Sicario (2015)

I’m not a ‘real’ film critic, I just bash away reviews here on the internet for my own amusement, and that of a small handful of readers, who I imagine are only intermittently engaged even then. So when I don’t like a film as much as I feel I’m supposed to by the ‘real’ film critics, I tend to get self-deprecating and assume there’s something wrong with me. You, for example, may love the taut, tense atmosphere established in the brooding first hour of Sicario, beginning with its portentous explanation of the title (something about the Hebrew scriptures, I’ve kinda forgotten, but the film poster says it means “hitman” in Spanish). You may find the apparent moral complexities of the scenario set on the US-Mexican border deeply involving, in which those running the operations (Josh Brolin’s Matt, in league with Benicio del Toro’s Alejandro) have a shadowy identity unknown even to our nominal hero, the quiet and studious FBI agent Kate (Emily Blunt). I don’t want to put you off going to see the film, and it does have its strengths, hence my tentatively positive review. I’m on the level about the atmosphere, for example — it really is very well set up by Canadian director Denis Villeneuve (whose mindfuck Enemy was most recently on UK screens), with a laconic script and plenty of long-shots suggesting at times that we’re watching surveillance footage. We see Kate in action with her FBI team at the outset, uncovering a home filled with dead drug mules (somewhat in the grisly style of Se7en) and rigged with explosive devices, and from there, scarcely rattled, she is swiftly co-opted into Matt’s team via a series of unseen (to her) high-level meetings.

It’s just that, for all the efficacy of its portentous tone, none of the insights seem particularly believable, though the key to that I suspect is that audiences want to believe that the US government operates shadowy black-ops teams who — and here be spoilers, albeit without any names, as these are explanations the film doesn’t indulge until about halfway through — co-opt Colombian drug cartel hitmen to help take control of the Mexican drug trade so as to better… I don’t know, assassinate all the bad guys? In that sense, it all feels a bit 80s. By the time the film gets to its denouement, its titular hitman is as potent a symbol of pure imperialist ideology as anyone out of a Tarantino flick; he might as well be wearing shades and quoting scripture. Certainly the moral complexities seem to evaporate in a haze of Mexican dust and dead bodies, as certain members of the audience emit nervous (or perhaps triumphant, depending on where you’re watching) laughter at key scenes of torture and bloodshed. Meanwhile our apparent hero Kate, despite being an FBI agent, entirely lacks agency within the film, and the times she does attempt to step up, she’s quickly rebutted by violence and intimidation. In this way, it certainly reveals patterns of male violence and controlling behaviour as well as some rather confrontational attitudes towards immigration, but then so did Touch of Evil, a film with which Sicario certainly shares a setting and a few moral grey areas, with Kate and her legal-trained FBI buddy the audience’s stand-in for Charlton Heston. Still, if you’re going to stand up to such a towering work of cinema then Sicario does pretty well all told. Just be prepared for a lot of guys, guns and nasty business.

Sicario film poster CREDITS
Director Denis Villeneuve; Writer Taylor Sheridan; Cinematographer Roger Deakins; Starring Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin, Benicio del Toro; Length 121 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Wednesday 23 September 2015.

Edge of Tomorrow (2014)

Tom Cruise has made a bit of a career in recent times at the thoughtful big-budget science-fiction genre. Perhaps he wanted to be in Inception and is trying to make up for it? In any case, while he’s very much front and centre in Edge of Tomorrow (or “Live Die Repeat” as the trailers and the, er, hashtag prefer to call it), the real standout hero is Emily Blunt as Sgt Rita Vrataski. She holds the key to unlocking the mystery of Cruise’s Major Bill Cage and his ever-recurring present (think Groundhog Day but with less comedy and more guns and violence), and she also proves herself the emotional centre of the piece. The film may not advance the genre, but it fills its generic shoes with uncommon concision and, much like the first Bourne film by the same director, makes for reassuring pleasures. Major Cage starts as a battle-shy media relations man in the Army at a time when the world is battling a shape-shifting seemingly invincible monster and has a great (and humorous) scene-setting tête-à-tête with Brendan Gleeson’s General in charge of all the world’s forces. If the media collage opening, with its glimpses of current-day political leaders intercut with Cruise, Gleeson and others in Starship Troopers newsbite form, seems to stretch credulity, it also hints that the film takes place in an alternate universe – or should that be “multiverse”, given the repetition at its heart. Cage is soon busted down to Private, and it’s here that the interplay between Cruise and Blunt takes over, to excellent effect. From thereon in it’s all fairly straightforward, with a few subtle shifts of setting that serve to keep the audience engaged, and a redemptive finale that doesn’t overstay its welcome.

Edge of Tomorrow film posterCREDITS
Director Doug Liman; Writers Christopher McQuarrie, Jez Butterworth and John-Henry Butterworth (based on the novel オール・ユー・ニード・イズ・キル Oru Yu Nido Izu Kiru “All You Need Is Kill” by Hiroshi Sakurazaka 桜坂洋); Cinematographer Dion Beebe; Starring Tom Cruise, Emily Blunt, Bill Paxton, Brendan Gleeson, Noah Taylor; Length 113 minutes.
Seen at Genesis, London, Monday 9 June 2014.

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 (streaming), Friday 9 August 2013.