Welcome back, Frank.

Well, here we are again, the third screen rendition of Marvel Comics’ Batman / Judge Dredd hybrid.

The first version, back in 1989 and featuring Dolph Lundgren, took the elements of the comic that fitted into the eighties action movie format (as well as his limited acting range) and ejected the rest. Taken in the context of the market-place into which it was released, it wasn’t a bad film, just dull and unambitious. Subsequently, it has been identified as one of the worst films of the eighties, but those of us who are old and ornery enough to have been cinema-goers during the latter half of The Decade That Irony Forgot know all-too-well that Worst Film of the Decade was a hotly contested category.

So, we fast-forward to 2004 and the second film version of The Punisher. This, to my mind, is the version which really should hold its head in shame. A huge budget, an A-list bad-guy (in the form of John Travolta), a writer/director (Jonathan Hensleigh) who had had his hands in Die Hard With A Vengeance (1995) then Armageddon (1998), all combined with the best ever Punisher comic books as its source material (the Welcome Back, Frank story arc written by Garth Ennis and drawn by his old sparring-partner Steve Dillon) … how could it possibly go wrong? Well, casting a shiny lump of mahogany like Thomas Jane as your protagonist was a good start.

By refusing to learn the lessons of the earlier film, the dismal second Punisher movie’s failure suggested that the character would be forever a lost opportunity. But, somehow, Avi Arad, over at Marvel, managed to claw together enough money to have another stab and thus we have Punisher: War Zone. Initially intended as a sequel to the 2004 abomination, this film actually took a different direction when Jane tragically failed to show interest in reprising the role (presumably he had a pressing appointment at the French Polishers). So, whilst it, thankfully, doesn’t ‘re-boot’ and do the origin yet again, it is a fresh start for the concept, as you’ll know if you were one of the three people and a dog who saw it during its brief cinema release. I’m sure, however, many more people will find the film in its natural habitat – at home, on disc.

The film makes its intentions clear with its opening scene, giving Frank a satisfyingly violent entrance, hanging upside-down from a rotating chandelier with two machine-pistols taking out a room-full of Mafiosi. The explosive gore will, of course, be ‘uncut’ and ‘extreme’ and ‘extended’ by the time the film hits the home market, but it’s plenty gruesome in this incarnation, thank-you very-much. I must confess I find it interesting that such a violent rendition of such an unashamedly masculine character is brought to life by a female director (Lexi Alexander) and producer (The Terminator and Aliens’ Gale Anne Hurd). Maybe we should allow more women to make movies for men … might be quite therapeutic for all concerned.

Anyway, like Frank Castle himself, Ray Stevenson may appear to have come from nowhere, since his CV was replete with rent-a-heavy roles on British TV before he attracted the attention of Hollywood in the mini-series Rome (2005); yet, it is to his credit that, when he’s not throwing punches and pulling triggers, he manages to inject some humanity into his one-dimensional character, especially impressive since, for the first half-hour, he doesn’t get any dialogue. Over-all, he does very well with a very limited character, although his rather lumpen fight-scenes do make you long for the athleticism and artistry of Jason Statham. None-the-less, I hope he gets the breaks to do some interesting work in future.

The bad-guy this time round is Jigsaw, a character who, like Castle himself, began as a throwaway villain in Spider-Man comics back in the seventies. It’s a shame that Marvel continues with its long-standing and deeply-invidious policy of denying credit where it’s due; so Gerry Conway and Ross Andru, who created the character, do not receive screen-credit for their work.

Although this film is quite deliberately a throwback to those eighties actioners which gave birth to the first Punisher, it has one eye firmly on the contemporary market; emphasising Castle’s obvious similarities to The Dark Knight. Wentworth Asylum stands in for Arkham and Jigsaw stands in for Two-Face and, well, every other nutcase in the Gotham phonebook. Jigsaw’s story, with his patchwork face, cannibal brother and bumbling henchmen is good old-fashioned comic-book pastiche whilst Frank’s story, which deals with his sense of guilt over killing an innocent FBI agent, is Sunday-morning serious. These two narratives play at odds with each other. They don’t belong in the same film but then, it’s worth noting, they are taken from opposite ends of a thirty-year Punisher continuity.

The film demonstrates its old-style four-colour-comic roots through the splashes of vivid purples, reds and blues you’ll see in the background, although these also gave rise to memories of Dick Tracy (1990), whilst other elements reminded me irresistibly of Darkman (also 1990), The Warriors (1979) and even Commando (1985)

Despite its many short-comings, Punisher: War Zone manages to be enjoyable, amusingly gory and true to the spirit of the character we know from the page. It doesn’t have an original shell in its magazine mind, but it’s put together with sufficient joie de morte that this actually becomes part of the fun.
Directed by: Lexi Alexander
Written by: Nick Santoro, Art Marcum, Matt Holloway (but not Gerry Conway nor Garth Ennis in any way)
Starring: Ray Stevenson, Dominic West, Dash Mihok, Julie Benz
Cert: 18
Dur: 103 mins
image © Lionsgate Films



Here, on the eve of its Academy Award shoot-out with Benjamin Button, I feel I ought to put down my thoughts on Slumdog Millionaire the, if you will, Oscar underdog.

The first thing that is worth noting is that the ad campaigns which have touted this as “the feel-good film of the year” are shamelessly failing to prepare you for the shocking cruelty and tragedy you will see in the film’s first half. If you walk in expecting this to be another Millions (2004), you're in for a steep learning-curve but, by the same token, if you go in expecting something as stark and edgy as Trainspotting (1996) you, again, will be surprised because Slumdog Millionaire manages to bridge the apparent chasm between both those films. It isn't scared of staring into the abyss of human weakness, like Trainspotting did but, like Millions, it also never loses its faith in the tenacity and raw humanity of children.

In typical style, director Danny Boyle doesn’t make things easy for himself as he weaves together no fewer than three narrative strands, cutting backwards and forwards between them in a way that could, in lazier hands, be very confusing.

The three stories are: The childhood of our hero, Jamal (Ayush Mahesh Khedekar / Tanay Chheda), an infant scavenging on the mountainous rubbish tips of the city then known as Bombay. Fast forward about fifteen years to modern-day Mumbai and the second strand, where we have the grown Jamal (Dev Patel) sitting in the hot-seat in Who Wants To Be A Millionaire. The third strand then takes place during the night after the Millionaire recording, where Jamal is being tortured by the police because they think he has somehow cheated on the show.

The way these three threads are drawn together, informing and supporting each other throughout the film, making a ferociously complex structure clear, dramatic and deeply moving, is an admirable example of good construction, a job of work achieved initially by Simon Beaufoy’s unflinching script and then by Boyle and his editor, Chris Dickens, who has rightly been nominated for one of the film's Oscars.

The game-show is the key to this structure as every question Jamal is asked sparks off a memory flashback to a key incident in his life, which tells us his story and tells him the answer. This framing technique really is a thing of beauty and lifts this film far above the mere travelogue/life story the film could have been. In my (not especially) humble opinion, it is, like the editing, entirely worthy of the Oscar nomination it received and, if Beaufoy doesn’t take the statue home, he can consider himself robbed!

I can’t sing the praises of the script highly enough, but I think I’ve made my point, so I’ll move on.

The flashback scenes show us a life that we, in The West, cannot easily (or willingly) imagine existing in our modern world. If this film does nothing else, it shines a light into the dark and ignored corners of the world that we, in our own comfortable, privileged little corner, prefer not to think about but, rather than dogmatically pounding us about the head with the injustice of it all, Boyle’s style and pace gives these scenes a vibrancy and aesthetic which is almost ecstatic. Saturated in turmeric yellows and cayenne reds, Slumdog is very (one suspects, deliberately) reminiscent of Cidade de Deus / City of God (2002), since that film deals with a very similar world of corrugated shacks, rank squalor and casual brutality.

The performances of the children in these heart-breaking early scenes are a revelation. One is lost in awe of them and fear for them as we see their big, trusting eyes looking out at a world where they are completely alone and where a human life has no value whatsoever. Quite how Boyle managed to get such consistent and convincing acting from pre-school children, who don’t speak English (when he, presumably, doesn’t speak Hindi), is just one of the many secret treasures buried in this film. In fairly short-order, we see these children orphaned, then gathered up by the Fagin-like crime-lords who operate gangs of beggars. But, far from the avuncular image we may have in our minds of Ron Moody or, now, Rowan Atkinson, these loathsome parasites deliberately maim the children, because this elicits greater sympathy from the tourists, and therefore more money.

Jamal and his brother, Salim (Azharuddin Mohammed Ismail / Ashutosh Lobo Gajiwala), make their escape, unscathed, and begin fending for themselves, surviving on their considerable wits. In this, the film also reminds me of the harrowing anime Hotaru no Haka / Grave of the Fireflies (1988) but, here, the children’s stoicism in the face of unremitting brutality stops the film from tipping over into maudlin sentimentality or high tragedy. One wonders if this would be the case if an American director had made it.

At one point, after we’ve been lulled into a deceptive sense of security by watching the boys, now about ten or twelve years old and fluent in English, enjoying themselves by harmlessly hoodwinking the cow-eyed American tourists flocking round the Taj Mahal; Jamal is caught by an Indian taxi-driver and savagely beaten in front of the tourists. Picking himself up, he wipes the blood from his face, turns to the Americans and informs them: “You wanted to see the real India, well, here it is!”

These early scenes very much reflect the way that a lot of Western eyes (and all Western films that I can think of) see India, as a vast, incomprehensible and frightening beast; but, as the boys travel from infanthood through their teens to eventual adulthood, so the film travels in style and content from this out-dated Westernised image to a more contemporary, better-informed, more Eastern perspective.

This is where the casting of Anil Kapoor as the game-show question-master, Prem Kumar, is a master-stroke. His performance will be seen very differently by the two audiences this film will attract – the Western and the Eastern. For us in The West we see him as merely an increasingly arrogant, sarcastic and conniving egotist, but for those familiar with his Bollywood work, this performance will be all the braver and more powerful, rich with the echoes of Amitabh Bachach, Kapoor’s Bollywood contemporary, who used to host the real Indian Millionaire show, Kaun Banega Crorepati and who is referred to early on in the film in the notorious toilet scene.

He and the show he hosts and the vision of Mumbai it represents, demonstrate how far India has come even in Jamal’s short life-time. As an adult, he works in a call centre and, in one significant moment, he stands with his brother, dozens of floors up in an unfinished sky-scraper, looking down at the other buildings rising from the land which had, a few short years before, been the rubbish-tip of their birth. As the country has crawled out of The Dark Ages into the light and prosperity of Modernity, so the innocence of Jamal and Salim falls away, but not the love that runs just beneath the surface of this film, finally to break through in these latter scenes.

The transformation from Western perspective to Eastern continues, with the film adopting more and more Bollywood motifs. As the colour palette shifts from the warm rural colours to colder urban greys and blues – and white – the film becomes a love-conquers-all tale, where the brothers war over the heart and soul of the girl, Latika (Rubiana Ali / Tanvi Ganesh Lonkar / Freida Pinto), who had stolen Jamal’s heart when he was too young to know he even had one. Mix in some obvious Gangster Movie tropes, involving Salim transforming into a Tony Montana clone, and you have all the ingredients you need for a traditional Indian melodrama.

These latter scenes, shot through with the miasma of textures, colours and perspectives that we have come to expect from Boyle and his Cinematographer, Anthony Dod Mantle, are designed, I feel, to show Hollywood, that it doesn’t own the copyright on the big, universal themes like love, loyalty and trust which drive we poor, fragile human beings, even in moments of extremis.

The conclusion of Slumdog is pure schmaltz, with an explosion of joy, movement and music that finally, stamps the Bollywood hallmark on the film so you can emerge from the cinema and back into your life with a grin and a skip in your step and only, after, will the memories of those eye-opening early scenes leak through, serving to make the joyous achievement of the film’s dénouement all the more emotional, and all the more impressive.

So, composure regained, do I think this film will win the ten Oscars for which it has been nominated? The short answer is … no. I don't think it'll get the Best Film award, or Doyle the Best Director because, as I mentioned earlier, Slumdog Millionaire eschews sentimentality until the very end, also because it is set in an almost completely alien world and, ultimately, because it has no big name (American) stars. I think Slumdog should and will win some significant statues for its craft and technical virtuosity but, if it comes down to a straight decision between this film and the no-less impressive Benjamin Button, I suspect the latter will win the big categories because it is a more conventional, more American tale, and history suggests that American Academy members favour American stories.

Still, as I type this, I'll know for sure in about twenty-four hours.

If Slumdog does lose the big statues to Benjamin, I feel this would still be an honourable result. I am convinced that Slumdog will take home the less-prestigious-but-no-less-important behind-the-scenes awards and that would, I feel, be the best of both worlds: East and West.
And so, as the slumdog immigrant workers in their high-vis jackets are pushing brooms down the wrinkled, heel-scuffed red carpets and the millionaires are heading-home after the high-vis parties in the hotels and night-clubs all across town ... The 81st Academy Awards are now about twelve hours in the past and, it turns out, I was wrong. I underestimated the Academy members. This wasn't a protective, patriotic Awards at all. I confess I'm surprised that Benjamin Button ONLY won for its make-up and effects (and art direction) ... But not as surprised as I am that Mickey Rourke won't be taking a statue back home to his Chihuahuas. Just goes to show ... even after twenty-five years of watching Oscars, I still can't tell which way things'll go. Sometimes the Should Wins and the Will Wins are the same thing ... and that's when cinema wins!
Directed by: Danny Boyle
Written by: Simon Beaufoy
Starring: Dev Patel, Madhur Mittal, Freida Pinto, Anil Kapoor
Dur: 120 mins
Cert: 15
image © Celador Films / Film Four



The Film:

Not so long ago, if a British film was to have any audience at all, it had to be based on some unread literary classic and feature Helena Bonham-Carter in a bustle. It had to sweat heritage and breathe the foetid air of worthiness. Nowadays, thankfully, such films are consigned to memory and reduced to being watched by the characters in a cheeky little gangster movie. RocknRolla is very definitely not about the way Britain used to be … it’s about the way Britain could (and maybe should) be, right now.

The opening monologue tells us that “London is on the rise” and demonstrates this with shots of the glass sepulchres which have sprung-up around Thatcher’s Isle of Dogs pyramid. This will serve to remind anyone as long in the tooth as myself of The Long Good Friday (1980) with its tale of the underworld’s attempts to break through into the daylight of legitimacy. So, we know from the get-go that we’re in familiar Guy Ritchie territory.

Like the characters he loves and the city in which he houses them, Ritchie’s films are all about flash, shiny exteriors hiding dark, violent interiors, seen from a non-judgemental, humorous perspective and all shot through with a deceptive intelligence.

Whether Tarantino’s coiled-spring breakthrough film, Pulp Fiction (1994) or Danny Boyle’s hallucinogenic, energetic Trainspotting (1996) gave Ritchie the inspiration he needed, or merely the permission, to unleash his first full-length feature, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels (1998) on an unsuspecting world, is a moot point. His films still have a vibrant aesthetic, filled with crowds of primary-colour characters whose stories thread in and around each other like coils of live wire. One becomes lost in admiration for the way complexity upon complexity is woven into the fabric of the film through the kind of editing which I have (especially with the much under-valued Revolver, 2005) held up as a master-class in the form. Very few films are as well cut as a Ritchie film.

Visually, everything is shot through with metallic hues, faces shine like chrome, to reflect the grandeur of modern architecture around them, or burnished brass in the more modest flea-pits and dives, turning to verdigris green as the story’s tone turns sour. What a boon to the visionary director digital colour-grading has become, although I suspect it will be the cliché that, in years to come, identifies films as being “early twenty-first century” in the way that mullets and padded-shoulders mark-out films of the eighties.

So, to the story. Lenny (Tom Wilkinson) is the local kingpin with delusions of gentrification. He is a fixer; he can make new business opportunities happen and all he expects is his unfair cut. With this is mind, he is getting involved in a partnership with new Russian money, in the person of property developer, Uri (Karel Roden).

Around Lenny scuttle the small-time thieves, drug-pushers and general low-lives who wash around the shores of London’s East End, rather like the cray-fish swarm around the shores of the great river Thames. One such motley crew is the self-styled ‘Wild Bunch’, made up of characters like One-Two (Gerard Butler) and Handsome Bob (Tom Hardy). If you only know Butler from his loincloth-wearing “We Arr Sparrrr-tarrrrr” days then you’re in for a bit of a treat. Not least because, it turns out, he’s a dab hand at humour.

Throw into the mix the maguffin of a valuable ‘lucky’ painting we never get to see (rather like the contents of Travolta’s briefcase in Pulp Fiction) which Lenny’s crack-head rock-star son, Johnny Quid (Toby Kebbell) steals, a deceptive sub-plot about an informer and Mark Strong’s typically-majestic performance as Lenny’s enforcer, Archie and you have all the ingredients in place for a movie rollercoaster (a RocknRollacoaster, I suppose).

Of course, the story, however labyrinthine, is all-but irrelevant, it's the pretext to get these characters into trouble so we can watch them figure-out how to escape. Ritchie's frantic camera-work is no-less exotic than we have come to expect but, if anything, he has learned to trust his actors enough to not let his camera-play get in the way of their performances. The joy of this film is in the interplay of the characters and in the pleasure of a well-turned line of dialogue. The funniest and most surprising moments are those which were, I suspect, the most fun to act: Between One-Two and his best mate Bob, before the latter is due to go down for five years.

Ritchie’s hyperreal take on the East End is as fully-realised an alternate reality as that which Dickens created back in the 1830s. Unlike Dickens, Ritchie has no ambitions to ennoble his world by lifting it out of the gutter; he likes it just the way it is, his characters are in need of no imposed salvation, they love the grotty, chaotic world in which they choose to live, and they love each other just as much. There is a modern take on old-fashioned bonhomie and an honour among Ritchie’s thieves. In this sense, his films also have vague resonances of golden-age Ealing satires like The Lavender Hill Mob (1951) and The Ladykillers (1955) or Peter Sellers’ Two-Way Stretch (1960).

The heist and resultant chase they get themselves involved in would not look out of place in any big-budget American action movie, save for the vein of ironic humour which runs through it, because the Americans seem to like their action scenes straight-up. Of course, it’s worth mentioning that Ritchie, despite his tabloid profile, has clearly chosen not to go the lucrative Hollywood-Hack-For-Hire route like, say, Paul Anderson and Danny Cannon before him, but seems determined to stick to his guns. Literally. We’ll see if this remains true for his take on Sherlock Holmes.

Although it probably won’t trouble any awards nights (which is a shame, given the sophistication of the lighting, photography and editing), RocknRolla is one of the brightest, paciest, most erudite and all-round enjoyable films of last year. It’s British and it’s proud.

The Disc:

The extras on the Blu-Ray I watched seem to be the same as on the DVD. We begin with a behind-the-scenes documentary which is, inevitably, more about Ritchie and London than it is about the film. In interview, now that he doesn’t speak Mockney, Ritchie comes across rather like a BBC correspondent, seriously and thoughtfully explaining the present situation in London and articulating its importance to him at this time. I suppose this travelogue will be of interest to the Americans, but for we Brits who are bored of hearing Lahndahnahs congratulating themselves, it isn’t really news.

The really special extra, is the audio commentary. Some commentaries are just people sucking up to the over-paid prima-donnas they are contractually obligated to have endless regard for. Thankfully, this isn’t the case here. Make time to watch the film with the commentary, at least once, you’ll be glad you did.

Written and Directed by: Guy Ritchie
Starring: Gerard Butler, Tom Wilkinson, Mark Strong, Tom Hardy, Toby Kebbell, Karel Roden, Thandie Newton

Dur: 114 mins

Cert: 15


image © Warner Home Video




Well, this one has certainly rushed to our screens. Originally finished in 2007, the film was shown at various conventions, was then ‘beefed up’ in re-shoots in 2008 and now, finally, hurtles onto our screens in 2009. The plan is for it to be released at the cinema in the UK the same week it escapes onto DVD and Blu-Ray in The States. Panic not though, it’ll be on disc here too in less than a month. This is not dissimilar to the release pattern which Bubba Ho-Tep (my personal favourite Campbell film) received. I had bought several friends copies of the region 1 DVD and had worn my Ho-Tep tee for the best part of a year around the office, before people started to comment on it – because that’s how long it took the film to arrive here in the UK. We’ll see if My Name Is Bruce has the same eventual impact.

As a long-time reader of comics, I was interested to see that this film was made by a spin-off of Dark Horse Comics, and written by long-time Dark Horse scribe Mark Verheiden (he who helped come up with the Alien Versus Predator comics some twenty-odd years ago and, by the way, did it far better then than the films do it now). Although, I suspect, Bruce Campbell had more than a word or two of involvement in the drafting of this film since it is, after all, about him.

If you've so-much-as glanced through his autobiography, If Chins Could Kill (to which this film is a sort-of companion) you'll appreciate his wry, self-deprecating sense of humour. Anyone who has seen the Evil Dead films (new DVD editions of which seem to be released weekly) or his legendary turn in the afore-mentioned Bubba Ho-Tep, will know that he isn’t remotely frightened of making a fool of himself. Therefore, there was never any danger that this film would be a vanity project.

Instead, what it is is a deliberately lame, deeply affectionate throw-back to the truly awful straight-to-video horror films of the 1980s, where Campbell first made his name and paid his rent, before CGI monsters and post-modern irony gave such films some measure of legitimacy. Many of the classic 80s tropes are here: the blue lightning, the child whose name ends in ‘y’ (Skippy, in this case) and the plot which is actually a lift from the 1950s.

To say that BC is the only professional actor here is to over-estimate his co-stars’ abilities. He would appear to be the only actor of any calibre. But that is part of the film’s appeal. Judging from the lighting, the framing, the entire mise-en-scene (look it up) you’d think the last 25 years of film making just hadn’t happened. But that really isn’t a problem. It means the film isn’t a victim to all those jump-cut, flash-fame, out-of-focus fashion accessories which have to adorn horror-films these days. It’s a simpler, more traditional piece of work which will doubtless delight the hoards of Campbellites (Campbellonians? Campbellese?) whilst leaving civilians entirely cold.

What we have here is a ‘what if’ Bruce Campbell; a fake shemp version of the Bruce Campbell we know and love (or are completely indifferent to, I suppose), a Bruce Campbell who doesn’t possess the disarming sense of humour, who doesn’t get lucrative bit-part roles in the Spider-Man movies directed by his best mate, who sports an awful line in Hawaiian shirts and, therefore, doesn’t have the self-respect of a dog. He lives in a beaten-up trailer, he drowns his considerable sorrows in Shemp’s Old Tyme whisky and he rages at the world. This Campbell is, to put none-too-fine a point on it, a real schmuck.

The story, if one can call it that, begins when Campbell’s number one fan, Jeff, arrives at his trailer door. Jeff’s hick-home-town of Goldlick is being terrorised by a resurrected Chinese spirit called Guan-di (oh, that old chestnut) so Jeff, who’s not the brightest button (not that this Campbell is any Nobel laureate either) kidnaps Campbell and takes him home so he can save the town, population 339 and falling … You see, he thinks that his hero is a real hero. Fortunately, the ego-maniac Campbell convinces himself that this is all a big set-up for his birthday, so plays along cheerfully.

Finally, after a leisurely and fairly uninvolving first act, the story gets going with a few comedy death-scenes (most notably the omni-present Ted Raimi’s) and plenty of cracking Campbell put-downs. But, even here, the film never manages to emerge from the shadow of Bubba Ho-Tep, not that I’m convinced it’s really trying to.

Bruce Campbell is always worth the effort, but here his talents as an actor are not brilliantly showcased by his lesser skills as a director. Ultimately, the film is little more than an amusing diversion, which never quite manages to be as charming as it thinks it is, since it is focussed very clearly on appealing only to those who already know and love Campbell’s oeuvre. The film is peppered (though not full-to-over-flowing) with references that the fans will love but, oddly, My Name Is Bruce’s most obvious influence, reflected first in its use of townsfolk-singers as a sort of Greek chorus, is Russ Meyer.

The supreme irony, then, is that this film, which is so clearly designed to go straight-to-video, is getting a theatrical release where it will be unleashed on an unsuspecting and ill-prepared mainstream audience. One could look upon that as professional suicide but, as Campbell himself would say, “It’s only suicide if I die!”
You’ll find more info about this movie and its eccentric release pattern at the official website: http://www.mynameisbrucemovie.co.uk/

Directed by: Bruce Campbell.
Written by: Mark Verheiden
Starring: Bruce Campbell, Ted Raimi, Taylor Sharpe, Ted Raimi, Grace Thorsen, Ted Raimi
Cert: 15
Dur: 86 mins

image © Anchor Bay Entertainment