Some concepts just beg to not be taken seriously and in the case of Roseanne Liang’s Shadow In The Cloud we have Chloe Moretz as a WW2 fighter pilot fighting a nasty sky gremlin while also contending with Japanese planes trying to shoot her down and some incredibly sexist fellow officers who outnumber her ten to one. Surefire recipe for camp, right? Well… kind of, but what makes this film so much fun and so successful is that despite an outrageous premise it manages to feel like a real story and not some high flying Grindhouse lark. I haven’t seen Chloe act in some time so I kind of forgot how talented she is but she gifts this character with cunning, grace, badass physicality and genuine grit. As she boards a fighter plane last minute filled with all male officers and is sent straight to the hull turret, it starts with her being belittled and mocked by them, escalates into a breathless dogfight with enemy aircrafts and finally goes supernatural bonkers when this bizarre bat/rat/alien sky gremlin shows up and tries to kill everyone. The film clocks in tightly under 80 minutes and almost has that old timey radio play feel, especially in the first act when she’s alone in the turret, the camera focuses solely on her for a sequence and we only hear everyone else on the radio, thus some of the action left to our imagination just like entertainment mediums of that day. There are some flat-out spectacular action sequences here including Chloe firing up the turret gun and ruthlessly mowing down a Jap plane with brutal precision, a hair raising forced crash landing, a hilariously unbelievable yet absolutely thrilling instance where she falls out of a hatch and plummets a few hundred feet only to be BLOWN BACK INTO the plane by the force of another one exploding below and finally a bloody, ultra-violent hand to hand mortal kombat smackdown with the ugly little bastard gremlin that is laced with adrenaline torqued choreography. It’s just a damn fun film, Chloe has a blast in the best role I’ve seen her do in years, the score by Mahuia Bridgman-Cooper ditches usual war film orchestral notes for something sleek, electronic and rhythmically modern and just overall is badass, gnarly, r rated, rollicking action war horror hybrid good times. Streaming now on Netflix.
Many war films set in a different time period like to flaunt special effects, production design, pyrotechnics and swing their big budgets around like dicks, while somewhere in the commotion, things like character and story get lost. Peter Weir is one to intuitively avoid showboating and I was pleased to see that his Master & Commander: The Far Side Of The World is a beautiful piece that integrates technical wizardry with good writing and performance for something that feels rich, balanced and realistic.
Set during the Napoleonic wars surrounding South America, Russell Crowe is Captain Jack Aubrey, a Naval Commander tasked with taking his vessel and crew in hot pursuit of the French ship Acheron on a search and destroy mission that could turn the tide of the whole war. Acheron is a much quicker and stronger warship with more guns, but Jack is a cunning, headstrong and impossibly stubborn leader who won’t back down in the face of defeat, even though his crew sometimes shows signs of doubt. The central relationship of the film is between him and the ship’s surgeon Maturin, played by Paul Bettany. He’s a significantly less hard edged man and being Jack’s best friend might as well be first mate as well, but it’s interesting to see that despite a great love for one another, their natures clash. Jack is a pragmatic, no nonsense soldier when it comes to game time, yet has the soul for music duets and great dinner table stories when the guns are put away. Maturin is a would-be naturalist with no mind for the strategies of war who would rather spend his days exploring new species on the exotic Galápagos Islands. Their dynamic is ultimately what drives the film and they’re both fantastic but also supported by the likes of Billy Boyd, Robert Pugh, James D’Arcy and many others.
The film exceeds two hours in length but doesn’t feel like it because of how engaging Weir makes everything. There’s only two ship battles, a opening banger and a climactic peak and they’re brilliantly done but for me the real magic is watching Crowe, Bettany and the others interact and live life day by day on the vessel. The food is prepared in detail, the logistics of navy protocol are studiously shown and the dialogue paints a dense, rich history for all the men aboard, each having his own special part of the story to impart. Another thing Weir specializes in is not making his tales feel overly doom laden, angsty or depressing. Many of his films deal with dark, challenging settings and themes but there’s always this matter of fact, optimistic lens he looks through that is a signature for him and a winning attribute. Not to say that this is necessarily a rollicking swashbuckler, but there’s an affinity for compassion and the lighter side of human nature, despite it being a war film by definition. Huge shoutout to Weir’s go to cinematographer Russell Boyd too, who shoots the imagery so vividly and magically it almost looks like paintings from that era itself. Loved it.
It was news to me that they have special military prisons in the States for court martials, dissidence and other forms of unruly behaviour in the ranks, but Rod Laurie’s The Last Castle gives insight aplenty into it. It’s basically prison but more intense, a penitentiary inhabited by only ex-soldiers and ruled over by one stubborn brat of a Warden in the form of James Gandolfini. Robert Redford plays a highly decorated, legendary general who is sent up for insubordination in circumstances that any rational personal should find understandable, but the US Government didn’t see it that way, so here he is. He’s a proud man who doesn’t back down in the face of bullies or tyrants, which immediately puts him at odds with Gandolfini. The warden initially shows admiration for him that turns sour after he can’t tame him to his way of thinking, after a which a sadistic streak emerges and nearly turns into all out warfare behind bars as the two let their personal natures run over into chaos. Redford, being a natural leader, forms ranks of his own from anyone who has the balls to deny authority and leads a minor rebellion, and although it all kind of gets overblown by the end, it’s nonetheless a fascinating and mostly character driven story. Support is given by a fine roster including Mark Ruffalo, Frank Military, Delroy Lindo, Steve Burton, Paul Calderon and the excellent Clifton Collins Jr. as an unfortunate rookie who becomes collateral damage in this very personal war. Gandolfini never ever half assed or phoned in a role, he was always focused, intense and specific and his character here fascinated me. This is a guy who is massively insecure and it’s evident from his behaviour that he didn’t have what it takes to engage in real life war games like the rest of them, therefore relegated to playing toy soldiers in military jail. There’s a bitter resentment in his body language and you get the sense that this guy was ready to snap for a while and the arrival of someone as prolific and headstrong as Redford’s character finally pushed him over the edge. It’s a brilliant performance in a good film that could have done without so much big budget Hollywood fireworks, but is still strong enough in the dramatic aspects to be affecting.
What’s the first R rated film you ever saw in theatres? For me it was Wolfgang Petersen’s Troy, a gorgeous piece that has since stuck with me not just for the fact that it left a vivid, bloody impression on my young psyche but also because it’s quality filmmaking, no matter what anyone might tell you. Never mind the fact that Brad Pitt doesn’t quite fit the old world aesthetic or is out-acted by almost everyone in the film including the host of classically trained professionals he’s surrounded by. There is a lot to love here, starting with a narrative that is kind of not so common in big budget Hollywood; there are no real good guys or bad guys here, just people making decisions that lead to war. We witness compassion on both sides of the army, and cruelty too, but there are no clear cut heroes or tyrants, it’s all politics or emotion. This makes it pesky choosing who to root for but so much more fascinating once the swords start swinging and you have stock on either side.
Pitt may not have the accent down as mythical warrior Achilles but he sure gets a striking look going, streamlined physicality, epic spear throws and concise, satisfying sword fight choreography that he obviously put a lot of work into. Eric Bana is just as impressive as Trojan prince Hector, a rational, anti-war guy who resents his younger brother Paris (Orlando Bloom, wooden as ever) for basically screwing things up as badly as you possibly could. The romance between him and Helen (Diane Kruger, radiant) never feels authentic and definitely is not developed enough to start a war of this magnitude, but their relationships aren’t where we place out investment here anyways. It’s Hector, his princess (Saffron Burrows will break your heart) and their infant son as well as Achilles’s protectiveness over his cousin Patrocles (Garett Hedlund) that win over our emotions and make us care.
The siege on the beach of Troy is a nervous spectacle set up with anticipation in the air as a single bell rings out, signalling ships on the horizon. As spectacular as the war is cinematically I found myself wishing it wasn’t happening just because of the suffering inflicted on either side. It’s not a pleasant or glorious set of battles and no one really wins but rather comes to a collective bitter end, which is another unique factor here. Look at this cast they’ve assembled too, with bold turns from Sean Bean as Odysseus, Peter O’Toole as King Priam of Troy, Brendan Gleeson as the petulant king of Sparta and a loathsome, fantastic Brian Cox as the greedy warlord Agamemnon. Rose Byrne is soulful as the young Trojan priestess who serves as concubine to Achilles until he actually catches feels, and watch for James Cosmo, Tyler Mane, Julian Glover, Nigel Terry, Vincent Reagan and a quick cameo from the great Julie Christie, still beautiful as ever.
Petersen mounts an impressive production here, full of horses, ships, elaborate sets and gorgeous costumes, brought alive by James Horner’s restless, melancholy score. The set pieces are fantastic too, the best of which involves Pitt and Bana in a ruthless one on one fight to the death, each angry and lunging with sword and spear while their people look on, its well staged and genuinely suspenseful thanks to the hour plus of character building before. I couldn’t give a shit whether this is either historically accurate or follows the literature closely at all, that’s not the point for me in going into something like this. I want to see immersive, brutal battle scenes that thrill and I want an overarching story that makes me care about said battle, so every spear throw and image of carnage holds some weight beyond itself. Actors like Pitt, Bana, O’Toole, Reagan and especially Burrows sold me on it and had me legit worrying what will happen to them so that when the dust settles and the very tragic, depressing outcome is apparent, you are haunted by it after. It sure had that effect on me at age eleven or whenever. Great film.
What do you think of when the Viet Nam war comes up in conversation? Platoon? Apocalypse Now? Born On The 4th Of July? All great films, but one I like to call attention to is Off Limits, a sweaty, disturbing murder mystery set in the heat of Saigon during the height of the war. Someone is brutally murdering prostitutes in the brothels, raising enough of a stir that Army cops Willem Dafoe and Gregory Hines are called in to investigate all fronts. Because this is war and anything close to an organized procedural is hopeless, there’s a creepy, lawless feel to their work as they probe American GI’s, shady local characters and even US military honchos. This is an unpleasant, royally fucked up film that isn’t easy to sit through or warm up to, but it’s brilliantly made and the sheer level of feverish intensity kept up by everyone involved has to be commended. Dafoe is reserved but lethal when necessary while Hines brings the humour as a guy who creates a flippant smokescreen to hide just how sharp he really is. Fred Ward plays their commanding officer of sorts terrifically but it’s Scott Glenn who lays down one absolute WTF of a performance as a psychopathic American colonel with some disgusting extracurricular habits, one hell of a nasty attitude and probably the single funniest and most unnerving death scene I’ve ever seen. Keep a lookout for Richard Brooks, David Alan Grier and Keith David in solid turns as GI’s who are immediately suspects because in a climate this volatile, everyone is. A fantastic film that fires on all cylinders, is exceptionally well made and very overlooked but be warned: you’ll want to take five or six showers after those credits roll.
Among the multitude of heavy, doom laden war films that Hollywood has produced, its always nice to find a more lighthearted one like Kelley’s Heroes, an old Clint Eastwood vehicle that plays like Ocean’s Eleven during the fog of WWII, a peppy heist flick that has always been an old favourite of mine and features a specifically chosen, idiosyncratic cast of perennial old school tough guys. Eastwood leads a ragtag platoon of renegade allies through torn up France, and as soon as they get wind of a potential stash of ample nazi bullion somewhere in the region, their course turns in favour of the biggest payday of their lives. That’s pretty much all there is in terms of plot, but with a group this charismatic there’s never any downtime or boredom. Telly Savalas fills in the second in command tough guy role, Don Rickles inhabits his uniform like a little gold hungry gremlin as their explosives expert, but it’s Donald Sutherland who really steals the show as Oddball, a hippie who lives up to his name and serves to personify the film’s reckless, cheerful anti-establishment persona. Eastwood has fun with the material, letting a knowing grin sneak through that stoic visage, it’s an awesome rebel leader role for him and he clearly has a blast. There’s battles, chases, shootouts and it all culminates with a spectacular showdown in a small French village, in whose bank the gold is stashed. Two German tiger tanks stand guard, Kelly & Co. slowly trundle through the village and up to the doorstep, an apprehensive silence fills the air and it’s the perfect calm before the storm setup for the warfare to follow, almost like something Sergio Leone dreamed up. This plays like The Dirty Dozen on a lazy Sunday, violent but not too gritty, fast paced but never too kinetic, funny but never outright parody, it’s one of the best in Eastwood’s canon and a solid war flick. I enjoyed the recurring song ‘Burning Bridges’ by Mike Curb Congregation, a breezy tune that serves to remind us that although this is set during wartime, we’re here to relax and have fun.
Savior is not an easy film to watch. At times it’s downright excruciating. But it’s also beautiful, and takes its subject matter very, very seriously, with not a cliche in sight for the entire duration, one of the reasons it’s my favourite war film. Dennis Quaid is mostly known for the charming, roguish way he has about him and that unmistakable mile wide grin, but here he drops all of that for a solemn, tortured turn that leaves your heart in a vice grip and your hands gripping the chair. He plays plays a military man forced to go mercenary in the French foreign legion after his wife (Nastassja Kinski) and young son are murdered in a radical terrorist bombing. His knee-jerk reaction is to walk down the street to the nearest mosque and shoot everyone in the place to death, so naturally he kind of has to lay low after. Fate finds him working freelance in the horrors of the Serbian Bosnian war circa mid nineties, and it’s there the film becomes a deep, challenging, distressing but necessary portrait of the kind of chaos, both physical and psychological, that war leaves in its wake. Tasked with transporting a Bosnian girl (Natasa Ninkovic) who was impregnated by a man on the other side of the conflict and has now been shunned, he’s faced with a shot at doing something kind to combat the tide of horror and perhaps find his retribution. In a time of such rampant, normalized genocide, he takes a stand for one mother and her child, trying to get them safely to the UN and find a little solace for himself while he’s at it. It’s an interesting character and Quaid plays him brilliantly but close to the chest. Early on we see him absentmindedly gun down a young boy herding goats, a harsh and seemingly inexplicable action. Later on he defends innocents against slaughter, but he’s not a hero so much as he is a malleable, realistic human being who makes choices just like anyone, and war sometimes brings out extremes in people that go both ways. This is unlike any other war film; there are no orchestral heroics, no ponderous meandering, no large scale epic battles to flash the budget. This is the frank, blunt force trauma vision of the genre, and Quaid is the perfect haunted, bitter hearted antihero to populate it and find the dormant humanity residing in himself even in a region that has so badly lost its way. Genocide is depicted later on in the film and it’s a fucking harrowing thing to witness, the perpetrators matter of factly bludgeoning villagers to death along a river, the victims relegated to a resolute shell shock, it’s nothing like usual melodrama employed in these scenes elsewhere. Stellan Skarsgard makes a quick and welcome appearance as his partner and fellow mercenary who himself has had just about all he can take of war, but it’s Quaid and Ninkovic’s show mostly and they’re captivating. The Bosnian war isn’t one you hear about often in films but it was one of the worst, and the fact that director Peter Antonijevic was a real life political prisoner during this time gives it all an eerily authentic edge. Not a film you hear about very often when discussing war in cinema, but one of the very best you’ll find.
There is a person I need to acknowledge here at the beginning, and that is my sister. More than once over these long years of obsessing cinema, she has been the one that has unearthed little gems of movies that I, either by ignorance or simple momentary blindness, have unwittingly passed by. Now I’m tough to recommend to. Meaning that if you are going to try and sell me on a film you think is great, I must state, I am not won over easily. Aside from my sister there has been only one other person that has recommended films to me that I (A) haven’t seen, and (B) were right in their prognostication – which is to say, they weren’t lying and the film was really grand.
And so it was on one of these rich but rare occasions that my sister presented me with a film I hadn’t seen, and that she foretold was right up my alley, as it were. The film was Albert Pyun’s Knights.
The video store we were in that day is long gone now. I was one of the last that still had a liberal mixture of the then new DVDs and the old, faithful, VHS tapes. Now from memory, which isn’t always accurate, my sister had watched the movie prior to this visit and, upon seeing me struggling to find something to watch, picked up the tape and gave me the rundown.
Then as now, the premise, in this man’s opinion, is most alluring.
A Western/Vampire/Cyborg/Kickboxing flick set in a dystopian future – what more can you ask for? Wait – there is more. It’s the screen debut of kickboxing champion Kathy Long, you get to see Kris Kristofferson (Heaven’s Gate/Fire Down Below) , or at least his stuntman, do Kung fu, be blown in half and keep fighting. There’s a deliciously villainous performance from Lance Henriksen (Aliens/The Quick and the Dead), wonderfully unintentionally funny moments with Pyun’s Red Skull, Scott Paulin (The Right Stuff). This film was touted to be a sequel to Pyun’s other post-apocalyptic success CYBORG and even stars it’s villain in the person of Vincent Klyn (Point Break) – the hits just keep on coming.
To summarize, the story follows the journey of an orphan girl named Nea, growing up in a world where 1000 years of nuclear war has knocked society back to the stone age – and then come those Vampire Cyborgs. Feeding off the blood of the living and seeking to become ‘real boys’, they follow the plans handed down from the Master Builder. They also command human soldiers who have betrayed (the scene in which this plot point is tackled has a sweet little cameo from Tim ‘Jack Deth’ Thomerson) their race and help the Cyborgs harvest blood.
Into the chaos comes Gabriel (Kristofferson), a Cyborg terminator if you will, sent to end the brutal reign of his kin. He’s in town with a year to kill, literally, and to destroy the likes of Job (Henriksen), Simon (Paulin) and David (My Guest) (The Cyborgian Wild Bunch) with the aid of some rusty machetes and devastating martial arts manoeuvres like the Mont Blanc offensive along with the Crimean and Valhalla attacks.
Having been charged to take out the City of Taos and gather the blood of 10,000 souls to make them all powerful, the evil cyborgs might have pulled it off to if it weren’t for Kathy and Kris. Our heroes ultimately save the day and we are left with, what feels like, the beautiful promise of more to come (sequel). Sadly it never did. And though Nea finds her long lost brother who is captured by the elusive Master Builder, who we are then told via Nea’s voice-over that they chase across time and space till they catch up and kick some ass in Cyborg City – the movie is over, and all I want to do is watch it again.
I love the movies of Albert Pyun. From the seminal The Sword and the Sorcerer to his Captain America to Cyborg and Nemesis, Pyun is a filmmaker of such passion and diversity in his choices that you can only sit and let your mind dance in the splendor of his visions. But – Knights, I have to say is my favorite. To that end I have long wanted to do a little write-up on it and thought it a perfect fit for my ‘Remembering’ series here for PTS.
As always I have a guest who was a part of the film, and in the case of Knights it is martial arts action legend Gary Daniels who is here to share is tales from days of old – when Pyun’s Knights were bold . . .
Ladies and Gentlemen . . . Gary Daniels
KH: Firstly Gary, thank you for giving us your time, you’re a busy man and we appreciate it?
GD: Cheers Kent. Knights happened 26 years ago so I haven’t thought about it for a long time. But since you brought it up, little memories are coming back.
KH: How did the role in Knights come to you?
GD: Knights came very early in my career, I had just arrived in LA, signed with my first manager, Hiley Elkins (who represented James Coburn and Lou Gossett Jnr). Hiley got me an interview with Albert Pyun for a role which I think was originally written for a woman. I didn’t have to audition, just had a chat with Albert and fortunately I got the role.
KH: The locations used gave the film grand scope – what were they like to film in?
GD: Yes we shot in Moab, Utah. It was a small town with only one main road, kind of isolated but the surrounding countryside was beautiful and had some amazing landscapes that really enhanced the movie. Albert always had a very artistic eye and a clear vision for his films.
KH: You’ve played a diverse group of characters in your career – but what was it like playing a vampire/cyborg?
GD: Well as i mentioned this film came very early in my career so it was kind of a blessing for me to play a cyborg that didn’t have such a wide range of emotions, lol. Basically he was a robot that could fight. It was a good film for me to get my feet wet working on location with some great people and beginning to learn my trade.
KH: This film for me had echoes of another post-apocalyptic film you did; Fist of the North Star. Do you think there are parallels?
GD: For me personally I do not see any parallels between ‘Knights’ and ‘Fist of the North Star’. In FOTNS I was the lead so it was a much more demanding job and there was more pressure on me to carry the film. Also with FOTNS there was a source material that we needed to honor. ‘Knights’ was shot on location and 99% of FOTNS was shot on a sound stage. As a lead actor your relationship with the director and fight choreographer is much more in depth than when you are playing a lesser role, so I actually learnt a lot more from the FOTNS experience.
KH: As with Fist, on Knights you worked alongside some big names like Kris Kristofferson, Lance Henriksen – not forgetting five time world champion Kathy Long?
GD: Yes we had some great actors. Kathy and I got along great and would go to the gym together to work out, she was a very tough lady but also a very sincere person. On days off we would go on long hikes exploring the beautiful surrounding areas. At weekends the cast and crew would get together for barbecues and Kris Kristofferson would play guitar and sing so we were all treated to a private concert. My room in the honey wagon (changing room/trailer) was connected to Lance Henriksen’s so we would slide back the dividing wall and chat for hours. He was such a nice guy and gave me loads of advice. I was about to go and shoot ‘City Hunter’ with Jackie Chan so he gave me loads of advice on playing a villain. He had just received an offer to reprise his role as the android Bishop in the ‘Aliens’ sequel so he was in a good place at that time. As well as these great actors it was on ‘Knights that i got to meet and work with Burton Richardson who was the fight choreographer, a good guy and a talented, knowledgeable martial artist – also the stunt coordinator Bobby Brown whom I have been fortunate enough to work with several times since. He specializes in high falls and was once a high diver so can add tumbling to his falls, an incredibly talented man.
KH: Knights has gone on to become one of Albert Pyun’s more notable works among many in his prolific career, what it like working with him?
GD: Albert Pyun is one of the nicest, most easy going directors I have ever worked with, he has that Hawaiian island laid back attitude. I personally owed him a huge debt of gratitude as when I was on my way to Moab my plane had stopped for a layover in Salt Lake City and I was paged by the airport PA system. My manager was calling to say that Golden Harvest had called and wanted me in work on ‘City Hunter’ with Jackie Chan but they needed me in Tokyo to board the ship we shot on at a date where I was still scheduled to be in Moab on ‘Knights’. When I arrived in Moab I told Albert about the call and the situation and knowing who Jackie was he actually graciously rearranged the shooting schedule so I could finish my work on ‘Knights’ in time for me to get to Tokyo before the ship/cruise liner left. Not many directors would do that for a new actor so I will be eternally grateful to Albert for his kindness.
KH: Can you share with us any interesting tales from the shoot?
GD: One story from that shoot I remember other than the one above was . . . One day Kathy and I were driving to set and she accidentally ran over a rattlesnake in the road, a pretty big one I might add. Kathy was driving and she stopped the car, we looked back and saw the snake writhing around in the road. Kathy got out the car, walked back to the snake, picked it up and carried it to the side of the road so no other cars would hit it. That is the kind lady she is.
KH: What do you think are the ingredients for a cult classic?
GD: I don’t think that when you are making a film that you are planning on making a ‘cult classic’, it is really up to the audience and the fans that make that a reality. While shooting I think everyone just does the best work they can but some films just touch a nerve with certain audiences. They are not always the biggest budgets with the biggest stars but usually there is something original and unique that appeals to people.
KH: Before we finish, have you the desire to return to the post-apocalyptic actioner if gifted the opportunity?
GD: I would happily return to the post-apocalyptic genre, as always decisions are mostly based on the script and the character I am offered (and sometimes the money, lol). I was offered a lot of films early in my career that I would love to revisit as after almost 30 years in this business I feel I am a much more seasoned actor now and I have a lot more life experience to bring to my roles. The post-apocalyptic genre allows such a great scope for creativity as the future is unwritten so the only limit is your imagination.
Big thanks again to my Guest, the awesome Mr. Daniels for his time. Please do, however you can, seek out Knights – you won’t be disappointed I promise. And if you are not familiar with the cinema of Albert Pyun (https://www.albertpyun.net/), there’s no time like the present to start checking out his movies. The glorious thing is, despite struggling in a battle against dementia, Albert continues to keep his cameras rolling. C’mon! That’s gotta inspire.
Gary Danielshas performed in over 70 films since his start as an extra in an episode of the 1980s television series Miami Vice. He is best known for playing Kenshiro in the live-action version of Fist of the North Star. He is also known for his roles in the Jackie Chan film City Hunter, and as Bryan Fury in the 2009 live-action film Tekken, based upon the popular fighting game series. He was also seen in the Sylvester Stallone film The Expendables as Lawrence “The Brit” Sparks, an ally of the villain James Munroe.
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It takes more effort to convincingly tell a story about reconciliation than it does one about revenge, as I found with The Railway Man, a gripping study of post traumatic stress disorder, the horrors of war and the scars they burn into people, often having lasting effects years later. Colin Firth plays real life WWII veteran Eric, who was captured by the Japanese along with his regiment and held as prisoner of war for some years in a hellish POW camp. His fixation and uncanny knowledge of railway systems all over the world unfortunately is misunderstood by the Japanese, resulting in brutal torture and interrogation which goes on for months, and when the war is over and they are released, turns him into a broken, haunted man. He eventually meets, falls in love with and marries Patti (Nicole Kidman), but the time spent in that camp has left wounds that seemingly will never heal, and he finds it hard to cope. His friend and fellow veteran Finley (Stellan Skarsgard) complicates matters when he discovers that one of the Japanese officials responsible for his treatment is still out there somewhere, and can be located. It’s a fascinating situation, for the man (Hiroyuki Sanada, full of haunting complexity) has changed and bears scars of his own in ways that Eric could not imagine before coming face to face with him. Their meeting and correspondence raised many questions about the nature of war and what it brings out in a person versus how time changes ones feelings, perhaps heals some wounds and shifts perspectives greatly. Director Jonathan Teplitzky tackles the story in a straightforward, traditionalist manner, letting the emotional beats speak for themselves, keeping the camera and editing mellow to allow the actors to organically perform. Firth is a brilliant actor who too often get me stuck in syrupy roles, he shines here especially well when he’s faced with the darkness of memory and we see exactly that reflected in his eyes. Sanada has the toughest role but lands it squarely, never cloying or reaching for emotional straws but rather letting the anguish build to a tipping point and than breaking down naturally in what has to be the film’s best, most honestly realistic scene. Kidman radiates compassion and is around for less of the story but still says a lot with her screen time and does excellent work. Kind of an under seen gem, this floated by off the radar back in 2014 but it’s rich, well told drama with three brave, finely tuned central performances.
There’s a scene in Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill 2 where Michael Madsen’s Budd lays down the sword rhetoric: “If you’re gonna compared a sword made by Hattori Hanzo, you compare it to every other sword ever made, that wasn’t made by Hattori Hanzo.” I’d like to augment that slightly in the case of Terrence Malick’s The Thin Red Line and say, “If you’re gonna compare The Thin Red Line, you compare it to every other war movie ever made that *isn’t* The Thin Red Line.” That’s not to say its better than all the rest or on any kind of quality pedestal, it’s just simply unlike every other war film out there, and that differentiation makes it an incredibly special picture. Why, you ask? Because it takes a ponderous, meditative approach to a very hectic horrific period in history, and takes the time to explore the effects of conflict on both humanity and nature, as well as how all those forces go hand in hand. What other war film does that? Malick uses a poets eye and a lyricist’s approach to show the Guadalcanal siege, a horrific battle in which lives were lost on both sides and the countryside ravaged by the fires of war. To say that this film is an ensemble piece would be an understatement; practically all of Hollywood and their mother have parts in this, from the front and centre players right down to cameos and even a few appearances that never made it into the final cut (which I’m still bitter about). The two central performances come from Jim Caviesel and Sean Penn as Pvt. Welsh and Sgt. Witt. Welsh is a compassionate, thoughtful man who seems primally uncomfortable in a soldiers uniform, and shirks the materialistic horror and industrialist grind of war to seek something more esoteric, a reason for being amongst the horror. Witt is a hard, cold man who sees no spiritual light at the end of the tunnel and does his job with grim resolve, scarcely pausing to contemplate anything but the next plan of action. These two are archetypes, different forces that play in each of us and, variations of which, are how we deal with something as incomparable as a world war. Around them swirl an endless sea of famous faces and other characters doing the best they can in the chaos, or simply getting lost in it. Nick Nolte as a gloomy Colonel displays fire and brimstone externally, but his inner monologue (a constant with Malick) shows us a roiling torment. A captain under his command (Elias Koteas) has an emotional crisis and disobeys orders to send his men to their death when thunderously pressured by Nolte. Koteas vividly shows us the heartbreak and confusion of a man who is ready to break, and gives arguably the best performance of the film. Woody Harrelson accidentally blows a chunk of his ass off with a grenade, John Cusack climbs the military rank with his tactics, John Savage wanders around in a daze as a sadly shell shocked soldier, Ben Chaplin pines for his lost love (Miranda Otto) and the jaw dropping supporting cast includes (deep breath now) Jared Leto, Nick Stahl, Tim Blake Nelson, Thomas Jane, Dash Mihok, Michael Mcgrady, John C. Reilly, Adrien Brody, Mark Boone Jr, Don Harvey, Arie Verveen, Donal Logue, John Travolta and a brief George Clooney. There’s a whole bunch who were inexplicably cut from scenes too including Bill Pullman, Gary Oldman and Mickey Rourke. Rourke’s scene can be found, in pieces, on YouTube and it’s worth a search to see him play a haunted sniper. Hans Zimmer doles out musical genius as usual, with a mournfully angelic score that laments the process of war, particularly in scenes where Caviesel connects with the natives in the region, as well as a soul shattering ambush on the Japanese encampment that is not a sequence that ten year old Nate has been able to forget since I saw it and the hairs on my neck stood up. This is a diversion from most war films; Malick always has a dreamy filter over every story he weaves: exposition is scant, atmosphere matters above all else and the forces of music and visual direction almost always supersede dialogue, excepting inner thoughts from the characters. If you take that very specific yet loose and ethereal aesthetic and plug it into the machinations of a war picture, the result is as disturbing as it is breathtakingly beautiful, because you are seeing these events through a lens not usually brandished in the genre, and the consequences of war seem somehow more urgent and cataclysmic. Malick knows this, and keeps that tempo up for the entire near three hour runtime, giving us nothing short of a classic.