Tag: Anthony Mackie

Million Dollar Baby (2004)

Million Dollar Baby (2004)

Oscar-winning sucker punch (literally) movie as a woman goes against the odds to make her boxing dreams come true

Director: Clint Eastwood

Cast: Clint Eastwood (Frankie Dunn), Hilary Swank (Maggie Fitzgerald), Morgan Freeman (Eddie “Scrap-Iron” Dupris), Jay Baruchel (Dangerous Dillard), Mike Colter (“Big” Willie Little), Lucia Rijker (Billie “The Blue Bear” Osterman), Brian F. O’Byrne (Father Horvak), Anthony Mackie (Shawrelle Berry), Margo Martindale (Earline Fitzgerald), Marcus Chait (JD Fitzgerald), Riki Lindhome (Mardell Fitzgerald), Michael Pena (Omar), Benito Martinez (Billie’s manager)

Spoilers: I thought the end of Million Dollar Baby was pretty well known, but when I watched it with my wife, I realised half-way through she had no idea where it was going. I’ll be discussing it, so consider yourself warned!

We know what to expect from most Sports stories don’t we? A plucky underdog fights the odds and emerges triumphant, winning the big match or going the distance when everyone doubted them. So it’s not a surprise Million Dollar Baby was marketed as a sort of female-Rocky. It had all the ingredients: Swank as a dreamer from the wrong-end-of-the-tracks, tough but humble and decent; Eastwood as the grizzled trainer; a working-class backdrop; a struggle to put their pasts behind them on the road to glory. Then, imagine what a sucker punch the final act of the film is when you suddenly realise you’ve not been watching a feel-good drama, but the entrée to a heart-wrenching euthanasia story.

Maggie Fitzgerald (Hilary Swank) has spent months persuading grouchy boxing trainer Frankie “I don’t train girls” Dunn (Clint Eastwood) to train her. Frankie suffers from a string of lifelong regrets, from the daughter that returns his letters unread to not ending a fight decades ago that saw best friend Eddie (Morgan Freeman) blinded in one eye. Frankie’s resistance is eventually worn down by Maggie’s persistence and the two form a close bond. Maggie is on fire in the ring – until a foul punch leads to a terrible fall leaving her paralysed from the neck down. With Maggie having lost everything that gave her life meaning, how will Frankie respond when she asks him to end her life?

Of course, the clues should be there earlier that we are not about to settle down for a triumphant Rocky II-style yarn. Eastwood’s (self-composed) maudlin score constantly works against the action, until we realise it is sub-consciously preparing us. Expectations are overturned: Frankie’s reluctance to let his fighter “Big” Willie (Mike Colter) go for a title shot – hesitation that lasts so long, eventually Willie hires a new manager – is shown to be misjudged when Willie wins. Dunn spends hours in church every day, plagued with guilt about misdeeds he can’t begin to put into words. Maggie’s family are not a supportive working-class bubble, but trailer-trash dole-scum who react to Maggie buying them with house with fury as it may affect their (unmerited) benefit cheques. We even get several shots of the stool that will eventually play a crucial role in crippling Maggie.

What the film is actually building to in its opening 90 minutes is not a story of triumph, but how a close relationship builds between a man who has lost his family and a woman whose family is a grasping horror story. Eastwood charts this with a carefully judged pace, delivering one of his finest performances as the guarded and grouchy Frankie, who uses his gruff exterior to protect himself from the possible hurt of emotional commitment. Because it’s clear Frankie actually cares very deeply, frequently going the extra mile to help people, even while complaining about it.

It’s that buried heart, that draws him towards the determined and good-natured Maggie. Rather like Frankie, Hilary Swank makes clear in her committed performance Maggie’s optimism and enthusiasm is as much of a shield as Frankie’s gruffness. She knows that she’s nothing to her family except a meal ticket and her entire life seems to have been one of loneliness, working dead-end jobs to funnel money to her mother at the cost of any life of her own. Switching away from her grinning enthusiasm leaves her in danger of staring at her own life and seeing what a mess it is.

With their two very different shields, these two characters are exactly what the other needs and one of the film’s principle delights is to see them slowly confiding in each other, sharing their vulnerabilities and filling the void their own families have left in their lives. This all takes place inside a conventional “sports movie” structure, which writer Paul Haggis almost deliberately doubles down on, as Maggie builds her skills, via training montages and Frankie starts to relax about sending people into the ring to have seven bells beaten out of them and dreams about one more shot.

This all means it hurts even more when that (literal) sucker punch comes. Eastwood’s film doesn’t shirk from the horrors of Maggie’s disability – re-enforced by the previous 90 minutes establishing how crucial movement and reflexes are to boxing, and how this element in particular helps give her life meaning. She’s covered with bed sores, can’t breathe without a respirator, it takes over an hour to lift her into a wheelchair (which she cannot operate) and eventually her infected leg is amputated. Her family visit only to get her to sign over her assets (she tells them where to get off). She is reduced to biting through her own tongue to try and bleed to death, meaning she is left sedated to prevent self-harm.

It’s all more for Frankie to feel guilty about. Although the film could have given even more time to exploring the complex issues – and moral clashes – around the right to die, it does make very clear the crushing burden of guilt and the impact his final decision will have on him. In fact, it would have benefited from spending more time on this and giving more time to O’Byrne’s priest (who quite clearly states that it’s wrong), to help give more definition to the arguments around assisted suicide (I wonder if Eastwood’s agnostic views came into play here).

Perhaps the film spends a little too long on its initial – even deliberately formulaic – rags-to-riches boxing story. In its boxing club vignettes, you can see the roots of the film in a series of short stories by former boxing trainer FX Toole. Mackie’s cocky boxy and Baruchel’s gentle intellectually disabled would-be boxer run through the film play like short story anecdotes. The narrative is linked together by narration from Morgan Freeman. It’s a natural fit for Freeman – essentially a semi-reprise of Red in Shawshank – and fits him like a glove (it was no surprise he won an Oscar). But trimming this content could have given more time to the films closing moral dilemma.

Which doesn’t change the impact it has. Eastwood’s low-key style – with its drained-out colours and piano chords – make a perfect fit, and its expertly played by himself and Swank (who also won an Oscar). Even on a second viewing, Million Dollar Baby still carries a real impact, particularly as you appreciate how subtly the sucker punch that floored so many viewers first time around is built up to.

The Hurt Locker (2009)

Danger awaits round every corner in the shocking The Hurt Locker

Director: Kathryn Bigelow

Cast: Jeremy Renner (Sgt William James), Anthony Mackie (Sgt JT Sanborn), Brian Geraghty (Specialist Owen Eldridge), Guy Pearce (Staff Sgt Matthew Thompson), Christian Camargo (Lt Colonel John Cambridge), David Morse (Colonel Reed), Ralph Fiennes (British Mercenary), Evangeline Lilly (Connie James), Sam Spruell (Contractor Charlie)

There have been few wars in history as controversial as the Iraq war. Despite this, it’s hard to think of a film that really has nailed the complex social, political and military causes behind the war – or managed to engage with the deep unease much of the Western world feels for the campaign. While there have been great films about Vietnam, that other opinion-dividing conflict of the last 50 years, there hasn’t been one about Iraq yet – perhaps because the wound is still so fresh. The Hurt Locker gets closest by far – largely because it is a film that makes war its subject, not Iraq; it could just as easily be set in the fields of France as the streets of Baghdad.

After the death of their Staff Sergeant (Guy Pearce) while defusing an IED in Baghdad, Explosive Ordnance Disposal (EOD) unit members Sgt Sanborn (Anthony Mackie) and Specialist Eldridge (Brian Geraghty) are joined by a new team leader Sgt William James (Jeremy Renner). However, they both – particularly the by-the-book Sanborn – grow increasingly concerned about James’ maverick methods and willingness to take personal risks to defuse bombs. Slowly, tensions rise in the team.

The Hurt Locker makes no comment whatsoever on the controversy behind the decision to intervene in Iraq. Instead, its focus is entirely on the psychology of those who go to war, and the sorts of personalities it can attract, from those with a keen desire to do their duty to others who get a certain “buzz” from risk and conflict that they cannot find elsewhere in their lives. As the film’s opening words say, “War is a Drug”. And there are few characters more afflicted by an addiction to that drug than Sgt William James.

Not that James is a villain. One of the film’s many strengths is that he is far from a lunatic. Played with a career-defining charisma and intensity by a then almost-unknown Jeremy Renner, James takes personal risks (defusing bombs without the huge rubber safety suits, turning off his comms to concentrate, returning to bombsites to collect trophies or lost items) but he also shows concern and empathy for his fellow soldiers and (largely) avoids putting them in danger. With the team pinned down by snipers in the desert, he calmly reassures Eldridge and talks Sanborn quietly through taking down the snipers. He develops bonds with people and later in the film shows great compassion and willingness to put himself in danger to save a man unwillingly attached to a suicide vest.

James’ struggles are to deal with the modern world and its shallow obsessions compared to the thrill of putting your life on the line (as the film brilliantly illustrates with a final vignette of James back home at the end of rotation, staring blankly at a wall of cereal boxes in a supermarket). On campaign, he talks dismissively of his child and claims to not know or understand his relationship with his wife. But this is a front – it’s clear his family life is far more settled than he suggests – and is actually more connected to his guilt at enjoying his time on military posting more than he does the neutered warmth of family life. Renner excels at all this complex psychology, crafting a man who is aware of his addiction, can’t combat it but feels a deep guilt for it.

The Hurt Locker is about how this rush of war can be more compelling and life-affirming than hearth and home. It’s also perhaps a commentary on how we ourselves get a rush from watching action and war films – that it’s only a few steps from enjoying watching the excitement of conflict, to enjoying being in the middle of that kind of action. Is James really that bad? Defusing bombs is a difficult and demanding job – and James knows (rightly) that he is one of the best at doing it. And shouldn’t a man enjoy his job? Renner’s glee at a job well done is balanced by guilty awareness that he shouldn’t be enjoying himself as much as this.

Kathryn Bigelow is in her element directing this burst of male testosterone, assembling a film that is gripping, tense and hugely exciting. It’s essentially constructed around a series of set-pieces, each of them more unsettling than the one before. Bigelow’s direction is impeccable, as each of these sequences is both unique in tone and utterly compelling. Bigelow became the first woman to win Best Director at the Oscars – and her acute understanding of men enamoured with the buzz of adrenalin is what gives the film much of its narrative force.

It also helps that the film she has assembled here is a technical marvel, brilliantly shot by Barry Ackroyd with a scintillating display of hand-held cameras, cleverly focused details and immersive story telling. The Hurt Locker is a film both drenched in sun and darkness, with burning yellows and oppressive greys. It’s a film that captures the incredibly alien, heat-stoked insanity of Iraq, and the journalistic style and camerawork make everything we watch feel even more immediate.

In the middle of this, the psychological drama between the maverick James and the cautious, procedure-led Sanborn (played by an equally impressive Anthony Mackie, whose every moment buzzes with frustration and anger at the dangers he sees James inflict on them) plays out wonderfully. Bigelow has an immediate understanding of how the adrenalin and testosterone of combat quickly bubble up into violence and aggression off the battlefield, with these two men often becoming like rutting stags, struggling to place their own supremacy on the team – with Brian Geraghty’s weaker Eldridge the pawn between the two.

The Hurt Locker does what it does so well that it’s easy to overlook its flaws. Its narrative is so pure that you regret it gives barely a second to addressing the issues in Iraq or how the behaviour and attitude of the soldiers there (mostly angry and abusive towards the local population) may be contributing to the problems. It also struggles to add much narrative originality to the story, beyond its set-pieces – in particular James’ friendship with a young Iraqi boy seems like the forced stuff of movie convention in a film that prides itself on reality. When dialogue takes over from action, many of the psychological points it raises have been seen in countless films past. You could argue that the film is largely at its weakest when it tackles any questions of plot at all, and that what Bigelow has really done here is make one of the finest boots-on-the-ground immersions you are going to see.

And if The Hurt Locker is just that then, you know what, that’s fine too. Because when it does this it’s one of the best in the game. Brilliantly assembled, shot and edited (those many Oscars were well deserved) it’s a gripping war film that relies a little too much on some of the conventions of war and combat films, while also focusing very intently on how war affects the psychology of the men at the sharp end. It gives a truly unique perspective of the dangers (in every sense) and is brought to life by a series of fine performances, with Renner and Mackie outstanding. Wonderfully directed, and smashingly tense, it’s a worthy contender in the upper echelons of any list made of great war films.

The Fifth Estate (2013)

Benedict Cumberbatch and Daniel Bruhl struggle through this turgid retelling of hacking derring-do in The Fifth Estate

Director: Bill Condon

Cast: Benedict Cumberbatch (Julian Assange), Daniel Brühl (Daniel Domscheit-Berg), Alicia Vikander (Anke Domscheit-Berg), Anthony Mackie (Sam Coulson), David Thewlis (Nick Davies), Stanley Tucci (James Boswell), Laura Linney (Sarah Shaw), Moritz Bleibtrue (Marcus), Carice van Houten (Birgitta Jónsdóttir), Peter Capaldi (Alan Rusbridger), Dan Stevens (Ian Katz), Alexander Siddig (Dr Tarek Haliseh)

In 2010 the world was thrown into turmoil when a website called Wikileaks published a host of top-secret government documents that revealed a never-ending stream of Western wrong-doing during the war on terror. The leak was co-published by WikiLeaks and the Guardian and New York Times. However Wikileaks founder Julian Assange (played here by Benedict Cumberbatch) had other ideals – namely that the files should not be redacted in any way to protect serving US officials or informants in hostile countries. 

It should be a gripping story of the state failing to keep up with the speed of modern communications. But instead this is one hell of a turgid, dull info-dump of a film that turns this potentially explosive event into something about as gripping as watching a series of people type into a computer. On top of that, the film totally fails to develop any proper personality dynamics to engage your interest, and instead falls back into the usual crude filmic language of a star-struck protégé realising his mentor has feet of clay.

Bill Condon’s direction is totally incapable of making the entry of data into a computer dynamic or visual, and is completely unable to bring the world of computer hacking and data search to life. In fact, there is so much information given to the viewers (rather than drama) that the impression I was left with is that Condon doesn’t really understand what’s going on in the movie anyway. He certainly doesn’t manage to make it interesting or feel that important. 

Visually, the film is flat and falls back on superimposing text on the screen when people type or creating a sort of “mind palace” office to represent the inner workings of the Wikileaks server (which is basically just a big office space). In fact, the film gets less interesting as it progresses – which is a real shame after a nifty credits sequence that chronicles in images the development of the press from cave paintings, through the Rosetta stone, printing, television and the internet. 

Not to mention the lack of drama about this. Things are just happening – we never get any sense of the danger or the world-changing impact, or any reason why we should care. Poor Anthony Mackie, Laura Linney and Stanley Tucci are wheeled out as a trio of American government big wigs who talk at each other at great length about what is going on and how it will endanger government assets – but it’s all show and not tell. The plight of a Tunisian informant – played with his usual skill by Alexander Siddig – is reduced to a few scenes, a human element that gets trimmed so much it carries little impact. 

The film also deals with the personality clashes Assange inspires, here interpreted as a borderline sociopathic monster, an egotist and liar interested only in his own legend. Benedict Cumberbatch gives a superbly detailed and richly observed impersonation of Assange, but the character has no depth. He’s merely a sort of phantom monster, who the film slowly reveals has no conscience. Compare it to the presentation of Mark Zuckerberg in The Social Network (a film that is everything this clunking disaster is not). That film is also told from the prospective of a disillusioned former colleague, but there our view of the central character is shaded and given depth – and we are encouraged to recognise we are seeing one person’s perspective. Here the film swallows whole the side of the story presented by Daniel Berg.

Berg played with a disengaged flatness by Daniel Brühl, snoozing through a part shorn of any dynamism, whose views oscillate constantly until he finally settles for being a campaigner to keep sources safe. Alicia Vikander gets shockingly short shrift as a girlfriend – she even has the obligatory “stop working on the management of earth-shattering leaks and come to bed” scene. Berg allies himself with the traditional media, similarly portrayed with a clunking obviousness: David Thewlis is a standard shouty journalist, Peter Capaldi a chin-stroking concerned editor. 

The Fifth Elementis flat and unable to dramatise the world of computer coding. The dialogue is turgid and obvious (there is a terribly obvious metaphor of Assange constantly lying about the reason for his white hair – he can’t be trusted you see!) and the performances are either dull, clichéd or saddled with this terrible writing. At the end, as Cumberbatch plays Assange denouncing the entire film in a reconstruction of a talking head interview, you get a sense of the more interesting, fourth-wall-leaning film this might have been. But sadly the rest of the film reminds you what a flat, tedious, stumbling, confused, inexplicable misfire this really is.

Captain America: Civil War (2016)

Captain America and Iron Man stand-off in overblown Captain America: Civil War

Director: Anthony and Joe Russo

Cast: Chris Evans (Steve Rogers), Robert Downey Jnr (Tony Stark), Scarlett Johansson (Natasha Romanoff), Sebastian Stan (Bucky Barnes), Anthony Mackie (Sam Wilson), Don Cheadle (James Rhodes), Jeremy Renner (Clint Barton), Chadwick Boseman (T’Challa), Paul Bettany (Vision), Elizabeth Olsen (Wanda Maximoff), Paul Rudd (Scott Lang), Emily VanCamp (Sharon Carter), Tom Holland (Peter Parker), Frank Grillo (Crossbones), William Hurt (Thaddeus “Thunderbolt” Ross), Daniel Brühl (Helmet Zemo), Martin Freeman (Everett K Ross), Marisa Tomei (May Parker), John Kani (T’Chaka), John Slattery (Howard Stark), Hope Davis (Maria Stark), Alfre Woodward (Mariah Dillard)

Captain America: Civil War is another explosive entry in the MCU, and is even more stuffed than usual, with nearly all our Avengers thrown into the mix – with the added twist that they fight each other! Yup it’s time for another playground argument: “If X fought Y, which one would win?!” That’s the main thrust of Captain America: Civil War, but it’s actually a distraction from the real plot. The much hyped fight at the airport (and the build-up to it) is a rather dull hour in the middle that distracts from a richer, more interesting film.

There is dissent in the ranks of the Avengers. The UN wants them to sign the “Zukovian Accords” – an agreement that they will work only under the direction of the UN. For Tony Stark (Robert Downey Jnr) this legal framework for their actions is essential – but Steve Rogers (Chris Evans) argues that the Avengers need to have the freedom to go where they are needed, not only where they are told. In this tense situation, a bombing in Vienna is swiftly blamed on Roger’s old friend Bucky Barnes (Sebastian Stan), who has become the brain-washed killer The Winter Soldier. In disagreement with Stark about the Accords and determined to protect Bucky, Steve quickly finds himself on a collision course with Tony.

The central idea here is actually fairly interesting: are superheroes people with a higher duty or just a group of vigilantes? Should they follow the direction of politicians – or be free to go where they are needed, when they are needed? How much accountability should they hold? If, in saving the world, dozens of civilians should die in the aftermath, is that acceptable or not? These are the ideas that lie under the arguments that the characters – principally Captain America and Iron Man – have. 

The first 40 minutes set this up nicely: an operation goes wrong, people are killed and the Avengers are confronted with footage of the collateral destruction they have caused while saving the world. But these ideas get left behind as the film gets caught up with pushing our characters into an artificial-feeling battle so destructive that an entire airport gets trashed by the “let’s cool our actions” team while trying to stop the “we should be independent” faction.

It would have been really nice to have these ideas explored in more depth, rather than a few moments here and there. Essentially, the film hires Alfre Woodard to deliver a top-notch performance as a mother whose son was Avengers collateral damage, to convince Tony things need to change, and leaves it at that. Steve’s counter-argument gets laid out swiftly – though he strangely makes no reference to the fact that the previous film saw a very similar “government organisation” revealed as the source of all evil in the Marvel world. It’s quick beats like this that set up this collision – but only Tony and Steve get any chance to express any form of developed views (in a few very well acted scenes). The motivations of the rest of the Avengers seem under-developed.

But that’s the problem with Captain America: Civil War: it’s seriously overstuffed. With some of these plots and characters removed, we could have actually had a very rich, thematic story.

The whole “Zukovia Accords” plot also has to constantly juggle for space with leftover “Winter Soldier” plotline from the previous two films. Truth be told, the latter is the more interesting, dealing with actual emotions, friendships and loyalties – chiefly the bond between Bucky and Steve (very well illustrated in a few brief, well played scenes). It’s this dilemma of whether Bucky can be held responsible for things he did under mind control that becomes the film’s key question. This plot line works far more effectively as it basically involves only three of the characters and feels like it has genuine things at stake, in a way I just can’t feel about the forced “civil war” angle. 

But it’s that civil war angle that the film is being sold on – and it’s what the middle section of the film is given over to. The big, airport-wrecking battle between the two sides is well shot, has good special effects and throws in plenty of neat one-liners. But what it completely lacks is any sort of dramatic tension or any stakes. As our heroes indestructibly bounce around while swapping light banter you never feel that this battle really amounts to anything. The sides don’t seem that far apart, or really that different – in fact the whole thing feels like playground horseplay.

The big battle is even undermined by the fact that we’ve already seen our heroes fight each other at least twice already in small combinations – and in all these cases, bodies are thrown about mercilessly but no one suffers more than a few scratches. Even after a character falls hundreds of feet to the ground, he’s later shown as basically being absolutely fine. The big battle is supposed to be the exciting showpiece, but it’s basically just big filler. A load of noise, where nothing really happens and no-one really feels at any risk, with no real consequences (all the emotional consequences emerge from the smaller scale final confrontation which would be unchanged if this airport fight was removed).

The film only really recovers again once that fight is benched, and we wind up with three of our heroes squaring off over very personal issues. This also brings to the fore the Daniel Brühl’s fascinating character, a very different type of villain: someone whom the film plays a neat game of misdirection with. The film reveals one of its themes as revenge, and how much it can dominate or twist our lives. This is given voice through a wonderfully written and played scene between Brühl and Boseman (very dynamic as the future Black Panther, dealing with grief over the murder of his father).

That scene gives an insight into the film’s real strengths: the small moments. The bits where the overblown fighting can be put to one side and we can see these characters (and the very good actors who inhabit them) talk. Moments like this carry more humanity, interest and tension than a thousand sequences of a giant Ant-man. In these moments, Downey Jnr and Evans are both terrific. Evans was born to play this part, making Rogers adamantine in his decency and nobility without being wearing, and also demonstrating an increasing streak of an old-soul who is tired of listening to other people and wants to make his own choices. Downey Jnr increasingly makes Stark a man hiding resentments, fears and doubts under a veneer of cool. Several other excellent performances also burst around the margins of the film (I’d single out Mackie who is excellent as the loyal Sam).

It’s just a shame Captain America: Civil War wastes some strong material in the prolonged set-up – and then enactment – of its superhero feud. Enjoyable as it can be to see this sort of stuff from time to time, after a while it’s tedious to watch invulnerable people taking pot shots at each other with no discernible impact. A single conversation with stakes – with a doubt about whether a friendship will hold or not – has more tension and excitement than a hundred sequences of heroes hitting each other. There is a more interesting story here – but between the action and the obligatory set-ups for future Black Panther and Spiderman movies (excellent as Boseman and Holland are in these roles) it doesn’t quite reach its potential.

Triple 9 (2016)

An all-star cast fail to make Triple 9 a classic, or even a decent watch

Director John Hillcoat

Cast: Casey Affleck (Chris Allen), Anthony Mackie (Marcus Belmont), Chiwetel Ejiofor (Michael Atwood), Clifton Collins Jnr (Franco Rodriguez), Woody Harrelson (Jeffrey Allen), Aaron Paul (Gabe Welch), Kate Winslet (Irina Vlaslov), Gal Gadot (Elena Vlaslov), Norman Reedus (Russell Welch), Michael K Williams (Sweet Pea), Teresa Palmer (Michelle Allen)

Triple 9 that never gets anywhere near fulfilling its potential. You look at the cast and you think “Wow! That has got to be one of the films of the year! Right?” Wrong. Triple 9 is another journey into the macho bullshit of the criminal underworld, where the “good” thieves have honour, the bad thieves are unscrupulous, the cops are all sorts of shades of grey, and the real baddies are foreign gangsters exploiting American criminals. All told with a backdrop of shouting, shooting and doping. You feel, and I suspect the filmmakers feel as well, that the film must be about something – but it really isn’t, it’s a super violent, dark Rififi with none of that classic’s touch.

Michael Atwood (Chiwetel Ejiofor) is a crack crook, leader of a gang that executes difficult jobs on demand for their Russian paymaster, mob boss’ wife Irina (a showboating Kate Winslet). Atwood’s crew includes dirty cops Marcus Belmont (Anthony Mackie) and Franco Rodriguez (Clifton Collins Jnr). Tasked to steal federal investigation data on Irina’s husband, Michael and his crew decide their only chance is to distract the police with a Triple 9 call out – the shooting of a cop. Their target? Belmont’s new partner, hotshot honest cop Chris Allen (Casey Affleck).

Triple 9 isn’t particularly inventive or unique. The problem is it also isn’t very interesting. This is largely because you don’t engage with any of the characters. Atwood is a blank, played by a disengaged Chiwetel Ejiofor. He has a standard sub-plot of a son he isn’t allowed to see. But it’s not enough to get us caring about him. Chris Allen isn’t particularly likeable (Casey Affleck is not the most relatable of actors) so it’s hard to get worked up over whether he’s going to be killed or not. The most interesting character is Anthony Mackie’s Belmont – but he has been saddled with an “I feel growing guilt” sub-plot that you’ve seen dozens of times before.

Perhaps aware that a lot of the writing was paper-thin, the film recruits a number of familiar actors to “do their thing” so that we can shortcut to what sort of person the character is meant to be, by seeing crude drawings of their more famous, nuanced roles. Aaron Paul’s performance will be familiar to anyone who has seen Breaking Bad; Norman Reedus essentially reprises his role from The Walking Dead. Woody Harrelson does his grizzled half-genius, half-dope fiend, difficult man schtick he’s done many times. Only Kate Winslet is cast against her type – and her scenery-chewing enjoyment of the role makes her feel like an actress doing a guest turn, rather than a real person.

Hillcoat’s direction doesn’t bring any of the film’s threads together. It never feels like a film that is about something. Where is the depth, where is the interest? It’s not even a particularly exciting film to watch, with the heist moments not particularly exciting or interesting, and its shot with a wicked darkness that never gets the pulse going. After some initial build-up, the plot never really goes anywhere unexpected, and the final pay-off is stretching for a narrative weight it just doesn’t have. 

Hillcoat and crew obviously feel they are making a higher genre film – but this is really just a pulp thriller, with actors acting tough but never convincing. None of the major events make a massive amount of sense: characters run into each other in a way that stretches credulity, the Russian mob runs its business with a counter-productive brutality, the dirty cops alternate between super cunning and horrendously dumb.  It’s a dumb, badly written movie that never comes to life. It doesn’t even have the real moments of excitement you need to at least grab you while the rest of the film drifts along. Not good. Not good at all. Triple 9? Not even triple stars.

Ant-Man (2015)

Paul Rudd springs into action as Ant-Man

Director: Peyton Reed

Cast: Paul Rudd (Scott Lang), Michael Douglas (Hank Pym), Evangeline Lilly (Hope van Dyne), Corey Stall (Darren Cross), Bobby Cannavale (Paxton), Michael Peña (Luis), Anthony Mackie (Sam Wilson/Falcon), Judy Greer (Maggie), Hayley Atwell (Peggy Carter), John Slattery (Howard Stark)

Back into Marvel’s Cinematic Universe, as yet another comic book hero comes to the big screen. Is there going to be anyone who has appeared in a Marvel comic at any point who isn’t going to find their way into a live action film at some point? It’s looking unlikely!

Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) was formerly Ant-Man, a super-hero who can shrink himself to the size of an ant, with superhuman strength. In the present, he has been forced out of his own company by his former protégé Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) and his estranged daughter Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly). When newly released thief Scott Lang (Paul Rudd), desperate to provide for his daughter, steals Pym’s Ant-Man suit, Pym identifies him as the man who he can train up to take his place as Ant-Man and help to protect the shrinking technology from being misused by Cross.

Ant-Man was a project developed for many years by Edgar Wright, dynamic director of the Cornetto Trilogy with Simon Pegg and Nick Frost. But our old friend Creative Differences reared its head, and studio and director went their separate ways. Which is a real shame as you can’t shake the feeling a director with genuine invention and imagination might have been able to craft something truly original out of this, rather than the essentially solid piece of craftwork it is.

There’s nothing particularly wrong with Ant-Man. It’s just a rather average, forgettable film with moments of interest. It’s a jolly, inoffensive little caper, which goes through the motions of the origins story of a hero without offering anything that different from what we’ve seen dozens of times before now. It’s all very professionally done, and even witty in places, but it’s nothing special.

This is particularly a shame since there are genuine moments of originality. A battle between Lang and Cross, both shrunken, takes place in a child’s train set, with the film cutting between the different scales of events for some effective comic impact (so we see the train crash with seismic impact on small scale, then see the same event at normal scale where it seems laughably minor). Similarly, Michael Peña’s character tells a series of anecdotal stories in voiceover in a laid back, hipster patter, with his words and phrasing exactly lip-synched by the people in the story. It’s a neat little piece of cinematic invention.

The heist structure of the film is good fun, and the pseudo-science of shrinking is entertainingly (and consistently) explained. Even our hero’s ability to control ants doesn’t seem too silly (which is really saying something).

It’s just all pretty much what you would expect. Corey Stoll’s villain in particular seems a slightly contrived after-thought, an antagonist whose existence serves as a contrast to Lang and Pym rather than a character who seems to be organically developed. Their final confrontation is amusingly done – but it’s a familiar Marvel trope now: a hero and villain with the same powers facing off. We’ve seen it done many times since the first Iron Man film.

Saying that, Paul Rudd is a decent and engaging lead (even though he seems to be effectively playing himself) and he makes Lang into a character it’s easy to root for (even if we’ve seen the sort of “Dad wants to prove himself” narrative many, many times before). Michael Douglas could do his mentor role standing on his head, but brings the role a nice lightness of touch. Evangeline Lilly brings a nice mix of resentful and caring to a tricky role as Pym’s overlooked daughter.

The problem you always have is that everything in the film feels a little bit too straight-forward and easy. It’s not a bad thing that this is a film that simply sets out to entertain, but somehow, enjoyable as it is, you want something a little bit more rather than the rather safe concoction that we have here. It’s fun while it lasts but then it disappears from your mind almost completely once it’s finished. Is that a good thing? Well it makes good escapism. But plenty of these films have managed to be more than just something to enjoyably pass the time. Which is all Ant-Man really is.