after the acclaimed biopic Control, his background as a photographer is constantly evident. Clooney’s character chooses photography as his cover and there’s something about the parallels of precise skill and solitude between pictures and killing that’s endlessly fascinating. Indeed the subtlety of the storytelling really lets you think about its themes whilst enjoying the gorgeous visuals and the sexy girls.

The loneliness of existence is there in every furrow of Clooney’s focused face; the life of the assassin is the perfect lens for examining anyone’s existential angst. His character makes meagre relationships that wouldn’t satisfy many human beings, and yet they prove too much and too risky for his secretive profession. Despite the reports of boredom and never-ending build-up, I thought that the restrained action punctuated the plot well and the climax of the simple story was suitably engrossing.

In many ways Salt and The American both take “old school” approaches to a familiar genre; Salt with its outlandish Cold War plot and The American with its focus on an age old character, complete with soul searching scenes with a priest. The undoubted difference between the films though is a sumptuous and sexy style and quality that makes The American infinitely more interesting than Jolie’s briefly entertaining foray into the world of espionage.

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The King Maker


Last year the Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg was dubbed a “King Maker” by many in the press, due to the historic power afforded to him as a result of a hung parliament. He could either prop up grumpy Gordon or crack open the party poppers for Dave’s coronation. The public rejoiced in watching the usual big boys squirm and a new man get a chance to pull the strings. But now no one agrees with Nick and he’s plummeted from the heights of Britain’s most popular to the land’s favourite burning effigy. Thousands genuinely hate him and want to scratch out his entrails for his sickening, unnatural marriage to the Tories. They despise him for drunkenly tossing away longstanding pledges to the public on his stag night and loathe him for cutting chunks from the country’s finances lustfully on honeymoon. For many it’s a painful, all consuming dislike of this one yellow tied Westminster suit amongst hundreds.

It’s sometimes easy to accept the idea that in today’s world, truly bad films don’t get made anymore. It’s impossible to find two hours in front of a screen with some flickering images completely unsatisfying. You can’t hate a piece of filmmaking like you hate a man. You can’t find it as painfully offensive to your artistic taste and morality as swathes of reckless, damaging government spending cuts. This may be true. Even the most misguided projects I review usually have some kind of redeeming quality, at least one moment of real enjoyment or an admirable aim. But The King Maker is a film that took only 60 seconds for me to want the blessed release of the end credits. It’s an absolute and total turkey, the sort of film that goes straight to the bottom shelf at Tesco for a reason, the sort of film that without qualification deserves the label: BAD.

Out of scores and scores of poor movies, The King Maker is one of the few that if you have any sense of quality and taste, you’ll rapidly be able to regard with something close to hate. Seriously you should heed my warning if you want to avoid an excruciating hour and a half; do not watch The King Maker. Certainly DO NOT PAY ANY (real) MONEY TO SEE THIS. You might think its 88 minute running time short, but it feels a hell of a lot longer and you’ll never get those precious minutes back. There is nothing at all to justify spending time on this lifeless, empty shell of a film.

Literally nothing at all, everything about The King Maker is purely bad. As I’ve said it takes less than a minute for the shoddy editing and woefully low production standards present throughout to raise their ugly, persistent heads. The film opens with an action chase sequence peppered with ludicrous ninja/karate style high kicks and flips. There are jumps and landings that would be laughable were the tone not so serious or the camerawork and execution not so dire. In fact much of the action in The King Maker could be from a masterful slice of slapstick Charlie Chaplin or a ridiculous Monty Python sketch. But The King Maker is not even so bad it is funny. At times it ought to be hilarious. I did not laugh or smile once at its awfulness though. Afterwards my face hurt from the exhaustive efforts of a non-stop grimace.

The main reason I can’t even recommend The King Maker as refreshing fest of unintentional LOL moments is because it’s evident that the actors are trying so damn hard. You can’t have a good old heartening chuckle at all those involved in the film when it’s so obvious that they were trying to make something good; they have no idea how shit it is and you’re left with an endless feeling of painful pity. Every element of the movie is bad, every acting performance poor at best and agonisingly awful at worst. In fairness to the cast they are not helped by the script. Rather than rant about its failures one quote sums up the clunky, grating quality of the dialogue: “Look it’s the king’s emissary, I wonder what he wants?”.

For what it’s worth the film chronicles the story of Portuguese mercenary Fernando De Gama (Gary Stretch), who is shipwrecked in Siam and rescued from slavery by his love interest. He works his way up through the ranks of society, stumbles across a plot, and has scores of his own to settle blah blah blah…it’s really not worth it.

There are continuity errors aplenty, an out of place soundtrack that will make you cringe, silly stunts and cliché black and white flashbacks. CGI of a port full of ships looks like it’s been taken from an unsuccessful computer game with unconvincing Windows 98 graphics (the water in particular looks atrocious). In fact the plot and action set pieces and horrible attempts at a historical setting all seem like ingredients from an out of date, bargain basement video game. There are even punch and kick sound effects ripped straight from cartoon archives.

Despite my partial defence of the actors earlier, the standout flaws of this film are their totally unbelievable performances. The worst offender is the plotting Queen and her lover as they fail to convey the passion of their secret affair. The majority of their scenes together seem like a disappointing porno with an inexplicable lack of flesh on show. Another potentially career devastating turn comes from lead Gary Stretch. His limp delivery of lines serves as the final nail in the coffin for The King Maker. Even a film so badly executed could have salvaged some likeability with a charismatic turn from the lead actor. Stretch merely drags things further into painful depths of disappointment and dismalness.

The King Maker was supposed to be a spectacular showcase of Thailand. It’s only the third Thai film to be made in the English language, and the first since 1941. There are some superb, beautiful locations occasionally visible in the background amongst the appalling action of the story. But they don’t deserve to be associated with the worst film I’ve seen this year and I suspect the favourite by a mile in the race for worst film of 2011.