Saturday, June 30, 2012

Mesrine: Public Enemy No. 1

Here’s irony for you: ‘Mesrine: Killer Instinct’, at 110 minutes, could have done with being at least half an hour longer to develop and expand the material; to give a real sense of the period of time that the film covers; while on the other hand the sluggish ‘Mesrine: Public Enemy No.1’, at two hours ten minutes, could have done with being at least twenty minutes shorter.

Although ‘Public Enemy’ adheres to the same tick-box approach to the narrative of Jacques Mesrine’s life, presenting us with a “greatest hits” compilation of prison breaks, shoot outs, verbal sparrings with judges and brutal retribution on gentlemen of the press who dare paint him as anything other than the Robin Hood figure he seems to believe he is, what makes it such a long haul is its inherent lack of suspense. We know how it’s going to end.

‘Killer Instinct’ opens with a terrific split screen sequence in which Mesrine and vampish consort Sylvia (Ludivine Sagnier) attempt a low-key flight from Paris, only to be ambushed by a bunch of gunmen in the back of a truck. The rest of ‘Killer Instinct’ plays out in defiance of its protagonist’s fate, and it’s precisely this attitude that gives the film its power.

‘Public Enemy’ starts with the bullet-riddled body of Mesrine being removed from his car, crime scene tape around the scene and police officers keeping the crowds back. The architect of this coup de grace is immediately revealed as Commissaire Broussard (Olivier Gourmet). A flashback has Mesrine being interrogated by Broussard post-arrest. Something about the structure the film falls into annoys already. It’s too self-conscious. Mesrine’s almost good-natured bantering with Broussard is evidently meant to come off as poignant or ironic in light of his inevitable demise as a result of Broussard’s operation, but it just reinforces the sense that ‘Public Enemy’ is a long haul towards a denouement we watched one movie ago.

I’ve watched the film twice now and really wanted to like it both times. And there are some effective moments – such as Mesrine playing to the gallery at a retrial, taking the piss out of the judge prior to pulling off a risky but ballsy escape – but there’s barely a frame that doesn’t betray how enamoured director Jean-François Richet has become with his subject. Two examples: Mesrine post-jailbreak romping with a couple of hookers while fellow escapee François Besse (Mathieu Alamric) tuts and shakes his head; and Mesrine coercing a family to get him through a roadblock, making the children laugh and giving the parents a big wad of cash as a thank you. The first example essentially says (adopts Cockney accent) “Oy oy saveloy, one o’ the lads, innit? He shoots he scores. Get in there, son, it’s yer birthday.” The second would have you believe (same accent) “Gor blimey, guv, that Mesrine geezer, he’s yer axshul bleedin’ Robin Hood, innit, stealin’ from the rich ‘n’ givin’ to the poor, Gawd bless him!” Both sentiments are total bollocks.

Late in the game, Richet seems to remember that Mesrine was stone-cold killer and throws in a weirdly protracted sequence in which the gangster lures a journalist who has impugned him a print with the promise of an exclusive interview only to deliver a beating and a burial alive. It’s a stark reminder of Mesrine as a dangerous and unpredictable man, and gives some indication of how dark and nasty ‘Public Enemy’ could have been, but coming after so much larking around and rose-tinted adulation, it just seems awkward.

Cassel remains just as compelling in the lead role, so often rising above the script’s deficiencies; he really is one of the best actors in the business. The period evocation, here focusing on the 70s, is just as detailed and evocative as in ‘Killer Instinct’. And Ludivine Sagnier doesn’t just provide the romantic interest but matches Mesrine in all manner of badassery. She alone gives the film a frisson no-one else achieves.

If Cassel’s Mesrine would sell his grandmother down the river to pull off a bank job or instigate a prison break, Sagnier’s Sylvia would make a priest kick a hole in a stained glass window. I know who I’d throw in my lot with.

Thursday, June 28, 2012

Mesrine: Killer Instinct


For the benefit of the uninitiated, Jacques Mesrine can probably still lay claim – for all that he died over 30 years ago – to the title of “France’s most notorious criminal”. A bank robber, kidnapper, ice-cold killer, accomplished jail-breaker, memoirist, self-styled political activist, something of a master of disguise and an all-round bad mo’ fo’, it was inevitable that someone would make a movie about him.

Indeed, the first cinematic attempt to capture his life and crimes came just five years after his death: ‘Mesrine’, written and directed by André Génovès, starred Nicolas Silberg as Mesrine and concentrated on the last 18 months of his life, from his escape from La Santé prison to his death in a police operation that was little more than a sanctioned assassination.

In 2008, Jean-François Richet premiered his two-part biopic with Vincent Cassel in the lead role. Unlike Génovès’s film, Richet’s epic covers the entirety of Mesrine’s widely-reported career, kicking off in the late 50s as he returns from military service in Algeria and gets in involved in the Parisian underworld under the aegis of mob boss Guido (Gerard Depardieu).


An early scene has a uniformed Mesrine standing guard while a couple of other soldiers brutally interrogate an Algerian freedom fighter over the location of an incendiary device. The prisoner’s sister is hauled in and Mesrine is ordered to shoot her. Instead, he blows away the terrorist. It’s a histrionic and utterly uncontextualised scene (Mesrine’s political ideals don’t surface till the second film and he doesn’t really act on them other than talking about getting involved with the Red Brigade), and I can’t help feeling that, as with much in both films, it merely serves to tick a box as Richet waltzes us through a Jacques Mesrine “greatest hits” compilation.

‘Killer Instinct’ just about makes the dance worthwhile. Richet nails the late 50s/early 60s period recreation as Mesrine embraces the criminal lifestyle, gets involved with the good-natured Sofia (Elena Anaya) and tries to reform after a prison sentence for armed robbery; redundancy and the lure of easy money by hooking up with his erstwhile cronies combine to drive him back to a life of crime.

Richet plays much of this in the vein of Jean-Pierre Melville. An interlude in Canada and the US – Mesrine accompanied by new girlfriend Jeanne (Cecile de France) – lets the director cut loose with some explicitly American iconography, which in one respect is apposite since Melville himself rooted his aesthetic in American crime cinema and in another is completely hackneyed due to the over-reliance on Bonnie and Clyde style tropes.


An abrupt shift into the prison break genre follows when Mesrine is arrested, extradited to Quebec and sentenced to the St-Vincent-de-Paul maximum security facility. This section plays like ‘Midnight Express’ as sadistic guards routinely beat the shit out of Mesrine and hose him down with jets of cold water. His escape is so laughably easy that it makes ‘Two Way Stretch’ look like ‘The Shawshank Redemption’; if you didn’t know it was based on fact, you’d find your suspension of disbelief stretched to breaking point.

Ranking equally in the this-would-be-fucking-ludicrous-if-it-hadn-t-actually-happened stakes is the climactic scene where Mesrine and fellow escapee Jean-Paul Mercier (Roy Dupuis) attempt to spring their fellow prisoners, provoking a gun battle with the prison guards and sustaining injuries but failing in their intent.

Richet compresses a hell of a lot of incident into 110 minutes. ‘Killer Instinct’ occasionally feels like it ought to be a two and half hour movie, with the narrative and the passage of time and the character interrelationships having the proper time to breathe and make sense and be developed. Instead, a sense of truncation lies heavily across the production. Script and editing conspire to ellipsis. Ultimately, the production design, the period recreation and Cassel’s flamboyant central performance carry it. No classic, but enough decent material to perk one’s interest for part two.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Lina Romay

It would have been Lina Romay's 58th birthday today. A small tribute to Jess Franco's muse and one of the indisputable queens of exploitation cinema. For much more on Lina, including some eye-popping stills that put the "F" in NSFW, David Zuzelo's inimitable blog Tomb It May Concern is the place to go.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Assault on Precinct 13


A police lieutenant with a sense of honour bridles at being assigned to a babysitting job at an about-to-close station house. A prison bus makes a detour when one of the convicts falls ill. A gang pull off a hit that leaves a young girl dead. A grieving father takes the law into his own hands. The paths of these disparate characters converge at the titular Precinct 13. A siege ensues.

John Carpenter’s brutally efficient thriller really doesn’t need a synopsis. It probably doesn’t even need a review. Only his second feature length film – it followed ‘Dark Star’ and was made two years before ‘Hallowe’en’ – ‘Assault on Precinct 13’ sets out a goodly number of what would become Carpenter’s trademarks, much as the basis of Sam Peckinpah’s aesthetic was established by his second film, ‘Ride the High Country’.

The Peckinpah comparison is perhaps more apposite than might readily be apparent. Although Carpenter has yet to make a western, the genre informs much of his filmography. His touchstone isn’t a Peckinpah film, however, but Howard Hawks’s ‘Rio Bravo’, a movie that defines its own genre credentials: the western as siege drama. (As well as writing, directing and scoring ‘Assault on Precinct 13’, Carpenter also edited the movie, crediting himself under the pseudonym John T Chance – the name of John Wayne’s character in ‘Rio Bravo’.)


In ‘Halloween’, the town of Haddonfield is laid siege to by the legacy (and murderous reappearance) of Michael Myers; in ‘The Fog’, Antonio Bay is besieged by … well, the clue’s in the title; in ‘Prince of Darkness’, a church is threatened from without and within by evil; even his most recent film ‘The Ward’ engages with the theme, albeit on a psychological level. Appropriately, much of his work is confined to a single locale (the asylum in ‘The Ward’; the arctic research station in ‘The Thing’) or a restricted setting (the walled off Manhattan prison in ‘Escape from New York’). John Carpenter at his best does claustrophobia better than any other filmmaker.

Other Carpenter tropes present in ‘Assault on Precinct 13’: the widescreen cinematography that juxtaposes dangerously open spaces with tight interiors (DoP Douglas Knapp pre-supposes Dean Cundey’s work on ‘Halloween’, ‘The Fog’, ‘The Thing’, et al); a minimalist score by the director himself; the anti-hero as main character (Darwin Joston’s laconic portrayal of Napoleon Wilson, all rockabilly quiff, insouciant attitude and total lack of compunction when it comes to the use of weapons, lays some of the groundwork for Kurt Russell’s iconic Snake Plissken); and the interaction and development of characters in a pressurised environment (one of the chief pleasures of ‘Assault’ is watching Laurie Zimmer’s transformation from lip-glossed sweater girl to gun-toting action heroine, unflinchingly blowing away numerous bad guys despite a wound that’s paralysed one arm!)


Clocking in at just under an hour and a half (with the siege itself starting roughly at the 40 minute mark), the script is as minimal as the score. There is little or no backstory – the script hints at some revelation as to Wilson’s charismatic first name, but deliberately refuses to deliver – and the dialogue is pared down to what’s strictly necessary. Wilson’s much repeated “You got a smoke?” ultimately takes on as much weight as any discussion of what the mob want and whether our beleaguered protagonists have any means of escape.

In addition to proving himself remarkably intuitive as a director of action and suspense, Carpenter drew memorable performances from his three leads: it’s surprising that neither Joston or Austin Stoker (who plays Lieutenant Bishop) had bigger film careers, while Zimmer’s complete disappearance from the acting world at the end of the 70s was nothing short of enigmatic and inspired Charlotte Szlovak’s 2003 documentary short ‘Do You Remember Laurie Zimmer?’

Remember her? Based on ‘Assault on Precinct 13’, I’d say the lady was pretty damn unforgettable.

Friday, June 22, 2012

BOND-A-THON: The Spy Who Loved Me


‘The Spy Who Loved Me’ is the first Bond movie that has absolutely nothing to do with its source novel apart from the title. Coming late in the 007 canon, Fleming’s novel is something of an experimental work, narrated by the heroine and with Bond himself not showing up till a good half way through. Oh, and it’s set principally at a motor court in the middle of nowhere. Not the stuff that block-busting action cinema is made of.

It’s also the first hyper-budgeted Bond movie. From ‘Thunderball’ in 1965 to ‘The Man with the Golden Gun’ in 1974, the productions had generally cost between $7million and $9million. ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’, released in 1977, cost $14million. Although given that your average Bond movie, by then, was enjoying ticket sales of $100million plus, it wasn’t really that much of a gamble for the producers.

The enhanced budget was mainly due to the sets – another epic of bad guy kitsch courtesy of Ken Adam, of which more later.


The three year gap between the film and its predecessor was due to a series of production difficulties. Firstly, the partnership between Albert R Broccoli and Harry Saltzman came to an end. Saltzman sold his half of the partnership to offset financial difficulties; at the same time, his wife was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Battling depression, Saltzman all but retired from the movie business. He made only two returns to producing, with ‘Nijinsky’ in 1980 and ‘Time of the Gypsies’ in 1988.

The script was arrived at but a circuitous route. Broccoli, perhaps trying to emulate Roald Dahl’s iconoclastic work on ‘You Only Live Twice’, approached writers as diverse as Stirling Silliphant, Gerry Anderson (yes, that Gerry Anderson), John Landis, Derek Marlowe and Anthony Burgess. (The thought of Burgess, in ‘Clockwork Orange’ mode, penning a Bond movie is priceless:

007: What’s it to be then, sir?
M: This malchick Stromberg is hatching some like cally sort of plan.
007: You want me to tolchock the starry-eyed old veck, sir?
M: I want you give it to him in the yarbles, 007, if he’s got any yarbles. Now get off and viddy what Q’s got for you.
007: Lovely lovely gadgets to slooshy the old ultra-violence with, sir?
M: Quite so, 007. Viddy well.)


In the end, it was series regular Richard Maibaum who was called upon to provide the screenplay. His first draft opened with the intriguing concept of SPECTRE overrun by a rival terrorist organisation and Blofeld ousted. Kevin McClory (remember him from the ‘Thunderball’ saga?) got to hear of this and threatened legal action. The SPECTRE angle was dropped. By now, the production had a director attached – Lewis Gilbert, returning for the second of his three Bond movies – who brought writer Christopher Wood on board. The script, shorn of all references to SPECTRE and Blofeld, and with oceanographer Karl Stromberg as Bond’s antagonist was finally credited to Maibaum and Wood.

Gilbert was contracted after Guy Hamilton turned the film down – he’d been offered ‘Superman’; in what must have been the most galling moment in his career, he was then passed over in favour of Richard Donner. Broccoli also considered Steven Spielberg, but decided to hang fire and see whether ‘Jaws’ did any real business at the box office. We’ll move politely on and let hindsight be the judge of that one.

Onto the story: in what is essentially a rehash of ‘You Only Live Twice’, but with submarines instead of rockets, naval vessels are being mysteriously hijacked, and when a British sub with a couple of Polaris missiles is captured, M (Bernard Lee) gets Bond (Roger Moore) on the case. In Russia, M’s opposite number General Gogol (Walter Gotell) gives his best agent – Triple X, a.k.a Major Anya Amasova (Barbara Bach) – a similar brief.


The only clue either agent has is the appearance on the black market of the plans to the tracking system from one of the submarines, which is being auctioned by Egyptian club owner Max Kalda (Vernon Dobtcheff). Working initially in competition, then – reluctantly – in collaboration, Bond and Anya tangle with a seven-foot steel-toothed slab of anti-social behaviour named Jaws (Richard Kiel), finally get their hands on the plans and discover another clue that points them towards the reclusive Stromberg (Curt Jurgens) and his research facility in Sardinia.

The plot is a join-the-dots exercise in sending Bond to as many exotic locations as possible, and the central conceit – as mentioned before – is a rehash of ‘You Only Live Twice’, right down to Ken Adams’ set for Stromberg’s submarine base with its monorail and its upper level control station. When Adams voiced to Broccoli his concerns that there wasn’t a soundstage, at any studio in the world, big enough to incorporate the sets he’d envisaged, the producer’s response was: “Then build it one.” The result was the 007 stage at Pinewood.

The finale, in which Bond frees a group of incarcerated submariners and leads them into battle against Stromberg’s troops, is – again – ‘You Only Live Twice’ with sailors instead of ninjas. Additionally, there’s a hand-to-hand fight in a cramped train compartment – which had already been done twice: in ‘From Russia with Love’ and ‘Live and Let Die’. The gadgets are more outlandish, and while there’s nothing as awful as the flying car in ‘The Man with the Golden Gun’, the Lotus that turns into a mini-sub comes pretty close.


‘The Spy Who Loves Me’ also marks the point at which the franchise became entrenched in an infantile mindset that would dog the films for another decade. Case in point: the pre-credits sequence. M, concerned over the missing sub business, buzzes Moneypenny (Lois Maxwell) on the intercom and demands, “Where’s 007?” “On a mission, sir, in Austria,” Moneypenny replies. “Well, tell him to pull out,” snaps M. Cut to: Bond in log cabin making whoopee with a nameless bit of eye candy. A ticker-tape message scrolls out of Bond’s watch. He gets dressed and heads for the door. “But James,” protests the nameless bit of eye candy, “I need you.” “So does England,” Bond parries, and takes off on skis. Some gunmen are waiting for him. There’s a downhill chase laden with some dodgy back projection, then Bond skis off a precipice. He tumbles through the air, his skis detaching. A parachute flares out – in the colours of the Union Flag – and Bond floats to safety. Double entrendres and in-yer-face jingoism. Whoop-de-fuckin’-doo.

There’s a deficiency in the villain department, too. While Jaws presents a threat by dint of his sheer physicality, Stromberg – for all that he wants to destroy the world in order to establish a new society under the sea – isn’t much of an antagonist. Portly and grey-haired, he looks less like a power-crazed sociopath than Dr No’s granddad.


In the Bond girl stakes, Major Anya Amarova suffers from Tiffany Case Syndrome: like Jill St John in ‘Diamonds Are Forever’, she spends the first half of the film being smart-mouthed and resourceful before the filmmakers decide to tug the leash and make her a simpering captive for the big finale, leaving all the tough guy stuff to Bond while she’s tied to a chair in an outfit that shows off her cleavage. (I can’t help but wonder how come Stromberg had that little number in his wardrobe.)

It doesn’t help, either, that Bach’s acting prowess is one-note. More infuriating is that B-movie goddesses Caroline Munro and Valerie Leon – both equally gorgeous and both better actresses – are relegated to minor roles (although, damn, Munro makes hers count!)


‘The Spy Who Loved Me’, for all that I’ve given it a bit of a kicking in this review, is a big improvement on ‘The Man with the Golden Gun’: it’s pacier, more exotic, a hell of a lot more fun to watch. But it seems to serve the same purpose in the Moore filmography that ‘Goldfinger’ does in the Connery canon. It fuses the elements that audiences identify with Bond movies – guns, girls, gadgets, globe-trotting and gratuitous one-liners – and, in defining the formula, emerges as an exercise in the formulaic. And, also like ‘Goldfinger’, it leaves me with mixed feelings: I like it a hell of a lot as a piece of mainstream entertainment, but it remains a paeon to the indulgences that mar the franchise rather than the elements that invigorate it.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Romanzo Criminale


Word of advice to anyone approaching Michele Placido’s two and a half hour crime movie: bone up on Italian political history first. Pay particular attention to the 70s. Litmus test: if you don’t know who Aldo Moro was and what happened to him, you’re going to struggle.

‘Romanzo Criminale’ starts with four juvenile delinquents stealing a car and going hell for leather through a police roadblock (they casually run down a cop) before holing up at a beachside caravan they use as their hideout. One of them, thrown against the steering column during the hit and run, is in agony; nonetheless, they treat the aftermath of their stunt flippantly and discuss what gang-style nicknames they’d like to be known by. They settle on Lebanese, Ice, Dandy and Grand. At this point the cops show up. Grand is left behind as the others leg it. Ice is fetched to the ground by a couple of cops, Lebanese is injured trying to help him, and Dandy just runs like hell and lets the other two take the fall (not to mention the prison sentence).

Flash forward to adulthood. Lebanese (Pierfrancesco Favino) and Ice (Kim Rossi Stuart) get out of the nick, reunite with Dandy (Claudio Santamaria), put together a gang of fellow felons, pull off a kidnapping and use the ransom money to finance a take-over of Rome’s criminal underground. This they achieve via muscling in on drug baron Terrible (Massimo Popolizio)’s operation, forming an edgy alliance with Mafioso patriarch Uncle Carlo (Luigi Angelillo), and basically wiping everyone else the fuck out.


Meanwhile, Police Commissioner Scialoja (Stefano Accorsi) gets a lead on high class hooker Patrizia (Anna Mouglalis), who’s spending a chunk of the ransom money like it’s going out of style; she leads him to Dandy, who’s infatuated with her to the point where Lebanese and Ice have to coerce her into accepting his overtures in order to keep his mind on the job. Scialoja meticulously builds his case, but his superiors are unsupportive and, no sooner has he managed to arrest Lebanese, than a shadowy government operative secures his release and sabotages Scialoja’s case. Now the gang find themselves in the debt of a mysterious benefactor who calls in favours of an increasingly political nature.

‘Romanzo Criminale’ – the title translates as ‘Crime Novel’ – is based on a novel by Giancarlo De Cataldo, a former judge who based his magnum opus on his experience in the trials of the notorious Magliana gang. It’s clear that Placido intended his adaptation to be a sweeping epic in the vein of ‘The Godfather’ or ‘Goodfellas’, spanning several decades and plotting the rise and fall of Lebanese, Ice and Dandy’s empire against a blood-red period of Italian social and political history. And in a few places, he comes close to achieving that, such as in the dizzyingly fast-paced sequence which takes in Lebanese and Ice’s release from jail, formation of the gang and execution of the kidnapping. Elsewhere, Lebanese’s cocaine-fuelled paranoia over his benefactor and the rivalry between Dandy and Scialoja over Patrizia generate some frisson.


Where ‘Romanzo Criminale’ suffers is in Placido’s uneven pacing, and an aesthetic that seems more fitted to the small screen. The material cries out for magisterial visuals and powerhouse acting, and instead we get set-pieces that are often curiously flat and TV-quality acting. For the most part Placido casts pretty boys rather than tough guys, making it difficult to believe in his cast as hardcore, ruthless and brutal recidivists. A romantic subplot between Ice and the unbelievably naïve Roberta (Jasmine Trinca) doesn’t really convince either.

Most frustratingly, the political elements are firmly backgrounded, only affording us glimpses of two players in the great Machiavellian conspiracy which, whenever it’s touched upon, hints at a far more intriguing and compelling story than the one we’re actually watching. Had these scenes been explored deeper – and imbued with the knife-edge cynicism of, say, ‘The Parallax View’ or ‘Three Days of the Condor’ – ‘Romanzo Criminale’ might have emerged as something really special.

Monday, June 18, 2012

A tale of two Italian Jobs

Hang on, lads, I’ve had a great idea: let’s compare Peter Collinson’s 1969 Cock-er-nee crime caper with F Gary Gray’s Stateside remake.


What’s it all about?
The original starts with Charlie Croker (Michael Caine) getting out of prison, a job in Italy all nicely lined up for him. Unfortunately, his contact has met with a nasty accident courtesy of the Mafia who figure said job – the wholesale theft of several million in gold bullion – as a nice little earner for themselves. Still eager to pull off the heist, Charlie turns to upper class crime boss Mr Bridger (Noel Coward) – who runs his felonious empire from inside a prison cell (albeit a nicely appointed one) – for backing. Under Bridger’s aegis, Charlie puts together a team. They plan the heist meticulously then head to Turin. With the city crowded for an England vs Italy football match, and with Mafia supremo Altabani (Raf Vallone) on their case, the pressure is on to intercept the gold and make a clean getaway.

The remake starts in Venice as veteran safecracker John Bridger (Donald Sutherland) undertakes the proverbial one last job before handing the operation over to his protégé Charlie Croker (Mark Wahlberg). The heist goes smoothly and the getaway equally so … until one of Bridger’s team – Steve (Ed Norton) – double-crosses them, shoots Bridger, leaves the others for dead and absconds with the gold. A year later, in Philadelphia, Charlie gets a lead on Steve, who is fencing the gold a bar at a time. Charlie and the team join forces with Bridger’s daughter Stella (Charlize Theron) – who’s as much of a dab hand at opening safes as her old man but has thus far been putting her talents to legitimate use – and track Steve to California where they set out to steal back the gold from under his nose.

Conventional wisdom would have it that Collinson’s film is an evergreen classic while Gray’s is just another tired remake emblematic of Hollywood’s lack of originality. But we don’t do conventional here at Agitation. And we’re not renowned for doing wisdom either. So let’s put both movies on the starting blocks and see which pulls away faster, corners better and blasts past the chequered flag first.


Best guv’nor
Michael Caine – exudes 60s cool; gets to say “You’re only supposed to blow the bloody doors off.”

Mark Wahlberg – does an okay job; ain’t no Michael Caine.

WINNER: the original.

Best crew
Caine’s crew are a fairly anonymous bunch who are generally only there for comic relief. Perhaps the most famous face is Benny Hill. Let us never forget that the original ‘Italian Job’ is a film where Benny Hill gets third billing.

Wahlberg’s crew consists of Seth Green, Mos Def, Jason Statham and Charlize Theron. Green and Def I can take or leave, but when you’ve got The Stat on your team that means you’re serious.

WINNER: the remake.

Best plot Collinson’s film consists of: Charlie gets out of prison, pause for low-brow comedy, Charlie plans the job, pause for low-brow comedy, Charlie and the lads execute the job, pause while Benny Hill does some gurning, tyre-squealing getaway.

Gray’s film actually has a plot, as well as making an attempt at backstory and even tipping its hat in the direction of characterisation. Gor blimey, guv’nor!

WINNER: the remake.

Best heist
Caine and crew pull a very inelegant armoured car job before the real business of the stunt driving gets underway.

Wahlberg and his team pull two heists, and plan but are forced to avert another. Their heists are meticulously conceived and excitingly staged.

WINNER: the remake.

Best Mr Bridger Noel Coward mixes snobbery with menace and creates an unforgettably satirical character. His walk from cell to prison dining hall as his also-incarcerated minions cheer at the news of the successful heist is a show-stopper.

Donald Sutherland plays a character called Bridger.

WINNER: the original.


Best last scene
Caine and crew are left dangling over a precipice in a literal cliffhanger.

Wahlberg’s team celebrate a job well done as they leave town on a train.

WINNER: the original.

Best use of Italian locations The original depicts Turin as one big traffic jam and has some horribly stereotyped Italian characters; however, it earns the title ‘The Italian Job’ in way the remake doesn’t.

The remake gives us an evocative opening heist set in Venice, however the remaining hour and a quarter plays out in America.

WINNER? Let’s call it a draw.

Best music
Caine and his cohorts belt out a lusty tune about “the self-preservation society” as they abscond with the goods.

John Powell’s score ramps up the urgency and against-the-clock nature of the heists in the remake, but you’ll not find yourself humming it every time you see a Mini being driven above the speed limit.

WINNER: the original.

Best car chase
Twenty minutes of unsafe driving around, above and through the sewers of Turin.

Twenty minutes of unsafe driving around California and through its sewers and subway system. Oh, and there’s also a car vs helicopter set-piece.

WINNER? I’m almost tempted to declare this a draw, but for two things: (i) the business with the Minis is the only reason, if we’re being perfectly honest, to watch either version and Collinson’s film did it first; (ii) the Minis in the remake were retro-styled by BMW, while the Minis in the original are … well … the original!

Sexiest endorsement of the Mini
Charlize Theron drives one in the remake. No point even debating this one. WINNER: the remake.

Based on ten criteria, Peter Collinson’s film scores five, F Gary Gray’s scores four, and they tie in one category. The kudos, then, should go to the original, but having watched them back-to-back I’d be a liar if I didn’t admit that I find the remake more satisfying in its script, direction and craftsmanship. The original, however, has the eminently quotable “you were only supposed to blow the bloody doors off” line, an unforgettable final scene and, in the final analysis, captures a cultural and national zeitgeist in a way the remake doesn’t … and, in fact, couldn’t. Let’s face it: does the sight of a group of Americans pulling a getaway in an American city at the wheels of three British-made cars with, respectively, red, white and blue paint jobs actually mean anything, let alone what it means in the original? F Gary Gray earns a raised glass and a tip of the chapeau for turning in the better example of filmmaking, but ultimately Peter Collinson’s film, for all its flaws, achieves something genuinely iconic.

Saturday, June 16, 2012


Has it really been a year and a half since I did one of these 'Something for the Weekend' posts? Is this blog suddenly in danger of becoming tasteful, reconstructed and non-exploitative? Not having any of that, guv'nor! Here, for your delectation, and tying in aesthetically with this month's Shots on the Blog, is an image gallery built around the thematic continuity of ... awww, who am I trying to kid? Ladies and gentlemen: girls with guns!

Friday, June 15, 2012

Magnum Force


“A man’s got to know his limitations.”

The first of four sequels to Don Siegel’s epochal ‘Dirty Harry’, and the only one of them that even begins to engage with that film’s considerations of vigilantism vs due process and the moral erosion of the already thin dividing line between cop and killer, ‘Magnum Force’ is an often powerful and occasionally flawed movie. It’s also notable for being written by directors-in-waiting John Milius and Michael Cimino, both of whom would turn in infinitely more iconoclastic work than its actual director, Ted Post.

The opening credits play out over the stark image, against a red background, of Harry Callahan (Clint Eastwood)’s trademark Magnum .45 clutched in a hefty fist. A slow zoom in ensures that, by the time the thumb has moved to the trigger and cocked it, the gun is occupying the whole of the screen. The fist angles it in the audience’s direction. The gun fires. It’s almost the antithesis of 007 shooting the audience in the intros to the Bond movies. There, Bond is being tracked through a gun barrel but gets his shot in first. Here, Callahan just turns his gun on the audience and blasts.

Utterly unsubtle, but a perfect definition of what the film is about. And perhaps the only instance in cinema of a prop, not a person, breaking the fourth wall. This is what you came for, isn’t it? the gun asks (can a weapon sneer?). This is why you bought your ticket and that large tub of popcorn and sat your ass down in this theatre. And, with the benefit of hindsight: This is why you stumped for this movie on DVD. Isn’t it punk? This is why you watch anything with Clint in. Because deep down the right-winger in you wants to see the bad guys, the pimps and the pushers and the scum of the earth, get blown away without all the time-consuming business of bureaucracy intruding.

The gun tips you the wink. It reminds you of Callahan’s mano-a-mano battle with the Scorpio killer in the original movie – a grudge match that was settled without lawyers, judges or the ministrations of twelve men good and true.

‘Magnum Force’ then spends two hours subverting these expectations. Glossing over the fact that Callahan tossed away his badge at the end of ‘Dirty Harry’, we have him busted down to stakeout duty by his irascible superior Lieutenant Briggs (Hal Holbrook) and shoo’d away from a homicide scene. Callahan, bored with sitting in a car when he could be doing some real detective work, decides to involve himself in the case anyway. This doesn’t go over too well with his new partner “Early” Smith (Felton Perry), and with good reason. Callahan goes through partners they way Oliver Reed went through pubs. Put it this way: if it’s your first day with the San Francisco PD and the roster lists you for duty with Callahan, H … don’t bank on collecting your pension.


While Callahan probes the execution-style deaths of several major league villains who had hitherto flaunted their above-the-law status, he comes into contact with a group of motorcycle cops led by Aryan poster boy John Davis (David Soul). Bested by Davis in a shooting competition, Callahan muses on his limitations. But when the evidence points to them as a ton-up judge-jury-and-executioner squad, even Callahan’s scepticism about the system is sorely tested. Yup, this is a Dirty Harry movie in which our (anti)hero is given to considerations of morality, due process and human rights.

It’s perhaps disingenuous to delineate the aforementioned dividing line in terms of Harry Callahan only blows people away while they’re in the act, not because of what they may or may not have done in the past, but nonetheless it’s a very shaky exercise in semantics that differentiates him from Davis and co. 

The script, when it gets in gear, exploits this grey area brilliantly, continually challenging us as to why we find Callahan’s methods cathartic and Davis’s reprehensible. Are we really so shallow that we’ll accept rough justice and terminal judgement as long as it’s meted out by someone who looks cool, gets the girls and grunts pithy one-liners with the devil-may-care indifference of a gunslinger spitting out a stream of tobacco juice?


You know what? I rather think we are. ‘Magnum Force’ has two main problems. Number one: Ted Post’s direction is uninspired and he doesn’t seem able to rein his actors in – which is no problem as far as Eastwood, American cinema’s unchallenged king of minimalism, is concerned but fuck me if the usually excellent Holbrook doesn’t chew the scenery as if he’s just doused it in Tabasco sauce and had it brought to him with a side order of fries and a tub of coleslaw.

Number two: the script requires Callahan to float around for the first hour, marking time while the biker boys notch up enough hits to establish themselves as antagonists, whilst still reminding everyone that he’s the main character and a badass mo’ fo’ to boot. This results in numerous go-nowhere scenes such as an airport hijacking (curtailed in a thoroughly arbitrary manner), a convenience store stick-up and several flat scenes where various women throw themselves at him.

The second half, however, ramps up the drama and the action. A dockyard shoot-out is poundingly staged and edited, and the finale, in which an unarmed Callahan is caught up in a tense game of cat ‘n’ mouse through the rusting hulk of a decommissioned aircraft carrier, raises the bar on the grain-store chase scene that concluded ‘Dirty Harry’.

After this, only ‘The Enforcer’ with its Alcatraz-set finale would deliver any hint of frisson. ‘Magnum Force’ rides out the definitive pop-culture phenomenon of ‘Dirty Harry’ with a modicum of style and brings a few ideas of its own to the squad room. And, hey, it’s certainly the best film Ted Post ever made.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

PERSONAL FAVES: A Clockwork Orange

Posted to coincide with Malcolm McDowell’s 69th birthday. Party well, little brother, party well.


“We all suffer from the popular desire to make the known notorious. The book I am best known for, or only known for, is a novel I am prepared to repudiate: written a quarter of a century ago, a jeu d’esprit knocked off for money in three weeks, it became known as the raw material for a film which seemed to glorify sex and violence. The film made it easy for readers of the book to misunderstand what it was about, and the misunderstanding will pursue me till I die.” Thus spake Anthony Burgess, author of the slim novella on which Stanley Kubrick’s symphony of visual mind-fuckery and ultra-violence is based. It’s a hell of a thing of a writer to repudiate one of their own works, let alone admit that said work has no value beyond the money it earned.

This contentious point, however, is accurate. In 1958, having published his ‘Malayan Trilogy’ but still essentially treating writing as something of a hobby, Burgess collapsed while lecturing to a class and was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumour. This misdiagnosis was compounded by the clinician in question giving Burgess a year to live. Keen to provide for his wife, Burgess banged out four books in quick succession, one of which was ‘A Clockwork Orange’. It’s an amazing piece of work, not just for its immediacy, raw power and its prescient approach to youth-speak (narrator Alex uses “like” almost as punctual), but for its linguistic experimentalism.

The inspiration for the novella, if such a lofty word is appropriate to such a grim starting point, was the attack on the author’s wife by a gang of American GIs during the war. They were deserters; Burgess, serving in Gibraltar at the time, wasn’t allowed leave to visit her in hospital. She was pregnant at the time and subsequently miscarried. In approaching such violent material, and using a first person narrator, Burgess used the language of the book as a distancing technique. Using a mélange of corrupted Russian, cockney rhyming slang and Romany colloquialisms, he effectively created a language that any reader of the novella has to pick up as best they can during the first few pages. He called it Nadsat.

Stanley Kubrick – never one to let an author’s intentions get in the way of an adaptation (if you’re not sure what I’m talking about, Google “Stephen King Stanley Kubrick The Shining” and settle back for an evening of reading) – happily jettisoned the concept of Nadsat as a distancing technique from the violence, turning it instead into a verbal barrage of swaggering machismo that plunged the viewer further and further into the world of Alex and his droogs – a world basically defined by ultra-violence, the old in-out-in-out, and some lovely lovely Ludwig Van (the 9th Symphony a particular favourite). Put simply, Burgess’s novella is a dystopian investigation into societal dysfunction, governmental conditioning, wayward youth and eventual maturity; while Kubrick’s film is an unapologetically amoral romp that celebrates the darker impulses of the human psyche and sounds a triumphant Ode to Joy to free will, never mind that said freedom of choice is often knowingly deployed by bad people who luxuriate in their recidivism.


Or, put even more simply, the film is totally not what Burgess intended the book to be. This has much to do with Kubrick omitting the last chapter, in which Alex reflects on his misbegotten life and begins to entertain thoughts beyond the fighting, fucking and fuck-authority-ing that have defined his personal aesthetic thus far. 

And this is where I quit sitting on the fence, launch myself out of the middle ground and come down firmly in Camp Kubrick. As much as I love ‘A Clockwork Orange’ à la Burgess, I’ve always found that last chapter forced and just a smidge unconvincing. The note Kubrick ends the film version on, I completely buy into it even as it chills the hell out of me.

‘A Clockwork Orange’ probably isn’t Kubrick’s best film, and I will admit to some ambivalence regarding the director. I often find myself admiring his work rather than liking it. The lack of any real humanity to a good half of his (admittedly unprolific) output results in some jaw-droppingly amazing technical exercises rather than engaging and emotionally fulfilling works of art. ‘A Clockwork Orange’ remains my favourite, ironically, purely because it’s honest about its lack of humanity. The film introduces us – literally: in his first scene, he raises a glass to the audience – to a complete bastard, albeit an awesome cool one, in the form of Alex the droog, played, in what must rank as one of the greatest performances in the history of cinema, by Malcolm McDowell. Kubrick picked McDowell on the basis of his performance in the equally incendiary Lindsay Anderson film ‘If…’, and it’s easy to see Alex as Mick Travis with a few years on him and a decent classical music collection.

For two and quarter hours, we follow Alex’s rise, fall and restoration to his vicious ways. The first hour is an adrenalin rush of the reprehensible: Alex and his droogs kick the shit out of a drunken old homeless guy, run motorists off the road as they go joyriding, get stuck into a fight with a rival gang using fists, boots, knives, bicycle chains and broken bottles, and pull a “surprise visit” on an unsuspecting couple which concludes with very unsavoury business which plays out to ‘Singin’ in the Rain’. And our man Stan films it all with exuberant abandon.


After another B&E that similarly concludes in a welter of sexual violence (a porcelain phallus the size of a chair is used to deliver the coup de grace), Alex is abandoned by his droogs – it should be mentioned that he’s not twatting them for getting out of line – and arrested. By the kind of coppers who probably watch ‘The Sweeney’ as a refresher course. He’s booted and spat on and next thing he’s in the nick, hypocritically cosying up to the chaplain to get out of the more onerous work rota and fantasizing all the while about being one of the Roman soldiers whipping Christ on His way to Golgotha. (Think ‘Life of Brian’ without the laughs and you’ll pretty much have imagined this scene.)

When the prison’s pompous Elgar-loving governor mentions a revolutionary new “cure” for criminality – Ludovico’s Technique – Alex immediately volunteers, convinced it’ll win him a quick parole. Ludovico’s Technique involves Alex being strapped to a chair, his eyes forced open, while images of violence, destruction, degradation, Naziism and just about any other bad shit you can think of play out in front of him. He is being programmed to reject all such stuff. To respond with physical revulsion at the very thought of it. There’s an unforeseen side-effect, though. Throughout the treatment, the accompanying music is Alex’s personal favourite, Symphony N° 9 in D minor, Opus 125.

Released, unable to even consider lifting a hand in anger, Alex’s mind is also programmed to reject Beethoven. It’s an almost unpalatably horrible implication: deny free will and you’re taking great art out of the equation as well as the capacity for evil. Your choice folks: a world with all the horrors that Alex epitomises but which also has Beethoven’s 9th, or a world without any of it, the good or the bad. Think you’ve made your choice? Slip a microtape on and think again.


Deep, dark, troubling stuff … and you know what the worst (or perhaps the best) thing is? Kubrick plays it as comedy. Right down to the final sequence where Alex, suddenly a cause célèbre as the media rounds on the government in condemnation of Ludovico’s Technique, has the process reversed and gleefully takes up the mantle of his erstwhile persona, imagining himself feted and in flagrante as the ‘Ode to Joy’ reaches its crescendo. “I was cured all right,” Alex purrs as the music dies away and Burgess’s last chapter gets its head kicked in as thoroughly as any of Alex’s victims.

Two more things to mention: like Alex, my favourite piece of music is Beethoven’s 9th Symphony; unlike Alex, I regard it as the mankind’s highest artistic achievement in any medium. I’ve lost count of the amount of times I’ve heard it, and the amount of different recordings I’ve listened to (though the Karajan 1963 version with the Berlin Philharmonic on Deutsche Grammophon takes some beating – this review was written while listening to it at high volume), and there are still times, almost without realising it, that I find myself murmuring “I was cured all right” at the climax.

Second thing: the most recent Warner Brothers ‘Director’s Edition’ box set of Kubrick’s work features a documentary called ‘Great Bolshy Yarblockos’ as one of the special features. I’m one of the talking heads in the documentary. I get about thirty seconds’ screen time all told, but it was my bit they picked to explain the origins of Nadsat. I’m a bit proud of that.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

BOND-A-THON: The Man with the Golden Gun


12 January 2012, Nottingham, England. Yours truly decides to host a Bond-a-thon on The Agitation of the Mind. I can only assume the rationale floating through my mind went something like this: Yeah, cool, I get to watch the Connery films, I get to re-evaluate the Timothy Daltons, there was that one with Brosnan that had a pre-credits speed boat chase along the Thames, and I get to wrap the whole thing up with Craig’s reinvention of the franchise. Woo-hoo! This is going to be so cool. Bartender, bring me a vodka martini, shaken not stirred.

I cannot recall, during this moment of deluded enthusiasm, whether it ever crossed my mind that, discounting Connery’s reprisal of the role in ‘Never Say Never Again’ as non-canon, Roger Moore has made more James Bond films than any other actor. And if even the vaguest consideration of the Moore years did cross my mind, there was probably another rationale to hand, something along the lines of: ‘Live and Let Die’ is pretty decent, ‘The Spy Who Loved Me’ co-stars Caroline Munro and Valerie Leon therefore eye-candy a-go-go, and ‘For Your Eyes Only’ marks something of a return to form. Hell yeah, let’s do this thing.

If, on 12 January, someone had whispered in my ear: Yo, Fulwood, you’re also going to have to watch ‘The Man with the Golden Gun’, ‘Octopussy’ and ‘A View to a Kill’, there might have been second thoughts. I might have re-envisage the project as a best-of-Bond-a-thon. In fact, if that rhetorical whisperer had put in an appearance, there would have been no need for them to mention ‘Octopussy’ or ‘A View to a Kill’. They’d have had me at ‘The Man with the Golden Gun’.

‘TMwtGG’ is the franchise’s nadir. Just looking back at my review of ‘Live and Let Die’ and the issues I had with it throws ‘TMwtGG’ into sharp relief. Bog awful theme song? Sir Paul McCartney, I apologise: your three minutes of widdle-wank is fucking Mahler compared to Lulu’s execrable effort. Racism? The treatment of black characters in ‘Live and Let Die’ is an exercise in race relations compared to the wholesale stereotyping of Asians. How bad is the racism? Let’s put it this way, there is a ludicrous amount of screentime, just after the halfway mark, where Sheriff J.W. Pepper (Clifton James), holidaying in Bangkok, repeatedly lambasts the locals, calling them “little brown pointy-heads”. Between this and the flying car, watching ‘TMwtGG’ is a two-hour exercise in losing the will to live. Yeah, there’s a flying car.


It would be twenty years and ‘Die Another Day’ before the 007 saga gave us anything as face-palmingly stupid. And, oh Christ, I’ve got that motherfucker to watch before this whole moviethon is over.

The annoying thing is that ‘TMwtGG’ could have good. It could, conceivably, have been fucking great. For all that the films have drastically departed from the books, often to their detriment, one genuine improvement is made in this case. Ian Fleming’s novel, written just prior to the author’s death, was published in its first draft without his customary revisions; consequently, it’s a thin and sketchy piece of work and suffers from the lack of an interesting villain. Scaramanga, in the novel, is a grubby little mobster whose much-hyped facility with a pistol barely compensates for his lack of personality. In Richard Maibaum and Tom Mankiewicz’s script, Scaramanga (Christopher Lee) is Bond’s equal – indeed, the opposite side of the coin to 007: a gourmand and a sybarite who lives well and has no qualms about what he does for a living. 

Christopher Lee was Ian Fleming’s cousin and would probably have made a chillingly amoral Bond (in the alternative universe where Sean Connery accepted Matt Busby’s offer of a contract to play for Manchester United and became a footballer instead of an actor, I’m still undecided as to who would have made the most interesting Bond – Christopher Lee or Patrick McGoohan). As Scaramanga, however, Lee exudes serpentine charm and menace in equal measure. I’ve never known Lee not to be magnetic whenever he’s onscreen, and ‘TMwtGG’ is not exception.


The film also flirts with topicality in its choice of McGuffin: the “Solex Agitator”, a device that ramps up the efficiency of solar power. The energy crisis was big news as the film went into production, and still in the news at the time of its release. Scaramanga’s designs on the Solex, essentially setting himself up as auctioneer to the super-rich with unlimited energy and its conversion process to electricity up for grabs by the highest bidder, elevates him from mere assassin (albeit one who pulls down a cool million per hit) to the kind of über-villain audiences had by now come to associate with the Bond movies.

The presence of Christopher Lee and the inclusion of a newsworthy subject, however, are all ‘TMwtGG’ has to offer; and the filmmakers seem perversely determined to offset these things by as many stultifying creative decisions as possible. We have mentioned Lulu’s theme song (“the man with the golden guuu-uuu-huuu-uuun”) and Sheriff Pepper’s xenophobia. Let us also consider a ludicrous kung-fu sequence where two schoolgirls beat the shit out of a gang of tough customers (the fact that neither actress seems to have any facility for the martial arts just makes the whole thing even more laughable); an otherwise fine car chase ruined by comedic sound-effects; Britt Ekland’s simpering performance as Mary Goodnight, easily the dippiest Bond girl ever to don a bikini, (particularly annoying since the much more engaging Maud Adams – as Scaramanga’s kept woman Andrea Anders, is cavalierly disposed of); and the painfully unfunny Bond vs midget final scene.

Oh, and the potentially engaging business about the Solex? It comes down to a big laser that blows things up.


Towards the end, Scaramanga challenges Bond to a duel, declaring that “it will be a battle of titans”. “There’s a handy four-letter word,” Bond replies, “and you’re full of it.” Watching ‘The Man with the Golden Gun’, it’s hard not to feel a certain affinity.