Far and away the funniest and most enjoyable film of the year, bar none. I haven’t laughed like that in years, and it’s down to two things: writer/director John Michael McDonagh’s vicious, yet well-observed script, and lead Brendan Gleeson’s towering performance. The film at times veers pretty close to Father Ted territory – almost surreal characters mixed with humour so un-politically correct even the EDL would shriek – but as a whole it’s an awful lot more shrewd (and the humour blacker) than it seems at the start. Guarda cop Gleeson investigates a murder on the sleepy west coast of Ireland, which turns out to be connected to a drug smuggling operation led by Liam Cunningham & henchman Mark Strong. But it’s when FBI man Don Cheadle arrives to lead the larger investigation that Gleeson’s ascerbic nature has consequences – his rampant racism for starters. But is Gerry Boyle really the one-note character he initially seems?
The bad guys lose, the good guys win (notably after a totally ridiculous Western shoot-out), but not as you might expect, and it’s to McDonagh’s credit that your expectations are screwed with from start to (literally) finish. Gleeson’s Boyle is a whore loving, drug taking, racist slob, who’d rather bark complaints about his coffee and steal drugs from dead joyriders than follow orders. Yet his sense of integrity and natural justice is far more solid and true than any of his colleagues – bend and break the rules he may (particularly in his friendship with an IRA gunrunner), but he does know how to get the job done. It’s difficult to do the subtle humour justice, nor the way in which it succeeds in transforming a bog standard buddy movie into something very special indeed.
I haven’t really mentioned Don Cheadle yet, largely because he’s little more than a device for Boyle’s character development. Trotting around the sleepy Irish community in which he finds himself, he too (but unintentionally) causes the same offence we call Boyle out so easily on, with equally amusing results. But he’s not alone in brilliant support – Mark (what film isn’t he the baddy in?) Strong’s turn as a philosophising drug smuggler has to be seen to be believed. Taken together they comprise a complex film masquerading as slapstick comedy – by far the most intelligent comedy I’ve seen in years. But at the end of the day it’s Brendan Gleeson’s show – he doesn’t just chew up the scenery, he devours the entire set. Admirably executive produced by Cheadle, it’s the sort of film you could never get out of the US. Gleeson should get award after award for this, whilst McDonagh has no doubt an even brighter future.
With a cast like this how can anyone not be really really excited? And check out who the director is…
Here’s the counterpoint to Captain America: Ryan Reynolds looks the part, Martin Campbell is an excellent action director (when he’s in the mood), and even DC co-publisher Geoff Johns – the ongoing book’s writer – is on board. But it’s a complete waste of time – all for nothing. The film is a garbled mess, it has no unique selling points, and noone clearly thought whether the highly successful comic property would work at all well as a film franchise. The moment where Hal’s mask is first seen in public drew hysterical, catty laughter in the cinema, for the few moments that people weren’t asleep from boredom or thoroughly insulted by the shoddy script and lazy acting. Martin Campbell has shown he knows how to direct blockbusters (‘Casino Royale’/'Goldeneye’), but either his eye was off the ball here or there was a far more serious series of failures. It’s not unwatchable but it is tedious, the script is terrible and far too much of what you need to know comes from endless exposition.
You know something is wrong when Blake Lively is the best actor in the film. Reynolds simply isn’t up to the task of playing a hero, but he isn’t helped by being woefully badly written. Test pilot Hal Jordan crashes his boss’ super fighter jet – he’s reckless. We know he’s reckless because we have it drummed into us every few minutes. We’re also constantly told he’s unreliable – again it’s drummed into us. Then Hal gets the ring (he doesn’t even show the slightest awe when seeing alien Abin Sur), instead just goes on admitting he’s reckless and unreliable and unworthy – we’re even given a brief flashback to prove his confidence issues come from seeing his father die. So how is this supposed to be interesting? In short it isn’t.
Hal gets a spine when he defeats Parallax (seriously – how are kids with today’s sophisticated tastes going to be remotely interested in an amorphous ‘entity of evil’?), but until that point there’s no moral centre to the film. Bruce Wayne has his revenge, Clark has his upbringing, as does Peter; Tony was just plain cool, but Hal? Hal’s not interesting, and Reynolds offers nothing to make him interesting. It’s a film which does everything it can do badly badly, but even then clearly by committee. I can’t recommend anything about it really. I went off to sleep for about 15 minutes of it. Why didn’t they bother spending more than a cursory few minutes with Sinestro (Mark Strong)?
Hint to DC: if you want us to like your heroes on film, you have to give us nobility (nope, not from Hal), tortured past (nope, not for Hal), wry humour (Thor gets it, Hal doesn’t), or a likeable everyman quality. The Corps wasn’t needed this time around – randomly including huge numbers of characters who aren’t given remotely decent screen time (Kilowog is the moral core of the Corps for example) comes across as a cynical licensing opportunity. Only the post-credits sequence with Sinestro gives any hope for the inevitable sequel, but I can’t really say I care about the prospect.
Director Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe’s last collaboration was the multi-award-winning ‘Gladiator’, which I admit I really didn’t care much for, so I came to their ‘Robin Hood’ remake with trepidation. And in all honesty I really liked it – it’s a 2 1/2 hour epic, with a surprisingly strong script, some funny dialogue (some terrible dialogue too) and intelligent direction; it’s highly entertaining too. Of course it’s helped by some knockout performances – Crowe hogs the screen without much effort with his Robin (now Longstride), but he’s more than matched by the outstanding Cate Blanchett as Maid Marion (now Marion Loxley). I’ll grant that noone tries to reinvent the wheel – why American William Hurt was cast as William Marshal is a complete mystery, and Crowe never strays too far from his trademark gruff persona, but somehow it all works. It’s a film which should either have been a complete retread or be completely dark and brooding, but Scott infuses his rebooted Hood drama with considerable charm, despite its length.
Robin Longstride starts the film fighting the French under King Richard (Danny Huston), on the return from the Crusades. Demoralised by their army’s brutality and excess, Longstride and his ‘merry’ friends return to England after Richard’s assassination, promising also-assassinated Sir Robert Loxley (Douglas Hodge) to return his sword to his father. Meanwhile his assassin Sir Godfrey (Mark Strong, now thoroughly Alan Rickman-ised by the film world) plays both the English the French off against each other, in the hope of power for himself following a successful French invasion. It’s a long story, hinging around Longstride’s adoption of Loxley’s identity in order to prevent Blanchett from having her property seized by the Crown. Of course the two end up together, of course Robin starts to battle injustice by the Crown, of course King John enters the fray, and of course there’s a climactic showdown on the beaches (mystifyingly bloodless at that) in which the good guys win and the bad guys lose. Or do they…?
It’s probably too long, the beach landing shamelessly (and needlessly) evokes ‘Saving Private Ryan’s Normandy landings, and the initial story set-up is probably far too involved (although the ending marks the film as an opening salvo in a new franchise attempt) but screenwriter Brian Helgeland weaves an involving yarn despite the script’s occasional excesses. It’s a welcome change under a director normally far better at delivering set pieces than a strong narrative. And Oscar Isaac positively commands the screen as a thoroughly villainous (and often hilarious, yet never crossing the line into pantomime) King John, chewing every scene he’s in for all it’s worth, his character never quite playing his hand until the final act. Those expecting a traditional Robin vs Sheriff (Matthew Macfadyen) romp will have to wait until the inevitable sequel, and those expecting more accent consistency than Prince of Thieves will be similarly (though not so thoroughly) disappointed, but this is a good start for ‘new’ Robin. We’ve had ‘Batman Begins’, now so does Robin.
How Guy Ritchie of all people managed to put together a perfectly good and highly enjoyable Sherlock Holmes movie, and with Robert Downey Jr in the lead, is beyond me. But the fact remains that his brazen attempt to both reboot Holmes and to set up a franchise succeeds, in an odd way a little too well. The ex-Mr Madonna and his screenwriters Michael Robert Johnson and Anthony Peckham actually cram far too much detail into an otherwise lovingly crafted and straightforward conspiracy against the British state, and leave the first half a little bloated and a bit too clever for its own good. Is Lord Blackwood (the sublime Mark Strong) really a black magician, using dark arts to take over Britain and then the world? With highly enjoyable twists and turns, the fractious Holmes and Watson investigate.
The first half of the movie is quite perplexing, despite some excellent scenes where we see the world from Holmes’ point of view. The bare knuckle fight sequence may upset film Holmes purists, but getting a snapshot of how his mind works adds a valuable dimension to Downey’s oddball performance. Whilst he clearly can’t decide still whether to play the character or just ‘do Downey’, he errs on the side of caution for the most part and is a highly watchable, charismatic lead; to manage Holmes and Stark simultaneously is no mean achievement. And Jude Law as a heavily retooled Watson is a delight too – the chemistry between them dominates the movie, as they both chew their way through every scene they share. And the back half of the movie – the payoff – is extremely strong and remarkably traditional; anyone expecting the Hollywoodised style of the trailer couldn’t be more wrong. Whilst Ritchie’s pacing is as rapid as you might imagine, it’s never at the expense of story. Well almost never – it might have helped to have known more about Holmes’ past relationship with Rachel McAdam, but this is a minor quibble.
The rebooted Sherlock Holmes for a new century is a definite success and great entertainment for audiences on both sides of the Atlantic. Its highly impressive look, its eschewing any form of origin sequence (I mean who doesn’t know who Holmes is?) and the decision to take a whole new approach with Holmes and Watson casting are all triumphs for Ritchie. The lead-in to the sequel (which seems to have now been greenlit) is also pretty welcome; I can stand to revisit these characters quite happily. All in all an excellent balance between a cerebral mystery and out and out action – a very pleasant surprise.