MAKING A KILLING

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John Wick came out in the US last October but it’s taken a few months to come over here. Keanu Reeves plays the eponymous hitman who decides to get revenge on the son of the Russian mafia godfather when he takes everything from him. Very much in the Taken mould, John Wick is a straight action revenge film with support from Willem DeFoe as Wick’s fellow assassin Marcus but what lifts it is the fact that visually it is very impressive. On a large cinema screen, John Wick looks incredible. The script is very silly indeed and Reeves spends much of the film dispatching people in incredibly over-the-top fashion but director Chad Stahelski does have a very visual flair for the dramatic. I don’t know if this is a new direction for Reeves whose career has taken a rather forgettable turn over the past few years but John Wick is a decent slice of 100 minutes of action with enough visual flourish that you won’t be bored while you’re watching it and it doesn’t take itself seriously so tonally it mostly works too. By means a work of genius, there is still something perversely entertaining about the whole proceedings…

RUNNING OUT OF STEAM

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Liam Neeson has become the slightly past-it Hollywood action hero over the last few years. It started with Taken and since then, he has starred in a catalog of forgettable films. Run All Night is the latest in this long line. Neeson plays burnt out Irish pitman Jimmy Conlon, who is forced to choose here his allegiances lie, with his estranged son Mike (Joel Kinnaman) or his lifelong friend Irish gangster Sean Maguire (played by Ed Harris). It is competent enough although much of the dialogue is beyond cheesy and there are some truly stupid action scenes peppered throughout the film. Run All Night is entertaining fare while it lasts but it’s a film that won’t even make any impact on your memory as soon as you leave the cinema. A Walk Among The Tombstones, where Neeson played Lawrence Block’s Matt Scudder, which was released last year, did prove that he can still act but sadly most of the time he chooses generic action shlock like this. A real shame…

The Blind Leading The Bland

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THE BLAND LEADING THE BLAND
Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan character was a semi-regular fixture on the big screen from 1990’s Hunt For Red October until The Sum of All Fears over a decade later in 2002. Three actors played the part (Alec Baldwin, Harrison Ford and Ben Affleck) but since Hollywood is allergic to new ideas, they have decided to resurrect the now-deceased Clancy’s CIA operative in another attempt to bring back the franchise. 2014’s Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit has Chris (Star Trek) Pine in the lead role and director Branagh has brought it up to date, beginning with the 9/11 attacks. Ryan gets seriously injured in Afghanistan and is forced to reinvent his life. He is recruited by CIA handler Thomas Harper (Kevin Costner), who tells him he can continue to serve his country as a covert agent for the CIA. Ryan marries his doctor, Cathy Muller (Keira Knightley) but their marriage and her life is put in jeopardy when Ryan starts to investigate evil Russian Viktor Cherevin (a very unconvincing Kenneth Branagh). It’s not necessarily that Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is a bad film, although Knightley is awful (but at least she is consistent) and Branagh shows that a director should’t play the villain, it’s that it’s so telegraphed and predictable. The Bourne films raised the bar significantly on Hollywood action films but Jack Ryan feels like a clunky throwback to a more unsophisticated age. Pine is competent and Costner is easily the best thing here although he is totally wasted. It is possible that we may see another Jack Ryan film as it will probably do okay at the box office especially at this time of year with little competition, but they need to up their game if they do. Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit is a perfunctory but ultimately forgettable film…

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IT NEVER GETS OUT OF THE WOODS
Sometimes a film comes along that you wonder exactly what Hollywood was thinking. Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters with Jeremy Renner and Gemma Arterton is just such a movie. Its conceit is that the young children who were left in the woods grew up to hunt witches in Central Europe. The film’s central nemesis is Famke Janssen who plays the queen of witches, Muriel, hell-bent on Hansel & Gretel’s destruction. The makers obviously thought that because superhero genre films are such big business, channeling that into a much-loved family fairy tale would attract today’s cinemagoers. But the problem is that this film is so badly made with some particularly awful dialogue and pisspoor performances particularly from the atrocious Arterton that it doesn’t even provide an entertaining ninety minute spectacle. Renner isn’t much cop here either: he doesn’t have much screen presence and doesn’t convince as any sort of action hero really. I do wonder whether he will be able to translate any of his earlier potential into anything longterm at all. He was decent in The Bourne Legacy and very good in The Town but nothing else he’s been in has been particularly memorable. Janssen and the rest of the cast sleepwalk through the nominal script too. Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters may become one of those cult movies that enjoys a life on Blu-ray and DVD as the sort of Saturday night viewing, sitting at home watching it with a few beers but what is more likely is that it will just sink without trace. It is without question one of the worst films I’ve seen in quite some time…

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DYING ON ITS FEET
I have always been a big admirer of the first two Die Hard films. They managed to combine a real sense of fun with a pretty sharp, enjoyable script. Die Hard: With A Vengeance, the third effort, was still entertaining but the rot had started to set in. Twelve years passed and the fourth entry, Live Free Or Die Hard, was eminently forgettable. So we fast-forward to 2013 and A Good Day To Die Hard. Policeman John McClane (Bruce Willis) is forced to head to Russia when he discovers that his estranged son Jack McClane (Jai Courtney) is stranded there. So the grizzled former New York cop turns up only to discover that his son is actually a US spy, working to prevent a nuclear weapons heist. Despite the fact that Willis looks significantly older than he did in the first three, A Good Day To Die Hard starts quite encouragingly. But it doesn’t take long before the wheels fall off the car. What made the first two exceptional action films was a strong script and some well-conceived villains. Despite the absence of a decent villain in the third one, there were some nice touches in the script and a  good chemistry between Willis and his reluctant sidekick, played by Samuel Jackson. The problem here is that any wisecracking is kept to a bare minimum and the action is too relentless to give the viewer any time to breathe. Also, there is almost zero chemistry between father and son and the plot feels like a discarded 1980s James Bond film idea. It has a very short running time of only 90 minutes and it is obvious that they are looking to replace Willis with Courtney for a sixth outing of the Die Hard franchise. Let’s hope that they give it a little more thought than this one. A Good Day To Die Hard is a tawdry exercise in explosive stunts and unmemorable villains, which is just about watchable but continues the slow decline of one of the better mainstream Hollywood cash cows…

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TAKEN FOR A RIDE
The first Taken, back in 2008, was enjoyable nonsense. Liam Neeson made a decent fist as retired CIA agent Bryan Mills running around Europe to find his missing daughter. Hollywood also thought it was something that was worth mining again for a sequel. Fast-forward a few years and Mills is separated from wife Lenore (Famke Janssen) and he only sees his daughter Kim (Maggie Grace) for driving lessons. But there are repercussions from the people he dispatched in the first film and so the father of one of the men he killed in the first film and his henchmen are out to avenge the man’s dead son. Neeson is a very limited actor but if Taken 2 had an intelligent or even vaguely clever premise, script, plot or execution, this wouldn’t really matter. The problem is that obstacles are thrown in his way and he manages to get around them with staggering ease. The action sequences are well directed but very stupid and Neeson is lumpen and there’s no credibility at all for him as an action hero. Taken 2 is empty, vacuous and lacking any substance at all and let’s hope we won’t see a third outing for this waste of digital celluloid. The only good thing about this film is its short running time…

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TWO SETS OF CARTOON CHARACTERS
A new Pixar film is usually an event that’s worth waiting for, although last year’s Cars 2 was a fairly weak affair. Brave, Pixar’s latest effort, has had a slightly chequered history, as it lost its original director Brenda Chapman. Despite this, the film, which deals with Scottish princess Merida (Kelly Macdonald) and her attempt to live her own life despite the demands of her parents Fergus and Elinor (voiced respectively by Billy Connelly and Emma Thompson), is very enjoyable. Although it’s not up there with the best of Pixar, Brave has heart and visual flair with some talented voices creating the characters and the 3D recreation of Scotland looks incredible. Merida is a decent female protagonist and Macdonald shows that she is well suited to animation. Connelly, Thompson, Craig Ferguson and Kevin McKidd make for a decent supporting vocal cast. It’s not a classic but it is a very likeable film and one that sits well with the Pixar canon. Brave is worth seeing…
Expendables 2 is the follow-up to 2010’s film which brought together a group of past-it eighties action screen figures under Sylvester Stallone’s wing. Despite the fact that it wasn’t actually very good, it made enough money to justify another one. Jason Statham, as the young(ish) turk is back as is Stallone, Dolph Lundgren and Bruce Wilis and Arnold Schwarzenegger have bigger parts in this second film. This time around, we also have Jean Claude Van Damme and Chuck Norris join the cast. Directed by Englishman Simon West (Con Air, The General’s Daughter), Expendables 2 is one of those films which is pretty critic-proof. It has a fairly stupid script, Stallone looks even weirder than he did last time, there are a few nice comic lines that show that the makers are aware that most of the cast are well past their sell-by date but they don’t really care and it has some well-directed action sequences. If you enjoyed the first one and miss the regular big screen exploits of Van Damme, Stallone, Norris et al, then you’ll lap it up…

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CRUISE CONTROLLED

Tom Cruise has had a very chequered career in recent years thanks to his association with Scientology. Mission Impossible is a series of films that still appeals to the worldwide cinema audience and I went to see Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, the latest instalment in the series. Cruise returns as agent Ethan Hunt in a story that’s helmed this time by director Brad Bird (The Incredibles). The IMF is shut down after they are implicated in the bombing of the Kremlin, forcing them to go on the run to clear their names. Ghost Protocol is being shown in IMAX and sometimes this gives the action scenes impressive impact (the sequence where Hunt has to climb onto the world’s highest building in Dubai is a piece of genuine exciting cinema) but the script is quite weak. Ghost Protocol feels like a film where the production company have come up with a number of impressive setpieces before the script is even written and so it lacks cohesion. The script feels a little old-fashioned and anachronistic, like an Eighties Bond film. Jeremy Renner as Brandt doesn’t ring that true as action man material but Simon Pegg as comic relief Benji does what he always does on screen in that annoyingly likeable fashion. Cruise is rather bland and unengaging but sometimes, like in the opening prison break sequence, he works rather well. The other problem with the film is that, despite Bird as director, Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol feels like a star vehicle for Tom Cruise. It passes the time pleasantly enough but feels pretty forgettable. It’s bound to do well at the Christmas box office as it’s pretty review-proof. Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol is a pleasant enough piece of fluff but it doesn’t stay with you once you leave the cinema…

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PROS AND CONS OF BEING A JOURNALIST
What I do has its ups and downs. The downside is when work is sparse on the ground, you end up envying people with a regular income. But the upside is that you do get to do some genuinely fun things. Back in August I went along to London’s lavish Dorchester Hotel on Park Lane in Mayfair to meet Sylvester Stallone, director of The Expendables, and cast members Dolph Lundgren and Jason Statham. The suite was packed with members of the press as the trio answered questions on the film. Stallone was the most vocal of the three and he admitted that there was a lot of pressure for him.
“Sometimes you come onto a film and you’ve got a major turkey and it’s not even Thanksgiving but this time it’s the other end of it where there’s a great expectancy and you’re thinking ‘jeez I didn’t expect this when we started making it.’ So you begin to think: ‘Is this going to live up to its ideals.’ It’s complex. You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t.”
Statham echoed this. “All the expectations were on Sly. That’s why you choose to work with people who know what they’re doing. A lot of the time we don’t get such a luxury in that choice,” to which Stallone quipped: “You’d better go with Christopher Nolan now!”
Dolph Lundgren agreed with his two co-actors. “This movie is like the World Championships and you feel like you just want to live up to it.”
Stallone and Lundgren appeared together in Rocky IV twenty-five years ago and the conference was wondering whether the dynamic had changed between them and how Stallone prepared to appear on screen with Lundgren again.
“That’s a good question,” Stallone responded. “For the first part, I’ve never trained harder than I did for Rocky IV. Dolph is a world-class athlete so we got to know each other pretty well. Then time has changed. We’ve gone through ups and downs, marriages and then meeting this time was really a pleasure because of all the actors I’ve worked with, he’s remained the most grounded and humble. Plus I’m dying to kick his brains in!”
The conference lasted for around 20 minutes and then they were led out. Stallone stuck around outside the hotel to sign autographs, pose for photos and admire a group of very expensive sports cars that were parked outside the hotel. The charm offensive for The Expendables obviously worked as talk is afoot of a sequel already.

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A ROCKY END?
I went to see The Expendables last week at Empire, Leicester Square in London’s West End. I admit that I was a sucker for some of those stupid Eighties movies starring Stallone and Schwarzenegger, so I was hoping that perhaps the film may have provided a little bit of unchallenging entertainment. Stallone, while not the world’s greatest director, has made a few solid films in the past and is a competent if unremarkable actor. The Expendables of the title are a group of mercenaries who go around the world battling villains like Somali pirates and evil South American dictators. Stallone leads the group which also includes Dolph (Punisher) Lundgren, Jason Statham (Crank, Transporter and Death Race) as the humourously named Lee Christmas and Jet Li (Hero, Romeo Must Die). Also part of the group is Mickey Rourke as their mechanic, the imaginatively-named Tool. So the group is hired by Mr Church (a cameo from Bruce Willis) to take out General Garza, the tyrant who runs fictional Central American island Vilena. Even Arnold Schwarzenegger has a small on-camera appearance. So cue soft-rock and long lingering camera shots of a plane over the sea. The Expendables isn’t the worst film you’ll see this summer as it rarely outstays its welcome with a tight 90 minute running time but the problem is that it takes itself far too seriously, Stallone looks a little weird and Rourke looks stranger and more freakish with each film he appears in. Only Statham and Li work here and they’re significantly younger than Stallone and Lundgren, who is as wooden and stiff as he was in his Eighties heyday. This is a film that will come and go pretty briefly at the cinema and is only really worth watching on a Saturday night with a few beers on satellite TV.