Criterion Sunday 40: Armageddon (1998)

If my eyes were raised at the inclusion in Criterion’s august collection of the respective pairs of John Woo’s Hong Kong gangster films or Paul Morrissey’s 70s Euro-horror exploitation flicks, then this blockbusting Michael Bay action film is surely the most idiosyncratic choice yet. It’s not that a case can’t be made for it: the liner notes set out an adulatory essay on the film’s claim to greatness, while reading the comments on Criterion’s own page for the film suggest that there’s value in its inclusion just as a gesture of épater le bourgeois (cinéaste). I might add that it does, after all, exemplify a certain trend in Hollywood filmmaking, of which Michael Bay is surely the auteurist hero — the tradition of bigger, louder, stupider explosiveness on all counts. This doesn’t make it a good film, though. It’s not even the pummelling sound design and frenetic editing which do it in, but the utterly predictable character arcs — gung-ho and grizzled miner Harry (Bruce Willis) assembles a team to save the world from an asteroid collision, in the process accepting the feckless A.J. (Ben Affleck) as a suitable husband for his equally gung-ho daughter Grace (Liv Tyler) — all of which are punctuated by the most perfunctorily saccharine music cues. It’s not that I hate the film — though the characterisation of Steve Buscemi as a ladies’ man, while surely intended as comic, just seems gratuitous — it’s that I find it on the whole rather boring and forgettable. In the end, you’d be best advised to save yourself the two and a half hours, and instead just watch the Aerosmith music video, which distills it down to around three minutes without sacrificing any of the drama.

FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director Michael Bay; Writers Jonathan Hensleigh and J.J. Abrams; Cinematographer John Schwartzman; Starring Bruce Willis, Ben Affleck, Liv Tyler, Billy Bob Thornton, Steve Buscemi; Length 153 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s home (DVD), London, Sunday 21 June 2015.

Pulp Fiction (1994)

It’s difficult to revisit this film after so many years, not because it’s not still a solid piece of cinematic entertainment (it is), but because for many of us who were film fans in their late-teens when it first came out, it has something of a watershed status. I initially saw it somewhat illicitly, with the thrill of being (slightly) underage at the cinema given its 18 certification, and subsequently watched it many times on home video — probably too many times, meaning I haven’t looked at it for a very long time. Plus so very much has been written about it over the years, I daresay there’s little I can add. In any case, this most recent screening was on account of its 20th anniversary (20 years!), and I can confirm it still holds up. Like director Quentin Tarantino’s best works, it has a loose shaggy feel to it, while still being tightly structured, and if there are strands and characters I’m less keen on, the overall effect remains undiminished. Part of that loose structural feeling comes from the fact that it features a number of separate stories, introduced by title cards and linked by some shared characters and — eventually — shared locations seen from different perspectives, but the tightness is in the interwoven nature of the storylines, which recalls Altman’s Short Cuts of the year before (and indeed the short stories of Raymond Carver on which that film was based). At the film’s heart are Jules and Vince, a pair of hitmen played by Sam Jackson and John Travolta, early and mid career highs for each actor respectively. Tarantino always was good at showcasing the best of his (often unfashionable) actors — here including Bruce Willis and Uma Thurman — but that sadly doesn’t extend to his own appearances; his infatuation with blaxsploitation filmmaking combined with a vocabulary that seems partly indebted to the gangsta rap of the period is not anything that should really be coming from his own lips, though I suppose his willingness to declaim it marks some kind of honesty. His other up-front influences are rather more delightfully integrated, including an obsession with Jean-Luc Godard that you’d perhaps expect from a filmmaker whose production company is called A Band Apart, and which manifests itself in an early shot of Jules and Vince framed from the back of their heads, and continues into Vince’s dance with an Anna Karina-like Mia (Uma Thurman), not to mention other little self-consciously cinematic flourishes. That’s not to say Tarantino lacks his own style, but a key part of that style is grounded in his own pop cultural education, and Pulp Fiction is where that all came together most forcefully, and still does.

Pulp Fiction film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Quentin Tarantino; Cinematographer Andrzej Sekula; Starring Samuel L. Jackson, John Travolta, Uma Thurman, Bruce Willis, Ving Rhames; Length 154 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Shaftesbury Avenue, London, Tuesday 20 May 2014 (and at the Paramount, Wellington, in 1994).

RED (2010)

At some level this is an unlikely franchise — it’s basically just an excuse for lots of quite famous actors to have a bit of fun and, for many of them, to do the kind of action film they don’t generally get to appear in — but as both this and its sequel RED 2 (2013) show, actors having fun can sometimes, very occasionally, translate to an enjoyable cinematic experience for the audience. It may not be thought-provoking or particularly original, but it’s good to pass a few hours with some laughs in the company of some pleasant people.

The key, of course, is the cartoonishness, and as with so many recent films, this one is based on a comic book. There are plenty of big action setpieces, but it’s all in aid of a very self-consciously old-fashioned story — something to do with the participants in a secret mission in Guatemala in the early-80s that went catastrophically wrong all being killed off to protect a conspiracy that goes all the way to the top, which pulls us into that Cold War world of po-faced 1980s films like Salvador and Missing (one of the participants in that secret mission is played a familiar character actor from the 80s, James Remar), but with a comic cartoon spin. It’s a different way of lightly setting out the collusion of the US executive and military (not to mention the Soviets, who also show up here) with shady Latin-American governments in that era to further their own interests, the application of the military-industrial complex so familiar from, say, Oliver Stone’s films.

The cast is dominated by character actors, including Helen Mirren very much playing against type just by being in this genre (and no doubt she took the gig for the chance to do the action scenes), but also Brian Cox as a camp Russian spy, Karl Urban as an impetuous young CIA agent, and John Malkovich and Morgan Freeman as Willis’s fellow retired spies (“Retired, Extremely Dangerous” is the acronym that gives the film its title). There’s also a small role for Ernest Borgnine as an archivist, linking the film to the 1980s via a different route (Borgnine was a central character on the very much espionage- and military-obssessed, but rather less comic, Airwolf TV series). However, it’s the (comparatively) younger actor Mary-Louise Parker who walks away with the film as the viewer surrogate, Sarah, a regular woman holding down a job at a pension fund call centre, who coordinates a vast array of facial responses and sarcastic rejoinders to the ridiculous situations she’s put in. Some of these skirt all too close to a non-cartoonish world — as Frank, the main character, Willis breaks in rather creepily to Sarah’s apartment and kidnaps her (for her own safety), but the writers don’t shirk away from the implications of this (it’s not played as any kind of romantic gesture that will lead to their falling in love), and I think it’s handled as well as it could be, all things considered. For the most part though, Sarah has the upper hand even over the trained professional killers.

Already this year I’ve seen too many big blockbuster films that are filled with effects and whizz-bang boys-own nonsense but seem like joyless money-making enterprises (I’d say they were made more by accountants than filmmakers, but that’s too much of a cliché — I know some accountants and they’re lovely and interesting people, so I fear its the filmmakers’ fault). I’m hardly claiming that RED is not a money-making enterprise at heart, but at the very least it’s not joyless. It’s fun, and while thought-provoking moral conundrums can be nice, sometimes all you want from your summer blockbuster (or home video rental) is a bit of fun.

Director Robert Schwentke; Writers Jon Hoeber and Erich Hoeber (based on the comic book by Warren Ellis and Cully Hammer); Cinematographer Florian Ballhaus; Starring Bruce Willis, Mary-Louise Parker, John Malkovich, Helen Mirren, Morgan Freeman; Length 107 minutes.
Seen at Peckhamplex, London, Tuesday 9 November 2010 (and on TV at home, London, Sunday 11 August 2013).

Looper (2012)

Rian Johnson’s debut Brick (2005), also starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, was a nice little story set at a high school, an original script but filtering it through all kinds of cinematic influences, not least noir movies. This film too is written by director Johnson but filtered through even more influences. It has a grandiose affect and purports to deal with the fate of humanity’s future, but at heart it’s a character-based drama, and is all rather goofily perplexing.

The film’s gimmick is that two of the actors (Gordon-Levitt and Bruce Willis) are nominally playing the same character, Joe, at different ages. However, thanks to alternate timelines, they are effectively different people, althougn the older Joe has the memories of the younger, and is physically affected by events that happen to his younger self. Confusingly, old Joe isn’t affected until they happen in younger Joe’s (past) time, but the film doesn’t spend too much time dwelling on the paradoxes of time travel. In fact older Joe basically tells his younger self to stop thinking about it — which is probably just as well, because as ever a few moments’ thought renders it all rather silly.

This leaves the narrative with Gordon-Levitt’s impersonation of Willis (padded out by some prosthetics, so I gather, although to me he comes across more as Daniel Craig than Willis), all taut whispers and explosive action, as well as the interactions between these two characters and Emily Blunt as impoverished farmer Sara. Her involvement comes around halfway through, as she is possibly the mother of a future crimelord who has killed older Joe’s wife, and prompts some handwringing for the protagonist about the way future events have been affected by both Sara’s unconscious choices and by those made by himself.

Ultimately all the issues raised within the story seem subordinate to the film’s sense of style. A Blade Runner-like future dystopia gets the hardboiled noir voiceover treatment, with some comic book gangsterism that resembles nothing so much as Back to the Future (1985) and its sequels. Willis’s involvement triggers memories of 12 Monkeys (1995), in turn recalling La Jetée (1962), present here in the flashbacks to old Joe’s home life and wife. However, this is just to touch on the influences: they pervade the film from start to end.

I imagine all this will be pleasing to many viewers but it gets a bit wearying to this one. However, I did enjoy the film, and it has plenty of forward momentum which carries it through to a surprising denouement. Certainly worth a watch, but take its advice on not thinking too hard about the time travel.

Looper film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Rian Johnson; Cinematographer Steve Yedlin; Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Bruce Willis, Emily Blunt, Jeff Daniels; Length 114 minutes.
Seen at home (Amazon streaming), Friday 9 August 2013.

RED 2 (2013)

Of all the comic book-based franchises that this past decade has wrought, RED (2010) neither seemed to demand nor require a sequel. It was a pleasant, light-hearted confection about former government ‘black ops’ assassins just trying to retire in peace (its capitalised title being short for “Retired, Extremely Dangerous”). Plenty of the original cast have returned for this second outing, and admirably it manages to retain much of the same breezy charm for what is essentially an entirely unnecessary film.

At its heart is the relationship between retired killer Frank (Bruce Willis) and ordinary office worker Sarah (Mary-Louise Parker). In fact, I’d go so far as to say that all the action and espionage thriller hokum that give the film its narrative structure are just distractions from what is basically a romantic comedy: Frank is having trouble allowing Sarah autonomy within their relationship, and his friends from the first film, Marvin (John Malkovich) and Victoria (Helen Mirren), offer him counsel — generally while despatching Russian agents or kidnapping Iranian diplomats. It’s these little domestic moments, lit up by Parker’s agile facial expressions, that really make the film.

For quite patently the plot is overextended Cold War-era nonsense involving a secret nuclear device in Moscow created by Anthony Hopkins’ apparently mad scientist, who has since been imprisoned in London. This bomb is being chased down by Catherina Zeta-Jones as a Russian secret agent (double agent?), Victoria has been employed to go after Frank, while Lee Byung-Hun as a Korean contract killer is gunning for pretty much everyone.

Given all this, it’s just as well all the actors seem to be having fun, and it makes some of the longueurs (of which there are several) pass more easily to watch Malkovich, Willis and Parker work together. Like any good ensemble comedy, there’s a generosity towards the guest appearances, and no single actor is allowed to steal any scenes, though Parker comes closest. Mirren meanwhile gets to take charge as a competently lethal professional — with a brief comic detour into play-acting as Queen Elizabeth (though the first one here, mercifully) — and Malkovich pops up in a procession of ridiculous hats and costumes.

The film is too long and the plot too labyrinthine, but there is chemistry between Willis and Parker and, more importantly, there’s an underlying comic frisson. If the jokes aren’t quite as sustained as the first film, it doesn’t make this film any less likeable in an easygoing way. As long as you don’t go in expecting much, you should be able to glean a couple of hours of enjoyment from RED 2.

RED 2 film posterCREDITS
Director Dean Parisot; Writers Jon Hoeber and Erich Hoeber; Cinematographer Enrique Chediak; Starring Bruce Willis, Mary-Louise Parker, John Malkovich, Helen Mirren, Anthony Hopkins; Length 116 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Sunday 4 August 2013.