Tag: Ron Perlman

Drive (2011)

Drive (2011)

Neon, darkness and shades of grey fills the screen in a film that’s practically the definition of cult

Director: Nicholas Winding Refn

Cast Ryan Gosling (Driver), Carey Mulligan (Irene Gabriel), Bryan Cranston (Shannon), Albert Brooks (Bernie Rose), Oscar Isaac (Standard Gabriel), Christina Hendricks (Blanche), Ron Perlman (Nino Paolozzi), Kaden Leos (Benicio Gabriel)

Impassive and supernaturally calm, the Driver (Ryan Gosling) sits with the car engine purring. In this five-minute window he is the get-away driver who will go to any length. Outside of that, criminals are on their own. Its one of the simple rules he lives by. He never compromises. Until, of course, he finds something worth compromising for. That would be his neighbour Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her young son Benicio (Kaden Leos), trying to make ends meet while her husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) is in prison. The Driver helps them – and feels compelled to go on helping them when newly released Standard (trying to go straight) does one more job to get out from under the thumb of his criminal friends. That last job is always the worst one isn’t it? Particularly when crime lords as ruthless as Bernie (Albert Brooks) and Nino (Ron Perlman) are involved.

Drive won Refn the best director award at Cannes (after a huge standing ovation). It’s not hard to see why. This film is so overflowing with style, uncompromising cool and unreadable enigma it was practically a cult classic before it was even released. Layered in a mix of 70s and 80s chic – with its electric pink titles, John Carpenter-ish Los Angeles visuals and counter-culture smarts – it echoes cutting-edge crime drama from the punk years of Hollywood (it’s practically a remake of The Driver for starters!), by way of touches of Melville crime drama and Spaghetti Western anti-hero. Scored to a mix of ambient beats and electronic rock, it’s the dictionary definition of style.

It keeps you on your toes from the start. Its opening not only explores the Driver’s incredible skills (speed, manoeuvring, ingenious evasions and knowing when to go slow, he can do it all) it also sets us up for the whole film. Shot largely alongside the Driver in the car, we zip through streets and understand the determination (and hints of danger) under his impassive surface. That prologue is the whole movie in capsule – a careful wait, a sense of a fuse being list, touches of humour to distract us (the Driver’s precision with his gloves) and brilliant misdirection when his focused  attention to listening to a football game on the radio pays off in spades when we see his plans revealed.

Much of the first 40 minutes carefully develops the Driver’s surprisingly contented life: his happy acquiescence in the racing dreams of his fixer and mechanic boss Shannon (an ingratiating Bryan Cranston), who the Driver likes so much he doesn’t care that Shannon regularly swindles him; a soft, unspoken half-romance with Irene (Carey Mulligan, truthful and with a strength beneath the vulnerability); and a big-brother bond with her son Benecio. In another world this could have been a film where a loner learns to make a connection and finds love.

But it ain’t that film. The troubles start with Standard’s release from prison. Skilfully played by Oscar Isaac as well-meaning but essentially hopeless, Standard’s problems become Irene and Benecio’s problems. That one last job goes south – as they always do – in an orgy of cross, double cross and increasingly graphic violence. And the burning propulsive energy that lies under Drive, just like that purring engine in the films opening, is let rip.

What we get in the second half is dark, nihilistic and violent. Oh, good Lord, is it violent. Bone crunchingly, skull shatteringly, blood spurtingly violent. Because when gangsters get pissed off, they play for real. And it turns out, when the Driver finds something to care about, he plays for real as well. Refn’s eye for violence is extremely well-judged. We see just enough for it to be horrifying, but the worst is done via sound and editing (the Driver’s almost unwatchable assault on a goon in a lift puts almost nothing on screen, but the squelches and crunches on the soundtrack leave nothing to the imagination).

Refn’s trick is to combine lashings of indie cool and ultra-violence with a deceptively simple story that allows plenty of scope for interpretation. Drive has a sort of mythic, Arthurian quest to it, with the Driver as a sort of knight errant, defending a damsel in distress. But it’s also a grim crime drama, with a man at its centre who brutally kills without a second thought. This all depends on the enigmatic Driver at its heart. No other actor alive can do unreadable impassivity like Ryan Gosling – this could almost be his signature role. He’s ice-cool and professional, but also rather child-like and gentle.

Is he a guy dragged down by his own worst impulses? His jacket has a large scorpion on its back, echoing the old fable of the frog and the scorpion. Rather than one or the other, the Driver feels like both in one. A frog who wants to carry everyone over the river, but whose poor instincts and capacity for violence acts as the scorpion that destroys him. Where does he come from? What is his past? The film ends with a series of enigmatic shots that, to my eyes, suggest a supernatural quality to him. I sometimes toy with the idea he’s a sort of fallen angel, constantly protecting the wrong people like he has a scorpion curse on him. Refn’s gift is to craft pulp with psychological intrigue.

Drive is a very cool film – and Carey Mulligan and Ryan Gosling’s careful playing gives it a lot of heart, just as Albert Brooks’ marvellously dangerous gangster gives it a sharp, unpredictable edge. It rips its eye through the screen, with pace, speed and iconic imagery, all splashed with a pop art cool. But it’s not just a celebration of style: it’s also a dark romance, a tragedy and an exploration of a character who may be his own devil or may not even be human at all. Either way, its intriguing and exciting. Can’t ask for much more than that.

Nightmare Alley (2021)

Nightmare Alley (2021)

A mysterious drifter gets more than he bargained for in del Toro’ flashy but unsatisfying film

Director: Guillermo del Toro

Cast: Bradley Cooper (Stanton Carlisle), Cate Blanchett (Lilith Ritter), Rooney Mara (Molly Cahill), Toni Collette (Zeena Krumbein), Willem Dafoe (Clem Hoatley), Richard Jenkins (Ezra Grindle), Ron Perlman (Bruno), David Strathairn (Pete Krumbein), Mark Povinelli (Major Mosquito), Mary Steenburgen (Felicia Kimball), Peter MacNeill (Judge Kimball), Paul Anderson (Geek), Clifton Collins Jnr (Funhouse Jack), Jim Beaver (Sheriff Jedediah Judd), Tim Blake Nelson (Carny Boss)

There isn’t any magic left in the world, it’s all show and tricks and no wonder. Nightmare Alley is del Toro’s follow-up to his Oscar-winning The Shape of Water and you can’t not admit it’s a triumph of style. It’s a glorious fusion of film noir and plush, gothic-tinged horror. There is something to admire in almost every frame. But it’s also all tricks and no wonder. There’s no heart to it, just a huge show that in the end makes nowhere near the impact you could expect.

In the late 1930s Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper) is a drifter with a dark past, who is recruited as a labourer in a travelling carnival. Learning the ropes from freak show owner Clem (Willem Dafoe), he’s taken under the wing (in every sense) by mesmerist mind reader Zeena (Toni Collette) and taught the tricks of the art (observation and careful word codes using an assistant to guess names, objects and other facts) by Pete (David Strathairn). Eventually Stanton and his love, circus performer Molly (Rooney Mara), head to the big city where, after two years, Stanton reinvents himself as celebrity mind-reader and medium. There Stanton gets involved with psychiatrist Lilith Ritter (Cate Blanchett) in a long con where he will use the recordings of her sessions with patients to act as a medium to put them in touch with their lost ones. But is there a danger Stanton isn’t ready for in one of his clients, powerful businessman Ezra Grindle (Richard Jenkins)?

Nightmare Alley looks fabulous. But it’s hellishly overlong and curiously uninvolving. It’s like Del Toro fell in love with the whole project and forgot to search for the reason why somebody else would love it. It’s a strangely unshaped film, alternating between long, loving scenes glorying in the dark mood, baroque performances and design but then makes drastic, swift jumps in character psychology that constantly leaves you grasping at engaging with or understanding the personalities of its characters.

Its design is faultless though – it’s no surprise that its only Oscar nominations outside the Best Picture nod were all in technical categories. Dan Lautsen’s cinematography is inky black, with splashes of all-consuming colour. It’s a marvellous updating of film noir, with deep shadows spliced with angles reminiscent of Hammer-style horror. The production design is a labour of love, the carnival sets a hellish nightmare of unsettling shapes, forms and structure contrasting with the art deco grandness of the big city. The design is pretty much faultless, a real labour of love.

But the same effort didn’t go into pacing and story. This is a slow-moving, self-indulgent film, that frequently seems to be holding itself at arm’s length to make it all the easier for it to admire itself. It looks extraordinary, but it’s a frequently empty experience, more interested in mood and striking imagery than character and emotion.

Bradley Cooper gives a fine performance as Stanton. He has an air of cocksure charm, and Cooper skilfully shows this is largely a front of a man who, when push comes to shove, is capable of sudden and unflinching acts of violence. We get an early hint of this when he reacts to being struck by an escaping circus freak with unhesitating brutality. It recurs again and again in the film, and Stanton proudly states his avoidance of alcohol with all the assurance of a man who knows the bottle could unleash dark forces that he could never control. Cooper is vulnerable but selfish and above all becomes more and more arrogantly convinced of his own genius and bulletproof invulnerability, so much so that he drives himself further and further on into self-destruction.

There is some rich material here, so it’s a shame that for all that we never really seem to be given a moment to really understand who he is. Much has to be inferred from Cooper’s performance, since the film seems content to state motivational factors – troubled parental relationships, greed, ambition, a desire to make something of himself – without ever crafting them into a whole. Stanton remains someone defined by what he does.

And Stanton is the only character who gets any real oxygen to breathe, with the others largely ciphers or over-played caricatures. Rooney Mara as his gentle love interest is under-developed and disappears from the film for long stretches. Cate Blanchett gives a distractingly arch performance, somewhere between femme fatale and Hannibal Lector and is so blatantly untrustworthy it’s never clear why Stanton (an expert reader of people!) trusts her completely. Richard Jenkins is miscast as a ruthless businessman, lacking the sense of danger and capacity of violence the part demands.

Most of the rest of the cast are swallowed by the long carnival prologue, that consumes almost a third of the film but boils down to little more than mood-setting and a repeated hammering home of a series of statements that will lead into a final scene twist (and I will admit that is a good payoff). The carnival seems like a self-indulgent exploration of style, and several actors (Perlman, Povinelli and even Collette) play roles that add very little to the film other than ballooning its runtime.

The earlier section would have perhaps been better if it was tighter and more focused on Stanton and his mentor, well played by David Straithairn. I appreciate that would have been more conventional – but it would also have been less self-indulgent and helped the opening third be less of a stylish but empty and rather superfluous experience (since the film’s real plot doesn’t start until it finishes). Drive My Car demonstrated how a long prologue can deepen a whole film – Nightmare Alley just takes a long, handsome route to giving us some plot essential facts, without really telling us anything engaging about its lead character.

It makes for an unsatisfying whole, a cold and distant film packed with arch performances – although Cooper is good – and events that frequently jump with a dreamlike logic. It’s a marvel of design but way too much of a good thing, and constantly seems to stop to admire itself in the mirror and wonder at its own beauty. It becomes a cold and arch study of a film not a narrative that you can embrace. And you can’t the same about many of Del Toro’s other films – from Pan’s Labyrinth to Pacific Rim they’ve got heart. Nightmare Alley doesn’t really have that.

Don’t Look Up (2021)

Don’t Look Up (2021)

A host of stars tell us the world us coming to an end in this self-satisfied film

Director: Adam McKay

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio (Dr Randall Mindy), Jennifer Lawrence (Kate Diabiasky), Rob Morgan (Dr Teddy Oglethorpe), Meryl Streep (President Janie Orlean), Cate Blanchett (Brie Evantree), Jonah Hill (Jason Orlean), Mark Rylance (Peter Isherwell), Tyler Perry (Jack Bremmer), Timothée Chalamet (Yule), Ron Perlman (Colonel Benedict Drask), Ariana Grande (Riley Bina), Scott Mescudi (DJ Chello), Himesh Patel (Philip Kaj), Melanie Lynsky (June Mindy), Michael Chiklis (Dan Pawketty)

Climate Change. It’s the impending disaster where we stick our head in the sand and pretend it’s not incoming. Governments have been told for decades our carefree use of fossil fuels and slicing down of rainforests will have a cataclysmic impact. But it’s always easiest for governments and people to just say “nah” and not let those thoughts get in the way of our everyday lives. Adam McKay’s satire Don’t Look Now takes these trends of indifference, disbelief and denial climate scientists have faced their whole careers and reapplies them to a comet-hits-the-Earth disaster movie.

So, when Michigan State University astronomers Dr Randall Mindy (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Kate Diabiasky (Jennifer Lawrence) spot a hunk of ruck the size of Everest on a collision course with the Earth they are met with a chorus of… yawns, memes and flat-out denials. The Trumpian President (Meryl Streep) is only interested in her donors, the mid-terms and dodging the fall-out from a host of scandals. The media – represented by Fox News style anchors Brie Evantree (Cate Blanchett) and Jack Bremmer (Tyler Perry) – aren’t interested in a story they can’t process down into a feel-good social media meme. And even when people start to listen, plans to destroy the comet are benched in favour of a wildly risky scheme, dreamed up by Steve Jobs/Elon Musk style tech billionaire Peter Isherwell (Mark Rylance) to mine the rare ores it contains for money. What could go wrong?

I can see what Adam McKay is aiming for here, to create a sort of Dr Strangelove for climate change, where the great and the good we are counting on to get us through a crisis, turn out to be the blinkered morons who end up causing it. There are moments where it sort-of hits on a rich mixture of farce and genuine anger. Moments where first Kate then Mindy – thelatter with lashings of Howard Beale – melt down on National TV, apoplectic at the comet-denying indifference of millions of people stand out as both hilarious and also compelling.

But, like a lot of McKay’s would-be satirical attacks over the last year, on finance and politics, the message sometimes fails to land because of the heavy-handed, self-satisfied, smug tone of the delivery. Don’t Look Up frequently isn’t very funny – and yes I know it ends with the world being destroyed due to everyone’s indifference and incompetence – and it ladles most of the blame on obvious targets. It’s takedown of Trump – here represented by Meryl Streep – is basic, it hits open goals with the agenda-driven bias of American news reporters and takes pot-shots at messianic tech billionaires. A real punch would perhaps have focused in more on how all the mindless, unfocused greed and ambition of these people is fed by the bland, social media focused, sound-bite obsessed shallowness of the masses. But Don’t Look Up remains focused on the big people.

So focused in fact that, even in this satire, only America has the wherewithal to launch a mission against the comet. A joint Russian, Chinese and Indian mission fails to get off the ground and other world leaders are noticeable by their absence. We never really spend time with any normal people. While much of the blame does lie with governments not taking a lead, we do live in a world where normal people are radicalised by reading about nonsensical mush like QAnon through chat rooms. Imagine a satire that looked at how ordinary people can be made to believe wild theories rather than the evidence of their own eyes as a comet heads towards Earth? Instead Don’t Look Up wants to stick with something vaguely comforting – that there are big, selfish, elites running us who act out of greed and stupidity and they carry all the danger (and the blame).

Where the film is strongest is the doubt and nonsense thrown at scientists. Mindy and Diabasky are first ignored by the administration because they aren’t Ivy League. Attempting to leak their findings on the TV, they are overshadowed by an on-air-proposal of a celebrity DJ to his singer girlfriend and when they hit the news, the only takeaway is that Mindy is ‘cute’, while Diabasky is a freaky angry woman, ranting about the world ending (she’s a meme in minutes). At every point the science is questioned or put on the same level as gut feelings and political agendas. Even their campaign to encourage the world to “Just Look Up” to see the impending catastrophe is countered by the President’s “Don’t Look Up” campaign that persuades millions of people the comet isn’t real.

Really rule by social media and the dumbing down of humanity should be the main target here. A comet isn’t even a great metaphor for climate change – which is gradual, can’t be just blown up and needs to be prevented by society making changes to the way we live. In some ways, by replacing climate change with a comet, even the film is acknowledging its not sexy or exciting enough – and that it doesn’t want to turn its critical fire on millions of people who would rather turn the heating up or drive to the corner shop rather than push to make changes in their lives.

So, it’s easier and simple for McKay to create a cartoon freak show of easy targets and bash them rather than tackle the underlying causes of climate change – that our world and its population wants to have its cake and eat it, and governments for generations have been too focused on the here and now to ever worry about the years to come. So funny as it can be to see Streep Trump it up, or Rylance channel his softness into insanity, or Hill play another of his mindless frat boys turned power brokers, the film doesn’t feel like it really goes for the real causes of climate change: our own culture. It takes hits at our social media simpleness, but not at our short sightedness.

McKay does at least direct without much of the fourth-wall leaning flashiness of his earlier works, and there are committed – if not exactly stretching – performances from Lawrence (whose characters checks out in despair at the shallowness) and DiCaprio (who is seduced by fame, power and Blanchett into becoming an apologetic mouthpiece for the administration). But Don’t Look Up is a little too pleased with itself, a little too focused on easy targets and doesn’t do enough to spread the blame wider. It stills see many of us as victims or mislead – when really we are as to blame a everyone else.

The Name of the Rose (1986)

Sean Connery taps into his inner Sherlock Holmes in The Name of the Rose

Director: Jean-Jacques Annaud

Cast: Sean Connery (William of Baskerville), F. Murray Abraham (Bernardo Gui), Christian Slater (Adso of Melk), Michael Lonsdale (The Abbot), Helmut Qualtinger (Remigio de Varagine), Elya Baskin (Severinus), Volker Prechtel (Malachia), Feodor Chaliapin Jnr (Jorge), William Hickey (Ubertino de Casale), Michael Habeck (Berengar), Urs Althaus (Venantius), Valentina Vargas (The Girl), Ron Perlman (Salvatore)

Umberto Eco’s erudite medieval murder-mystery was about the wonderful power of books, as much as murder mayhem in a medieval abbey. A surprise bestseller, the story is a perfect mix of intellectual playfulness and Agatha Christie whodunit, with suspects left, right and centre and bodies piling up faster than you can count. Jean-Jacques Annaud fought for years to bring the book to the screen, and his vision of it might well sacrifice much of the depth of the original (it even cheekily refers to itself as a “palimpsest” of the original novel – something reused but still bearing traces of the original) but brings enough to the table to have its own life.

In 1327, monks and high churchmen assemble at a Benedictine abbey in Northern Italy, famed for its voluminous library. However, all is not well at the Abbey with one monk already dead in mysterious circumstances, and soon many others join him in death, each of the later victims with mysteriously blackened fingers and tongues. The Abbot (Michael Lonsdale) asks renowned Franciscan monk William of Baskerville (Sean Connery) to investigate – and his efforts will reveal the dark truths at the heart of the abbey and place him and his novice Adso (Christian Slater) on a collision course with Inquisitor Bernardo Gui (F. Murray Abraham) who sees not a human hand, but the hand of Satan, in the murders.

Annaud’s film perfectly captures the mud and grime of the medieval world, with its murky visuals of the cold and damp in a building like this in winter. To be fair, the film is helped in its sense of oppressive medievalism by its frequently choppy editing and less-than-obvious camera angles (at times making it hard to tell what is happening), while James Horner’s score may hit its notes hard at points, but does sound like a successful pastiche of choral music of the time and creates an ominous air.

Annaud searched far-and-wide for his ideal cast to populate the monastery – and he seems to have assembled actors based on the closeness of their resemblance to Holbein, Bosch and Brugel grotesques. The monks are a distinctive set of oddball weirdos, often pale of face (non-more so than obese albino Beringar, whose effete campness tips a little uncomfortably into homophobia today), with oddly tonsued facial hair, and prominent facial features. To be honest it makes the movie-stardom of Connery (and Slater) stand out even more, as practically the only members of the cast who don’t look like they could audition for the Addams family. Ron Perlman in particular labours under such carefully applied make-up, matched with a faultlessly committed performance of physical and verbal childishness mixed with animal instinct, it was a shock to find out from other films that he was not hideously deformed!

William of Baskerville, as imagined by Eco, was a mix of William of Occam (him of Occam’s razor) and Sherlock Holmes (hence the Baskerville) – the book even matched almost word for word, Watson’s first description of Holmes from A Study with Scarlet with Adso’s first description of William. (Adso himself is also basically W-atso-n). The film is at its strongest when focused in William’s deductions, his lightening intellectualism and his ability to bring even the smallest fact or note to bear in order to shape a conclusion. The film front-and-centres William’s investigation over and above the other themes of the book (around faith, books and intellectual freedom), but this works for the requirements of a film’s narrative.

t also helps that William is played by Sean Connery in one of his finest performances. Heading into the film, Connery’s career was in a seemingly terminal decline (indeed the Great Scotsman was seen as such box-office poison, a Hollywood Studio pulled their funding after he was cast). Connery had to work hard to persuade Annaud – but thank god he did, as he plays on his fatherly and intellectual strengths here. In real life a committed autodidact, Connery perfectly captures the curiosity and love-of-learning of William, and also invests him with a profound moral sense, shaded by his guilt at past failings and playful understanding of how the moments when we fail to live up to expectations do not mean we are damned. It’s one of Connery’s finest performance – and unarguably changed his career, as he headed into a five year purple patch of increasingly impressive performances. 

Connery’s compelling performance is the real meat of the film, and he creates a character who feels warm, rounded and a perfect mix of contemporary and of-the-period. He’s also well supported by a young Christian Slater as his sidekick novice, who also gets a surprisingly raunchy sex scene. It’s unfortunate the rest of the cast don’t get as much to play with. The rest of the monks are oddballs, or drift out of the film as the plot requires (Michael Lonsdale’s abbot simply disappears, despite hints of a darker role in the plot early in the film).

In particular F Murray Abraham devours most of the impressive set as a lip-smackingly cruel inquisitor who delights in handing out the judgement of God. The film repositions him as a hissable villain, and reduces his impact accordingly, including placing him in an “you’re off the case William!” role. The final, murkily done sequence (featuring fires, heretics punished and a couple of nasty accidents) does tip into the sort of Grand Guignol gothicness that the book itself more or less avoids. But then it’s part of the general boiling down of the novel – making it that palimpsest – and also part of Annaud’s Euro-epic style, with its melting pot of accents and touches of clumsy editing and filming.

The balance of the original novel between ideas and sensation gets more or lost in sensation here – indeed the book that all this murderous behaviour is all about gets rushed over and its impact poorly explained, as are the motives of the eventual killer – but it all still kind of works because it looks more or less perfect and because of that Connery performance. Annaud was probably not quite the director to successfully marry the two parts of the book – and his direction is adequate in many places rather than inspired, with too many awkward handbrake turns – but this is still a film I have enjoyed many times over and will do so again.

Hellboy II: The Golden Army (2008)

Ron Perlman faces larger problems than ever in Hellboy II: The Golden Army

Director: Guillermo del Toro

Cast: Ron Perlman (Hellboy), Selma Blair (Liz Sherman), Doug Jones (Abe Sapien/Angel of Death/Chamberlain), Seth MacFarlane (Johann Krauss), Luke Goss (Prince Nuada), Anna Walton (Princess Nuala), Jeffrey Tambor (Tom Manning), John Hurt (Professor Trevor Bruttenholm), Roy Dotrice (King Balor)

There is something quite sweet about the Guillermo del Toro taking all the chips won for directing Pan’s Labyrinth and cashed them in for this comic book sequel. There you have the distillation of the man’s career right there: one for the artist and then one for the teenage boy he used to be. But Hellboy II is a marvellous creation, a gorgeous to look at, magical, rather funny comic book film crammed with amazing images, ingenious creatures and sparkling moments of action and adventure.

Thousands of years ago, the magical creatures of the world, led by the elves, fought a war against mankind. To win a desperate victory, goblins created the dreaded Golden Army, an indestructible mechanical army. Horrified at the slaughter, Elven King Balor (Roy Dotrice) offered a truce. His son Prince Nuala (Luke Goss) disagreed. In the present day, Nuala goes about to collect the three pieces of the crown needed to control the Golden Army – and only Hellboy (Ron Perlman) and his friends from the BPRD can stop him. 

Hellboy II is immensely imaginative and wonderful to look at. Perhaps inspired by Pan’s Labyrinth, the film plays like a cross between the most brain-twisting magic depths of that film and a traditional comic book. So we get dozens of creatures, each pulled from the pages of some sort of acid tripped Tolkien novel: with extended hands, distorted heads and steam-punkish extremities, the creatures on show are masterpieces of design and character. The juxtaposition between this ethereal, magical world of elves and goblins and mankind’s expansion brings home the danger this world is in: the Elven King’s palace in the modern day is in a sort of converted sewer, while Nuala’s base is an abandoned underground line. With some performers (often del Toro’s muse Doug Jones) under layers of make-up and prosthetics, it’s extraordinary the amount of personality each of these creatures gets. When the film takes a turn down a Diagon Alley-style market, you regret Del Toro never got to make a Harry Potter film.

Hellboy looks both part of this world and also like a muscular bull in a china shop. Ron Perlman continues to be perfect in the part, and captures the wry, cynical, slightly teenagerish humour of the part. Del Toro does a wonderful job of showing the sense of family between Hellboy, his lover pyrokinetic Liz (a decent performance by Selma Blair, although she is too often relegated to the “woman” role), and his surrogate brother, amphibious empath Abe (Doug Jones getting to provide the voice as well this time, and getting a fine display of growing emotional expression). The quiet character moments between the action really ring true – a very funny sequence sees Hellboy and Abe bemoan their romantic entanglements by getting drunk while singing Can’t Smile Without You.

It’s scenes like that which add the heart alongside the throbbing action and colourful character weirdness of del Toro’s vision. It’s also part of the distinctiveness of the whole vision of the film. Everything is seen with as fresh an eye as possible, and makes for some really striking images and scenes. The steam-punk aesthetic of the Golden Army seems to fit together perfectly with the more organic world of the Elves. There’s a sense at all times that the design and pacing of the film have been carefully thought through so everything fits logically together. Starting the film with a wonderfully animated Golden Army backstory (voiced by a briefly returning John Hurt for maximum impact) is just another reflection of the artistry at work here.

There is a nice vein of humour running through the film – there are some funny sight gags as characters walk nonchalantly through bizarre goings-on in BDRP HQ – and the more gory moments of the action are shot with a certain black comedy. The film also gets a decent few points in about how humanity rejects things that are different, which are not surprising but still hit home.

Hellboy II does start to become a bit more generic as it heads towards its final denouement. Most of the events of the final few scenes are pretty predictable from the outset, and offer little in the way of surprises. For all the chemistry she has with Perlman, Blair is more or less relegated to the sidelines for large chunks of the film (usually the action). But for most of the run time, it’s inventive, imaginative fun with a director bringing a distinctive vision to the genre while also kicking back his heels and having fun. And fun is what it wants the viewer to have as well – don’t try too hard, sit back, relax and enjoy yourself.

Hellboy (2004)

Ron Perlman fights the darkness in curio del Toro comic book flick Hellboy

Director: Guillermo del Toro

Cast: Ron Perlman (Hellboy), Selma Blair (Liz Sherman), Rupert Evans (John Thaddeus), John Hurt (Dr Trevor Bruttenholm), Karel Roden (Rasputin), Jeffrey Tambor (Tom Manning), Doug Jones (Abe Sapien), Brian Steele (Sammael), Ladislav Beran (Karl Ruprecht Kroenen), Bridget Hodson (Ilsa Haupstein), Corey Johnson (Agent Clay)

As little as 10 years ago, outside a few core characters like Batman, the X-Men or Spiderman, comic book movies were an odd curio hard to place in the mass market. Today of course, you can virtually get any character who has appeared in a cartoon strip up on the screen with a budget of millions. But back in 2004, Guillermo del Toro had to squeeze this project out on a smaller budget in order to get the studio to agree to make the film.

Hellboy has a particularly demented story. In 1945, the Nazis, working in partnership with Rasputin (Karel Roden) – yes thatRasputin, don’t even ask – attempt to open a portal to hell to, well I’m not quite sure what they want to do, but it probably involves the destruction of the world. Anyway, some humble GIs stop them and the only thing that comes through the portal is a little demon with an enormous stone fist. Raised by paranormal expert Dr Trevor Bruttenholm (John Hurt), this creature grows up into cigar-chomping secret-agent-for-the-FBI Hellboy (Ron Perlman), working on paranormal investigations. But when Rasputin returns from the dead it looks like all hell (literally) is about to break out.

Okay it should be pretty clear to you from that that Hellboy is an odd film. It’s very much from del Toro’s B-movie heart, and he invests this nonsense material with a great deal of directorial style and heart – a real “geek-boy-artist” job. Del Toro has a great deal of imagination and is able to strike a happy balance between enjoying the material and not taking it all too seriously. So he lets the film barrel along, throwing plenty of nonsense at the screen without worrying about trying to make it make real-world sense. In fact Del Toro is clearly so fond of the material that he basically shoots the whole thing like a comic book come to life. 

So the film is crammed with bright primary colours mixed with murky blacks, and Del Toro frames many key moments like comic book panels. It’s a film packed with striking images and scenes built around stuff that feels like it should teeter over into ridiculous camp all the time but never quite does. Its steam-punky styling instead manages to feel somehow both strikingly original visually and also strangely packed with integrity – like Del Toro made a very personal big-budget movie for his childhood, the sort of bizarro cult film that’s actually-quite-good and it’s going to win a huge following once people can find it for themselves (which is indeed what happened).

Del Toro’s other great principled stand was to ensure that Ron Perlman played the lead. Hellboy is a bizarre character – over six feet, red, horns, a tail – but what Perlman and Del Toro do so well is to make him some sort of Brooklynish chippy blue-collar worker with a kitchen-sink earthy wit. Perlman is clearly having a whale of a time playing this temperamental demon like some sort of longshoreman Han Solo, a brattish teenager and rebel with a world-weary cynicism. He’s crammed with contradictions (the demon who fights for good!) that Del Toro is keen to explore – and makes consistently interesting.

Because he’s such a different character, he energises a fairly traditional story and his character’s pretty standard personal-struggle-plotline (will he do the right or the wrong thing?). Perlman juggles all this really well, and gives a performance that is both dry and funny but also has moments of real heart and emotion. He even manages to sell his rather possessive love for Selma Blair’s (also pretty good) fellow orphan with pyrotechnical abilities as something heartfelt and caring, despite the fact that at one point he basically stalks her. It’s a rather wonderful performance.

The rest of the cast are a bit more of a mixed bag. Rupert Evans is saddled with the audience surrogate role – asking the questions we can’t ask – while Karel Roden’s lipsmacking performance as Rasputin never quite engages as a villain. Stronger roles come from Jeffrey Tambor as an officious FBI director and especially from John Hurt as Hellboy’s father-figure, the kind of quintessential ageing mentor that you can imagine his wards adoring. 

The rather silly plot doesn’t really matter. The importance here is the gothic chill of Del Toro’s style, mixed with his crazy “larger-than-life” dark comic book tone. And it works really well: the film is fun and witty, and if the storyline never really feels like it earns the “end of the world” threat (and builds towards an uninvolving duking out with a giant CGI monster), there are enough enjoyments along the way to make you want to make the journey.

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016)

Eddie Redmayne and Dan Fogler uncover some Fantastic Beasts

Director: David Yates

Cast: Eddie Redmayne (Newt Scamander), Katherine Waterston (Tina Goldstein), Dan Fogler (Jacob Kowalski), Alison Sudol (Queenie Goldstein), Colin Farrell (Percival Graves), Ezra Miller (Credence Barebone), Samantha Morton (Mary Lou Barebone), Jon Voight (Henry Shaw Snr), Carmen Ejogo (President Seraphona Picquery), Ron Perlman (Gnarlack), Ronan Raftery (Langdon Shaw), Josh Cowdery (Henry Shaw Jnr), Johnny Depp (Gellert Grindelwald)

Eventually the gravy train had to come to an end. The Harry Potter franchise laid golden eggs for over a decade, until Rowling’s books came to an end. Just as well then that the incomparable JK Rowling had tonnes of invention left up her sleeve, and was keen to look at other elements of the Potterverse. So we got the creation of this sideways prequel, set in the rich backstory of the Harry Potter novels. And it is a bit of a treat.

In the 1920s, Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) arrives in New York with a suitcase full of fantastic beasts. He’s there to return one of them home – but after a mix-up at a bank his suitcase ends up in the hands of muggle (or as the Americans put it “No-Maj”) and would-be baker Jacob Kowalski (Dan Fogler). As the escaped beasts cause chaos, demoted Auror Tina Goldstein (Katherine Waterston) works with Newt and Jacob to try and recapture the creatures, with the aid of Tina’s mind-reading sister Queenie (Alison Sodel). But is all the destruction truly caused by Newt’s creatures? Or are there darker forces at work? 

Fantastic Beasts is a charming spin-off, sustained by some endearing performances, its warm heart and stylish design. Whether the plot is quite strong enough to reward constant viewing as much as many of the Harry Potter films do, I’m not sure (I didn’t find its story particularly gripping the second time around), but I think there are enough incidental pleasures there to keep you coming back for more. It’s actually a film which will be interesting to re-evaluate after the later sequels emerge – there are many suggested threads set up in this one for exploration later.

It’s not a surprise that the initial plot around chasing and collecting the beasts is fairly basic, since it’s based on a slim handbook (itself based on a reference from the original Harry Potter stories) that Rowling published as a Comic Relief fundraiser. Besides the chasing around to capture the animals, it’s only really the backdrop for sight-gags, cute animals and (most importantly) our window for getting to know our leads.

And these leads are certainly well worth getting to know, with a string of excellent performances from the four principals. Redmayne anchors the film very well as the slightly dotty, professorial, socially awkward Newt, whose coy, bashful charm really endears him to the viewer. Dan Fogler is possibly even better as our viewer surrogate, an average New Yorker thrown into a mad world of magic who somehow manages to take it all in his stride and whose growing excitement and embracing of this demented wizard world makes you fall in love with him. He’s helped by a sweet, gentle and touching romance with the effervescent but lonely Queenie (a magnetic Alison Sudol). Katherine Waterston gets the trickiest part as the earnest, try-hard, play-by-the-rules Tina – but her growing fondness for Newt and his creatures works very well.

The moments of the film that focus on the interaction between these four are the finest of the film – as are those that allow us a glimpse of Newt’s wonderful creatures. Housed in a Mary Poppins-ish suitcase of infinite TARDIS-like depth, these beasts are brilliantly designed and wonderfully individual, from a cute mole-like Niffler (naughtily stealing shiny things like a magpie), to a horny Erumpent (like a hippo and rhino mixed), to the majestic Thunderbird, a sort of Eagle-Phoenix, soaring through the plains in Newt’s suitcase. Even the small Bowtruckle Newt carries in his pocket gets to develop a sense of personality. (And yes I had to look all these names up).

These creatures are both individualistic but also used for very specific purposes in the film, from lock-picking to a sort of bizarre self-defence weapon. Despite their horrific appearances, the film treats them with as much understanding sweetness as Newt does – even the dangerous ones are only dangerous when riled or threatened, and Newt’s protective nature helps us to feel as fond of them as he does.

Away from the beasts, the film largely focuses on setting up threads (and threats) for future films. A major sub-plot revolves around an anti-Magical society run by a stern-faced Samantha Morton. The film heads into darker territories here, with its references to both cults and the ill-treatment of children. Ezra Miller does well as Morton’s awkward, ill-treated adopted son, unable to escape from his oppression or express his frustration. Someone in this family is a powerful magical being called an Obscurus, and the film plays a neat game of bluff and double bluff around this.

It continues this game as it fills out the political magical world around Carmen Ejogo’s regal magical President. What game is Colin Farrell’s authoritarian Perceval Graves playing? What of the film’s opening references to dark wizard Grindelwald, and the suggested war that is bubbling under the surface in the magical world? All this darker stuff sits around the edges and margins of Newt’s beast-collecting storyline, occasionally seeping in (let’s not forget at one point Newt and Tina are literally sentenced to death for supposed crimes), but doesn’t overwhelm the lightness.

David Yates directs with a professionalism that comes from being hugely familiar with this world. His later sequences of Obscurus destruction are not always particularly different from other city-smashing scenes from other films. Not every plotline feels fully explored – Jon Voight playing a newspaper mogul and his two contrasting sons seems like a plot we could do without – but Yates does keep the film moving pacily forward, he gets the tone of light slapstick and family warmth and he still shoots the wonder of magic better than almost anyone.

Fantastic Beasts is a film that is perhaps a little too light and frothy to really be a classic – it juggles too many plots and doesn’t always bring them together well. It’s mixture of darkness and lightness is a little eclectic, and it sometimes feel very much like a film designed to set up future films effectively. But when it focuses on its four leads, it’s very strong indeed and all of them – particularly Fogler – are people you want to see more of. It even manages to end the film on both a genuine laugh and a heart-warming bit of romance, tinged with sadness. It’s a fine start to a new franchise.

Enemy at the Gates (2001)


Jude Law takes aim in wonky Stalingrad drama Enemy at the Gates

Director: Jean-Jacques Annaud

Cast: Jude Law (Vasily Zaytsev), Joseph Fiennes (Commisar Danilov), Rachel Weisz (Tania Chernova), Bob Hoskins (Nikita Khrushchev), Ed Harris (Major Erwin König), Ron Perlman (Koulikov), Eva Mattes (Mother Filipovva), Gabriel Marshall-Thomson (Sasha Filippov), Matthias Habich (General Friedrich Paulus)

The Second World War in film almost always focuses on the heroics of the Western Front, where the rights and wrongs are usually pretty clear (the Western powers are noble, the Nazis savage). So it’s different to set a film on the Eastern front – where the Second World War was arguably really won and lost, and where morality is much more complex. The Nazis are terrible, but Stalin’s Russia was no picnic either.

Stalingrad in 1942: Soviet tactics involve giving every other man a gun, and ordering the second man to follow his partner and take his gun when he is killed. Witnessing the sharpshooting skills of young soldier Vasily Zaytsev (Jude Law), political Commissar Danilov (Joseph Fiennes) decides to turn him into the romantic hero the Soviets need to help inspire them. He’s so successful in doing so that the Germans send their own expert sniper, Major König (Ed Harris), to find and kill Zaytsev. Meanwhile, the friendship between Danilov and Zaytsev becomes complicated when they both fall in love for the same woman, sharpshooter and German translator Tania Chernova (Rachel Weisz).

It’s quite something for a film to be denounced by both sides of the war it’s depicting: this probably means it’s doing something right, as it doesn’t deny the hellish atrocities carried out on both sides (even if many of these are implied). The real reason to be outraged is probably more to do with its general flatness and shoving of the great battle into the standard war-movie clichés. There are some attempts to suggest what we are seeing is a true story, but other than a man called Zaytsev existing, there is very little of truth on show. Instead we get a Hollywood view of Soviet Russia: where the characters we like are regular joes, while the ones we don’t are full-on Commie zealots.

The film starts well, with an extended sequence that follows Zaytsev and several other soldiers boarding boats, crossing the river, arriving in Stalingrad and being marched immediately into the front line. Half the men are killed – the fleeing remainder are swiftly machine gunned by their officers for cowardice. It brings back memories of Saving Private Ryan and, while not as good, gives the impression we are going to see a “horrors of war” film – which the film doesn’t turn into.

Instead we get an increasingly melodramatic plotline around love triangles and sniper duels that never really feels like Russian lives at the time. In fact, the film fails to capture any real sense of Soviet Russia, other than its dirt and ruthlessness. Danilov and Zaytsev celebrate their newfound fame with a sort of giddy laddishness that just doesn’t fit any Russian’s understanding of what being noticed in Soviet Russia would surely mean. When the film does try to sound Soviet it stumbles: there is a painful (unintentionally) funny moment when Zaytsev talks about his dream job to be working in a factory, because factory work seems so noble.

The love triangle also seems ripped from Mills and Boon. Not a lot of it rings true, with Danilov turning into some sort of jealous head-boy. The romance blossoming between Zaytsev and Tania can’t decide whether it’s two souls coming together, or whether it has the air of a “last romance” with death around the corner. So it’s either overblown and overplayed, or not given enough room to build. It doesn’t help that there are a number of strange choices – not least a sex scene where Rachel Weisz seems more uncomfortable and in pain than in the throes of passion.

Maybe it’s that none of the performances of the lead actors feels either particularly Russian or soldierly. Jude Law fails to convince as a man from peasant hardship. He’s also saddled himself with a wooden “peasant” accent that not only makes Zaytsev sound like a mockney chancer, but also sound like a worse actor than he is. Joseph Fiennes is more school prefect than Soviet Commissar. Rachel Weisz is the most natural of the three, but her character makes little real sense: sometimes she’s gung-ho, others she talks about wanting this war to end. None of these actors really brings the right charisma needed – in particular Law looks as overwhelmed by the events around him as Zaytsev claims to feel.

The film belongs to the sniper sequences, and the duel of wits that develops between Zaytsev and König. Ed Harris’ part is as limply written as the rest, but Harris has a movie star charisma the others lack, and suggests a great deal of reserved arrogance and professional coldness. He’s the best thing about the movie. Annaud shoots the slow-burn waiting of sniping with a tension – and the film rather bravely stresses König’s superiority time and time again. As the film zeroes in on these two men trying to outmatch each other, it feels like it’s about something – and also that it’s relieved to leave the war at large behind.

Because for a film set in the Eastern Front, this feels unnerved by there being right and wrong on both sides. It even feels squeamish about sniper shooting. After his initial display of skill, we literally don’t see any sniper work from Zaytsev again – the “cowardly” killing from a distance of regular German soldiers is handed out to other characters. Russians are sorted into good and bad, with the good showing they are “just like us” by quietly denouncing their government. König can’t just be a professional, but the film has to try and nudge him into being a cold-hearted killer. It’s a film about the complex morality of war, that wants to make it as simple as possible.

It’s still well-made, but you wish that more time had been directed towards the script, to give us a story that was slightly better and characters that felt a bit more real. James Horner supplies a decent score (interestingly it also shows how much of film music is re-used, as key refrains in this film are strongly reminiscent of Willowand Troy). But the lead actors are all miscast (Bob Hoskins isn’t much more convincing as a bulldog Khrushchev) and it feels like a film that’s running away from a complex series of issues to try and present something as close as possible to goodies vs. baddies. The War on the Eastern Front was a hugely complex thing: this film hardly scratches the surface.

Pacific Rim (2013)


Idris Elba, Charlie Hunnam and Rinko Kikuchi are cancelling the Apocalypse in Pacific Rim

Director: Guillermo del Toro

Cast: Charlie Hunnam (Raleigh Becket), Idris Elba (General Stacker Pentecost), Rinko Kikuchi (Mako Mori), Charlie Day (Dr Newt Geiszler), Max Martini (Hercules Hansen), Robert Kazinsky (Chuck Hansen), Ron Perlman (Hannibal Chau), Clifton Collins Jnr (Tendo Choi), Burn Gorman (Dr Gottleib), Diego Klattenhoff (Yancy Beckett)

Film can be a beautiful and thought-provoking art-form. But sometimes, gosh darn it, you just want to leave the works of the great artists behind and watch a big, loud film in which giant robots hit giant monsters. Over and over again. In lurid, glorious, high colour detail. That’s pretty much the life and career of Guillermo del Toro. Make something like Pan’s Labyrinth. Then follow it up with something so wildly, tonally different you won’t believe it’s from the same guy: Pacific Rim.

In 2013, huge monsters (Kaiju) emerge from an interdimensional portal at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. As they destroy cities left, right and centre, mankind is pushed to the limit. Eventually they develop Jaegers – giant robots controlled by two pilots, whose minds are linked together and used to drive the Jaeger’s movements. In 2020, Raleigh Becket (Charlie Hunnam) leaves the Jaeger force, commanded by General Stacker Pentecost (Idris Elba), after his brother and co-pilot is killed by a Kaiju. By 2025, the world governments decide to cut the funding of the Jaeger programme – forcing Pentecost to call Becket out of retirement and team him with his adopted daughter Mako Mori (Rinko Kikuchi) to launch a final, desperate, assault on the portal with the few remaining Jaegers, in an attempt to stop the ever-increasing number of Kaijus for good.

Pacific Rim is loud. It is silly. Its plot is a collection of clichés and offcuts from other movies. Some of the acting in it is ludicrously bad, over-the-top, poorly accented or all three. It looks and sounds like a direct-to-DVD movie made on a massive budget. Yet, despite all this, it’s really, really good fun. The ultimate guilty pleasure. Deafeningly dumb, but somehow it sort of knows this, and it knows you know it, so it just gives you what you wanted when you sat down – bangs, bashes and silly dialogue. Maybe this all works because Del Toro is actually a real director: he can shoot this nonsense with a sense of flair and scale, and is confident enough as a storyteller to just accept he’s making a dumb film and doesn’t need to try and pile some spurious depth on it, but just run with the emptiness.

Pacific Rim gives you this: some truly sublime robot vs. monsters battling in a variety of beautifully shot locations, in particular downtown Hong Kong. I mean, who wouldn’t love seeing this smashy super-action? The robots basically look really cool, the monsters are really imaginative, it’s tonnes of fun. Of course the battles are silly, there is always “one more weapon” to use that is bigger and better than anything they’ve used before (so why not do that from the start?). Del Toro also shoots the fights with a surprisingly calm camera, that makes the action the frantic lead, rather than the normal thing you see in these films, with the camera flying around all over the place. They’re edited really well. The score is great. The battles don’t overstay their welcome, and the characters at the centre of the Jaegers are always kept front-and-centre. Who wouldn’t love them?

The plotline of the film has a B-movie directness, which del Toro manages to fill with some depth. It’s a film about co-operation and learning to work together. This should be pretty wearingly obvious – okay it is – but somehow it strangely moving in the film. The Jaegers literally need two people to work together so closely they share a mind to operate it. The whole Jaeger programme only works from intimate co-operation. Characters feud and argue – but the film is about them learning to overcome these differences and work together. The film hammers home the fatality rate of this war with kaijus so well, that you end up really caring for sacrifices and risks these people are running. When Jaeger pilots start dying, I find it actually rather moving in its brutal suddenness. 

At lot of this comes from the wonderful, hero-worshipping, film style del Toro uses. Look at shots such as when (in flashback) Idris Elba’s Penthouse climbs out of a Jaeger, framed by the sun behind him – he looks like some sort of ultimate hero. The Jaeger pilots all have their own distinctive themes, and are framed and shot with idealism and adoration. Sure their personal issues are the most rampant form of clichéd melodrama – but it’s sold with complete conviction, and told with such unabashed simplicity, that you end up caring for it. 

This is despite the fact that most of the acting is pretty below par. Idris Elba is the one major exception – the only one with the charisma to sell such basic plots as “dying of brain tumour” and to make chuckle worthy lines like “we are cancelling the apocalypse” sound like rallying cries, rather than seriously awful crap. Charlie Hunnam, by comparison, has nowhere near that level of charisma and Raleigh Becket is probably the most forgettable lead character you’re going to see in a movie like this. Robert Kazinsky is pretty awful as his rival Jaeger pilot (his accent is dreadful). Charlie Day and Burn Gorman are hit-and-miss as the comic sidekick scientists. Rinko Kikuchi is however pretty good – and with her “drift” memory loss she has probably the film’s most affecting sequence.

But this isn’t a film of subtle character work or sharp scripting. It’s got a B-Movie aesthetic, but it delivers it totally honestly. Basically, Guillermo del Toro is a good enough director to be comfortable with making a really, really good bad movie, Pacific Rim is deeply silly and stupid, but it is a lot of fun and its characters (despite their pretty forgettable or clichéd nature) are still people you really invest in. Del Toro pulls off a neat trick filming this, perhaps because the film is so sweetly honest, and unabashed, about what they are doing here. It’s got a heart-warming message about co-operation. It never feels exploitative. It’s got a childish sweetness about it, a real family robot basher. It’s the best bad movie you’ll ever see.

Star Trek: Nemesis (2002)


Tom Hardy plays a clone of the young Patrick Stewart in Star Trek: Nemesis. You can tell he’s identical ‘cos he’s got no hair

Director: Stuart Baird

Cast: Patrick Stewart (Captain Jean-Luc Picard), Jonathan Frakes (Commander William Riker), Brent Spiner (Lt Commander Data), LeVar Burton (Lt Commander Geordi LaForge), Michael Dorn (Lt Commander Worf), Gates McFadden (Dr Beverley Crusher), Marina Sirtis (Deanna Troi), Tom Hardy (Shinzon), Ron Perlman (Viceroy), Dina Meyer (Commander Donatra), Kate Mulgrew (Admiral Janeway)

There are few things in the Star Trek franchise with as poor a reputation as Star Trek: Nemesis. It’s as close as the series got to a franchise-killer, a film that bombed so colossally (the first ever Star Trek film to lose money at the box office) that it seemed to end not only the movie series but all planned television projects. Since then, it has been remembered as an incoherent, poorly plotted mess, crammed with terrible writing and direction and shoddy action. Is this memory fair? Well yes and no.

Picard (Patrick Stewart) and Data (Brent Spiner) have their sense of self thrown: first by Data’s discovery of an identical, unadvanced prototype of himself called B-4 (also Spiner) and then by Picard discovering on a mission to Romulus that the new leader of the Romulan Empire is a clone of his younger self, going by the name Shinzon (Tom Hardy). Having assassinated the Romulan government, Shinzon plans to give freedom to his “Reman brothers”, the slave race that raised him from childhood. But he also has sinister aims for the Federation…

This is a horrendously compromised product, cut to ribbons by the studio to get as close as possible to two hours as possible, regardless of the impact on plot or characters. Why? Because it was released at the same time as Lord of the Rings: Two Towers and the plan was all the people who didn’t want to see that would choose Nemesis instead. I won’t start to explain here all the reasons this plan was stupid. Suffice it to say, it didn’t work and meant we ended up with a gutted mess that jumps as quickly as it can to action set-pieces, many inadequately filmed on the cheap.

It also doesn’t help that Stuart Baird was brought on board to direct: a self-proclaimed “non-fan” who proudly announced he hadn’t watched any Trek before. A fresh perspective is great – but come on, if it’s the fourth film with the cast, following 175 episodes, you’d think some respect for the past would be good, right? Instead, Baird seems contemptuous of the whole genre and has no tonal understanding of Star Trek. The actors constantly struggle to keep their characters as consistent as possible, while events and actions keep spinning wildly out of whack. I could start nit-picking Star Trek errors (why is Worf here? Why is Wesley back in Starfleet? What’s happened to Data’s emotion chip? Why does no-one mention Data’s evil brother Lore? Picard was not always bald. Etc. etc. etc.) but I’d be here all day.

Anyway, if they were going to bring a new face on board, could they not have found a better director than Baird? Some of the sequences of this film are so wonkily filmed they look cheaper than they probably were. Any scene involving hand-to-hand fighting is cursed with poor shots and bizarre slow motion straight out of 1970s TV. They all look absurdly slow and cheap. The Romulans are redesigned as ludicrously camp, partly green skinned, heavily made-up softies. Shinzon and the Remans sashay around in noisy rubber costumes like space gimps. Baird has no sense of comic timing and virtually all the overtly “funny” parts of the film fall on their arse. The wedding scene is one long sequence of slightly embarrassing faux-comedy – the sort of thing that will confirm to any sceptic that loving Star Trek is desperately sad.

But the main problem is the plot. Shinzon is a character who should be really interesting: for starters, he’s played by the excellent Tom Hardy. He should be casting a dark light on Picard, with a feeling that these are men only a few degrees apart, or that Shinzon is a kind of renegade son pushing to find his own place in the universe. All lost in the edit. Shinzon’s back story and aims make no sense, and by the end his character degenerates into a motiveless nutter. If he’s all about freeing the Remans (a goal achieved at the start of the film) why does he want to destroy Earth? If his focus is on Picard why does he constantly delay capturing him? What would have worked was if the Enterprise were trying to stop Shinzon destroying Romulus, or if Shinzon’s focus was exclusively on Picard and we had more of a sense of Shinzon being a “dark Picard”. Instead he’s just a nutter with a homicidal plan for Earth which comes out of nowhere.

Badly structured as the Shinzon plot is, at least this has some decent scenes between Hardy and Stewart. However the B-4 plot makes little sense at all, while also providing an unfortunate opportunity for Spiner to play “simple Data”, like an android Rain Man. In terms of where he fits into Shinzon’s plan or the rest of the plot, B-4 makes no sense and provides no real contrast to Data or comment on the Picard/Shinzon relations. He should, of course, be another repeat of the theme of Picard seeing a disagreeable version of himself. But this never comes together. It just gets used for jokes or for Spiner to show-off. Neither option is that appealing.

This thematic material keeps getting constantly lost. It’s cut so badly that it often makes the film empty and unsatisfying. You keep wanting thematic juice: our heroes confronting dark versions of themselves, or the struggle of dealing with your lack of uniqueness in the galaxy. But the film only wants to sketch these in roughly in order to keep moving forward to action scenes. The worst of these is a prolonged car buggy chase on a primitive planet that not only takes ages, it’s desperately dully and makes no real sense at all when you think about (for starters, if the baddies wanted B-4 to be found, why break him up and sprinkle the bits all over a dangerous planet?). 

This means that, despite the title, we never get the sense of there being an actual nemesis in this film. Shinzon never really feels like a reflection of Picard. The film just tells us he’s a baddy, because, hell he just is. You can practically tick off the standard list of villain quirks. Lack of patience? Check. A creepy attitude to women? Check. Killing a subordinate for failing? Check. Any prospect of making him an interesting, different type of character gets pushed out in favour of the simple.

That’s many paragraphs saying what’s wrong. But it’s not all bad. Honestly it isn’t. In fact, there are some nice moments in there. There are some good character beats, and the cast are working hard to make these moments land. In particular, there are some lovely exchanges between Picard and Data, while Geordi gets more to do in this film than most of the last few (including some actual moments exploring his friendship with Data, often lost in the films). Picard feels more like the enlightened explorer and intellectual character from the TV show here than he did in any of the other films. When we are allowed to relax and breathe, the film touches on an elegiac, end-of-an-era quality (see scenes like that below).

Also, as awful as the buggy chase sequence is, the final space battle (while a clear lift from Star Trek II) is exciting and well filmed, and also showcases our characters’ professionalism. The hand-to-hand combat bits are hopeless, and Picard’s final “man on a mission” assault strains credibility. But Data’s final sacrifice is quite moving – especially the quiet moments afterwards where the rest of the cast respond to it. It’s sad because you know more of this warm interplay is on the cutting room floor with the thematic material of the film – leaving this neutered disappointment instead. Which is a shame because there is some decent material here – and some enjoyable moments. There is also a terrific score.

Star Trek: Nemesis is not as bad as you may remember. I mean, it’s a long way short of the best Star Trek films – but it’s got its moments. It’s made by a director who doesn’t understand (or care) about the franchise, but the cast do their best to hold it together. It’s a thoroughly compromised film, ruined by too many people trying to make a film that did too much, and it was clearly intended as a jumping off point for the next film (which never happened), but for all this, there is just about enough to keep a fan entertained – although probably not a non-fan. And if nothing else, this is the last chance to see the cast of one of the best sci-fi shows ever made.