FILM critic Alistair Harkness reviews this week’s new cinema releases
Run All Night (15)
Directed by: Jaume Collet-Serra
Starring: Liam Neeson, Ed Harris, Joel Kinnaman, Boyd Holbrook
Star rating: ***
These are strange days for the action movie. Outside of the reinvigorated Bond and soon-to-be-reignited Bourne franchises, there aren’t many credible male protagonists who look as if they could handle themselves in a fight. Multiplexes are dominated by comic book franchises and young adult sagas that have made it possible for any seven-stone weakling with access to a personal trainer, some Spandex and swathes of CGI to indulge in elaborately choreographed ass-kicking on screen. The steroidal superstars of the 1980s and early 1990s, meanwhile, effectively made the case for their own obsolescence with that last abysmal sequel to The Expendables. Even Michael Mann couldn’t hide Thor-star Chris Hemsworth’s lack of real-world action chops in the fearsome but flawed Blackhat recently. And while ever-enigmatic Keanu Reeves may yet prove he can still cut it with the forthcoming John Wick (sources I trust say he can), that leaves Jason Statham and Liam Neeson as the go-to stars for anything requiring throats being convincingly punched or arms being cracked 90 degrees the wrong way. We’ll have a new Statham effort – Wild Card – this time next week (though it’s not being press-screened, suggesting his addiction to terrible material remains intact).
In the meantime, Neeson’s still-relatively-recent anointment as an action star continues unabated with Run All Night, an occasionally-too-flashy, but otherwise pleasingly old-school tale of twisted loyalties, revenge and bloody redemption.
Making up somewhat for the recent atrocity that was Taken 3 – Neeson stars as Jimmy Conlon, a retired assassin for the Irish mob who remains loyal to its boss, the self-styled “legitimate” businessman and long-time friend Shawn Maguire (Ed Harris). The latest in Neeson’s recent spate of haunted, booze-soaked anti-heroes (see The Grey, Non-Stop and A Walk Among the Tombstones), Jimmy’s done his crime but not the time – save for the insomnia-inducing existential imprisonment that comes from a life dedicated to contract killing. Frequently three sheets to the wind, his own place in the world appears in doubt as Shawn’s son Danny (Boyd Holbrook) attempts to make his mark by disrespecting the old order and urging his father to go into business with some Albanian heroin dealers he’s promised to shepherd through the Brooklyn underworld his dad controls.
Jimmy’s relationship with his own son Mike (Joel Kinnaman) is hardly any better. Ex-boxer Mike is trying to legally scrape a living to support his young family by driving a limo for clientele that is often less than salubrious. Jimmy has never seen his grandkids and Mike, who blames Jimmy for all his woes, refuses to even have a picture of his father in the home he shares with his wife and two little girls.
Needless to say, these worlds violently collide when a driving job results in Mike witnessing Danny executing his business partners in cold blood. Enter Jimmy, whose parental instincts kick-in with a shoot-first atavism he knows will set him against his old friend Shawn.
What follows is hardly ground-breaking stuff, but it’s good to see Neeson and Harris going toe-to-toe playing characters bound and doomed by the same primal, blood-is-thicker-than-water code.
Each certainly imbues the more portentous exchanges in the script (by Brad Ingelsby, who’s also writing the US remake of The Raid) with an authority that makes their characters sound more bad-ass and meaningful. They are joined by another vet whose unexpected appearance in a grizzled cameo is too much of a treat to spoil here.
Holbrook and Kinnaman aren’t bad either. The gradual, albeit inevitable, thawing of Mike’s contempt for his father is hard-won. As they attempt to survive a night being hunted by corrupt cops, mobsters and freelance assassins, they don’t resort to banter, à la A Good Day to Die Hard. Instead there’s a commitment to the dramatic reality of their relationship. The downside is the way it highlights the disappointing female presence in the film. Mike’s wife and daughters exist solely as plot motivation; they have no interior life of their own. The decent character work between the male leads also makes the film’s frequent descents into action movie idiocy more apparent.
The latter can be attributed to Spanish director Jaume Collet-Serra (now on his third collaboration with Neeson); he has a tendency to let chaos rather than tension define his set-pieces. (His CGI-enhanced location-hopping scene transitions are also horribly naff as well.) And yet the advantage of having someone like Neeson – who’s cut from the same cloth as Clint Eastwood – is his ability to make it count when it really matters.
Suite Française (15)
Directed by: Saul Dibb
Starring: Michelle Williams, Kristin Scott Thomas, Matthias Schoenaerts, Margot Robbie
Star rating: **
The story behind the source material for Suite Française is so fascinating it’s a shame the film on screen never finds a way to successfully convey its essence. Based on a two novellas written by Jewish author Irène Némirovsky shortly after Germany invaded France in 1940, what became the titular 2004 bestseller comprised the first instalments of a projected five-story depiction of French life under German Occupation. Tragically never completed on account of Némirovsky dying of typhus shortly after being sent to Auschwitz in 1942, her handwritten stories lay unpublished for five decades until her daughter, Denise Epstein, realised the notebooks left to her by her mother weren’t actually diaries but the beginnings of the aforementioned series. All of which is acknowledged in this filmed adaptation with an end-title card – a cinematic act of burying the lead so comprehensively as to make what’s interesting about the story virtually irrelevant.
Though a framing device in which Epstein discovered her mother’s books was reportedly shot and subsequently cut, the absence within the film’s narrative of any acknowledgement of the story’s history says less about the test audiences whose confusion led to its elimination than it does about the initial lack of artistic ambition in this Weinstein Company/BBC Films co-production, co-written and directed by Saul Dibb (The Duchess). More suited to Sunday night TV than cinema, the resulting star-stuffed affair, which revolves around a non-Jewish heroine, is so ordinary and dully executed there’s almost nothing to recommend it.
With only the German characters sporting nation-specific accents, an English-accented Michelle Williams leads a cast of mostly British stars (and Margot Robbie) playing French characters in Anglicised, class-specific brogues – an attempt, one suspects, to avoid ‘Allo ‘Allo-isms. Williams plays Lucille, a newly married woman whose discomfort at being left to live with her overbearing mother-in-law (Kristin Scott Thomas) after her husband is seconded to the frontline is compounded by her attraction towards Bruno (Matthias Schoenaerts), the sensitive German officer billeted to their household. Sharing a passion for music and marital disharmony, the pair bond over the way war has interrupted their lives, but their forbidden relationship is further complicated by a secret Bruno knows about Lucille and, later, by Lucille’s determination to aid the husband (Sam Riley) of a fellow villager after he kills one of Bruno’s colleagues. Whatever value the source material has as a work of fiction is partially down to its real-time reflections on the conflict, but rendered here in tedious voice-over that explains Lucille’s every thought and feeling, these make the film dramatically inert, robbing it of tension or irony and making its exploration of the psychology of collaboration and resistance frustratingly facile.
Elle l’adore (15)
Directed by: Jeanne Herry
Starring: Sandrine Kiberlain, Laurent Lafitte, Pascal Demolon
Star rating: ***
From Play Misty for Me to Misery, films about obsessive fandom tend to home in on the psychopathic nature of the follower, but this French comedy/drama turns things around by making the object of a fan’s love the exploitative monster. After a freak accident during an argument leaves his girlfriend dead, ageing pop star Vincent Lacroix (Laurent Lafitte) calls on his number one fan, Muriel (Sandrine Kiberlain), to unwittingly help him dispose of the body, little realising that this middle-aged, divorced mother-of-two’s fantasist proclivities are going to make it harder for him to control the situation than he could possibly have imagined. As Muriel, Kiberlain is great, particularly when the police start zeroing in on her and she realises Vincent is setting her up. Alas, while writer/director Jeanne Herry – the daughter of French crooner Julien Cler and actress Miou-Miou – has fun exploring the dynamic between idoliser and idol, too often she lets the film’s preposterous plotting get in the way of saying anything fresh about celebrity and its nose-against-the-glass allure.
Directed by: Morgan Matthews
Starring: Asa Butterfield, Rafe Spall, Sally Hawkins, Eddie Marsan, Jo Yang
Star rating: ***
Though the main thrust of this British heart-tugger revolves around an autistic teenage maths whizz (Asa Butterfield) learning to come to terms with the loss of his father, the real joys of X+Y are to be found not in the high-pressure International Mathematical Olympiad in which its protagonist finds himself competing, but in the subplot about his mother’s struggle to hold things together while carving out a modicum of happiness for herself. Thanks to a beautifully judged turn by Sally Hawkins, the film is infinitely more interesting when focused on her: both as a lonely widow trying to compete with the memory of her saintly husband for her difficult son’s affections, and as a still-young woman who gradually finds herself attracted to her son’s troubled tutor (Rafe Spall). That said, when the action does shift to the competition, director Morgan Matthews – riffing on his own documentary Beautiful Young Minds – makes the film’s formulaic nature work to its advantage without dumbing down the science of it all.
My Name is Salt (U)
Directed by: Farida Pacha
Star rating: ***
The infinitesimal nature of humankind in the face of the environment is poetically essayed in this starkly beautiful documentary about a salt farmer and his family’s seasonal struggle to earn a living from India’s Gujarati desert. One of an estimated 40,000 families who annually set up temporary home on the punishing salt marshes of the Great Rann of Kutch in order to produce high quality sodium chloride for western consumption, Sanabhai, his wife and their young children’s existence initially recalls the opening of There Will Be Blood as he and his fellow workers embark on the hard graft involved in constructing primitive pump systems to extract saltwater from the ground. But the tireless toil involved in subsequently mining the salt – a process that involves slowly evaporating the water via natural means, then trampling the salt with their feet and eventually raking in preparation for collection – takes on a more Sisyphean dimension: no-one producing the salt is getting rich, and when yields disappoint, or nature ruins their work, the long process starts over again, without complaint.