Wednesday, 30 January 2013

The Last Stand OR Arnie the Geriatric Badass

After dipping into Hollywood again with his cameos in the two Expendables movies, Arnie isn't exactly pulling off a third act surprise twist by going back into movies full time again. But The Last Stand really does feel like he mumbled Germanically "Now, where was I?" and picked up exactly where he left off sometime back in the 1980s. As throwbacks go, it makes The Expendables - either one of them - feel like post modern meditations on our relationship with violence. The Last Stand is an unapologetically stupid 1980s style action thriller like I used to watch back in the days when I watched literally everything that opened in Dublin, no matter how bad. The baddies go down like ninepins, as do any police officers unwise enough not to have arranged for speaking parts. The heroes seem to be able to walk off almost anything, with the natural exception of the one plucky rookie who might as well have saved himself some time and shot his own self the moment that Arnie started acting like his kindly well-meaning uncle. Kiss of death, man! I muttered around my popcorn, and started the deathwatch clock. That was only the second most obvious gimme; the first prize goes to the assistant FBI agent who yelled "I'll go down the alley" during an early chase. There's the ringer, I thought to myself, and so it came to pass. No-one ever comes back out of the alley. Either they get schwacked, or they're in league with the villains.

Amazingly, this hackery is directed by Jee-woon Kim, and I order you to stop reading this blog right now, go find a copy of The Good The Bad and The Weird and watch it. I'll wait. 

Now, wasn't that astonishing? Half Manchuria gets levelled, there's an insane train robbery cum running battle in a suddenly moving train, a whole village gets shot to pieces, and then for a climax there's chase involving horses, motorcycles, jeeps and field artillery. And it's all expertly played for laughs. Jee-woon Kim brought all that in for less than $10 million. The Last Stand cost $30 million, managing two car chases, the partial destruction of one main street and a roadblock and a pretty cool jailbreak involving a vast magnet and a crane together with a hot chick in a leather jumpsuit who is then unaccountably written out of the movie. It's great to see Jee-woon Kim get into Hollywood, but it just doesn't feel economically efficient.

Which is not to say that it isn't fun. It was more fun than Jack Reacher THE MOVIE, to pick just one example. Arnie's actually got worse at one liners, having had to spend so long speaking in complete sentences in his other job, but this is not one of those movies you were checking out for the dialogue. Thus, Arnie's reduced talking proficiency; not such a big thing. And it's sort of weird fun looking at all the better actors checking in for a quick pay check. That's your actual Forest Whitaker there, once again playing lead FBI agent in a stupid movie. That's Peter Stormare there, playing deputy chief villain, and managing to be both somewhat more creepily insane and quite a bit more efficient than his career defining turn in Fargo. And in the role of a man who gets shot off a tractor for no very good reason, that actually WAS Harry Dean Stanton paying off some overdue bill or other. Also starring Luiz Guzman, who I can never decide about; does he just keep getting asked to play the same overweight lazy but goodhearted Mexican because he was OK the last time, or is that the only thing he actually knows how to do?

The plot is, like all the best 1980s stupid movies, the kind of thing a four year old with a crayon could easily write on a bar napkin. I don't rule out the possibility that that's actually what they did, with the four year old now being about his mid thirties and finally seeing in Arnie's return his long overdue opportunity for the big time. Ernesto Interchangeable Drug Kingpin is being taken to death row from Las Vegas and breaks loose from the convoy. He lights out for the border in a supercharged sportscar which is - apparently - faster than a helicopter, and after the well-meaning but inept forces of law and order fail to stop him, it's down to Arnie's border town sheriff to thwart him and his battalion of thugs. Being the movie that it is, Arnie masterminds an all but singlehanded bad day for thuggery, and John Law shows up just in time to nod and say well done. And yes, it ends on a freeze frame. Not one detail of the template has been neglected. It's even Arnie's day off, though the chronology seems all over the place; at one level it seems like they're aiming for it all to take place in a single night and early morning, but either my fleapit shuffled the reels or Jee-woon Kim stopped caring about the Aristotelian unities, because there seem to be three separate nights.

It's impossible to resist the temptation to claw apart the stupidity in play in the unfolding of the plot. On the one hand, the villain mobilises a truly insane amount of manpower and firepower to break him out of the Black Maria and into his fast car to make his getaway, heading down a dead end road to the one part of the otherwise porous US-Mexican border which happens to have a gorge on it. Something more sedate and low profile, leading to a gentle wander across the vast open spaces of the New Mexico or Texas borders wouldn't have been more convenient? Over on the John Law side of things; the car is faster than a helicopter, which becomes an incredible problem, largely because the FBI - college graduates to a man, remember - put up a helicopter at night with no night-vision equipment, and despite being a federal law enforcement organisation don't seem to have any helicopters SOUTH of Vegas which might be sent to, I don't know, intercept the fast car instead of trying to keep up with it….

But it's core to this kind of movie that everyone is an idiot; the ridiculous confrontation in the climax wouldn't be practical if anyone else in the world had brought their brain to work that day. You don't grumble about the idiocies, you look to see if there's enough silliness on screen to distract you. And a lot of the time, there is. The Last Stand isn't high art, or its modern action movie cousin high camp; it's a surprisingly straight faced return to one of my guilty pleasures. I'm sure Arnie did it to feel thirty years younger, and for a couple of hours, so did I.

Saturday, 26 January 2013

Paddington Bear: time for a gritty reboot

Apparently teh intarwebz are all awash with people who think there's something far too foreboding about the poster for the new Paddington the Bear movie, which is allegedly far too like the poster for The Exorcist. 

I agree, the resemblance is uncanny. To the left, a shadowy figure in a hat and carrying a suitcase; to the right, his mirror image, both of them staring into a dazzling light which makes their destination hard to perceive. This is dark stuff for the juvenile audience to take in, the whole notion of their marmalade loving stuffed toy somehow taking on the forces of Lucifer his own bad self, though it's from the producers of Harry Potter, so the idea of taking on the forces of ultimate evil while surrounded by magic and special effects isn't going to come as a complete shock to the audience, now is it?

And everything is getting gritty reboots these days. Surely it's Paddington's moment. We all want to see the heroes of our childhoods reimagined so that they're as messed up and fed up as we are. We've suffered, now it's Teddy's turn. Yet I don't think we have to turn to possession and the workings of the dark lord to give Paddington the gritty reboot he so needs, not to mention that I'm just not ready to watch firehoses of marmalade being vomited all around the place. Paddington's already got a rich backstory that we can use to refashion him into the dark and tormented anti-hero our generation craves.

This, I'll remind you, is a mysterious bear who appears out of nowhere from - allegedly - Peru, carrying a mysterious suitcase and addressing everyone as Sir. A small, overly formal figure in a hat and a long coat, from South America, with a suitcase from which literally anything might appear. He immediately adopts a pseudonym and settles into deep cover with an ordinary family. Who is he really? How did he appear at a key piece of public transportation infrastructure? What is he fleeing from? Above all, what's in the case?

Is Paddington an assassin, setting up some ultimate act of violence in the shrunken Empire's capital?

Is he a drug kingpin, ready to peddle the contents of his case for untold millions?

A junta torturer from some nameless banana republic just pretending to be a harmless Peruvian teddy bear, his case full of dental tools?

Or is he a fleeing Nazi war criminal, one step ahead of the Mossad, for whom the jungles of Peru weren't sanctuary enough?

Suddenly, I can't wait for 2014….

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Jon Stock: Dirty Little Secret

Say this for Jon Stock, he's a fast read. I've been dipping in and out of Nick Harkaway's Angelmaker since the beginning of the month, reading a few pages here and a few there, because Harkaway is too good to use up too quickly, and by contrast I whipped through Dirty Little Secret between the weekend and last night, all 430 or so pages of it. Because I had to, pretty much. It needed to get read, and there was no point in savouring it. It's not outright barbarous writing, and the chapters are short, which pulls you along from one moment to the next, but from about half way through my principal aim was get to the end, not even to find out what was going to happen, but just to get to the end.

All of what was bugging me in Games Traitors Play  is on full display in Dirty Little Secret. As I often do, I flipped to the author's notes at the end to see if there was anything interesting in them, and noted with a wince that he had a special thank you to someone for kite-surfing lessons. Dur, I thought to myself. Daniel Marchant is going to make a speedy getaway with a kite-surfing rig at some point. And so it came to pass. As did a number of other things which might have looked quite nifty on the TV. There is much wafting of technology, including a wonderful notion of subverting the bar code scanners in a local Waitrose so that they can be used to convey information between spies. On the one hand, why bother with the Waitrose scanners? My smartphone's had a barcode reader in it for the past three years. And on the other hand, that's one heck of a barcode if it can encode a recognisable picture of someone and have it show up on the screen of a barcode scanner. If you could write a compression algorithm that good, why would you work for the KGB? Sorry, it's the SVR now. Though to me, it will always be, in Charlie Sheen's eloquent words, the KG-used-to-Be.

Anyhow, now that I've read all three Daniel Marchant books, I can give a considered opinion. I reckon there's one perfectly good book hiding in there somewhere, skewered through the vitals by a bunch of adequate TV scripts. I'm not sure I'd have gone out of my way for either.


PS. Being an almost invisible blogger is a hobby with few noticeable consequences, but to my considerable shock, Jon Stock actually tripped over my review for Games Traitors Play, and was so thoroughly nice about my comments on it that I returned guiltily to this review. As I said in the comments on Games Traitors Play, this review suffered from the fact that I'd already covered some of the ground about the Daniel Marchant books only a few days before and didn't feel like redigging the ground. That's all very well and good if you're just thinking about my administrative convenience, but that's not really respecting the work.

The fundamental issue with the whole Daniel Marchant trilogy (and I keep a wary eye on the notion that the string has run out on this, since it ends in an open-ended way) is that there's a perfectly good book in there about the moral compromise of espionage and the way in which managing assets is a slippery slope to a lot of other kinds of exploitation. And then layered on top of it and through it is a series of other episodic well-cool stunts which belong in a completely different book. Stock's first novel, the all-but-unobtainable The Riot Act, is instructive in this respect; it's a pretty bleak mashup of kitchen sink student drama and Orwellian surveillance state paranoia; it's not a fun read, but it hangs together well as an effort to write something which gives a realistic angle on the way that infiltration and secret policing can impact on ordinary lives. The Marchant books are driven by a couple of very similar engines; Marchant's alter ego is not just his opponent in terror, but his half brother, while his romantic interest is a compromised American spy whose romance with him is undercut by the fact that it was her job to romance him in the first place. The secondary characters have similar problems, all of which circle back on the way in which the national security agenda can't help but corrupt and destroy the people who have to prosecute it. 

Navigating this kind of thing is a tight rope act for the writer, who has to skirt the constant problem of contrivance; yes, it makes an interesting point that these enemies are really brothers, but it strains credibility that they'd be strangers for so long and THEN enemies. Stock handles that problem deftly; Marchant is clueless; his opponent considerably less so, and thus it's credible over time that Marchant can be caught unawares by a "Luke, I am your father" moment. Psychologically, what's in play rings true. That, of course, means that there's no need for big unwieldy mcguffins, but a six figure book deal optioned for a movie or two makes mcguffins inescapable; hence the segways, the kite surfing and the three movie-plot terrorist conspiracies. Dirty Little Secret has the bad guys setting up a combo shahid/national embarrassment attack in which the chief terrorist is set up as a pawn to die gloriously in an asymmetric attack on the US 6th fleet using high performance speedboats. This is actually less ridiculous than the plot in Games Traitors Play, not least because any idea that Marine Lt-Gen Van Riper can come up with has my automatic attention. It's still way too glitzy for the more grown-up problems that Stock's characters are wrestling with. That's what made me grumpy. I wasn't happy with what was happening to the cast of characters, but it made sense; having some kind of Tom Clancy plot going on around them the whole time was just ruining my immersion in the real carnage.

And lets end on a note of clearing something up; I don't think these are bad books; it's just the spy genre doesn't do much for me. The good parts are good parts of something I don't often read. I don't read legal drama either. I read to get away from things. 

Django Unchained; too much action in the way of the talky bits

I'm sure that if the blogosphere finds out you're talking about movies at all without having seen all of Tarantino's movies, they send a man round to duff you up. Or talk about how someone ought to send a man round to duff you up anyhow. There's something vaguely indispensable about the latest Tarantino, which means it's just as well they're three years apart or I'd never get time for anything else.

Django Unchained is a breathtaking, bladder-challenging 165 minutes long. Imagine what it's going to be like if Tarantino decides on a director's cut for the DVD release. The disc might wind up being too big to go in the player. You'd have to buy a special player just for Tarantino movies - at least it would be that way at first. Then Cameron and Jackson would pile in with even bigger discs before finally Ridley Scott would fetch up with a wheelbarrow for the extended super director's cut of Kingdom of Heaven. 

Curiously, the time doesn't hang heavy. Django isn't the kind of lyrical movie you lose yourself in; it's not the second coming of The Unbearable Lightness of Being or anything even close to it. But in Christoph Waltz, Tarantino has finally found his true muse. Tarantino writes magnificent, daffy, infinitely mannered dialogue; every sentence dripping with the wit and spontaneity which only hindsight or days of rehearsal can give any of us in real life. It's all the stuff you wish you could think of, delivered quicker than you could ever think of it, without a pause or a stumble. It's funny as hell when it works, but until Waltz showed up in Inglourious Basterds, you could never quite bring yourself to believe that the characters were naturally so eloquent. Waltz somehow seems just that smart. Somehow, Col. Landa and Dr King Schultz seem utterly credible in their mannered world weariness, speaking in whole paragraphs with every word in just the place and tone it needs to be. We've all had moments when we felt so poised - most of us have subsequently sobered up and winced to recall them - but Waltz always convinces as a man who simply lives his life in that moment, conscious that it's a gift but not especially impressed by himself.

As a result, just about every scene with Waltz in it is a pure joy, and every time we cut away from him talking to kill someone or blow someone up, it's a jolt out of something pleasant and comfortable. I suspect that this time around, that was what Tarantino wanted.

Django is all about how slavery is a bad thing. This wasn't, to my way of thinking, a point which anyone was still confused about. Then again, I wasn't sure that there were that many people out there trying to figure out whether Nazis were worth making a fuss about and Tarantino still went ahead and made Inglourious Basterds, a war movie which was less about war than the importance of hating Nazis as a lifestyle choice. I can't wait to see what super-obvious enemy he goes after three years from now. Although slavery is a bad thing, slaves themselves are largely an interchangeable commodity in the movie. Noticeably so in the credits, which put up in lights all the white folks what needed a might big dose of killing over the course of the preceding three hours, but didn't squeeze in the slaves at all. A whole bunch of slave trackers (including non-actress but Tarantino favourite Zoe Bell) with about six lines between them got more space in the credits than anyone they tracked. Again, Tarantino may have done this on purpose. He's at such pains to layer his references and insert his in-jokes that it's hard to believe he'd miss out on the way the wronged people of his movie were shoved off to one side.

Of course, some of this is just the irresistible attraction of villainy. Villains are always more fun than heroes, and how we do love to watch them strut and posture, the better to be brought low by the righteous before the credits roll. And Tarantino ratchets his villains up for all the world like a video game; first Schultz breaks Django loose from two slavers, who aren't that bright and have to die. Then Schultz and Django nobble three slave overseers, who are both dumb and cruel and have to die, though there's a tantalising piece of lunacy in M.C. Gainey's whip wielding overseer with pages of the Bible randomly stitched to his clothes. "Why?" I thought to myself. Maybe it's in the director's cut, but on balance I'm probably getting more fun out of wondering about it than I would have from any explanation Tarantino actually gave me. Naturally the Brittle Brothers' appalling boss (Don Johnson in yet another idiot villain cameo for Tarantino/and/or/Rodriguez; how bored can the man BE?) summons the proto KKK to descend on our heroes, who explode them all, though not before they have spent what felt like eternity making utter fools of themselves over the bags on their heads. And then it is time for the big endgame boss, in the shape of grade-A monster Leonardo Di Caprio's Monsieur Candie.

It's safe to say that Rose wouldn't recognise her handsome Jack, not least because like all Hollywood villains of the 19th century, he has teeth that seem to have been discarded from a comedy about how terrible British dentistry is. Candie is appalling. Actually, anyone running a plantation would be pretty appalling, but just in case we'd be havering a bit, he gets his slaves to fight each other to the death and bets on the outcomes. Still not quite enough to make your mind up? Tarantino has it covered; Candie happens upon an escaped slave - as you do - on the way back to his plantation and has him torn apart by dogs. So, yeah, complete bastard. Box ticked, move on.

The whole back half of the movie is a Mission Impossible style stunt as Schultz and Django try to bamboozle Candie into selling them Django's wife by setting up a deal so big that he'll throw the wife in as a makeweight without even noticing it. Considering that Candie is - remind me again - oh yeah, a complete bastard who loves money, it seemed to me like making him a suitably impressive offer in gold through his lawyer would have done the same job, but then we'd have missed out on something which Tarantino does well even when he's doing it badly; the long slow talky scene in which you're waiting for the moment in which the good guys make a terrible slip and the bad guys do something appalling. See the basement bar scene in Inglourious Basterds. Even though it's a preposterous waste of time which does nothing to advance the action or add to our understanding of characters (not least because only one person in the scene gets out of it alive), viewed in isolation, it's a great scene and a real nail biter, right up to the moment when it turns into a confused bloodbath.

I am not saying anything unexpected when I say that the tense confrontation in Maison Candie ends up in a confused bloodbath, because confused bloodbaths are pretty much how Tarantino solves every problem. Conversation's gone on past the endurance of all but the most prepared bladder? Every single reference I could shoe-horn into the script duly thrown at the screen? Check and Check. What was that other thing I had to do? Oh, yeah. Ending. Damnit, I never know how to do this bit. Endings. None of this stuff is actually going anywhere. All my characters seem smart enough to reach a compromise. Where's the fun in that? Oh well, guess it's just gonna have to be a bloodbath again. Oh, wait, did i get in my obligatory awkward cameo? No? quick, tack a second ending on after the first one. Throw another bloodbath into that, then goof around a bit and riff on old movie references. Get a horse to dance; audiences love that, or they would if anyone had done it since the invention of colour film. And roll the credits. Dick around a bit there as well.

In short, the destination's a mess, but the journey is frequently worth it. Waltz is magnificent. I almost don't want to see him in anything else BUT Tarantino movies in case he's only this good when he's got a script so well tailored. Jamie Foxx is still doing that thing where he's Denzel Washington in carbonite and the carbonite hasn't even thawed out yet. Samuel L Jackson is almost unrecognisable as Candie's black major domo and effective brain, but he really sells the idea of a man who sold out his own people so as to have a life of comparative comfort. And saving the best for last, at least in these parts, it's got Walton Goggins in it, as natural law commands that everything in the south should. He doesn't get anything like enough to do, but when you absolutely positively have to have a hill-billy come in and try to cut off Django's goolies with a red hot knife, who ELSE would you call?

Thursday, 17 January 2013

Jon Stock: Games Traitors Play

I don't read that many thrillers, though I've noticed that I grumble about the ones I do read; a far greater percentage of that part of my reading winds up in this blog than the competition from SF and Fantasy, and I've never had anything to say about the history science or economics books. 

I've got all of Stock's work, pretty much, because I have a friend who knows him somewhat and keeps buying them as presents for me. Games Traitors Play is the second of a trilogy about the trials and tribulations of modern day MI6 and in particular Daniel Marchant, who is a second generation spy and somehow the pivot around which the whole world appears to be turning.

The problem I have with the Daniel Marchant books is that I don't know what Stock is trying to do. He's an ambitious writer who wants to write well rounded characters and realistic situations, or at least as realistic as thriller genre books can be. But at the same time he seems driven by the need for a big high-concept McGuffin in the middle of things. The first book opens up with Marchant running in the London Marathon and realising that it's about to be the venue for a brisk bout of terrorism; it's the kind of thing which makes for a good thriller movie or TV episode, but wedged into a larger character driven novel about compromise and moral ambiguity, it just knocks everything around it off kilter. The second one, the one I've just finished reading, has a big set piece climax where an old Soviet ground attack plane is used to carry off what is probably the least realistic terror plot I've read outside of a Tom Clancy book, and it sits incongruously on top of the real book like they'd wheeled Megatron into the middle of Downton Abbey and given him Maggie Smith's lines; not just "What's that doing there?" but "Why did you just wreck that?"

The difference between the first and the second books is that once Stock got the marathon out of his system, he got on with the book; in Games Traitors Play, the staging and foreshadowing for the big terror plot keep jolting into the narrative all the way through what might otherwise be the good bits. Of course, this time round, there's a horrible warning near the beginning that Stock doesn't quite know whether he's writing a novel or hoping to get optioned; Marchant gets chased around a resort by two Moroccan hoods on Segways purely because - I think - Stock thought that it was a cool image to have their heads whiz past a hedge too smoothly for them to be running. 

There's an established form in the actual novel Stock seems to be writing in three novels, and the acknowledged leaders are le Carre and mid period Len Deighton. I don't actually like Deighton's mid period stuff because the realism and endless betrayal by close friends and family gets to be a grind over six linked novels in which nothing is what it seems. Nothing is what it seems is good once or twice, but when it goes on happening again and again, it turns into nothing being worth reading about because it's all going to change again in a minute so what's the point of even trying to keep track? le Carre I'm a bit more open minded about, though as with the aliens in Stardust Memories, I prefer his earlier, funnier work (and Deighton's too, though I'm being less sarcastic there). Anyhow, in both cases, the template is sprawling groups of friends and families all in the spying line of work and all shafting each other like a scorpion conga line because in the end self-interest and deceit for the sake of it matters more than ideology or even job descriptions. Or something. I might not have been able to stay awake for absolutely all of the plots in any of those books.

The defining characteristic in all the set texts is that the fate of the world is never at stake; people's careers and lives might be up for grabs, but the effect in the real world is almost invisible. These books are not, in short, terribly explodey. Stock seems to have seen this as a defect which the 21st century should redress, without giving enough thought to the problem that books don't lend themselves well to explosions and car chases, much as movies are famously pants at the inner state of mind of complex and compelling characters. And here I stumble upon the reason I don't usually read thrillers; movies are just naturally better at blowing things up real good and all the other stuff of which thrills are made. Books are better at the inner claustrophobia and craftiness of homo sapiens in a bind.

That said, I romped through the book pretty rapidly, largely down to Stock's pattern of writing short choppy chapters and switching from one character to another to move the narrative along briskly. It reminded me a bit of Lee Child, albeit rather better written most of the time; Stock's characters are not as - ahem - stock as the plot-defined sock puppets Jack Reacher needs to pummel his way past. It would have been nice if he could have kept the quality control consistent; his Americans are straight out of ugly-American goon school, and I found myself missing the comparative subtlety of the senior CIA goons in Olen Steinhauer's books. It felt particularly jarring next to the painstaking efforts to make the Russians and Brits layered but above all people who hadn't lost sight of decency even if they couldn't quite manage it on the day.

And now and then, I got jolted out of my disbelief. A key piece of side action involves a Polish agent who wants to take revenge for the death of her brother; except that when we're sitting in her head for a chapter of backstory, she's an only child. I found myself flipping back through the book looking to see if I'd got mixed up. Nope, the book had. Now that's just plain bad editing, as was the moment of inattention that let through the notion of a US Marine lieutenant serving in the attack phase of either of the Gulf Wars and still being a lieutenant today. No-one spends nine, still less twenty, years in the Marines as a lieutenant. Either you're promoted, or they get rid of you as a waste of space. Something tells me that the third book is going to need to up its game a bit and play to Stock's real strengths or I'm going to be looking at using the space for something better.

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Jack Reacher: The MOVIE; "To a ten year old, I'm huge"

I will not lie. I went to Jack Reacher: The MOVIE to hoot and mock and pour scorn, and discovered to my disappointment that it was merely a workmanlike vigilante thriller that overcame its stunt casting of an alleged midget in the role of a giant to deliver a perfectly unremarkable growling nemesis thriller which could just as well have been a couple of episodes of a network TV cop show set in Philadelphia.

Teh intarwebz were alive with the hilarity of casting notorious dwarf thespian (and actually perfectly normal sized) Tom Cruise in the role of Jack Reacher, a man defined by the fact that he's six foot five and built like the Incredible Hulk on steroids. And yes, it's funny, though not as funny as casting Verne Troyer would have been. Casting a guy well within the normal range of human clothing sizes just seems lackadaisical rather than outrageous. In making Reacher a character who by rights ought to have his own orbiting satellites, Lee Child should have made the role more or less uncastable, and thus the books more or less unfilmable. About the only actor I can think of in the right size range is Michael Clarke Duncan, who's disqualified partly by being dead and partly by being typecast as a magical negro when Jack Reacher is, ahem, not a negro, magical or otherwise.

Lee Child pulled off a feat of imagination few of his books have equalled when he welcomed Producer Tom Cruise's decision, after an extensive search of his own actual pants, to cast fast-talking-Oscar-nominated-slightly-below-average-sized actor Tom Cruise in the role of taciturn emotionless behemoth Jack Reacher, by saying "With Cruise you get 90% of the size and 100% of the character". Or words to that effect, since I can't find the quote right now. 

Weirdly, he's not wrong. Cruise is a better actor than he's given credit for (though I have a longstanding theory that one of the performances hailed as his biggest stretch, the emotionless killer for hire Vincent in Collateral, is in fact his real personality), and as long as the camera keeps in close on his face, he does a pretty passable job of selling the character of Reacher, a guy who thinks hard but communicates poorly unless he's allowed to punch people a lot. Whenever the camera pulls back, you have to grapple with the reality that Cruise is simply not big enough to be as physically imposing as Reacher, and this then makes a complete nonsense of everyone else's reactions to him. Never more so than when motel clerk instantly decides that of all her guests this week, the one guy who could obviously kill a girl with one punch is - Tom Cruise. Yeah, about that, really, no, not unless it was the kind of punch you can lace with cyanide. So you've got that suspension of disbelief thing nagging away at you the whole time, but I have to say that until the movie more or less waved it in my face with the motel scene, I was, if anything, sort of impressed by how restrained Cruise had been with an obvious vanity project. 

Because a vanity project is what it ultimately is. Reacher is a teenage wish fulfilment fantasy figure. He pulps all the bullies and gets all the girls and he never has to pick up after himself, what with his refusal to own a house, cook a meal or do laundry. He's every pimpled basement dweller's dream of what they could be if they just magically turned into superman without any intervening effort. (It's just such a bitch that potential is nothing without application. Man, if there was just some kind of way to harness all that wasted potential in the world's I-just-needed-a-break whiners, we'd all be living on the moon by now and cancer would just be a birth sign. But I digress). And there is just no manly pursuit at which Reacher has less than absolute mastery. He's a lover AND a fighter. Women want to be with him. Men want to be him.

And Tom Cruise, who has got more money than God (just like everyone else, really, since God is above money), has the resources to live the dream if he feels like it, though apparently it took the better part of six years before everyone had stopped laughing to the point where they could actually roll the cameras. Such is Cruise's ego that he seems to have sincerely believed that he could somehow put his own stamp on a well established fantasy figure who he looked nothing like. He thinks he's genuinely so good an actor that his talent could make up for 10 inches and 100 pounds of difference between him and the target of the performance. Damn, you'd think someone with that much talent would turn it loose on a more interesting character than Jack Reacher.

But having ranted all that, I have to concede; a lot of the time he pulls it off. He growls nearly as much as Batman, but for considerable stretches of the movie, he's not just giving you a sense of Reacher, he's making him look like kind of an asshole, which in real life Reacher would look like most of the time. And when I say that, I mean that I think Cruise was doing that on purpose, rather than doing things which he thought were cool, but actually weren't.

So, Cruise as Reacher; preposterous, pointless, but nothing like as gloriously and hilariously wrongbad as I had hoped. What of the rest of proceedings?

Well, it's ringer heaven. Robert Duvall is there, in the role of Deus ex Machina. What with him, Werner Herzog AND Richard Jenkins, that's three Oscar nominees and an Oscar winner, all marking time in a TV movie. Add in David Oyelowo and the always good-value Michael Raymond-James from Terriers. Nothing can be perfect without Walton Goggins, of course, but it's still an array of talent. And then - drum roll please - we have the other Oscar winner of proceedings. Step forward Christopher McQuarrie, who directed and wrote the screenplay. That's Christopher McQuarrie, who wrote The Usual Suspects, with its tricky and twisted structure and surprise ending which turned your expectations entirely on their head, though not as much as his subsequent career did, what with The Tourist and everything. The stunning twist in Jack Reacher: The MOVIE is that the bad guy from the beginning of the movie is evil every time we see him and turns out to have been the villain all along. I absolutely guarantee you that anyone who'd seen The Usual Suspects and not heard about what McQuarrie's been up to since would never have seen that coming. It's a tour de force of messing with audience expectations. They expect a zig, you give them a zag. Meanwhile, anyone who's ever read more than three Agatha Christie books or watched more than say, a season and a half of anything like CSI will have seen the punchline coming while they were still queueing up for tickets. 

In the end, it's a disappointment. It's not soaring lunacy, and neither is it an edge of the seat thrill ride. It's meh, is what it is. Even though there's a tonne of other Reacher books to make into movies, I'm betting that we've seen the last of Tom in the role. He's a go-big-or-go-home kind of guy, and this did not go big.

PS: I just noticed that one of the searches which linked to this post was "Jack Reacher appropriate for an 8 year old". Hell, no. Although the average 8-year old is probably a bit more morally evolved than the whole last act of this movie, it would still be an utterly horrible thing to show any kid. Although the camera cuts away from most of the actual killings in the movie, it's still clear just what's going to happen and it's not at all something I'd want any kid I know to watch.

Friday, 4 January 2013

Chris Wooding: The Iron Jackal

Wooding's work is just good enough that I keep buying it, but not so good that I feel the need to keep it once I've read it. I blogged Retribution Falls ages ago, and I read the sequel some time last year when I didn't have as firm a policy of trying to write something about every new book I managed to finish. I probably wouldn't have said anything very nice about it; I don't remember being in a particularly good mood round about then and it wasn't a very strong book. The Iron Jackal is a bit of a mess, but it's a surprisingly fun read for all of that. I DID find myself wondering if Wooding shares my affection for Donald Westlake's Dortmunder stories, since in a way Iron Jackal is a long shaggy dog story about how one robbery gets a crew of likeable scamps into trouble and leads to an endless string of other robberies. I suspect Wooding has at least read some of those books, because he strikes me as a man who's writing from a firm base of a lot of movies and books, which he's twiddling round in his mind to see how they'll fit his cast of ne'er-do-wells. So I didn't mind at all when half way through the book we go his take on pod-racing for a few chapters, since he didn't just nick the idea wholesale but had some fun with it.

Back in 2010, I made the point that Retribution Falls was essentially Firefly with jerks. What makes Wooding a better writer than I appreciated at the time is that his jerks are trying to be better than that, and over the course of the three Ketty Jay books to date, they've been evolving, as has the world. Although Wooding's not as good a writer as Stephen Hunt, I've found myself impressed by the way his background world has been developing a sense of texture and change; the stupid things which the crew of Ketty Jay have pulled off are having an effect on the world around them, and as the third book closes out, it seems as though they may have triggered off a major war by accident. It's nice to read a series of books in which there is a big plot going on that the main characters just barely grasp. The big nation states are squaring off against each other, and within that, various cabals and weird religions are up to incomprehensible mischief which looks set to make the wars even worse. It's clever, and it reminds me a little of the deep game which Joe Abercrombie has been playing since The First Law trilogy.

The Iron Jackal has one plot and one theme, but arguably far too much incident. The plot is that endlessly accident prone Cap'n Frey no sooner steals a priceless relic than he afflicts himself with a curse and has to spend the rest of the book returning it to the place it was stolen for. I sort of lost track of how many hoops he had to jump through before he got out from under the curse, though it's all carried off with enough panache that I didn't really mind. Meanwhile, with the Cap'n possibly doomed, most of his crew are tempted by the prospect of life beyond their piratical misadventures in the Ketty Jay. It's a clever approach, since it throws open the prospect of the crew falling apart while letting the reader get to know each of them better, which in turn makes the prospect of them leaving more worrying.

I don't often get to watch a writer steadily improving while working with the same characters (generally, if anything, they seem to get worse), but Wooding has kept stepping up as he's brought out each new book. The adventures have got more over the top and the background stakes keep getting bigger, but it's the character work which impresses me more. It's not work for the ages, but I find myself looking forward to seeing what happens next, both for the larger background and for the increasingly three dimensional crew.