Tag: Viggo Mortensen

Eastern Promises (2007)

Eastern Promises (2007)

Brutal violence in London’s underbelly in Cronenberg’s formal and chilling dark fairytale

Director: David Cronenberg

Cast: Viggo Mortensen (Nikolai Luzhin), Naomi Watts (Anna Ivanova Khitrova), Armin Mueller-Stahl (Semyon), Vincent Cassel (Kirill Semyonovich), Sinead Cusack (Helen), Mina E Mina (Azim), Jerzy Skolimowski (Stepan Khitrov), Donald Sumpter (Inspector Yuri), Raza Jaffrey (Dr Aziz), Josef Altin (Ekrem), Tatiana Maslany (Tatiana’s voice)

Big promises shipped back to Russian villages, telling women about dreams they can make reality in the bright lights of London. Those are Eastern Promises – but the reality, of sexual slavery and abuse in Russian Mafia controlled houses is horrifyingly different. Set in an underbelly of London just under grand restaurants and red buses, Eastern Promises is a typically tough and bloody gangster fable from David Cronenberg, which plays out like a nightmare fairytale.

It’s the nightmare of midwife Anna Khitrova (Naomi Watts). When a pregnant Russian teenager dies giving birth, the only clue she has to who her daughter’s family might be is a Russian diary and a business card for a Russian restaurant. Anna – whose family are Russian immigrants – is offered help by grandfatherly restaurant owner Semyon (Armin Mueller-Stahl). Seymon is all pleasant insistence that he can help, even as asks after every detail of her life. Because Seymon is a ruthless Mafia kingpin, with a hapless son Kirill (Vincent Cassel) leaning on the emotional and practical support of his imposing, heavily tattooed driver Nikolai (Viggo Mortensen). As Anna is pulled further and further into Semyon’s deadly world of death, could she have a surprising saviour?

Cronenberg’s film, sharply scripted by Steven Knight, is shot with a traditional stillness and a palette of strong colours – all of which reassuring visual language is utterly at odds with the skin-slashing violence at its heart. Eastern Promises opens with a Russian gangster practically having his head sawn off with a switchblade, in the hands of a mentally-handicapped nephew of a minor Turkish gangster. There isn’t a single gun in Eastern Promises – after all that would be breaking British law! – instead violence is meted out with the violent intimacy of a knife across the throat.

The film’s formal structure and framing – angles and cutting are kept simple, almost static – works brilliantly. As we watch throats slashed, grim sexual encounters or moments of imposing menace, the matter-of-fact presentation of these become more-and-more chilling. Eastern Promises feels like a bogey-man fable. Seymon’s restaurant – all class and bright red walls – an ogre’s cavern that leads us into an ever-grimmer world of violence and mayhem.

It’s a world Anna is unprepared for. Determined and resilient, Naomi Watts’ Anna is also undone by her politeness. How can she refuse an offer to help from someone as polite as Seymon? Watts does extremely well with a slightly under-written role, a woman on a quest who slowly realises how terrible the world she is peeking into is, but stop from trying to force through what she believes is right. Her disbelief – and out-of-place semi-innocence and sense of moral duty – make her stand out all the more in this terrible underbelly world, full of ogres and secret codes.

At the centre of is a monster. Armin Mueller-Stahl looks like your favourite uncle, but he quietly exudes cold, remorseless villainy. He’s the sort of man who delights in cooking the finest borsch, playfully teases his granddaughter’s violin playing and doesn’t bat an eyelid about ordering a rival to be dismembered. Mueller-Stahl is terrifying as this man the audience instinctively knows is dangerous and will stop at no moral boundaries to get what he wants (watch the steely eyed kindness he asks Anna where she works, lives and who she knows during their first meeting).

The obvious moral void in Seymon makes the unreadable Nikolai even more intriguing. Played with an extraordinary physical and linguistic commitment by Mortensen, Nikolai’s body is a tattooed walking advert of his past and capacity for violence and he’s the sort of relaxed heavy who is as unfussed with stubbing a cigarette out on his tongue as he is with snipping fingers off a corpse. Mortensen’s skill here is to make us constantly unsure where the moral lines are for Nikolai. He is a confirmed killer, but he takes an interest in Anna. Is this sexual or protective? What does he make of his bosses’ brutality towards women? What does he think of his direct superior Kirill?

Kirill is played with a larger-than-life weakness by Vincent Cassel in a thrilling performance that constantly shifts expectations. At first, he seems like a drunken blow-hard with a capacity for thoughtless violence. But Cassel makes clear he is a weak man with some principles, bullied by his father (to whom he is a constant disappointment), desperate to prove he is more capable than he is. He has an emotional reliance on Nikolai laced with sexual fascination (he can barely keep his hands off him).

Nikolai seems to accept this. But we don’t seem to know why. His actions are constantly open to interpretation. Ordered to have sex with a prostitute, he almost apologises to her after – left alone with her after Kirill has watched their sexual encounter, he’s strangely tender. He urges Anna to keep her distance but follows orders with calm disinterest. How far will he go? What moral qualms does he have, if any? Mortensen’s carefully judged performance is a master-class in inscrutability in a film that plays its cards very close to its chest as to why he (and others) do the things they do.

Cronenberg’s entire film is structured like this. Is the dragon a dragon or a potential knight? Can Anna emerge from this semi-Lynchian nightmare world and return to normal life – or will everything connected to her be destroyed by this world. Cronenberg’s study of this shady, heartless world is masterful. The “rules” and code of this brutal Russian Mafia world are excellently explored. And the film’s formal style culminates in a stunningly violent but beautiful (if that’s the right word) fight between a nude Mortensen and two knife-wielding Checians in a Turkish bath that is a brutal model for how these things can be done.

Eastern Promises resolves itself, after twists and turns, into something more comforting and traditional than you might expect. But is it a fairy tale ending to a nightmare? Either way, Cronenberg’s mix of formality and unflinching gore is masterful and in Mortensen it has a performance both relaxed and full of tightly-wound violence. Tough but essential.

Thirteen Lives (2022)

Thirteen Lives (2022)

A real life rescue attempt that defied belief is bought to the screen with gripping power and skill

Director: Ron Howard

Cast: Viggo Mortensen (Richard Stanton), Colin Farrell (John Volanthen), Joel Edgerton (Dr Richard Harris), Tom Bateman (Chris Jewell), Pattarakorn Tangsupakul (Buahom), Sukollawat Kanarot (Saman Kunan), Teerapat Sajakul (Captain Anand), Sahajak Boonthanakit (Governor Narongsak Osatanakom), Vithaya Pansringarm (General Anupong Paochinda), Teeradon Supapunpinyo (Ekkaphon Chanthawong), Nophand Boonyai (Thanet Natisri), Paul Gleeson (Jason Mallinson)

In Summer 2008 one story gripped the world. In Thailand on June 23rd, 12 members of a boys’ junior football team and their coach Ekkapon Chanthawong (Teeradon Supapunpinyo) were stranded underground in the Thum Luang caves by flooding. Rescue attempts would call for an international effort: Thai Navy Seals, American military, the local community and a team from the British Cave Rescue Council pooled talents and knowledge to help save the boys before they drowned, suffocated or starved to death.

It’s bought to the screen in Ron Howard’s gripping true-life disaster film, Thirteen Lives, a scrupulously respectful yet compelling dramatisation reminiscent of his Apollo 13: it wrings maximum tension from a story nearly all of us know the outcome of. Just like that film, it superbly explains the huge obstacles the rescuers faced – the near impossibility of navigating the flooded caves, the onslaught of water, the claustrophobic underwater conditions, the panic-inducing nightmare of swimming through kilometres of tight space for inexperienced divers…

Each of these is swiftly but carefully explained, before Howard focuses on the international effort resolving them. Onscreen graphics – in particular a map of the route through the cave complex, including distances and time spent travelling underwater (over four hours) – help us understand every inch of the journey and its implications. Carefully written scenes avoid the trap of exposition overload while making the dangers of an hours-long swim through dark, flooded tunnels clear.

Howard skilfully goes for show-not-tell where he can. The gallons and gallons of water running down the mountain and into the caves in the monsoon conditions are made abundantly clear. The first expedition of experienced cavers Richard Stanton (Viggo Mortensen) and John Volanthen (Colin Farrell) is staged in careful detail: the sharp currents, confined conditions (some parts of the cave are almost impassable – particularly when dragging two oxygen cylinders), the inability to see where you are going, the hours of oppressive time spent underwater.

In case we in are any doubt of how difficult any rescue will be, we see Stanton take a stranded rescue worker a short distance underwater: the man panics, nearly drowns them both and then nearly kills himself trying to surface. The eventual plan – to sedate each boy and have an experienced rescue diver carry him out – is as carefully explained as is its risk (if the dose is not exact, suffocation or panic induced drowning can and will occur). Howard’s careful, unflashy but captivating filming of the rescue attempt that follows is nail-biting and deeply moving.

Not least, because the film doesn’t shy away from the terrible risks. The accidental drowning of Navy Seal Saman Kunan – tragically volunteering from retirement – is sensitively, heartbreakingly handled. Every character is painfully aware of the dangers: Teeradon Supapunpinyo’s coach begs the families to forgive him for putting their children at risk (the children fall over themselves to praise him for saving their lives, in a heart-rending scene). Tom Bateman’s (fabulous) Chris Jewell breaks down in relief, guilt and a fear after he briefly panics during the rescue (no one blames him for a second – they all know each of them has been seconds away from the same countless times). This is a film that understands heroism is not square jawed machismo, but a grim awareness of the risks and a determination to not let that analysis stop you from helping those in need.

But Thirteen Lives is very pointedly not a white saviour story. It’s a story of teamwork and skills coming together: the British and Australian divers join a rescue effort being led by Thai Navy Seals, supported by local Thai officials. All of them are vitally assisted by a Thai water engineer who travels a huge distance to the site to help, and who brings vital knowledge, but can’t succeed without a local man who knows the terrain and a team of ordinary volunteers.

A triumphalist story would have opened and closed with one of our British heroes – the coolly professional ex-firefighter Stanton perhaps – and had them learning lessons and rising to the challenge. This film starts with the boys’ plans for a birthday party, and closes with the eventual much-delayed party. As soon as it’s revealed they are alive inside the cave complex, the film returns to them time and again and stresses their role was in many ways the hardest of all: trapped, lonely, terrified and slowly starving and suffocating, powerless to do anything. Howard’s film never forgets it is their story, or the courage they showed.

Equally, the film  doesn’t forget the role of ordinary people. Thirteen Lives is full of people unquestioningly making sacrifices, putting themselves in danger or working at the limits of endurance to help. It’s not just the divers who carried the boys out who saved them. It’s the Thai farmers, living in poverty, who willingly agree that their farmlands (and crops) be destroyed by redirected water flow from the mountain to buy the boys time. The Thai volunteers battling for days with sandbags, pipes and eventually bamboo funnels against a never ending waterflow.

In this the British team are another group of (admittedly more prominent and vital) experts, volunteering their skills. Their presence is at first resented by the Thai Navy Seals – do they fear a white saviour story as well? – who feel a personal duty to rescue the children. Such clashes are not glossed over – but Howard’s film demonstrates the growing respect between them. The Seals are superb divers: but less experienced in the caving conditions the British team practically live in. The British are experts, but strangers in this land.

As those divers – this is surely the first Hollywood blockbuster to feature a hero from Coventry – Mortensen and Farrell are superbly committed and human. (There is a British delight to be had from their discussion of the merits of custard creams.) Mortensen is the hardened realist: he is sceptical that the impossible can be achieved and is firm that he won’t allow himself or others to undertake suicidal efforts. Farrell is great as his counterpart, determined to leave no one behind. Both actors spark wonderfully off each other – and their commitment, and that of the rest of the cast,  to filming in these punishing conditions is stunning.

Thirteen Lives is a superb reconstruction of an incredible story, that wrings the maximum drama from an international sensation. It carefully celebrates internationalism and co-operation (its dialogue is largely not in English) and the struggles of the highly professional to find solutions to insurmountable problems. Channelling all Howard’s skills with biography, against-the-odds survival stories and ability to draw committed performances from actors, it’s his finest film in a decade and a worthy spiritual follow-up to Apollo 13.

The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003)

The Fellowship face one final battle in the conclusion of Jackson’s stunning trilogy

Director: Peter Jackson

Cast: Elijah Wood (Frodo Baggins), Ian McKellen (Gandalf), Viggo Mortensen (Aragorn), Sean Astin (Samwise Gamgee), Andy Serkis (Gollum), Billy Boyd (Peregrin Took), Dominic Monaghan (Meriadoc Brandybuck), John Rhys-Davies (Gimli), Orlando Bloom (Legolas), Bernard Hill (Theoden), Miranda Otto (Eowyn), David Wenham (Faramir), Karl Urban (Eomer), Hugo Weaving (Elrond), Liv Tyler (Arwen), Cate Blanchett (Galadriel), John Noble (Denethor), Ian Holm (Bilbo), Christopher Lee (Saruman), Brad Dourif (Grima Wormtongue), Sean Bean (Boromir)

By the time the third film in Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy came out, we all knew this was something very special. Readers of Empiremagazine voted it the 9th Best Film Ever Made the month it was released. It was showered with awards, winning every Oscar it was nominated for (11, including three for Jackson) and grossed over a billion dollars worldwide. The Return of the King is a landmark – and it’s a stunning sign-off for a triumphant trilogy.

Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin) are even closer now to Mount Doom, guided by the treacherous former ring-bearer Gollum (Andy Serkis). While they must negotiate the dangers of Mordor, Sauron has sent his forces out to conquer Middle Earth. The city of Minas Tirith is his target. Facing an army of thousands of orcs, the city’s only hope is if Gandalf (Ian McKellen) can defend it long enough to allow Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen) – the man destined to become king of Gondor – to lead a relief force. Will Frodo resist temptation and destroy the ring? And will Aragorn be able to defend the city and become its king?

I think it’s fair to say, with books as widely loved as this, no one is going to agree with every single decision Jackson and fellow writers Fran Walsh and Phillipa Boyens made. Here again, changes have been made – famously the scouring of the Shire that closes the novel has been cut (with Saruman dispatched in the opening scenes of the extended edition). What the screenplay seeks to do is increase the pace and tension – it’s probably why Denethor, leader of Gondor, is reinvented as an antagonist (of which more later) and events charge ahead with a relentless forward motion. There is no stopping to catch breath here: there is always a new crisis to solve.

Where changes have been made, they largely have a positive impact. For example, the film takes the decision to introduce conflict between Frodo and Sam – as well as increasing further the scheming malice of Gollum – by having the disturbed ring-addict manipulate the two hobbits into a falling out. This allows Frodo to enter the lair of the giant spider Shelob (a disgustingly visceral creation) alone. Not only does this make Frodo more vulnerable, it also increases the bravery and nobility of Sam, by having him return to save the day (and allow for a classic Hollywood nick-of-time entrance).

The change also adds to the devious brilliance of Gollum, once again superbly played by Andy Serkis. After spending much of The Two Towers bringing out the depth and sadness in this fragile character, The Return of the King carefully shows how this doesn’t excuse his fundamental ruthlessness. The film opens with a flashback showing Smeagol finding the ring, serving as a neat reminder of the Ring’s fundamental wickedness: within seconds its pushes Smeagol to murder his best friend. The sequence following Smeagol’s moral and physical collapse neatly reminds us of its danger and also how close Frodo is to all this happening to him.

Frodo’s suffering and painful growing maturity is more central here. Wood brilliantly charts Frodo’s continuing moral and emotional decline under the Ring’s influence. Increasingly a physical wreck, Jackson carefully lets the suspicion grow that Frodo’s not going to be capable of chucking the ring away. Balancing this, Astin’s Sam Gamgee (the most heartfelt and affecting performance) becomes the moral centre, self-sacrificing, optimistic and fundamentally decent – a beacon of light in the grimness of Mordor.

Again, Jackson ups the stakes, with TROK taking place on the grandest scale you could imagine. The battle sequences are breath-taking in their depth and ambition. But, as with the other films, Jackson knows the scale counts for nothing if you didn’t care about the characters at its heart. So, while the events are epically earth-shattering, the film always brings us back to simple emotion. Even in the siege of Gondor, it finds time for a quiet moment of humanity between Gandalf and Pippin.

But those battle scenes are still stunning. The orc armies are terrifyingly vast, while the strafing run of the airborne Nazgul (soldiers snatched from towers are thrown hundreds of feet to their deaths) adds to the sense that victory is hopeless. Soldiers fight desperately for their, and others, lives. The film even tops the Two Towers’ charge of the Rohirrim with a stunningly rousing charge involving thousands of horses into the massed ranks of Orc (and tops that minutes later with a second change accompanied by a sweeping camera movement and swelling musical cue that is just about perfect).

Jackson brilliantly communicates how much the stakes are against our heroes. We really feel their bravery and desperation as they take on impossible odds – and it’s that which really gives the scenes their power, not the scale or the special effects. No moment is lost without bringing us back to moments of bravery and vulnerability from our leads. There are powerful moments of warmth, kindness, loyalty and generosity throughout. It’s finally what makes the film so effective – it’s a tribute to the power of friendship.

It’s all powered with a beautifully operatic score by Howard Shore. Shore’s music captures perfectly the world of Tolkien. A few years after this, an ill-fated musical version of LOTR was launched – and flopped. Because, essentially, Shore has already turned these novels into a sort of opera-slash-concerto, with perfect themes for everything from martial orcs to whimsical hobbits. Some of the musical cues are so luscious and stirring, they make you want to stand and applaud. The music accompanying Gandalf’s rescue of the retreat from Osgiliath is a wonderful highlight, the triumphant and tense music for the Rohirrim charge is stunning, the score for our heroes leaving for the Undying Lands beautiful. LOTR is so beautifully scored, Shore’s work so gorgeous, LOTRis a film you could certainly watch with just the music playing and still understand it perfectly.

Of course, there are things you can criticise. Denethor – in the novel a portrait of corrupted nobility, his intelligence and pride turned to despair – is repositioned here as a sort of heartless WW1 General, gobbling food while his soldiers die and embracing a nihilistic death wish (although this change does allow for the absolutely beautiful Gandalf/Pippin beacon lighting sequence, in defiance of Denethor). It’s not helped by Noble’s lip-smacking performance, stripping the character of nuance. It’s gives Gandalf more to struggle against, but it’s a crude approach for a character who would have worked better as a mis-guided elitist rather than a crass, hissable villain.

Lots of people have had a pop at the multiple endings as well. Jackson certainly teases us a little too much with fades to black. But I’d argue the lack of a definitive full stop adds greater depth to the story. Tolkien was partly inspired by his experiences in WW1. In that war, the hell of the trenches came to an end, but people’s lives didn’t end with a triumphant parade. Instead, they needed to return home and adjust back into civilian life. I think it’s powerfully affecting that the hobbits return to an unscoured Shire, which hasn’t changed at all while they (and us) have seen Middle Earth torn apart. And it adds real force to why Frodo, in particular, can’t return to “life as normal”.

It gives a powerfully moving, bitter-sweet ending and, I think, brings out a rich, emotional message from Tolkien’s story often missed: Frodo and his friends are fighting to protect their home, but find that they have changed so much they can never settle back into that home in the same way again. It’s something soldiers serving in WW1 experienced, and it feels fitting echoed in Jackson’s LOTR.

Jackson’s LOTR will always spark conversations around faithfulness and otherwise to the source material. Not everyone will agree with every choice. But surely no one can argue with the majesty, scale and wonder of these films, the sublimely perfect casting choices, or the loving detail in every touch of the design. When I first saw Return of the King in the cinema, the audience got to their feet and applauded. You can’t blame them: watch this and you are watching something very special, a true landmark in cinema.

Witness (1985)

Harrison Ford and Kelly McGillis have a cautious romance across the divide in Peter Weir’s gripping thriller Witness

Director: Peter Weir

Cast: Harrison Ford (Detective John Book), Kelly McGillis (Rachel Lapp), Lukas Haas (Samuel Lapp), Jan Rubes (Eli Lapp), Josef Summer (Chief Paul Schaeffer), Alexander Gudunov (Daniel Hochleitner), Danny Glover (Lt James McFee), Brent Jennings (Sgt Elton Carter), Patti LuPone (Elaine), Angus MacInnes (Dgt Leon Ferguson), Viggo Mortensen (Moses Hochleitner)

The old world meets the new, when a mother and son from an Amish community find themselves travelling through Philadelphia and the son is the only witness to a murder at the train station. The mother, Rachel (Kelly McGillis) wants to help, but is worried about her son Samuel’s (Lukas Haas) safety and is desperate to return home – after all these ‘English’ problems aren’t theirs. However, Detective John Book’s (Harrison Ford) investigation reveals the murder to be the work of dirty cops in his own department – and, after an attempt on his life, he has no choice but to flee back to Amish community with Rachel and son, hiding until he can find a way to set things right.

Directed by Peter Weir with a real professional smoothness, Witness is a triumph of atmosphere and mood, with an intriguing thriller at the heart of it. Weir brings a real understanding and respect for different ways of life, embracing the differences in the Amish way of life but also making some striking parallels between it and our modern world. It’s that emotional maturity and sensitivity that makes the film work: and the most impactful factor is the heartfelt, largely unspoken romance between Book and Rachel. Weir keeps this subtle, gentle and built on suppressed feelings and wordless moments that trusts the audience to understand their bond and their knowledge that their different worlds mean they can probably never be together.

Weir directs these moments with a real romantic simplicity, drawing possibly the most heartfelt, almost boyish, performance he’s ever given from Harrison Ford. Oscar-nominated (his only nomination), Witness is a reminder of how well Ford does both moral outrage and pained suffering. His fury at his corrupt colleagues betraying their badge is as visceral as his sense of fear when he’s chased (first in a car park, then later around an Amish farm) by Danny Glover’s heavy – we always feel worried about Ford’s safety, while also sure he can look after himself. He also works wonderfully with Lukas Haas, Weir focusing on his under-valued fatherly qualities as an actor.

Ford brilliantly combines his decency and world-weary sadness (few actors manage to look more outraged but also resigned when confronted with betrayal and villainy – and is there a more decent, homespun name than John Book?) but Witness taps into his vulnerability more than almost any other film. That’s not just physical vulnerability – he spends a large portion of the film recovering from a gunshot and looks genuinely in fear of his life in the final confrontation – but also emotionally vulnerable.

In a luscious scene he and Rachel (an equally superb performance from Kelly McGillis) dance in a barn to What a Wonderful World by Sam Cooke. As the two shyly and slightly hesitantly exchange looks, both actors allow their characters to hang on the edge of making a clear romantic gesture, but always backing away with laughs and grins. Ford has never seemed more playful, joyfully singing along while McGillis’ emotional frankness and honesty leads makes the scene beautifully romantic, with two people nervous about admitting their growing feelings for each other.

This is just one of several romantic touches that really carry impact. From the moment they arrive in the Amish village, they find themselves drawn to each other. Maybe it’s the charmingly awkward way Book wears the Amish clothes that don’t fit him. Perhaps is the delighted smile and the realisation of her own loneliness in Rachel . But the feelings are unspoken but clear. Both of them are tentative about romance. Book is passionate about justice but surprisingly shy personally (as is all too clear from his bashful talk with his sister earlier). Rachel is committed to her religion, but also yearns for something emotionally beyond what that community can give her (certainly she’s unthrilled by the expectation that she will marry Alexander Gudunov’s Amish farmer, who courts her with a pleasant but romance free dutifulness). Interestingly she is the one more forward in what she wants than Book. For all the film is a gripping thriller, this romantic story is its heart and what gives the film its impact.

The film also works because Weir treats the Amish life so matter-of-factly. The opening moments of the scene, in its simple rural setting and accompanying choral-inspired score could be set hundreds of years ago. It’s actually quite jarring when we find ourselves in busy Philadelphia: but Weir never suggests either way of life is superior to the other. Both are communities with their own rules, virtues and flaws. The Amish are peaceful, but just as capable of prejudice as anyone else. But they are free of the cruelty and violence of the modern world.

A large chunk of the film follows Book’s fish-out-of-water experiences with the Amish, and his growing regard for them reflects the film’s own feelings. He finds there’s a strange peace in the community – and we can see why after we’ve seen the hard-bitten streets Book works. Ford’s real-life carpentry skills have never been used better on film, as Book helps raise a barn (a lovely moment of communal accomplishment). But while the peace is refreshing, he can only change so much. Confronting abusive townspeople (“It’s not our way”/”It’s my way”), Book strikes back. The film’s stance on Book’s smacking down of these abusive street kids is an insight into its maturity: it’s a brief moment of triumph, but is soured instantly by the horror of his hosts – and leads directly into blowing Book’s cover.

But it works because it reflects how we are feeling. Having been led to invest so heavily in a way of life it’s easy to joke about, we feel the same as Book does: those bullies need taking down a peg or two. It fits with Book’s character as well – the idea of corrupt, bullying cops is as repugnant to him as drunken oaths mocking those who choose not to defend themselves.

Weir’s film also successfully creates plenty of thriller beats. Little Samuel’s witnessing of a murder in a train station toilet has a seedy immediacy and sense of danger that really makes you fear for the kid’s safety (and admire his life-saving ingenuity). There’s also rather nicely a simplicity to the film – it’s no whodunnit, we more or less have every question answered in the first half hour. Instead, the suspense comes from if Book can live long enough to hand out justice and how he can possibly manage that from an Amish village.

But Witness’s heart is the relationship between Book and Rachael, wonderfully bought to life by Ford and McGillis. Few thrillers would dare to be as soft and sensitive as this film – or have such restraint. It’s tinged throughout by the careful creation of two worlds that mutually co-exist, but never together. It’s open about the virtues and flaws of Amish life, but offers no judgement on either them or their religion, only acceptance of difference. Witness is a thriller with a heart, combining excitement with moments of heart-rending romance. Professional Hollywood working at its best.

The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers (2002)

Peter Jackson’s second film in the Lord of the Rings trilogy is another triumph

Director: Peter Jackson

Cast: Elijah Wood (Frodo Baggins), Ian McKellen (Gandalf), Viggo Mortensen (Aragorn), Sean Astin (Samwise Gamgee), Liv Tyler (Arwen), Andy Serkis (Gollum), Billy Boyd (Peregrin Took), Dominic Monaghan (Meriadoc Brandybuck), John Rhys-Davies (Gimli/Treebeard), Orlando Bloom (Legolas), Cate Blanchett (Galadriel), Bernard Hill (King Theoden), Christopher Lee (Saruman), Hugo Weaving (Elrond), Miranda Otto (Eowyn), David Wenham (Faramir), Brad Dourif (Grima Wormtongue), Karl Urban (Eomer), Sean Bean (Boromir), Craig Parker (Haldir)

After Fellowship of the Ring we knew we were in safe hands. So, the real question was would The Two Towers continue to win over long-term fans and new-comers to Middle Earth? Would Jackson pull off the difficult middle chapter, resolving some things, but leaving us with enough tantalising hooks? He succeeded: for many The Two Towers is their favourite film in the series.

The fellowship is broken. Boromir (Sean Bean) and Gandalf (Ian McKellen) are dead. Frodo (Elijah Wood) and Sam (Sean Astin) are making their own way to Mordor – now guided by the former ring-bearer, the dangerously untrustworthy and unbalanced Gollum (Andy Serkis). Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), Legolas (Orlando Bloom) and Gimli (John Rhys-Davies) are tearing across the land of the kingdom of Rohan following the orcs who kidnapped Merry (Dominic Monaghan) and Pippin (Billy Boyd). Meanwhile, the dark forces of Saruman (Christopher Lee) are moving against Rohan and its sickly king Theoden (Bernard Hill), determined to destroy it. War has truly come to Middle Earth – but can the return of an old friend help to turn the tide? And will Frodo and Sam find safety or danger when they meet Boromir’s brother Faramir (David Wenham)?

Hard to believe considering the scale of the first film, but Jackson’s second Tolkien adventure ramps up the scale even further. It continues the immersive capturing of the look and feel of the novels, while reconceptualising it into something closer to a stirring, gripping action epic. The Two Towersis awe-inspring in its scale and world-creation, building towards one of the all-time great cinematic battles as the few of Rohan hold out against the massed forces of Saruman at Helm’s Deep.

Just as in Fellowship the pace and tension is heightened. With the heroes split into three groups, there are a number of balls to juggle. But Jackson and co-screenwriters Fran Walsh and Phillipa Boyens superbly intercut the more linear book chapters – feeling free to shift orders, motivations and inventing their own narrative flourishes to link events together. The film adapts around 13 of the novel’s twenty chapters (the rest being assigned to the other films), but is so perfectly paced it never feels overstretched or disjointed. They even add more material involving Saruman, making this arch-manipulator a larger presence in the film than in the novel.

The Two Towers radically changes many of the events of the novel – but in most cases (except one) this is done with such respect for Tolkien that even most fans overlooked them. So, it hardly matters Theoden’s motivations for making a stand at Helm’s Deep have radically changed or that the films add warg action or has Aragorn presumed dead at the halfway point. Elves turning up to fight at Helm’s Deep is such a “Hurrah” moment, only the most extreme Tolkien purist could object (they would have objected a lot more to the original plan to have Arwen fight there). Merry and Pippin’s interaction with the Ents (living trees) are re-purposed to give them greater agency.

In fact, the changes to Faramir were the only ones anyone objected. In the novel Faramir is pure-of-heart and untempted by the Ring. With much of the novel’s Frodo material transferred to The Return of the King, Jackson, Walsh and Boyens needed to make Faramir “an obstacle”. Cinematically, the idea of Faramir trying to take the Ring to Gondor – motivated by the urge to win the affection of his distant father – made perfect sense (and Wenham delivers the character very well).

But for many book fans, this was a travesty of a beloved character (for all that Faramir eventually proves his quality). I’ve never met a book fan who wasn’t displeased by “movie Faramir”. For those familiar with the films, there won’t be a problem – but I can see the point. The character is clearly, in a subtle way, different from the more whimsical and unsullied man the book presents.

If there is one element of Tolkien Jackson, Walsh and Boyens are not interested in, it’s Tolkien’s whimsy and idea of characters as paragons (or parAragorns). For the film, the conflicted Boromir is more interesting and sympathetic than goodie-two-shoes Faramir. By contrast, to Tolkien Faramir was an ideal and Boromir a shadow of the martial blowhards who led millions to death in the trenches. Tolkien wanted heroes who were more certain and perfect. The films are about the struggles people face with doing their duty, questioning their purpose. The films are not about questions of spiritualty and moral purity. Tolkien gives over long chapters to the spirituality of the Ents and one short one to Helm’s Deep – that balance is completely flipped here.

But the advantage is that the idea of true heroism being conquering your own doubts pays off hugely in the adaptation. Aragorn – a superb and hugely charismatic Viggo Mortensen, literally sweating heroism and poetic sensibility – has his character arc improved by the film. In the book, he has not doubt at all. The film establishes his reluctance to lead and unwillingness to acknowledge he is of men. From seeing only the weakness of men, he slowly identifies with them. It’s a conscious decision for him to fight at Helm’s Deep and the battle sees him finally accepting leadership. It’s a richness not found in the novel.

Of course, battles are more compelling on screen than the page. Helm’s Deep is perhaps the greatest battle on screen, a Kurosawa-inspired, rain-splatted masterpiece, perfectly mixing character beats and action. It never forgets that we care about people not action, so rarely more than thirty seconds go by without one of our heroes front-and-centre. Shots of refugees establish the stakes, the costs of war are laid shockingly bare and the battle is crammed full of awe-inspiring shots of mayhem and martial prowess. You can’t not be excited by this superbly choreographed epic, with just the right level of Jackson’s pulpish-gore background laid on.

But this is not just a film about a battle. As always, every beat is perfectly worked – even if the Ents material suffers from the reduced interest from the creative team. The opening sequence expanding the battle between Gandalf and the Balrog is jaw-dropping. The world of Rohan is created beautifully. Bernard Hill’s Theoden is plagued with self-doubt. Miranda Otto is very good as a woman who wants to prove her place in a man’s world (even if the hinted romantic sub plot between her and Aragorn feels a little forced).

But the biggest magic in the film, and its most special effect, might just be Gollum. While the computer wizardry to create the character is astounding, it works because the acting behind it is sublime. Serkis invented a whole school of acting in motion capture. The screenwriters expand the novel’s conflicted psyche and explores even more the character’s split personality – Gollum (the Ring dominated side) and Smeagol (the timid but dangerous side), both made distinctive by Serkis. Jackson’s most bravura scene might be one of his most simple, a two-shot argument between the two sides, that sees Serkis switch personality with each cut. It’s a superb combination of cinematic language and acting skill.

The Two Towers is superb film-making, with music, photography, editing and design all faultless. The acting is again brilliant – Wood, McKellen, Astin, Tyler as well as those mentioned above. But it’s also a brilliant adaptation of a novel, making changes to increase tension and drama and carefully selecting the elements that will work most effectively on screen. It’s closing battle is one for the ages, but the entire film is a perfectly paced epic, with a growing sense of danger and doom that ends on a beat of quiet hope. This series is a thing of beauty.

The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)

Peter Jackson’s near-perfect opening chapter of his Tolkien adaptation

Director: Peter Jackson

Cast: Elijah Wood (Frodo Baggins), Ian McKellen (Gandalf), Viggo Mortensen (Aragorn), Sean Astin (Samwise Gamgee), Liv Tyler (Arwen), Sean Bean (Boromir), Billy Boyd (Pippin Took), Dominic Monaghan (Merry Brandybuck), John Rhys-Davies (Gimli), Orlando Bloom (Legolas), Ian Holm (Bilbo Baggins), Cate Blanchett (Galadriel), Christopher Lee (Saruman), Hugo Weaving (Elrond)

When it was released, people wondered if there was a market for three mega-length adaptations of Tolkien. By the time it finished, Hollywood was casting eyes at The Hobbit and working out how many films that could stretch to. Peter Jackson’s The Fellowship of the Ring is a film so completely perfect it pulled off the near-impossible: embraced all, from the novel’s passionate fanbase, to lovers of blockbusters and connoisseurs of cinema. Jackson turned a landmark novel into a landmark film, the sort of work that decades of other films (and TV shows) would be inevitably compared to. By any benchmark, The Fellowship of the Ring is a cultural and cinematic turning point.

Frodo Baggins (Elijah Wood) is a young hobbit who inherits his home from his Uncle Bilbo (Ian Holm) – along with a mysterious ring which gives its wearer the power of invisibility. But more than that, this ring is the very same ring crafted by the Dark Lord Sauron: the source of his power and possibly the most evil item in the world. Warned of its danger by his uncle’s old friend, the wizard Gandalf (Ian McKellen), Frodo agrees to carry it first to the elves at Rivendell – and then from there to the fires of Mount Doom, the only place it can be destroyed. Joining him on this perilous quest is a ‘fellowship’: Gandalf, fellow hobbits Sam (Sean Astin), Pippin (Billy Boy) and Merry (Dominic Monaghan), elf Legolas (Orlando Bloom), dwarf Gimli (John Rhys-Davies), human Boromir (Sean Bean) and the mysterious ranger Aragorn (Viggo Mortensen), who may be the heir to the kingdom of men.

Jackson’s film faced a huge problem from the start: cater to the fans too much, make it too drenched in the high-fantasy of the novel, and you risk alienating an audience sceptical about stories of magic and elves; push the film too far the other way and it becomes something denounced by the fanbase. Fortunately, Jackson (and fellow scriptwriters Fran Walsh and Phillipa Boyens) transform the book into a masterfully-paced, emotionally-invested epic saga with moments of comedy and tragedy and an overwhelming sense that colossal stakes are being played for. By focusing on what makes The Lord of the Rings such a great story they helped nail making it accessible to the sort of people who wouldn’t dream of picking up a fantasy book.

The novel is carefully, subtly altered throughout to increase pace and build up the emotional depth of the characters. Its timeline is telescoped (Gandalf’s 19 year research into the ring becomes a few months), stand-alone sections removed (good bye Tom Bombadil) and personal conflicts and emotions are subtly made more prominent (most notably Gandalf’s grandfatherly affection for Frodo and the conflicted admiration and resentments between Boromir and Aragorn). What this succeeds in doing is creating a film that actually alters a lot of the original book (reassigning multiple actions and shifting many motivations) but ends up carrying so much of the emotional and narrative truth that it feels completely faithful. The tone is perfectly captured but also becomes a gripping, cinematic drama, populated by characters who feel real, for all their hairy feet or wizard’s hats.

The script is a perfect mixture of the greatest lines and quotes from the book, expanded with a real understanding of character motivation. Its all complemented by faultless direction with a sweeping visual panache from Jackson. This is a passionate director, working at the top of his game. The film is, of course, breathtakingly beautiful – New Zealand, the perfect location for Middle Earth, still dines out on the tourist trade to this day – but Jackson brilliantly mixes the epic with touches of his own Grindhouse roots. So, he can shoot stunning chase scenes with Nazgul or dreamy ascents of mountains with the same flair as he can the grimy, body horror of an Uruk-Hai’s birth. I can’t stress too much the level of Jackson’s achievement here: the film shifts between genre and tone from scene-to-scene: the Moria sequence goes through mystery, whimsy, regret, tragedy, action, awe-inspiring scope then crushing loss. Another director could have made that feel like a wildly veering train – Jackson makes it feel all of a piece. Not a single scene is untouched by directorial genius.

Jackson’s passion for the project was communicated to the entire team. In every single technical department, no effort has been spared to create Tolkien’s world (and crucially it always feels like Tolkien’s world). Stills of this film could be slotted into editions of the book and not look out of place. From the detail of the costume, design of the sets, to the writing of elvish – not a single prop, set or costume doesn’t look like it belongs. Everything feels grown out of the imagination of the reader. It’s helped hugely by the effort to recruit famed Tolkien illustrators Alan Lee and John Howe: their iconic visualisations of the novel inspired every inch of the design.

It’s also a film that feels real (even though so much of it was of course made in a computer). The film used practical locations and shooting tricks wherever possible. Obviously, the New Zealand landscape was used to sumptuous effect, but also wherever possible models and miniatures were used. Even the height differences between hobbits and other characters were largely achieved in camera. It’s an approach which not only subconsciously communicates an intimacy, it also helps make the story feel even more grounded: a sense of dramatic events happening to real people.

The film also brilliantly establishes the sinister darkness of the ring. One of the trickiest things in adapting Tolkien is dealing with the fact that your villains are a suspended glowing eye and a gold ring. TFOR expertly establishes the dark malevolence of the Ring, as a sinister, manipulative, wicked presence that corrupts those around it – it’s even given its own darkly seductive voice. Never for a moment does anyone watching this film doubt that it is bad news, its absolute is evil totally accepted. Think about that for a second and that is a stunning achievement.

Then there’s the score. If you ever wanted to prove to someone how important music is to the experience of watching a film, show them this one. Howard Shore’s orchestral compositions not only deepen and enrich every frame they accompany, they are also perfect in capturing the tone of novel. From the piping hobbit music, to the demonic choirs of the Nazguls, to the soaring but mournful themes of Gondor, this film could almost be a musical. Watch it without dialogue and you still follow it perfectly.

Jackson also nailed the cast. Ian McKellen quite simply becomes Gandalf, on the surface a twinkling grandfatherly presence, but below a frighteningly powerful man carrying centuries of wisdom. It’s a brilliantly iconic performance. Elijah Wood brings a wonderful innocence that slowly strips away as Frodo. Ian Holm’s Bilbo is a delightful charmer with flashes of corruption. Viggo Mortensen is all charisma and conflict as Aragorn. Christopher Lee was born to play Saruman. Liv Tyler was a revelation as Arwen. Sean Bean’s masculine Boromir hides deep-rooted personal doubt, insecurity and fear of failure. The cast is perfect.

And there isn’t a duff scene in the film. It’s opening montage is a masterclass in narrative introduction and awe-inspiring action. The Hobbiton sections have just the right tone of whimsy. The chase through Moria turns descending a staircase into a nail-biter. The final breaking of the fellowship gives us breath-taking battles and heart-rending tragedy, along with an iconic death scene.

No one else could have possibly delivered the novel to the screen better than this. Jackson’s fingerprints are on every inch of the film. It’s a masterclass in adaptation, a beautiful thing to watch and listen to, exquisitely acted and utterly compelling. Both true to the novel and totally engaging for newcomers, it might be the best of the series – and when it was released, felt like the film Tolkien fans had been waiting for their whole lives.

A History of Violence (2005)

Viggo Mortensen: Hero or Villain? A History of Violence

Director: David Cronenberg

Cast: Viggo Mortensen (Tom Stall), Maria Bello (Edie Stall), Ed Harris (Carl Fogarty), William Hurt (Richie Cusack), Ashton Holmes (Jack Stall), Peter MacNeill (Sheriff Sam Carney), Stephen McHattie (Leland Jones), Greg Bryk (Billy Orser), Heidi Hayes (Sarah Stall)

Cronenberg’s films redefined ideas around body horror. And one of his most accessible – and perhaps one of his richest and finest – films takes these ideas to another level by looking at the lasting – and damaging – impact of violence. That’s not just the immediate, visceral impact either – and lord knows Cronenberg doesn’t shirk on that here – but also the intense, long-term psychological impact and how it shapes entire lives. A History of Violence is a brilliantly told and superb piece of film-making that mixes thought-provoking content with a gripping, Western-tinged plot. It’s got a claim to being one of the best American films of the Noughties.

Tom Stall (Viggo Mortensen) is a regular Joe in a very small town in rural America. Running a small café, he lives a blissfully happy life of Americana with his wife Edie (Maria Bello), a lawyer, and their two children Jack (Ashton Holmes) and Sarah (Heidi Hayes). Their world changes forever though when Tom’s diner is held up late at night by two ruthless killers (Stephen McHattie and Billy Orser) and – with an instinctive ruthlessness – Tom ruthlessly dispatches the killers and saves the lives of his co-workers and patrons. His heroism makes him a local hero and brings plenty of excited press attention – but why does Tom seem so uncomfortable with this? Could it be linked to the swift arrival in the town of big-city criminal Carl Fogarty (Ed Harris) who claims Tom is none-other than Joey Cusack, psychopathic hoodlum from Philadelphia who gouged out Fogarty’s eye? Are Tom and Joey one and the same? And how will the doubts affect Tom’s family?

Cronenberg’s film brings brilliant tension to this question of identity, setting it in a very modern-feeling Frontier town, which has more than a sense of a classic John Ford western town, complete with disturbance from murderous figures from outside, shattering the peace. But the film adds that distinct Cronenberg touch by suggesting that, behind the quiet diners and picket fences, the real danger may already be at the heart of the town. Is Tom who he claims to be? Or is he a malignant dark force at the centre of the town (and his family) bringing destruction to everything? What other dark truths, you can’t help but think, might be hiding behind those shutters?

But then that’s what you get with violence. It taints and ruins everything it touches. Innocent lives are shattered. Families and loved ones are left mourning. But it also twists and shapes the personalities of its perpetrators. It marks them and changes them, washing out positive qualities and leaving those who use it the most drained, empty and uncaring. The film opens with a chilling long shot as McHattie and Orser check out of a motel. Cronenberg keeps the camera still and holds the camera still to study the casual body language and chilling lack of engagement of its killers (“Why the delay?” “I had a little trouble with the maid”). The scene continues for an agonising length, making us dread the reveal of what these clearly dangerous, amoral men have done in this motel – the reveal eventually shown with a clinical precision, which serves as an entrée to even greater horrors.

The final killing in the motel is the last time the film will shy away from the immediate horrors of violence. Even Tom’s heroic slaughter of the killers to save lives doesn’t shirk from showing us the impact on the bodies of the killers as Tom dispatches them – bodies torn apart by bullets, with McHattie’s killer left with most of his lower jaw destroyed beyond recognition. Later we’ll see the impact not only of bullets, but also the jerking death spasms of those who have had their noses smashed into their faces, necks snapped or bullets pass through their heads. Never is this glorified – and never are we allowed to simply categorise some killings as good or bad. No matter who it is, the human body will still suffer staggering trauma.

But violence’s impact isn’t only physical. As Tom’s increasing comfort with using his natural propensity for brutal killing (“Have you never asked, why is he so good at killing people?” Fogarty asks an Edie still in denial) grows, so violence takes over his family and starts to shape the actions and decisions of those around him. Arguments become more regular and more visceral. Tom’s gentle son brutally beats his bully at school. The loving father Tom suddenly slaps him across the face. Edie and Tom’s blissful life – we see them playfully making love on a date night – degenerates into conflict, distrust, flashes of violence and finally an angry, intense and passionate sex scene on the stairs that is an exact mirror image of their earlier love scene.

Edie is, for all her horror at Tom, partly excited by finding her husband has such a capacity for danger and brutality. That’s the dark attraction of violence in this film: it reveals secrets about ourselves. Tom seems to subtly shift within conversations from the gentle Tom into the chillingly distant Joey. Worst of all, the more that muscle is stretched the more Tom seems to take comfort and enjoyment in it. Taking what we want, with no regards for the consequences, is liberating and makes us feel strong. No wonder it’s so attractive. And no wonder violence has so shaped and defined humanity’s history. It tends to get people what they want and it can feel good. And it looks cool. Because despite the horrors of the impact of the violence, Cronenberg is also honest enough to admit that it’s exciting.

At the film’s centre is a superb performance of cryptic unknowability from Viggo Mortensen, in possibly his finest role. Mortensen uses micro expressions, small beats and body language that moves between casual and chillingly precise to show two personalities in one body. And Mortensen also demonstrates the struggle between these – between the man he wants to be and the man he might well be. He’s equally matched by Bello, wonderful as a woman who finds her whole life destroyed but can’t shake an unnerving attraction to this man of danger who has suddenly emerged.

The entire cast are pretty much faultless. Ed Harris gets a decent role of gruff menace, but the film is almost lifted in a final act cameo by William Hurt. Oscar nominated for (what amounts to) less than five minutes of screen time, Hurt is simply a force of nature as a Philadelphia crime boss kingpin, purring out his lines with all the fury of a caged lion, mixing a readiness for violence with a darkly comic menace. It relaunched Hurt’s career as a leading character actor – and arguably he should have nabbed the Oscar for it.

Cronenberg’s film engages with ideas of identity throughout. What defines us? The things we’ve done? The choices we’ve made? How many years need to pass before we can say that we’ve changed? What makes us better? And can we decide the sort of people we want to be? It’s impossible to say for sure. If your whole family life is founded on a lie, how do you know what about yourself is true or not? These are fascinating questions and the film offers no easy answers at all. Can Tom return to the life before a violent history shook everything up – perhaps he can, perhaps he can’t. But one thing’s for sure (and Cronenberg makes clear) it won’t be a simple overnight fix and a Hollywood ending. For all the hoodlums Tom dispatches, the real damage is on the workings of his family and the real casualty is the life his family thought they had. And those wounds don’t heal.

Crimson Tide (1995)

Denzel Washington and Gene Hackman face off under the water in Crimson Tide

Director: Tony Scott

Cast: Denzel Washington (Lt Commander Ron Hunter), Gene Hackman (Captain Frank Ramsey), George Dzundza (COB Walters), Matt Craven (Lt Roy Zimmer), Viggo Mortensen (Lt Peter Ince), James Gandolfini (Lt Bobby Dougherty), Rocky Carroll (Lt Darik Westerguard), Danny Nucci (PO Danny Rivetti), Lillo Brancato Jnr (PO Russell Vossler)

“The three most powerful people in the world: the President of the United States, the President of the Russian Republic and…the captain of a US ballistic missile submarine”. So boasts the film’s opening caption. This submarine drama explores the truth of that, during a clash of wills (and more) between Captain Frank Ramsey (Gene Hackman) and his XO Lt Commander Ron Hunter (Denzel Washington) over the launch of the sub’s nuclear missiles at a rogue Russian general. Ramsey has orders in hand. Hunter has a later, partial, order that may or may not be recalling the strike. Should the sub launch, or should they work to repair their radio and check the second message – possibly losing the narrow window of time they have to take out a rogue general’s missiles before he can launch them at America? Glad I don’t have that job.

Tony Scott’s submarine thriller is one of the best of the genre. It throws in all the clichés you would expect (the claustrophobia, the long dive, the game of cat and mouse with an enemy sub, the blips on the radar, the need to sacrifice someone to save the ship etc.) but presents them with a dynamic freshness (helped by Hans Zimmer’s exciting, award winning score). And at its heart it is a character study of two very different men, with very different styles of thinking and leading. Both rules are juicy, so it’s not surprising that two of the best actors in the game fill them out.

Denzel Washington is just about perfect as a Harvard-educated, committed soldier-thinker who believes in relating to the men as much as he does in firm order. Washington is careful not push Hunter towards being too cautious – under his command the Alabama bests a Russian sub in combat – and he may be alarmed by the impact of nuclear war but will reluctantly pull the trigger, but only once he is certain he has received the correct orders. A lot of the film depends on Washington’s natural moral authority, as well as his mix of forceful reserve and relatability. 

You need a big actor to not get steamrollered by Washington in those argument scenes – and few have the authority of Gene Hackman. Hackman is way too smart an actor to make the captain what he could have been in lesser hands – a trigger happy autocrat. Ramsey may be an old hand who believes in telling men what he wants and expecting delivery or a boot in their ass. But he’s not uncaring, he’s well-read, thoughtful, articulate and capable of acts of kindness and generosity. But he’s also a man rigid in his intent when he believes he is doing the right thing – and Hackman is always careful to establish that his intent on launching missiles is because he believes he is protecting innocent civilians back home.

The film becomes a compelling clash of tempers between two men who firmly believe they are both doing the right thing. The film is careful to throw up the fundamental lack of compatibility between the two from the start, even if it is tinged with respect. Their backgrounds, methods of discipline even ways of thinking about their role are different. There is an unspoken racial tension under the film, not because anyone in it is racist, but rather as Washington’s Hunter represents all round a newer America (an educated Black-American officer) that makes Hackman’s naval old hand feel like a relic of Cold War thinking.

But the film is, at heart, sympathetic towards both men, and probably places more blame on the system (an Admiral later reassures us both men were both right and wrong). Scott’s film with its expected flashy style (Scott loves the stark red lighting of the sub at alarm, mixed with the blaring greens of radar screens and the cool blues of sub interiors) gets a wonderful sense of the claustrophobia affecting decisions. Every character is a sweaty mess, while the sub seems to spend half the movie at an angle, forcing the crew to virtually pull themselves through it. 

The final hour takes place almost in real time, and covers the pressure cooker of men forced to make world-destroying decisions, cut-off under the ocean from any idea of what’s going on in the world, in extreme temperatures on little sleep. It’s a world of butch extreme masculinity – another way that makes Washington’s more cultured Hunter seem strangely other. Sweat pours off the men (the camera frequently focuses in on sweat-dripping faces). The officers of the ship generally come out badly, with Viggo Mortensen in particular a weak-willed man flip-flopping from side-to-side during the various changes of command on the sub. Many of the rest think little about what they are doing, and it’s telling Washington is largely supported by non-commissioned officers and regular sailors. Perhaps that’s where the true heart of America lies.

The film was written by a smorgasbord of writers (Robert Towne wrote much of the Hackman/Washington arguments at short notice, while Quentin Tarantino polished up much of the rest of the dialogue – no wonder it’s sprinkled with pop culture references). Initial support from the navy was cut off after Bruckheimer confessed the film was not about a HAL style computer trying to launch missiles, but a potential mutiny on a submarine and a feud between its two senior officers. Scott’s front-and-centring of the human drama between two great actors is what makes the film work – and take its place as one of the classic submarine movies.

Green Book (2018)

Viggo Mortensen and Mahershala Ali are Driving Dr Shirley in Green Book

Director: Peter Farrelly

Cast: Viggo Mortensen (Frank “Tony Lip” Vallelonga), Mahershala Ali (Don Shirley), Linda Cardellini (Dolores Vallelonga), Dimitar Marinov (Oleg), Mike Hatton (George), Iqbal Theba (Amit), Sebastian Maniscalco (Johnny Venere)

So here we are with a film that might as well be called Driving Dr Shirley. A gentle, ambling, Sunday-afternoon piece of film-making with a rudimentary message, a simplistic world-view and two very good performances at its heart doing all the lifting. Twenty years ago this would have swept the Oscars. As it is it had to settle for just three, including Best Picture, an award that already feels like a triumph of comfortable mediocrity, especially considering Spike Lee’s striking BlacKkKlansman takes such a profound and challenging view of the same issues.

Set in 1962, Green Book follows the “true-life” (heavily disputed by Shirley’s family) friendship between virtuoso classical pianist Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali) and the Italian American Copocabana bouncer Frank “Tony Lip” Vallelonga (Viggo Mortensen) he hires to be his driver for a tour around the deeply racist Deep South states. Can two such different people, over the course of a road trip, find they have more in common they think? You betcha.

Green Book is practically the definition of unchallenging viewing. It tells a lovely, gentle story about two lovely people who, while dealing with the problems of racism in 1960s America, basically have a lovely time bar a few scraps. The film coasts through with a Edward Hopperish nostalgia-tinged views of 60s America peppered with a dash of racist unpleasantness from the people they meet along the way. All this is told with an anecdotal casualness – you can totally tell that the film was inspired by Tony Lip’s son wanting to turn his Dad’s old stories into a film.

And he creates a film where Tony Lip is the hero, and the world of the racist South only truly comes into focus through this white man witnessing the prejudice his black friend must endure (with dignity). While it’s good to have an anti-racist film – however much this film largely focuses on the genteel, country club racism of the upper classes and never dares to go anywhere near the lynch mobs and murders of the Deep South – this is a film that never dives deep with anything and in the end wraps up the instinctive racism and suspicion of Tony’s family in a neat bow and a family dinner with the whole cast. To this film, progress is the name of the game and racism a problem that we are well on the way to solving (again the contrast between this and Spike Lee’s work is really, really striking).

Since the whole film is told from the perspective of Tony – and since the film makers never bothered to consult with Shirley’s family at all, basing all their research on only one side of the story – we never get a real feeling of knowing exactly how Don Shirley might have felt about the attitudes he dealt with, or the reasons behind why he chose to undertake a tour of the Deep South to deal with them, or what he hoped to gain from it. In what should be his own story, he’s a supporting character.

Worse than this, it’s Don who largely seems to need to learn lessons. A dignifed, rarified, dandyish, upper-middle-class near-snob, it’s Don who the film suggest doesn’t understand black culture. It falls to Tony to teach him about everything from black culture: Don’s never heard of Aretha Franklin or Little Richard, never eaten fried chicken, and is deeply uncomfortable around any other black person he meets (unlike Tony’s easy rapport with his fellow drivers, all black). There is a fascinating film to be made here about a man who was at multiple different junctions of minorities – an upper-class black man out of touch with his fellows, a gay man in 1960s America, a black man in the Deep South – but the film doesn’t want to tell that story. I’m also going to leave it out there that only very short shrift is given to black culture (defined by 3-4 things) or Don’s argument that not all black people ipso-facto should like the same things.

Tony on the other hand doesn’t really need to learn anything. An opening scene has him uncomfortably throwing away two glasses used by black-handymen working in his home. But this is literally the last racist action or thought he has in the film – and seems like something that comes completely out of left field. He has no objection to working for Shirley, gets on fine with black people, reacts with increasing anger to racially tinged threats and insults etc. I can understand a son writing a script about his father not wanting to show anything unsympathetic, but the glass scene clumsily sets up an obstacle in Tony’s character that never needs to be overcome.

Instead Tony’s real problems with Shirley are based around class. He thinks he’s a snob. As soon as Shirley lightens up a bit, Tony treats him fine. He even happily accepts his homosexuality and playfully accepts some tutoring to improve his gentility. Tony is an overwhelming force for good who rarely says or does anything remotely unsympathetic.

Farrelly’s film is simple and forgettable in the extreme, but it’s enjoyable enough and passes the time. This is largely because of the two leads. Mortensen’s performance skirts around parody but has such larger than life joie de vivre you hardly mind. He’s very funny and also rather endearing and utterly convincing. Ali mixes in some genuine emotion and loneliness in amongst the more obvious class-based imperiousness. It’s enough that you wish we had got to see that slightly more interesting story under the surface. Green Book is utterly unchallenging and totally gentle. Nothing wrong with that, but it will fade from your memory as soon as the credits roll. Except with its bizarre Best Picture win it’s now a permanent piece of film history.

Carlito's Way (1993)

Sean Penn and Al Pacino struggle with the impact of a life of crime in Carlito’s Way

Director: Brian de Palma

Cast: Al Pacino (Carlito Brigante), Sean Penn (David Kleinfeld), Penelope Ann Miller (Gail), John Leguizamo (Benny Blanco), Luiz Guzmán (Pachanga), Jorge Porcel (Saso), James Rebhorn (Bill Norwalk), Joseph Siravo (Vincent Taglialucci), Frank Minucci (“Tony T” Taglialucci), Adrian Pasdar (Frank Taglialucci), Viggo Mortensen (Lalin)

Every so often from the 1990s onwards, Al Pacino actually bothered to act rather than rage in an orgy of self-parody. It’s the films where he does really embrace the challenge, like Carlito’s Way, that reminds you what a damn fine actor he is. Carlito’s Way may also be a reminder of what an overtly flashy director Brian de Palma is, but it’s a fine American gangster thriller.

In 1975, Carlito Brigante (Al Pacino) is released from prison after five years on a legal technicality, exposed by his friend and lawyer Dave Kleinfeld (Sean Penn). Carlito makes a speech at his hearing, claiming he is a reformed man who wants leave his criminal past behind him – and to the shock of Kleinfeld and his colleagues in the underworld, he’s telling the truth. Carlito attempts to go straight, and to rebuild a relationship with Gail (Penelope Ann Miller), the young woman he left behind. Unfortunately, Kleinfeld is not only becoming increasingly unpredictable due to his cocaine addiction, but he is starting to blur the lines between criminal lawyer and plain criminal. His actions continually threaten to drag Carlito back into the crime industry.

Carlito’s Way is a fine semi-morality tale, a modern tragedy of a man who, every time he thinks he’s out, “they pull me back in”. And of course we know that he’s on a hiding to nothing, as the film opens with Pacino gunned down by an unknown assailant and recounting most of the film’s plot (presumably) from beyond the grave. His attempts are doomed largely because, in order to go straight quick and easy, he has to raise money the only way he knows how – working in the very same flashy nightclubs and among the career criminals that he should absolutely be avoiding.

Carlito narrates the film with a weary reluctance, carefully recounting the mistakes he made and why. It’s a device that largely manages to avoid telling us the obvious, and actually gets us closer to, and like, Carlito. It also helps that Pacino’s voice itself has a gruff poetry to it, and he adds a Shakespearean grandeur to this familiar old-school tale of the crook who wants out.

Pacino’s intensity works fantastically for the part. He largely keeps the Pacino fireworks for the moments where they carry the most impact. He and de Palma carefully sketch out a portrait of Carlito as a world-weary man, who (try as he might) can’t leave behind the code and rules that have governed his life as a criminal. He can’t escape the confines of thinking like a criminal. Most terribly, his old-school sense of honour (few actors convey dishevelled personal morality better than Pacino) is what will doom him – he can’t break the code of the streets. It’s a terrific, empathetic performance from Pacino.

Pacino also develops a sweet, loving relationship between him and Penelope Ann Miller’s Gail. In the way of these films, Gail is a stripper – she alternates between sweetly loving and overtly sexually flirtatious as the plot demands – but Miller makes her feel like a real person. She and Pacino have great chemistry (which, rumour has it, also carried over into real life) and de Palma shoots their scenes with an old-school romanticism and a steady camera, which contrasts with the disjointed sweep and Dutch angles he uses elsewhere.

Sometimes these flashy angles get on my nerves. de Palma often feels like he’s trying too hard, rather than stretching his muscles. Saying that, he’s a master of the set-piece. The film has two action set-pieces and both simmer with tension and inventiveness. One involves a bungled drugs deal in a dingy bar. The other a thrilling chase sequence in Grand Central Station, a deliciously shot mixture of great editing and daring extended single shots. Sequences like this bring memories, inevitably, of Scarface and it’s tempting to see Carlito’s Way as a spiritual sequel – as if Tony Montana had been arrested and changed his ways.

Perhaps a testament to how good Carlito’s Way is (or rather how much I enjoy it) is that I even think Sean Penn is terrific in it. Penn is one of those actors I find tryingly self-important (both professionally and personally). But his weaselly lawyer, a hair-trigger addict, nowhere near as smart and adept as he thinks he is, is marvellous. Penn’s performance is a whipper-cracker mix of slimy self-confidence and arrogant blindness, with moments of curiously underplayed vulnerability that makes it make sense why Carlito remains so loyal to him. It’s one of Penn’s best, most controlled performances, a virtuoso performance of whining weakness.

Carlito’s Way is part pulp gangster thriller, part character study humanely outlining the impossible difficulty of changing our stars. Carlito may be ready to jack in the criminal world – but he continues to live the life of the criminal while persuading himself he isn’t. The whole film has a tragic inevitability about it – and would do even without the framing device. Carlito wants out – but he wants to rush to get the investment he needs, and walking the shadow line is the only thing he knows how to do. It’s a great modern tragedy.