Tag: Stellan Skarsgård

Good Will Hunting (1997)

Good Will Hunting (1997)

Therapy saves the day in this well-written and acted, but rather earnest drama

Director: Gus van Sant

Cast: Matt Damon (Will Hunting), Robin Williams (Dr Sean Maguire), Ben Affleck (Chuckie Sullivan), Stellan Skarsgård (Professor Gerald Lambeau), Minnie Driver (Skylar), Casey Affleck (Morgan O’Mally), Cole Hauser (Billy McBride), John Mighton (Tom), Scott Williams Winters (Clark)

Two unknowns, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, made a sensation in 1997 with their script for Good Will Hunting. It turned them into stars and the two youngest Oscar-winning screenwriters in history. Good Will Hunting is a heartfelt, very genuine film crammed with finely scripted scenes and speeches. It’s also an unashamed crowd-pleaser, a paean to friendship and opening your heart, all washed down with a bit of Hollywood-psychotherapy magic. It’s a basically familiar tale, told and performed with such energy that it made a huge impact on millions of viewers.

In Boston, orphan Will Hunting (Matt Damon) has a fiery temper and a rap sheet as long as your arm. He’s content shooting the breeze with best friend Chuckie (Ben Affleck), but he is also a preternatural genius, an autodidact with a photographic memory able to solve complex theoretical problems in hundreds of fields. It’s why he effortlessly solves the impossible proof Professor Gerald Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgård) pins up on a board at MIT, where Will works as a janitor. Lambeau is stunned, bailing out Will from his recent clash with the police – on condition he also sees a psychiatrist to resolve his anger management. Will reluctantly attends sessions with Lambeau’s old room-mate Dr Sean Maguire (Robin Williams), a recent widower – and the two of them slowly grow a father-son bond, while Lambeau pushes Will to not waste his talents.

Good Will Hunting is directed with a sensitive intimacy by Gus van Sant, with the camera frequently placed in careful two-shot, medium and close-up to bring these characters up-close with the audience. It’s an emotional story of grief, unspoken rage and trauma – but it manages to largely not present these in a sentimental or overly manipulative way. It’s gentle, patient and tender with its characters, not shying away from their rough edges, with an empathy for their wounded hearts.

Nowhere is this clearer than in Will himself. Matt Damon gives a charismatic, emotionally committed performance, as utterly convincing in genius as he is a surly, fragile young man hiding emotional trauma. He’s charming and easy to root for. He takes down smarmy Harvard types with a barrage of erudite opinions, is often self-deprecating, fiercely loyal to his friends and categorically on the side of the little guy. But he’s also aggressive, rude and capable of violence. He gets into fights for no reason, arrogantly assumes he can understand everyone better than they can themselves, and uses his intelligence as a weapon to pin-point and apply pressure to weak points.

It’s what he does throughout the film, from launching attacks at prospective therapists (accusing an illustrious MIT professor of suppressed homosexuality and mockingly supplying a string of psychobabble cliches to another) to cruelly exposing the limits of Lambeau’s intellect (which the professor is all too aware of, having to work night and day to even touch Will’s starting point). He analyses and strips down insecurities with dazzling displays of verbiage. It’s funny when he recounts doing this to an NSA recruiter: it’s less so when he reduces girlfriend Skylar to tears as she tries to get close to him, cruelly breaking down her life and personality into digestible, cliched clumps.

It’s all about pain of course. Good Will Hunting is rooted in the familiar Hollywood cliché of inner pain only being “fixed” by therapy. As always in Hollywood, sessions start with confrontation and end with a tear-filled hug as breakthroughs (that in real life take years) are hit after a dozen sessions. Will of course is using his intelligence to fuel his defensiveness – abandoned and poorly treated throughout his childhood, he pushes people away before they can get to close and holds the few people he trusts as tightly as he can. He can’t believe people want to help or care for him: Lambeau must be jealous, Skylar must be lying about loving him, Dr Maguire must be a fool.

It’s Dr Maguire who sees the lost little boy under the domineering, intellectually aggressive, angry exterior. Robin Williams won a well-deserved Oscar for a part tailor-made to his strengths. Maguire is witty, eccentric, cuddly – but also, like many of William’s best parts, fragile, tender and kind. It’s a part that allows Williams to combine his emotive acting and comic fire: he can mix grief-filled reflections on the weeping sore that is the loss of his wife, with hilarious flights of fancy on her late night farting (yup that’s Damon laughing for real in those scenes). Maguire is no push-over though: he throttles Will when he goes too far mocking the memory of his wife and gets into furious arguments with Lambeau over their differing opinions on what’s best for Will.

That’s the film’s other major thread: male friendship. Will’s friendship with Chuckie is the film’s key romance, and Benn Affleck gives a generous, open-hearted performance (although one scene of fast-talking cool when Chuckie stands in for Will at a job interview feels like a scene purely written to give Affleck “a moment”). Both these guys are fiercely loyal to each other – but it’s Chuckie who knows Will is wasting gifts and opportunities he would die to have, and who loves his friend so much he wants him to leave. Refreshingly, the slacker friends aren’t holding Will back here (he’s doing that himself) – they care so much they are trying to push him away.

If the film has a weakness, it’s the romance plotline, which feels like a forced narrative requirement to give Will something to “earn”. Minnie Driver does a decent job as a spunky, cool Harvard student – the sort of dream girl who quotes poetry but also tells smutty gags to Will’s mates – but she feels like an end-of-the-rainbow reward. Their relationship is underwritten and she bends over backwards to forgive and reassure Will at every opportunity: my wife probably isn’t the only woman watching the scene where Will punches the wall next to Skylar’s head during an argument and felt that she probably needs to get the heck out. For all the film wants a grand romance, honestly the film would probably have been better if it had focused more on the friendship between Will and Chuckie (the true love of his life).

Good Will Hunting truthfully does little that’s original. Our hero struggles with his past, guilt, anger – but learns to become a better man through the magic, sympathetic ear of therapy. What makes it work is the confident writing, which never shies away from its hero’s unsympathetic qualities and the sensitive, low-key direction of van Sant (the film never uses crashing violin-like moments to overegg emotion). It’s also superbly acted across the board – Damon, Williams, Skarsgård, Affleck and Driver are all excellent. It’s a warm tribute to the power of friendship. In short it gives you a pleasant, engaging and easy-to-relate to story. And who doesn’t want that?

The Hunt for Red October (1990)

The Hunt for Red October (1990)

Shailing into Hishtory! The Hunt for Red October is the finest Tom Clancy adaptation made

Director: John McTiernan

Cast: Sean Connery (Captain Marko Ramius), Alec Baldwin (Jack Ryan), Joss Ackland (Ambassador Andrei Lysenko), Tim Curry (Dr Petrov), Peter Firth (Ivan Putin), Scott Glenn (Commander Burt Mancuso), James Earl Jones (Admiral James Greer), Jeffrey Jones (Skip Tyler), Richard Jordan (National Security Advisor Jeffrey Pelt), Sam Neill (Captain Vasily Borodin), Stellan Skarsgård (Captain Viktor Tupolev), Fred Dalton Thompson (Rear Admiral Joshua Painter), Courtenay B Vance (PO Jones)

“We shail into Hishtory!” It’s the film that launched a thousand Sean Connery impressions. Only Connery could get away with playing a Soviet submarine captain with the thickest Scottish accent this side of Lithuania. He only took the role – from Klaus Maria Brandauer – at short notice, but he’s a pivotal part of the film’s success. The Hunt for Red October is a superb film, the finest Tom Clancy adaptation ever made and one of the cornerstones of the submarine genre. It expertly mixes beats of conspiracy, espionage, naval adventure and even touches of comedy, into a superbly entertaining cocktail.

Connery is Captain Marko Ramius, the USSR’s finest naval captain, given command of The Red October on its maiden voyage. The Red October is equipped with a technical miracle: a “caterpillar drive” that uses a water powered engine to run silently, making it invisible to sonar. So why is the entire Russian fleet being scrambled to find and sink the submarine? Could it be, as the USSR tells the US, that Ramius has gone mad and plans a nuclear strike? Or is it, as CIA analyst Jack Ryan (Alec Baldwin) argues, because Ramius plans to defect and bring the technological marvel with him?

Of course, we know Connery plans to defect. After all, we’ve already seen him murder shifty political officer Ivan Putin (Peter Firth – to whom alphabetical billing is very kind) and tell his handpicked crew of officers, led by loyal second-in-command Borodin (Sam Neill, so dedicated to affecting a Russian accent it’s as if he felt he needed to do in on behalf of himself and Connery) that there is no turning back. The film’s expert tension – and it rachets it up with all the precision of a well-oiled machine – is working out how. How will Ramius evade the Russian fleet? How will he manage to arrange his defection without communicating with the US? And will he and Ryan – unknowingly working together – persuade the US not to blow The Red October out of the water?

With McTiernan, in his prime, at the helm it’s not a surprise the film is expertly assembled. The parallel plot lines are beautifully intercut. Our two heroes, Ramius and Ryan, face very different obstacles (dodging Soviet torpedoes vs patiently making his case to sceptical superiors mixed with risky long-range travels to far-flung US subs) but somehow seem to be building a bond before they even meet. Ryan is an expert on Ramius and his career, while his thoughtful, good-natured decency is exactly the sort of American Ramius tells his crew they need to meet (as opposed to “some sort of buckaroo” – a word Connery relishes).

McTiernan isn’t just an expert mechanic though. There are lovely touches of invention and magic here. The Hunt for Red October has possibly one of the finest transitions ever. Connery, Neill et al start the film speaking in Russian. Ramius meets with Firth’s Putin (great name) in his quarters to open their orders. The two chat briefly in Russian, then Putin reads from Ramius’ copy of the Book of Revelations. As Firth reads (in fluent, expertly accented Russian), McTiernan slowly zooms in on his lips until he reaches the word “Armageddon” (the same in both languages) – the camera then zooms out and both Firth and Connery continue the scene in English (Firth switching mid-shot from Russian to English without missing a beat). It’s a beautifully done transition, rightly a stand-out moment.

But then it’s a film full of them. Many rely on Connery’s performance, superb as Ramius (this was his career purple patch, where one effortlessly excellent performance followed another). Ramius has a grizzled sea-dog charm and a twinkle in his eye, but he’s also nursing a private grief and pain that motivates his defection. He can be demanding of his men, but also inspires loyalty – that “We Shail into Hishtory!” pep-talk speech is delivered perfectly (and McTiernan makes Soviet sailors singing the Soviet anthem a punch-the-air moment even though (a) we know they are technically the bad guys and (b) we know Ramius is lying through his teeth in his speech). But he is always a commander, Connery investing him with every inch of his movie star cool.

Ramius is also an interesting reflection, in a way, of Ryan. Played with a great deal of young-boy charm by Baldwin (and also wit, Baldwin dropping impersonations of other cast members into the film – including a stand-out Connery), Ryan is brave, determined but also slightly naïve and out-of-his-depth. But like Ramius he respects his “enemy”, is open to negotiation, thinks before he acts and wants to save lives. The two even share similar upbringings. The film triumphantly shows a desk man, spreading his wings and doing stuff he couldn’t imagine: the guy who tells an air hostess in an early scene he can’t sleep on flights due to fear of turbulence, will later have himself dropped into the sea from a perilous helicopter flight, steer a Russian sub and duke it out with the last Soviet hard-liner standing in The Red October’s missile room.

McTiernan shoots Ryan’s conversations like combat scenes: quick reversals and cross shots and even whip pans and zooms. It ratchets up the tension and drama in these sequences – and allows him to play it cooler in the sub shots which (with its more constrained set) where patient studies of tense faces follow sonar reports of the approach of torpedoes or enemy subs. Sound is a triumph in Red October – every ping or sonar shadow is sound edited to perfection, with much of its tension coming from their perfect rising intensity.

It builds towards a superb resolution as several plot threads come together in a dramatic face-off that gives us everything from sub v sub to gunfights, with tragedy and triumph all mixed in. It’s a perfect ending to a film that is a masterpiece of plotting and construction, acted to perfection by the whole cast (Connery and Baldwin, but also Jones, Neill, Glenn – perfect casting as a no-nonsense naval captain – and several reliable players in smaller roles). McTiernan directs with exceptional pace and excitement, it’s sharply scripted and technically without a fault – from its gleaming Soviet sub (with church like missile room) to brilliantly edited sound-design. It’s a joy every time I watch it.

Dune (2021)

Timothée Chalamet and Rebecca Ferguson excel in Denis Villeneuve’s marvellous Dune

Director: Denis Villeneuve

Cast: Timothée Chalamet (Paul Atreides), Rebecca Ferguson (Lady Jessica), Oscar Isaac (Duke Leto Atreides), Josh Brolin (Gurney Halleck), Stellan Skarsgard (Baron Valdimir Harkonnen), Dave Bautista (Glossu Rabban), Charlotte Rampling (Gaius Helen Mohiam), Jason Momoa (Duncan Idaho), Javier Bardem (Stilgar), Stephen McKinley Henderson (Thufir Hawat), Zendaya (Chani), Sharon Duncan-Brewster (Dr Liet-Kynes), David Dastmalchian (Piter De Vries), Chang Chen (Dr Wellington Yueh)

In the history of “unfilmable novels”, few are perhaps as “unfilmable” as Frank Herbert’s epic science-fiction novel Dune. In fact, in case we were in any doubt, we even have the evidence with David Lynch’s curiosity Dune (either a noble attempt or an egregious mess, depending on who you talk to – I fall between the two camps depending on the time of day). Denis Villeneuve – fresh from his glorious reinvention of Blade Runner – is one of the few directors with the vision and the clout needed to bring this fictional universe to the screen. He delivers a visually stunning slice of cinematic story-telling, that remains faithful to the novel while carefully calculating how much of the story to focus on. It makes for a sweeping, spectacular film.

The set-up in Herbert’s books is labyrinthine, but one of the film’s great skills is to boil it down to something digestible and understandable. It helps as well that, unlike Lynch’s film, this focuses on roughly the first half of the novel only. 10,000 years in the future, mankind travels through space – but space travel is dependent on a spice that can only be mined on a sand-covered planet called Arrakis, populated by colossal worms and a race of mysterious sand-dwellers called the Fremen. Control of the mining operation of the planet is taken from the brutal House Harkonnen, and its patriarch (Stellan Skarsgard), and granted to the more moderate House Atreides and its head Duke Leto (Oscar Isaac). However, this is just a ruse to trap and destroy House Atreides, whose popularity endangers the Emperor. On arrival on the planet, Leto’s son Paul (Timothée Chalamet) is believed by the Fremen to be a long-promised messiah – and Paul is plagued with strange visions of his future. Can he, and his mother Jessica (Rebecca Ferguson), survive and fulfil their destinies?

Dune is a complex, sprawling piece of world-building – the sort of book so stuffed with unique words, concepts and language that it includes a full glossary to help the reader work out what’s going on. Villeneuve’s genius here is to work out exactly how much of that world building to build into the script, and how much to leave out. Where the Lynch Dune tried to cover everything in this universe and seemed to introduce new characters and concepts in every scene (right up to the end), Villeneuve’s Dune is far more focused. It gives enough tips of the hat to readers of the book to be faithful, but doesn’t bother the more casual viewer with what, say, a mentat is or who the Space Guild exactly are. The overload of information that crushed Lynch’s Dune is skilfully avoided here.

What we get instead is a wonderfully focused, coming-of-age story that places the young hero front-and-centre – and filters our experience through his eyes. This not only helps give us a very clear human engagement with this world, it also makes for a highly relatable central arc to build the rest of the world building around. After all, we understand the “chosen-one-finds-his-destiny” story: using that as a very clear framework, allows the wider universe to be slowly and carefully drip-fed around that. It also plays very well to the reader (who will know the unspoken detail and enjoy subtle references to it on screen) and to the initiate (who won’t need to know every last detail of every last character’s background and won’t be overwhelmed by those references).

On top of which, Dune is, in itself, a sumptuous and visually beautiful example of expansive world-building. Fitting a series that has spawned dozens of novels and an entire universe of expanded storylines, endless care and loving attention has gone into creating every inch of this world. Jacqueline West’s costumes brilliantly capture the mix of medieval and space-punk futurism in the world’s design (this is after all a universe which is effectively Game of Thrones in space – one of many franchises to owe a huge debt to Dune) and Patrice Vermette’s set design superbly contrasts the different planets aesthetics. The imagery carefully contrasts the greens and blues (and water!) of the other worlds with the striking yellows and dryness of Arrakis – it’s beautifully filmed by Grieg Fraser – and the scale is epic, re-enforced by Zimmer’s gothic choir inspired music.

Villeneuve marshals this all into a story that is part world-building set-up, part conspiracy thriller and eventually becomes a full-on chase movie. Each shift in story-telling style flows naturally into the next, and Villeneuve keeps the pace and sense of intrigue up highly effectively. He also understands that films like this need a touch of wit and human warmth: Herbert’s book, for all its strengths, is also a po-faced and slightly pretentious read, with every event and character consciously carrying a massive sense of importance. Dune recognises this, and makes sure to mix lightness and touches of humour to avoid the operatic seriousness tipping into being a little silly (as it did in Lynch’s version).

Villeneuve is helped in this by a well-chosen cast. Chalamet is perfectly cast as the naïve Paul, growing in statue and wisdom as the film progresses: he is effectively vulnerable but also a determined and mentally strong hero, one we can have faith in but still feel concerned about. Ferguson is the film’s stand-out performance as his conflicted mother, determined to protect her family. Isaac is perfect as the charismatic and noble Leto, as is Skarsgard as the viciously bloated Vladimir. Sharon Duncan-Brewster is terrific as an official with split loyalties. Charlotte Rampling has a highly effective cameo as a mysterious priest while Jason Momoa gives possibly his finest performance (certainly his warmest and wittiest) as a larger-than-life warrior.

The film glosses over certain elements – in particular the plot against House Artreides, and Leto’s suspicions of it are wisely simplified and stream-lined – and wisely revises or avoids elements of the book that have dated (most notably the slight stench of homophobia around the bloated, predatory Vladimir). In some ways it’s a beautiful coffee-table version of the story, but it’s careful enough to suggest anything we are not seeing from the book is still happening, just off-camera (I await the inevitable Director’s Cut with even more Mentats, Conditioning and Weirding!). However – based on the cinema I sat in – this has worked a treat to win converts over to the story.

A sweeping, impressive and epic version of a huge novel, it’s a triumph of directorial vision and skilful compression and adaptation. By trying to make Dune work for a larger audience, without sacrificing its heart, rather than laboriously include everything and everyone, it successfully makes it into a crowd-pleasing space opera with depth. Catch it on the big screen!

Deep Blue Sea (1999)

Deep Blue Sea header
Just when you thought is was safe to go back into the Deep Blue Sea

Director: Renny Harlin

Cast: Saffron Burrows (Dr Susan McCallister), Thomas Jane (Carter Blake), Samuel L. Jackson (Russell Franklin), LL Cool J (Sherman “Preacher” Dudley), Jacqueline McKenzie (Janice Higgins), Michael Rapaport (Tom Scoggins), Stellan Skarsgård (Dr Jim Whitlock), Aida Turturro (Brenda Kerns)

What would be your first idea for curing Alzheimers? Yup that’s right, you’d experiment on sharks brains: and to make those experiments even more effective you’d want the sharks to have really big brains. So, if you’re going to make them super-intelligent, you might as well make them super big, super ruthless with massive teeth. It’s just common sense. After all, they can never escape from your isolated sea laboratory could they? And even if they did, how much of a threat could they be?

Harlin’s film embraces its ludicrous set-up and B-movie nonsense from the start. Dedicated (and more than a little ruthless herself) scientist Dr Susan McCallister (Saffron Burrows) has bred these sharks to help with her obsessive dreams of curing Alzheimers. With millionaire funder Russell Franklin (Samuel L Jackson) flying into spend the weekend at the lab – with a skeleton crew on board – of course its time to run the final test. Can shark wrangler Carter Blake (Thomas Jane) help lead everyone to safety? Well no not everyone… it’s a monster flick after all.

There isn’t anything particularly surprising in Deep Blue Sea – other than one genuinely well-done shock death, which defies your expectations of which characters are the most important – but there are some decent jumps. Some nice little moments of action. A few good gags as sharks prowl through the base picking off the expected victims, while other characters use their wits and a bit of luck to take out the toothy opponents (even an oven gets employed as a weapon). But it’s quite predictable. And I predict that, if you are in the right mood, you might enjoy it.

The dialogue is unimaginative. Most of the acting is pretty wooden (Skarsgård in particular looks like a man yawning his way to a pay cheque) and the characters have clearly been scribbled on post-it notes. Harlin’s direction has a few playful moments, but there’s nothing special about it. You could pretty much predict where the film is going to go – and have a bit of fun spotting its various influences. But I think the film knows you are going to laugh at it. After all, mega sharks? Come on!

At the centre of this is the chemistry free line-up of Burrows and Jane. I feel a bit sorry for Burrows here. Her character is written as an all-consuming obsessive – she also is responsible for everything that happens – and, partly thanks to Burrows barely-concealed disdain for the whole thing, she never comes across as sufficiently guilty or apologetic. Test audiences watching the film reacted so negatively to the character – and you can’t blame them – that Harlin recut the film to make her more of the villain (not quite as much as the sharks, but up there).

A ‘romance’ with Jane hit the cutting room floor – although there are still several scenes where its DNA is readily apparent – just as well really as the actors are chemistry free. Jane in fact has more chemistry with LL Cool J (easily the films MVP as a charmingly offbeat, born-again cook) and the film works best when this bromance is at the fore.

Oh that, and when the sharks at the heart of it. The characters are so non-descript their fates will largely provoke laughter, but as a piece of popcorn rubbish Deep Blue Sea could be a lot worse. Sure it’s got no originality or real expertise about it all, with everyone chucking one in for the money, but its good fun. After all, who doesn’t love a vengeful super-smart shark eh?

Amistad (1997)

Djimon Hounsou excels as a slave longing for freedom in Amistad

Director: Steven Spielberg

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Railway Man (2013)

Colin Firth is haunted by the past in The Railway Man

Director: Jonathan Teplitzky

Cast: Colin Firth (Eric Lomax), Nicole Kidman (Patricia Lomax), Stellan Skarsgård (Finlay), Hiroyuki Sanada (Takashi Nagase), Jeremy Irvine (Young Eric Lomax), Sam Reid (Young Finlay), Tanroh Ishida (Young Takashi Nagase)

There is perhaps nothing harder to do in life than to put the past behind you and forgive. We all seem to be hot wired to want revenge and to seek it against all odds. It’s rare indeed the man who learns to put the rage against the past behind him and to extend the hand of friendship.

Such a man was Eric Lomax (played here by Colin Firth). In the 1970s Eric meets and falls in love with Patricia (Nicole Kidman). The two are married, but Patricia soon discovers Eric is still plagued by memories of his imprisonment as a young man (played by Jeremy Irvine) by the Japanese during the Second World War, and in particular a prolonged period he spent being tortured by the Japanese secret police for building a radio. Lomax is unable to begin to talk about his experiences, even as trauma causes his life to deteriorate. Fellow ex-POW Finlay (Stellan Skarsgård – very good in a small but vital role) is the only one who has even the faintest idea of his experience, but cannot persuade him to even speak about his past or try and move on. After discovering his torturer Takashi Nagase (Hiroyuki Sanada) is alive and well and working as a tourist guide in the very camp where Lomax was tortured, he travels to Japan, torn about what he should do.

Teplitzy’s film is powered by several marvellous performances, not least Colin Firth who is excellent in the lead role as the deeply repressed, tormented Lomax who in his heart has never left the prison where he suffered unbelievable torment. The film is a carefully structured, and deeply moving, character study of how atrocious and inhumane actions trap us all – both the victims and perpetrators – in patterns of suffering where we feel our own humanity drain away. Even handed, honest and generous, like Lomax’s book, it’s an engaging and moving tribute to the strength of the human spirit and our capacity for generosity.

Not least because when we finally meet the aged Nagase, he is far from the monster we expected. Like Lomax he too is haunted by the past, but where Lomax cannot escape the horrors he suffered, Nagase is plagued by guilt and disgust as he realises his actions as a young man were far from those of a righteous soldier, but rather a brainwashed pawn in a brutal army. Nagase, like Lomax, is desperate to purge himself of memories of this past, and has worked his whole life to try and make amends for the suffering he has caused. No simple good guys and bad guys here – both torturer and tortured are dehumanised, scarred and traumatised by the actions they have carried out. 

Teplitzky films that torture with an unflinching honesty, that leaves you in no doubt about why it has had such impact on Lomax. Jeremy Irvine is very good as the young Lomax, scared, vulnerable but brave and self-sacrificing who puts himself in the way of danger to try and protect his friends and then goes through savage beatings, interrogations and water boarding for information he doesn’t have. It’s difficult to watch, but never sensationalised and the traumatic pointlessness of these methods is abundantly clear. 

These memories, slowly revealed, are all too apparent in any case in Firth’s blasted face.  The film slowly reveals his psychological damage, with the opening sequence in fact suggesting a far lighter film ahead. The opening follows the meeting of Lomax and Patricia on a chance train journey. Playful and charming, these scenes work so well due to the wonderful chemistry between Firth and Kidman. It plays off in spadeas the plot gets darker and more disturbing. Kidman is very easy to overlook here in the “wife” role, but she invests it with an emotional honesty, a supportive woman eventually driven to the edge of her capabilities.

After the lightness of the opening, Terplitzky introduces the past literally like ghosts, with Lomax caught in a sudden delusion of himself being dragged through the hotel on his honeymoon, screaming in panic, to be carried to his torture danger. Throughout the film, the image of his torturer as a young man appears at various points (including at one point in a field as a train passes behind him), a constant reminder of how the past is here and now for Lomax.

It builds towards a sensational series of scenes as Lomax confronts Nagase, powered by two exceptional performances from Firth (barely able to control his anger, rage and pain) and a beaten down, distressed performance of shame from Hiroyuki Sanada, who matches him step for step. Sanada is superb as a man who confronts his nightmare – a man from his past – but also overwhelmed with the opportunity this gives him for amends. 

That’s what the film captures so well. This tension between past and present encapsulates the universal theme of our desire for revenge and our human need to connect coming together. Lomax and Nagase had every reason to kill each other, but their reaction to seeing each other is surprising, moving and a deep tribute to the human capacity to connect and move on. Grief and the past will destroy us all if we let it. The heroic examples of both Lomax and Nagase show us this doesn’t need to be the case.

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo (2011)

Rooney Mara and Daniel Craig investigate unspeakable evil in David Fincher’s superb The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo adaptation

Director: David Fincher

Cast: Daniel Craig (Mikael Blomkvist), Rooney Mara (Lisbeth Slander), Christopher Plummer (Henrik Vanger), Stellan Skarsgård (Martin Vanger), Steven Berkoff (Dirch Frode), Robin Wright (Erika Berger), Yorick van Wageningen (Nils Bjurman), Joely Richardson (Anita Vanger), Goran Višnjić (Dragan Armansky), Donald Sumpter (Detective Morell), Ulf Friberg (Hans-Erik Wennerström), Geraldine James (Cecilia Vanger), Embeth Davidtz (Annik Giannini), Julian Sands (Young Henrik Vanger), David Dencik (Young Morell), Tony Way (Plague), Alan Dale (Detective Isaksson)

At the time of its release, there was a slightly cool reaction to David Fincher’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Most reviewers were already familiar with the story twice over, firstly as the best-selling thriller then as the Swedish film starring Noomi Rapace. Perhaps fans were similarly slightly indifferent, while newbies had already declined the first two options, as the film struggled to crawl its way to breakeven. However, rewatching it, I feel this intriguingly well-made film deserves to be mentioned in the same discussion as another adaptation of a pulp thriller made 20 years earlier: The Silence of the Lambs.

Mikael Blomqvist (Daniel Craig) is a crusading financial journalist and co-owner of Millenniummagazine, whose career is in ruins after his article about the CEO of a major company leads to him losing a costly legal battle for libel. He is approached by retired businessman Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), who asks him to investigate the 40-year-old disappearance of his niece Harriet Vanger, who vanished on their privately owned island estate. Blomqvist is hired after an exhaustive investigation into his personal life by emotionally challenged hacker and private investigator Lisbeth Slander (Rooney Mara), who is facing her own problems of gaining her independence from her position as a ward of the state, represented by her vile guardian Nils Bjurman (Yorick van Wageningen). As Blomqvist investigates, eventually with the help of Lisbeth, the trail takes a very dark turn suggesting a sinister hand behind the disappearance not only of Harriet but also of a number of other women around Sweden.

Fincher’s crisply made, icily cold movie embraces the coldness not only of wintery Sweden, but also the film’s chilling subject matter. There are very rarely – if ever – flashes of colour or light, with the world taking on an oppressive blackness and grey or windswept bleakness. It’s a perfect metaphor for the horror of what people do to each other. It’s brilliantly assembled, as you would expect from Fincher, and made with such consummate skill and excellence that its professional chill becomes almost oppressively unsettling, much like the plot itself.

Re-watching it I was put very much in mind of The Silence of the Lambs. That too was a masterfully made adaptation of a pulp novel that found a poetry and depth in the book, framing it around a series of unconventional relationships, with a female lead pushed into a role that sharply defies expectations. Both have at their centre a dangerous figure whose interests align with the other characters. Brilliantly, here the role of dangerously unpredictable genius and unexpected female role are both taken by Lisbeth Slander. (In fact Lisbeth is like a fusing of Clarice and Lector into one character). 

Like Lambs, which tapped into the 1990s obsession with the power of psychiatry and self-analysis and used it as the key to uncovering and defeating criminals, this takes our fascination with computers and the internet and uses that as silver bullet for finding criminals. Just as in the 1990s psychiatrists seemed to have access to some sort of mystical alchemy no one else could understand, so the film shows Lisbeth’s hacker skills as some sort of super power that can blow down secrets and accomplish things no one else can do. 

The film also echoes Lambs in its fascinating look at the place of women in the world. The film revolves around historical violence against women – when we finally have the killer unveiled he confirms women have only ever been his targets – and the film is heavy (in often wordlessly narrated flashbacks) with ominous feelings of danger from a domineering male culture. The world clearly hasn’t changed that much either. The killer continues to operate, everyone in a position of influence we see is an ageing man, Lisbeth’s ward is a vile sexual abuser. But, in this milieu of threat to women, Lisbeth becomes a sort of icon of a woman living life on her terms and taking control of her own life.

Impressively embodied by an Oscar-nominated Rooney Mara, Lisbeth is the sort of character you would normally expect to be a man: surly, anti-social, difficult, prone to violence, sexually indiscriminate, determined to always be in control and decisive in her relationships. She quickly takes the lead in her relationship with Mikael, professionally and later sexually (right down to her telling him where to put his hands during their passionate but also functional sex scenes). Mikael meanwhile takes far more the traditional “female” role: dedicated, hard-working, maternal, competent but better placed as the assistant to a true genius. Daniel Craig gives him a slightly rumpled middle-age quality, combined with a feckless recklessness that lands him in trouble.

The film is Lisbeth’s though, and Fincher brilliantly uses early scenes to establish her defiant, independent character. From snatching her bag back (brutally) from a would-be mugger on the underground, to a surly, blunt lack of respect she shows to a client, she’s painted clearly as a person who will respond how she wants, regardless of any “rules”. But Fincher also makes time to show her vulnerability. Lonely and insecure, she has worked hard to kill any vulnerability in her and protect herself from emotional pain. To see the small notes of tenderness she allows out – from her reaction to a former guardian suffering a stroke to her increasing emotional investment in Mikael – is strikingly engaging.

And we definitely see her suffering. If we had any doubts about one of the themes of this film being about how powerful men abuse and control women, the sub-plot of Lisbeth’s abusive warden (played with the pathetic, creepy relish of the small man enjoying what control he has by Yorick van Wageningen) hammers it home. The four key scenes between these characters cover a mini-arc in themselves from abuse of power, assault, revenge and power shift. Lisbeth may suffer terribly – more than she expects, much to her shock – but the sequence not only shows her ability to survive but also to turn the tables to her advantage. You could argue that this sort of rape-revenge fantasy might trivialise the impact rape has on real people – but it’s crucial for the theme of the film that there is hope that the sort of scum that abuse their positions can be stopped and that victims can survive and thrive. 

And you’ll need this as the film expands both into the past and the present day into a series of increasingly grim cases of historical abuse and murder. Fincher presents all this with the same brilliant, non-exploitative control that Jonathan Demme managed in Lambs. Despite the horrors of the themes, there is no lingering on anything graphic. Instead Fincher uses the tension of slowness, of steady camera work, of careful pacing to let tension and unease build up as we feel something is horribly wrong but never can be quite sure what. The final confrontation with the killer is not only deeply unsettling for it being one of the most brightly lit sequences of the film, but also for the middle-class banality of the villain’s taste (you’ll never listen to Orinoco Flow in the same way again) and the fascinatingly business-like approach he brings to his deeds of slaughter. 

The Girl with the Dragan Tattoo is such a well-made film that perhaps that’s its greatest weakness. It’s a little too easy to see a lack of personality in it, a professionalism, a clean perfection, a master craftsman quality, that you feel you are watching a studio picture made by a great director. And maybe you are: but then you could say the same about many of Hitchcock’s film, a director Fincher consciously echoes here. Superbly acted not just by the leads but by the whole cast (Plummer, Skarsgård and Wright are excellent while even Berkoff gives a restrained performance) The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo is the sort of film that will surely only be considered in a warmer and warmer light as time goes by.

Our Kind of Traitor (2016)

Stellan Skarsgård is the Russian traitor whose secrets pose a danger for the British elite in Our Kind of Traitor

Director: Susanna White

Cast: Ewan McGregor (Perry MacKendrick), Stellan Skarsgård (Dima), Damian Lewis (Hector), Naomie Harris (Gail MacKendrick), Jeremy Northam (Aubrey Longrigg), Khalid Abdalla (Luke), Velibor Topic (Emilio Del Oro), Alicia von Rittberg (Natasha), Mark Gatiss (Billy Matlock), Mark Stanley (Ollie)

John Le Carré’s works often revolve around a dark, cynical view of government agencies as corrupt, indolent and focused on petty or personal concerns rather than doing what’s best for the country and its people. Is it any wonder that there has been such a burst of interest in adaptations on film and television of his work? 

Our Kind of Traitor is straight out of the Le Carré wheelhouse. On a holiday to save their marriage (after his infidelity), Perry (Ewan McGregor) and Gail (Naomi Harris) bump into charismatic Russian gangster Dima (Stellan Skarsgård). Perry and he strike up a surprising friendship – and before he knows it Perry is agreeing to carry information from Dima to the British intelligence services. This attracts the attention of MI6 officer Hector (Damian Lewis) who sees this as an opportunity to expose the corrupt links between Russian criminals and high-level British bankers and politicians. Dima, however, will only hand over the goods if he is promised asylum for his family – something the British authorities, aware of the mess his revelations could cause, are not happy to allow…

Susanna White, veteran of some excellent television series of the last few years, puts together a confidently mounted and generally well-paced drama, with many of the expected Le Carré twists and turns. If she leans a little too heavily on the murk – the green and blue filters on the camera get a big workout here – it does at least mean that we get a real sense of the twilight world the characters operate in, meaning flashes of wide open space and bright daylight carry real impact. She also really understands how violence is often more shocking when we see the reaction of witnesses rather than the deed itself – all the most violent and tragic events in the film are seen at least partly from the perspective of the reactions of those witnessing them. The sense of danger on the edges of every action, stays with us while watching this unjust nightmare unravel.

It also works really well with one of the core themes of the movie: our ability to feel empathy for other people and how it affects our choices. Dima is driven towards defection because of his distaste for the increasing violence of the next generation of Russian criminals, and their lack of discrimination about who they harm. He’s all but adopted the orphaned children of a previous victim of violence, and his motivation at all points is to insure his family’s safety. Hector, our case officer, is motivated overwhelmingly by a sense of tragic, impotent fury about his rival ensuring Hector’s son is serving a long sentence in prison for drug smuggling.

And Perry is pulled into all this because he has a strong protective streak – something that eventually saves his marriage. Perry frequently throws himself forward to protect the weak, with no regard for his safety, from his unending efforts to protect Dima’s family to throwing himself in fury at a mobster roughing up a young woman. His intense empathy and protective streak motor all his actions and run through the whole movie.

It’s a shame then that his actual character isn’t quite interesting enough to hold the story together. Nothing wrong with McGregor’s performance, the character itself is rather sketchily written. Aside from his protectiveness we don’t get much of a sense of him and – naturally enough – he’s often a passenger or witness to events around him. Similarly, Naomie Harris does her best with a character that barely exists.

Instead the plaudits (and meaty parts) go to Skarsgård and Lewis. Skarsgård dominates the film with an exuberant, larger than life character who never feels like a caricature and reveals increasing depths of humanity and vulnerability beneath the surface. Lewis matches him just as well, at first seeming like a buttoned-up George Smiley type, but with his own tragic background motivating a long-term career man to slowly build his own conscience.

Our Kind of Traitor handles many of these personal themes very well, but it doesn’t quite manage to tie them into something that really feels special. Instead this feels a bit more like a Le Carré-by- numbers. We get the shady secret services, government greed, good people trapped in the middle – even some of the characters, from the foul-mouthed spook played by Mark Gatiss to Jeremy Northam’s jet black Aubrey, seem like they could have appeared in any number of his novels. 

There is a film here that is wanting to be made about the invasion of the UK by dirty Russian money – but it never quite comes out as this Dante-esque, Miltonian spiral. Instead the film too often settles for more functional thrills, a more traditional or middle-brow approach that works very well while you watch it, but doesn’t go the extra mile to turn this into something you will really remember.

King Arthur (2004)

Clive Owen leads his merry men in clumsy would-be Arthurian epic King Arthur

Director: Antoine Fuqua

Cast: Clive Owen (Arthur), Ioan Gruffudd (Lancelot), Keira Knightley (Guinevere), Stellan Skarsgård (Cerdric), Ray Winstone (Bors), Mads Mikkelsen (Tristan), Joel Edgerton (Gawain), Hugh Dancy (Galahad), Ray Stevenson (Dagonet), Stephen Dillane (Merlin), Til Schweiger (Cyrnic)

The story of King Arthur has entertained generations for so long, it’s actually a bit of a surprise that there hasn’t been a great movie made about it. Sure there have been entertaining guilty pleasures (like my love for the bobbins Excalibur) but there hasn’t been a great action adventure made about the legendary king. And this Jerry Bruckheimer actioner sure ain’t it. But it re-enforces my seemingly never-ending appetite for distinctly poor, big-budget, epic films.

Arthur (Clive Owen) is a half-Celtic Roman cavalry officer who commands a Sarmatian cavalry unit, serving a fixed term of service with Rome. They help to guard Hadrian’s Wall against rebel native Britons. Before their discharge, the knights are given one last job: go behind enemy lines to rescue a prominent Roman citizen living beyond the wall. Once they arrive, they find he has enslaved the local Brits – including imprisoning a young woman named Guinevere (Keira Knightley). Knowing a Saxon invasion force lead by the fearsome Cerdric (Stellan Skarsgård) is ravaging Britain – and that the Romans are withdrawing from the empire – Arthur decides to lead the whole group back to the wall and safety.

King Arthur isn’t a terrible film, just a totally mediocre one. It’s an uninspired coupling together of half-a-dozen other better movie: from its Dirty Dozen line-up, through its Gladiator style score (Hans Zimmer rips himself off again), to its remix of a thousand period sword epics from Spartacus on, mixed with its Braveheart style design and battle scenes. It’s almost completely unoriginal from start to finish. There is no inspiration here at all – it’s made by people who have seen other films and based everything on that rather than wanting to make a film themselves.

It even wraps itself up with an unseemly haste, as if all involved knew they hadn’t nailed it so decided the best thing to was to knock the whole thing on the head and call it a bad job.

The film probably stumbles from the start with its claim to present a sort of “true historical story” of King Arthur. Now I’m not one to get hung up on historical accuracy too much – except when it’s making extravagant claims which are just not true – but the “true story” here is bobbins. Nothing really feels right – from the Roman politics to the idea of a group of loaded Roman settlers setting up a huge estate deep into Scotland (I mean what the fuck was Hadrian’s Wall for eh?). The knights bear very little resemblance indeed to their legendary counterpoints. In fact it’s almost as if they had a script about a brave band of Roman soldiers and just stuck the name King Arthur on it for the name recognition (perish the thought!).

The idea of a group of seasoned, grizzled warriors isn’t a bad one – and it works rather well here because most of the actors in these roles are pretty good (particularly Mads Mikkelsen as a sort of Samurai Tristan). It makes for some interesting dynamics and always some fine character work – the best arc going to Ray Stevenson’s Dagonet as a knight who finds something to fight for. It also contrasts rather well with Stellan Skarsgard’s world-weary villain, who’s seen it all and finds it hard to get excited about ravaging and pillaging anymore.

But it’s a shame that this promising set-up gets wasted. After a good start, when we get to see all our heroes’ personalities reflected in their fighting styles as they repel an attack on a bishop, these dynamics quickly settle down into the usual tropes: you’ve got the joker, the cocky one, the reluctant one who’s only out for himself… Fortunately the Director’s Cut (which I watched) deletes the worst of Ray Winstone’s comic “banter”, but it’s still pretty standard stuff.

The mission behind the wall then pretty much follows the pattern you would expect: the guy they go to rescue is an unsympathetic bastard, they find themselves protecting the weak, it’s a dangerous journey back to safety, blah-blah-blah. Although a battle on the ice has some genuine excitement to it, there isn’t anything new here at all. Everyone just feels like they are going through the motions. 

When the battles kick off in earnest, they are pretty well mounted – even if they are hugely reminiscent of the opening battle of Gladiator and the low-camera, immersive battles of Braveheart. Sure there is a smoky immediacy about them, like a sword wielding Saving Private Ryan, but it’s still pretty much what you would expect. The action pans out with no real surprises – our heroes and villains even match up for the expected clashes.

Clive Owen is a fine actor, but he is manifestly wrong for the role of a classical hero and the awe-inspiring battlefield heroics he is called to carry out here. He’s too modern an actor, with too much of the world-weary smoothness to him, for him to really convince as this hardened medieval warrior. Owen’s delivery and style is so restrained he can’t bring the bombast or elemental force the part requires. Allegedly he was cast because Bruckheimer believed he would be the next James Bond – the actor they turned down for Arthur? Daniel Craig… 

Nope. Sorry.

Similarly Kiera Knightley is just as miscast. Let’s put aside the fact that she is half Owen’s age. There is a prep school headgirlishness to her that just doesn’t work when we are asked to buy her as woad-covered warrior princess. She’s too strait-laced, too polite, too sophisticated. When she does step into the full-on Boudicca look, you’ll giggle rather than tremble. For all her exertion, she’s not convincing in the role either.

But then that’s King Arthur all over: trying hard but not convincing, with such a tenuous link back to the original myth that the fact they are just using the Arthur name to flog some more tickets is all the more obvious. Major elements of the legend are missing – in particular the Arthur-Lancelot-Guinevere love triangle is cut down to the merest of suggestions, enough for it to be noticed but not enough for it to feel like a real plot – and other elements (Merlin, the Sword in the Stone, the Round Table) seem shoe-horned in for no real effect. It’s basically just a bombastic B-movie, a sort of Gladiator rip-off without the poetry. Moments of fun, but still not that good.

Ronin (1998)

Robert De Niro takes aim in super cool car-chase classic Ronin

Director: John Frankenheimer

Cast: Robert De Niro (Sam), Jean Reno (Vincent), Natascha McElhone (Dierdre), Stellan Skarsgård (Gregor), Sean Bean (Spence), Skipp Sudduth (Larry), Michael Lonsdale (Jean-Pierre), Jonathan Pryce (Seamus O’Rourke), Jan Triska (Dapper Gent), Féodor Atkine (Mikhi)

Sam (Robert De Niro), Vincent (Jean Reno), Gregor (Stellan Skarsgård), Spence (Sean Bean) and Larry (Skipp Sudduth) are ex-intelligence operatives from the Cold War (or “the late unpleasantness”). Now working as mercenaries, they are hired by IRA operative Dierdre (Natascha McElhone) to steal a mysterious case. The operation becomes increasingly complex as trust is betrayed, new competitors emerge, and a stream of gun battles and car chases soon bursts out.

I don’t think there are enough words to say how much I love this film. I have seen it I honestly don’t know how many times. Some films just connect with you, or something about them so completely works for you that you can’t help but enjoy them. Ronin is quite simply one of my favourite ever films – others may poke at it, but to me I think this is a perfectly structured piece of film-making, a 1970s-style thriller produced in the 1990s, the last flourish of old-school, Cold War spy film-making. In fact, I genuinely think the further we move away from the bombastic 90s, the richer this film looks. It’s becoming less and less of a guilty pleasure and more and more of a pleasure.

First and foremost you have to talk about what Ronin is most famous for: its jaw dropping car chases. What’s particularly exciting about these is that everything you are seeing was done for real. There is barely a spot of trickery in this – they simply hired the best stunt men in the world, got hold of some cool looking cars, and let them go to town all over France.

Of course, watching cars going round and round in itself isn’t massively interesting: what makes it compelling in Ronin is the skilled story-telling. Not only do we always know what’s going on, but the characters are kept in the forefront (most of the actors’ terrified faces were real, as they tore round the streets of Paris for real at 90+ miles an hour). In addition to that, the editing and shooting of these scenes is simply superb. The film gets a perfect balance of sound effects and musical cues: the soundtrack of the final car chase is split 50/50 between revving engines and music. A combination of low angles (putting us practically on the front of the car) and medium and long shots keep the visuals of each chase fresh. You’d actually have to be without a pulse to not be gripped by these sequences. These are without a doubt the best car chases ever committed to screen.

But it’s not just about car chases. This is a brilliant mood piece, filmed in a drained out colour palate that makes the whole thing feel like the characters have been transplanted intact from the 1970s. Frankenheimer’s direction is crisp and cool, and he has an eye for an excellent shot. He also allows plenty of subtle character and mood building to counterpoint the action, as in the excellent, almost wordless, opening sequence following De Niro’s arrival at a café. Carefully he cases the joint while the others arrive, putting in place a possible escape route (we later discover) before heading in. Later, the film builds a moment of exquisite tension and excitement about a drawing on a board and the colour of a boat house. We even get a scene where De Niro guides some of the characters through performing surgery on him to remove a rogue bullet.

The whole film is packed full of excellent vignettes like this: I love the moment when De Niro pretends to have lost his nerve and carelessly knocks a coffee cup off a table to see how Skarsgard’s slightly sinister Gregor may respond (he catches it before it hits the ground and then immediately looks sheepish as if he has given something away). The film also sprinkles dark hints throughout of a wider world (“Where do I know you from?” “Vienna” “Of course…” an example of exposition-free dialogue that establishes a back story), while the characters’ backgrounds and their recruitment by “the man in the wheelchair” remain deliberately obscure.

It’s also one of the best Macguffin films you are going to see ever. What’s in the case? Who knows? Who cares? The film’s structure totally understands that it doesn’t matter to us what’s in the thing at all. It’s only important in that it matters to the characters: and that most of them are willing to go to any lengths to secure it (preferably for free).

The other major strength of the film is its cracking dialogue, the work of an uncredited David Mamet (allegedly pissed off that the Writer’s Guild of America declared he had to share billing). The dialogue is endlessly quotable, and deftly sketches out character: for instance, we understand immediately De Niro’s cool confidence and Bean’s blustering faux machismo from exchanges like this: 

Spence: You worried about saving your own skin?
Sam: Yeah I am. It covers my body.

That only scratches the surface of the film’s dialogue, which crackles – this exchange between Vincent and Sam sums up its wit, and lived-in quality:

In fact the film is full of cool lines like this that seem to carry a flavour of working in intelligence, and stick in the imagination (“The map is not the territory” or “Either you’re part of the problem or you’re part of the solution or you’re just part of the landscape”). The best moments sizzle with an effortless cool, with dialogue that you find yourself (or I do anyway) regularly dropping into everyday conversation. It also helps to slowly build relationships within the film, with Sam and Vincent’s dialogue quickly finding itself in sync, a clever little indicator of their building friendship.

The relationship between Sam and Vincent is in many ways the heart of the film – while other characters fall by the wayside, events ruthlessly exposing their weaknesses, it’s these two who form a close bond. Vincent may believe “Everyone’s your brother until the rent comes” but their friendship develops a real warmth and trust – they are the real romantic link in the film (despite a flirtation with Natasha McElhone’s steely IRA gun runner Dierdre).

All this content comes together brilliantly into a tightly contained and carefully paced thriller. It’s also strikingly well-acted in a tight, stripped down manner. This is probably the last engaged, “serious” role De Niro did before his career drifted into decades of self-parody. He gives Sam a brilliant lived-in quality, with a wry sense of humour. Jean Reno is equally well cast as the laconically cool Vincent, while Natasha McElhone is engaging and intriguing as Dierdre. Stellan Skarsgård is a stand-out as the ice-cool Gregor. Of the no-less than three Bond-baddy actors, Michael Lonsdale probably has the best part as a model-building fixer, though Sean Bean does decent work as twitchy poseur. Jonathan Pryce is, I have to say, not completely convincing as an IRA heavy, but does a decent job.

Okay I’ll concede the final reveal and resolution of the film’s plot is not the best moment (a particularly heavy-handed, plumbily voiced BBC radio voiceover explains much of the ending), but that’s a bump in the road of gripping, smart and old-school thriller. It’s accomplished in its filming, and its mood sizzles from the screen. The car chases are edge-of-your-seat gripping, and there is barely a false beat in acting or dialogue. The direction is full of character and has a brilliant eye for little details. Above all else, I really love this film – probably more than is healthy – and I have seen it a crazy number of times. I can’t imagine not enjoying watching it – and I don’t think I ever haven’t, even though I must know it frame-by-frame. Brilliant stuff!