Tag: Ridley Scott

Black Hawk Down (2001)

Black Hawk Down (2001)

Ridley Scott’s immersive combat film is politically simple but one of the great combat films

Director: Ridley Scott

Cast: Josh Hartnett (SSG Matt Eversmann), Ewan McGregor (SPC John Grimes), Eric Bana (SFC Norm ‘Hoot’ Gibson), Tom Sizemore (LTC Danny McKnight), Sam Shepard (General William F Garrison), Ron Eldard (CWO4 Michael Durant), William Fichtner (SFC Jeff Sanderson), Jeremy Piven (SW4 Clifton Wolcott), Ewen Bremner (SPC Shawn Nelson), Gabriel Casseus (SPC Mike Kurth), Hugh Dancy (SFC KURT Schmid), Jason Isaacs (CPT Mike Steele), Tom Hardy (SPC Lance Twombly), Orlando Bloom (PFC Todd Blackburn), Nikolaj Coster-Waldau (MSG Gary Gordon), Johnny Strong (SFC Randy Shughart)

On 4 October 1993, the US won a pyrrhic victory supporting UN efforts to prevent genocide in the Somalian Civil War. A mission in Mogadishu to capture the lieutenants of rebel leader Mohamed Farrah Aidid collapsed into a desperate overnight street battle as Aidid’s forces rose up en masse (up to 4,000 of them) in an attempt to cut off and wipe out the c. 160 US troops.

Although the majority escaped, it was one of the most costly American operations since Vietnam, with the loss of 18 dead and 73 wounded and two Black Hawk helicopters shot down. As many as 2,000 Somalians were also killed. Pictures of the bodies of American soldiers dragged through the streets by Somalian rebels led to a major realignment of US foreign policy, with a reluctance to join future peace keeping operations (most notably the Rwandan genocide).

This is bought to the screen in a virtuoso directorial achievement by Ridley Scott, one of the most immersive and gripping war films ever made. Black Hawk Down doesn’t shirk on an inch of the war experience. Combat is loud, sudden, all-consuming and a barrage on the senses. It’s scary, confusing and always unforgiving. Mud, blood and dirt are flung into a camera that runs through streets alongside the soldiers, embedded with them under siege. The slightest lack of focus or mistake is punished by horrific injury or death. The battle is a nightmare of confusion and desperate improvisation in which neither side (especially the Americans) really knows what’s going on.

It’s not surprising they don’t. The film expertly demonstrates how a multi-approach plan (helicopters delivering ground forces, an armed convoy to collect prisoners) was effectively a rashly planned house of cards, which collapsed when the hornet’s nest of an uncontrolled city, crammed with thousands of potential hostiles, roadblocks and a prepared and dedicated enemy (willing to suffer a level of loss the Americans were not) was unleashed. Ground forces are stranded, helicopters shot down, the exposed convoy becomes a slow-moving hospital, all under constant fire in a dusty, urban centre where every single civilian could be a enemy combatant.

Scott shoots and edits this with pulse-pounding intensity, aided by the dizzying camera work of Sławomir Idziak and the high-octane cutting of Pietro Scalia, whose work grips you by the throat and never lets go. It’s a “grunt’s-eye” view of the war, that puts the viewer very much in the trenches with the soldiers. We pretty much join them running through gauntlets of bullets, ducking into foxholes and desperately trying to stay alive. Scott’s work is outstanding here, a brilliant depiction of the chaos of battle in which events are both intimidatingly out of control but also crystal clear to the audience, assembled with a never-lets-up energy leaving the viewer tense and breathless.

As Eric Bana’s fiercely professional Hoot says “it’s about the man next to you”. That’s very much what Black Hawk Down is about. There’s very little context about the American operation in Somalia, the Somalian people, the impact on long-term American politics…  The film believes the whys and wherefores are less important than protecting the lives of your colleagues.

Argument has raged about whether Black Hawk Down is pro-war or not. I’m not convinced it is. Can a film which shows soldiers maimed, disfigured and literally torn in two, really be a celebration of war? But, what it clearly is, is pro-the American fighting man. The training and expertise of these soldiers – trained to make every shot count and keep their cool in terrifying situations – is crucial to their survival. (The scattergun indiscipline of the Somalian rebels is noticeable by comparison – and it’s fair to note that Black Hawk Down gives very little focus to the Somalians at all, other than as a faceless hostile mass).

The film is in awe of the soldiers’ willingness to sacrifice themselves for each other: the dramatization of Gary Gordon and Randy Shughart’s request to be dropped in to provide some sort of cover to one of the downed Black Hawk pilots (a request they know is a suicide mission) exemplifies “leave no man behind” bravery. Black Hawk Down is a tribute to soldiers.

Interestingly though, that also means it’s a film where characters are more important for what they do rather than who they are. We learn very little personal information about any of them. Hartnett’s newly-promoted SSG has sympathy for the Somali people and is nervous about his first command mission. McGregor’s admin officer is unsettled by his first field operation. Sizemore and Isaacs are professional officers, executing orders to the best of their ability; Fichtner and Bana experienced Rangers, samurai trained to adapt and improvise. But their personalities are only hooks to hang their deeds on. Each melts into the large cast as needed. Black Hawk Down is the triumph of the unit – be that fighting together or some member volunteering to die to help protect others.

It is fair to argue the film should have done more to contextualise events. Black Hawk Down focuses so much on celebrating the bravery of soldiers, it skips any political impact: it’s not made clear in the end captions that the US effectively withdrew from its peace-keeping responsibilities for years afterwards (only shocked back into it by 9/11). It never mentions the UN were slow to respond as they had been caught in an almost identical disaster a few weeks before (a lesson the US didn’t bother to learn from). It never mentions the cost of non-intervention in places like Rwanda. It never explores how these events – and American complacency, not least in the committed-but-unengaged soldiers – were a step toward a terrorist world that would culminate in 9/11.

Scott was aiming to make an immersive film. Perhaps his work on films like Body of Lies (and even Kingdom of Heaven) later was about adding more shading and depth to his presentation of world affairs (and critique of American policy). But, in its intent, Black Hawk Down is a triumph, one of the most unrelenting and compelling combat films ever made. You can argue it turns the Somalis into bogey men fighters – but it’s trying (rightly or wrongly) to be a representation of a single military action, from a single side’s perspective. And there is no doubt this is one of Scott’s finest achievements – and one of the great war films.

The Last Duel (2021)

The Last Duel header1
Adam Driver and Matt Damon fight The Last Duel in medieval France

Director: Ridley Scott

Cast: Matt Damon (Sir Jean de Carrouges), Adam Driver (Jacques Le Gris), Jodie Comer (Marguerite de Carrouges), Ben Affleck (Count Pierre d’Alencon), Harriet Walter (Nicole de Buchard), Alex Lawther (King Charles VI), Marton Csorkas (Crespin), Željko Ivanek (Le Coq), Tallulah Haddon (Marie), Bryony Hannah (Alice), Nathaniel Parker (Sir Robert de Thibouville), Adam Nagaitis (Adam Louvel)

The medieval era had its own solution for “He said, She said”. Let God decide via a fight to the death. After all, He would never let the injured party lose, would he? Scott’s The Last Duel is a dramatisation of one of the last French judicial duels, in December 1386, between Sir Jean de Carrouges (Matt Damon) and his former friend Jacques le Gris (Adam Driver), after Le Gris is accused of raping Carrouge’s wife Marguerite (Jodie Comer). Scott’s Rashomon-inspired film shows the events leading up to the duel from all three characters’ perspectives.

The three different stories we see are not radically different. Unlike Rashomon – which presented totally different versions of the same events, according to the prejudices or agendas of the storytellers – The Last Duel’s versions stress subtly different reactions or presents different fragments of an overall story. So, for instance, Le Gris and Carrouges remember different elements of a battle. Carrouges recalls the noble charge to save the innocent, saving Le Gris’ life in the final stages of combat. To Le Gris it’s a suicidal charge, in which he saves an unhorsed Carrouge’s life. After the rape, Carrouge remembers offering his wife sympathy; she remembers his anger and demand they have sex at once to “cleanse her” of the stain.

These mixed recollections work best when we see each of them remember a fateful reconciliation meeting between Le Gris and Carrouges (where Le Gris and Marguerite first meet). A wedge has been driven between them ever since Carrouges believed Le Gris cheated him out of both land and his father’s former position. When the two agree to try and put the past behind them, Carrouge asks Marguerite to give Le Gris a kiss of peace. He remembers her surprise and timidity. Le Gris remembers her as being quietly excited with a kiss that lingers. Marguerite remembers a kiss from Le Gris that lingers too long. Small moments like this are where the film is at its strongest, making its concept feel very relevant today in our world of accusation and counter accusation.

But these moments are few and far between. Most of the time there isn’t this subtle variation. Where the film is weakest is when we (frequently) see the same events, presented the same way, three times. While our perception of Carrouges changes – from the ill-treated noble he sees himself to the sullen, self-entitled whiner everyone else sees – our idea of Le Gris is fundamentally the same (blissfully self-entitled). Fundamentally, when we see events the first time, later versions only really tweak our perception of them rather than challenge it.

You can see this in the rape itself, which we first see from Le Gris’ perspective. The film shows Le Gris’ understanding of consent has been twisted by most of his sexual experience being court orgies with playfully protesting prostitutes. His pursuit of a genuinely unwilling Margeurite around her room echoes exactly the pretend-chases and “chat up lines” he’s used in those earlier scenes, so we understand it’s possible he doesn’t actually understand he’s raped her. But no viewer can see Le Gris’ version as anything other than rape. In fact, the only tangible difference when we see the event from her perspective is that her screams of “No” and “Stop” are louder and the camera focuses more on her anguished face. If the film is presenting any tension about whether this is a consensual encounter or rape, it ends the second we see Le Gris’ story.

This negatively effects the drama – and actually makes Marguerite’s version seem strangely superfluous. You start to feel we might as well see all three perspectives at the same time, as the narrative trick ends up adding little to the film – especially since the film categorically states Marguerite’s version is the truth. Why not just tell the whole film from her perspective in that case? It also doesn’t help that Marguerite goes last – which means until an hour into the film, the character we should be most engaged with and sympathetic towards has stood on the side-lines.

This is particularly unfortunate as the film is striving for a feminist message. The men are callous and self-obsessed, treating women as sex toys or assets – and are praised for it. Marguerite though is intelligent and principled, marginalised by her husband and condemned as a whore when she protests her rape. She pushes her case with determination, despite discovering she will be condemned to burn if Carrouge loses (he of course is only in his own honour). Her word is only good if backed a man, and she is powerless to defend her innocence.

It’s the lot of medieval women. Harriet Walter (rocking a bizarre appearance, straight out of David Lynch’s Dune) as Carrouge’s mother tells Marguerite the same thing happened to her, but she considered it pointless (and dangerous) to press charges. What we see of the judicial system is ruthlessly unjust and misanthropic, with women harangued to confess their guild for tempting men.

But it doesn’t quite click together. It’s a shame, as many scenes are highly effective. The rape – both times we see it – is alarming. The final duel is brilliantly shot and hugely tense, not least because Marguerite stands literally on the top of an unlit bonfire watching every blow. Scott’s shoots the film with the same blue-filtered beauty he gave to the early scenes of Kingdom of Heaven.

There is of course an oddness in seeing such American actors as Damon, Affleck and Driver in period setting. The accents are an odd mix: Comer basically uses her regular (non-Scouse) performance voice, Damon does a gravelly version of his own, Walter an American twang to match Damon, Affleck is halfway to plummy Brit, Driver flattens his Californian tones. Damon is pretty good as the sulky, surly Carrouge who gets less sympathetic the more we see him, Driver is suitably charming on the surface but selfish. Comer plays wounded injustice extremely well and brings a lot of emotion to a difficult role. Affleck has the most fun, flouncing around in a blonde wig as a lordly, hedonistic pervert who likes nothing more than belittling Carrouge.

The Last Duel is part way to a decent film, but it just lacks that little bit extra to make it really come to life. Its alternative versions of the truth don’t illuminate as much as they need to – even if they are at points pleasingly subtle in their differences. It has an admirable feminist message, but defers most of it to the second half of the film (were they worried about sidelining the famous male actors?) and it’s concern that we should not doubt Marguerite at any point does undermine its drama. Handsomely filmed, it doesn’t make the impact it should. Perhaps that’s why it was one of the leading box office disasters of the Covid Pandemic?

House of Gucci (2021)

House of Gucci (2021)

Ridley Scott’s bizarre film is half-pantomime, half true-crime drama

Director: Ridley Scott

Cast: Lady Gaga (Patrizia Reggiani), Adam Driver (Maurizio Gucci), Jared Leto (Paolo Gucci), Jeremy Irons (Rudolfo Gucci), Al Pacino (Aldo Gucci), Salma Hayek (Giuseppe Auriemma), Jack Huston (Domenico De Sole), Reeve Carney (Tom Ford), Camille Cottin (Paola Franchi), Youssef Kerkour (Nemi Kirdar)

There are few juicier combinations than glamour, money, fashion and true crime. Scott’s House of Gucci taps into this with a film that’s somewhere between pantomime and tragedy. Full of actors giving their very best “Mamma Mia!” Italian accents and shrugging shoulders, it oscillates wildly from scene-to-scene between black comedy and operatic high drama. It’s a strange mixture, with House of Gucci becoming some sort of bizarre treat, like an end-of-year treat for cinema viewers to unwrap.

The film follows the disastrous marriage between Maurizio Gucci (Adam Driver) and Patrizia Reggiani (Lady Gaga). Patrizia, a ruthlessly ambitious gold digger, zeroes in on the shy Maurizio, heir to 50% of the Gucci fashion fortune, and marries him. This is all to the horror of his father Rudulfo (Jeremy Irons), who (correctly) identifies Patrizia’s ambitions, and cuts them off. Taken under the wing of Rudolfo’s brother Aldo (Al Pacino), Patrizia pushes Maurizio into a management role in the company – and down a slippery slope that will lead to forgery, betrayal and eventually murder.

House of Gucci feels like it might have existed more comfortably as a ten-part TV drama. It’s essentially a big, brash version of the Emmy-award winning The People vs. OJ Simpson, but told in about a quarter of the time. What this basically means is that any subtle character work and detailed story telling is sacrificed, with the focus firmly on the salacious and entertaining drama. The overall effect is a swift rush through a story that becomes a series of sensational, almost comedic, clashes between larger-than-life personalities squabbling over a huge pot of money. Like Dallas on the big-screen, it’s all scored with a series of funky pop tunes, adding to the sense of pantomime.

It’s an odd outing from Scott, with (it felt to me) little of the individual stylistic touches that he has bought to other projects. In fact there’s very little of his stamp on it: it’s Scott as professional craftsman. He and the film feel very confused by the tone. Mostly the film doubles down on black humour and show-casing big, brash performances. Then it might acknowledge briefly that there were real victims here, which it wants to treat with a level of respect. By and large, the film is like a glossy magazine article, with Scott nudging you as you turn each page and saying “you will not believe what happened next!”

I suppose House of Gucci probably could have explored more the personal and emotional hinterlands of its characters. Relationships shift dramatically from scene-to-scene, with Maurizio and Patrizia’s marriage souring over-night, for no clear reason. Pre-existing family rivalries and politics could have been explored more: it’s heavily implied Aldo and Rudolfo are already engaged in a struggle of ideals (Aldo wants commercial expansion, Rudolfo to remain an elitist fashion house). Drama could have been made of the attempts by both brothers to use other members of the family as pawns in this feud. But then, a film that dived into the psychology of the players might well have ended up being more about business and less about the entertaining ruthlessness of the rich and famous.

The performances are wildly different in tone. Lady Gaga effectively holds the film together as an ambitious woman who is only partially aware (at first) of what a ruthless gold digger she is. Devoid of any interests other than being rich (“I’m a people pleaser” she tells Rudolfo when asked what her interests are), Patrizia is the sort of monster of ambition who would fit comfortably into an episode of Desperate Housewives. Setting her cap at Maurizio with a laser-like focus and shafting everyone left, right and centre (although Gaga does hint at her deeply repressed insecurity) it’s a performance that walks a fine line between OTT and human. The film has a lot of fun at her amoral certainty – she sees no problem with forging Rudolfo’s signature on some vital papers after his death (the film even sets forgery up as Chekhov’s skill in its opening scenes) and Gaga enjoyably plays the outrage that only someone convinced they never wrong can feel.

Opposite her, Driver plays Maurizio as a timid, easily seduced young man, pushed into taking a leading role in a business he has no real interest in (or aptitude for). Driver is softly spoken – and gives the most restrained and grounded performance in the film – and frequently meets another demand from his wife with a chuckle and a reluctant “Patrizia…”. House of Gucci steps carefully around Maurizio, sometimes playing him as an innocent abroad, at others as a man corrupted by his wife into a creature of ambition.

Most of the rest of the cast go for a broad style which, while fun to watch, only adds to the sense that we aren’t supposed to be taking anything too seriously. While many of the Gucci family probably were larger-than-life personalities, I’m not sure they could have been the cartoons they are here. Irons goes for a waspish Scar-like mastery of the cutting remark. Pacino doubles down on his shoulder-hunched energy, with added shouting. Hayek gives a performance that’s a near master-class in Vampish camp, plotting murder from a mud bath.

Towering above them all is Jared Leto, who seems to be in a film all of his own, with every scene another clip for his “for your consideration” show-reel. Buried under a mountain of latex that transforms him into a clone of Jeffrey Tambor, Leto goes all out as the passionate, ultra-stereotypical-Italian Paolo Gucci, in a performance that’s either a shameless parade of showing off or somewhere near a stroke of genius. It works because, beneath all the hammy exuberance, Leto make’s Paolo a desperately sweet guy, the only real innocent in the film. Leto and Pacino in particular feed off each other – a late scene between the two is hilarious (I’m not sure in the right way, but who can tell what these actors are aiming for sometimes) in its joyful overplaying.

Perhaps joy is the one thing House of Gucci needs a little bit more on. I wonder how more entertaining again it might have been if the film had really gone all out on being a camp classic. It shies away from this, wanting to leave some vestige of respect for the dead and not lose its true-crime-roots. But, I wonder if a director more suited to this material than Scott – who struggles to stamp his personality on it – might have done more to make this into a cult classic.

American Gangster (2007)

Denzel Washington leads his brothers in a life of crime in American Gangster

Director: Ridley Scott

Cast: Denzel Washington (Frank Lucas), Russell Crowe (Richie Roberts), Chiwetel Ejiofor (Huey Lucas), Josh Brolin (Detective Trupo), Lymari Nadal (Eva), Ted Levine (Captain Lou Toback), Robert Guenveur Smith (Nate), John Hawkes (Freddie Spearman), RZA (Moses Jones), Yul Vazquez (Alfonsa Abruzzo), Malcolm Goodwin (Jimmy Zee), Ruby Dee (Mama Lucas), Ruben Santiago-Hudson (Doc), Carla Gugino (Laura Roberts), John Ortiz (Javier J Rivera), Cuba Gooding Jnr (Nicky Barnes), Armand Assante (Dominic Cattaneo), Joe Morton (Charlie Williams), Idris Elba (Tango), Common (Turner Lucas), Jon Polito (Russo), Ric Young (Chinese General), Clarence Williams III (Bumpy Johnson)

In 1970s New York there was only one organisation that ran crime: the mafia. The idea that anyone else could get a look in was unthinkable: to the cops, the government and the criminals themselves. Frank Lucas (Denzel Washington) was the guy who was going to shake that up: a resident of Harlem and former right-hand man of crime boss “Bumpy” Johnson (Clarence Williams III), Lucas saw an opening to bring in cheap, high-quality drugs from Vietnam (hidden in the temporary coffins of deceased servicemen). With this product he could take over crime in New York – and run it as he thinks it should be run, with the mentality of a FTSE 500 company and a gun. Frank is helped by the fact no one knows who he is. But that is all about to change as honest cop Richie Roberts (Russell Crowe) sets up a task force dedicated to finding, and arresting, the drug kingpins in New York. He’s as surprised as anyone to find the trail leads to Harlem.

Based on a true story, Scott’s American Gangster is assembled with Scott’s usual professionalism and assured touch, using top actors in well-assembled, well-shot scenes. It’s glossy, entertaining and enjoyable. But it’s not quite inspired or stand-out. Despite everything, it doesn’t really show us anything new and lacks either the fire of inspiration or the sort of poetry and energy the likes of Spike Lee, Quentin Tarantino or Steve McQueen could have bought to it. It tells an interesting story, but manages to be pretty much by the numbers – albeit those numbers are flashed up with as much pizzazz, drama and entertainment as you could wish.

The most interesting themes are questions of class and racial politics. The film’s version of Frank Lucas is successful because he runs his crime empire not like a gang but like a company. He dresses plainly and simply, so as not to draw attention (unlike the flamboyant criminals played by Idris Elba and Cuba Gooding Jnr). He talks in terms of supply and demand, brand loyalty and being a chairman. In one particularly well managed scene, he pontificates to his brothers on his ideology of business, excuses himself to walk across the street and shoot a rival in the head, then returns to calmly finish his breakfast. It’s the ideas of Wall Street applied to gangster crime. Lucas is all about bringing a smooth, modern, professional thinking to crime – but with the gun still up his sleeve.

But another reason why Frank Lucas needs to be as professional as he is, is because he’s loathed by all other parts of the criminal system. It’s a system that is racist from top-to-bottom, where black men are unwelcome as anything other than foot-soldiers. The elite criminals – most of them tracing many generations back to Sicily – smile at Frank for his money, but never see him as an equal. Even the government can’t begin to imagine a black man could be running such a huge empire – Robert’s AG boss spews out a racist diatribe, rubbishing any idea that a black man could achieve something the Mafia has failed to do. Frank though is just as wary of the flashy ostentatiousness of most black criminals in New York, telling his brother that the quietest man in the room is the most powerful.

It’s those brothers who Frank relies on – only family can be trusted. They’ll also be his Achilles heel. Because even his most competent brother (played by a sharp Chiwetel Ejiofor) is as much a liability as he is a good lieutenant. His brothers are innocents turned by their brother into tools for his crime empire. Frank hands out beatings to cousins who are unreliable. He’s bitterly disappointed when his nephew chucks in a baseball career because crime looks more fun. As his mother – an impassioned performance from an Oscar-nominated Ruby Dee – tells him, the rest of the family looks to him and follows his lead. There is a clear tension between this family – whose benefactor is also its corrupter – but it doesn’t quite come into focus.

This is partly because the film is covering a lot, and partly because it finds itself falling a bit in love with Frank Lucas. Not surprising when the part is played by Denzel Washington at his most magnetic – if strangely not quite as energised as you might expect. Washington gives Frank a dignity and cool that the real Frank – by all accounts a much cruder, ruder, less able man – never had. The film doesn’t really want to explore the darker side of Frank. Instead it invites us to sympathise with him, as an outsider made good. To feel sorry for him when he makes a fatal error (wearing an ostentatious fur coat to the Ali/Frasier “Fight of the Century” – an act that blows his carefully preserved anonymity). The film doesn’t want us to feel the damage of the drugs Frank is pouring into New York, since it might damage our respect for his triumph against the odds.

The barriers that Frank has to overcome – from arrogant Mafia kingpins, to local crime lords and corrupt cops (Josh Brolin has fun as a prowling bullying detective) – are in the end more interesting than the procedural struggles of Russell Crowe’s Richie Roberts (on solid form). Roberts is also given a rather cliched (and fictional) custody battle that hardly justifies its screentime. The cops definitely get the short end of the stick – and a stronger film might have focused just on Frank Lucas and really explored the struggles of a black man in white crime world, dealing with racism and trying to apply Wall Street ideals to street violence.

American Gangster doesn’t quite succeed with its dark commentary on the American dream – but it’s as entertaining as you could hope and while it lacks in inspiration, it’s also hard to find too much fault with. One of Scott’s most solid works, with a charismatic Washington doing decent work.

Alien (1979)

Sigourney Weaver is last woman standing in Alien

Director: Ridley Scott

Cast: Tom Skerritt (Dallas), Sigourney Weaver (Ripley), John Hurt (Kane), Ian Holm (Ash), Yaphet Kotto (Parker), Harry Dean Stanton (Brett), Veronica Cartwright (Lambert)

For decades, space was seen as a place of wonder. But Alien reminded us it was also a place where no one can hear you scream. We dream the vast void out there contains life: but what if the life we found was a relentless killing machine, a seemingly invulnerable monster literally having humanity for breakfast? Ridley Scott’s Alien took science fiction and ran it through the blender of horror, turning its space ship into a terrifying haunted house with an alien straight out of slasher films. It’s still a landmark today.

In deep space, the Nostromo’s crew is pulled out of hypersleep early – long before arriving back in our solar system. A strange distress call from an unidentified vessel needs to be investigated, on standing orders from “the company”. The seven-strong crew lands their ship and a party heads out – only to return with third officer Kane (John Hurt) with a strange alien creature attached to his face. The creature can’t be removed until it detaches itself of its own accord. All seems well until an unfortunate dinner party – at which point the crew finds itself being hunted one-by-one by a relentless alien monster.

Scott’s film is so famous today it’s very hard not to forget your foreknowledge of what’s going to happen and to experience it as its original viewers did. But it still works brilliantly – even if almost everyone watching knows only Ripley is getting out of this alive. The film is a masterpiece of slow-burn tension punctuated by moments of shocking horror. The final Alien itself doesn’t appear until almost an hour into the picture – but before then we’ve had our nerves more than jangled by the unsettling disquiet of the film’s mood. From the Nostromo, to the storm-laden planet they land on, and the vast alien ship – now a tomb of dismembered corpses with an unsettling organic look, like a giant carcass – everything in the film is designed to put us ill-at-ease. You can’t watch this film and expect anything to turn out for the best.

The camera prowls around the dank, grimy and run-down ship – space travel has rarely looked this unglamorous – like the predator that will hunt the crew. It’s slow, stately lingering on the crew, their faces, the eerily unsettling sounds and score, all serve to act like an advance funeral. Every single beat of the film stresses claustrophobia and dirt. It looks like a horrible trap already, and the film embraces a sense of grim inevitability. The observational style of the editing and shooting as we follow the characters, overhearing their bickering and functional work-based conversations, also helps add to this mounting sense of unease. It’s a surprisingly quiet film for much of its opening act, ambient noise and unsettingly lingering music dominating.

There is a poetical eeriness about the whole film. This is also partly from the sense of the ship being a society in microcosm. Much of the bickering is around bonus pay shares, the working-class engineers of the ship (one of whom is also black) bemoaning their smaller shares. The officers sit at the top, a mixture of entitled, distant, officious and daring. They have their own feuds over status, professional boundaries and personal rivalries. The captain is a laissez-faire professional, who offers only a general guidance and could really be just another member of the crew. The ship is like a giant oil-rig in space, with the crew basically a group of “truckers”. The film is as much about interpersonal tensions as it is about an alien monster who hunts people down.

But it is mainly about an alien monster that tears people apart. After almost an hour of deeply unsettling and unnerving build-up, when the monster (literally) rears its head, it’s a terrifying sight. We usually only see it briefly for small shots, but what we see is pure nightmare fuel. The creature is terrifying in its violence and power. It is partly human but also completely revolting. Covered in slime, it looks like a bizarre mix of a man, a giant penis and a vagina (its designer, HR Giger, reasoned nothing would be more unsettling and disturbing to us than seeing a beast that’s partly inspired by our own sexual organs). It creeps in corners, embraces the many shadows of Scott’s set and its capacity for violence seems unstoppable. Sharp editing and suggestion elaborates the visceral horror of its extending jaws punching through bone and flesh. It moves like an interpretative dancer and leaves a trail of blood. It’s unstoppable and infinitely cunning. It looks like your worst nightmare.

It’s all washed down with body horror. An alien that smothers its victims and shoves an egg down their throat which hatches through their chest becoming a slaughtering beast. There is an uneasy sexuality about this, right down to the “birth” of the creature being a grotesque parody of childbirth. The “birthing scene” is a masterpiece, the first moment in the film when the tension between the crew has eased – and the film itself seems to have relaxed for a moment from the knot of tension – that turns into one of the most memorable moments of body horror ever. The actors were allegedly told what would happen – but not how graphic it would be – and their horror-struck disgust (Veronica Cartwright was nearly knocked over by a powerful jetstream of mock blood and guts) and and shock gives the film a priceless realism.

Watching the film, it’s striking to me how much John Hurt’s Kane is shot as the hero early in the film. It’s he who wakes first from hypersleep. It’s Kane we follow the most for the early part of the film – he’s the one piloting the ship, volunteering to answer the distress call, urging his crew mates on as they investigate the alien vessel – it’s Kane who seems to be the hero. Making his brutal demise even more of a subconscious shock. On the other hand, Ripley is introduced as an officious, unpopular, by-the-book officer who it seems few other members of the crew like (Sigourney Weaver’s praetorian attitude helps a lot with this) – if you had to bet on someone to bite it early on, you’d pick her. The film continues to defy expectations. Characters who seem like they might be invulnerable are slaughtered early. Those who looked vulnerable survive until late on.

It’s a very strong cast. Weaver magnificently grows in authority as the film progresses, turning her abrasiveness into strength of character and moral determination. Hurt is very good as the unknowing victim-in-waiting. Kotto, chippy and defiant, is another stand-out. The finest performance through might well come from Ian Holm as science-officer Ash. Precise, cold, distant – but always hiding his own secret agenda – it’s an unsettlingly controlled performance that leads to a pay-off reveal that still works brilliantly today (and the character would have one of the most memorable death scenes in film, if he wasn’t in the same film as the most memorable death scene).

Scott’s filmmaking is brilliantly controlled, and the film is a horrifying masterpiece of tension and terror. The monster is skilfully shown at its worst (you’d never even guess in actuality it’s little more than a Doctor Who man-in-a-rubber-suit) and its design is faultless perfection. It’s not completely perfect – its build up might be ten minutes too long, and a late sequence that sees Weaver wearing little more than her undies looks hideously dated today – but it’s pretty close. Science fiction has never been scarier than it is here – hell the movies have rarely been scarer. In space no-one really can hear you scream.

Thelma and Louise (1991)

Susan Sarandon and Geena Davis hit the road in Thelma and Louise

Director: Ridley Scott

Cast: Susan Sarandon (Louise Sawyer), Geena Davis (Thelma Dickinson), Harvey Keitel (Detective Hal Slocumb), Michael Madsen (Jimmy Lennox), Christopher McDonald (Darryl Dickinson), Stephen Tobolowsky (Max), Brad Pitt (JD), Timothy Carhart (Harlan Puckett)

Two people on the run, dodging the police and doing what they can to survive. It’s a well Hollywood has gone back to time and time again. But in most cases the people were either two men, or maybe a man and a woman (romantically involved naturally). It was unheard of to make that most masculine of genres, the outlaw road movie, into one led by women. But that’s what we get here, in a movie that has become iconic in more ways than one, Thelma and Louise.

Louise Sawyer (Susan Sarandon) is a tough, independent-minded waitress. Thelma Dickinson (Geena Davis) is a shy housewife, whose husband Darryl (Christopher McDonald) is a jerk. With Darryl away for the weekend, Thelma and Louise head off for a weekend away together, to let their hair down and feel a bit of freedom. Unfortunately, disaster happens when Thelma flirts with a sleazy guy in a Texas bar (Harlan Puckett), who tries to rape her in the car park. Louise saves her – but guns the guy down. The two women now find themselves on the run from the law, terrified that no one will believe their side of the story. But as the women find themselves on the road, the experience changes them, with Thelma flourishing in an environment where she can make her own choices and Louise becoming more able to open herself up emotionally. But can they stay ahead of the law?

With a terrific (Oscar-winning) script from first-time writer Callie Khouri, Thelma and Louise offers a dynamic and daring twist on the Hollywood road movie. By placing women at the centre of a story like this, a fascinating new light is shed not only on the law, but also on the culture of the American South. It also gives what would otherwise be familiar situations, a fascinating new light as two underestimated people are forced to prove time-and-time again how ahead of the game they are.

Ridley Scott directs the film with a beautiful, confident flourish. The John Fordian iconography of the West is a gift for a painterly director like Scott, and this film hums with the sort of eye for American iconography that only the outsider can really bring. The film brilliantly captures the dusty wildness of the West as well as the neon-lit grubbiness of working class American bars. It looks beautiful, but also vividly, sometimes terrifyingly real. Scott then, with a great deal of empathy, builds a very humane story around this, with two characters it’s nearly impossible not to root for.

He’s helped immensely by two stunning performances from the women in the lead roles. Susan Sarandon’s is perfect for the brash and gutsy Louise, not least because she’s an actor brilliantly able to suggest a great emotional depth and rawness below the surface. Louise is a women juggling deeper traumas – past experiences (its implied a historic rape) that leave her in no doubt that the justice system will not be interested in hearing about a woman’s suffering. It’s the hard to puncture toughness that softens over the course of the film, as Louise becomes more willing to explore her emotions and allow her vulnerability to show.

Particularly so as the lead between the two is slowly taken over by Geena Davis’ Thelma. This is certainly Davis’ finest work, her Thelma starting as a beaten down housewife, just trying to let her hair down in a bar, into a scared victim, a horny teenager lusting over Brad Pitt’s hunky JD then finally into a road warrior who discovers unimagined determination and resources inside herself, toting guns and robbing stores. It’s the sort of once-in-a-lifetime part Davis seizes upon. She’s sensational and totally believable at every turn.

Placing these two women at the centre of a story like this puts the feminine perspective front-of-centre – and it’s alarming to think how little some things have changed. Can we imagine today that there wouldn’t be policemen and lawyers willing to blame Thelma – or claim she asked for it – for her near rape in a bar? Or that there wouldn’t be a fair crack of the whip in the system for Louise for gunning down an unarmed rapist? On top of that, the majority of the police tracking the two women (with the exception of Harvey Keitel’s decent cop – Keitel is very good in this) find it hard to take “these girls” seriously, finding it hard to imagine them being anything other than a joke.

Mind you the attitudes of men are laid bare at every turn. Thelma’s husband Darryl (a very good performance of selfish patheticness by Christopher McDonald) is a waste of skin, a man who can’t imagine a world where Thelma could be his equal. Timothy Carhart is all charm until Thelma denies him the sex he believes he was due for in exchange for a night if flirting and drunks, and promptly turns extremely nasty. The cops – gun totting with itchy trigger-finger – just seem to be waiting for an excuse to throw the ladies down. Even JD (a star marking early performance by a deeply attractive and charismatic Brad Pitt), who seems so charming – and proves the sort of generous and skilled lover Thelma has never experienced in her life – has no qualms about robbing the ladies of their life savings, leaving them hung out-to-dry.

Many men at the time complained (pathetically) about the presentation of men in this film (as if men haven’t had any films where they were sympathetically placed front and centre), but I think it’s a pretty clear judgement that women are not held to the same standards. Khouri’s script shows time and time again the casual sexism (and sexualisation) the women encounter – to the extent that when they finally confront (and pull guns) on the sexist, aggressive truck driver who has been following them for most of the film, you cheer along with them when they shoot out first his tyres, then his oil tanker. We’ve even had a warm-up with Thelma turning a tough intimidating cop into quivering jelly by taking control of the situation.

But that’s what this film is about – the unexpected taking control. Because this isn’t just a feminist statement because it puts women into a male genre. It does so by showing how few choices these women have in their lives before they take into the road and how liberating it is to be able to make their own choices. Because these characters have had all their choices made by men, from Thelma’s smothering marriage to Louise’s undefined past as a victim. And their futures are as much out of the control, likely to find themselves on death row for shooting a rapist. On top of all that, men continue to see them both as sex objects.

How could you not be moved by this? It’s why the films iconic ending carries such impact. These are women discovering they have the power to make their own choices and their own mistakes. It has an undeniable power to it. It’s a power that runs through the entire film, perfectly shepherded by Scott’s astute and sharp direction, with Davis and Sarandon superb. It will still give you shocking insights today into what life is like for women in a world still dominated by men.

More recently its writer and stars pointed out that the film actually ended up changing very little for women in Hollywood. There was no new wave of daringly different female-led movies, with “women’s drama” still mostly restricted afterwards to family drama and romances. There are still few exciting opportunities for female filmmakers. (And it’s a sign of the times back then that the very idea of a woman directing this feminist film was never even raised as a possibility.) Perhaps that’s why Thelma and Louise remains such an icon, because it’s still such a one-off. Either way, it’s a film that hasn’t aged a day since it was released.

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.

Hannibal (2001)

Anthony Hopkins rides again in the terrible Hannibal

Director: Ridley Scott

Cast: Anthony Hopkins (Hannibal Lecter), Julianne Moore (Clarice Starling), Gary Oldman (Mason Verger), Ray Liotta (Paul Krendler), Frankie R Faison (Barney Matthews), Giancarlo Giannini (Chief Inspector Rinaldo Pazzi), Francesca Neri (Allegra Pazzi), Zeljko Ivanek (Dr Cordell Doemling)

For Dino De Laurentis, The Silence of the Lambs was always the one that got away. Owning the movie rights to the Lecter character, de Laurentis allowed Orion, producers of The Silence of the Lambs, to use the character name for free. De Laurentis was desperate to make his own Hannibal Lecter film, to cash in on Lambs success – so much so he would have put any old crap on the screen so long as it was connected to Lecter. Perhaps Thomas Harris wanted to test that out with his novel Hannibal, a blatantly for-the-money piece of pulp.

Hannibal is everything that Silence of the Lambs is not. Where Jonathan Demme’s film was subtle, insidious and unsettling this is brash, gory and garish. Harris’ serial killer works always circled around the possibility of tipping into a sort of Poesque-Gothic netherworld. Hannibal dives in head first, reinventing its central character as a sort of Robin Hood of murderous psychopaths and introducing everything from vengeful faceless paedophiles, to Dantesque murders and man-eating hogs. The plot, such as it is, sees Hannibal Lecter (Anthony Hopkins) living under an assumed identity in Florence. Back in America he is being hunted not only by Clarice Starling (Julianne Moore) but also Mason Verger (Gary Oldman, unbilled under a host of make-up) who wants revenge after being hideously disfigured by Lecter. Will Lecter turn the tables on these adversaries?

Both Jonathan Demme and Jodie Foster were offered more money than they knew what to do with for this film. Both turned it down, citing the book – and its grotesque and bizarre outcome that see Lecter and Starling becoming lover-killers together – as the major factor. Foster in particular was out-spoken about how she saw the books extremity as a betrayal of the work she did with the character in the first film. 

No such concern for Hopkins though, who took a bumper pay cheque to return. Hopkins always said Lecter was an easy role to play – basically a creepy voice and a lot of actorly tricks – and it certainly makes it easy for Hopkins to coast through the part here. Really Hopkins treats the role no differently from the countless chat shows where he had been asked to say “Hello Claressse”, the only real difference being he was paid about $20million to do it here. This is Hopkins on unthinking autopilot, in a film that tries to play up the black comedy but instead becomes a ludicrous, offensive farce, drowning in blood.

Ridley Scott directs and his painterly visuals and mastery of the epic shot strips comes at the cost of the very things that made the original film so involving and tense. The Hitchcockian suspense and intimacy of Demme’s direction is jettisoned. Instead everything is a dialled up to a brightly coloured 11. The entire film mistakes gore, blood and overblown, cartoonish villainy for horror. Watching people being mauled by wild hogs, or some more unfortunate being lobotomised and made to eat his own brain isn’t scary it’s more gross. And because nothing feels remotely real in this film, it doesn’t even carry much impact.

The entire film is based around the fact that it’s Hannibal we’re paying to see – especially Hopkins reprising the role – so by Jiminiy we better work a little bit to make this lethal killer from Lambs into something a bit closer to an anti-hero. So instead, Lecter is rejigged as a sort of charming, amoral cannibal. The sort of guy who prefers to eat the rude and unmannered, who loves art and is only really dangerous when provoked. The film carefully gives us reasons to dislike everyone Lecter kills, and slowly falls in love with his sinister magnetism. 

This reduces Julianne Moore – in a truly thankless task – trying to both forge some sort of identity for Clarice from the story that is both unique and a continuation of what Jodie Foster did so well in the first film. It’s not entirely her fault that she fails. This is a film that depowers Clarice, that goes as far as it dares to turn her into a moth around Hannibal’s flame. The film backs away from the romance of the book (even if the film hints at it enough), replacing the eventual ending with something almost as stupid but at least doesn’t turn Clarice into a brain guzzling serial killer.

The plot flies around two arcs, one set around Hannibal in Florence the other on his return to America. Both carry no resemblance to the real world. The first does at a least have a decent performance of nervy greed from Giancarlo Giannini as the Italian detective who (wrongly) feels he can go toe-to-toe with Hannibal. The second revolves around Gary Oldman’s (unbilled – due to an argument over billing or a sly joke, depending on who you talk to) repulsive Mason Verger, a villain so revoltingly gothic you can’t believe in him for a second.

The film looks good and has a decent score, but it’s basically a claret splashed mess that can’t decide whether it’s a horror or some sort of black comedy. It settles for being nothing at all. A truly terrible movie, where everyone is there for the money and I imagine no one thought about the movie for a second once their work on it was done.

Body of Lies (2008)

Russell Crowe and Leonardo DiCaprio fail to master the Middle East in Ridley Scott’s spy thriller Body of Lies

Director: Ridley Scott

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio (Roger Ferris), Russell Crowe (Ed Hoffman), Mark Strong (Hani Salaam), Golshifteh Farahani (Aisha), Oscar Isaac (Bassam), Ali Suliman (Omar Sadiki), Alon Abutbul (Al-Saleem), Vince Colosimo (Skip), Simon McBurney (Garland), Lubna Azabal (Cala)

Ridley Scott is a bit of a curate’s egg as a director. You can always expect a film with a certain visual flair, as well as a story that attempts to tackle big themes and engaging topics. However, it doesn’t always produce an end result that really grips or feels like something that particularly stands out from the crowd. That’s what you end up with Body of Lies, a film that constantly feels like it is on the cusp of saying something important or interesting about the relationship between East and West, but constantly falls back on the sort of spy movie tropes it initially feels like it wants to debunk.

In the Middle East, Roger Ferris (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a dedicated CIA operative, with an intricate knowledge of the cultures and issues of the region. He constantly finds himself frustrated and undermined by his boss Ed Hoffman (Russell Crowe), based in Langley, who is constantly willing to sacrifice long-term gains for short-term political pay-offs. Assigned to Jordan, Ferris begins an investigation into a terrorist cell, working closely with head of Jordanian security Hani Salaam (Mark Strong) – but Hoffman’s intercessions increasingly cause tension.

Scott’s film is stylish and well assembled, with a great sense of pace and place. The contrasts between DiCaprio on the ground (in the dirt, facing dangers and tackling everything from terrorists to rabid dogs) and Crowe back in the States (rarely if ever seen without a hands-free phone set dangling from his ear, viewing everything at a distance with no understanding of the intricacies) is well drawn. The sense of complete cultural misunderstanding and lack of connection between East and West is established early, and attempts to cross it generally lead to disaster. The patience and expertise of the Jordanian security forces is contrasted constantly with the more slap-dash, hasty efforts of the CIA to meet the same goals. It’s all set for something quite interesting.

But then the film somehow doesn’t quite come together. Its episodic structure increasingly stretches out as action moves back and forth from Jordan to Langley and back again. A particularly wild scheme by Ferris (which, to the viewer not the film, suggests he is as incompetent and reckless as Hoffman) turns the film towards the sort of kidnap/torture/nick-of-time-rescue plotline that wouldn’t look out of place in 24 or James Bond. Basically, the plot turns on the film transitioning from something with a genuine political statement to make into the sort of disposal rent-a-spy-thriller that you forget pretty quickly. 

DiCaprio gets a lot of “big” moments to juggle with, as well as a rather forced romance with a Jordanian nurse (something that he and Golshifteh Farahani play very well, but seems to have wandered in from an even more conventional film) but the film works hard to paint him as the “hero” who knows better than his superiors, despite the film chronicling a string of mistakes. Crowe enjoys himself as self-important windbag behind a computer, as uncaring as the institutions he represents.

The real star of the show however is Mark Strong, excellent as the suave head of Jordanian intelligence, seemingly the only character who has any understanding about what is going on. With a cool sharpness, slightly playful politeness and a slight chill of threat, Strong is the film’s most interesting character. There is a striking point made here that the most effective person in the film is a Jordanian spy chief with a mixed reputation – but the film largely shirks the possibility of really using this to demonstrate how out-of-their-depth the CIA agents are, as if worried that flagging up their manifest incompetence at every turn would sell badly Stateside.

It’s part of the film’s general lack of soul behind the skill of its construction. I know Scott is deeply interested in these themes of East vs West and the culture clashes that develop from it, but it just doesn’t come out here at all. There was a film to be made here about how the war on terror has thrown the CIA and the West into a setting they don’t understand, playing by rules they haven’t been briefed on. But all too often the film instead settles for telling us the same-old-same-old, padding out its runtime with spy story clichés and thriller plotting. Scott himself even uses visual tricks – surveillance drone shots and 24 style action – which suggest that somewhere along the line his heart wasn’t really in it. Body of Lies could have been a really interesting thriller about the world today. Instead it’s just another spy thriller about the war on terror.

All the Money in the World (2017)

Christopher Plummer dominates (at short notice!) Ridley Scott’s pedestrian true-life kidnap thriller All the Money in the World

Director: Ridley Scott

Cast: Michelle Williams (Gail Harris), Christopher Plummer (J. Paul Getty), Mark Wahlberg (Fletcher Chace), Romain Duris (Cinquanta), Timothy Hutton (Oswald Hinge), Charlie Plummer (John Paul Getty III), Andrew Buchan (John Paul Getty II), Marco Leonardi (Mammoliti)

In 2017 something quite extraordinary happened. A string of unpleasant allegations emerged about Kevin Spacey, turning him overnight from the toast of Hollywood into a pariah. Not good news for Ridley Scott’s Getty kidnap drama All the Money in the World, which was only a month away from opening – and had Kevin Spacey in a central, Oscar-bait role as J. Paul Getty. The film looked like box office poison – until Scott decided to reshoot large chunks of the film four weeks before opening, with Christopher Plummer taking over the role of Getty. And of course they would still make the release date.

John Paul Getty (Christopher Plummer) is an oil tycoon, and the richest man in history, worth at least a billion dollars (the film opens with a dry history lesson showing how Getty gained a monopoly for selling Saudi oil for the Saudis, thus becoming richer then Croesus and Midas rolled into one). Scott’s drama follows the kidnapping of Getty’s grandson John Paul Getty III (Charlie Plummer – no relation) in Rome in 1973. The kidnappers want $17 million dollars. The famously frugal Getty’s response is that he’s got 13 other grandchildren and won’t run the risk of seeing them all being kidnapped for cash, so he won’t pay a dime. This leaves the kidnapped boy’s mother Gail Harris (Michelle Williams) in despair – after a divorce from Getty’s son, she agreed to not take a penny and can’t pay the ransom. Getty does send his fixer Fletcher Chace (Mark Wahlberg) to work with the police and negotiate – but basically Gail hasn’t a hope unless Getty relents.

Spot the difference: Spacey (left) heavily made up and Plummer

It’s astonishing Scott managed to completely recast, re-shoot and re-edit the second most important part in the film at such short notice – and apparently in eight days. It’s also brilliant that this gives us another vintage Christopher Plummer performance. With cold firmness, gimlet-eyed focus, and a dark twinkly charm which switches in a moment to disengaged indifference, Plummer is so perfectly cast as Getty you wonder why they didn’t get him in the first place. Plummer set a record as the oldest Academy Award nominee for his work on this film – and surely also set some sort of record in being nominated for an Oscar less than two months after he signed on to make the film!

We should be glad that Plummer got this great role – particularly as, to be honest, his performance and the story of how it came about is literally the only reason to remember this film. If it lasts at all it will solely be because of such chutzpah at defying the odds – as a film, this is a dud almost from start to finish.

Long, turgid, dull, lacking in any emotional or human interest, no sense of drama – rarely has a kidnap victim been so boring, or his fate carried so little tension – shot with a lazy blue filter that seems to say “it’s the 1970s, everything was a bit faded”, this turns a compelling story into a viewing chore. How can this happen? How can such an interesting story be made so bloody flat?

A film like this should either be a pressure-cooker, against-the-clock drama or a Faustian journey into the darkness of a man (Getty) who sold his soul for riches, or a sort of dark comedy wherein a billionaire refuses to pay out comparative peanuts. What it becomes is none of those things. It relishes Getty’s greed, but never really gets under the skin of what makes him like this. It gets bogged down in the mechanics of kidnapping but never makes them interesting. It enjoys (and most of this is down to Plummer) Getty’s indifference and selfishness, but doesn’t have the guts to go for black comedy. It’s a nothing film.

Part of it is the film’s odd opening structure. Much of the first 30 minutes is a confusing series of flashbacks and flashforwards, establishing multiple events – Getty’s fortune rising from the 1930s, the story of young Getty’s parents’ divorce in the 60s, the kidnapping of young Getty in 1973 – all are cut together with such a lack of regard for narrative drive that it’s both difficult to follow what is happening and when, and also hard to engage with anyone involved in the story. From there, when we reach a conventional timeline, events feel like they are being ticked off rather than being fashioned into a compelling and tense drama. It’s all just flat and lifeless.

It should be a film where Michelle Williams’ Gail comes to the fore, and we feel her pain, fear and frustration at being unable to save her son. Instead she is competing with so many alternative viewpoints that her story gets truncated down into the sort of performance we admire as being basically good, but develop no real empathy for. It’s a real shame, but she’s a victim of this being such a dry and lifeless film. 

It’s not helped that she also has to share screen time with Wahlberg. The two actors have virtually no chemistry whatsoever, and Wahlberg is way out of his depth here, totally unable to bring anything to the part other than his earthy chippiness. Chase is a dull character who ends up feeling increasingly irrelevant – eventually an invented scene showing him threatening Getty to stump up the cash is thrown in, you feel to give Wahlberg a “moment” rather than because it grows out of a sense that Chase has grown closer to Gail and her family.

But then that’s the whole film – it feels perfunctory and routine where it should be compelling. Rather than building a terrifying momentum as the kidnapping becomes more and dangerous for the young Getty, the tension seems to leak out of the edges. By the end you barely care about anyone involved in it. It really says something that, with only a week’s notice or so, Plummer blows most of the rest of the cast out of the water with his performance. He and his casting are the only reason to ever remember this turgid disappointment.