The Old Guard (2020)

old1You waited long enough. Why Now?  What? This thing only dropped on Netflix 16 days ago. I know most people these days only seem to have very limited attention-spans, but this impatience for reviews of new content is getting a bit nuts. I was 41 years ‘late’ with my review of Play Misty For Me yesterday; I figure 16 days is bang-up-to-the-moment of whatever cultural zeitgeist Netflix is. Unless The Old Guard really is distant history already. I can’t keep up, frankly.

So whats it about, then? Ah, well, to go into any detail on this threatens some spoilers, although I have to wonder if I’m spoiling anything when the film’s trailer/teaser pretty much does it anyway. About fifteen or so minutes in, there’s a ‘twist’ or event that lays out the central premise of the film and… well, if someone went into the film blind they’d be gifted a genuine surprise, and as such things are bloody rare in film etc these days, I’ll make this effort to assist it (we’ll add a Spoiler section down the bottom? Okay then I’ll see you down there). Basically, its about Charlize Theron and her team of heroes shooting the shit out of bad guys.

Any good? You know, I thought it was- Charlize Theron is beautiful and a great actress and she can really do these physical movies very well. I remember first seeing her in the Mighty Joe Young remake back in the R1 DVD-import days, in 1998/1999. She’s come a long way since then. The fact that she was so wasted in Ridley Scott’s Prometheus is a constant bucket of ice-cold water down my pants. The Old Guard‘s action sequences are great, not terribly over-the-top or frenetically edited with shakycam, the cast is great, the story genuinely interesting with a few surprises and tantalising possibilities. The bad guy probably isn’t all he could have been, but the teaser at the end of the film hints that a sequel won’t have that particular problem.

So worth waiting for? What? It came out on July 10th, we already went over this (calm down ghost). I will just say this- in this era of Covid 19-induced lockdowns and cinemas closed for months everywhere (and film releases getting delays upon delays, to the point I’m actually getting concerned for Villeneuve’s Dune in December) its a strange sign of the times that a film like The Old Guard with a cast such as it has, with a budget of some $70 million and international shooting locations, can be made/purchased by Netflix and just casually dropped onto the service, into people’s homes ostensibly ‘free’.  Of course many people will be rushing back to cinemas when they reopen, but one has top wonder if this pandemic has been a huge opportunity for platforms like Netflix and Amazon to push the entertainment history further towards the inevitable streaming future.

Worthless observation? Well I might have already made such an observation in the paragraph above, but as usual of late this is another film based on a comic or graphic novel, so inevitably is a little immature and aimed clearly at a teenage/young audience. Which is fine, its a little disguised but it is clearly a superhero movie (see spoilers below), so one gets used to making allowances, you know? The Old Guard is a fun action film with a neat premise, its just such a shame that novel premises seem to be the domain of comic adaptations these days, and that film producers don’t look at actual old-fashioned books for ideas. There’s plenty of great science-fiction books from the past twenty years that would make for great science-fiction movies, for instance, and I’m sure authors are still writing great westerns etc.

(And a final warning!) Go on then, where be the Spoilers? They are IMMORTALS! There is a great scene early on when the team goes into a stockade in Sudan to free some abducted schoolchildren and it turns out to be a trap and the team are massacred. But then after a few moments they get back up and wreak bloody revenge on their ‘murderers’. Its a good scene that has lost much of its impact simply because the trailer gives the premise away, but, you know, that’s… tricky, I mean how else do you sell this movie? Seems to me that the graphic novel series is clearly indebted to Jack Kirby’s The Eternals from the mid-seventies (one of my favourite comics, can’t wait for the Omnibus later this year – although that is likely to slip to 2021, I suppose, damn you Covid 19) and that this film possibly steals a little thunder from Disney’s movie adaptation.

The Huntsman: Winter’s War (2016)

huntsAs fantasy movies go, this wasn’t too bad. Harmless really. I expected it to be a prequel but actually it functions as both prequel and sequel, in that it bookends the first movie (Snow White and the Huntsman, something of a box-office hit back in 2012) with a section prior to the original and the remainder set after it, all the while cleverly avoiding Snow White herself  altogether other than in some general passing comments.

This is, of course, due to all the furor over the original films backstage gossip, something about rising star Kristen Stewart (Snow White) cheating on her then-lover (whoever he was) with the films director, Rupert Sanders, which has resulted in this follow-up missing both.  Its like making an Alien film without Ripley or a Blade Runner film without Deckard- hey, it could be done and might not be such a bad idea. But would a risk-aversive studio do such a thing if it didn’t really have to?

In this case, they obviously figured they really had to. Still, it does see the return of Chris Hemsworth as the titular Huntsman and the great as ever Charlize Theron as villainess Ravenna. With Emily Blunt thrown in as extra Evil Queen and the brilliant Jessica Chastain as a new female hero and love-interest for the Huntsman, its executed really well and is clearly a triple-A production. Sure, it’s pretty much a Lord of the Rings-lite kind of fantasy, but I well recall old fantasy films clunkers like Hawk the Slayer, Krull and the original Clash of the Titans (hey I know they each have their fans, don’t shoot me), and compared to them this isn’t bad at all. The fantasy genre is pretty hard to pull off without looking silly or camp and this really does work quite well.

Theron is a great villain and Chastain a great heroine, both charismatic and impressive in physical roles (particularly Chastain which surprised me). A spin-off with just Theron sparring against Chastain would be a great idea in my book. Meanwhile the ever-reliable Hemsworth gets by with his natural charm and again reminds me how he would have been a fantastic Kirk in those Trek reboots. Clearly this is a better cast than such silly fantasy films deserve but we’re in an era where fantasy films= lots of CGI spectacle and that’s what gets bums on cinema seats on a Saturday night. I rather hope that one day we’ll see a big adult fantasy done right (and I REALLY hope it’s a definitive Conan movie, personally) but while this isn’t it, it’s not a bad way to while away a couple of hours.

Atomic Blonde (2017)

atomicClearly an example of style over substance, I nonetheless really enjoyed this one- no doubt partly because I enjoyed the John Wick films so much and this has a distinct whiff of being John Wick from a female perspective (oddly timely, I guess, if you can look past the sexual objectifying thats going on throughout). Certainly, from where I’m looking, Charlize Theron is far easier on the eye than Keanu Reeves (can I get away with mentioning that in this day and age without offending someone?), and she handles the physicality of the role very well indeed- she looks gorgeous and you rather believe she’s deadly too the way she carries herself in a fight Those fights are well choreographed and pack a real punch (sic), and the film succeeds, in just the same way as the first John Wick  did, to revitalise the action flick genre. Seems the era of Bruce, Arnie and Sly is well and truly over, and there’s a new boy and girl in town. Indeed, recalling Theron’s film-stealing turn in the recent Mad Max reboot, she’s scored again here in spite of originally seeming more of a serious actress than an action girl. Ridley perhaps miscast her in Prometheus, I think she’d have carried that film better as Dr Elizabeth Shaw on the evidence of her physicality here.

Atomic Blonde looks and sounds quite gorgeous, shot on digital with an ultra-stylized look (neon-drenched one minute, dreary grey the next) that will be familiar to most- when it ‘pops’ it ‘POPS’, and the 1980s setting allows lots of music from the period to be liberally applied to every scene. As might be expected, the plot is fairly thin -it is set mostly in East Germany of 1989 just prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, and both sides of the Iron curtain are after a list of agents that threatens to extend the Cold War if it gets in the wrong hands. To be honest, the plots almost a macguffin in the best Hitchcock fashion, as it didn’t really matter,  and to be honest I didn’t quite understand the logic of the films twists and turns at all.  Its a Russian list which a Russian is selling to the West, but the West doesn’t want the Russians to get it because it could cause the deaths of lots of Western assets. But surely its Russian spies on a Russian list, not a list of Western assets that the Russians need to get hold of, and there’s a double-agent on the list who wants to derail the whole deal in the most long-winded way and there’s a French female operative who doesn’t really fit in but she’s just there for Charlize to enjoy some lesbian sex thrills with… I don’t know. Ultimately it really doesn’t matter, it just sets up lots of fights and stunts and double-crosses. There’s a last epilogue twist that is perhaps one twist too far (actually there’s two twists there -first she’s a double agent working for the Russians and then she’s a double agent working for Langley, and neither makes sense).  Its no classic spy flick, anyway. but I suppose it’s really just an action flick posing as a spy flick, so maybe it gets a pass.

Besides, the cast, while somewhat wasted, is pretty great- John Goodman, Toby Jones, James McAvoy all ably support Theron who is, yes, great in the main role. Its hardly demanding stuff but it is what it is. Complaining about it would be like bitching about a Star Wars film being all effects and wasted actors…. oh, wait…

I expect this film was designed, as so many are these days, to launch a franchise and I certainly wouldn’t mind another outing for Charlize in another one of these.  I suppose that depends on its box office, so we’ll see. A better script that develops her character beyond the ‘beautiful-but-deadly’ protagonist demonstrated here would be nice to see.

Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation (2015)

Say what you like about Tom Cruise, he knows how to fashion an audience-friendly blockbuster. Rogue Nation is a great summer movie, delivering everything anybody could possibly want from a Mission Impossible film. Even more remarkably, for a series nearly twenty years old now and into its fifth outing, it all somehow still seems fresh and exciting with some remarkable action sequences and a welcome return to spycraft and espionage. No small part of this is the presence of rising star Rebecca Ferguson as British Intelligence agent Ilsa Faust. Ferguson damn near steals the film from Cruise with a warm and affecting performance with a surprising physicality (I’ve seen her on tv before and this performance is a big surprise). No doubt many viewers will marvel at her performance and wonder where this new female action star has come from (it’s been a great summer for female action roles, with this, Charlize Theron’s Furiosa and Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow). Cruise has hinted at launching a sixth Mission Impossible film as early as next year and I hope thats an indication that it will be a follow-up to this one with Ferguson returning.

A follow-up would also be a welcome opportunity to bring back the Syndicate and its leader Solomon Lane (the name a riff on REH’s Solomon Kane, perhaps, or am I looking too far?) cooly played with real menace by Sean Harris. If Rogue Nation has any possible fault its the nagging feeling of anti-climax that hangs over a final confrontation that dispenses with the high-flying stunts and explosions, but that would be ably solved by it only being, in hindsight, a prelude to the next film. Who knows, as it is the finale might be considered a pleasant change from the usual OTT blockbuster theatrics, but I was left with a feeling there is more to be seen of Solomon Lane, in just the same way as the last few James Bond movies have had a more serial feel than the more individual Bond films of old.

rogue2So a great summer movie then, and one that has demonstrated the viability of its franchise just as much as Fury Road revitalised the Mad Max series (Fury Road is still my favourite film of the summer though). I’m not a great fan of endless sequels but I have to say, looking at the Mission Impossible series as a whole, its a pretty damn fine series of movies that delivers what its audience expects. Certainly it has been far more consistent than the Die Hard series. Tom Cruise seems to know what he’s doing with these Mission Impossible films, and I’m quite excited to see what he comes up with next.

Oh, and while I’m in gushing mode, the score by Joe Kraemer is fantastic action stuff too and no small part of the film’s success. Great film; roll on the blu-ray- that release may be the ideal time to get a Mission Impossible boxset to while away the Winter Blues.

Snow White and the Huntsman (2012)

snowBetter film than I expected. Not without its problems (there’s a pacing issue, for one, that left some scenes rather jarring, and an episodic nature that left some material pretty much redundant), it nonetheless had some major positives, not least Charlize Theron as the evil sorceress Ravenna. She steals the show not with scenery-chewing theatrics that you might have expected, but rather some real subtlety in a great performance. Alas, a weakness of this film is that several other characters are woefully under-written, something perhaps accounting for the pacing issues which seem to be the editor/s covering up the gaps in the script. Its a pity that so much of this film seems to work so well only to be undermined by script problems, because it often seems to be a good film that might have been a great film. When the film closes, its with a loud crashing thud, lacking any narrative closure, as if the inevitable promise of a sequel (oddly unforthcoming as yet) would be enough to keep viewers happy. It’s as if ten to fifteen minutes of film is missing and is really quite bizarre- indeed, its the oddest ending to a film I have seen in quite some time.

And the scene stolen from Ridley Scott’s Legend– what was that all about?