Thursday, 30 September 2010

The Other Guys; somewhere there's an Other Movie doing an important job

There's a scene about half way through The Other Guys where the eponymous detectives are heading towards a building and it blows up in their faces. They spend the next five minutes flat on their backs bitching and whining about how MUCH that kind of thing stings, and how movies are totally misleading in the way they always show people walking away from huge bangs without even flinching. It's very funny, and the whole movie should have made out of an equal mix of that kind of scene and the opening scenes with the hero detectives. I know that this would have made it very formulaic, but the movie's a comedy about police work, for goodness sake.

The opening's a lot of fun too; the movie pretty much had me when Samuel L Jackson's red flashing light gets shot off his muscle car and without even changing expression he reaches down to grab a new one and slap it into place on the roof. The muscle car then embeds itself into a bus, the bus takes up the chase, with the Rock driving the bus and Samuel L for some insane reason still sitting in the driver's seat of the car. While I was scratching my head about that, the Rock K-turns the bus so that the muscle car flies out the other side of the bus with Samuel L at the wheel, somehow steering with his knees while firing with both hands at the bad guys. It's nuts, it's awesome, and I can totally see why the writers kill both characters off shortly afterwards. They're FAR too much fun to watch and far far too expensive to film.

There was a fun movie to be had in the contrast between that kind of high speed lunacy pretending to be police work and what would happen if you put real cops into the same kinds of situation. And I think they set out to make it, before deciding that it would be more interesting to give the ordinary real cops complicated and surprising back stories. Mark Wahlberg gets just enough backstory (the idea that his character learned to do perfect ballet just so he could mock gay kids in class is quick and gives you a great sense of what's wrong with him as a person) but Will Ferrell gets way more than he needs and in fact so much that it gets in the way of the movie. The idea of a police accountant getting involved in lunatic violence is more than enough to be getting on with; he doesn't need to have amazing luck with women or a whole back story as a former pimp.

If anyone had been paying attention, the perennially unlucky Ray Stevenson is there to show that you can suggest an entire character with no backstory and only a few lines of dialogue, just by modulating the growl the right way. Like anyone else who made it all the way through Rome, I have huge amounts of time for Ray, who made Titus Pullo one of the definitive decent thugs of all time. He's the enforcer here for the villain of the piece and with very little screen time and very few lines manages to put together a world-weary professional bad guy who I wanted to see a lot more of. Honestly, I'd go and see a movie called the adventures of Wesley; that's how much cool Ray brings to a very underwritten character. So the example was there for everyone else; you can sell an interesting character doing very routine things if you just think about how to pitch it.

Instead, huge amounts of time go into establishing Will Ferrell as a really, really annoying person who's senselessly mean to his beautiful wife and way more oblivious about his frankly incredible powers of attraction over women. Some of this is actually funny, but a heck of a lot less of it would have been a good idea.

Still, it's fun. It has some great moments, and Mark Wahlberg does a lot to hold it all together simply by virtue of staying within his limited range and working hard at it. He's very good at playing angry not-quite articulate guys, and he's also very good at playing much put upon guys who are just trying to get by. (The Departed and the Big Hit are probably those two styles at their peak). Without him, Ferrell would probably be just unbearable.

There's all kinds of little cameos and small bits of business; so that's what happened to Anne Heche! My goodness, Michael Keaton's got old! Josef Sommer is still alive! Steve Coogan always plays stammering weasels!

Easily the weirdest bit is the closing credits, which are a montage of infographics about the impact of the current recession on ordinary people and the complete lack of real impact on the clowns who caused it. The mcguffin in the plot is a scheme to use the NYPD pension fund to prop up a failed investment bank, so it has some relevance to something most of the audience probably weren't paying any attention to (as usual I was waiting for the next explosion or wisecrack;plot? they had one of those in a comedy?) but it's incredibly jarring to see it at the end of a comedy. I bet someone hoiks those infographics OUT of the credits and puts them up on a website just to hammer the points in them a bit further home. The numbers are depressing. Unless you're a US executive on an average of 8 million dollars a year, in which case they're probably quite reassuring. Of course, there is the question of how seriously to take this kind of posturing from people who are paid millions of dollars a year themselves to do something which at best staves off boredom for 107 minutes.

Saturday, 18 September 2010

Resident Evil Afterlife: Making sense was not on the to-do list

The fact that Milla Jovovich keeps on making the movies she makes is one of those headscratchers. Milla is genuinely a smart person, and I happen to think that she's capable of acting in real movies. But what she's actually done ever since she showed up out of the blue in The Fifth Element is methodically chunk out, once a year, an interchangeable action movie in which she shoots, bashes and stabs hordes of faceless mooks for some or other high concept reason pulled out of a computer game or bad science fiction.

I'm not complaining. I think I've actually seen most of those interchangeable action movies and even if I haven't really enjoyed the movies very much, I've always enjoyed Milla. She's got a lot of screen presence, and she's got whatever thing it is that you need to do the physical action well. It's not just athleticism, it's some odd physical equivalent of that mental attitude you need to deliver a good line of witty dialogue. Witty dialogue only works when the actor has convinced you that the character is actually smart enough to be that witty even without a writer. Something similar, but much harder to explain, applies to physical action. There's some sort of numinous swagger that you need to make it click with the audience. Keanu had it in Matrix and Point Break and Speed; Angelina Jolie has it switched on at all times; Milla burned up the screen with it as Leeloo in the Fifth Element and has really never looked back.

It's just as well for Resident Evil Afterlife, because it would be pretty thin soup without her. Oddly enough I found myself thinking that it really was a movie about Afterlives. Look, there's Ali Larter from trainwreck comicbook disaster Heroes! Look, there's Wentworth Miller from so-demented-it's-brilliant who-could-have-believed-it-would-last-three-and-a-bit-seasons Prison Break! Look, there's Kim Coates, skiving off from his real job in Sons of Anarchy. So this is what happens to actors when their TV series end. It's worse than I feared.

Afterlife is pretty terrible as any kind of a movie. It's fine while the camera stays on Milla, but only because you can't go too far wrong keeping the camera on Milla, largely for the same kinds of reasons that allowed Len Wiseman to get away with the first two Underworld movies. It's been made in 3D, apparently using some of James Cameron's technology from Avatar, but to even less apparent useful purpose. I've yet to watch a movie where 3D did anything worthwhile, but it's really hard to say what it did at all in Afterlife.

The movie divides straightforwardly into four acts.

In act one, Milla shows up in force at a vast underground HQ in Tokyo and kills everyone in it. She can do this because she's available in stereo at the outset; an indeterminate number of superpowered clones of Milla carry out the attack, with more and more of them appearing every time the one we're looking at gets killed. I lost count of the bodies very quickly, partly because the mooks are more than usually faceless and partly because the 3D was so murky. Anyhow, all the spare Millas get evaporated thanks to the miracle of the kind of easy to use self destruct system that would never be installed by a genuinely paranoid nutcase plutocrat, and we're back to just the one Milla, now with 100% less superpowers. Although she does still have the superpower of walking out under her own power from a plane crash into a mountain side that turns the plane she's in into a pile of smouldering rubble. Neat.

Next act sees her up in Alaska looking for the last survivors of the zombie holocaust which has wiped out humanity (I'd say that nothing like this happens in real life, but some kind of zombie holocaust seems to have been stalking Hollywood of late, wiping out anyone who can actually write a movie I want to watch). This is really boring, so we'll skip that bit and go straight to her flying to Los Angeles, where she finds a few survivors holed up in a maximum security prison completely surrounded by ravening zombies, in a scene which I think is supposed to be explicitly modelled on the crowds outside an Apple Store when they release the new iPads. Anyhow, Milla somehow lands an aeroplane on the roof of the prison, in one of the movie's several physics-does-not-work-that-way moments, and starts trying to figure out how she can get her new chums through the cordon of undead and out to the freighter in the bay which she has decided is the mysterious Arcadia where good survivors get to go if they're lucky.

Third Act is the whole getting out jail schtick, which features - stunt casting alert! - Wentworth Miller having key knowledge which will help them get out of the jail. Except it doesn't help a damn bit. Most of the survivors stop surviving over the course of the next half hour or so, and there's big fight with a huge mook with a giant hammer. He gets sorted out with four shotgun blasts to the head, all four blasts using nickels rather than buckshot and presumably sending an allegorical message about the way that you can solve all your problems if you don't mind using equal amounts of violence and money. That or something about how Obama was right to look for change, but just wasn't thinking about the right kind of change. I just spent the whole fight thinking it would have been so much better to parachute in Ramona Flowers and HER hammer, and let her sort him out, but instead Milla and Ali Larter do the work much less entertainingly. Sadly I think this was supposed to be some kind of setpiece, because it's incredibly well lit for 3D and very crisp. Unfortunately, it's got literally NOTHING to do with the plot, but of course, it's not like the plot has anything to do with the plot, so I'm really just grumbling that this is the worst example of hey, just do another action scene in a film plagued by the problem.

Anyhow, the featured cast get out of the jail - by means which have nothing to do with Wentworth Miller's expertise - and make their way to the freighter, which turns out to be a trap in which Milla gets to meet the uber-villain who we thought she'd polished off in the opening act. As climactic confrontations go, it's curiously flat and undynamic; it was somewhere around here that the needle on my meh-meter wrapped itself round the bumpstop and I started passively waiting out the inevitable reveals and hoping for the credits to come soon.

The movie ends with a honking great sequel hook; Milla has freed all the survivors on the freighter, but now there's hundreds of helicopters full of faceless mooks heading straight for them and being harangued to go in there and get all kill-y by some dominatrix with way more exposed cleavage than is really sound for the leader of an air assault.

Which leads me into one of my running gripes about the Resident Evil series as a whole. The underlying gag is that the Umbrella Corporation is a vast multi-national that has unintentionally created a zombie potion which has obliterated civilisation. So far, so good. But somehow Umbrella has managed to avoid the collapse and maintain an inexhaustible supply of underground bases, high tech labs, and faceless mooks to hurl at Milla Jovovich wherever she happens to show up. And I can't figure out the logistics of that. It just doesn't add up. One of the things which bugs me is that they don't even seem to have any competition; not only do I have to believe that there's a corporation THAT organised, but I have to buy into the idea that they're unique, and so well coordinated that they don't even have internal rivalries. It's all just too much for my powers of disbelief suspension. As is the other minor logistics problem. Although the Milla clones function as a weird kind of reload, it's the only time anyone worries about reloads. Milla has a pair of matched revolvers which don't ever seem to run out of bullets, but it's even weirder watching people run around firing pairs of submachine guns without ever addressing the problem of how you'd slap in fresh mags with both hands full.

Although Afterlife is an objectively terrible movie, it did have one moment which left me grinning with the sheer enjoyment which comes from a well executed piece of action; Milla dives off the roof of the prison - while it expodes - bungie jumps and bounds along the wall and then bounces into the courtyard before shooting and hacking her way through a throng of zombies to - not exactly safety, but at least not being eaten right this minute. It's a perfect use of that gift I was talking about earlier, and it really underlines how meh the rest of the movie really is.

Thursday, 9 September 2010

Scott Pilgrim vs The World

Lord, I wanted to like this movie. The trailer looked good, I like Edgar Wright as a director, the trailer looked good....

And it's not a bad movie (though as is often the case I started to have misgivings when I saw the trailers showing with it - if a cinema chain shows a bunch of completely unrelated trailers for non blockbusters it's a sign they don't know what kind of audience they're expecting...) it's just that it somehow wasn't what I hoped it would be from looking at the trailers.

My problem was Michael Cera, who has been making a great living playing a wet noodle for the last couple of years. This is all very well and good, but it left me feeling moderately concussed as I tried to work out just what Ramona Flowers was supposed to see in the guy. He's not that bright, not that good looking, and he's completely incoherent. Even given that Ramona has a track record in choosing people so bad that she actually has seven (not eleven!) evil exes for Scott to battle, it was really kind of hard to see what she saw in Scott Pilgrim. Of course, there are people - lots of them - who don't see what my wife sees in me, so there is the whole girls just pick people for no known reason conundrum, but there's got to be some sense of connection for me to believe even in that.

It's a shame, because it's a funny script and a good looking movie and everyone else involved is good fun. Scott's bandmates are more interesting and funny than he is (but then, I've made spaghetti that was more interesting than Scott is), his gay flatmate is consistently hilarious, Ramona's a poem to deadpan snark; pick anyone at random around Scott and they probably have a better set of lines and seem more interesting than he is. There's a lot of really good wisecracks, the most meta of which is one of the characters asking "What, do they make movies in Toronto?" Yes, a little, and it echoed across to the way I'd been wondering since the beginning how many actual Canadians they'd used in the production, though I wasn't curious enough to bother checking. Standout oneliner goes to Kim, who justifies a trip to a party they all know they're going to hate by saying "At least we'll have something to complain about." Which ought to be more or less the official state motto of Ireland, and it's nice to see it getting a shout out elsewhere.

It's a shame is what it is. I was looking forward to Scott Pilgrim and it didn't really work out the way I wanted it to. And I wanted to see more Ramona Flowers hammer action than we got, which I accept is immensely dumb of me, but there's something about the idea of a comparatively small woman pulling a hammer twice her size out of hammer space in her hand bag and laying into the scenery with it.....

Anyhow, Wright deserves some credit for wrapping up the whole thing in the space of a single movie and pretty much obviating any need to discuss sequels. But my favourite adaptation from a comic book this year remains Kick Ass, especially with the cheering news that they're making a sequel.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Blowing up gas stations with cell phones; if only killing stupid people was that easy

Last week one of the many walking parodies of bureaucratic ineptitude which clutter up my life circulated an email to everyone in his address book warning us all that if we used our mobile phones at petrol stations, we ran the risk of annihilating the entire world through the evil of cell phone sparks igniting the insanely volatile fluid we routinely fill cars with.

I deleted the email immediately rather than have it sitting on the screen tempting me to hit reply all and say something which would only get me into pointless arguments with buffoons in suits. I'm annoyed to discover that I'm still brooding on the idea that there's no law against putting technology in the hands of people so pestilentially stupid that they can actually believe that cellphones can transform petrol stations into fireballs.

The idea has long since been thoroughly debunked. Mythbusters took it down in their very first season. In the UK, Brainiac, a show dedicated to making EVERYthing explode, concluded that the only way you can get a cellphone to cause an explosion is to replace the phone with a stick of dynamite with the word Nokia written on it.If TV doesn't float your boat, blew the story out of the water:-

Even if the assembled might of TV and websites don't persuade you, lets just think about the numbers for a moment.

There are 330 million people living in the US, with 1.15 cellphones for every inhabitant and 245 million cars and SUVs between them. It seems safe to suggest that at the very least, there are a billion instances of people filling their petrol tanks a year in the US, and that in the overwhelming majority of those instances, there's at least one cellphone present. That's assuming that each car is only filled up four times a year, which I think you'll agree is a very conservative assumption. So even if the odds against a phone igniting a petrol station were a billion to one, there should be one incident a year. Yet, there has never been a reported incident. Not once in the fifteen years since cell phones began to get common and then ubiquitous has there been a confirmed incident in which a cellphone lit up a petrol station.

Now that's just anecdotes meeting data; just because something has never been reported doesn't mean that it's never happened or that it's impossible. But the fact that in ten years there's never been a confirmed incident anywhere in the world suggests that you're significantly more likely to win the lottery than create a Michael Bay scene at your local BP station. In fact, you're significantly more likely to win the lottery, even if you haven't actually played it.

But it's better than that, because it's comparatively straightforward to prove with actual scientific deduction that it's vanishingly improbable that you could detonate petrol with a cell phone. A cell phone operates with milliwatts of power from a battery rated in the ballpark between 500 and 2000 mAH. A car battery, even a tiny one, has 40 AH. The smallest conceivable car battery has twenty times the power of the largest possible cell phone battery. Hold on to that thought. It gets better. The operating voltage in a cellphone is between 3 and 5 volts. The operating voltage in a spark plug is a minimum of 12,000 volts. It takes quite a lot of electrical judo to get the power out of a 12 volt car battery and through a spark gap at a minimum of 1,000 times the rated output voltage of the battery. And car manufacturers don't go to all that trouble because it's fun, cheap, or cool. They do it because it's the only way to be confident that the spark will ignite the petrol in the cylinder every time.

Which brings me to the contents of the cylinder. Immense ingenuity goes into ensuring that each cylinder in the engine is filled with a precisely measured mixture of petrol and air so as to get the maximum explodiness out of the petrol each time the spark plug fires.

So, to go back over this again; the most common kind of ignition of petrol fumes in air requires a precise mixture of petrol vapour and air in a confined space and a minimum of 12,000 volts. 12,000 volts. Cell phone voltage - 3 to 5, depending on the phone. Spark plug; big open spark gap hanging right in the middle of the petrol-air mix. Cell phone - let's keep this simple; have you EVER seen anything in your cellphone emit a visible spark? No, you haven't. The entire device is sealed in plastic, with every single electric component carefully screened away from your sweaty hands because the electronics are so subtle and complex that your sweat could interfere with the working of the machine.

If cellphones could make petrol explode at petrol pumps, the car manufacturers of the world would be replacing the electrical systems of cars everywhere with cell phones. They're not. So the next time someone sends you that email alerting you that you could turn your local Maxol into a Michael Bay cut scene by taking a phone call - well, it's up to you what you do. But if enough of us can keep quiet while stupid people get to shout from the rooftops, soon the only thing we'll be able to hear is stupid.

Saturday, 4 September 2010

The Deepgate Codex: Alan Campbell

In the music business, there's a standing joke about the difficult second album. It's a cliché I'm fond of hijacking for other enterprises, notably my penchant for referring to Bush the Lesser's difficult second war. There's a matching problem in the novel business; the second book is where you find out whether the writer had more than one book in them. The next milestone - if that one is crossed - is discovering how bad a writer can be when he's got enough clout to tell his editor to back off.

Alan Campbell's first book, Scar Night, really impressed me. It had a great setting and a spread of pretty good characters. It had a lot of the weaknesses which fantasy books always have - it was set in a world where progress had just stopped at an arbitrary point, for a start - but you overlook that stuff if there's enough good work to balance it out. At least it didn't have a map. I liked the setting; a city hanging from chains over a vast chasm; and I liked the fact that the characters didn't understand their own world very well. I could see where it was stealing its ideas from, but that's what writing's about, and at least he wasn't stealing from Tolkien.

Where it all goes horribly wrong for me is where most other people seem to have been delighted; I stopped liking the Deepgate Codex when it blew up Deepgate and went into the bigger world. Part of the deep background for Scar Night is that the people living there believe that there's a god living at the bottom of the chasm, and that he needs to be fed the city's dead so that he can build up his forces to storm heaven. From the reader's point of view, this belief is undercut by the fact that the church managing it is shown to be corrupt, inept and disorganised, so I was reading along thinking; this is cool, they've got a weird religion which is blatantly not real. Nice change. Well, I thought too soon. The nutty religion is literally true, and the second and third books are all about heaven and hell.

Once Campbell gets out onto the road in Iron Angel and God of Clocks, he really loses me. I hammered my way through Iron Angel by dint of trying to enjoy the more human scaled characters, but the mythology was firmly front and centre. With God of Clocks it's pretty much stomping all over everything, and it doesn't really leave very much of what I originally liked.

There's a great deal of imagination on the loose in the three books, but the second and third lack all discipline. With gods and angels and demons stomping all over the landscape, anything at all is possible, and to some extent, when anything might happen in a book it's hard to give a rat's ass. Scar Night has a strong subplot running all the way through it with one very ordinary man trying to save his daughter's soul from perdition by getting her a decent (by Deepgate standards) burial. Mr Nettles' tale is heartbreaking because the stakes are tremendous for him and trivial for everyone else, and he feels completely doomed from the moment we meet him. There's nothing to equal this in the succeeding narrative; it's a curiousity of fiction that when the whole world is at stake there's no real sense of jeopardy. Even though Campbell has been confident enough to destroy the entire setting of the first book, it's still hard to believe that anyone is actually going to destroy the whole world to make his point over the course of a longer narrative. And since that's not going to happen, we need smaller things to worry about and the narrative doesn't deliver them. Stuff happens, then other stuff happens, and it's not necessarily connected to anything else. Finally, very close to the end of God of Clocks, time travel and alternate worlds get thrown into the mix and - well, around about now I expected Patrick Duffy to put his head round the shower curtain.....

The first book of a fantasy sequence tends to have a lot of good stuff in it. The author has had time to hone the ideas and polish every little thing until it fits exactly into place. The first book gets accepted by a publisher and then an editor takes as long as he likes to beat the badness out of it. A new book benefits from time. After that, all bets are off. The follow-ups have to come out reasonably quickly or you risk losing the market. So the pressure is on for books two and three - they need to be in print within a couple of years or the writer misses the boat. The problem is that this doesn't give either the writer or the editor the time they had when they were getting the first one right. The second book will often benefit from a good interaction between the editor and the author as they race to meet the deadline and work together. The third one - well, now it's just a matter of getting it over with. And God of Clocks feels so rushed, so thrown together - by the time I was half way through it, I was starting to dislike the other two books for making me think this one would be worth waiting for. By the time I was three quarters of the way through it, I took a day off to read another transcendently stupid Jack Reacher book, because they never let me down - I expect-time passing crap and I get just that. Then I came back to the last quarter and it's a mess. I've often felt that it would be nice to give Robert Bakker time to go back over his nonborn King sequence again and get the second and third books up to the quality of the first one. I'm not sure I want to give Campbell the same chance because I don't know that I really want to see where he would have gone with his ideas given time.

Friday, 3 September 2010

Salt; you have to move faster than the speed of plot

Salt is one of those movies which falls apart if you take a moment to think about it. I know what the producers were thinking. Cast Angelina Jolie, and the primitive apemen in the cinema will be too busy not drowning in their own drool to notice that absolutely nothing on the screen makes any more sense than George Bush the lesser trying to explain convertible debentures during a hurricane. I mean, that's almost a plan. It's certainly a much better plan than the one we're supposed to think is driving the plot of Salt. No wonder Tom Cruise got detached from the project. On the one hand, even Scientology makes more sense than the plot of Salt, and on the other hand, lets not mince words; Tom is not going to distract us mouthbreathers in anything like the way that Angelina would. So when Tom and the producers parted ways, I imagine that the combined sighs of relief were picked up by distant planets as some kind of freak weather pattern.

Anyhooo. Angelina is, as I've had cause to mention in the past, not exactly an actress, but is curiously compelling in action movies precisely because she's a performer at her best in rapid motion. Which let me coast through the first act of Salt on a wave of amused good will. The first act has a wonderful extended chase sequence which has Jolie break out of a CIA HQ building and then outrun her pursuers through Washington. The tempo of the action keeps building until finally, with one bound, our heroine is free. It's a very well executed setpiece, and as it drew to a close I was thinking, yeah, this is what an action movie ought to have. Clever set-up, and then get moving real fast. I was feeling pretty darned optimistic at this point in the proceedings. it didn't hurt that early on, Angelina took her knickers off and threw them at a video camera. That must have taken my mind off the plot problems for a whole five minutes.

It's all downhill from there, I'm delighted to report. Our intro into this movie is based on the idea that Jolie's Evelyn Salt is a loyal CIA spy who's been wrongfully accused of being a longterm plant by the KGB. And shock twist, it turns it that's just what she is. Her trainer has activated the whole cadre of long term sleepers and turned them lose to destabilise the USA and bring Russia back to its glory days. The trainer's supposedly a genius mastermind and manipulator who's devoted his whole life to training up a generation of kids and planting them in positions where they could worm their way to the top. Now this is a wonderfully ruthless and completely insane scheme which only a genius mastermind could possibly hope to carry off. Which leaves the audience sitting there with their WTF faces on when the first move in the grand design is to blow the cover of his best agent. Now we see why the Soviet Union lost the Cold War. Their genius masterminds were functionally leotarded.

You have to take a giant step back from the bonkers plot to see how insane it is. Genius Mastermind - I've forgotten his name under the general heading of forgetting to care about stupid people - has decided to mess the US up by framing the US intelligence community for assassinating some weak kneed moderate clown who's now President of Russia. And luckily, he's got a key asset in the CIA who he can simply ask to do the job. So does he ring her up and ask if she's got a moment in her busy schedule? Maybe persuade her to knock off the guy in an afternoon off from her CIA job? Or does he go to door number 2 and walk in off the street to CIA HQ and accuse her of being a mole so that she has to go on the run and everyone in the US intelligence community thinks she's a Russian Plant - and then ask her to do the needful wacking. You're right, he picks door number 2. Because given the choice between a slam dunk easy assassination by a trusted functionary who even her employers believe is a loyal CIA staffer, or a ball-breakingly impossible assassination against impossible odds by someone who everyone thinks is a ringer, the second way to go is the smart move when you want to frame the CIA and kill your opponent. Yeah, you can kind of see why we're not all in the Communist Party these days.

Amazingly, it punches right through the bottom of even that barrel when they kick it up a notch and reveal that the even bigger plot involves hijacking the US nuclear deterrent and using it to blow up Tehran and Mecca. I love the way movie makers always assume that this will somehow set the world on fire and mobilise an unstoppable tidal wave of anti-US hatred. Guys, that constituency is hating the US full time as it is, and even if a couple of nukes somehow kicked it up a notch, the angry millions are on the other side of the planet and frankly, not all that well organised. There's no prospect at all of them making real trouble for the US. The US spends more on being heavily armed than every other country on the planet put together and it's as much as it can do to maintain one war on the other side of the globe. What chance does the Arab world have of bringing the war to the US? And the idea that most muslims would be in any way bothered to hear about Tehran getting vaporised? For most Arab countries, Tehran's nearly as high up their day dream target list as Tel Aviv. But hey, it's Hollywood. The whole sand box is just one culture and one homogenous population.

So's Russia, at least in Salt world. Russians are just mean. Salt goes through the whole movie beating the snot out of people, but because she's really secretly (for god knows what reason) the good guy, she doesn't actually kill them. The Russians - wow, they just kill the daylights out of everyone they meet. Forty rounds rapid into centre body mass is the Russian version of hi and a handshake. They don't feel they've got to know people properly unless they've kicked them in the throat with a bootknife and then emptied a handgun into their heads to stop the twitching as they bleed out. I always find this kind of toss genuinely hard to put up with. On the one hand, folks are just folks. It's not emotionally plausible that one group can kill without a qualm and that another group - their functional equivalents in a culture not really all that different - are squeamish. And on the other hand, it's a bunch of bollocks that you can hammer seven bells out of someone in hand to hand combat and incapacitate them and they're still somehow fundamentally OK. Most of the people Salt knocks down and out in the course of the movie would be dead or permanently disabled if you swung them around like that in real life. in 1982 I got hit by a car that was probably doing less than 30 miles an hour and I'm never going to be able to run more than a hundred metres again. I'm damned lucky it was my leg that took the hit and not my spine. Real life; nothing like as forgiving as the movies.

In and among this, we have to buy into the notion that the White House has a bunker buried eight stories below it. Leaving to one side the question of quite how you'd put a bunker under the White House without anyone noticing that you were excavating it, Washington's a swamp. It's enough of a challenge to stop the White House sinking any further into it without digging a hole under it. That bugged me a bit. I mean, it's a nonsensical film, I shouldn't be getting distracted by that sort of thing. The problem is that if the plot's nonsensical, you have to move very very fast with the action scenes and everything else to overcome that, and Salt does not manage to outrun its own preposterousness. The movie keeps slowing down, and every time it does, the stupid catches up. It's a shame, because as long as the movie is in rapid motion, Jolie's a thing of wonder; it's only when she stops to talk that the disbelief sets in.