‘Jason Bourne’ DVD Review (The Hollywood News)

jb-1The last entry in the Bourne franchise was 2012’s The Bourne Legacy starring Jeremy Renner. While that became a one-off, it’s worth examining the character’s true legacy before diving in with this review. The original trilogy helped cement Matt Damon‘s position in Hollywood. Paul Greengrass‘s involvement from part two onwards gave the series an additional layer of quality. More than anything, the films had an impact on movie action in general. When Daniel Craig took the role of 007, it was no coincidence his adventures were “back to basics” in nature, a single shot saying more than a million bullets out of a machine gun ever could.

Identity through to Supremacy appeared to offer a complete journey for Jason Bourne. Despite this, Damon and Greengrass have got the band back together for their riskiest mission yet: an extra helping that tries not to tarnish what has gone before. Have they succeeded? Well, on the whole yes, though there are a few bumps on the road as they go.

Greengrass and co-writer Christopher Rouse have developed their hero’s personal odyssey further by revealing hitherto-unknown information about Bourne’s involvement in Operation Blackbriar (the covert assassination league he blew wide open during his last outing). When former ally-turned-Snowden-esque-hacker Nicky Parsons (Julia Stiles) contacts a broken-down Bourne about this explosive development, the scene is set for him to return from his exile as a bare knuckle boxer and set the world to rights one more time. It’s a logical but well-worn approach, though in fairness the strength of the franchise was the way it put a new spin on hackneyed spy thriller clichés rather than innovate itself.

Drawn back into the fray like a chiselled moth to a flame, Damon’s Bourne runs up against an impressive trio of villains. Tommy Lee Jones‘s weathered CIA chief Robert Dewey wants the rogue operative permanently erased. Alicia Vikander‘s ambitious and fetching Heather Lee represents the changing face of intelligence, believing Bourne can be brought back into the fold. Meanwhile Vincent Cassel’s “The Asset” becomes the latest relentless Euro-henchman to be put on Damon’s tail, a man of steel with old scores to settle.

Inevitably it’s more of the same controlled chaos, with Greengrass’s handheld camera roving amongst the fist fights and destruction at breakneck speed. The unflinching pace doesn’t make up for repetition and an overall lack of meat. However some intriguing snippets of Bourne’s character are in evidence – most notably the way he distances himself from Nicky’s counter culture activities. He may be fighting the system, but at heart he’s an establishment man, a strand which gives credence to Vikander’s belief he secretly wants to return to duty.

She is the film’s strongest element, Lee possessing equal capacity to wear either the white hat or the black. Damon can do this sort of thing in his sleep and the same can be said of Jones, who is a welcome presence. Cassel’s ageing hard man is also highly watchable. Like a lot of these big action projects, it could have done with being a bit shorter and not all the fresh ingredients work. Riz Ahmed‘s social media mogul doesn’t add much to the narrative, aside from making the basic point that Dewey’s world is changing.

Ironically the climactic chase has all the extravagance of Pierce Brosnan’s Bond, a sign that maybe the series is running low on inspiration. The team have had a good run, and made a sizeable mark on the genre – as Moby’s excellent Extreme Ways kicks in over the end credits, it might be time to admit those ways are now the old ways.

 

This review first appeared on THN.

The Commitments 25th Anniversary DVD Review (The Hollywood News)

tcTime for people of a certain age to start feeling old. It’s been a quarter of a century since director Alan Parker introduced us to an unlikely soul combo whose legacy still lives on via a hit stage show and countless concerts. So while their onscreen fortunes turned out to be mixed, The Commitments‘ place in popular culture is assured.

Opening with a bustling Dublin street market with second hand goods, fiddle players and horses, this marks itself out from the blockbusters of the time as a gritty take on Roddy Doyle‘s source novel. Fast-talking wannabe music mogul Jimmy Rabbitte (Robert Arkins) has a simple idea: reasoning that the oppressed Irish are “the blacks of Europe”, he wants to assemble a world class soul outfit from local talent. But like the best band stories the road to success is paved with false starts, egos and copious amounts of drink and swears. In fact the production may hold the record as the most expletive-laden popular movie of all time, if not the twentieth century.

Sitcom stalwarts Dick Clement and Ian La Frenais were the perfect pairing to guide Doyle’s salty characters and quotable dialogue to the big screen (they even manage a cheeky reference to their defining show The Likely Lads along the way). Saxophone player Félim Gormley explains how he came by his instrument – “My uncle gave me it when his lung collapsed.” – and lead singer Andrew Strong gets the job after Arkins sees him giving an impromptu drunk performance at a wedding, one his star turn can’t even remember doing!

What contributes to the longevity of The Commitments is Parker’s decision to go with unknown actors. Some of them went on to greater things (notably Bronagh Gallagher, who appeared in The Phantom Menace) but on the whole this was their first and only shot at world domination. This means the film still has that layer of authenticity which could have been diminished if you spent two hours spotting the famous faces. The cast are likeable and clearly revelling in the easy going yet edgy atmosphere Parker creates. They’re all good, but special mention must be given to Gallagher and Johnny Murphy‘s Joey “The Lips” Fagan, who gets his pick of the women and who may or may not be a raging fantasist. Then there’s Strong, with his weathered vocals and extraordinary range of facial expressions.

The power behind the story is the filmmaker’s ability to deliver a convincing band, as well as conveying the rough and ready nature of creating musical fusion. Whether winging it through a chaotic set or flowing together like cream and coffee, you buy into their tale, and even hope they find the notoriety they crave. It’s a particularly inspirational movie for a generation all-encompassed by the Simon Cowell approach to talent nurturing and speaks to viewers on all levels.

For this milestone, a solid range of extras has been added for the release. Parker himself is on commentary duties and the way it all came together is chronicled via several documentaries from past and present. If you Try A Little Tenderness you’ll find yourself rooting for this Chain Of Fools, whose distinctive journey will keep you laughing through to The Midnight Hour. I’ll shut the f*** up now.

This review first appeared on THN.

Batman: The Killing Joke DVD Review (The Hollywood News)

BTKJ

DC’s Cinematic Universe is getting a rough deal with critics, but the brand can take solace in the fact its animated division is a runaway success story by comparison. From Batman: The Animated Series onwards, they’ve maintained a consistently high standard and it made sense for the company’s best-loved graphic novels to start getting the adaptation treatment.

Classic Joker tome The Killing Joke had everything going for it on paper: innovative writing, striking art and a definitive stand off between two iconic characters. Unfortunately for movie producers the book is on the slender side. In attempting to expand it to feature length director Sam Liu and writer Brian Azzarello wind up hitting some obstacles.

Overall the script captures the main and somewhat controversial events of the source material. Following an uninteresting additional segment in which Batgirl attempts to earn her stripes alongside the Dark Knight, we get to the meat of the matter – the Clown Prince of Crime’s diabolical and kinky plot to unhinge Commissioner Gordon as a fatal blow against his mortal enemy.

In what is seemingly his swan-song as the animated Joker, Mark Hamill bows out in customary style. His voice has notably aged, giving the villain’s machinations a rich and deeply sinister quality. He’s by far the strongest element of a production that is seriously close to the bone by Saturday morning cartoon standards. However in presenting the tale within the awkward framework of a tinkered narrative Azzarello and Liu highlight the film’s main flaw: the story works much better on the page. The tragedy of the Joker’s past and the ruminative nature of his “final” confrontation with Batman is perhaps best appreciated in pencil and ink, where comic writer Alan Moore and artist Brian Bolland‘s masterpiece could be absorbed at a slower speed. Here they’re brief and intriguing but nothing like as powerful.

Fans of the novel might also be disappointed that Bolland’s work is paid lip service only, replaced by a standardized animation style that doesn’t make an impact outside of the odd intricate backdrop or movie reference (if you liked Christopher Nolan‘s take, there’s a brief moment that’ll tickle you).

Barbara Gordon/Batgirl (Tara Strong) is given more to do, but the development tails off, with an epilogue of sorts tacked onto the conclusion and arguably fudging it. The famous ending is recreated from the book whilst also cutting through its ambiguity.

I’m really not sure what the character of bog standard Romeo gangster Paris Franz (Maury Sterling) was supposed to bring to proceedings. He merely adds to the icky atmosphere of sexual violence that wasn’t strictly required. Kevin Conroy goes gravelly as Batman, though disappointingly the cowled hero fades into the background for this outing. Twin Peaks legend Ray Wise voices the Commissioner – while Wise is a great actor his performance for me was too genial. I’d’ve paid good money to hear his version of the Joker though!

The result pales next to the original, but then that was always a safe bet. Reworking Moore (uncredited as usual) showed a level of insanity befitting the movie’s antagonist and a straight and shorter translation of the text could have hit home harder. Despite this, The Killing Joke gives an impression of the pitch black innards of the novel, and for that at least it deserves some praise.

This review first appeared on The Hollywood News

Dad’s Army DVD Review (The Hollywood News)

DAThere were doubts over whether the original Dad’s Army would succeed. Its subject matter of World War II and the ageing Home Guard hardly filled BBC top brass with confidence, but it went on to become arguably its greatest sitcom hit. Fast forward forty-odd years to the new movie version – naysayers said it could never work, that director Oliver Parker couldn’t possibly recapture those nostalgic past glories. This time round they were right!

Opening with a standard spy movie chase that culminates in suitably daft fashion, we’re soon transported to the action-averse setting of Walmington-On-Sea, watched over with a rod of aluminium by the stubborn Captain Mainwaring (Toby Jones) and his largely pensionable team. It isn’t long of course before they find themselves doing more than herding cattle, as the Germans infiltrate the community to retrieve information and the menfolk fall under the spell of a glamorous journalist (a well-cast Catherine Zeta Jones).

In fairness, Parker and writer Hamish McColl had an insurmountable task. As well as being a household favourite, the TV show was a period piece… the period being the 1970s, where its gentle humour felt fresher. It’s all a bit low wattage by today’s standards, and the show’s sweetness and pratfalls are replaced by lavatorial gags and laboured slapstick. Here Private Godfrey doesn’t just need to be excused, he ends up unburdening himself over Corporal Jones!

Probably sensing the national outcry over a cast facelift, Parker has gone above and beyond, hiring some unusually big names to fill the boots of Arthur Lowe, John Le Mesurier and co. This yields mixed results. Jones and Michael Gambon (Godfrey) are by far the best replacements but the other main performers struggle. Bill Nighy hams it up to the nines as Sergeant Wilson, in a turn that frequently puts him on a different planet. Crucially he lacks chemistry with Jones. The line up generally fails to gel, which is another great shame. Tom Courtenay takes on the fondly-remembered, dogmatic Jones, but lacks Clive Dunn‘s light touch, coming off as plain irritating.

McColl scores higher with the female contingent, promoting Mrs Mainwaring from an offscreen presence to a formidable front-of-camera battleaxe (Felicity Montagu). She’s a much better commander than her husband, shepherding the solid support of Sarah Lancashire, Alison Steadman, Emily Atack and in particular Derek‘s Holli Dempsey, who plays Frank (Blake Harrison)’s sweetheart, definitely one to watch. They display the British pluck that underpinned the series and while there’s an end battle that brings the men to the fore, writers Jimmy Perry and David Croft would have done it better and quieter. They also inserted intriguing nuggets of period detail into their scripts, something that’s glossed over somewhat in this incarnation.

It’s amusing enough, and the players provide guaranteed entertainment value (if only out of curiosity to see how they’ll measure up). As the sum of its parts however Dad’s Army is a misfire. We’re watching an elaborate recreation rather than a movie in its own right, and the producers should really have ditched the tributing and made something that marched more to its own beat.

This review first appeared on THN.

The Hound Of The Baskervilles DVD Review (The Hollywood News)

SH HOB

One of the best things about having a modern day Sherlock is it introduces people to previous incarnations of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle‘s definitive detective. So with a new remastering of The Hound Of The Baskervilles arriving to own, why not give Benedict Cumberbatch the slip for eighty minutes and spend some time in the company of dapper deerstalker-wearer Basil Rathbone?

Accompanied by Nigel Bruce‘s Doctor Watson he set the template for the twentieth century take on Baker Street’s most famous resident, popularizing the character as a master of mystery, his faithful yet bumbling companion tagging along in his wake. Baskervilles remains arguably the best-known Holmes story – somewhat curiously as it’s an atypical adventure in many ways, having more in common with a ghost story than a tale of fiendish deduction. Nevertheless, 20th Century Fox chose this as Rathbone’s debut, a decision that nudged the actor’s career into movie legend. Three quarters of a century on however, does the opening instalment endure…?

It does, and for one very important reason, which like a pontificating Holmes I’ll save for later. First off, the yarn itself, which the Cumberbatch series made a rather convoluted stab at adapting a few years ago. When Sir Charles Baskerville is found face down at his Dartmoor pile, the death resurrects rumours of a monstrous canine who roamed the countryside, supposedly wiping out generations of the family. Holmes and Watson are paid a visit by medical man Mortimer (an entertainingly arch performance by Lionel Atwill, one of many), who fears for Sir Charles’ heir Sir Henry (the baby-faced and top-billed Richard Greene). Watson travels with Sir Henry to the Gothic gloom of Baskerville Hall to investigate, his pipe-puffing friend seemingly taking a back seat. Or does he? Cue an array of forebodingly-lit faces, varying accents and enough fog to choke the Albert Hall.

The production fills the soundstage with untamed moorland, which looks marvellous even by today’s standards. Hilariously the opening proclaims there is “no district more dismal than that vast expanse of primitive wasteland”, perhaps the biggest geographical insult in filmic history, only added to by the natives opting for Scottish accents. Some handsome street sets and model work complete the visual splendour. The supernatural elements of the story are accentuated here, with a scene involving a seance and references to the ancient presence of druidic stones.

By far the most successful part of the action is that which other adaptations have struggled with: the title creature itself. Saddling themselves with what is essentially a larger than average dog, previous movies have failed to create a memorable monster. Helmer Sidney Lanfield selects an animal that’s convincingly fearsome without being silly, the climactic skirmish between the hound and Sir Henry being particularly well-staged.

I’m maybe going to annoy some purists by saying I’m not the greatest fan of Rathone. To me he comes across like a gameshow host more than a Master Detective, though the famous disguise sequence is a treat. Bruce forms a pleasing contrast to later, hard-eged interpretations of Watson from actors such as Ian Hart and Martin Freeman.

Extras-wise, StudioCanal have laid on a lavish spread of talking head for aficionados. Author Michael B Druxman delivers a potted history of Rathbone’s colourful career and no less an authority than Sir Christopher Frayling gives us his thoughts on Holmes in a meaty forty-five minute dissection.

The conclusion is brisk and possesses a stiffer upper lip than a deceased Baskerville, though a pointed drugs reference at the end may well surprise. This rollicking re-release shows there’s life in the old dog yet.

This review first appeared on THN.

Maigret TV Review

RA MGeorges Simenon‘s vexed detective looks especially baffled in the form of Rowan Atkinson for this handsomely-mounted, curiously misjudged adaptation of Maigret Sets A Trap.

Paris in the Fifties is the setting, under threat from a serial killer targeting women in the night. After several months of investigations top police snooper Maigret is reaching the end of his rope with the authorities. It seems like his reputation will die with the latest victim. This doom-laden introduction, accompanied by an earnest soundtrack throughout, isn’t the best jumping in point. The film feels more like a finale than a debut (another has been made), and would have worked better at a point where you’d gotten to know the characters. Here you’re none the wiser about anything as everyone is so caught up.

Atkinson plays the title role in an otherworldly and preoccupied manner that I’m not sure is intentional. Like many comic actors who take on a straight part he appears to have shut down rather than emote. The director should really have tried to get more out of him. His detached performance isn’t a bad fit for the deductive stuff, but he sorely lacks much of a human dimension in scenes with his wife and colleagues. Perhaps future entries will see him relax a bit.

Simenon’s plot gets interesting at the halfway mark as Maigret determinedly holds onto his prime suspect despite mounting pressure to release him. It would help if you cared, but in fairness to writer Stewart Harcourt and members of the supporting cast (in particular Aidan McCardle) the production does manage a couple of tense sequences.

I would watch the programme again, to see how Atkinson develops and to enjoy the sharp suits and smoke-filled dens of iniquity. On this evidence however I wouldn’t place too much faith in Maigret 2016 cracking the case of this viewer’s loyalty.

 

The Night Manager Review (The Hollywood News)

The Night ManagerThe British Broadcasting Corporation and novelist John Le Carré go way, way back. In 1979, we saw the classic TV adaptation of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, which cast Alec Guinness as aloof manipulator George Smiley. It was so good that even Guinness himself couldn’t top it with Eighties follow-up Smiley’s People. You would have needed cajones made of brass to mount a production as ambitious again. Well, it has taken nearly 40 years but the Beeb have finally done it with The Night Manager.

Leading Brit of the moment Tom Hiddleston shares top billing as Jonathan Pine, a smooth-talking functionary at an Egyptian hotel, who is entrusted at random with a secret document by a female guest. When he passes the information onto a pal at the British Embassy the guest winds up brutally murdered and Pine is recruited by intelligence honcho Angela Burr (Olivia Colman). The undercover operation puts him on a collision course with the subject of the document – businessman turned arms dealer Richard Roper (Hiddleston’s co-star Hugh Laurie). Pine is Roper’s nemesis, though the target is totally unaware… or is he?

One of the great appeals of Le Carré is how he’s acted as an antidote to James Bond (he once described the character as a “neo-fascist gangster”). His heroes aren’t usually heroes. They skulk about concrete structures with coffee breath rather than drinking Martinis in tropical locations. The trick screenwriter David Farr and director Susanne Bier pull off is bringing a Bond-style sensibility to the table. Colman’s scheme to nail Laurie is textbook Le Carré, but the presence of Hiddleston and an arch villain with an opulent, gun ‘n girl-festooned lifestyle is pure Ian Fleming. They’ve managed to meld two sides of the coin and it’s worked to towering effect.

Above all the miniseries drips with coronary-inducing tension from episode to episode. The opener is so gripping you wonder how they’re going to maintain the atmosphere for another five hours, yet somehow they do it with the pace rarely slacking. Pine’s training in Cornwall is a bit vague. He’s despatched to the West Country to pose as a drug dealer in order to create a dark past for Roper to uncover, but it’s a necessary step to portray Hiddleston’s path back to violence. Pine was ex-military before he entered the hotel trade and while the star is less convincing as an action man he certainly has the physique to pulverize his opponents.

Hiddleston is a prettified version of the novel’s protagonist. However this gives him a vulnerability that works with the character and also indicates a great career in hospitality should the acting work ever dry up. Laurie delivers a masterclass in reptilian malevolence as Roper, and a juicy role facing 007 surely beckons. Burr’s role is similarly altered to that of a stressed and pregnant battleaxe. This route seems odd, but of course you should never underestimate Colman, just as you can’t pigeonhole Burr. Everyone does a decent job but from the supporting cast Tom Hollander stands out (he has to, he’s much shorter than everyone else) as Corky, Roper’s preening lieutenant. Hollander has played nasties before (in Joe Wright’s Hanna for example) but this is something else and the actor is frequently in danger of stealing scenes.

Special mention should go to titles designer Patrick Clair and his team at Elastic/Antibody, who have realized another stunning opening sequence. Showcasing various items of decadence that morph into deadly armaments, it’s effortlessly cool and sinister. Further proof that Clair is the master of bringing the cinematic to the small screen.

The show was introduced as a blockbuster, and they weren’t kidding. However The Night Manager is worth noting as a saga that’s packed with content, making it a rarity in the bloated arena of today’s television. It’s a lean, mean, intoxicating six-parter that leaves you fit to bursting but entirely satisfied by the final bang.

 

This review appeared on The Hollywood News.

“I wanted to create an axe murderer with the feet of Fred Astaire…” Logan Huffman Interview For ‘Final Girl’ (The Hollywood News)

LH FGFinal Girl heads to DVD this week, following last month’s UK premiere at FrightFest. Directed by photographer Tyler Shields, it’s a noir-inspired horror that provides something different amongst the assorted gorefests competing for fans’ attention. One of its key players is Logan Huffman as axe-happy teen torturer Danny, whose plans for the seemingly-helpless Veronica (Abigail Breslin) take a nasty and unexpectedly surreal turn.

I caught up with him for an intriguing chat about the improvised nature of his role, the way the movie changed as it went along and his thoughts on the genre in general. He also offered up a memory of late director Wes Craven, somewhat appropriate given recent sad news…

The film is kind of unique compared to today’s horror movies. How did you come to be involved?

Well Tyler and I have been buddies for a while and I’ve been shooting with him for a bit. And he just called me up, asked me if I wanted to do it, so I did it. I’ve been studying and training in vaudeville for three years, so I’d been waiting for the right character to do vaudeville work. Danny wasn’t written as anything when I saw the script, so I just kind of went with it. Tyler and I are good buddies, so he just kind of let me say what I wanted to say and do what I wanted to do. I wanted to create an axe murderer with the feet of Fred Astaire, you know?

Your character is the most distinctive in the movie, with the big hair and of course the axe!

I usually have my hair grown out real long. My first scene was the dancing scene, but it wasn’t written as a dancing scene, I was supposed to just be polishing my shoe. But I grew up in a rockabilly family see, so I wore a pompadour my entire childhood. My first car was a ‘56 Mercury. My Dad rolled around in a ‘56 Chevy. My brother had a 29 Model Line pick up truck hot rodded out like John Milner. So I wanted to pay homage to all that jazz, I wanted to create a Looney Tunes character. I walked up to Tyler and I said “Hey man! I wanna put my hair up really, really tall, almost like a rooster. I want this guy to be kind of a metaphor for a big cock!” A big rooster… because, you know, I’m method. Tyler saw me just once, for the entire filming process (in Canada), and when he saw me back in LA I was Logan again.

I started balancing the axe, because I carried Anna Belle with me the whole time. I always make friends with the props department, your props are everything. I grabbed Anna Belle, and I carried her the whole entire time. I got the vibe and tried to balance her with one finger, and then Tyler knew I knew how to swing. So I did a little swing dancing, and Tyler said “Do a little dance for us and walk out.”

I notice you named the axe! Where did that come from?

Just something sweet and pleasant. Being from Indiana I always kind of had the crushes on the girls with the two names, and I thought Anna Belle was kind of a sweet name. And she just spoke to me, I didn’t really… objects have souls, so I just listened to it. Anna Belle seemed fitting.

I interviewed Tyler earlier in the month, and he mentioned you and the other actors… you kind of appropriated your wardrobe and went out on the streets of Vancouver. What sort of stuff did you guys get up to out there?

We just went to a couple of bars, chased blonde women… I scared a few of ‘em off, but we had a good time, just talked and meddled around, you know? Made good conversation.

I trust you didn’t take the axe out with you…

No, but I carried a switchblade in my pocket. Kidding! (Laughs)

How did Tyler explain some of the stranger aspects to you? The film becomes increasingly hallucinogenic and trippy during the last act when Veronica drugs her attackers…

Well Tyler’s original edit, it was a little… they always want to put in stuff and make it look a little bit more trippy, but his original interpretation was very straightforward and more classical. Me and him we… all the movies I watch are 1962 and back. I enjoy that era and I enjoy that time. So the thing I liked about Tyler’s shooting is there’s a lot of wides, and there’s lots of things quiet, just like how an old film does it. You know how it is, they come in and they change a few things… I can’t wait for the director’s cut to come out at some point, because you don’t find out she’s an assassin until they’re in the woods.

Tyler’s never had a sip of alcohol, or cigarette, or any form of drugs. I think it was more his interpretation mentally, of having an abstract mind. And they had abstract minds these gentlemen, it was about what they truly feared. That was the most fascinating aspect of it. We never focused on the drug, we focused on our deepest fears.

AB FGThe film’s having its UK premiere at FrightFest. Bearing in mind what you were saying about the era of movies you like, were you a fan of horror films coming into the project?

Yeah, when I was a little boy every Christmas I would get a Bela Lugosi or Lon Chaney movie inside my stocking. I’ve always loved horror movies. I like ‘em when there’s a lot of fog and that spooky way about ‘em. Good lighting. So this was really fulfilling for me. I’m going to do another horror movie this month which I’m really excited about, I get to be a cannibal. Yeah I can’t wait to do that man. He’s obsessed with jazz of the Fifties and Sixties, so it’ll be cool.

He won’t be anything like Danny. Wes Craven told me that, when I got my first job… I got fired from that job, because I’m severely dyslexic, I didn’t learn how to read till the age of nine, and he told me ‘all acting is controlled schizophrenia’. So I like to know my characters and then let them go. So I just can’t wait to find this new individual.

This interview appeared on The Hollywood News.

Sean Penn Now & Then: The Gunman & State Of Grace Blu-Ray Reviews (The Hollywood News)

THE GUNMAN (2015)

SP TGA surprising feature of the mature action movie’s unexpected rise has been the calibre of names attracted. Oscar-winner Liam Neeson reinvented his career via the Taken franchise, and now director Pierre Morel nets Sean Penn for butt-kicking duties in The Gunman. Of course Penn is as known for his staunch political views as his acting, so there’s a bit more going on here than a simple case of a tin opener and a can of whup-ass.

He plays the hilariously-named Jim Terrier, who operates in the murky world of private security in the Democratic Republic of Congo. With one foot in the humanitarian end of the equation (alongside surgeon girlfriend Jasmine Trinca) and the other working at the behest of corporate interests, it isn’t long till an impromptu assassination leads to Terrier fleeing the scene. Years later, this bone-cruncher of conviction is helping the poor with their water supply when unknown elements come to wipe him out. The rippling star (looking exceptionally craggy in full HD) must then traverse the globe, tracking down his former associates and trying to work out who wants his head on a platter.

Penn performs this wronged tough guy well, but the central character also displays the movie’s key weakness. If you’re following a man on the run it helps if you have some sympathy for him. Terrier’s former act of atrocity is so appalling it’s very difficult to get on board. In fact his workmates – now trying to live their lives as well-paid stuffed shirts – convey more remorse than he does. It helps that they are played by a truly impressive supporting cast – fans of brooding, middle-aged actors have an embarrassment of riches. In addition to Penn you’ve got Winstone, Bardem, Elba… not to mention Mark Rylance.

This is Rylance’s first high profile villain role, and he’s as good as you’d expect. But even he starts to go adrift as the story builds to a pretentious climax at a bullfight. Co-writer Penn must take responsibility for some dialogue so cheesy you could coat it in red wax and market it for Edam. It’s a strange combination of scribes overall – the script also carries the names of Don Macpherson (The Avengers – as in the Ralph Fiennes one!) and Dredd‘s Pete Travis. Also you might think Penn would work up a more balanced battle of the sexes, but no. Trinca is presented as impossibly saintly and well-lit as the female element, and is required to do little more than freak out and weep as bullets fly over her head. Out of the stellar line up, Winstone makes an impression as Terrier’s wing man, dressed like a member of Status Quo.

The special features show the verbose actors speak up in support of their infamous star/writer/producer. And you’ve got to hand it to him for trying to do something a bit different, even if this bird is really carrying too much on its back for it to fly. On the whole the film does alright as a chunky slice of smack-happy tosh. The various fights and car chases are decent, care of Taken veteran Morel. However the efforts of The Gunman to be both relevant and disposable means it collapses between two stools, bearing a mismatched combination of lean muscle and well-meaning paunch. It sort of apes the Bourne films, but they kept their subtext as fleeting as Matt Damon‘s footwork. Penn just isn’t a light enough touch for the beer and pizza crowd.

STATE OF GRACE (1990)

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Sean Penn and Gary Oldman are long-established in the movie firmament, but they were once young guys who fired on all cylinders in edgier fare. An opportunity to remind viewers of this has presented itself with the release of State Of Grace on Blu-ray. A well-made crime thriller set in Hell’s Kitchen, it caught a few actors on their way up the ladder, from Ed Harris to John Turturro.

Penn plays Terry Noonan, who returns to the New York neighbourhood he grew up in looking for employment. This means rekindling his relationship with the Flannerys, an Irish family with whom he was intimately involved. Best friend Jackie (Oldman) is an unstable enforcer who works for hoodlum brother Frankie (Harris). The place has changed in Noonan’s decade-long absence, as locals are squeezed out by the property boom. Frankie is turning against the people he used to call friends in a bid to impress a mob boss (Joe Viterelli). Meanwhile, Terry encounters old flame Kathleen Flannery (Robin Wright), who in attempting to distance herself from her heritage represents salvation for Penn’s tortured soul.

Partway through the story there’s a revelation about the lead character that isn’t a surprise if you’ve read any of the publicity. However if you avoid the blurb you may find, like I did, that the development deepens your involvement in the narrative.

The decaying urban backdrop to the film is very interesting, arguably more so than the players out front. No-one here is that likeable, but the situation – always one step away from disaster as Oldman’s behaviour becomes increasingly erratic – is a compelling walk along a cinematic knife’s edge. Acts of shocking violence are committed under the auspices of maintaining “good manners” amongst the criminal fraternity, a more appropriate term than most in this case. Death has become a constant feature of these peoples’ lives: a friend is pulled out of the river on the same day Terry and Jackie have to attend a funeral.

In addition to the main cast there is a treasure trove of talent in support to keep your attention glued – John C. Reilly (looking exactly the same as he does now!) takes the role of a wayward peer and screen legend Burgess Meredith has a short but poignant scene as Penn is sent to his apartment to collect money.

We’ve seen this type of set up before (I was reminded a little of Mean Streets) but director Phil Joanou gives the production its own life, shooting in a sweeping, epic style that lends itself nicely to the Blu-ray treatment. Dennis McIntyre’s solidly-constructed script boasts some snappy dialogue – “What, are you some kind of asshole or are you taking lessons?” – that’s a treat for the ear. Speaking of which, Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack is a key aspect of this class act. There are strong minor touches also, such as the moment henchman R.D. Call scoops up some nuts to eat after gunning down a bar owner.

The disc carries around twenty-five minutes of special features, which are decent. Directing A Bunch Of Gangsters has an enthusiastic Joanou describing the process and Harris shows up to discuss the role of Frankie in his own featurette. Nothing extensive, but certainly enough to satisfy anyone with a curiosity.

Ultimately the film isn’t in the same league as Scorsese. The striking slow-motion climax really belongs somewhere else. Oldman overdoes it and Wright is just plain drippy. Yet State Of Grace remains a punch-packing entry in the twentieth century gangster movie canon and is worth catching in hi-def twenty-five years later.

The Gunman & State Of Grace reviews appeared on The Hollywood News.