Cyborg 2

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“The film that launched a thousand lips…”

cyborg2Before there was Salt, before there was Mrs. Smith, before there was even Lara Croft, there was Cash Reese. For Angelina Jolie got her start as a grown-up actress in this 1993 sequel to a Jean-Claude Van Damme action film. She plays a cyborg pumped full of liquid explosives by her creators, Pinwheel Robotics, with the aim of being dispatched to assassinate the board of their Japanese rivals, Kobayashi Electronics. However, Cash is busted out from their complex by employee Colton Ricks (Koteas) along with a mysterious virtual guide known as “Mercy” (Palance). Unwilling to let their investment go, Pinwheel unleash psychotic bounty-hunter, Danny Bench (Drago) to track her down, before the pair can escape to Mombasa, a free zone for independent cyborgs.

“After I saw it, I went home and got sick,” said Jolie. Really? Damn, she must have hurled like Regan MacNeil after watching The Cradle of Life then, for this isn’t all that bad. Sure, it’s cheap, and rips off Blade Runner shamelessly in its visual style. However, it benefits immeasurably from an above average cast, who are all good for their roles. While Jolie’s lack of acting experience is certainly apparent, this doesn’t work against her character, an artificial person who is getting to experience the real world for the first time. Koteas is decent as the rugged hero – even though Cash is obviously stronger, quicker and probably smarter than he is. This does make the film’s finale somewhat dumb: in it, Ricks takes on Bench in a fight to the death, in order to win money for their passage to Mombasa, even though the rest of the film strongly suggests it’s Cash who would have a better chance of beating the hunter.

However, we must not forget the supporting cast who certainly help carry this, in particular Palance. His is mostly a voice performance, his lips appearing on video screens along the way to direct and assist Cash and Ricks, and brings an understated gravitas to proceedings they really don’t deserve. At the other end of the performance spectrum, yet equally fun to watch, is Drago, chewing scenery in memorable fashion. And we mustn’t forget Karen Sheperd as Chen, another hunter trailing Cash, leading to some good action there too. The script was originally intended as a standalone film called Glass Shadow [the name of the bio-explosive], which may explain why there’s no apparent connection to the original movie – as the not necessarily entirely accurate sleeve shown suggests, it was released this way in some territories. That isn’t necessarily a bad thing, and purely for opening the door to Jon Voight’s little girl, and the much bigger, (mostly) better things to come, definitely is deserving of a certain regard.

Dir: Michael Schroeder
Star: Elias Koteas, Angelina Jolie, Jack Palance, Billy Drago

Maleficent

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“Maleficent Bastard.”

kinopoisk.ruThis idea seems insane on the surface: take one of the classic villainesses of all-time, and tell the story from her point of view? How could that possibly work? But then, you think about it a bit, and the possibilities become apparent – not just in the fairytale arena, but in others as well. What about a Bond movie from the perspective of Goldfinger? A horror movie through Freddy Krueger’s eyes? One of the first things you realize, is that casting is particularly key: here, you need to have a lead who can take a character that has been universally loathed by generations, to the point where it’s in our cultural DNA, and turn it around, to become the sympathetic focus. The other essential aspect is the motivation: what happened to make them the way they are, and justify their subsequent “evil” actions? You have to bring the audience along on that character’s journey – and, bear in mind, this is a Disney film, so the scope for any kind of explicit content is close to nil. Yeah, we were right the first time, there’s no way this will ever succe…

What? Angelina Jolie as Maleficent? Suddenly, the idea doesn’t just make sense, it became more a case of, why did nobody think of this before? Virtually from the first photos of Jolie in her uber-goth get-up, it was clearly perfect casting: Jolie was Maleficent and Maleficent could have been no-one else. That extends through the finished product: whenever Jolie is on screen, the film ramps up at least another gear, if not two, because you know something’s going to happen. She doesn’t even necessarily have to do much: there’s a relatively early scene, where she’s walking across the countryside, and behind her, stone fences are being shredded, as if by an unseen tornado. That, combined with Jolie’s expression, playing out on a face whose cheekbones could cut glass,  completely sells the premise of what follows. Though we can’t shortchange Linda Woolverton’s screenplay which, as mentioned above, is a crucial component. The torment through which the heroine goes, is about as thinly disguised a date-rape metaphor as you’ll ever see in a Disney film, and works impeccably.

The set-up has two kingdoms, a human and a fairy one, living in… Well, I wouldn’t say peace, but cordial disdain is perhaps close to it. This lasts until the monarch of the former, King Henry, casts envious eyes over his neighbour, only for his invasion attempt to be humiliatingly destroyed by its queen, Maleficent (Jolie) and her fey army. He promises his daughter’s hand to anyone who kills the queen, and this opens the door for Stefan (Copley), who had been a friend of Maleficent’s growing up. Their friendship blossomed into more during their teenage years before they drifted apart. However, his ambition overwhelms his friendship; he drugs Maleficent, cuts her wings off using iron (poisonous to fairy folk), and uses this as proof to secure his position as heir. The queen throws up an enchanted forest between the two kingdoms, but doesn’t forget the wrong done to her, and when King Stefan has a baby daughter… Well, you know how Sleeping Beauty goes from there, I trust.

maleficentiExcept, there’s one very significant twist. Chris and I took a pie break an hour in, and she complained the film’s direction was “obvious.” Yes… and no. It was clearly pointing in the Prince Charming and happy ever after directions, but I’m delighted to report this is then subverted into something entirely different, and which packs a much greater emotional wallop. There was sniffling coming from beside me on the couch before the end, let’s just leave it at that. If there’s a Disney moral to be found in the (mostly awesome) ending, it’s perhaps not just the value of forgiveness over revenge, but that when someone offers you the former, it’s often wisest just to take it. Oh, and another important lesson: if you go plummeting off battlements with a creature that has wings and can fly, there’s really only going to be one loser in that scenario.

While Jolie and the story are uniformly excellent, that’s not to say the film is without problems. First-time director Stromberg is better known as an art director, and this is painfully apparent whenever the heroine isn’t on screen. The lengthy sequence where Princess Aurora (Fanning) is growing up in seclusion, tended to by a trio of fairy godmothers, Bibbety, Bobbity and Boo – okay, I made that last bit up – is, frankly, dull. Aurora herself is such a cloying goody two-shoes, she makes the original animated version of Maleficent seem like a paragon of subtlety and depth. and the fairoic trio are about the most grating efforts at comic relief I’ve seen since the last Adam Sandler movie. I was also not very impressed with some of the creations in fairyland. More than one of these second-rate CGI creations, look like they were designed to shift merchandise rather than serve any genuine purpose for a mature audience: think along the lines of Jar-Jar Binks with wings.

These are issues which would probably sink many a lesser movie, but Jolie and the story are strong enough to keep you engrossed, through to a spectacular, dragon-infused finale which the last part of The Hobbit will have to go some to beat. It’s easy to understand why this is, at time of writing, the third-biggest worldwide film of 2014. Depending on how Mockingjay Part 1 goes, it could remain the biggest action-heroine movie of the year, which would be an amazing feat, given muted prerelease expectations of around $150m domestic (it took 60% more). Regardless, Maleficent certainly cements Jolie’s role as the reigning queen of our genre, from Tomb Raider through Mr + Mrs Smith to Salt and on to this. If the reports of her retirement from acting, to concentrate on directing and writing instead, prove to be true, Jennifer Lawrence, Eva Green or anyone else will find it very difficult to fill the abandoned pair of glass slippers.

Whoops, wrong fairy-tale. :)

Dir: Robert Stromberg
Star: Angelina Jolie, Sharlto Copley, Elle Fanning, Sam Riley

Salt

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“See Salt?”

Angelina Jolie is the undisputed US box-office queen of action heroines. With Lara Croft: Tomb Raider‘s $131 million, and the $117 million this had earned to date, she owns two of the top four all-time genre entries (the other two being Crouching Tiger and Charlie’s Angels). While that’s not adjusted for inflation – Aliens would likely come out on top there – it’s still an impressive feat, and there probably isn’t any other actress in Hollywood capable of opening a large-budget action movie on this scale. Even in a supporting role, e.g. Wanted, she has credibility as an action heroine few can match.

Here, she plays Evelyn Salt, a CIA operative who returns from time in captivity in North Korea, and resumes her cover as a company executive. She and her colleague Ted Winter (Schreiber) are called in to interview a Russian defector, and decide if he is telling the truth. He spins a tale of a long-running project, dating back to the Cold War era. Young children were groomed from a very early age to become sleeper agents abroad, leading normal lives without suspicion until the time comes to activate them. That time has now come, with one agent tasked with killing the Russian President, currently on a state visit to the US. Oh, yeah – and that agent’s cover name is… Evelyn Salt.

When Salt can’t contact her husband (Diehl) and the defector escapes from custody too, Salt bolts from the impending custody closing around her and goes on the run. Is it because she wants to rescue her husband and prevent the assassination, to clear her name? Or is she the double-agent claimed? The film doesn’t hold out too long in this regard before committing itself. However, that isn’t the main focus, as the script then swerves in a different direction, and it also turns out that the assassination attempt is not an end in itself, only the start of a more far-reaching, and disturbing, plan to incite Armageddon.

I confess to being somewhat disappointed, especially after I realized this was written by Kurt Wimmer, who gave us Equilibrium and Ultraviolet [the former was a lot more warmly-received, but I’ll defend the latter to my dying breath as pure adrenalin/popcorn nonsense]. This is rather more restrained, which likely explains why it took nine figures at the box office, yet is also rather less memorable as a result. Not to say it’s “bad”, or anything like that; just that it’s very easy to see it, as originally envisaged, starring Tom Cruise. Pretty much run a global search and replace on the script, changing the lead character’s name [to, oh, I dunno: “Jason Bourne”?] and you’d be there. It’s too generic to be a true classic of the action heroine genre.

Still, it’s entertaining and keeps moving. Credit for clocking in at a brisk 100 minutes, rather than stretching things out beyong what’s necessary: there’s isn’t much unnecessary fat on its scriptual bones, and a refreshing lack of romantic chit-chat. There are a couple of solid action set-pieces, most notably an early, frenetic chase through the streets, and Salt overall has an ability to withstand falls that Wile E. Coyote would envy. Towards the end, she descends a lift-shaft leading to the presidential bunker, without bothering to wait for the elevator, and can also turn a few common cleaning supplies into an impromptu rocket-launcher. These are talents I’m sure we all could use occasionally.

Despite this, and Jolie’s undeniable screen presence, it lacks any truly memorable moments, and has little you won’t have seen before, assuming a passing knowledge with action franchises like Bourne, 007, Jack Ryan, etc. [Worth noting that two entries in the last-named series were directed by Noyce] We sniggered more than once at the way Salt always seems to have a new outfit, even as she runs from the entire weight of federal law-enforcement, and Salt’s husband is never developed enough to justify the pivotal role he plays. However, the ending is left wide-open for a sequel, pointing in a definite direction, presumably in the hope of a franchise emerging. The $162 million this has taken overseas, in addition to the US earnings, make that a distinct possibility, and I would certainly not be averse to the prospect of another helping of Salt.

Director: Phillip Noyce
Stars: Angelina Jolie, Liev Schreiber, Chiwetel Ejiofor, August Diehl

Wanted

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“Girls just wanna have guns.”

This is probably a borderline Girls With Guns flick, but Angelina Jolie is the nearest thing we have to a legitimated action-heroine superstar: Lara Croft, Mr. and Mrs. Smith and now this, where her character, the uber-assassin Fox, is certainly the most interesting in the film. Office drone Wesley (McAvoy) discovers his true heritage is in The Fraternity, a group of killers who surgically remove bad elements from society, as their names come up encoded in a cloth woven by a mystical loom. However, one of their number has gone rogue, and Cross (Kretschmann) is now taking out his former colleagues, one by one. Recruiting, training and using Wesley, is the only hope they have to stop the renegade.

Based on a comic-book. That phrase covers a whole spectrum of results, good and bad. Here, this means hyperkinetic action scenes with only a tenuous connection to reality. If you’ve seen the director’s previous work – such as Night Watch and its sequel Day Watch – you’ll know what to expect, and he gets to crank it up here, with a significantly-bigger budget, and a better cast. There are some brilliant set-pieces, not least the sequence where Fox rescues Wesley, and also a fabulous sequence on a high-speed train. It plays like a high-octane remix of Office Space and The Matrix: not, perhaps, up to the brilliant levels of either, yet an interesting hybrid that is still a great deal of fun, in a highly-caffeinated way.

Less well known, this is not Tikmanbetov’s first piece of Girls With Guns cinema, as before coming to Hollywood’s attention with Night Watch, he also did The Arena, a remake of a Roger Corman movie. The original had Pam Grier – the remake, didn’t, and let’s leave it at that. Fox is rather different from the incarnation in the comic [closer there to Halle Berry than anything], yet still has more backstory than Wesley, on her tattooed arms alone; while a sequel seems likely, it looks unlikely to involve her, and that’s a shame. Still, when you see Jolie climbing out on the bonnet of her high-performance sports-car, and blazing away like a heavily-armed hood ornament, you’ll understand exactly why it qualifies here.

Dir: Timur Bekmambetov
Star: James McAvoy, Angelina Jolie, Thomas Kretschmann, Morgan Freeman

Mr. and Mrs. Smith

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“Patience is required, but decent fun when it gets going.”

Just imagine Jennifer Aniston watching this film: every time Ange appears on the screen, or gazes lovingly at Brad, Jen shrieks maniacally, “Die, sluuuuuut!” Such thoughts will keep you entertained during the sluggish first hour – you’ll need them, while you wait for the characters to realise what we know from the start: Mr. and Mrs. Smith are both assassins, now targeted by their respective agencies. For that is when the fun finally starts, not the overlong lead-up, where Brad + Angelina can only sustain the plot’s conceit (that – tee-hee! – they don’t know each other’s real jobs) by abject stupidity that flies directly in the face of their characters. She’s supposedly a top-level assassin with 300+ kills to her name, yet doesn’t notice hubby’s Batman-sized lair beneath the potting shed? Puh-lease…

But, must say, I enjoyed the action, which is directed with imagination – for example, Jolie abseiling down a building using only her handbag, provoking a rare “Wow!” from this jaded fan. Jolie is just right: it’s difficult to imagine the other options (Kidman, Zeta-Jones, Blanchett and, um, Gwen Stefani) doing as well. And the sniping banter between husband and wife has a particularly enjoyable sense of irony when its punctuated by… er, actual sniping. Some might say this both glorifies and trivializes the whole issue of domestic violence – and watching them brawl their way round the house before, naturally, tearing each other’s clothes off, it’s hard to argue. Yet at its best, this takes the “War of the Sexes” to a whole new level (she works for an agency that’s mostly women; he, for one that’s largely guys), and that angle could certainly merit more exploration.

We don’t know whether the Smiths are “good”, “bad” or independent contractors, an interesting approach (we have no moral compass beyond their actions), yet disappointing. For another weakness is that the villains are merely faceless minions, when the genre needs a Big Bad for the climax – the obvious one here is the people that ordered the terminations. Liman, whose Bourne Identity was also about a killer with a contract on his head, might appreciate this more than most, and word is two such endings were shot, just not used. Still, I suspect that the sequel – likely inevitable, given this was one of 2005’s top ten at the US box-office – could very well be more fun than the original. At least we’ll have all the tedious set-up out of the way.

Dir: Doug Liman
Stars: Angelina Jolie, Brad Pitt, Vince Vaughn, Kerry Washington

Lara Croft, Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life

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“Tomb for two, please.”

tomb2aThe first problem with the film is its title, a clunky mess apparently lacking in any punctuation – I’ve taken my best guess at what it should be above, even if it doesn’t line up with the first movie. But hey, new director, new grammar… Interestingly, Steven E. De Souza gets a screenplay credit this time round – he was one of the people who wrote a rejected script before the original film was made, and I wonder how much has been recycled here.

Certainly, a lot of what was said about the first film applies equally to the sequel; despite much affirmation that, this time, they’d really got hold of the character, the potential remains largely unfulfilled. Instead, we get something that (ironically, in the light of previous comments) nicks large chunks from Indiana Jones, adds a flavour of Mission: Impossible 2 and loses most of the more interesting elements from first time round.

The plot here concerns the search for what is, effectively, Pandora’s Box, which turns out to be a genuine artefact containing a deadly plague. Evil overlor…sorry, industrialist Jonathan Reiss (Hinds) wants possession, in order to sell it to the highest bidder as a biological weapon, and use the antidote to control who’ll be allowed to populate the post-plague world.

Though most of the film is concerned more with the struggle for possession of an amber orb, which points to the location of Pandora’s Box. This contest takes the participants from Greece to England to Kazakhstan to China to Hong Kong to Taipei and finally Kenya, though there’s so little local flavour it feels more like an episode of Alias, quickly establishing itself with stock exterior footage, before switching to an obvious sound-stage.

While Barrie and Taylor return as Lara’s sidekicks, they get given very little to do, which is disappointing, since their characters were entertaining elements first time up. Instead, Lara gets a sidekick, Terry Sheridan (Butler), a dubious character who first needs to be taken from a central Asian jail, and who was romantically entangled with Croft in the past. His fate is obvious.

Indeed, so is much of the movie, save the opening sequence, which instead opts to be so ludicrous as to defy belief. Lara lures in a shark with her own blood, then turns it into a jet-ski, before being picked up by her own personal F-sized submarine. Even for a video game, this is stretching it, and the sound you hear, is most of the movie’s credibility, heading shame-faced for the exit as it mumbles something about another appointment. What little is left, gets swamped in an orgy of product placement that rivals recent Bond movies.

tomb2bIt does give you plenty of time to wonder about little things like the wisdom of instigating a shoot-out in a germ warfare laboratory, how many years have passed since someone parachuting off a tall building ceased to be exciting, and the failure to make Sheridan a credible opponent for a fist-fight with Lara Croft. The finale does feature some interesting CGI creatures, though any explanation of their presence, lust for human flesh, or ability to melt into solid rock is notable by its absence. Jolie still is Lara Croft, to an almost uncanny degree, but even her Oscar-winning talents can do little when faced with a script of such limited means.

Director De Bont can direct action, as was shown in Speed – since then it’s been downhill. Twister, Speed 2, The Haunting, and now this, which has almost nothing worth mentioning as far as thrills go. It’s nice to see Hong Kong veteran Simon Yam as a smuggler, and his fight with Croft in a cave full of terracotta warriors is kinda cool, but the rest is distinctly mediocre, relying too much on doubles or CGI. The film desperately needs a tent-pole sequence to make you go “Wow!”, like the training robot or bungee-ballet from part one.

Not the worst big-budget, girls-with-guns pic of the summer (that’d be Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle), but it’s significantly below the first film, which was flawed enough in itself. The harsh truth is, there is nothing here that justifies keeping the franchise going, and that’s really sad.

Dir: Jan De Bont
Star: Angelina Jolie, Gerard Butler, Ciaran Hinds, Noah Taylor

Lara Croft: Tomb Raider

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“Tomb with a view.”

tomb12.jpgAfter a tortuous journey (about which, see elsewhere), Lady Croft finally made it. The end result is wholly satisfactory in some ways, yet severely deficient in others. First up, the good news: Angelina Jolie is Lara, so much so that you can’t imagine anyone else in the part. [Other suggestions included Elizabeth Hurley, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Peta Wilson and even – ick! – Anna-Nicole Smith. Paragraph break for shuddering, here.]

Helped by Jolie’s reported willingness to do pretty much any stunt, this is crucial, and allows the film to hit the ground running – as well as jumping, climbing, and swinging around, with a gun in each hand. The first half an hour is everything you could hope for, beginning with a sequence where Lara fights a robotic monster, looking more than slightly like ED-209 from Robocop. It turns out to be just a training device, but there’s an edge to it, and even an almost sexual element as the beast drives between Lara’s open legs. PG-13? Hmmm… Her sidekicks are only slightly less satisfying; tech wiz Bryce (surely a nod to the nerd of the same name in Max Headroom), and stuffy butler Hilary are exactly the sort of people you’d expect Lara to have around.

Unfortunately, the further you go from Croft, the lamer things get, with her chief opponent for much of the movie being mid-level henchmen Manfred Powell (Glen), rather than the Illuminati who are apparently running things. To draw a parallel, it’s as if Austin Powers was taking on Mini Me, rather than Dr. Evil, and Powell falls well short of being an adequate villain. Describing the overall plot as weak would be charitable. It’s the quest for various pieces which, when put together, will create a device allowing the holder to control time, rule the world, and presumably, get pizza delivered before they actually order it. There’s also a deadline, due to an imminent planetary alignment which only happens once every 5,000 years.

 This is more an excuse than anything coherent, almost as if the many writers operated on alternate pages, without being able to communicate with each other. It also suffers from an overdose of meaningless exotic locations, leaping from Venice to SE Asia to Siberia, without any real purpose or sense of location ever being present. The theme, according to director West, is time, but you need this pointed out to you, as it never goes beyond the painfully obvious, for example, time lost between Lara and her father. Ah, yes: Lara’s father. The stunt casting of Jolie’s real father, Jon Voight, deserves points for gall, but doesn’t come off as it should. You’re too busy trying to work out whether anyone in the film is actually using their real accent, what that hairy thing on Voight’s lip is, and whether you have enough time to hit the bathroom before the next action sequence.

tomb1.jpgOnly in motion do you sense what might have been. It’s highlighted by the ‘bungee ballet’, when Croft’s mansion is attacked by minions seeking an artefact in Lara’s hands. She starts, swinging from the ceiling on elastic ropes – contrived, yes, but such fun to watch that we easily forgive it – before moving to the garage and back to the main hall. Croft uses everything to hand, and it’s the closest the movie comes to the game’s inventiveness. Jolie even did the bungee-work herself, allowing West (and action director Simon Crane, who deserves his own movie some day) largely to avoid obvious stunt-doubles. [Red Dwarf fans will also appreciate Rimmer stalking around with a shotgun!]

The previously mentioned opening, and the sequence involving a massive rotating orrery replicating the solar system, also work very nicely. But if the final battle with Powell feels like a tacked-on late addition, that’ll be because it was a tacked-on late addition, according to West’s commentary on the DVD. One wonders if much else was changed on the fly, as this would go some way towards explaining the inadequacies in the film’s storyline and villains. Overall, it still ranks well-above average as a video-game adaptation – albeit largely because there have been so many inept ones. Standing alone, it succeeds to a smaller extent, with some truly great sequences, and an excellent lead performance. But there’s way too much padding in a very weak script, and it’s this which prevents it achieving Indiana Jones-like greatness.

Dir: Simon West
Stars: Angelina Jolie, Ian Glen, Noah Taylor, Daniel Craig