Thursday, 28 February 2013

Lockout: It's like DIE HARD! IN SPACE!, except terrible

The blurb on the box said that Lockout was "Die Hard. In. Space", which, borrowing from Roger Ebert, is an insult to Die Hard, Space, and probably the word "in". I've got to start reading the tiny print which tells you what they're quoting from….

Even allowing for the way Luc Besson is like a tax-friendly production line for movies that not even Leon can make up for, Lockout is still a breathtaking letdown. Some movies insult the viewer's intelligence; Lockout sneaks up behind the viewer's intelligence and works it over with a baseball bat before tea bagging the limp remains and video-ing the whole thing to post on YouTube. 

Don't get me wrong. I quite like dumb movies. When you get paid to think, dumb is how you relax. But there's dumb, and then there's this. I've actually seen much stupider movies. It's just that I keep wishing Besson would try a bit harder, and on top of that, this is a movie which somehow signed up Lennie James, Peter Stormare and … Guy Pearce. Guy Pearce has - well he has nominations for things anyhow. I can't believe he had nothing better to do than spend a few weeks in Serbia with Luc Besson making this stuff happen. Whatever tax demand this paid off could easily have waited.

Lockout is the second movie I've watched this week where one guy has spent the whole movie trying to get out of a large structure filled with angry criminals who want to kill him. There were two important differences; firstly, one of the buildings was IN! SPACE! and the other was in Indonesia. Secondly, the one in Indonesia used a small budget so well you couldn't tell it had a small budget, while the one IN! SPACE! never let you forget for a second that they'd gone in without enough money. It's become a routine criticism of bad SF movies that they have the look and plot of computer games, but Lockout is the first one I've seen where the CGI really looked like a computer game. It turns out that there must be a CGI version of Serbia, where you go to save money on something which would be expensive somewhere nicer, and my word, CGI Serbia looks pretty crap. It's not good in the IN! SPACE! sequences, which are at about the level CGI used to amaze us with in things like The Last Starfighter. It's intrusively, eyewateringly bad earlier on in the movie, when for no particularly good reason Guy Pearce's character Snow makes a run for it on an improbable one-wheeled motorcycle. It's the climax of a completely unnecessary prologue to the main action where we get to see how Snow gets so boxed in that a one-man suicide mission to a space station seems like the best of his options. Another movie which Lockout  is nicked from, Escape from New York, got the same problem out of the way in five minutes flat without a special effect in sight, so you really have to marvel that they felt the need to blow part of the tiny CGI budget making us not believe for a second in Guy Pearce in a car chase to nowhere.

It's not like they didn't have a high concept they needed to be getting on with. The elevator pitch - I can only assume that the elevator was running from Hell - was A SPACE! PRISON! ONE MAN! CAN SAVE! THE PRESIDENT'S DAUGHTER! I could be wrong about this; I may not have used enough exclamation marks. But that's the schtick, folks. The US President's daughter is visiting SPACE! PRISON! and her inept security team manage to balls things up enough that a lone convict covered in shackles somehow kills them to bits and takes her hostage before releasing all 500 prisoners. And only Guy Pearce can save the day, mainly through the power of violence and sarcasm. Imagine you were some creepy lunatic scientist who flat out stole the DNA of Con Air, Escape from New York, Die Hard and a whole bunch of other movies that ought to be relieved I'm not associating them with this thing, and mixed them to make some monstrous hybrid. Now imagine that hybrid got sick and died, and rats ate the body. Imagine a flea on one of the rats. Not that one, the ugly one near the back. That's where Lockout fits into the scheme of things.

Because it's a philosophical impossibility for me to contemplate a villainous lair without wondering how it got planning permission and whether it came in under budget, there will now be an appalled digression as I weigh up the economics of SPACE! PRISON! Apparently in 2079, it's  cost effective to incarcerate people in orbit, which suggests that it's got super cheap to launch space rockets. Mind you, even if it has, I was scratching my head of the logic of putting convicts in space when they were also putting them into suspended animation. You could do that in a coal mine for a fraction of the cost and complication, though it wouldn't have made for quite the same elevator pitch to have Guy Pearce going down the mines, I suppose. Of course, space flight may have become essentially trivial, because they've figured out artificial gravity, or didn't have the budget to fake weightlessness (not that anyone but Chris Nolan ever has that kind of money). Rather than just have it as a line of dialogue, they staged a whole fight scene in the artificial gravity generator, a gadget the size of a grain silo and somehow less interesting. SPACE! PRISON! is incredibly big for a place which really only needed to be a kind of glorified egg box full of individual prisoner pods, and in the end I decided it only made economic sense in the same way that Iraq War made economic sense; for every lunatic waste of taxpayer's money, there's a Halliburton showing a record year for pre-tax earnings.

Snow eventually gets the President's daughter out of SPACE! PRISON!, but you knew that. Everyone else gets killed, including the head villain, who up to that point had been answering a question I didn't even know existed; "What if the magnificent Ray Stevenson had been separated at birth from his twin who was abducted by Scots headbangers?" In the future, not only do they have criminals so bad they need to be kept IN! SPACE!, but their natural leaders are all Scottish, which may surprise everyone but fans of the work of Neil Marshal.

Because there's something good to everything, let me end on a high note. On the one hand, Guy Pearce gets a lot of one-liners, some of which are even funny. And on the other hand, if this movie does nothing else, at least it makes it a racing certainty that when they make Die Hard 6, they'll have been warned off making it IN! SPACE!

Wednesday, 27 February 2013

The Raid: there's only so much beating a body can take

When I didn't get the chance to see The Raid at the cinema, I felt a bit disappointed. It got good word of mouth, and critics who would normally cross the street to avoid a beat-em-up were saying nice things about it. Quite why the Hidden City fleapit felt that it ought to give the space to whatever kid-flick it showed instead, I couldn't fathom. So then I waited for the DVD to drop to a point where I could justify buying a copy, which took a reassuringly long time. The longer it took to discount the thing, the more I thought it would be worth the wait.

So here we are. I suspect that The Raid is going to be hugely influential in action circles for the next little while. I've already seen a whole bunch of films which share DNA with it, notably Dredd, which has the same schtick of a criminal controlled slum block being turned into a copster pot. Does this make it a good film?

That's hard to say. It's a very competent film. The pacing is good, and the director, on only his second time out had to substitute editing for money. There wasn't the budget for real crowd scenes or hordes of extras, so careful staging, tight shots and good audio were used to suggest the crowds he needed. And my word, at first the fight scenes are impressive. And allowing for the fact that I can't speak a word of Indonesian and thus have no way of figuring out whether the acting really makes sense, the principals seem like better actors than Gina Carano was in Haywire

The problem, after a while, was that no matter how well you stage it, no matter how expert the fighters are, a martial arts movie gets pretty samey. It's dudes, beating up other dudes. Every now and then they do something especially acrobatic, but it usually involves someone getting hurt really horribly, so I'm much too old to cheer when it happens. So the movie started to lose me after a bit. The opening stages are quite gripping, as the SWAT team makes its way deeper into the building and the bad guys start picking them off, but it doesn't take long to shave the cast back down to half a dozen martial arts experts and a rotating crowd of crash test dummies for them to dismantle, at which point it started to lose me.

There is one genuinely suspenseful scene, which works because it's almost stationary. The hero is hiding behind a flimsy plaster wall while the Big Bad's loon deputy (he has, for the sake of balance, a complementary non-loon deputy as well) starts punching a machete through the wall to see if there's anything behind it. The blade gets closer and closer and finally grazes along the hero's cheek, slashing it wide open. Then there's a long terrible pause as the loon deputy gets distracted and forgets to pull the machete back out, and the hero tries to wipe his blood off the blade before it can come back out and give away the fact that there's someone bleeding behind the wall. The film could have done with more of that kind of balance; if we'd been given a chance to breathe in between punch-ups, the pauses and the punch-ups would both have had more impact.

Saturday, 23 February 2013

Derek Robinson: Operation Bamboozle, and indeed Luis Cabrillo in general

When I posted earlier this month about Derek Robinson, I made a glancing comparison between his approach and Elmore Leonard's; for a book where the comparison is impossible to avoid, try Operation Bamboozle, the fourth book he's written about the charming con-man Luis Cabrillo. In an afterword, Robinson says that he looks forward to seeing Cabrillo does next, and I have a feeling that Cabrillo is his favourite character. He wrote the first Cabrillo book, The Eldorado Network, when he happened across the true story of Garbo, one of the leading double agents of World War II. Garbo, rather magnificently, made up a whole spy ring in Britain and managed to fool the Germans into thinking it was real; the whole exercise was such an unlikely success that MI6 eventually hired him to do it properly. The real life story sounds too good to be true, and indeed Garbo's motivation was so idealistic that Robinson's own native cynicism kicked in hard when he decided to fictionalise it all; Luis Cabrillo is a grifter who does it all partly for money and partly for the sheer anarchic fun of fooling so many stuffed shirts.

The Eldorado Network came out in 1979 and seemed to stand on its own quite well; it wasn't till 1991 that Robinson came back to the characters to see how the rest of the war went for them and how Cabrillo's anarchic spirit would have stood up to following orders from MI6. Artillery of Lies is a much blacker farce than the first book, particularly in the fates awaiting the real German spies which the Abwehr foolishly sends to reinforce Cabrillo's legion of non-existent ones. But again it wrapped up nicely; the first book had ended with Cabrillo going corporate and the second ended with him helping to tip the balance of the War. We heard nothing more from Cabrillo for 15 years, until Red Rag Blues saw a bored Luis showing up in the US in the 1950s, just in time to try to make some money and have some fun by disrupting the McCarthy era. A lot of the fun in Luis is watching how he thrives on chaos and improvisation, and like most fiction about mildly sociopathic people, it works better if the people he scams are much worse than he is. The McCarthy hearings didn't give him quite the stakes and license-to-mess that defeating Nazi-ism did, and it's not as good as the earlier books. Still fun, as Robinson alway is.

As Operation Bamboozle begins, Luis and his partner-in-whatever-he-does Julie Conroy have narrowly extricated themselves from the McCarthy mess, leaving a confused FBI and an unfocussedly vengeful Mafia in their wake, and are trying to put some distance between them, their ill-gotten gains, and all the people who want a word with them. Chaos inevitably follows as they rattle around Texas, confusing everyone, swindling the rich and attracting a coterie of eccentrics before bouncing into LA and a bit of sustained plotting.

There's not a whole lot of plot to Operation Bamboozle, but the closest thing it has to one is Luis deciding to run a long con on the Mafia by persuading them to subscribe to a Ponzi scheme based on them thinking that they're patriotically defrauding the Ukrainian national lottery and thus destabilising communism. We're almost half way through the book before this even occurs to him, and by this stage, the couple's misadventures have left a trail of bodies as their cloud of confusion bewilders various hoodlums into violent over-reaction to things that they were never even meant to notice, let alone understand. Which has in turn attracted the FBI, convinced that there's something wrong, but unable to make sense of what it might be. Luis, meanwhile, is blissfully self-confident, as always, and blithely unaware of how much trouble he's caused and how much danger he and Julie are really in. 

It all ends in a cartoon explosion of misunderstanding which miraculously leaves Luis unscathed, and most of the people who were mad at him in no position to do anything about it. And thus Robinson saying he's looking forward to what he might get up to next, though this was four years ago now, and there's been no sign of movement. We can but hope, I suppose.

Why is all this Elmore Leonard-esque? Well, Robinson is more writerly than Leonard, more fond of the stylistic, almost distracting flourish. But he has that same happy knack of conjuring up a sympathetic character, bringing him to life, and then cutting him almost casually out of the story as the natural cussedness of life and other people takes its toll. Plot is secondary; what matters is character and contingency, the way that people react to the randomness of things around them. The real theme of the book is that Luis thrives of chaos and carries it with him wherever he goes, oblivious of the effect it has on the people he touches. There is a moment when Luis finally has his latest scam bought out from under him by the government because even they've fallen for it, and Robinson finds a sentence which is both a perfect description of what's wrong with Luis and a nifty piece of writing "… his eyes had the look of a man who has just won the Nobel for piracy on the high seas." When you can do that, you write whatever the hell you want to.

Wednesday, 20 February 2013

A Good Day to Die Hard: Next one will have to be set on an island

Word of mouth must be killing A Good Day to Die Hard; only five days into release, on cheap ticket night in the Hidden City, even testosterone fuelled teenagers were piling in to Wreck-it Ralph. I sat in solitary splendour in my middle row with not a living thing between me and the action, and thought to myself, I knew this wasn't going to be good but...

Of course, this is one of these things which could have been saved if only everyone had had a sense of history. Take Napoleon; started well, impressed everyone with his use of resources, ran rings around lumbering opposition, and kept going even while more and more opponents piled in against his insane ambition. Then he had the bright idea of heading for Moscow. Going to Moscow has never ended well for Euro-despots, and it turns out that even going to fake-Moscow is not working out well for Bruce. It's time to ponder Napoleon's future career; after Moscow, give or take some details, it was next stop Elba, then Waterloo, and then St Helena. I'm going to suggest Elba; set all the action on a small island, and get the franchise back to its roots; manageable stakes, tight quarters and a villain you can root for. On the assumption that Bruce isn't reading my every word as though it were a ransom note from the future, my best guess is that for the inevitable disastrous sixth Die Hard movie, they're going to kick it up a notch from Moscow and break Vizzini's first rule against obvious blunder; tune in three years from now as John McClane gets himself involved in a land war in Asia….

Of course, Bruce doesn't actually go to real Moscow, because the real people who run real Moscow are noticeably lacking in a sense of humour about the possibility that the country's being run by insane criminals (the alternative approach taken in the US is to embrace the notion in fiction, which is genius, since everyone then comes to think that insane criminals deciding everything of importance is something which could only happen in the movies, rather than every day of the week). Down the road in Budapest, everyone is perfectly cool with the idea of depicting Russia as a land of insane criminals, and they're apparently perfectly cool with the notion of destroying half of down town in the world's most unnecessary car chase as well. The first ties back to the general Hungarian tradition that Russians are a bad idea, and the second presumably to the even more important Hungarian tradition that everything is negotiable given enough hard currency and soft morals. Billy Wilder wonderfully described a Hungarian as a guy who could get into a revolving door behind you and come out in front of you, and he meant it as a compliment. Anyhow, the whole thing was shot in Hungary for tax purposes, and the single most impressive technical achievement was not making it look vaguely like Moscow (since who the hell knows what Moscow looks like short of the Kremlin), but in keeping the Hungarian House of Parliament out of shot. The Hungarian parliament looks like what Westminster would have been like if Kim Newman had been right and Dracula got to run London's architecture for a spell, which is to say there's nothing else like it in the whole world.

Back to that car chase for a moment, because it's wrong in so many ways I wanted to give everyone involved a speeding ticket, or perhaps encourage them all to stand on the back roads of Kerry for a while when Michael Healy Rae gets his way and drunk driving is made legal for every farmer over the age of fifty. Firstly, it's important to keep in mind that every car in Moscow is a Mercedes, even the army trucks. Secondly, there's a point in a car chase where even I start to wonder just how many people would have gotten killed in the general hi-jinks, and this car chase busts through that barrier about three minutes into its interminable quarter hour. Thirdly, in Die Hard Moscow, no-one even blinks when you tool around the place for no readily apparent reason in an armoured truck with a gun turret on the roof. Even if you park the thing ten feet away from the main criminal court house. The main criminal court house which we just saw a second ago surrounded by enough heavily armed guards to invade Hungary all over again and keep it this time. They built the truck specifically for the movie, so they didn't even have the excuse of "Well, we've got this cool truck which the army isn't using, let's see what we can break with it."

The truck is central, not that I can really see why, to the escape plot which - I know the word they were thinking of was "propels" but I'm going with  "ruins" -  the first half of the movie.  I now have no alternative but to try to explain the plot to you. Bruce Willis' estranged son has arranged to have himself fetch up in the same courtroom as a Russian oligarch on trial for some kind of corruption. This took three years of under-covering about and the straight up murder of some random guy in a bar, making for one of the most pointlessly elaborate schemes ever committed to celluloid. Meanwhile, Bruce is back in New York (the Bruce-world NYPD still emblazons every surface in sight with stickers you could see from space, as though somehow its rank and file would otherwise get confused about where they work or just why they have badges and guns), learning from his buddy that his son is in terrible trouble in Moscow. So he flies off to Moscow, leaving Sucre from Prison Break thinking "That was the easiest $100 I'm going to make this year." and Mary Elizabeth Winstead hoping that she can get away with one small cameo in a car at the airport - tough break, Mary, you have to welcome your dad and  brother home at the end of the movie for some reason, though your mother still hates all of you and shuns the reunion.

OK, there's our starting cast; Bruce, the estranged son, the crooked oligarch and the Russian Minister who wants to nobble him before he testifies. Enter THE GANG, who blow up three BMWs to knock a hole in the wall of the courthouse and then storm in with gas masks and heavy weapons to grab the only two people still standing; the two defendants who seem to have been spared the worst of the blast thanks to the Russian habit of putting prisoners into glass boxes in courtrooms. Places where I'd like to be standing in an explosion; inside a glass box does not feature anywhere in my top hundred, but it's the movies, eh? Anyhow, Bruce Junior and the oligarch leg it, find their way to a pre-positioned van, and then get delayed by Bruce blundering in. The delay means they miss their date with a Reaper drone (I have NO idea what that was actually supposed to achieve even if it had worked) and they get spotted by THE GANG who give chase in their preposterous twenty tonne armoured truck from some hyper active child's imagination.

THE GANG chase Bruce Junior, and Bruce chases THE GANG, first with a unimog, then with a Mercedes G wagon. Which, by the way, are both just amazing vehicles, because they have enough power to nudge a six wheeled truck six or seven times their own weight right off the road and through dozens of innocent passersby. And it goes on forever. It makes the freeway chase in the second Matrix movie look like a good idea well executed. 

There is then more messing about, multiple betrayals, the demolition of most of a hotel by an attack helicopter, and a mass move by the surviving cast to Chernobyl, which is a) in Russia now, and b) just up the road from Moscow, from which we know that a Maybach saloon nicked in the small hours from Chechens out clubbing can do somewhere between 200 and 350 kph on back roads so that you can drive from Moscow to Chernobyl by four in the morning. Bruce and Son then destroy all the Chernobyl that isn't already destroyed, but mysteriously shrug off radiation poisoning because THE GANG got there ahead of them with Substance 430, which somehow neutralises radiation, in a development which I really think Hollywood oughtn't to be keeping to itself in this modern Fukushima-y world.

Needless to say, the bad guys cop it to a man, and indeed to a hot chick, who gets to watch her dad chucked through the rotor disc of the helicopter she's trying to fly while Bruce Snr is trying to help her crash it. In a move which magnificently failed to warm a single heart in the audience, the chuck-ee gets a shot exactly mirroring Hans Gruber's iconic "Oh bugger, I've been chucked out of a window" moment in the proper Die Hard, and by this stage I was cross enough to hope that they'd got the expression in just the same way; famously McTiernan got Rickman to look appalled by the simple expedient of not telling him that this time they were dropping him for real...

Anyhow, back to the prison escape plot. It doesn't make any sense as it's happening, and it actually manages to make less sense as everyone's secret motivations are revealed. THE GANG are actually working for the oligarch, though the corrupt Minister think they're working for him to help him get the oligarch and sweat "the file" out of him. That's bonkers, but at least it makes sense in the bizarro world context; what's nuts is that the CIA somehow knows enough to put a man into the exact courtroom where this mayhem is going to break out, with an exit plan timed to the minute which includes drone support, but somehow don't have a clue who's behind the mayhem. I can buy the notion of a stupid CIA; it's being stupid to exactly that convenient degree which leaves me baffled.

Anyhow, it's all a horrible mess and a disgrace to the memory of the first, proper, film, which was so damned good I didn't even mind having to walk home eight miles in the middle of the night after I saw it the first time not knowing what to expect, and more importantly not knowing that there was a bus and taxi strike that night. That walk was quite a bit more fun than A Good Day to Die Hard.

Thursday, 14 February 2013

Zero Dark Thirty: Should have gone with plan A

Zero Dark Thirty is uncomfortable viewing, but I'm not sure that makes it a good movie. It's a dogged, straight-faced attempt to show how a powerful country went about finding and killing an elusive enemy, and it doesn't make any effort to make that kind of endeavour look more glamorous than it is. There's been a huge amount of fuss about its depiction of torture and whether this is meant to be a criticism of torture or a vindication of it; I thought it was simply an effort to show the things which happened along the way and let the viewer decide for himself. The fact that everyone seems to be able to get angry about it in their own way tends to bear me out, I think.

My own view is that the movie shows us some - by now means the worst - of what we already knew was done, and the action that unfolds from it. I don't think the movie shows torture as being in any way useful for intelligence; nothing we see done in a black site ever seems to turn into the prevention of an attack or the capture of anyone important. There's a moment, too, in the middle of the movie when one of the CIA higher-ups complains that they're spending billions in the war on terror with nothing to show for it, and I thought back over all the horrible dilapidated sheds and cellars in which the mistreatment's been shown to us, and the crudely low tech methods used, and asked myself how on earth they'd managed to spend billions on all that...

If there's a glaring error in the movie, it's in the decision to make it all about one person, Jessica Chastain's CIA analyst Maya. The film-makers have acknowledged that the character's a composite of a variety of CIA officers, and I guess what they were trying to do was use one person to show how the hunt for Bin Laden wore away at a whole nation's conscience and its ideas of what a democracy can do in defence of its principles. But it just left me thinking that the Global War on Terrorism hasn't had that moment yet that WWII had in the 1960 and 70s, when they kept making vast movies like The Longest Day  and A Bridge Too Far, studded with star cameos which showed how these huge struggles involve vast numbers of people working together rather than one star tying it all up with pure charisma. There's nothing wrong with Chastain's performance - or indeed with anyone else's - it's the writing I take issue with. It's not enough that they tried to make a long and twisting campaign by hundreds of experts more relatable by having a single character stand in for a parade; they wrote her as the lone maverick voice who's right all along even though no-one believes her. There's a moment near the final act of the movie when she takes to writing the number of "wasted" days since they've spotted the bin Laden hideout on her boss's window, and I just thought to myself; three days into that, I'd have had her transferred.

The thing is though, that I'd quite like to have seen the movie they originally set out to make. Bin Laden was actually killed during the pre-production of the movie, which Bigelow had originally intended to be about the - at that point - fruitless hunt for Bin Laden. The production had to turn on a dime and reconfigure for a successful manhunt (and find the time and money for a re-enactment of the raid that killed him). It's worth thinking back to The Hurt Locker for a second; there's an utterly absorbing movie which uses a succession of unconnected incidents to show us the reality of a war which never lets up and never seems to resolve to victory, and which Jeremy Renner's character becomes so absorbed in that he can't cope with anything else. If you took away the last forty-five minutes of Zero Dark Thirty, you would have had a perfect complement to The Hurt Locker, as you watched Maya and her team go further and further in the struggle to find Bin Laden, compromising their ideals and their consciences more and more, and ending up with nothing to show for it but the prospect of another ten futile years. That would have been a bleak and uncomfortable movie, but it would, I think, have been a much better film than the one which Bigelow and Boal were forced to make by circumstances far outside their control.

We would, however, have lost the movie's only joke, which comes from a DEVGRU operator looking out a window at the burning wreckage of one of the special ops helos and deadpanning "I forget. Were we MEANT to crash the helo?"

Monday, 11 February 2013

Derek Robinson: A Splendid Little War

About halfway through A Splendid Little War, I began to realise that for Robinson, war is a little bit like the monsters in horror movies. Anyone can die at any time, and there's no lesson to be had from it, only the gulping dread of waiting to see who's going to fall next for no good reason. Which is a very good point, but you'd better be a damn good writer if you're hoping to get away with writing a whole book about it.

Robinson hasn't just gotten away with writing a whole book about it, but has run a whole writing career on that basis. He's managed it because from moment to moment he's a very good stylist, and has the knack for sketching in a character quickly before he inevitably gets the chop. And like Elmore Leonard, Robinson does not mind killing a character when his moment has come; if he's built a character who's suicidally dumb, then that character will be true to his temperament and get himself well and truly killed when his impulse towards dumbness collides with the harsh unforgiving world around him. Meanwhile his quieter and cagier characters will survive to the end, as quiet and cagy people tend to do, sometimes sadder and wiser, sometimes learning nothing at all.

Robinson has been writing since the 1970s, and I remember the very young me reading Goshawk Squadron and not getting it at all. I'd been looking forward to some kind of Biggles book, but Goshawk Squadron is a very bleak piece of work, briskly getting across the sense of gathering doom which hung around any RFC fighter airfield in the first world war. In Biggles world, people got shot down and shot up all the time, but the God of fools and heroes worked full time to keep the named cast one step ahead of the grim reaper. Lulled into a sense of false security by this, I was left reeling by Robinson's sardonic clipped account of an endless parade of young men rolling up, taking off and falling down all within a span of days. I came back to him when I was much older and had learned just how important a terrible sense of humour can be when you're dealing with tragedy, and have snapped up all his novels on sight ever since.

Most of his books deal with the RFC and RAF, and a peculiarly male world in which hardly anyone gets a chance to grow old and the ones who do make a point of not growing up. I have a soft spot for the non-RAF Kramer's War, which takes a mordant glee in showing what it would really have been like if a gung-ho US pilot had tried to foment Resistance in German-occupied Jersey. Gung-ho lone wolf Americans taking on the nazis were such a staple of war movies that it was fun to see someone trying to draw a more realistic picture. The book made Robinson marvellously unpopular in Jersey, which struck me as the Jersey-ites missing the point; Robinson was making a pretty persuasive case for the rationality of waiting out the war and trying to get by with a minimum of bloodshed while the real work was done elsewhere. 

Among his RAF books, I tend to see A Good Clean Fight as the best of the bunch, perhaps because it's got such a wide variety of points of view. It's also in some ways the most developed version of one of his key theses, which is that a lot of things happen in wars because people are looking for something to do, and in the absence of something obviously sensible, they'll do something violent and stupid. There's a marvellous sequence in the middle where the Germans attempt to set up their own Long Range Desert Group and stuff up their desert driving so magnificently that a conga line of trucks follow each other into oblivion. It's brilliantly executed, because it's written and staged in the conventional way, right up to the moment that it fizzles into futility. Our expectation is always that the viewpoint characters in fiction will overcome their setbacks and keep going to some cathartic confrontation, but Robinson is forever pulling the rug out from under that expectation, just like reality does. The impressive thing is how he can keep doing it and make it work every time.

A Splendid Little War runs entirely on that fuel, fittingly enough. It covers the brief involvement of the British armed forces in the Russian Civil War; the Intervention. As euphemisms go, it's right up there with Ireland referring to WWII as "the Emergency", but as bad ideas go, the Intervention is one of the standout bad ideas of the 20th Century. The Russian Civil War is one of the great overlooked tragedies of the 20th century, a vast sprawling mess that killed millions between battles, purges, massacres and the famine and plague that follow such massive dislocation. The best you can say about the decision by the exhausted and war-weary western powers to join in was that at least they didn't make it any worse, though the various expeditionary forces left a lingering resentment which Khrushchev still emphasised in the 1950s. For Robinson, always drawn to folly and futility, it's almost surprising that it took him until now to take a look at this bit of minor idiocy.

 One of the great quotes of modern warfare was Donald Rumsfeld's exasperated riposte that you go to war with the army that you've got, and Britain went to the Russian Civil War with the army that it had left. They had any amount of worn out and directionless young men, and a rather smaller amount of worn-out equipment, and the shaky nature of both men and machines is the running theme all the way through the narrative. Robinson has never been a man for plot; he sets up his characters and lets incident accumulate until his real point has been made. The RAF's involvement in the Intervention had a beginning, a middle and an end, and those are the bookends for the narrative. A writer should know his readers, and Robinson knows that anyone reading his books will know how the Intervention ended, as muddled and futile as it began. His task is to keep us reading even though we know how it all has to end. You carry that off with style and characters, making the reading fun and the company engaging.

That's always been Robinson's strength, and the squadron's doctor, adjutant, fixer and Russian adviser make a wonderful Greek chorus to the destruction of Merlin Squadron's dreams of glory and then its men and machines. Through most of the book, they're smart enough to know that the enterprise is insane, but not smart enough to think of how to stop it from chewing its way through life and limb, until finally the adjutant puts the kibosh on a last ditch plan to pull some glory from the ashes by bombing Moscow. In any other book, the raid on Moscow would have been a heroic doomed climax, full of daring and improvisation; instead the book focuses on the effort to stop it, first by trying to show how impossible it would be, and finally by getting the high command to block it in a last burst of common sense before the whole ramshackle enterprise gets dragged home.

Robinson's never had the success he deserved, and his books drift in and out of print, with a patch in the last few years where he had to publish them himself. It's great to see him back in print, and still going strong at the age of 80. If this is his last book, as it might be, he's finishing up on a strong note, but I can still hope that there's going to be more.

Thursday, 7 February 2013

F Paul Wilson; Repairman Jack: stop shooting when you've still got something left in the clip

At the weekend, I put to bed the last of the F Paul Wilson's Repairman Jack books, The Dark at the End. Strictly speaking, it's not the last of them, since he's committed to writing another three about the time between Jack's teenage years (themselves documented in response to popular demand) and Jack's first appearance in print back in 1984's The Tomb. But it's the last in more important sense, because it's the one which covers the last incident in Jack's career before he gets to be one of the big cast of walk-on lunchables in the reissue of Nightworld. That's it, in other words. Wilson had taken the character literally as far as he can go; next stop is the end of the line. Or the end of the world, or something. Nightworld is one of those books which didn't catch on the first time it came out and so I never managed to snag a copy, and when Wilson started trying to rebuild the whole tangled mythology of his "Adversary Cycle" he scheduled a massive rewrite of the book, partly to get around the dated references inevitable in a book first published in 1992 and partly to rebalance it more into all the work he'd done since. The new version of Nightworld isn't out in cheap paperback yet, so I STILL haven't read it, though I'll admit to more than idle curiosity about what it's going to look like. The 1992 version struck me as sounding icky and gloomy and I didn't really stretch myself to find a copy; I'm wondering if either it or I have changed enough to make a difference to that assessment.

Why ramble on about this at all? Partly because I couldn't help thinking as I put down The Dark at the End that Wilson was probably even happier finally to get it out of the way than I was, and it got me to thinking about when you should give up on something which used to be a good thing.

You've got to come at this, to some extent, from the same direction that I originally did. Wilson's not a great writer. A lot of his stuff is pretty run of the mill; if you were feeling unkind, even hacky. I came across him first off in a book called Healer, which I read some time in the 1970s. It's a pretty snappy little SF book, brief and to the point the way they all were in those days, and bits of it are vividly enough written that I can still remember them today, though I haven't re-read the book in decades. I was quite impressed at the time, and kept an eye out for his stuff after that. Next thing I remember reading was a big messy thing called Black Wind, which was three times the size of Healer, and tried to juggle the 1980s American obsession over Japanese culture together with black magic, Pearl Harbour and Hiroshima. The pulp elements worked better than the characterisation, and the book just didn't do it for me. By the time that had come out, Wilson had slid over into horror rather than SF, with a sideline in pulpy thrillers. And these really were pulpy thrillers; most of them only had cheap US printings, and you'd trip over them in second hand bookshops or places like Murder Ink where US paperbacks would mysteriously appear as grey imports despite the weird book monopolies of the 80s and 90s.

His first big hit and game changer was The Keep, which had the high concept notion of vampires meet nazis at a time when no-one was mashing up genres like they do today. It got made into a movie, the most miraculous aspect of which is that somehow Michael Mann was still able to find work after directing it. The Keep, the book, is a pure sealed-evil-in-a-can gig, but something in it seems to have dug in, and Wilson kept coming back to it, winding up with the six books of the Adversary cycle and more or less destroying the world in the last one because sometimes there's nothing left but to turn it all up to 11. But it didn't stop there. He needed to make up a suitably large scale conflict for all this sealed evil to be playing out against, and it started to twine into all his other books, with everything becoming some aspect, openly or otherwise, of the conflict between the Ally and the Otherness, one not so much good as indifferent and the other just plain evil. 

Relax, I'm nearly there. Repairman Jack shows up as the protagonist in the second book in the Adversary cycle, where some of the sealed evil bobs to the surface in 1980s New York. Then Jack goes away only to show up again as one of a big ensemble cast in Nightworld. So far, so bring all your threads together in a bow for the climax. What's weird is that somehow, years later, Jack turned into the character Wilson couldn't let go of. 14 years after he first saw print, he came back in follow up to the Tomb, and ever since, there's been a Repairman Jack book every year or so, fleshing out more and more incidents in the years between his apparent introduction and his big finish in Nightworld. And audiences have been lapping it up - hell, I've been buying all of them as they've come out, and unlike Lee Child books, I haven't even been throwing them away. I think I may have bought some of them twice, since I read the early ones, lost interest and then came back at the sequence again when a friend mentioned them to me as something I might like.

But, they've been getting steadily worse, the closer and closer Wilson gets to the finishing line. He KNOWS where this character is going, and one of the things which he has to do is move all the pieces into place to make him just broken and isolated enough to be the guy in Nightworld. So the early books chip away at him, taking off a family member here and a potential child there, unfolding over weeks and months to give a gathering sense of menace. And about six books back, if the pace of events had stayed consistent, Wilson would have been about ready to wrap it all up with one last chunk of backstory and tee it all up for the grand finale. Instead things started getting dragged out, with less and less left to do in the books, and a scramble to wrap up all-new loose ends which were brought into being by the decision to add three books about Repairman Jack the teenage years quite late in the day. 

Repairman Jack started out as a passably interesting idea, and it's become a career-defining character for Wilson the writer. Take a guy who makes a point of staying off the radar, lives by his own code, is borderline criminal and believes that everyone has the responsibility to look after themselves including by carrying a gun. It's more or less the urban hill-billy extreme end of Wilson's own well known personal beliefs about libertarianism, ramped up to 11 and wedded to a guy a long way up the anti-hero end of the scale of Chandler's "man … who is not himself mean." school of noir protagonist. And in the early books, with Jack going low-rent vigilante on various deserving cases while getting a growing feeling that there's something a lot bigger sizing up him up for a world of hurt, there's some good clean fun to be had. But somewhere between the problem of going down the mean streets too often and the sheer pain in the ass problem of writing prequels when everyone, starting with you, knows exactly where this is all going to end up, Jack just got plain boring, first to Wilson, and then to us. There was a moment, back in 06, when they did a first reissue of Nightworld. If Wilson had wrapped it up soon after that, a lot less books would have got shifted, but the readers would have had something a lot better than we got. As I so often say, less is more.

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Nick Harkaway: Angelmaker

Lord, that was fun.

Not as purely brilliant as The Goneaway World, but fun. The Goneaway World was a hard book to carry on from. It had a fresh and distinctive voice and a perfectly pitched twist right in its heart where you least expected it; expertly set up, slyly telegraphed and utterly organic to the plot and theme of the book. When Harkaway pulled away the curtain, I couldn't decide what I admired the most; the brass bound audacity of his design, or the subtle elegance that left it sitting out there in the open the whole time, too damn big to see until the moment the camera pulled back. 

Wisely, savvily, perhaps even with one eye on the post Sixth Sense career of M Night Shyamalan, Harkaway didn't try to do that twice. Angelmaker is Harkaway saying "Right, you've seen what I can do when I put a great big twist into things. Here's how it looks when I go straight from the beginning through the middle to the end…" There are twists and turns and reversals of fate, but at no point does Harkaway take the whole damn tablecloth of his world and give it the brisk shaking that drove The Goneaway World through its magnificent rabbit hole. 

Inevitably, what you get is much less awesome, but it's still a warmly satisfying book. Harkaway's voice is all his own, delighting in the flow and sound of language, of description for its own sake, of the solid deliberate heft of intricately made things. And just as much delighting in the company of his characters; in Harkaway's richly imagined world, henchmen and sidekicks are as solid and charming as anyone else's protagonists, and perfectly likely to announce - at precisely the correct moment - that they're nobody's henchman. As with The Goneaway World, Harkaway has Neal Stephenson's love of devices and digression for their own sake, married somehow to Tim Powers' sense of people as frail yet indomitable heroes in a world gone too bonkers for any one person to have a hope of survival, let alone victory. 

It was hard to write much about what happens in The Goneaway World, given the big lump of gotcha lying in the middle and twined around every part of the plot. It's much easier to parcel out what happens in Angelmaker, because once the clockwork is set in motion, any surprises and reversals are only of the kind that every ripping yarn of high adventure gives us. The hero will slowly realise how little he understands, will have an epiphany, and will triumphantly grow to be all he can be. This is the corniest plot in the whole world, which does not matter at all if the person telling the story is good enough to drag you all the way in and make you give a damn anyhow. Done, and done, I'm happy to say, and a little bit of me suspects that Harkaway was quite deliberately playing around with that corny plot and tweaking it to see just how much of it he could wave at us all.

Goneaway was - in part - about a weapon which takes all the meaning out of reality, and what might rush to fill the gap. Angelmaker is about a weapon which shows everyone what reality really is, and drives them crazy when they realise just how little meaning their lives have if they become absolutely certain what will inevitably happen next. Say this for Nick Harkaway, say he's not afraid to roll out crazily abstract concepts in the service of his plot. But Angelmaker isn't about the world that a weapon like that would make; it's about how rotten embattled governments could make life for a simple clockmaker unlucky enough to switch that weapon on by accident, and about how much of a badass that clockmaker might have to become to survive.

Along the way, there's huge fun for the reader, if not for the luckless Joe Spork and his associates. Joe, poor bugger, is off on the hero's journey, so there's lost parents, schwacked friends, capture and torture on the agenda for him before he stride out to vanquish the unrighteous. So to provide all the awesome we'd need in the run-up to that, we've got Edie Bannister, girl spy turned geriatric badass supreme, who at no point in her life is ever less than totally magnificent. This ought to be utterly annoying, but it's not. Edie's the kind of character who makes you want a whole series of books consisting of nothing but her doing ever more improbable things, though I'm hoping Nick will use that savvy I mentioned earlier and leave things just perfect as they are. We get her as the most dangerous ninety year old lady in London, and indeed possibly the world, and we also get her in the 1940s, nothing like as wily and effortless as she will become, but plugging the gap with youth, vigour and absurdly believable courage. Edie's just great. Did I say that already? Huge fun. And the first thing I've read in ages which can even begin to challenge the intricately maniacal world of Neal Stephenson's Cryptonomicon, which imagined an entire parallel universe of grounded yet eldritch shenanigans on the edges of WWII's code breaking efforts; Harkaway tops it effortlessly without even bothering to pretend it's supposed to be plausible. Mammoth code breaking trains and aircraft carrier sized handmade submarine criss-cross the globe for Britannia not because it's remotely credible, but because it's cool. And do you honestly need another reason?

Harkaway has now questioned reality - and given the secret state a sharp and well-deserved poke in the eye while he was at it - from two different angles, and it's anyone's guess if that's going to be his long term schtick. It doesn't matter. You bring a style like that and that knack for characters you want to have a pint with, and it doesn't really matter what the book's actually about.