GoldenEye is the very finest hour that Pierce Brosnan had as James Bond, both as a film and in terms of what he gets to do as the character. It’s my third favourite Bond film of all time and stands as one of the most exciting ventures the series has seen to this day. It definitely falls into a campy style, but one that’s removed from that of the original Bond films from way back when, one that’s all its own and decidedly 90’s. It’s also got one of the strongest and classiest villains of the series, a man who is in fact an ex agent himself which was a neat switch up. Brosnan is so photogenic it’s ridiculous, whether dolled up in the tux or careening through a valley in a fighter jet. He just looks so damn good as Bond, and I sometimes wish he’d gotten a fifth crack at the character. Here we join up with 007 on a mission gone wrong, where he is ambushed and his partner Agent Alec Trevelyan a.k.a. 006 (Sean Bean) is killed, or so he thinks. 006 is in fact alive and well, with a few gnarly facial scars and a new nasty attitude. He puts Bond through a wringer with a diabolical scheme to hijack a Russian nuclear space weapon and do all kinds of lovely things with it. Bond teams up with the survivor of a decimated Russian research centre, a beautiful scientist named Natalya (Isabella Scorupco) who inevitably ends up in his bed. It’s slick, it’s stylish, it’s sexy and everything a Bond flick needs to be. 006 has a dangerous asset in Xenia Onatopp (Famke Janssen), a lethal assassin whose weapon of choice are her thighs which she employs with the crushing power of two Amazonian pythons. Janssen plays the role with ferocious relish and the kind of enthusiasm that hadn’t been seen in a Bond villainess since Barbara Carrera in Never Say Never Again. Bean plays it ice cold, letting restraint and calculated malice steal the scenes as opposed to flagrant mustache twirling. I always thought he would have made a cracking good 007 as he has so much residual danger to his vibe from playing many heartless bastards in his career, but perhaps in another life. One of my favourite characters to ever hang out in a Bond flick shows up here, a cranky but lovable russian general named Valentin Zukofsky, played by the awesome Robbie Coltrane, an actor who really, really needs to be in more stuff. His few short scenes are the stuff that makes a piece timeless, and I wish we’d gotten to see more Valentin and more Hagrid elsewhere in the franchise. There’s the usual suspects like Judi Dench as M and Desmond Llewellyn as a crusty Q, and a host of other actors including Joe Don Baker, Tchecky Karyo, Minnie Driver and the irritating Alan Cumming who singlehandedly ruins scenes with his hammy preening. The film thunders along with furious energy and nicely paced action sequences, including a chaotic tank chase through the streets of Moscow and a stunner of a climax set atop a giant satellite dish. As Bond films go, you can never go wrong with this one.
The Red Riding Trilogy is one of the most dense, absolutely impenetrable pieces of work I’ve ever seen, let alone attempted to dissect with my clunky writing skills. It’s also fairly horrifying, as it chronicles the tale of the Yorkshire Ripper, an elusive and mysterious serial child killer who terrorized this area of Britain through the late 70’s and early 80’s. Viler still are the strong implications that very powerful people, including the brass of the West Yorkshire police, made every disgusting attempt to cover up the crimes and protect the killer, who’s murders included that of children. It’s a brave move by UK’s Channel 4 to openly make such notions obvious within their story, and commendable the level of patience, skill and strong ambition in the undertaking is quite the payoff, whilst simultaneously taking a toll on you for sitting through it. The sheer scope of it must be noted; it’s separated into three feature length films, each vastly different in setting, character and tone, and each blessed with a different director. The filmmakers even went as far as to film the first, which is set in 1974, in 16mm, the second in 35mm being set in 1980 and the third makes a leap to high definition video and takes place in 1983. Such a progression of time is a dismal reflection of the sticky corruption which clings to societies, decaying them stealthily over years, and the few keen individuals who will not let the truth die as long as there is a glimmer of uncertainty. Now, if you asked me exactly what happens over the course of this trilogy, who is who, what has happened to which characters and who is guilty, I simply wouldn’t be able to tell you. It’s a deliberatly fractured narrative told through the prism of dishonest, corrupt psyches and has no use for chronology either. Characters who you saw die in the first film show up in the subsequent ones, actors replace each other in certain roles, and there’s just such a thick atmosphere of confusion and despair that in the 302 minute running time I was not able to make complete sense. I think this is a great tactic to help you realize that the film means to show the futile, cyclical nature of reality, as opposed to a traditionally structured story with a clear cut conclusion. Events spiral into each other with little rhyme or reason, until we feel somewhat lost, knowing full well that terrible events are unfolding in front of our eyes, events that are clouded and just out of our comprehensive grasp in a way that unsettles you and makes you feel as helpless as the few decent people trying to solve the case. One such person is an investigative reporter searching for the truth in the first film, played by Andrew Garfield. He stumbles dangerously close to answers which are promptly yanked away by the sinister forces of the Yorkshire police, brutalized and intimidated into submission. He comes close though, finding a lead in suspiciously sleazy real estate tycoon Sean Bean, who’s clearly got ties to whatever is really going on. The level of willful corruption demonstrated by the police is sickening. “To the North, where we do what we want” bellows a chief, toasting dark secrets to a roomful of cop comrades who are no doubt just as involved as him. The kind of blunt, uncaring dedication to evil is the only way to explain such behaviour, because in the end it’s their choice and they know what they’re doing. Were these officers as vile as the film depicts in the real life incidents? Someone seems to think so. Who’s to know? Probably no one ever at this point, a dreadful feeling which perpetuates the themes of hopelessness. The second film follows a nasty Police Chief (David Morrissey) who is bothered by old facts re emerging and seems to have a crisis of conscience. Or does he? The clichéd cinematic logline “no one is what they seem” has never been more pertinent than in these three films. It’s gets to a point where you actually are anticipating every single person onscreen to have some buried evil that will get upturned. A priest (Peter Mullan is superb) shows up in the second film only to be involved in dark turns of the third. Sean Bean’s character and his legacy hover over everything like a black cloud. A mentally challenged young man is held for years under suspicion of being the Ripper. A disturbed abuse survivor (wild eyed Robert Sheehan) seeks retribution. A Scotland Yard Detective (Paddy Considine) nobly reaches for truth. Many other characters have conundrums of roles to play in a titanic cast that includes Cara Seymour, Mark Addy, Sean Harris, James Fox, Eddie Marsan, Shaun Dooley, Joseph Mawle and more. The process in which the story unfolds is almost Fincher – esque in its meticulous assembly, each character and plot turn a cog in a vast machine whose purpouse and ultimate function are indeed hard to grasp. I need to sit down and watch it at least two more times through before the cogs turn in a way that begins to make sense to me, and a measurable story unfolds. It’s dark, dark stuff though, presenting humanity at its absolute worst, and in huge quantities too, nightmarish acts that go to huge levels of effort just to produce evil for.. well, it seems just for evil’s sake, really. The cast and filmmakers craft wonderful work though, and despite the blackness there is a macabre, almost poetic allure to it, beauty in terror so to speak. It’s rough, it’s long, it’s dense and it thoroughly bucks many a cinematic trend that let’s you reside in your perceptive comfort zone, beckoning you forth with extreme narrative challenge, an unflinching gaze into the abyss no promise of catharsis at the end of the tunnel. There’s nothing quite like it, I promise you.
Death Race 2 is one of those sequels that is a little more colorful and off the wall than the first one, and less gloomy. Death Race tried a bit too hard to play it straight and serious, and while still a gnarly flick, I personally have to give the edge to this one simply for coming a little closer to the trashy mark that the genre begs for. Any franchise with a title like Death Race has just got to have a touch of camp, some balls out B-movie action and a good dose of pulp. This one is actually a prequel, now that I think about it, taking place in the same penitentiary that the first film did, a year or so before Jason Statham’s arrival. It follows the origin of Carl Lucas (Luke Goss), who would go on to be the masked driver known as Frankenstein in the original film. Lucas starts out as a getaway driver and thief for ruthless mobster Marcus Kane (Sean Bean). When a heist gone wrong lands him in Terminal Island prison, he’s introduced to ‘Death Match’, bloody gladiatorial fare instigated by a random prison fight caught on camera and broadcasted online. The prison warden Weyland (Ving Rhames) has his moral doubts, but in swoops opportunistic corporation head September Jones (Lauren Cohan) with a sociopathic agenda to turn simple combat events into all out vehicular warfare, with state of the art machines and artillery, all privately funded. Since this genre exists in a world without anyone, government or other, to protest, Death Race is born. The rules go that if you win a certain amount of races, you go free. Kane has his own plans on the outside though, making a pretty penny off of Lucas and his driving, cruelly trying to keep him inside. Bean is a cut and dry psycho as Kane, relishing in the kind of nasty arch villain skin that action films have to offer. Goss has always had a heart and level of gravitas along with his physical intensity (his villain in Blade 2 is still legendary), which he brings out in Lucas. Danny Trejo comes along for the ride as Goldberg, Lucas’s mechanic. The first Death Race was solid, but a bit monochrome in the personality department. This one lets its freak flag fly, getting down and dirty with the bone crunching violence, and thundering motor mayhem. It sinks a level below the first one, which is sometimes a great thing for a particular franchise. It knows how over the top it needs to be, and is all the better for it.
The Big Empty is a quirky, off kilter little flick that packs a backpack full of borrowed elements from the Coen brothers and David Lynch, before embarking on a perplexing outing into the Twilight Zone. That’s not to say it rips any of these artists off, and indeed it’s got a style and cadence all its own. It just loves other oddballs before it and wants to wear it’s influences proudly. Everyone’s favourite lovable schlub Jon Favreau plays John Person, a flailing, out of work actor. He’s presented with a dodgy proposition by his whacko neighbour Neely (eternally bug eyed Bud Cort). Transport a mysterious blue briefcase to a remote town in the Mojave Desert called Baker. There he will meet a much talked about, little seen individual called The Cowboy (Sean Bean), who will take the case off his hands. He agrees, as he must in order for us to have a film to watch, and heads out to the back end of nowhere. In any respectable piece like this, the town our hero visits must be populated by weirdos, eccentrics, dead ends, missed encounters and an abiding, ever present atmosphere of anomalous peculiarity. Right on time, he meets a host of charming characters, including Grace (Joey Lauren Adams), her sensual daughter Ruthie (Rachel Leigh Cook), Indian Bob (Gary Farmer), grouchy FBI Agent Banks (Kelsey Grammar), and a bunch of others including Daryl Hannah, Melora Walters, Jon Gries, Brent Briscoe, Adam Beach and Danny Trejo. He’s led from one head scratching interaction to the other, each step of the way proving to be a step behind the elusive Cowboy, with no form of coherence appearing to ease poor John’s bafflement. I was reminded of Jim Jarmusch, particularly his masterpiece Dead Man, perhaps because Gary Farmer appears in both, but most likely mainly due to the fact that both films follow a hapless Joe on a journey that doesn’t seem to be going much of anyplace, but holds interest simply by being bizarre enough. Favreau is the only one that doesn’t fit, the outsider whose laid back suburban affability creates friction with almost every individual he meets, all who seem to have wandered in from the outer limits of some other dimension. Sean Bean is relaxed, mercurial with just a dash of danger as The Cowboy, quite possibly the strangest person John meets. The film has unexpected jabs of humour too, which occasionally breach the surface of its tongue in cheek veneer of inaccessibility. Upon meeting Indian Bob, John inquires: “Are you Bob The Indian?”. Bob jovially retorts “No, I’m Lawrence the fuckin Arabian.” Gary Farmer brings the same cloudy, sardonic cheek he brought to the role of Nobody the Indian in Jarmusch’s Dead Man, which had much the same type humour as this one: little moments of hilarity buried like treasures amongst the abnormal. Sometimes I muse that films like these which seem to really go nowhere in high style are there simply to give your brain a workout in odd areas that it wouldn’t normally play in. Set up a voyage like this, lead the audience down a yellow brick road and arrive at.. well basically nowhere in particular, just to chuckle at your efforts to figure it all out, jab you in the ribs and say “Don’t take this shit too seriously, man!”. Or maybe not. Maybe there’s deeper meaning behind the meandering, that will reveal some holy significance. This one, though, I doubt it. It’s pure playtime.
Ca$h has an obnoxiously tongue in cheek title, and a premise that could have easily run off the rails into the silly zone. But rejoice: It knows how to create a tense, unpredictable environment accented by the slightest bits of naturally occurring humour here and there, a winning combination indeed. Sean Bean doesn’t often get a movie to himself, or at least get to play the lead. Here’s he’s the top dog, and while most would argue that he’s the antagonist as well, I’m in the opposite corner on that one. Yes he’s a criminal, yes he goes to extreme lengths to get his money back, but he’s a rigidly disciplined and staunchly fair bloke, driven by a set of principles and operational tics that reek of Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, and trust me, it takes one to know one. Oh, and he gets to play identical twins as well, pulling a Parent Trap and acting opposite himself which is a delight to see. When reckless career criminal Reese Kubrick (Bean) dicks up a robbery, loses a bunch of money and gets apprehended, a young couple think they have hit the jackpot. Played by Chris Hemsworth and Victoria Profeta, they find the money and make that fateful cinematic mistake of trying to keep it for themselves. Before they know it, Reese’s brother Pyke (also Bean) comes looking for them, and believe me when I say that this guy is a dude who finds what he’s looking for. Fast. The young couple has already begun to indulge, and as Pyke barges into their lives he finds a great deal of the amount spent. He then buckles down and calmly, coolly forces them to come up with every remaining cent of the ‘deficit’, as he calls it, even if it means doing a bit of illegal stuff themselves. Bean has a ball as the icy cool, ruthlessly efficiant prick who plays hardball with a glint in his eye. He’s karma manifest, a very real and very dangerous metaphor for the perilous risk of excessive currency and ill gotten gains. It’s a terrific role for him, both in the moments of dangerous serenity and the few rare instances where he loses his cool streak, which sting like daggers. Hemsworth and Profeta play their standard roles very nicely. An arbitrary bit of fun: the actor Glenn Plummer shows up for a hysterical cameo as a dude named, I shit you not, Glenn The Plumber, who receives a whollop of a verbal beatdown from Bean that serves as the film’s most lighthearted moment, and is a riot for anyone who gets the reference. Snuck into limited DVD release back in 2010, this one deserves more than the small shelf space it’s gotten. Fun stuff.