GERARD Butler’s emotional range rarely strays beyond rage but he proves an effective action star in this ultra violent terrorist takedown
London Has Fallen (15) | Rating: ** | Directed by: Babak Najafi | Starring: Gerard Butler, Aaron Eckhart, Morgan Freeman, Colin Salmon
When it came to the US box-office performance of the two Die-Hard-in-the-White-House blockbusters released in 2013, the Gerard Butler-starring Olympus Has Fallen trounced Channing Tatum’s vest-wearing antics in White House Down by almost $30m. Worldwide it was a different story (White House Down was technically the winner even if it did cost twice as much to produce), but there was definitely something about Butler’s unreconstructed shoot/punch/knife-someone-in-the-throat approach to dealing with terrorists that appealed more to American audiences. It also appealed to those with a fondness for the hyper-violent action movies of the 1980s. After all, if you’re going to go to such extreme lengths to ratchet up the kill rate of your movie by destroying national monuments, indiscriminately slaying civilians and meting out eye-for-an-eye justice, you might as well get your money’s worth when it comes to depicting the gory results.
In this kind of gruesome, brain-off context, Butler does actually make sense as an action star, so it’s little surprise to find him reprising his role as Mike Banning, personal bodyguard to the President of the United States, in this similarly amped up, similarly stupid sequel.
This time out the bad guys aren’t North Korean, but members of a Syrian splinter cell headed up by an arms dealer with an insane plan to take revenge on America (and the world in general) for a drone strike that killed his sister years earlier. Moral relativism not being a prime concern for this movie, his plan involves using the state funeral of the suddenly deceased British prime minister to lure the world’s leaders to London so he can kill them and capture President Asher (Aaron Eckhart) for future execution live on the internet. Naturally this will eventually involve blowing up nearly every significant landmark in the capital, though not before depicting London as the sort of security nightmare that American presidents really shouldn’t have to tolerate.
Among the presidential advisors unhappy about the London trip is, of course, Banning – although he has ulterior reasons for this. As we learn from some painfully corny family scenes at the start of the film, Banning is about to become a father and he doesn’t yet feel equipped for his new responsibilities. His idealised wife (Radha Mitchell) is quietly berating him about installing multiple surveillance cameras in the nursery when a baby monitor is all that’s required and he’s also on the point of tending his resignation to the secret service when the call from London comes in.
Impending fatherhood, of course, is really just the movie’s cheap way of providing Banning with motivation to stay alive when things go south. Sure enough, it’s not long before a dying colleague implores him to “stay alive to see that child” when the bad guys strike. Sadly Butler still can’t do an American accent without sounding as if he really is made of “bourbon and poor choices” (as he describes himself early on in the film). Any attempt to convey emotion – other than rage – is similarly ridiculous.
He does, however, look as if he can plausibly do some damage and the sheer kill-crazy nature of the film’s first big attack does actually come as a bit of a jolt. As world leaders, cops and civilians are gunned down or blown up with gleeful nastiness, the brutal response from Butler’s character is quite a sight, whether he’s shooting people in the head on the steps of St Paul’s Cathedral or knifing someone in the neck to send a message to the terrorists.
But as the film progresses, its tasteless take on terrorism – the message of which basically boils down to it being better to violently respond in the wrong way than not at all – does get in the way of the film’s enjoyment factor as a dumb-fun action blockbuster. Not helping matters is Eckhart, whose character – perhaps in an effort to make up for his passivity in the last film – gets in on the bloodshed, taking out bad guys when Butler’s life depends on it. He’s no Harrison Ford in Airforce One, though, and neither of them are furnished with any decent one-liners or quotable hard-boiled dialogue that would offset or justify some of the grimness.
That kind of thing falls instead to Morgan Freeman, reprising his role as the American vice president, but really on hand to intone some cheesy speeches with the dignified gravitas for which he has become duly famous. Elsewhere, the large supporting cast includes Charlotte Riley as an ass-kicking MI6 agent who suspects a mole in the security services, and Colin Salmon as the head of Scotland Yard. The latter’s presence brings to mind his amusing turn playing himself as a b-movie action star in Aziz Ansari’s Netflix sitcom Master of None. If only London Has Fallen had a modicum of this sort of self-awareness the end result might not be quite so off-putting.
Hail, Caesar! (12A) | Rating: *** | Directed by: Joel Coen, Ethan Coen | Starring: Josh Brolin, George Clooney, Tilda Swinton, Scarlett Johansson, Channing Tatum
As lauded as the Coen brothers are, they’re sometimes too insular for their own good, frequently delivering movies that feel like private jokes to which we’re not always invited to share the punchlines. Hail, Caesar!, falls into this trap. And yet, like a lot of Coen brothers movies, it also displays flashes of brilliance that remind you why the brothers remain so revered.
Set in Hollywood in the early 1950s, just as the studio system is starting to wane, the film offers a lampooning look at Tinsel Town amid increasingly hard-to-contain controversies, the Red Scare, bone-headed creative decisions and evermore naked profiteering. Its hero is Eddie Mannix (Josh Brolin), a studio fixer loosely inspired by the real-life MGM fixer of the same name. As the film opens he’s about to embark on a hectic 27 hours of protecting various stars from about-to-break scandals, dealing with myriad production woes, trying to fend off the duel attentions of a pair of twin Hedda Hopper-inspired gossip columnists (played by Tilda Swinton), and trying to get to the bottom of why a group of Communist screenwriters have kidnapped the studio’s biggest star, Baird Whitlock(George Clooney), from the set of the titular religious epic.
The film suggests this a pretty typical day and the movie is duly awash with absurdity and precision-engineered gags designed to poke fun at the fact that none of this strays too far from the realities of La-La Land. Unfortunately while this raises a wry smile, it doesn’t amount to a hill of beans as a film. Digressions that explore the ethics of capitalism, the ideological power of movies and the rampant exploitation of those hired to export all-American values via the big screen aren’t tied to anything cohesive, certainly not in the way they were in the masterful Barton Fink, which the Coens reference here by making the film’s fictional MGM-like studio, Capitol Pictures, the same one that employed that film’s eponymous protagonist. In the end, the suspicion remains that the episodic plot is really just a way for the Coens to indulge their undeniable love of old Hollywood.
That, however, happens to be the film’s saving grace. In these risk-averse times it’s hard not to delight in their willingness to mount full-scale Busby Berkley-style musical numbers featuring Scarlett Johansson as a mermaid or Channing Tatum as a sailor tap-dancing on tables during a risqué song-and-dance number that has more buttock shots than Magic Mike. It certainly reaffirms faith in the Coens’ abilities, even as the film as a whole forces you to call them into question.
Truth (15) | Rating: *** | Directed by James Vanderbilt | Starring Cate Blanchett, Robert Redford, Topher Grace, Dennis Quaid
There’s a lot going on in Truth, Zodiac-writer James Vanderbilt’s dramatisation of the journalistic scandal that erupted when CBS news show 60 Minutes investigated George W Bush’s military service record. Set in the run up to the 2004 presidential election, the film attempts to lay out the particulars of that story, the difficulties of sourcing the evidence, and the fall-out caused when the veracity of that evidence was subsequently called into question. It’s the latter aspect that proves the most compelling. As the show’s producer Mary Mapes (Cate Blanchett) is harangued and vilified while her employer retreats from the story, the film makes a compelling case for how the facts of a story can too easily be drowned out by the noise surrounding it, particularly in the age of social media. The film unfortunately goes for a slightly schmaltzy and reverential tone as it laments the passing of the age of great investigative journalism – something exacerbated by Robert Redford’s casting as 60 Minutes anchor Dan Rather. But Blanchett pulls off the big moments well and there’s enough bubbling away beneath the surface to keep this interesting.
Hitchcock/Truffaut (12A) | Rating: **** | Directed by Kent Jones
First published in 1966, Francois Truffaut’s landmark study of Alfred Hitchcock laid out the fundamentals of movie-making in a way that was free from pretension yet began to change the conversation around him: transforming his reputation from simply being thought of as the “master of suspense” (or “seat-clingers” as he preferred to call suspense pictures) to being considered a genuine artist. The book was based on a series of interviews that took place in 1962 and the audio from those interviews supplies Kent Jones’s terrifically entertaining documentary with remarkable unfiltered insights into Hitch’s methods. It’s also fascinating to hear two masters of very different filmmaking styles discussing the craft and the film lets us see how those discussions may have informed each other as each moved forward with their respective careers. David Fincher, Wes Anderson and Martin Scorsese are among the many directors on hand to offer contemporary analysis and their observations make it clear how this one book has continued to shape our understanding of cinema five decades on.
Time Out of Mind (15) | Rating: *** | Directed by Oren Moverman | Starring Richard Gere, Jena Malone, Ben Vereen
Richard Gere is more commonly found playing slick lawyers or high-flying financiers in movies, but his new film offers an interesting flip-side to his recent role in Arbitrage by casting him as a homeless man coming to terms with his marginalised status on the streets of New York. As his character, George Hammond, drifts through the city, a portrait emerges of a man who’s made mistakes, but who is also coping with the bureaucracy of being broke, as well as some mental health issues the system isn’t set-up to catch and deal with. It’s a low-key and vanity free performance on Gere’s part, one aided by director Oren Overman’s decision to shoot the film in a verité style, often keeping his star at a distance to signify a man trying to shrink from the world around him. There’s good support too from Jena Malone as Hammond’s estranged daughter, whose own tough life and heartache prevents the film from going down a path of easy redemption.