Wednesday, 25 March 2015

Run All Night: Awful People Killing Each Other

There’s just one thing in Run All Night which I’ve never seen before; half way through the movie, there’s a car chase where the bad guy is chasing a police car instead of the other way around. I forgot to be thrilled by the pyrotechnics, because I was thinking “It would be real easy to chase a police car, because everyone would be getting out of the way for them, and you’d just flow into the hole.” It certainly works that way in real life, as I discovered back in the days when I got paid to chase Greek ambulances.

I say the bad guy is chasing a police car, but I need to define my terms. Everyone’s a bad guy. Even the police being chased in the cop car are bad guys. Run All Night is just a big parade of awful people killing other awful people. And occasional swooping establishing shots which just made me glad that the movie was not 3D; I about lost my lunch even in 2D. Let me just try to get the hierarchy of bad-osity straight in my head. There’s Ed Harris. He’s the king of the Irish mob in New York. He must be the worst guy. No, wait, there’s his son. Who’s like the Prince Joffrey of the Irish mob. He wants to deal heroin, which Ed Harris is opposed to, just like every elderly mob boss ever. Yeah, he’s the worst. He wants to deal heroin, and he’s mean to Liam Neeson who’s - wait, hang on. Liam Neeson’s the worst. He’s killed more people than cancer - actually, he’s killed more people before the movie starts than get killed in the movie, and that’s saying something. His whole family hates him. Everyone hates him; I lost count of the number of people who took the time to tell Liam everyone hates him. No wonder he drinks himself to sleep every day.

Except, of course, that Liam Neeson can’t be the worst. Even when he’s doing his best to be awful and everyone’s reminding us what an awful person he is, Liam’s got that hangdog charm going on. Nah, Ed Harris’ son Danny shades it. He’s schwacked in the early going and has to get a whole lot of hatability out of the way in a short time. So he’s just awful in every scene. He makes the Albanian mob look business-like and reasonable. Then he murders them rather than give them a refund, and then gets to work murdering the witnesses. Enter Liam Neeson’s family; his son, Michael, - who hates him, of course - is one of those witnesses. So Liam has to go murder Danny before Danny murders Michael. Added difficulty; Ed Harris, Danny’s father is literally the only person in the world who can stand Liam Neeson. 

And then the running starts. It’s kind of a grind, really. Liam has to kill pretty much the entire Irish mob while keeping them away from his kid. Michael is supposed to be one decent person in the movie, but suffers from the terrible handicap of being played by Joel Kinnaman, a perfectly good Swedish actor who keeps being the weakest thing in American movies with more experienced actors. Is Michael a decent guy in a terrible position? Sure, yeah, probably, but this is a movie with Liam Neeson and Ed Harris racking up body counts, so who cares? Also thrown in for no particularly good reason, Common as an unstoppable hitman with absurd toys; he adds about fifteen minutes to the running time and every scene he’s in ruins everything else in the movie for miles in every direction.

Because this could have been no end of a good movie. Liam Neeson as a killer tormented by his past; it’s long past time he did that properly. Vincent d’Onofrio as the cop trying to get Neeson to open up about his sins; I wanted so much more of that. Ed Harris as a kingpin with a debt to a brokendown killer and an out-of-control son? You didn’t need anything else. You didn’t need the Albanian mob, or drug dealing or anything else; just the slow breakdown of trust between two ageing criminals with a terrible shared history. In the quiet scenes, you can see how much Harris and Neeson could have done with that. Sure, it wouldn’t have been an action movie, but it’s about time Neeson stopped making action movies and started acting again.

Saturday, 14 March 2015

Chappie; Neill Blomkamp's first movie. Again.

I’m guessing Neill Blomkamp has never said “Stop me if you’ve heard this before."

If someone else had made it, Chappie might have just looked like a not-bad, somewhat derivative, side-take on Robocop (except that we already got that last year). What have we got? Slums full of criminal warlords? Check. Sinister-but-cheap corporations with lots of tech and open plan offices? Check. Plot precipitated by criminal stupidity? Featuring actual criminals? Protagonist turning into something he wasn’t? Protagonist getting massively boned by his own employers’ indifference to anything but profit? Protagonist getting chased down by huge bellowing ex-military psycho bell-end with way too much weaponised technology? Sharlto Copley? Check, check, checkedy check.

Yup, if you only see one Neill Blomkamp movie, stop. The others are the same movie. And the best is the first, District 9. But let’s go forward on the basis that you’re like me and you’ve gone to see all of them because your optimism module is bigger than your learning-from-experience circuit. What’s Chappie got going for it?

More high powered stars than District 9. Hugh Jackman’s playing the baddie. Sigourney Weaver is in it, sort of. Dev Patel’s playing the only half way normal human being. If none of them have actually won Oscars, they’ve been nearby when they happened to other people. (Of course Elysium had two people with Oscars of their very own…). Chappie’s also got Die Antwoord, who are the answer to the question “Does South Africa need white rappers?” though not necessarily the right answer. Ninja and Visser have to carry quite of a lot of the character work in the movie, and even put up against a robot with Sharlto Copley delivering gravelly baby talk, they’re still rappers. When actual actor Dev Patel gets into shot, Blomkamp seems to have been telling him “go broad, go hammy, here’s some terrible dialogue” in an effort to level the playing field. Ninja and Visser aren’t terrible, but they’re sitting in the movie like the result of some kind of in-joke which is only going to make sense in South Africa.

Come to think on it, Blomkamp’s South Africa’s a curiously white-looking place; my best guess is that in a movie where nearly everyone is a rampaging dickhead, he was uncomfortable making the black population of South Africa look like malevolent ass-clowns who needed to be policed by killer robots. The jarring result is that Johannesburg’s entire underworld seems to be run by wiggers, as though all the white folks lost their jobs and had to turn to street crime when apartheid ended. Given the outcry he faced when District 9’s second string bad guys were Nigerian warlords, I can see how Blomkamp would be getting gunshy, but still ….

How about the robots? Well, say one thing about Neill Bomkamp; he does robots doing violence like nobody else. Whenever he turns the knob around to “hell breaks loose, with robots”, the patently impossible becomes much more believable than the quiet bits either side. Chappie’s robots are first rate, scuffed up and tangible even though in your rational mind you know that they have to be some kind of CGI. 

Things which don’t make a lick of sense; 100 robots is a big sale for Tetravaal, so Jo’burg’s robot police force is probably measured in the hundreds, yet when everything goes to crap and all the crime-fighting robots go off line, the SA police mobilises 150,000 reservists to plug the gap. What, now? Johannesburg is a big city, but it’s not that big. You can police the whole of Ireland with about 12,000 largely unarmed lads. It’s not just that more than ten times that many seems like a hell of a lot of policeman for somewhat fewer citizens; it’s the whole notion that the SA police force even HAS 150,000 reservists. The book strength of the US National Guard is about 350,000; it was a big goddam deal that Iraq forced them to mobilise about 180,000 of them. Methinks that Neill is pulling his numbers out of his ass. And let’s not even get into the sheer rampaging insanity of spending a fortune on robot cops for South African townships when unemployed South Africans are both cheap and plentiful and you could throw hundreds of them at the problem for every robot you bought.

In the end, the frustrating thing about Chappie is that it’s not the movie it could be. When Paul Verhoeven made Robocop he was making a point about the alienation of modern America and the growth of corporate power. When Blomkamp made his Robocop (Come on. there are robot cops. There’s a vast horrible robot called the Moose which might as well have been ED 209…) he seems to have wanted to make a point about the nature of what it really means to be a person and how we connect with the people around us. That’s an idea which should be explored, not exploded.