Tag: Djimon Hounsou

Gladiator (2000)

Russell Crowe dominates in Ridley Scott’s Oscar-winning Gladiator

Director: Ridley Scott

Cast: Russell Crowe (Maximus Decimus Meridius), Joaquin Phoenix (Emperor Commodus), Connie Nielsen (Lucilla), Richard Harris (Emperor Marcus Aurelius), Oliver Reed (Proximo), Derek Jacobi (Senator Gracchus), Djimon Hounsou (Juba), Tomas Arana (General Quintus), Spencer Treat Clark (Lucius Verus), David Schofield (Senator Falco), John Shrapnel (Senator Gaius), Rolf Moller (Hagen), Tommy Flanagan (Cicero), David Hemmings (Cassius)

When Gladiator hit the big-screen the swords-and-sandals epic genre was dead. A relic of the early days of technicolour Hollywood, where the widest possible screens were designed to tempt audiences away from the television and into the movie theatre, Roman epics were often seen as stodgy things, usually carrying heavy-handed Christian themes while gleefully throwing as much of the decadence of the empire on the screen as possible. Gladiator changed all that, bringing an emotional and psychological complexity to the genre, as well as a rollicking good story and some brilliant film-making. An Oscar for Best Picture confirmed the genre was back.

In 180 AD General Maximus Decimus Meridius (Russell Crowe) commands the final battle of the Roman forces to conquer the German tribes and bring them under the control of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius (Richard Harris). The humble, dutiful and principled Maximus is a natural leader and the son Marcus Aurelius wishes he had, rather than the son he has the insecure and ambitious Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix). When the Emperor decides that Maximus not Commodus will succeed him – with the brief to restore the Roman republic – Commodus murders the Emperor. When Maximus refuses to give Commodus his loyalty, the new Emperor sentences him and his family to death. Maximus escapes, although he is badly injured, but arrives too late at his home to save his wife and son from death. Collapsing, the General is taken by slavers, healed by fellow slave Juba (Djimon Hounsou) and sold to the North African Gladiator school of Proximo (Oliver Reed). Maximus will play the Gladiator game – because he longs to have his revenge on Commodus.

Gladiator is superbly directed by Ridley Scott, who perfectly mixes the epic scale of the drama with the intimate, human story at its heart. The film looks absolutely fantastic from start to finish, with the superb visuals backed by a breathtakingly beautiful score by Hans Zimmer and Lisa Gerrard that skilfully uses refrains and themes to instantly identify the core emotions in the audiences mind. These themes are associated with emotional beats that immediately plug us into the interior thoughts and emotions of the characters. 

It works because of the emotional truth at its heart. Basically it’s a love story between a man and his dead wife, and isn’t afraid to explore the depths of love that we feel for those closest to us and our pain of their loss. Maximus’ wife and child are represented in silent flashbacks and by two small icons Maximus carries with him on campaign. When, late in the film, he is reunited with these items his raw, tearfully quiet joy carry as much force as any real reunion would do. What drives the film is less a drive for revenge – although there is no doubt this is a motivator for Maximus – but of a continued sense that he must fulfil all his duties (in this case restore the Republic as his surrogate father wished) before he can return to his wife and son (i.e. die).

It’s that which makes the film so easy to invest in emotionally, and which makes Maximus (a hardened killer) so easy to relate to. If he was just a raging man out for revenge, the film would carry a leaner harsher look. But he is instead a man motivated by love, who yearns to be with his family again. Mortality hangs over the entire film – the first shot of the film, famously of the hands in the wheat, have buried themselves in the consciousness because we can all relate to a man who longs to lay down his labours and be with the people he loves. Christianity doesn’t appear too much in Gladiator (unlike older Hollywood Roman epics) but faith is there in spades. And Maximus will do nothing that will jeopardise a reunion with his family in heaven.

This deeply involving story of a man who remains faithful to the memory of his wife – and Scott wisely removed any love plot with Lucilla, which would have felt like cheatingso strongly does the film build Maximus’ love for his wife – that audiences are happy to go with the film through all the violence that follows. Gladiator hit the sweetspot of having something for everyone, from emotion to action. And the action is brilliant. The opening battles is hugely impressive, from its scale to the imaginative interpretation of Roman tactics. It’s trumped by the more raw and ragged action that comes in the Gladiatorial ring, as Maximus transfers his brutal efficiency at war into the ring for the amusement of the crowd.

Like all Gladiator films and series the film successfully has its cake and eats it – so we get a sense of the horror of people fighting to the death for our entertainment, while also heartily enjoying watching our heroes kick ass. The sequence that uses this most effectively, as Proximo’s outmatched Gladiators follow Maximus’ strategic experience and military training to defeat a group of deadly chariot fighters, would-be a stand out in any movie.

The film further works due to the assured brilliance of the Oscar-winning Russell Crowe in the lead role. Crowe exudes natural authority as a general – he genuinely feels like the sort of man that first his soldiers and then his fellow Gladiators will follow to the bitter end. Crowe also dives deep into the soulful sadness at the heart of Maximus, the romantic longing and the searing pain of the betrayal and murder of his family. It’s a performance of immense, small-scale intimacy that also never once gets over-shadowed by the huge spectacle around him. I’m not sure many other actors could have pulled it off.

But the whole cast is extremely strong, Scott encouraging great work across the board. Joaquin Phoenix in particular takes the villain role to a bravely unusual place. His Commodus, far from a sneering Caligula, is in fact a weak, anxious, jealous even strangely pitiable man, so insecure and riven with envy for others that he becomes twisted by it. But we never lose a sense of the humanity at his heart, the sense of a little boy lost, scared by the world around him. It makes sense the Connie Nielsen’s Lucilla – walking a difficult line as a character who has to play both sides – could both fear and hate him but still love the fragile little brother she still senses in him.

Scott’s trusting of experienced pros – many you feel hungry for an opportunity like this – is clear throughout the whole cast. Richard Harris was pulled out of a career slump and reinvented here as an elder statesman, with a wry, playful and eventually moving performance as Marcus Aurelius. Scott’s biggest risk was pulling Oliver Reed from a life better known for drinking bouts to play Proximo. Playing his best role for almost thirty years, Reed reminded us all for one last time that as well as a chat-show joke he was also a powerful and dominant performer, his Proximo a snarling scene stealer. Reed’s death – his final scenes completed with special effects – made this a better tribute than he could have ever imagined.

There are few feet placed wrong in Gladiator. As an action spectacular it’s faultless, but this works because of the truth and love at its heart. It creates an epic that is emotionally involving as it is exciting to watch. The reconstruction of Rome is hugely impressive and Scott paces the film perfectly, letting its force grow along. You never once feel thrown by its scope, and so completely does it wrap you up that, as it becomes more operatic in the final act, the film is never at risk of losing you. It deserves to be remembered with the best of the Hollywood epics.

Amistad (1997)

Djimon Hounsou excels as a slave longing for freedom in Amistad

Director: Steven Spielberg

Cast: Djimon Hounsou (Sengbe Pieh/Joseph Cinqué), Matthew McConaughey (Roger Sherman Baldwin), Anthony Hopkins (John Quincy Adams), Morgan Freeman (Theodore Joadson), Nigel Hawthorne (President Martin van Buren), David Paymer (John Forsythe), Pete Postlethwaite (William S Holabird), Stellan Skarsgård (Lewis Tappen), Razaaq Adoti (Yamba), Abu Bakaar Fofanah (Fala), Anna Paquin (Isabella II), Chiwetel Ejiofor (James Covey), Peter Firth (Captain Fitzgerald), Jeremy Northam (Judge Coglin), Xander Berkeley (Ledger Hammond), Arliss Howard (John C Calhoun)

After the American Revolution, independence left one issue in America that would profoundly split the country: slavery. This was a land divided, between abolitionists and plantation owners, the more emancipation-minded North and slave states of the South. Slavery was – and remains – the ugly stain on the American soul. Steven Spielberg’s film uses a significant court case of its day to shine a light on these contrasting and conflicting priorities in American society throughout much of the early 19th century, that would eventually lead to civil war.

The film tells the true story of the slave revolt on the Spanish slaver ship Amistad. Here the slaves, led by Joseph Cinqué (Djimon Hounsou) escaped captivity, rose up and killed most of the crew (leaving just two men alive to sail the ship) and tried to return to their home in Sierra Leone. Arrested by an American naval ship while collecting fresh water, the slaves are transported to Connecticut where they find themselves on trial as escaped slaves, facing charges of piracy and murder. Their cause is taken up by Northern abolitionists Lewis Tappen (Stellan Skarsgård) and his black associate Theodore Joadson (Morgan Freeman), and their lawyer Roger Sherman Baldwin (Matthew McConaughey) a property lawyer. However, the case’s international implications for slavery attracts the concern of President Martin van Buren (Nigel Hawthorne), eager to support the prosecution, while former President John Quincy Adams (Anthony Hopkins), a lawyer and opponent of slavery, offers his advice to the defence.

Spielberg’s film has just the right balance of human interest and humanitarian concern to overcome its slight air of a civics lesson. Although largely a courtroom drama, what the film is really trying to do is capture in one moment the troubling contradiction of the land of the free built on slaves, and give a voice and empathy to the slaves themselves. 

Although some have criticised this as a “white saviour” film, I feel that’s unfair. This is a film that starts and ends with Cinqué’s story and filters America through his perception. We can well understand why he rages at his lack of comprehension of laws that can be adjusted, court decisions overturned or how words can be twisted to take on other meanings. A film front and centred, say, by Matthew McConaughey’s Baldwin and focusing on journey from seeing this as just another case into a crusade would be a white saviour film. Instead the white characters drop in and out of the story as the narrative requires, and it’s the struggles and courage of the black characters that form the heart of the narrative.

Spielberg also brings to life the cruelty and inhumanity of slavery and what it does to all of us. The film opens with the confined, appalling conditions of the slave ship while Cinqué (with hands running with blood) tries to release a nail from the wood which he will use to free himself from his chains. The film intriguingly opens without the African characters being translated – giving us a sense of their isolation and perhaps also stressing how different they are from the Western “civilisation” that has taken them from their homes. 

It isn’t until half way through the film, until a translator is found for Cinqué, that the film gives us the backstory that Cinqué has struggled to communicate. Spielberg spares no punches in showing the violence of abduction, the brutality and casual slaughter of the slavers, the starvations, the floggings that end in blood sprayed death, the cramped conditions practically designed to weed out the weak. A mother chooses drowning for herself and her child rather than life on the ship. Later the slavers chain unwanted slaves to a bag of rocks and cast them overboard to reduce their cargo load. If there was any doubt about the heart-rending evil behind slavery, it’s removed from your mind.

It also serves to hammer home the injustice of America’s own system. Under political pressure – van Buren is worried about the reaction of both Spain and the Southern States to the Africans being found innocent – the trial encounters interference and appeals every step of the way. It’s a system that prides itself on being the greatest in the world, but shows time and time again how it can be weighted against the weakest. The courtroom scenes – skilfully directed and played – show time and time lawyers valuing obscure property laws above right and wrong. And we are brought time and time again to the reactions and lack of understanding of the African characters, who come from a society where there is no equivocation and no words equivalent to “usually” or “perhaps”.

The film perhaps does take a little too long over its various legal machinations, and could do with losing a few minutes here and there. But that would be to sacrifice its many strengths. Looking wonderful, with a marvellous score by John Williams (riffing on the American pipes and African tribal influences), one of the strongest acting companies Spielberg ever assembled does outstanding work. Carrying much of the film is Djimon Hounsou, who makes Cinqué anything but a victim – he is a proud, defiant and intelligent man, humble enough about his qualities but quick to act to defend his rights. Uncowed but infuriated by the situation he finds himself in, he is never a passenger but at all times a key figure in his own liberation, even if his legal case must be fought by whites.

McConaughey enjoys himself under a bad wig, glasses and dirty teeth as the lawyer Baldwin, ambitious but with more than an air of decency. Postlethwaite is at his quietly authoritative best as his opposition counsel. Freeman lends the film a large part of his grace and dignity in a small, observant part of the freed-slave turned abolitionist, with Skarsgård more political as his white colleague. Hawthorne makes a van Buren a slightly flustered, impatient figure. Peter Firth demonstrates a great contempt for slavery behind an imperious exterior.

The film’s highlight performance though is Hopkins’ Oscar-nominated turn as John Quincy Adams. Adjusting his physicality to match the ageing ex-President, Hopkins captures his slightly nasal Massachusetts twang and adds a significant amount of twinkly charm and wry shrewdness to this adept political operator. A large chunk of the film’s final 20 minutes is given over to Hopkins, with the highlight a long monologue of Adams speech to the Supreme Court (in actuality a speech over eight hours in length!), that is a tour-de-force of skilled showmanship. It’s Hopkins’ last great performance of the 1990s. 

Spielberg’s Amistad is a superb courtroom drama but also a heartfelt condemnation of the inhumanity man can show to man. It never forgets either that while this was a victory, it was only a skirmish not the war. While the film at times overplays the inevitability of Civil War (which did not exactly start over this issue), it skilfully shows the divide in the American culture between abolition and slavery – and how many felt for the first cause, but feared the supporters of the second so much they would rather not address it. Either way, Amistad may at times be a little dry – but that gives its moments of emotion even more force.

Captain Marvel (2019)

Brie Larsen is Captain Marvel – yah boo sucks Trolls!

Director: Anna Boden, Ryan Fleck

Cast: Brie Larson (Carol Danvers/Veers), Samuel L Jackson (Nick Fury), Jude Law (Yon-Rogg), Ben Mendelsohn (Talos/Keller), Djimon Hounsou (Korath), Lee Pace (Ronan the Accuser), Lashana Lynch (Maria Rambeau), Gemma Chan (Minn-Evra), Annette Bening (Supreme Intelligence/Mar-Vell/Dr Wendy Lawson), Clark Gregg (Phil Coulsen)

After almost 11 years, the big criticism of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been that it had never made a film with a woman as the lead. Sure, we’d had various strong female characters, but never had one been trusted with headlining a movie. Well the studio has put that right with Captain Marvel, a hugely enjoyable, if not exactly groundbreaking, superhero origins story that can stand up with some of the best origin movies the studio has produced.

In the Kree civilisation, Veers (Brie Larson) is in training to take her proper place in the Star Force, under the tutelage of her mentor Yon-Rogg (Jude Law). But she’s struggling to control her immense powers, with her dreams plagued by strange visions and half memories of a planet that looks to us viewers a lot like Earth. After a Star Force mission goes wrong, Veers is captured by the shape-shifting Skrulls and their leader Talos (Ben Mendelsohn), her memory being searched for a time on Earth that she doesn’t remember. Escaping, she finds herself on Earth in 1995, and quickly allies with SHIELD operative Nick Fury (Samuel L Jackson, impressively digitally de-aged) to find out what the Skrulls want. But is everything as it appears? And what will happen as Veers starts to remember her true identity, as long-missing air-force test pilot Carol Danvers?

Captain Marvel I guess you could say is not an ambitious film. It largely sits pretty close to the well-established Marvel formula for introducing a new character, and it presents a series of visuals, fights and general tone mixing light-jokes with action beats extremely well. It’s a very professionally assembled product. However, what makes it work is the strain of emotional truth, and an interest in character as the driving force for events, that runs right through the centre of the film. It’s a testament to the imaginative and original direction from Boden and Fleck that at the centre of each clash we see, not the action and the pyrotechnics, but the emotion and character that give these things meaning.

They are also helped by an interesting plot, with some very decent twists, that throws the viewers into the deep end and carefully drip-feeds us information at the same pace as Carol picks it up. This also helps hugely for investing in Brie Larson’s Carol Danvers, a character who doesn’t know who she is and where she came from. Brie Larson does a terrific job, crafting a character “strong and determined”, but also witty, impulsive, brave, caring, decent and rather sweet with a strong moral compass that clearly, from the start, governs all her actions. It’s a fine performance and Larson is equally convincing in the film’s lighter, funnier moments as she is when banging heads together.

That helps keep the tone of the film pretty consistent as it heads through various twists and turns and rugpulls. Now I am sure some of these twists would be seen coming by anyone immersed in Marvel comicbook lore, but for us Muggles I appreciated the reveals about several characters defying expectations. The film also avoids false tension – a character is so obviously a shape-shifted replacement, it’s a relief that the film confirms this in minutes and the characters work it out shortly after. It’s a smart way for the film to fool you into thinking where it is going, while building towards more interesting reveals later on – particularly as it throws our expectations for several characters into the air.

And the action when it takes place is great fun, primary-coloured and accompanied by a great selection of 90s tracks. Because Boden and Fleck have spent so much time carefully developing the characters at its heart, these become action moments you can genuinely invest in, where people you care about are in peril, rather than the bangs and crashes without consequence that plague other films.

It’s also mixed extremely well with comedy. Samuel L Jackson in particular gets some great comic mileage out of a young Nick Fury, a man on his way to becoming the hard-as-nails guy we’ve seen in countless movies, but here still young, playful and (hilariously) besotted with a cat rather wittily called “Goose”. Ben Mendelsohn also gets some good moments from his mysterious shape shifter and Jude Law has a sort of put-upon charm as Carol’s mentor. There are also some lovely moments as Carol rediscovers her memories and rebuilds a relationship with her former best friend and fellow test pilot Maria Rambeau, well played by Lashana Lynch.

Captain Marvel is such good fun, such good old fashioned entertainment, that it seems to have defeated the efforts of the internet trolls to consign it to oblivion. It’s sad to say that, following in the footsteps of Black Panther, The Last Jedi, Star Trek: Discovery and Doctor Who, another “fan boy” franchise entry has seen its opening overshadowed by a bunch of sad wankers with key boards hammering into the internet (and whining into YouTube) about Disney and “the suits” forcing fans to watch stories about people who aren’t white males. Larsen and Captain Marvel got it in the neck for being sexist (it’s not about a man and Larsen dared to say she thought film critics were overwhelmingly white and male – guilty in this case), pushing a feminist agenda (because, like, it had a woman in it that wasn’t a damsel-in-distress or hooker-with-a-heart-of-gold) and not representing what the fans wanted to see in comic films (muscular men saving ladies and hitting things basically). Never mind that social commentary in the old days used to be what these fans bragged about their passions being so full of. Now any character who doesn’t fit a narrow set of racial and sexual criteria is an attempt by the PC brigade to push these pricks out of the fandom. Well to be honest we are better off without this turgid slime polluting fandom with their putrid stench. Put frankly, if films like Captain Marvel make some idiots decide they are going to boycott Marvel for ever more, well good – please fuck off and let the door slam you on your arse on the way out.

Anyway, rant over. Captain Marvel is great fun, Brie Larsen is great, the action is well done, the jokes are funny, the story is engaging and it’s all done and dusted in two hours. Go and see it.

King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017)

Charlie Hunnam is a “Proper LEGEND” in disasterous geezy gangster King Arthur: Legend of the Sword

Director: Guy Ritchie

Cast: Charlie Hunnam (King Arthur), Jude Law (King Vortigern), Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey (The Mage), Djimon Hounsou (Sir Bedivere), Aidan Gillen (Goosefat Bill Wilson), Eric Bana (King Uther Pendragon), Kingsley Ben-Adir (Tristan), Craig McGinlay (Percival), Tom Wu (George), Neil Maskell (Back Lack), Annabelle Wallis (Maggie), Katie McGrath (Elsa), Freddie Fox (Rubio), Mikael Persbrandt (Greybeard), Michael McElhatton (Jack’s Eye), Geoff Bell (Mischief Jack)

Okay we’ve all seen bad movies. And we’ve all seen movies that don’t make a lot of sense. But it’s a pretty special film that is both at the same time. King Arthur: Legend of the Sword is one of those. It is jaw-droppingly terrible and also insanely, ludicrously, incoherent. It’s completely impossible to follow what the hell is going on. Considering the studio planned this as the first of at least ten movies in an Arthur-verse, it’s practically a textbook on how not to start a movie franchise.

Anyway the plot, such as I can work out, is something like this: back in ye olde England times, magic and Mages have been nearly wiped out after (I think) an attempt by Mage Warlord Mordred to seize the throne. Then former Mage pupil and jealous brother of King Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana), Vortigern (Jude Law) kills his wife to get powers to seize the throne. Only young Arthur survives – and an unspecified period of time later (he ages, no one else does), Arthur (Charlie Hunnam) is a cocky geezer running a brothel in Londinium in the shadow of the Coliseum (yes really). Then one day Uther’s sword Excalibur turns up buried in a stone and Vortigern gets everyone to try and pull the sword out of the stone, so he can find the true heir (Arthur) and then when he finds him he puts on a show trial and it looks like he’s going to execute him because Arthur has become a legend in five minutes. Then Arthur is rescued by rebels who want Arthur to lead them, because the sword has special powers which Arthur can control if he can only get over his doubt and when it works… Oh God I can’t believe I’ve just tried to puzzle it out.

Scenes in King Arthur: Legend of the Sword follow each other with barely any structural link from one to the other. The film is convinced that the best way to pique our interest in a mystery is to throw us into the deep end and then info-dump flashbacks and voiceover throughout the film. The effect is rather like an ove- excited child trying to tell you a story (“And then a MASSIVE OLIPHANT SMASHED THE BRIDGE, and Uther fought it with a sword and it went boom and there was a big funeral and then Vortigern killed his wife and he was sad and he shouted and then a BIG DEMON killed Uther because the sword couldn’t go boom and then Arthur grew up”) who keeps leaving out the key details so has to throw them in later (“oh and Vortigen killed his wife because he needed to become a BIG DEMON and could only do it if he killed someone he loved and he had to become a BIG DEMON because it was the only way to stop Uther from making the sword go boom and he needed to get the sword – umm – well I’m not sure why but he needed it to build his tower. Did I mention his Tower? I think it was why he wanted to become King so he could build the tower. I think the tower made him a powerful magician. But of course he already was a magician he just wanted to be a betterer one. Did I mention that Arthur got the sword and made it go boom?”).

Instead the film showcases absolutely all the worst instincts of Guy Ritchie. All of them. Everything happens really fast and incredibly loudly. There are huge senseless battles and enormous CGI beasts who attack for no reason whatsoever. Arthur and his cronies are all transformed into cockney wide-boys, with Vortigern’s enforcers basically gangsters, all speaking with the Lock Stock rat-a-tat vibe that was fresh in 1998 but feels impossibly dated and tiresome now. This mixes with the ridiculously loud and fast pace of the film that makes it almost literally impossible to work out what is going on – and certainly makes it impossible to give a shit about anyone or anything in the film as events, characters, action and dialogue fly past with nothing dwelling to make any impact.

Everything has been thrown at this. Monsters! Gangsters! Chinese Martial Artists! Knights as Nazis (Jude Law’s Vortigen hosts a full blown Nuremberg Rally)! None of it really ties together. Nothing makes sense. Everything is filmed dull and murkily.

Probably because the producers worked out what they’d put together was an impossible turkey, the film has been cut to ribbons. To try and make a virtue of this, frequently characters explain events that are going to happen, while the events themselves play out on screen. Ritchie pumps this up to the next level by having the dialogue delivered with manic speed, which clearly passes in his mind for cool. This is when it explains things at all. More often events speed by so swiftly that we just have to assume massive time jumps have happened. This sword must be important (its name is in the title) but when it pops up out of nowhere, we get no sense that Vortigern has spent any time looking for it. Not only that, his system of forcible sword tests is both a well-oiled machine and something Arthur (who lives literally in the shadow of Vortigern’s castle) has never heard of. In less than two minutes of screen-time after he pulls the sword, Arthur is spoken of as a legendary figure who must be killed publicly to kill his legend. What? How much time is passing here?

The film has both way too much plot going on, and not enough interesting plot going on. It’s so determined to set up future movies that we get lots of incoherent information about Mages, magic and powerful swords dumped on us really quickly. Anything that could be seen as a “special effect” has been left in, while it feels like anything dialogue-related has been cut. So we have a way, way, way too long sequence of Arthur in some place called the Darklands battling monsters for reasons never explained by the plot (its stated purpose, to get him to master the sword, doesn’t even work – making it a complete cul-de-sac). We get a battle at the start where we literally don’t know who is fighting whom or why. At one point, the Mage commands a giant snake which pops up to save Arthur and is never used again. On the counterside, we are never clear what Vortigern is trying to do or why he seized the throne, why he is building a huge tower or why he needs the sword – or indeed why the sword is important other than it makes things go BOOM.

The actors stumble about the wreckage of this film, like shell-shocked survivors of some kind of apocalypse. Perhaps this is at last the end of Charlie Hunnam as a star of big budget movies – he is, to put it bluntly, awful: a complete non-presence. Jude Law swans through the film as if just turning up was repaying a favour to Ritchie – although god knows Vortigern is a character that makes no sense at all. The rest of the actors make no impact – Aidan Gillen looks a little ashamed to be there – with the one exception of Neil Maskell who gets some very small emotional force out a father-son relationship. But to be honest, this is one where you want to be forgotten.

A film that wants to start a franchise but gives us no reason to care about anyone in it, is on a hiding to nothing. What on earth in this movie would make you want to come back and see the future adventures of Arthur and Pals? I can’t think of anything. If you can work out what is going on you are welcome to it. Lord knows no one else wants it.

The Legend of Tarzan (2016)

The Legend of Tarzan: The King of the Jungle takes on the MCU style. And loses.

Director: David Yates

Cast: Alexander Skarsgård (Tarzan/John Clayton III), Margot Robbie (Jane Porter Clayton), Samuel L. Jackson (George Washington Williams), Christoph Waltz (Captain Leon Rom), Djimon Hounsou (Chief Mbonga), Jim Broadbent (Lord Salisbury), Simon Russell Beale (Mr Frum)

Every so often you seriously wonder what the point of a film was. Are movie studios so desperate for a franchise that literally anything that has any kind of name recognition is considered a money-spinning franchise in the waiting? Welcome to the latest feeble attempt to jumpstart an epic franchise: the first (and surely last entry) in the Tarzan-verse.

In the late 1880s, the Belgians are carrying out terrible acts in Africa, spearheaded by ruthless Captain Leon Rom (a painting-by-numbers Christoph Waltz). To get hold of diamonds held by an H Rider Haggard gang of natives, he needs to lure Lord John Clayton III (better known as the legendary Tarzan) back into the jungle. But John (Alexander Skarsgård) has tried to put his life as the King of the Jungle behind him (for reasons never really made clear) and only once his wife Jane (Margot Robbie) is put at risk does he begin to reclaim what he has lost.

Was there any real demand for a Tarzan movie? Perhaps even more to the point, was there any audience for one? Since, I imagine, today most people only  on-screen Tarzan viewing experience was watching the Disney animated version, it’s hard to understand who the makers of this film imagined was going to engage with a confused, clichéd movie part dull origins story, intercut with a “rediscovering your roots” plot. And that’s the first of the major errors the film makes.

So determined is the film not to jump straight in with the context of who Tarzan is, that it keeps dribbling away from the actual plot to cram in small (confusing) moments establishing who his parents were, how he met Jane, how they left Africa etc. etc. etc. This stuff is far more interesting than any of the tiresome diamonds / kidnapped wife / White Man Saving Africa nonsense in the main plot, making all the “main” action feel like a sidetrack; not to mention that you’re several flashbacks in before you have any idea how Tarzan has ended up as a stuffed-shirt sitting in a clichéd London, slurping tea with his little finger extended, rather than swinging from vines in the jungle.

The film assumes a level of Tarzan-legend knowledge in its audience I sincerely doubt most viewers had, and the lag while you wait to catch up through the flashbacks is frustrating. The final product is a confused mess with no clear vision about what film it actually wanted to be. If it film wants to deal with the legend, why not just do that – and if it wants to introduce the origins, why doesn’t it just do that? Instead it’s neither one thing nor the other.

Mixed in with some feeble, faux superhero heroics is some clumsy post-colonial criticism of the Belgians’ terrible Congo record, but it goes nowhere in particular. A week on from watching it, I can’t remember what it was about at all. Stuff sort of happens, and there is a vague idea Tarzan is trying to save the Congo, but the film never kicks into gear. Events happen without any real narrative thrust – our heroes and villains literally meander down a river towards no-where in particular. It doesn’t help that almost every narrative beat in the film is completely predictable – this is the epitome of safe, uninspired film-making and storytelling, as if everything has been carefully honed in focus groups and committees.

A large part of the problem is Skarsgård’s lifeless performance in the lead role. Clearly bulging muscles and decent features were all the part really required, because there’s nothing in the way of character. He’s supposed to be a man who has lost touch with his past, confused and ashamed about his background. The film is building towards his emotional acceptance that his gorilla mother was his true mother. It’s a viable, if not especially original, plot – but it falls flat, simply because Skarsgård just isn’t interesting enough. His stilted performance conveys no inner pain or turmoil. Who cares who his mother was? Skarsgård doesn’t seem to, and neither did I.

It doesn’t help that all the rest of the actors (I mean all of them) are more interesting, eye catching presences. Jackson and Waltz are such seasoned pros they invest their paper-thin characters with their own charisma, though each of them could do what they are asked to here standing on their heads. Margot Robbie is actually rather radiant as Jane – even though she is never much more than a (defiant) damsel-in-distress.

The Legend of Tarzan is, at best, okay. It’s desperate to turn Tarzan into some sort of all-action superman, a competitor for the Marvel universe. But it focuses so much on trying to fill out the backstory and beef up the action that it fails to make a film with any characters in it we really care about. Instead this is the blandest, B-movie cornpuff you are likely to see and so instantly forgettable you’ll barely remember each scene as you watch it. It’s enjoyable enough but totally unsurprising, uninspired and fundamentally totally forgettable.

Blood Diamond (2006)

Leonardo DiCaprio and Djimon Hounsou excel in this self important Hollywood message film

Director: Edward Zwick

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio (Danny Archer), Djimon Hounsou (Solomon Vandy), Jennifer Connelly (Maddy Bowen), Arnold Vosloo (Colonel Coetzee), Michael Sheen (Rupert Simmons), David Harewood (Captain Poison), Basil Wallace (Benjamin Kapanay), Jimi Mistry (Nabil), Kagiso Kuypers (Dia Vandy)

Hollywood films set in Africa often have a difficult conundrum – they want to tell a story about that often troubled continent, but struggle to do so without feeling impossibly worthy – and often need to filter the story through the experience of white westerners in the region. Blood Diamond tries to avoid these traps very hard – but largely ends up falling into them.

In 1999, Sierra Leone is ravaged by Civil War. Fisherman Solomon Vandy’s (Djimon Hounsou) village is attacked by rebels, led by Captain Poison (David Harewood), and his son is taken as a child soldier. Captured Vandy is forced to work at the diamond mines, where he discovers a priceless “Blood Diamond”. After concealing it, Vandy is captured by government troops. Overhearing of the diamond’s existence from a confrontation between Vandy and Poison in prison, Rhodesian arms trader Danny Archer (Leonardo DiCaprio) enlists Vandy to claim the diamond – promising to help find Vandy’s lost family with the help of journalist Maddy Bowen (Jennifer Connolly).

The only thing that elevates this rather shallow film is the excellence of its two lead performers. Both DiCaprio and Hounsou give committed, energised and emotional performances way beyond the clichés and mundane predictability of the rest of the film. DiCaprio has a fairly standard redemption cycle, but invests Archer with an inner pain, a supressed sense of honour and a bitter anger at the world that acts as a shield against opening himself up to affection and friendship. Hounsou takes on the difficult task of effectively representing Africa, but makes Solomon a living, breathing man, a loving father but also a rash man, defensive but burning with emotions.

It’s a shame the rest of the actors aren’t given the time to build these sort of real human portraits out of this stodgy script. Jennifer Connolly in particular is cursed with a lousy part – every third line is either a plot device or a method of communicating facts and figures from the writer’s research. The film is bookended by tedious “G8” meeting scenes where (mostly white) politicians effectively sanctimoniously read the contents of Wikipedia’s Sierra Leone pages at each other. 

The film manages to tick most of the expected boxes of African-set Hollywood films, with poverty, violence, blood diamonds, war lords and child soldiers all mixed in. It’s very clear all involved were of the opinion they were making an “important” film. It’s this “on the nose” seriousness that prevents the film from being a really effective piece of message-film making, not helped by Zwick’s careful but uninspired direction. It’s not a bad film by any stretch, but it is only a competently well-made, average one.

Throughout, messages are heavily delivered and metaphors hammered home (a metaphor about the blood in the soil is whacked over our head at a crucial dénouement). The film overeggs the pudding for its emotional moments – the final scene certainly goes too far. Many of these problems come back to the script, which is so wedded to its research and earnestness, that it keeps getting in the way of the moments when the film tries to come to life. We never really feel we are actually sharing the experience of those most affected by events (even Vandy is really a supporting actor in his what should be his own movie, his experience filtered through the impact it has on Archer).

So this is a flawed film, but it still sort of works – and most of that praise needs to go to the leads, who deserved a far better film. It’s predictable and sanctimonious, keen to be a landmark piece of cinema, but really it’s just another Hollywood “message” piece. DiCaprio and Hounsou sell the hell out of the predictable story and stodgy script, and make it one that keeps your interest throughout, even if it never really hits you with the impact it desired.