28 August 2008

THE LONG RIDERS (Dir. Walter Hill, 1980, US) - A moving and sombre study of masculinity, death and mythology

With the recent Brad Pitt western ‘Assassination of Jesse James’ attracting widespread critical acclaim for its astute exploration of the mythology surrounding such notorious historical figures as the James-Younger gang that formed such an endemic part of how we perceive the western genre, it is hard to ignore the number of times Hollywood has paid homage to the legend that is Jesse James. Alongside the recent Brad Pitt film which has become somewhat of a definitive statement on Jesse James stands Samuel Fuller’s stunning 1949 film, ‘I Shot Jesse James’ and Walter Hill’s ‘The Long Riders’, a film that turns its attention away from the overwhelming mythology surrounding Jesse James, focusing on the dynamic relationships that existed amongst the members (mainly brothers) of the gang itself.

Walter Hill directed a number of unglamorous revisionist westerns in the 80s and 90s including ‘Geronimo’ and ‘Wild Bill’, and more recently, contributing to the success of the HBO TV series, ‘Deadwood’. ‘The Long Riders’ is arguably one of the best films Walter Hill directed, and it came at a time when the western was more or less dormant, helping to revive the critical status of an essential Hollywood genre. The key to Hill’s direction is that it is wonderfully understated in how he refuses to adhere to any kind of conventional means of fulfilling audience expectations – this is illustrated on several occasions through a rejection of narrative continuity and melodrama.

Many of the Hollywood westerns post Peckinpah were somewhat tainted by the sentimental attachment to melodramatic outbursts but it took directors like Peckinpah and Leone to depict a vision of the west that was brutally ugly in how violence manifested itself in the sphere of troubled masculinity. Walter Hill borrows heavily from the slow motion lexicon of Peckinpah, revealing to us with great stylistic flourish of course, the disturbing effect of violence on the human body, creating a constant atmosphere of dread, anxiety and moral uncertainty that seems to ensnare desperate men like Jesse James.

Some critics have said that throughout his career Walter Hill has always been making westerns, and such an observation may be true of his body work that consists of commercially successful projects like ‘The Warriors’ and ’48 Hours’, which even though may be considered urban action thrillers, are still underlined by an array of visual allusions and cinematic references to a genre that has helped to shap the identity of American nationhood for a long time.

Produced by James and Stacey Keach who also star as Jesse and Frank James, ‘The Long Riders’ is a handsomely shot film with a cast made up of David and Keith Carradine, and Dennis and Randy Quaid. Though the idea of casting brothers in the many roles may appear like a gimmick at first, it soon transpires that it was a smart move on Hill’s part as the sense of ease and familiarity displayed by the actors on screen is in no doubt influenced by their sense of familial recognition. The film really seems unsure of itself in the last ten minutes, and the decision to show us the assassination of Jesse James at the hands of Robert Ford is somewhat of a directorial misstep as the moment feels hurried and uninspired sensationalist melodrama that jars quite badly with the rest of the subtly understated narrative.

One of the decisive sequences in the film is the fatal Northfield bank raid that goes terribly wrong. The gang find out too late to make a clean get away and are forced to shoot it out with an armed town that has already been made aware of the fact that the gang may raid the local bank. An elegy to the poetic fatalism of Peckinpah’s violent universe, Hill goes on a wild rampage in terms of editing, cross cutting with slow motion images of the gang being massacred at the hands of ordinary law abiding citizens. Nowhere near a masterpiece in terms of the genre, but still a moving and sombre study of masculinity and its preoccupation with death.

18 August 2008

ASSAULT ON PRECINCT 13 (Dir. Jean-Francois Richet, 2006, US) - Remakes, John Carpenter and Ethan Hawke

Hollywood and remakes have become synonymous culprits in a game of gradual artistic decline that has besieged writers, actors and directors everywhere in the world today. It is not just Hollywood that continues to revisit cinema of the past, but Bollywood has become notorious for the countless remakes or should I say ‘reboots’ they have been churned out over the last few years. With the market place risky as ever, it has become increasingly difficult for producers to predict or determine what will succeed at the box office. Remaking an old product seems like one of the safest means of limiting the chance of box office failure especially when you consider how much easier it is for the marketing gurus to create a campaign around a film that already holds some degree of cultural, cinematic and nostalgic value for audiences. However, many films that have been remade by Hollywood recently have either died at the box office or end up being loathed by the critics. Obviously, remaking classic cinema always seems to irk the film critics into a vitriolic rant concerning the lack of originality, ideas and inspiration evident in today’s cinema.

Hollywood has been responsible for a number of notorious and controversial remakes that many have labelled as utterly pointless, damaging the status of the original film. This statement proved to be true when writer-director Neil La Bute decided to remake the classic British horror film, ‘The Wicker Man’, with Nicolas Cage as the main lead, provoking a reaction that bordered on outright disgust. Damned by the critics, when the film flopped, a DVD version titled ‘The Directors Cut’ was released soon after in a last ditch effort to claw back some of the money that had been invested into a momentously hopeless and uninspiring project.

This summer saw the release of ‘The Hulk’ with Edward Norton, another remake of a film that had only recently been made with Ang Lee at the helm. The studio felt the Ang Lee ‘Hulk’ movie was not really the blockbuster franchise they had hoped for, as it was a genuinely emotional film, and should have had a more enduring effect on audiences. Crazy as it seems, but the new Hulk film is not a patch on the Ang Lee version and neither did it make as much money at the box office. Perhaps this is because a French guy who likes to call himself Louis Letterier was hired to direct the new Hulk reboot, a filmmaker who graduated into the mainstream by achieving moderate success with a Jason Statham actioneer inventively titled ‘The Transporter’.

To date, every 1960s retro cool ‘Michael Caine’ film that Hollywood has decided to remake have in no way been able to step out of the shadows of the ‘classic status’ of films like ‘Get Carter’ and ‘The Italian Job’. Incidentally, the Michael Caine films remade with Jude Law in the main lead have all but flopped at the box office; ‘Alfie’ and ‘Sleuth’ were also damned by the critics for excessive displays of narcissism as performed by an over eager star who has real difficulty in choosing the right projects. Sometimes, Hollywood can get it right with remakes, and when this usually happens, it throws the critical reputation of the original film into jeopardy, as was the case with ‘The Hills Have Eyes’, a Wes Craven 70s example of extreme horror cinema, a film that wasn’t that good to begin with. This seemed like a wise move by Alexandre Aja, a French filmmaker who received rave reviews for his twisted serial killer film, ‘Haute Tension/Switchblade Romance’, to remake a film whose critical reputation was somewhat suspect but still anchored by an interesting concept.

John Carpenter’s back catalogue of brilliantly effective low budget high concept exploitation films like ‘Halloween’ and ‘The Fog’ have recently been remade by Hollywood, but Carpenter’s cult thriller ‘Assault on Precinct 13’ was one film that was ripe for a make over. Interestingly, Carpenter always referred to his film as a rip off Howard Hawks classic John Wayne western ‘Rio Bravo’, and so you could almost forgive the director for wanting to remake a film that sought its primary inspiration from the masters of old Hollywood studio cinema. What made Carpenter’s original film such a taut thriller was the fact it was not a fussy film, in that it was lean, economical and lasted just under ninety minutes.

Directed by Jean-Francois Richet, a relatively unknown European filmmaker, ‘Assault on Precinct 13’ is a successful remake because it does not aspire to be anything different, closely adhering to the original premise of a police station besieged by a group of anonymous killers. The cast is made up of a gallery of earnest and reliable Hollywood actors including Ethan Hawke, Laurence Fishburne, Gabriel Byrne and John Leguizamo. Ethan Hawke is a very patchy actor and has never been any good at showing emotional depth to the roles he has played; his career was luckily salvaged by Richard Linklater who was brave enough to cast him in the cult romantic film, ‘Before Sunrise’ and more recently in the follow up, ‘Before Sunset’. Even in ‘Training Day’, Ethan Hawke looked out of place as the obedient rookie cop, unable to compete against the towering and charismatic presence of Denzel Washington. In ‘Assault on Precinct 13’, he plays the archetypal embittered, drunk police officer who is unable to escape from a tragic drug bust that went terribly wrong, leading to the death of his colleagues.

Such predictable characterisation never stops the film from becoming lazy and ineffectual, building to a resolution that is purely generic and deeply satisfying. Though I am not a great fan of remakes, this one seems to be entertaining and fascinating to compare to the original, transforming itself into forgettable but exciting mainstream cinema.

12 August 2008

DAY OF THE OUTLAW (Dir. Andre De Toth, 1959, US) - An Influential, Low Budget Western

The Western genre underwent a radical transformation after the fall out of World War II as many of the films that were released in the post war context shared a considerably darker psychological tone with a brutally open examination of violence. Though violence was a thematic motif that greatly interested most of the post war American genre filmmakers like Anthony Mann and John Ford, it perhaps seemed to define the work of Andre De Toth, a seriously underrated immigrant filmmaker who like his closest contemporary, Samuel Fuller, worked on the edges of mainstream cinema, having to deal with the constraints of low budgets and genre conventions so that he could say something genuinely powerful about the complexity of the male psyche.

It is somewhat of an understatement to suggest Andre De Toth is a forgotten filmmaker who was overshadowed by his peers, but the availability of his films on DVD has contributed enormously to a critical reappraisal of his work. Martin Scorsese has been a long time champion of his work, and he even underlined his significance as a key American filmmaker in a documentary he made in the 90s, making reference to ‘Crimewave’, a low budget crime noir starring the intimidating, Sterling Hayden as a persecuting police detective.

Released in 1959, ‘Day of the Outlaw’ was the last western Andre De Toth directed, and it was one of the first westerns to have been shot against an alternate landscape of winter, snow and mountains, inhospitable terrain that was directly oppositional to the iconography of the genre. The influence on later revisionist westerns like ‘Unforgiven’, ‘McCabe and Mrs Miller’ and ‘The Big Silence’ can be traced back to De Toth’s unconventional use of the winter landscape as a device used to externalise the apathetic and clinical emotions of characters like Blaise Starrett, an enigmatic outlaw turned settler played by the ever dependable Robert Ryan.

Along with the likes of Burt Lancaster, Robert Mitchum, and Richard Widmark, Robert Ryan was one of the finest character actors to have emerged out of the studio system, demonstrating an unparalleled consistency in his repeated pursuit of embittered male characters who were troubled by post war anxieties like violence, sexuality, loneliness and belonging. His demeanour in most of the films he appeared overflowed with a raw, uncontrollable anger that was highly unpredictable and deeply empathetic. Even in supposedly quieter moments, Robert Ryan’s incredibly honest anger was unmistakably present in the tone of his delivery, and he rarely took on a role that presented him in a favourable light. Though he did play a lot of villains, he nevertheless, relished male characters who were trying to fit into society, but without having to revert to some kind of glib and sentimental desire for redemption. The moral ambiguity he invests in the character of Blaise Starrett foreshadows Eastwood’s pared down, minimalist approach to the notorious outlaw and gunfighter, William Munny, in ‘Unforgiven’.

Made towards the end of the 50s, ‘Day of the Outlaw’ is highly unusual in the way it confronts and represents violence, transforming the central protagonist into a pacifist who in turn learns to adopt an ideology of non-violence when faced with the problem of a band of vicious outlaws who lay siege to the town. De Toth was the kind of filmmaker who revelled in having to work under budget constraints, and the minimalist style evident throughout came directly out of necessity and not creativity. The aesthetic decision to shoot the film in black and white was a deliberate one, and the stark winter landscape is evocatively captured in dazzling monochrome cinematography that seems to transcend the budget limitations with great confidence.

Burl Ives plays Jack Bruhn, the gentlest and most benign of outlaws to have appeared in a Hollywood western. Bruhn like Ethan Edwards in ‘The Searchers’ is a man who has absconded from the cavalry for having committed war crimes in the form of a massacre, but he is a man who is haunted by the aura of death. Bruhn’s men express an unhealthy disdain for law and order, victimising the women of the town with the constant threat of rape. The closest De Toth comes to realising the worst fears of the town is the sequence in which the women are forced to dance with the outlaws, molesting and torturing them with an immunity that is strangely provocative and immoral.

In the final sequence, Blaise leads the outlaws out of the village and into the throes of an uncontainable and fiercely indiscriminate force of nature; the cold, starkness of the wild that simply overwhelms each of the men. Blaise never resorts to violence, relying on guile to outwit the outlaws, and inadvertently advocating an ideologically oppositional message of non-violence that could only have been smuggled into a low budget western aimed at a B movie audience. ‘Day of the Outlaw’ is a magnificent achievement and its influence on the genre is only just becoming recognised by critics and audiences alike.

9 August 2008

LITTLE MISS SUNSHINE (Dir. Jonathan Dayton & Valerie Faris, 2006, US) - Dysfunctional American Cinema & The Road Movie

If a so called ‘indie’ film makes over $100 million at the box office does this mean than that film is no longer independent anymore but now part of the mainstream? Such was the case with ‘Little Miss Sunshine’, a film that declared itself as being independent, showing up at the Sundance Film Festival to immediate acclaim and then being suddenly snapped up by Fox Searchlight Pictures in an expensive distribution deal. It surprised the industry even more when the film went on to make over $100 million. ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ was deemed a sleeper hit as the film relied greatly on positive word of mouth and critical reception to generate interest. Many critics were sceptical about the film’s claim to being an independent production when considering how the term ‘indie’ today is used as a cynical marketing tool by the studios to promote ‘alternative’ cinema to the YouTube generation.

These days, to label a film as an independent can be somewhat of a risky proposition when you think about how audiences have become intellectually self aware of the manipulative nature of marketing, and how studios repeatedly re-appropriate film terms so that they come to stand for something entirely oppositional and guided by commercial motivations rather than artistic ones. Even today the term ‘independent cinema’ usually conjures up characteristics we associate with world cinema films; low budgets, location shooting, improvised dialogue, intense characterisation, specialist audiences. Any of the films directed by John Cassavetes tend to be singled out as definitive illustrations of what a real and authentic American independent film should look and sound like.

Even though it was shot on a relatively low budget of $8 million, it is still deeply problematic to categorise ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ as an outright independent film because a true independent film would rarely have access to the kind of far reaching and aggressive marketing strategies used by the major Hollywood studios when promoting a new film that they hope can achieve some degree of commercial success at the box office. ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ like ‘Juno’ showed up just about everywhere in the mass media, with Fox using the multiple media platforms to make audiences aware of the relative coolness of these artistically credible films which they were desperate to be associated with for reasons purely to do with prestige and commerce. It seems as though once Fox had bought the distribution rights for ‘Little Miss Sunshine’, it suddenly ceased being categorised as an independent film aimed at a specialist audience, and transformed into just another studio property and devalued product. Luckily, Fox Searchlight only bought the rights for distribution, and had the film been financed by a major studio then perhaps the final shape of the film would have been altogether more conservative and formulaic.

Aside from the questions regarding the film’s status as an independent film, husband and wife team, Dayton and Farris, take great joy and warmth in making ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ into one of the best road movies in recent years. Though no one film nation can lay claim to the creation of the road movie genre in its entirety, American cinema and Hollywood in particular have been hugely influential in helping to develop conventions, themes and imagery that have become an intrinsic part of how we perceive the genre today. Besides, the vastness of the American landscape continues to be a source of inspiration for many road movies, with the narrative of the endless journey and the untold destination working as a means of driving forward an episodic story in which we encounter an alternate reality, one that seems to offer some degree of comfort and escape from the trappings of a deeply consumerist society.

The road movie as an existential voyage of self-discovery is what transpires in ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ as a dysfunctional American suburban family are forced to share a battered yellow VW van, making a journey across America so they can get to the Little Miss Sunshine beauty pageant taking place in California. Obviously, no road movie would be complete without it’s fair share of mishaps and problems, many of which are a result of patriarchal anxieties displayed by Richard Hoover’s (Greg Kinnear) deluded self help guru who eventually realises that personal success has no relation to self worth and his role as a parent.

The influence of contemporary American filmmakers like Paul Thomas Anderson is becoming much clearer and evident in recent cinema, and this is no better illustrated than in the first few minutes of ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ as the little girl, Olive (Abigail Breslin), who longs of competing in a beauty pageant, stands gazing at the television set, seduced by the guilt free pleasures of escapism and self identity it offers to a society of individuals built on false needs and vacant aspirations. As Olive gazes, we hear Devotchka on the soundtrack, and slowly, Dayton & Farris offer us delightfully playful snapshots of each of the characters who are shown to be facing some kind of personal ‘crisis’ that seems can only be solved through glib psycho therapy. The influence of ‘Magnolia’ to the opening of ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ is present in the use of a ticking clock soundtrack and inter cutting that shifts leisurely between different characters, creating a narrative momentum that is intensely involving.

Dayton & Farris seem very critical of the superficially plastic and artificial reality of today’s American society as symbolised in the grotesque and devalued nature of the Little Miss Sunshine beauty competition, an event that is represented as if it was taking place within an entirely alternate universe. With a riotously uplifting ending, ‘Little Miss Sunshine’, closes on the image of the open road, a motif and image that sums up the essence of a genre indebted to the legacy of subversive films like ‘Easy Rider’, ‘Vanishing Point’ and ‘Two Lane Blacktop'.

5 August 2008

LE DEUXIEME SOUFFLE / SECOND BREATH (Dir. Jean Pierre Melville, 1966, France) - The Genius of Melville

The last phase of Melville’s career was dominated by a series of brilliantly directed minimalist crime films like ‘Le Samourai’, ‘Le Cercle Rouge’ (both masterpieces of the genre), and less known, more populist tales like ‘Le Deuxieme Souffle’, another bravura piece of filmmaking that is both deeply pessimistic and audaciously held together by a drawn out narrative concerning an escaped convict and hardened criminal named ‘Gu’ (Lino Ventura).

Each crime film Melville directed is a brilliant film in its own right, and though the last three films he made were in colour, they could also pass as black and white, because the anaemic production design and cinematography opts for a muted visual approach that sucks the life out of the frame so that it is rendered more or less an appropriate reflection of the lonely criminals who occupy the mise en scene, wearing noirish trench coats and sworn to an uncompromising moral code which usually leads to death.

Melville’s body of work is simply one of the most outstanding and misunderstood of the post war French filmmakers, and personally, with the 2007 reissue of his forgotten 1966 World War II masterpiece, ‘The Army of the Shadows’, Melville has eclipsed many of his contemporary peers who have been over praised for far too long by critics. Each year seems to see the restoration and release of a Melville film on DVD, forcing many like myself to reassess the career of a filmmaker who was somewhat akin to Coppola in terms of the inspiration and influence he would have on the next generation of filmmakers eager to breakthrough into an industry that had lost touch with contemporary audiences.

Even today, Melville’s incredibly cinematic career continues to exist in the shadows of the nouvelle vague, and any mention of French filmmaking regularly disintegrates into a discussion about the influence of artists like Godard and Truffaut, who may have been true innovators but had problems telling a good story and creating genuinely convincing emotions. Melville was not an ideologically driven filmmaker but one who had an endless fascination with Hollywood genres, and perhaps this is why his films offer such a telling illustration of the successful marriage between European sensibilities and American cultural influences.

On its release, ‘Le Deuxieme Souffle’ was an instant hit and is one of Melville’s most commercially successful films. The Parisian underworld was familiar territory for Melville, and the obsessive glare with which he repeatedly explored such a troubling and seductive milieu meant he took great pleasure in romanticising and glamorising the exterior world of the hardened criminal. Masculinity was a key thematic motif and the imagery of the underworld in ‘Le Deuxieme Souffle’ is one that holds a deep prejudice towards women, and patriarchal rituals that occur between the male characters in many of Melville’s films are evident in how the central protagonist and anti-hero, Gu, has no real desire to abscond with his lover, Manouche. Instead, having already escaped from prison, Gu is lured back into the underworld when he is offered the chance to help pull a lucrative heist in the foothills of a desolate Marseille landscape.

When Gu is framed by the police as an informant, he goes to extreme lengths in order to clear his name and prove to the underworld of his religiously devout adherence to a moral code that can never be compromised or corrupted in anyway by righteous institutions like the police. Redemption rarely ever exists in the world of Melville’s crime films, and Gu is another in a long line of stylish, likable criminals who are made to suffer at the hands of a nihilistic underworld that cannot offer any kind of escape. Escape becomes almost like a form of humiliation in ‘Le Deuxieme Souffle’, and though this macho attitude espoused by Gu is spectacularly conventional in how it is manifested in the final sequence in which he goes seeking some kind of payback, it also functions as an extended metaphor for a repressed desire to seek death at the hands of morally dubious men like himself.

If conventionality in terms of genre is something that finds itself quite visible in the narrative, what separates ‘Le Deuxieme Souffle’ from Hollywood crime films is Melville’s intricately detailed and visually minimalist manipulation of framing, composition and camerawork; technical elements that would are usually rendered obsolete and unoriginal in most Hollywood mainstream genre films are deliberately fore grounded so that when a character enters the frame, where they are going to position themselves within the frame becomes a point of active interpretation that is intellectually rewarding for the spectator.

The heist sequence in any Melville film is a real dramatic high point, and in ‘Le Deuxieme Souffle’, the heist of an ordinary armoured van is made altogether more gripping for Melville’s instance to set the action in the scenic landscape of rural Marseilles. Melville’s greatest tool for making the heist sequence in his films a genuinely enthralling spectacle was the rejection of a bombastic Hollywood soundtrack used by many filmmakers to create a false kind of emotional investment. Silence, minimal dialogue and natural sounds in the heist sequence forces us to observe rather than become preoccupied with the nature of the event. Such a primitive technique used by early cinema pioneers works superbly in the hands of Melville, making us value and experience the micro details that are typically excised in traditional crime films.

Though his characters are infinitely stylish and have a wonderfully eclectic dress sense, Melville more than anything wants us to see the edges to the stark reality of the life that Gu must lead once he has escaped from prison. It is a life made up of living in the shadows, hiding and making oneself invisible to the naked scrutiny of an unforgiving society that views criminals as a cancerous disease. When Gu is killed at the end in a hail of bullets, nobody mourns his life except Manouche, his lover and the only female character in the film, but even she can now finally see the worthless and indispensable nature of the underworld and how treats its own occupants, citizens and loners with nothing but contempt.

It is hard to imagine that after the brilliance of ‘Le Deuxieme Souffle’, Melville would go on to produce some of his finest work, but it seems as though such consistency is what distinguishes Melville amongst many of the great post war French filmmakers.

4 August 2008

CONTRACT (Dir. Ram Gopal Varma, 2008, India) - Racial stereotyping in Bollywood cinema

Having returned to form with ‘Sarkar Raj’, the follow up to ‘Sarkar’, his 2004 hit film starring Amitabh Bachchan, Bollywood’s most controversial filmmaker comes undone with his latest feature, ‘Contract’, another underworld film that is an example of xenophobic exploitation cinema which for some strange ignorant reason spends an obscene amount of narrative time telling us about how terrorism today within Indian society is largely the result of radical Islamic extremism and anti-Indian sentiments. It is deeply surprising why a filmmaker of such calibre and intelligence would want to go through a dreadful catalogue of offensive stereotypes and cultural misrepresentations associated with the Muslim community, perpetuating a vein of underlining racism that has been present within a great deal of mainstream Bollywood films dealing with the issue of terrorism.

Terrorism is such a sensitive and topical issue that very films have been able to successfully tackle such a subject in a rational and impartial manner, but the films that have tried to remain objective in their treatment are the ones which have steered clear of preaching to the audience and placing a far greater emphasis on the moral uncertainty and ambiguity that exists on both sides. (Gulzar's devestating exploration of terrorism in his film, 'Maachis', comes to mind) The real problem with the racism that exists within 'Contract' is that the Muslim terrorists are represented as caricatures, taking on a cartoonish quality that stops us from taking anyone of it seriously.

Ideological prejudices aside, ‘Contract’ is a real misstep for Ram Gopal Verma; the direction is extremely frantic and chaotic, perhaps suggesting it is time he started to limit himself in terms of creative output. Later on this year, his third film to have been released in 2008 will make its way into cinemas. Though Ram Gopal Varma work rate is commendable, his body of work over the last five years has become increasingly erratic, producing and directing films that have become instantly forgettable. ‘Contract’ suffers from the lack of leading Bollywood star and many of Ram Gopal Varma’s most successful and interesting projects have been close collaborations with Bollywood stars like Ajay Devgan and Amitabh Bachchan who were able to bring an added layer of conviction and much needed screen presence.

Mainstream Indian cinema must work harder to challenge the cultural stereotypes and misrepresentation of the Muslim community because the kinds of implicit racism that surfaces in many films today is not only offensive and wrong, it seems to suggest an intolerance exists that is dangerously accepted as a natural and normal part of everyday Indian society. The crazy fanatical speeches by radical preachers cum terrorists has become almost a staple of Bollywood cinema, and if such xenophobia is permitted to continue then it only seems like suicide for an industry that was built on the principle of religious co existence.

1 August 2008

WANTED (Dir. Timur Bekmambetov, 2008, US) - Empty, Loud and Very Stupid

Universal Pictures took a real gamble with ‘Wanted’, casting the relatively unknown British actor, James McAvoy in the lead role of an expensive action film with the potential of becoming a prospective franchise for the studio. Directed by the Russian filmmaker, Timur Bekmambetov, who was the creative force behind the recent Night/Day Watch films, ‘Wanted’ has achieved what it set out to do, which was to successfully launch a franchise and become effectively another commercial property. Currently, the Hollywood action genre continues to be defined by the outrageous Jason Bourne series of films; taut, plausible, and deeply involving high concept cinema, made altogether more superior in their supposedly false realism by Paul Greengrass, a director who has cautiously supplemented his real films (United 93, Bloody Sunday) with reshaping the dynamics of stale, repetitive and formulaic genres like the action film.

Unfortunately, no impulse genuine artistic impulse exists within ‘Wanted’, a film that recalls (steals?) the narrative of the recent Wacahowski cyberpunk film, ‘The Matrix’, in which an aimless computer hacker/drone like office worker is offered the chance of creating a new, alternate identity that is both liberating and fraught with the risk of annihilation. Anybody with just a basic understanding of familiar genre conventions would have been able to offer welcoming suggestions on how the screenplay for ‘Wanted’ should have been thoroughly reshaped and perhaps even placed into the trash icon. The film is plagued by a multitude of creative misjudgements, beginning with a vacuous screenplay that is poorly underwritten with dialogue that appears to have been written for a European action movie starring Van Damme, and delivered monotonously by the reliable likes of Morgan Freeman who incidentally reprises the same duplicitous role from terribly ill fated high concept projects like ‘Chain Reaction’ and ‘Hard Rain’.

The Hollywood action genre has always struggled with back story and characterisation, and ‘Wanted’ is another in a long line of action films that overlook the emotional aspects in favour of retarded set pieces. Everything about ‘Wanted’ has to do with nothing but style, but it is an overly familiar style that we have come across before in countless high concept blockbusters in which style is not even a statement as it is simply too empty and superficial to be anything but a visually banal reminder of the collectively redundant state of the mainstream Hollywood action film. Though Morgan Freeman’s strange miscasting would be just about bearable for audiences, the most fatal of casting decisions is that of James McAvoy, an overrated, merely competent and totally uncharismatic British actor who shot to stardom overnight with the critical success of ‘The Last King of Scotland’ and ‘Atonement’.

In ‘Wanted’, McAvoy plays Wesley King, a feeble accountant stuck in a dead end job, who seemingly unaware of his repressed skills as a lethal assassin, becomes entangled in an uninspired and bereft plot line, involving a nervy and stylishly dressed super feminist (the celebrity that is Angelina Jolie) and a gallery of unsavoury but tiresome archetypal supporting characters who seem to have perfected the art of standing around, knowing how to look ‘uncool’ whilst simultaneously recognising their insignificance to the overall narrative. With the critical and commercial success of ‘Wanted’, McAvoy has been transformed into an unexpected international star, and like Simon Pegg who is currently another rising British star, both have graduated from hit channel four television shows like ‘Shameless’ and ‘Spaced’ to quickly achieve some degree of bankability. Both Pegg and McAvoy are the unlikeliest of film stars as they are bland looking, command zero screen presence and lack any kind of charisma to make audiences identify with them. McAvoy's performance is deeply annoying and though you can understand how his ordinariness would be well suited to the role, his forced and wavering American accent and limited repertoire of physical gestures produces a reaction that borders on irritation.

These days it seems as though an action film is primarily judged on how loud it is and if such superficial criteria is a mark of distinction, then 'Wanted' is a film that revels in it's own stylish excess, failing on all counts to become more than just another ordinary, bland and stupid action film.