Tag: Sam Spruell

Legend (2011)

Tom Hardy plays with himself in Legend

Director: Brian Helgeland

Cast: Tom Hardy (Ronnie Kray/Reggie Kray), Emily Browning (Frances Shea), Christopher Eccleston (Superintendent Leonard “Nipper” Read), David Thewlis (Leslie Payne), Taron Egerton (Edward “Mad Teddy” Smith), Chazz Palminteri (Angelo Bruno), Paul Bettany (Charlie Richardson), Colin Morgan (Frankie Shea), Tara Fitzgerald (Mrs Shea), Paul Anderson (Albert Donoghue), Sam Spruell (Jack McVitie), John Sessions (Lord Boothby), Kevin McNally (Harold Wilson)

Tom Hardy is the sort of actor who, if you could find a role for him in your film, you certainly would. So how about getting the chance to cast him twice? That’s the happy situation Brian Helgeland was in here, with the chance for Hardy to play not one but both of the Kray twins. The buzz around Hardy taking on both roles was so strong that the film itself was almost completely forgotten in the crush. This was perhaps easy to do since the film is pretty mediocre at best, a confused mess that can’t decide if it wants to wallow in the undeserved glamour of the Krays or whether it wants to explore the darker currents below the surface.

The film covers most of the career of the Kray brothers – the seemingly more grounded, ambitious Reggie and then the more impulsive Ronnie, recently released from psychiatric prison. The Kray brothers balance competing demands: Ronnie is essentially happy where he is, king of a small pond, while Reggie has dreams of expanding a criminal empire across the Atlantic in partnership with the Mafia. Meanwhile, various gangland opponents and the police stalk the brothers, while Reggie’s relationship and later marriage to Frances Shea (Emily Browning) slowly collapses.

Helgeland’s film is a fairly bland piece of film-making that wants to have its cake and eat it. It wants to enjoy the criminal undertakings of the Krays, their clubland cool, charisma and charm. But it also wants to make clear that these are violent criminals who have very few moral qualms about anything they do. It’s a printing and an exploration of the legend, but the problem is that it never actually becomes particularly interesting, despite the best efforts of everyone involved. Perhaps everyone became too blinded by the pyrotechnics and undoubted skill of Hardy’s double performance that the overall film itself got a bit lost.

Hardy is superb, turning the brothers into two highly distinctive personalities who both seem like two halves of the same shattered personality, whose character traits slowly merge and even swap over the course of the film. Hardy also develops a key physicality and style for both characters that is very similar but also clearly different in both cases. So you get Ronnie, Churchill-bulldog like, with a muscular, growling heaviness that stinks of paranoia. And Reggie, smart-suited and slicked back, with a confident thrusting demeanour that falls apart over the film into a weasily fury.

Both these progressions make perfect sense, and Hardy is so skilled at playing both halves of many conversations that you forget while watching the film that you are looking at one actor playing two roles. Astonishingly – and perhaps the biggest trick he pulls – he turns this tour-de-force double role into something that feels so natural you don’t notice it happening. And the bond that ties the two brothers together into a descent into hell is so strong that even when beating the crap out of each other they still seem like two halves of one messed up personality.

Hardy is of course so brilliant, the rest of the skilled cast basically only get a few beats to sketch out various gangland figures and coppers. Excellent actors – Eccleston, Thewlis, Bettany, Anderson – are picked out to do this, but none make much of an impression. The thrust is always the strange dance of personality between the Krays, two brothers who effectively destroy each other with their actions, but are so closely bound together that the one cannot survive without the other.

It’s psychology like this that you wish the film could explore, especially as Hardy takes both brothers to dark and bitter places that makes both of them openly vile and terrifying to imagine meeting. Helgeland chooses to explore much of this – particularly Reggie’s darkness – through a rather tired voiceover led structure via Emily Browning’s Frances Shea. There is nothing wrong with Browning’s performance, but the predictable and rather traditional structure that this gives the story – not to mention the rather clumsy scripting – ends up dragging the film along.

Helgeland makes a decent job of directing this film, and it looks fine, but it is strangely underpowered and unengaging at every turn, a bland piece of gangland history that only really catches fire when both Hardys take the stage and this superstar actor lets rip. Away from him, there is a soft-focus nostalgia in its look back at the sixties, which confuses the attitude the film has towards the Krays, and a ticking off of historical events that gets in the way of creating a compelling narrative.

Hardy overshadows the film and he deserves to as he is more or less the only reason to watch it.

The Hurt Locker (2009)

Danger awaits round every corner in the shocking The Hurt Locker

Director: Kathryn Bigelow

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Outlaw King (2018)

Chris Pine leads Scottish rebellion in Netflix’s Outlaw King

Director: David Mackenzie

Cast: Chris Pine (Robert the Bruce), Aaron Taylor-Johnson (James Douglas), Florence Pugh (Elizabeth de Burgh), Stephen Dillane (Edward I), Billy Howle (Edward II), Tony Curran (Angus Macdonald), Sam Spruell (Aymer de Valence), Lorne Macfadyen (Neil Bruce), Alastair Mackenzie (Lord Atholl), James Cosmo (Robert de Bruce), Callan Mulvey (John Comyn)

In 1995 the world went crazy for Mel Gibson’s Braveheart, which turned William Wallace from a largely forgotten historical rebel into a martyr for independence. Outlaw King is an almost spiritual sequel that follows the life of Robert the Bruce, the eventual winner of Scottish independence. It picks up almost immediately from the death of Wallace and follows the struggle of the Bruce to take the throne. But I’d be surprised if it has the same impact.

Outlaw King is a fairly decent pick-up of events, and it tries to get a balance between drama and history – one it more or less manages until the final act. In the aftermath of a failed Scottish rebellion, Robert the Bruce has the advantage of his father (James Cosmo) being an old friend of Edward I (Stephen Dillane). After renewing his oath of loyalty to Edward, Robert is given land, influence and a marriage to wealthy noblewoman Elizabeth de Burgh (Florence Pugh). However, after his father dies regretting the pact and William Wallace is brutally executed by the English, Robert uses the public outrage as a boost to putting together his own claim to the Scottish throne. Murdering his chief rival in a church, he raises the flag of rebellion against the English and leads an army to take back Scotland. But things swiftly go wrong, and Bruce finds himself on the run and declared a rebel.

Outlaw King gets a lot right. It’s impressively filmed and looks fantastic. The photography by Barry Ackroyd is wonderful, in particular the use of candles for interior scenes which bring a brilliant golden glow to the action. Mackenzie is an ambitious and imaginative director, and he pushes himself to the limit here. The opening nine minutes of the film is one long continuous shot that takes in debate, a sword fight, court room intrigue and the firing of the largest trebuchet you are going to see outside of Warwick Castle. With the camera swaying and bobbing around in this sequence you have to admire the chutzpah – even if I can see that some viewers (my wife included!) might think it showing off. 

Mackenzie gets equal flourish out of the film’s many combat scenes. There is, to tell the truth, probably one too many of these bloody melees, but the camera gets a real sense of the blood, mud and gore that medieval battle involved. With brilliant use of hand-held immersive camerawork, each of these battles really gives you a sense of bloo-spattered chaos. Sometimes things are hard to follow – at least one death in combat is met with fury, but I’m not entirely sure who that guy even was (and it’s never mentioned again). But you’ve got to admire the skill of the film-making.

It’s the story itself where the film sometimes falls a bit flat. It does get a really good sense of the medieval, I will certainly give it that. The design and attitudes of the film are pretty perfect, and the stakes that everyone is clashing for feel very real. But the film encounters problems more and more as the film drifts into fiction and away from history. While the realpolitik of Bruce’s move to have himself declared king has a ruthlessness that feels real, the film’s attempt to build a personal rivalry between Bruce and the future Edward II feels forced from the start. By the time the film’s conclusion attempts to boil the entire campaign for Scottish independence into a mano-a-mano clash between the two on the battlefield (that of course never actually happened) you start to feel it’s getting very silly. Not least as figures who in real life would be invaluable bargaining chips are allowed to walk free from the battle field, to demonstrate the moral superiority of our heroes.

It’s a part of the general drift of the storyline that gets a little less compelling the longer it goes on. Maybe this is because once Bruce has his initial army destroyed and his first campaign to grasp power defeated, the story of him being on the run and carrying out guerrilla hits never feels fresh and original. We’ve seen it before – and the way the film generally avoids developing the supporting characters fully often means your focus starts to shift. After a really strong start, the film becomes more and more generic, Bruce himself becomes more and more a perfect leader rather than the almost Machiavellian character he started as, and the focus turns more and more into making it a conventional goodie-vs-baddie clash. It becomes something more forgettable, more like something you’ve seen before, and turns a campaign that took almost ten years into a rushed “and then they won this battle and everything was fine” ending.

There are many strong moments in there though, not least the generally decent performances from the cast. Chris Pine as Robert the Bruce sounds like the sort of casting decision made in hell, but he actually handles himself very well. His accent is very good, he captures a lot of the complexity of Bruce as a man who wants to be good but must sometimes be ruthless, and he brings a large dollop of charisma to the role so that you never really find yourself questioning whether he is a man others would follow. He doesn’t set the world alight, but does a good job.

The film’s stand-out turn however comes from Florence Pugh, who brings her customary intelligence and charisma to the complex part of the Bruce’s wife. At first positioned into an arranged marriage, she quickly proves both her independence and value, but also her strength of character. Far from being just a hostage – the role history largely assigned her – Pugh’s performance always makes her a character with agency, a woman determined enough to be loyal to the end once she has made her choices. There are other decent performances as well, in particular from Stephen Dillane as an authoritarian hard-ass Edward I, while Billy Howle gets to a play an Edward II who feels true (the film avoids references to his homosexuality, but does allow him to be the fearsome warrior – if hopeless general – he was, as opposed to the homophobic cartoon he was in Braveheart).

Outlaw King,though, just isn’t quite good enough. It’s fine for a decent watch on a Saturday night. In fact Netflix is just about its perfect platform: if you stumbled across this while scrolling through the library, and you were in the mood to click on it, you wouldn’t be disappointed. But even though it’s visually impressive and enjoyable, it’s also increasingly predictable and even a little bit empty. It doesn’t quite come to life as much as it should and eventually settles for being something quite traditional.