Hang on, Sly!

cliffCliffhanger, 1993, 113 mins, 4K UHD

Its some kind of wonderful when I return to a film I used to really enjoy and discover that it still works, that it still has that ‘magic’ that appealed to me back in the day. There’s nothing sadder than returning to a film once beloved and realising its actually a dud, that its nowhere near as good as it once seemed to be. Thankfully that’s not the case with Renny Harlin’s 1993 thriller Cliffhanger, which I watched last night for the first time in, oh, must be getting on for twenty years now, other than catching bits of the film on tv screenings.

How is it possible that Cliffhanger is getting on for thirty years old now? Here I go again, measuring the passing of years by accounting film release dates: in this case, it feels like another life, Cliffhanger dates back to before I was married. Mind, it doesn’t escape me that the Showcase Cinema in which I first saw the film back in 1993, a still fairly-new, state-of-the-art multiplex cinema at the time, has recently been demolished to be replaced by a car supermarket. Cliffhanger has seen a cinema gone, and home video formats come and go (VHS, laserdisc, DVD etc). Seems everything is transient, but the films remain.

We had it good back then, looking back- when Arnie and Sly were in their prime. I think Cliffhanger can arguably qualify has Sly’s best film other than First Blood.

John Lithgow steals the show though. His evil Eric Qualen character is despicable and rotten to the core, and Lithgow pushes his performance to the brink of Panto holiday season. He looks like he’s having the time of his life, bless him, and its great. Its at just the right level of theatrical bombast to match Sly’s larger than life physicality. Lithgow’s stooges suffer by comparison, but Craig Fairbrass is fairly memorable daring to use Sly as a football -until Hal (Michael Rooker) informs him “Season’s over, asshole!” Cliffhanger has some fantastic dialogue/memorable lines that enable the cast to chew up the scenery while standing still. Between this, Robocop and Total Recall it feels like a long-lost art now.

So much impresses regards this film. The action sequences are great, the film benefits massively from dating back to the pre-CGI era; there is a sense of tactile reality to it, and most of the optical work is actually very good (a few miniatures betray the films age but if anything possibly just add to its old-school charm). It is also well-served by a bombastic music score from Trevor Jones that sounds like a curious mix of Predator and Last of the Mohicans to my ears now, but adds a great energy to the film that film scores these days largely lack. Its watching films like this that makes me think they just don’t make ’em like they used to, and its true. Some people will think that’s a good thing, mind… but not me.

Hang on, Sly- it won’t be long before I give this disc another spin.

The Foreigner (2017)

foreigner1This is one of those films where you have to leave common-sense and reason at the door and just go along with the madness. If you do, there is actually much to enjoy here.

I was actually surprised to learn that the film is based on a 1992 thriller written by Stephen Leather titled The Chinaman (why the title change, I don’t know, as Jackie Chan is often referred to as ‘the Chinaman’ through the film). The film seems so indebted to films like Taken, First Blood, and Patriot Games that I really expected it was one of those ‘original’ screenplays cooked up over re-watching a DVD collection- it really does seem so formulaic at times (sequences of Chan being hunted down by Irish thugs in woods is almost a retread of First Blood, with the thugs suffering all sorts of traps and one-sided violence).

Mr Quan (Chan) is a London restaurant owner who is taking his beautiful young daughter shopping in the city and you just know the day is not going to go well- a bombing takes place which kills Mr Quan’s daughter and a group naming themselves the real IRA claims responsibility. First Mr Quan makes a nuisance of himself at Scotland Yard when he repeatedly wants to know how well the investigation is going and who is responsible for the atrocity. His attention then turns to Northern Ireland deputy First Minister Liam Hennessy (Pierce Brosnan, a (misguided?) doppelganger for Gerry Adams here) who was once a member of the UDI/IRA but now rejects acts of violence and has no knowledge of who is responsible (but assures the British authorities he will try to find out).

Hennessy, naturally for this kind of film, isn’t quite as innocent as he claims although it is clear he not in control of what is clearly escalating- a second bomb goes off in London, killing civilians on a London bus. Quan travels to Northern Island to confront Hennessy and sets off a bomb himself as a warning that he wants names. Quan has a Special Forces background that belies his mild-mannered old-man exterior and proceeds to hound and threaten Hennessy to give up the names of his associates responsible for the bombings in London.

Deftly directed by none less than Martin Campbell of Casino Royale, Goldeneye and The Mask of Zorro, The Foreigner may be daft with pretty ill-informed politics but as an action thriller its great. Chan, has always, is warmly charismatic in his role as a grieving father and the fight scenes are very impressive- indeed it may be one of the most challenging roles of his career.  Now in his early sixties its a little bewildering (and scary) seeing him performing such physical stunts and fight routines, but its perhaps his dramatic work here as a grieving father that most impresses. The pace of the film is brisk and the tension well-maintained over a near-two hour running time. Pierce Brosnan shoulders one of the strangest Irish accents ever recorded on film but its his aforementioned likeness of Gerry Adams that perhaps makes the whole film a little too uncomfortable to watch considering its clearly a work of fiction.

At any rate, its a finely made thriller that delivers on all fronts even though liberties are clearly taken with the politics and the action sequences, well-staged as they may be, stretch credulity somewhat. Available on Netflix now here in the UK (another Netflix original?), its well worth a look.

The Guest (2014)

guest12016.88: The Guest (FIlmFour HD)

Dan Stevens’ transformation from Downton Abbey’s noble commoner Matthew Crawley to maniac American killer David Collins is something of a disorientating revelation. To be honest the disorientation was partly down to me not knowing what to expect from what I thought would be a serious thriller. I admit I must be some sort of idiot- I hadn’t seen any hint of it being a dark comedy, coming into the film ‘blind’. From the start there was something distinctly ‘off’ by the tone of the film and its performances and it took a good half-hour for me to realise what was actually going on: I was actually missing the joke. The Guest isn’t the serious thriller I expected it to be- instead it is a dark comic homage to slasher genre films of the 1980s, films like Halloween and Friday the 13th with plenty of First Blood thrown into the mix.

Grieving family the Petersons are visited by all-American, gentle-spoken David Collins, freshly discharged from the Army and visiting the family to give them parting messages from their deceased son who he had served with in combat.Invited to stay with them for a few days he becomes part of the family- for grieving mother Laura, he’s almost a surrogate son, helping out with chores etc, but it eventually begins to unfold that he’s helping out in other, less wholesome ways. The workplace rival of husband Spencer is suddenly found dead by police, easing the path of Spencer’s promotion. Youngster Luke who is bullied at school has his bullies taken care of and given some practical advice re:standing up for himself (and once he does so, his ensuing school suspension is quickly rescinded once Collins visits the Principal). The dead-end junkie holding back daughter Anna from getting on with her life suddenly winds up in jail on a murder charge.

As the number of deaths and violent events ramp up in the otherwise quiet and unremarkable town, it becomes clear that the kindly Collins is more than he appears. He’s actually a mix of Rambo/Michael Myers, a cold killer trained by the military as some kind of psychopathic weapon, a time-bomb on the run from the authorities just waiting to go off. When he finally does go totally berserk, no-one is safe, not even the Petersons, and even the military task-force sent in to stop him might not be enough.

Had this film been made in 1986, it would have been huge. It feels like it was made to be played/watched on a VHS tape. Part of this is the cinematography and a reliance on 1980s-sounding music on the soundtrack (which sounds also very much in the style of the soundtrack of Drive). Its smart and witty and dark and funny, and all its nods to First Blood and Halloween and The Terminator are all part of the delicious fun. The only problem is that it also feels like a film out of its time. It isn’t completely convincing, but maybe that’s just because it feels so less than a film of 2014 and more one from 1986.

No small part of the success of the film though is the performance of Dan Stevens, which is frankly astonishing. He looks and sounds like an homegrown, all-American hero, but behind his charm there is evidently something ‘off’ about him. There are early moments when his smile is revealed to be a mask, with a cold Terminator-like expression underneath it. On initial viewing, they felt awkward and forced but in hindsight, its all part of that 1980’s video-nasty conceit that runs slyly through the film. Its a trickier, and more impressive, performance than it initially looks and deserves some high praise- the film wouldn’t work as well as it does without Stevens in the role and its really light-years from Downton Abbey. I dread to think what the old dears giving this film a rental on the strength of Stevens name on the credits would think of it.

This film really is the kind of film that thoroughly deserves the term ‘cult’ and I’m sure will gather quite a following over the years and re-viewings. Indeed, my own partial misgivings are likely down to not getting the film I originally expected, so will likely be changed when I re-watch it knowing what it really is.

I wonder if a sequel is in the works. There deserves to be, if only to reinforce the conceit of all those serial-killer franchises that seemed to run forever.