Despite the Falling Snow (2016)

I did want to like this Cold War-era spy romance. It has snowy settings, as the title promises (specifically, Moscow in the late-50s and early-60s), and it has some attractive actors doing their best thespian faces. Chief among these is the Swedish actor Rebecca Ferguson, who, playing glamorous spy Katya, is required to look with steely intensity at both young Sasha (Sam Reid) in the 1960s setting, and then, as Katya’s artist niece Lauren, at older Sasha (Charles Dance) in the 1990s. The snow does indeed fall, and Ferguson puts her role across rather well, but it doesn’t manage to make up for the clunky underwhelming dialogue the actors are lumbered with, plus the 1990s setting doesn’t really seem to work very well, though some of the intercutting between the two is rather neatly done. Aspects of the plot, too, stretch credulity (our government apparatchik hero Sasha is asked to take home super-top-secret documents to read for his boss, whose eyesight is failing) — this feels like an airport novel romance at its core — and so would seem to require a more full-blooded approach to the acting, perhaps even a bit of campness, which the film rarely delivers (much though Anthony Head does his best in his brief scenes). Yet despite all its misfires, it still looks very handsome — that falling snow — and that’s at least something.

Despite the Falling Snow film posterCREDITS
Director/Writer Shamim Sarif (based on her novel); Cinematographer David Johnson; Starring Rebecca Ferguson, Sam Reid, Charles Dance; Length 93 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld West India Quay, London, Saturday 16 April 2016.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit (2014)

I remember when Kenneth Branagh used to make serious awards-bothering films. I watched his four-hour version of Hamlet (1996). Twice. I even watched the two-hour cut as well, for some reason losts to the mists of time. I mean, that was almost 20 years ago now, and it’s to his credit that he doesn’t do that kind of thing anymore, very sensibly having re-focused his talents on fun, hammy roles. There was his wizard in the second Harry Potter film, or his Laurence Olivier in My Week with Marilyn. It would probably be fair to add the Russian oligarch bad guy Viktor that he plays in this film to that list, though what with all his precise financial machinations, it’s a more underplayed role of brooding intensity and clears the way for Chris Pine’s action heroics.

In truth, though, no individual performance does end up dominating Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit — as far as the title goes, it’s more about the shadow than the recruit. Aside from Branagh, we have Kevin Costner playing the guy quietly running the show, while Keira Knightley is an afterthought of a girlfriend. Amongst all this, Chris Pine has his running-around-making-stuff-happen shtick down from the rebooted Star Trek series, but he’s a curiously inert presence. Part of that is do with the way the film downplays the heroics and the patriotic flag-waving. Sure, he’s trained as a Marine following 9/11 and ten years later, gets the chance to save the day in a frenetic sequence based more-or-less at Ground Zero NYC. Yet his character is more of a back office wonk, tracing financial transactions and trying to explain it to Kevin Costner’s Commander, who — no doubt on our behalf — gamely exhorts Jack to use simpler words. And the final confrontation is between the two men, Jack and Viktor, rather than really about global geopolitics or high finance. It makes for a more interesting central character, I think, but perhaps a less satisfying action movie.

Of course, the character is based on famous Cold War-era conservative Tom Clancy’s gung-ho patriotic spook of the same name, developed over a number of novels (and already adapted into a number of films). If some of the jingoism has been toned down by the British director, then we still get some gloriously old-school villains, what with our Soviet Russian baddie, meaning a large chunk of the plot takes place in a Moscow whose modern shiny glass-and-steel edifices jostle with the more picturesque charms the film is at pains to present.

No one’s going to try to argue this is a masterpiece, and it has its longueurs. But it does what it needs to do without too much fuss. The style is all fairly straightforward and unshowy. Pine does his stuff, Knightley scrubs up quite well as a (medical) doctor, and Costner broods effectively. And, like the director he is, Branagh plays a character who thinks he’s in control, but just maybe someone will come along and find a hole in his plotting.

Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit film posterCREDITS
Director Kenneth Branagh; Writers Adam Cozad and David Koepp (based on characters by Tom Clancy); Cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos Χάρις Ζαμπαρλούκος; Starring Chris Pine, Kevin Costner, Keira Knightley, Kenneth Branagh; Length 105 minutes.
Seen at Cineworld Wood Green, London, Wednesday 12 February 2014.

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.