Criterion Sunday 26: The Long Good Friday (1980)

On first look, The Long Good Friday is a film very much of its period with its clothes and hairstyles, its clunky technology and pulsating synth-led score, but there are a few reasons for the film’s resilience. It was made at the tail end of the 1970s as the UK was anticipating its new right-wing Conservative government under Margaret Thatcher and thus a period of intense business investment and privatisation, and the plot taps into that, as Harry Shand (a mesmerising Bob Hoskins) tries to leverage his gangland supremacy into business success by redeveloping an area of the defunct docklands in the East End. Of course, as we’ve all seen in many subsequent films and TV shows (The Wire season 3 is one that springs to mind), whatever control gangsters may exert over people are as nothing to the coldly brutal machinations of global capital. However, the very area where this film is set was to become a symbol of 80s property developers’ greed and corporate excess — no doubt the local government corruption and dubious investment practices charted here was a factor in real life. (Indeed, the huge Canary Wharf project that did away with many of this film’s locations not long after it was made became a victim of the 1987 crash and it was quite some time before it recovered to become a shining beacon of capitalism.) Still, at the heart of the film is a simple tale of gangland revenge, as Harry’s business dealings are put in question by a series of anonymous attacks on him. Thus it very much hangs on Hoskins as an actor to hold things together, and in this he does marvellous work (the director’s confidence in his actor is suggested by the final long take of Hoskins’ face), ably assisted by Helen Mirren as much more than merely a gangster’s moll, but a strong and equal partner in developing Harry’s business concerns. There’s plenty of iconic lines as well as small appearances from familiar faces (it even nods to last week’s Alphaville with Eddie Constantine as the American businessman). It’s not always a vision of London that one wants to get behind, but Hoskins makes it compelling.


FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director John Mackenzie; Writer Barrie Keeffe; Cinematographer Phil Meheux; Starring Bob Hoskins, Helen Mirren; Length 114 minutes.

Seen at a friend’s flat (DVD), London, Sunday 8 March 2015.

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.

CREDITS
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).

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.