Tag Archives: film

Phillip Noyce and Harrison Ford’s Jack Ryan: Patriot Games and Clear & Present Danger

Tom Clancy’s Jack Ryan has had a few iterations over the decades, the last two of which were sadly lukewarm efforts, but for my money Harrison Ford and Philip Noyce gave the best version with the explosive double feature of Patriot Games and Clear & Present Danger. Star studded across the board, gifted with long runtimes, huge budgets and intelligent scripts, these are two enduring espionage films that I always have a place for on my DVD shelf and always tune in to if I come across them on TV. Ford is a heroic presence in cinema, and although his actions as Ryan are violently intrepid, he gives the character an unsure edge and resounding vulnerability that is always compelling and offsets the intrigue as great character work. This guy is an analyst after all, not a field agent and the portrayal should reflect that.

Patriot Games kicks off with Ryan in a brutal personal war against a rogue faction of the IRA, a tense conflict that reaps collateral damage on both sides. The two constant characters who ground both Ford and Ryan are his boss and mentor Greer (James Earl Jones) and his wife Cathy (Anne Archer), they keep him humble, human and sympathetic amongst all the chaos and political intrigue. Sean Bean is scary good here as Miller, renegade Irish operative whose plans are foiled early on by Jack, prompting him to swear bloody revenge on his whole family in a courtroom scene that is as chilling as Bean has ever been. Paranoia sets in as countless attempts are made against his and his families life, and even reassuring words from an IRA honcho (Richard Harris) who denounces Miller can’t set Ryan at ease. Only the eventual confrontation puts an end to it, which we get in a spectacular nocturnal speedboat chase across a Maryland harbour. The talent includes Thora Birch as Jack’s daughter, J.E. Freeman, Patrick Bergin, James Fox, Polly Walker, Bob Gunton and a young Samuel L. Jackson.

Clear & Present Danger sees the headstrong US President (Donald Moffat, never one to not devour dialogue like a good steak) declares war on marauding cartels from South America, another conflict that Ryan gets thrown into headlong both on location and back on the home front. Their leader (Miguel Sandoval) is a hotheaded moron, but the real danger lurks in Felix Cortez (Joaquim De Almeida, a spectacularly nasty villain), advisor, assassin and deadly power behind the throne who has ideas of his own. This entry is slightly more epic and action centric but the homeland espionage is played up too, particularly in the corrupt actions of two impossibly sleazy suits back in Washington played by Henry Czerny and Harris Yulin. They are so good in their roles they almost steal the film, especially Czerny as the ultimate prick and absolute last person you’d want making decisions for their country. Ford is less seething than he was in the very personal conflict of Patriot Games, but no less resourceful and violent when he needs to be. Willem Dafoe fills the boots of John Clark, a Clancy staple character and ruthless tactical agent who sometimes functions as a one man army. Further work is provided by Benjamin Bratt, Raymond Cruz, Dean Jones, Ann Magnuson, Patrick Bauchau and Hope Lange.

These two are not only great action spy films but to me represent an oasis of 90’s filmmaking that has never been replicated. Enormous casts, every dollar of the budget onscreen, timeless original scores (courtesy of James Horner here), vivid action set pieces, equal parts focus on story and action, no CGI in sight, character development and all round consistency in craft and production. I grew up with these two classics, watched them countless times with my dad and will always tune right back in whenever they’re around.

-Nate Hill

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Jan De Bont’s Speed

“Pop quiz, hotshot!!” Most action films are comprised of beats, wherein there are exciting sequences and then lulls in between to catch our breath and collect ourselves, but the beauty of Jan De Bont’s Speed is that as soon as the central premise is delivered to the narrative, pretty much every beat is action, the concept airtight in terms of any breathing room creeping in, and that’s one reason why I think it’s endured as a such a classic in the genre.

Dennis Hopper plays yet another wild eyed lunatic here, and it’s scary to think that his mad bomber Howard Payne was once a decorated LAPD officer. He’s now a very pissed off ex police officer who has gone psychotic and started blowing shit up all over the city, attracting the attention of daredevil super cop Jack Traven (Keanu Reeves). Howard gets elaborate when he decides to rig a city bus with a device that will blow it the fuck to bits of the driver slows down past fifty miles per hour, and from then on in the film barely stops to grab a coffee, take a piss or collect its thoughts. Howard masterminds the whole deal from a secret surveillance lab, Jack races to board the bus and defuse the bomb and intrepid civilian Annie (Sandra Bullock) takes over the wheel after the driver has a heart attack. Reeves and Hopper play off each other like flint and steel, it’s a hero villain smackdown for the ages between a rock steady officer of the law and a probably once great detective who has lost his mind but none of his wily nerve. Keanu and Sandra also have great romantic chemistry too but it’s underplayed and sort of seems natural, which isn’t always easy to pull off. Throw in Joe Morton, Beth Grant, Glenn Plummer, Alan Ruck, Hawthorne James, Richard Schiff, Veronica Cartwright and scene stealer Jeff Daniels as Keanu’s charismatic senior partner and you’ve got one hell of an ensemble.

This was one of the first R rated action cookouts I was allowed to see (hell, I think I even saw it before Die Hard) and it still blows my mind as much today as it did back then. The stunts and set pieces are all unbelievable and so kinetically explosive its a wonder that talented cinematographer Andrej Bartkowiak could keep his lenses following them. Everything with the bus on freeways and overpasses is extraordinary (that heart-stopping bridge gap!) but don’t even get me started on the balls out underground subway crash that blows the lid off any sound system it touches. A classic.

-Nate Hill

Sergio Leone’s The Good, The Bad & The Ugly

How iconic has the image become of Clint Eastwood, poncho adorned, rolled cigarette locked firmly in that drawn snarl, peering out from a wide brim, dust caked hat atop a horse? The Man With No Name is such a household name these days that he’s shown up everywhere from Stephen King lore to an animated Johnny Depp movie, but it all began with Sergio Leone’s original spaghetti western trilogy, the best of which is the fireball classic The Good, The Bad & The Ugly.

The trilogy itself not only launched an entire sub-genre in the early sixties but created a mood, a feel that no one besides Leone has ever been able to so specifically distill. Extreme closeups on eyes deep set in furrowing brows. Languid establishing shots of frontier town streets, expansive railroads and acres of dry brush-lands. The actors aren’t necessarily blocked from scene to scene with any kind of briskness but rather wade languidly through an ambient space seemingly at their own leisure and never with haste. Spaghetti westerns are never about the plot, but about the moment, the setup, the apprehension in the saloon, grotto, civil war torn graveyard or desert that these hard bitten folks find themselves in.

Eastwood’s nameless gunslinger meanders across a bitter, busted up American west that is, of course, actually Italy, engaging in war games and an obsessive treasure hunt with two other pieces of work, the sociopathic monster Angel Eyes (Lee Can Cleef) and the lecherous, untrustworthy rodent Tuco (Eli Wallach). All three are after a legendary gold stash somewhere out there in the desolation and are prepared to kill anyone who stands in their way, bonus points for each other. Eastwood is cold, calm and opaque, Cleef is cheerfully, sadistically ruthless, Wallach oozes weaselly survival instinct and together they make a captivating trio.

Three scenes in particular stand out in my mind; the first is the epic showdown between them all, stood a few hundred paces apart in a triangle, locked in a tense pre shootout stare-down as Ennio Morricone’s gorgeous and threatening score booms around the landscape and plays with expectations wonderfully. It’s a kicker of a scene and probably the showcase Western showdown in cinema. The second (and I’m assuming at this point that anyone who’s read this far has seen the film) is the final sequence where Eastwood taunts Wallach by literally leaving him hanging and riding away as Morricone yet again gives our eardrums symphonic bliss. It’s a wicked little epilogue that illustrates the character’s dry, subtle sense of humour nicely and I remember my dad (this was a favourite for him) rewinding it just to catch the beats a second or third time. The third is a moment where Eastwood comes across a soldier who is dying in the dust. He offers the man a drag off his cigarette, and the simple action suggests a beating heart and flickers of compassion in a mostly hard, stoic fellow. Nice touch.

-Nate Hill

Paul Greengrass’s The Bourne Ultimatum

I’ve said before in reviews that it’s pretty much impossible to pick a favourite from the initial trilogy of Bourne films, and I stand by that. They’re somehow completely their own thing as separate entries and also a synergistic entity together as well, using Moby’s propulsive song Extreme Ways to jet into each new chapter.

Paul Greengrass’s The Bourne Ultimatum brings Matt Damon’s arc as super-spy spy to a gong show of a close in New York City after breathless jaunts through London and Madrid. By this time Bourne has had so much trauma inflicted on him and lost so much that he’s almost in devil-may-care mode, but something in him senses that despite recalling a whole bunch lost memory, there’s still a few pieces of the puzzle that need to fall into place, starting with the interrogation of an ill fated British reporter (Paddy Considine). This puts corrupt wings of the CIA onto his trail once again, with evil David Strathairn filling in for evil Brian Cox and evil Chris Cooper before him. It’s a vicious cycle of selfish, narcissistic shirt tuckers trying to cover their asses while innocent people all over the globe die needlessly, and Bourne’s mounting anger has never been more understandable than here. Joan Allen returns as stern but sympathetic Pam Landy, Scott Glenn brings leathery charm as the agency’s duplicitous director and watch for Corey Johnson, Daniel Bruhl, Albert Finney and Edgar Ramirez as a rival asset dispatched to hunt him who is the first of his kind to show a glimmer of humanity. Julia Stiles also returns as Nicky Parsons, an integral person in the saga, her work in all three films is underrated as a restless portrait of guilt over past actions and patient resolve to do better with each new decision, I wish she’d get more complex roles like this because she’s so great.

Greengrass got a lot more kinetic and hyped up (the shaky cam is a turn off for some) than Doug Liman did with Identity, the first chapter. The hectic vibe serves to illustrate Bourne’s stormy, frayed mental climate and works for me, as does Damon’s ferocious performance. The stunt work and action set pieces are flat out spectacular, especially the explosive bike derby in Spain and the tense cell phone tag sequence in London’s crowded financial district. Like I said I can’t really pick a favourite, this is as close to a completely cohesive trilogy you can get, but this one was my dad’s top pick of the three so I suppose it has that edge going for it. As far as the other two that exist outside this trilogy… that’s a story for a far less glowing review. Ultimatum, however, is solid gold.

-Nate Hill

Blake Edwards’ The Party

Anyone who’s been on a movie set, or any professional or social setting for that matter, knows that one lovable but clumsy wrecking ball who constantly trips over stuff, fucks shit up and inadvertently causes disaster wherever they go. In Blake Edwards’s brilliant 60’s screwball comedy The Party that someone is Peter Sellars as Hrundi V. Bakshi, a hapless Indian extra actor who just can’t seem to get it right, despite his best intentions.

Hrundi is blacklisted after causing what was probably a million dollar mistake on set, but the producer accidentally logs his name into the guest list of the swankiest party Hollywood has to offer, and he’s gonna crash the hell out of it. It turns out to be one of those straight-laced, button down industry affairs somewhere in The Hills, and he ends up standing out like an elephant at a house party (that later crosses over from metaphorical to literal, by the way). From the moment he walks through the door he’s knocking shit over, hitting the wrong intercom buttons, nosediving into the fancy indoor pool thingy and generally cultivating a level of uproarious pandemonium that reaches near maniacal heights in the third act. I’ve been to some barnstormer house parties in my day but never one with parrots, bows and arrows, rooms filled with soap bubbles and a painted elephant. Okay, maybe I have, but just not with the elephant.

The cool thing about this character Sellars creates is that despite being an outright moron and harbinger of unavoidable mayhem, he’s actually the sweetest, gentlest human you could meet and just seems cursed with the shitty luck of being the clumsiest guy at the circus. You can see by the way he protects a budding starlet (Claudine Longet) from the slimy sexual advances of a nasty mega producer and just in the simple way he treats people with earnest kindness that he’s a far cry from the polished but seedy diplomacy one usually finds at these events. He’s endlessly watchable and Bakshi is my favourite character he’s ever come up with, whether he’s literally talking back to a parrot who’s yapping at him (Birdy num nums!!), trying to fix the destruction caused by a severely liquored up waiter (Steve Franken) or fanboying over his favourite western movie star (Denny Miller), he’s an unbridled joy to watch and I still can’t believe this never got a sequel. The house in question is designed like a carefully primed mousetrap of pratfalls and slapstick hijinks and the script is a breezy, unconstructed playground for this guy to tear around like a driverless ATV in a Walmart. I used to watch this film with my dad all the time, it was one of his favourites and has become one of mine, the ultimate comedy of errors that has a beating heart and enough comic set pieces to blast the roof off the house. Brilliant film.

-Nate Hill

Ridley Scott’s The Martian

You know those Sci-Fi movies where someone has a near miss, narrow escape or heroic encounter up in space and everyone down in the NASA control room leaps up, cheers and claps in collective catharsis? It’s a well worn narrative beat and can sometimes be an eye roll moment. Ridley Scott’s The Martian has several of these but because the characters and plot are so well drawn they feel earned, appropriate and exciting. That goes for the film itself as well, it’s a two and a half hour space epic that feels as breezy as a ninety minute quickie, an optimistic, human story of one man’s ultimate quest for survival and everyone else’s daring attempts to rescue him.

Scott is no stranger to darker, more austere stuff particularly in his Sci-Fi exploits, but he shines a bright light on the proceedings here, making a super complicated, science based story with many moving parts somehow seem light and carefree while also making a big emotional landing. Matt Damon is Mark Watney, astronaut, botanist, space pirate and celestial castaway, marooned on the red planet following a mission gone wrong and presumed dead by NASA and his crew, until he’s able to communicate. He grows potatoes using… homemade fertilizer, repairs a satellite and awaits rescue while everyone else faces moral and technical quandaries in their struggle to bring him home. NASA’s director (Jeff Daniels, smarmy but never an outright baddie) is reluctant to go all out and send another mission, the crew’s handler (Sean Bean, fantastically low key and against his usual tough guy image) wants to do right by them and inform their commander (Jessica Chastain). The earthbound commotion is nicely interlaced with Damon’s solo outings up there and somehow they edit the thing to both realistically depict the passing of time but also fly through the proceedings breathlessly. Scott casts his film with ridiculous talent including Kate Mara, Donald Glover, Michael Pena, Aksel Hennie, Sebastian Stan, Benedict Wong, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Kristin Wiig and Mackenzie Davis.

Many people wrote this off as a good film but simply fluff, like an enjoyable but kind of inconsequential ride, or at least that’s the vibe I got from some reviews. I couldn’t disagree more. This type of story is exactly the kind of thing we need more of in this day and age. One could remark on the vast amount of effort, overtime hours and expenditure NASA puts in simply to bring one astronaut home, and whether or not it’s worth it (Jeff Daniels certainly has that thought cross his mind), but the truth is that it’s not about just Mark Watney, or just any one person stranded up there, it’s about what the actions and efforts signify, and how important that is, as well as the notable and extreme resilience on his part. This is a film that shows the best in human beings who are put in impossible situations, and how we might make ourselves, and those around us into better people. It’s a rollicking space flick speckled with incredible talent, hilarious comedy, scientific knowledge and has already aged splendidly since it’s release four years ago. Top tier Ridley Scott for me, and one of the best Sci-Fi films in decades.

-Nate Hill

Steven Knight’s Serenity

I’m not sure why an imaginative, original concept film like Steven Knight’s Serenity got the unanimous critical beatdown it did, but I didn’t find it anywhere close to as bad as I’d heard it was. It’s uneven as all hell, bizarrely staged and written like a soap opera gone postal, but in a sea of sequels and remakes it goes a long way that they even tried something this ‘out there.’ Like a warped bastard child of Black Mirror and the sultriest stuff that Brian DePalma has to offer, this one plays out on a specifically fictitious Florida destination known as Plymouth Island, a place where reality might not quite be as it seems.

Matthew McConaughey gives another intense, haggard turn as Baker Dill, a commercial fisherman reduced to ferrying tourists around to catch tuna with his even more intense second mate Duke (Djimon Hounsou in Cajun mode). Baker spends his days banging local beauty Constance (Diane Lane in yet another role that’s beneath her) and trying to catch a giant rogue tuna he’s nicknamed Justice. Anne Hathaway shows up in a blond dye job, squarely in femme fatale mode as his ex wife who has married one tyrannical, abusive monster played by Jason Clarke in a performance that I genuinely was confused whether to find hilarious or be terrified by. Hathaway wants Baker to take hubbie out fishing and feed him to the sharks, Baker wants nothing to do with either of them and Clarke wants to get hammered, insult everyone and do some other things I dare not repeat here. It’s a lurid, noirish snake-pit of sweaty sex, deception and indecent human behaviour, but there’s something more high concept going on beneath the film of scum on the upper layer of the script. A mysterious suit (Jeremy Strong) pursues Baker around and there’s just this gnawing feeling that what’s happening isn’t quite… real, at least in the traditional sense. That’s all I’ll say in that arena.

McConaughey isn’t doing anything revolutionary here and the hangdog, lady’s man drunk is nothing new for him, but he puts on a good show and is clearly having fun. Hathaway and Lane curl around the dialogue like the pros they are and do fine as well. Clarke is something else though, and has to be seen to be believed. He’s a misogynistic, blustery, abusive, hard drinking lunatic who seems to be channeling Lee Majors, Lee Marvin and The Devil all in the same note. I can’t tell if it’s great character work or more a bull in a china shop scenario, but he certainly makes an impression.

This isn’t a great film and certainly seems at odds with itself, I’ll concede that. The reality bending, the sleazy noir and some surprising sentimental notes later on all seem to be culled from various other sources and sort of clash onscreen in the same film. But there’s something so alluring about the ambition of this thing, the sheer ludicrous dedication to a concept that seems more at home in the Twilight Zone than a big budget theatre release. Nevertheless, I wasn’t bored once during it and it’s well made, scored (unusual, invigorating composition from Benjamin Wallfisch) and acted into oblivion by the ensemble cast, all clearly self aware and having a blast. This thing got royally shredded by everyone and their mother upon release, prompting me to put off watching it for quite a while. Safe to say it was unfairly assessed, I found it to be a good time.

-Nate Hill