Here’s some very quick thoughts on issues 1 & 2 of Tom King’s Batman Rebirth book. I’ve not been a regular bat-reader for quite some time, but after the brilliance of The Omega Men I have been quietly excited about this book since it was announced. And I wasn’t disappointed either, the book is interesting, has some nice characterisation and whilst a little generic in places is certainly compelling enough for me to stick around.
// Alfred the great
Tom King writes a wonderfully acerbic Alfred. And there is a lot of warmth in the mockery he dishes out to Bruce, that katana birthday line is absolutely marvelous! Much like the brilliantly lived in feel of the relationship between Bruce and Alfred was literally, literally, the best thing in BvS, I have a feeling that the relationship will be a funny, touching, heart to this series too.
// Gotham-Man & Gotham-Woman, surely?
OK, so we don’t know the background on these characters, let alone their ages, but it struck me as really odd that the dude is called ‘Gotham’, but the woman is called’Gotham Girl‘. Gotham as the name for a suspicious new super hero is cool, but when you pair him with a woman and then default her to Gotham Girl it just comes across as retrograde tackiness. Maybe this’ll be a thing, part of their relationship dynamic or something (at the very least it is an obvious manifestation of the ‘we get the heroes we deserve’ speech from issue 1), but I suspect we’re ultimately looking at traditional and unfortunately gendered comic book naming conventions that ought to be put away now.
// Save that bum, but don’t help that bum
So Batman takes Mr. Gothman to task for failing to stop Solomon Grundy quick enough to prevent injury to a homeless man in the park. As a result Batman stepped in (in a pretty great smoke-covered entrance) to save the bum from trampling. Except then Batman just swings off into the night. Like, he cares enough that a homeless man shouldn’t get crushed to death, but he’ll be damned if he helps that filthy hippy out with some hot soup or a place to stay for the night or a bloody Bat-blanket to keep warm in the park or whatever. This is a common complaint about Batman, but it rarely feels so starkly illustrated as it is here. Thanks for the assist millionaire Batman.
// Batman takes NZT-48
I must admit, as ridiculous as it ended up being the maths-laden-rocket-seat-surf-a-plane action of issue 1 was a real delight. Even though I am sure it makes no physical sense I love the idea that Batman and his team can parse complex maths in seconds in order to create theoretical plans to save a plane and then carry them out perfectly. This is a Batman I can get behind. Batman is awesome. This is one of the smartest people in the DCU using his formidable mind and his perfect body and his iron will to do whatever it takes to save the people of his city. Batman’s willingness to sacrifice himself was perfect. His final words to Alfred were touching and noble. And, and, and, we get to see an action scene in a superhero book that isn’t just people punching one another! Why is this so rare? Especially when the construction of a scene like this can evoke so much tension and excitement through almost every page of the issue.
// Tim Sale Variants
Super picky and personal one this. Although I picked these up for both issues something felt off to me about Sale’s art. The art is a perfectly fine example of Sale’s work, but unfair as this may seem it comes across a as if he was a little bored whilst drawing them. After thinking about it awhile I think it is because whilst the book itself represents this bold new starting point for Batman’s adventures with a nod to the past (much as Rebirth is the same for the entire DCU), Sale’s art feels like it is literally from the past. Either cover could have come from Long Halloween or Dark Victory, neither cover embraces the content of the issue itself. Sure Solomon Grundy is in #2, but not in this sympathetic sewer man way he was depicted in LH. And the issue #1 cover, that depicts Batman’s rogues in something of a pile-on, well that feels like it is purposefully looking back at all these villains of yore rather than looking forward at the new adventures and stories to come. Maybe this is the point, a bit of Tim Sale/Long Halloween nostalgia whilst you bed in the new book, but it just came across as a uncomfortable juxtaposition for me.
Examining this awful cologne commercial of a movie.
So, James Bond’s latest adventure from the mind of former cinematic auteur Sam Mendes has come out and about the only thing worth saying of it is that it is really really long! I consider Daniel Craig the best Bond character mostly because I find both Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace to good spy action adventures. Truth be told I’m not really a fan of wise-cracking/silly/over-the-top/camp Bond of old so the remolding of the character as a ruthless espionage/murder machine was a big win with me (one that actually feels much closer to the original Casino Royale novel (although Fleming himself launched head long into camp silliness almost immediately afterwards)). Skyfall had a foot in both camps and just about came out ahead for me (even if references to crap like ejector seats and headlight guns had crept back into the franchise). Sadly it turns out that this wasn’t just Mendes giving a cheeky nod to the history of the franchise on it’s 50th birthday, but rather a taste of the absurd retro nonsense to come in Spectre.
Mendes constructs Spectre as a conscious reliving of ‘classic’ Bond moments; the problem is that even where the original moment being referenced is bad, Spectre‘s rehashes are without exception worse. There is not a single scene that betters the ones that inspired it; this is even true when Mendes is referencing himself.
Casino Royale climaxes with an old building collapsing so Spectre starting with the same must mean Spectre is going to continue the upward trend of escalating spectacle. Except the reason the collapsing building was compelling in Casino Royale is that it was directly tied up in the emotional arc of Vesper’s betrayal and subsequent sacrifice. Spectre just uses it as an opportunity for a consequence- and tension-less explosion. The sequence also includes a truly awful visual ‘joke’ about Bond landing on a sofa amongst the rubble that sets the tone both for the poor comedy to come and the return to campy ‘Bond is magically lucky at all times’ shennanigans. Sure we know Bond isn’t going to die any time soon, but the loose illusion that he lives in a functioning world and is in actual danger is what propels the action scenes forward. When he is cloaked in invulnerability from the very first action scene then it weakens the verisimilitude of his world and the sense of danger for the rest of the picture, fatally lowering the stakes of every action scene and in turn making everything that happens seem boring and pointless.
Similarly the scenes of Blofeld and a captured Bond seem designed to evoke both traditional Blofeld stuff as well as the scenes from Skyfall where Bond and Silva first meet. Silva is a genuinely frightening presence, with an air of spontaneous manic danger that is only partially mitigated by some relatively witty dialogue from Bond. In Spectre Blofeld lacks that sense of danger and his torture methods seem absurd. In an attempt to overcome the classic Bond ‘escapes before being tortured’ cliche Mendes actually has Blofeld drill into Bond’s skull – ok that’s an interesting enough idea, but the outcome of that brain drilling? Yeah, absolutely nothing, no effect at all. Once again Bond is magically invincible and all the possible tension of the scene evaporates. Also of note here is the weird choice to remove Hinx, Blofeld’s physical threat to Bond, a good hour before the film ends – one assumes this was designed to show that Blofeld doesn’t need muscle-men and can threaten Bond with only his superior mind, but as it turns out Blofeld is an utter imbecile so that doesn’t really work.
Rather than a friendly nod to the other Craig films this all feels like Mendes et al attempting to smash them into the ground and prove why Spectre is better. Except Spectre isn’t better, it is markedly worse with a near complete lack of tension throughout; the constant call backs just highlight the gulf in quality between these films.
Casino Royale is also used as a spring-board for the romantic core of Spectre; the relationship between Vesper Lynd and Bond is frequently invoked, primarily in a failed attempt to demonstrate why new character Madeline Swann is really Bond’s true love (Bond even literally discards the memory of Vesper, via vhs tape, whilst in Swann’s presence at L’Americain). The first meeting between Vesper and Bond took place on a fancy train over drinks and it is heavily alluded to when Swanning and Bond have drinks on a fancy train. Except the former lovers meeting involved a level of witty conversation and character insight that is unmatched by anything on display in the equivalent Spectre scene or indeed this entire movie. Vesper was quickly established as Bond’s intellectual equal, with an aversion to, but acceptance of, the necessity of his violent methods, and also as having a tortured past of her own. Swann’s characterisation follows a similar path, but in a truly lifeless, by-the-numbers way that offers very little compelling depth. Rather than a slow unpeeling of the layers of Swann’s character and emotional core (as per the Vesper story approach) she announces her entire Mr White’s daughter backstory in one monologue and then simply changes character completely as the scene in question requires it – at L’Americain she is grieving, angry, and entirely uninterested in creepy James Bond, but as soon as they are on the train she is flirtatious and sexually interested (even before the adrenaline high of the fight with Hinx). At Blofeld’s really awful crater-base (an uninspired revival of the hidden villain base trope) she suddenly declares that she is in love with Bond (a mere two days after meeting him!), but by London she isn’t interested in living a life with him after all. More startling is the speed and depth of Bond’s feelings for Swann; she doesn’t challenge Bond intellectually like Vesper did, nor does she follow a sympathetic life path like Camille Montes (his semi-spy semi-partner from Quantum of Solace). In fact in all the screen time they share they seem to talk only about being and/or being related to spies and/or murderers so as a viewer I have no idea what has driven this instant love connection. Why is this ‘Bond girl’ different to any other given that there is literally nothing that distinguishes her character-wise?
Quite frankly it would have been far more interesting to have Monica Bellucci’s character Lucia emerging as Bond’s true love – she is from a similar world to him and knows how it works, they share more chemistry in their two scenes together than every Bond/Swann scene that follows, and she is much closer in age to Bond. This could have been a smart move that explores Bond coming to terms with his age and making a more mature choice as he drives off into the sunset.
The uneven characterisation of Swann, and her clear positioning as a plot point for Bond rather than a character really gave me the impression that something else might be in the wings for the finale of the film. Could Swann have been playing the long game, stringing Bond along throughout the movie changing her character to what the scene and Bond required so that he wouldn’t worry too much about her motives? Could she have actually been revealed to be a villain herself, surprising Bond with a stab to the guts and the heart on that bridge at the film’s end? Alas not, this is the one trick from the Casino Royale playbook that Mendes doesn’t reuse. Instead Swann just makes no sense as a character because that’s how she was written.
Spectre did what?
The film revels in highlighting Bond’s recent past, with several visual displays of the Craig villains Le Chiffre, Dominic Greene, and Silva. Blofeld goes on to explain why these guys have been brought up so frequently, it turns out that he and Spectre have actually orchestrated everything that has happened to Bond in & since Casino Royale. This is a huge problem both in concept and execution. First of all, tying all of the recent villains into the machinations of Spectre shrinks Bond’s world immeasurably – MI6 doesn’t fight against all kinds of global threats it literally just fights Blofeld and his petty family motives. Similarly it gives the impression that over the last 10 years Bond has only been on 3 missions,there is no sense that he does work between the movies, that he is constantly on guard protecting us all. I guess he’s just been doing the paperwork all this time. Secondly it invites a rather unfavourable comparison for Blofeld himself – all 3 of those villains, even Dominic Greene with his piercing eyes and cold demeanour, were more threatening and compelling than boring old windbag Blofeld. Basically Blofeld’s various lieutenants have infinitely more interesting schemes and encounters with Bond; so let’s just see those interesting stories instead please. Finally, and most frustratingly, the writing takes the absolute laziest route to tying these villains into a single story – we are simply told that Blofeld did it. He never explains how he was behind them, or how they factored into his grander plan, or what he did after Bond took them out. In fact, besides several mug shots (mostly cheap-looking stills from in-movie scenes), their presence is totally wasted. They are invoked in an attempt to shock and scare the audience (“look, those scary guys were being controlled by this guy so he must be even scarier!“), but it is a heartless cheat. Maybe they would have gotten away with it if they had included some flashbacks featuring the original actors being given orders by Blofeld or offering some information about their part in Spectre’s plans, but doing it this way just comes across as lazy, boring and dissatisfying.
Quantum vs Spectre
The other negative comparison invited by bringing up those previous villians, and the inclusion of Mr White (who here has the admittedly good villain name The Pale King), is that Spectre with it’s inert boardroom and stupid ill-defined planning is nowhere near as compelling an organisation as Quantum was. All we see of Spectre is that boardroom, which is pretty nondescript and a toothless threat (Bond easily escapes despite the fact that Spectre knew he was there!), other than that Spectre as an organisation basically IS Blofeld – and all he does is have a load of people in a desert doing what, using social media or something and watching curiously specific live feeds from Bond’s super dull MI6 office. Quantum meanwhile is presented as a coalition of influential individuals collaborating on hundreds of nefarious schemes at once. Bond doesn’t just walk into a boring meeting room, he becomes part of an epic opera, has to use intelligence to surveil Quantum’s members, and engages in one of the most dramatic and beautifully constructed action scenes in the franchise’s history after coming face to face with Greene. As a threat Quantum has many powerful heads and plans that neither Bond nor the audience can fathom; Spectre just announces itself and offers nothing of interest other than empty words (“we did a bad thing in country x“, “our bad thing plans are on schedule“, “bad things up 20% this quarter“). And this isn’t even to mention the astonishing opening to Quantum of Solace wherein Mr White’s threat that Quantum have people everywhere is immediately proven true when M’s bodyguard almost kills her. This instantly establishes the level of danger involved, whereas in Spectre we know Bond is magically invincible and apparently one bullet can blow up an entire Spectre facility in a super-cheesy 80’s explosion – there is no threat in Spectre at all.
Bond’s Seduction Technique is Intensely Uncomfortable & Sexually Threatening
After the distasteful and uninvited exploitation of a former victim of sexual violence in Skyfall Bond seems to have changed tact in his seduction of women – now the first thing he says to them, with an unbroken stare and a serious, ashen face, is that he is a murderer and that their husband/father is dead, possibly by his hand. He then leaves plenty of time for that to sink in BEFORE he tells them that he is a good guy and wants to protect them. Think about that for a moment, some guy turns up and tells you that he murders people and then he just stares at you for a bit. How insanely creepy is this behaviour! I guess I’ll sleep with him then.
Lighting and the Outfits
Perhaps the only redeeming features of the film are how nice it looks most of the time. The costume and set decorating departments have done some truly excellent work, especially in their efforts to capture a period feel. As has the lighting team; the train sequence is a particular highlight on all counts (and also features literally the only good action scene in the movie). Monica Belluci’s arrival at her assassin infested home is also a beautifully constructed moment (even if it does lead directly into more creepy-sex Bond).
Other fun things:
– Police in London will instantly arrive at the scene of a helicopter crash, but will put up police tape before helping victims out of the wreckage
– Pierce Brosnan left his speed boat under the ruined MI6 building for some reason
– What was Bond’s plan when he stole that plane to follow Hinx and the kidnapped Madeline Swann? Swann’s car is driving along a cliff top road and Bond attempts to shoot the driver through the window – if that shot had actually killed the driver then the car plummets to the bottom of the valley killing Swann, excellent work Bond.
– Spectre seems to have about 18 endings; wouldn’t it have been more interesting to have Blofeld at large with a desire to get revenge on Bond instead of a further 30 minutes of lifelessly running around London rehashing better bits of Skyfall?
– More than ever Bond really doesn’t care about collateral damage and it is distracting and upsetting. He is in a helicopter over a crowded square in Mexico City but will attack the pilot and almost crash it into the ground (and will also throw people out of the craft into the crowd below possibly killing innocent civilians); he flies a plane through some persons house whilst they might have been in it; he let’s buildings blow up in the street and walks off. Bond has always been a bit reckless but some of this stuff is sheer madness, as if he is willfully trying to kill innocent people. How are we supposed to root for a hero who behaves like this? Maybe Bond is the actual fucking bad guy.
– When Swann chastises Bond for letting Blofeld’s men follow him to her it actually seemed for the briefest moment like the movie might have had a smart scene planned where Bond admits that this indeed was the case and that he was using her as bait. Instead he really is just that stupid.
– The meta-gag about Bond not wanting a hand from Tanner off the boat was the funniest thing in the movie.
– Why would Q go into the field to bring Bond back rather than Moneypenny (or just calling him or whatever)? Also, why was Moneypenny totally sidelined by the movie as soon as it was revealed that she was seeing someone else – as if the film was on Bond’s side in thinking that she should be eternally available for his flirtation and objectification and as soon as she chooses to move on from him she is no longer worth spending time with.
– Wouldn’t an ending where M and C work together using the combined power of big data and old fashioned ground work to succeed have been more interesting than the guy who seemed like a villain from his first scene turning out to be a villain? Also, must every Bond film spend time exploring the idea that the 00 programme is obsolete and some new thing is better? What the hell was C going to do with all that surveillance data once he had it, presumably he would still need agents to go do the capturing/killing? Emails can’t arrest terrorists! It doesn’t make sense!
This isn’t so much a review as it is a collection of random thoughts and questions that I had whilst watching this perfectly adequate blockbuster, as such you’ll find spoilers for the entire plot throughout
First up, why must every contemporary spy action movie focus on the lead character going rogue from their intelligence agency? Or at least the agency goes rogue from them. I guess there is some drama to be had by having the support structure removed, but given that these characters are rubbing shoulders with mass murderers and terrorists whilst attempting to defuse world shattering plots is the fact that they will be getting a disciplinary back in the office when they’re done really of value? Not to mention the fact that this has been a major factor in all of the Daniel Craig Bond movies, all of the Mission Impossible movies, all of the Bourne movies, and is even a theme in stuff like Spy.
Solomon Lame – We are frequently told that arch-criminal, and champion villainous whisperer (besting even Eddie Redmayne circa Jupiter’s Ascending), Solomon Lane is the greatest enemy Hunt has ever faced. Allegedly his mastery of tradecraft is unrivalled, he is one step ahead at all times, and not even spy-god Ethan Hunt can beat him. The writers seem to think that they are constructing an intricate tale of two chess masters playing an incredible game, unfortunately we get to see none of this. There are no brilliant plots or surprise twists or exciting betrayals, instead we get Hunt coming up with intensely physical plans that rely more often than not on brute force and lucky coincidence. Sure, some minor planning goes into the action set-pieces, but this is often just a single scene where everyone finishes each others sentences. Think back to the cleverly set-up and executed train sequence in M:I1, every character was there and everything was played to perfection. Here it’s just Hunt vs mindless thugs at every turn then an anti-climatic outdoor dining experience and a brief foot chase through the London fog. Lane’s unimpressive speeches via Benji and his DOS remote bomb-suit activation OS leave a lot to be desired. Maybe the glass box finale was a neat visual, but really they could have just beaten that guy up (there were five of them in that room!)
What Nation, exactly? – The Rogue Nation of the title, this much vaunted anti-IMF, barely seems to exist in this movie. It felt like half of the film’s screen time is taken up showing countless mug shots of MIA/KIA international spy people. ‘Wow’ we say as we are told that the Syndicate is the best of the best and that it is fully capable of toppling states and destroying rivals. But they’re so inefficient that they need four assassination plots in place to kill one person (just cut straight to the car bomb guys!) Other than that they are entirely limited to standing around threateningly until they get whacked in the head. These guys are all supposed to be evil Ethan Hunt’s, but they do nothing. At all.
Ethan Hunt, The Messiah – What on Earth is with the hyped-up-this-man-is-our-savior dialogue in this movie? The film opens with some odd dialogue in another wise neat context: the Syndicate have hacked the IMF briefing system* all so they can melodramatically query Hunt’s desire to “Face [his] fate”. Ok, I guess that is just bad guys being hyperbolic bad guys, right? But later the good guy CIA director explains that “[Ethan Hunt] is destiny made manifest”. What?! I mean what does he even mean by that? Interestingly Hunt seems to believe all of the hype about himself as he never challenges any of it, no doubt thanks to the fact that Benji and Stickell repeatedly back up whatever nonsense he says without question.
*Is it weird that no one questions how the Syndicate managed to infiltrate and take over the IMF briefing system? Sort of seems like it might be a major security breach that ought to be investigated a little bit.
DO YOU SEE? – The scene when Ethan Hunt calmly manages to persuade his skeptical colleague that the best course of action is to kidnap the British Prime Minister and expose the world to the risks of a fully empowered Syndicate by using cold logic and rational argument was really great. WAIT. That didn’t happen! Instead Hunt clearly suffers a massive onscreen mental breakdown due to the above mentioned messiah complex and simply shouts “DO YOU SEE” at Brandt several times. Which apparently succeeds in convincing him for some reason.
Ethan Hunt, The Gambler – Throughout the film there are several characters who question Ethan Hunt’s brilliance, more specifically describing him (and the IMF ethos he embodies) as being wreckless, unstable, and dangerous. Of course we’re supposed to know better as Hunt is our hero and he has saved the world so often that he deserves to do whatever he wants, right? But here’s the thing, those naysayers are right, Ethan Hunt is a dangerously unpredictable and impossibly lucky human being who despite being hyper-capable still only seems to get the job done by sheer luck (glad that flag pole lasted long enough!). In this franchise how many times has he actually robbed the macguffin on behalf of the villains? It must be at least once per movie! Think about it, Ethan Hunt is actually the world’s greatest cat burglar and he ends up working for every villain in every movie. Then he has to go back and stop the bad guys using the super weapon he just gave them. Those are some crazy risks to be taking…on every single mission.
Intelligence Community FTW – By the end of the movie the IMF and Hunt are reinstated just as they were before (meaning they continue to operate “without oversight” of any kind). Seriously? After everything that is revealed regarding the abuse of powers in the intelligence community in this movie (not to mention in real life) this movie is still content to peddle the idea that an unaccountable spy agency is an absolute good? Sure, this is Hollywood nonsense and not a political treatise (although there are some strong positions taken on the necessity for merciless statecraft), but it sure seems strange to have every character who survives come around to the view point that this crazy guy who repeatedly gets lucky (“oh, here’s the trumpet gun”, “Oh there is that high speed motorcycle chase meandering past us again, I guess I’ll get involved”, “oh, here’s the correct Benji-gait-profile chip-card”) should have unquestioned power over international affairs.
Why isn’t Benji dead? – Benji’s arc for the entire movie is that he wants to be seen as a ‘field’ agent not just a tech guy; this is the primary reason that he ends up staying side by side with Hunt for much of the movie (I am guessing the mistaken assumption that these guys are hilarious together was also a factor in this decision). At several points though it becomes clear that whilst he may have the spirit of a field agent Benji just doesn’t have the capability. Ilsa’s boss suggests, and Ethan himself confirms, that a good spy should be willing to die for their country and its secrets. Hunt’s confirmation is given in the very scene in which Benji is taken hostage by the Syndicate and he becomes a massive liability for Hunt that puts the entire world in danger. It surely makes sense that for Benji to complete his journey to becoming a legitimate field agent he either manages to effect his own escape, or he sacrifices himself to protect his country, his secrets, and his friends. After all, Ethan just explained that this is what a true secret agent ought to be willing to do. Instead Benji does literally nothing but squeal and wait for rescue. (I can’t help but wonder how differently things might have gone if Jeremy Renner’s actual field agent Brandt, another impossibly-capable human, had have been out there alongside Hunt instead of Benji – Solomon wouldn’t have stood a chance)
Sundry Questions –
– How did Ilsa know where the glass-box-finale was taking place at the end of the movie (seeing as how she and Hunt got separated on the run)?
– Ilsa is clearly Ethan’s equal, why does she or Lane even need his help? Sorry I forgot, Ethan is destiny made manifest!
– If the Syndicate rival the IMF in terms of ability why don’t they just steal the red box themselves, and also kidnap the British Prime Minister (they wouldn’t even need to keep him alive)?
– So Solomon showed his face to Hunt at the start to ensure that he would chase him to the ends of the Earth (and inflict a bit of man-pain it seems), right, but hadn’t Hunt been on his case for over a year already? You’d have thought he would be sufficiently invested by this point.
Kingsman was, to me, a pretty average spy action adventure that simultaneously lampoons Bond movies whilst acting both inadvisably superior and far less tasteful (less tasteful than ‘classic’ James Bond films, I literally didn’t think that was possible until now). The film is not a failure, co-leads Colin Firth and Taron Egerton are on great form throughout and there is some good comedy sprinkled around, but the culmination of questionable decisions, problematic dialogue, and dark antics left me feeling quite cold towards the picture. Amongst the few nice moments and odd spark of smart dialogue, there is some ok action (Vaughan is criminally overrated as an action director in my opinion), and more than a couple of very poor choices. Below are some of my lasting negative impressions:
Problems with Representation –
At the outset of the film each existing Kingsman is allowed to suggest a new recruit to replace a recent loss. Setting aside for now the fact that all of the existing Kingsmen are to a man white middle-aged males it was a disappointing but not unpredictable moment when the potential recruits were all young rich white men, with the exception of one young rich white woman (the other female candidate was a plant not a genuine recruit) and one poor white man. I suspect that this stems entirely from the perceived need for our plucky lead Eggsy (what an awful name) to be the clear ‘outsider’, but this doesn’t excuse including other female or POC characters amongst the snobbish ‘antagonistic’ recruits in any way. Similarly both female recruits are shown to be sweet and kind natured as opposed to the pretentious bullying men – again this smacks of transparent and poor screenwriting; one female character has to be a reasonable human being because she is the franchise love interest and the other gets one line of dialogue to prove she is ‘nice’ so we will be sad when she ‘dies’ as part of the training exercise. Again though, why aren’t there more women in the ‘bad’ recruits, after all they are not ‘baddies’, just minor obstacles for Eggsy to overcome, and they must all have a degree of ‘good’ in them or else they wouldn’t be in the running to join the heroic Kingsmen, right? It seems that the only reason that the privileged Oxbridge bullies are all white males is that Matthew Vaughan and Jane Goldman felt like the easiest way to get an audience to quickly understand that the supporting recruit characters are snobbish types was to rely on racist stereotyping. This is just lazy writing, lazy casting, and frankly offensive film-making. Speaking of which, why are the villains the only important POC characters? One of Eggsy’s friends is black, but he and the other friend are utterly inconsequential characters. I think the intention with the Kingsmen was to show that they are all superficially the same as Colin Firth’s Harry, but that Harry is actually an awesome equal-opportunities guy under the surface. This would be a mirror to Eggsy’s situation – on the surface they are all handsome young white guys (mostly), but under the surface Eggsy has heart. Except yeah, that means all of everyone in the movie is white and male, and that is just nonsense. There are better ways to tell this story.
Problems with Class –
What was the moral here again, that no matter what social strata you emerge from you can rise above it all do the right thing. Provided you are given a superficial makeover and super-training by a rich white billionaire man, right? The message in this film is so confused. Eggsy, and his father before him, are supposed to prove that it’s not just the privileged who can do the right thing and save the world, but the film also goes to great lengths to let you know that it’s only if the existing elite (the Kingsmen) allow them to (when it looks like Eggsy is out of the Kingsmen all seems lost – he has to return to his awful ‘poor’ life never to escape again!). I guess the message is that given the same opportunities anyone can become a hero then? But that ‘fun’ little cockney voice that Michael Caine’s Arthur (leader of the Kingsmen and all-round traitor) slips into as he dies, well that just goes to prove that no matter how high you rise, if you come from the lower classes you’ll always be lower class, and will probably sell out everyone who was loyal to you. And then there is the Harry problem. Harry is the rich entitled mirror to Eggsy’s depressing opportunity-less universe. Harry is from the upper class but he’s not one of them, he isn’t as selfish or pretentious or judgemental as his Kingsmen buddies. So if Harry represents the unique ‘good’ upper-class man, does Eggsy represent the one ‘good’ lower-class man? And if so, I guess Vaughan thinks everyone is a scumbag except those two guys.
The Kingsmen are Jerks –
They are smug, self indulgent, stupidly insular with their findings, and dangerously naïve. And these are our heroes? With knowledge of impending world disaster this non-democratic self-empowered organisation of ‘gentlemen’ doesn’t share information with the governments of the world, no instead they carry out three failed missions that results in the deaths of two agents and a key witness. First of all, even if our governments and their intelligence agencies are failures to some degree it seems odd to pointedly suggest that a group of billionaire vigilantes are somehow a superior mechanism for fighting international terrorism – our governments are elected and ostensibly work on our behalf, who the hell knows why the Kingsmen do what they do (a point emphasised by Arthur’s betrayal). Yes, this is basically a science fiction fantasy film, but there are some efforts to ground the politics of the Kingsmen in reality (the class divide and social commentary for instance). Their training methods are mean-spirited and their members are mostly bland automatons – how are we supposed to root for these guys? Well, we’re not, right, we’re supposed to root for Harry and Eggsy and Merlin and maybe Roxy too. Which is weird then, because the movie purports to be about the modern knights of the roundtable meets James Bond-style espionage adventure, but Bond films mostly don’t raise the stakes by adding MI6 to the list of bad guys.
Problems with Taste –
Before seeing the movie I heard a lot about the so-called ‘amazing’ church action scene, and to be fair it is very well choreographed. Unfortunately it is only an excuse for Vaughan to revel in tasteless ultra-violence. This ‘epic’, ‘too-good-to-miss’ action scene was actually a five-minute rampage where our ‘hero’ murders a church full of untrained innocent civilians. What? Don’t worry though because they are all established as racists beforehand so it is ok to murder them all and enjoy it. The nature of the scene is that this is the work of the villainous Valentine (played with absolute averageness by Samuel L. Jackson), so we should be shocked an appalled then – this is the terrorist weapon that will destroy the world. And yet, this isn’t shot like objectionable and horrific massacre it is, instead it is shot like a cool action scene – Vaughan’s message purports to be that this scene is A Clockwork Orange, but he has actually given us The Matrix. And then there are just graphic murders and dismemberments all over the place, and I’m not sure why.
Oh, and finally there is that ‘joke’. The other thing I heard a lot about before seeing the movie was the presence of a joke in the final act that pushes the boundaries of taste. The joke in question (one of the villains prisoners offering a particular sex act to Eggsy if he saves the world) was indeed awful. But what I found doubly awful was the fact that Eggsy, our protagonist, actually expects the act and goes to claim his sexual reward as soon as he does save the world. This woman has been imprisoned against her will for weeks, she has been the victim of a form of abuse, has witnessed her bodyguards being brutally murdered, and her life has been consistently threatened; how is it remotely acceptable that the hero of the movie doesn’t even free any of the other prisoners, and instead keeps this woman in her cell where he expects his ‘favours’. It is all played as a fun dénouement after a job well done (Mark Strong’s Merlin even sits back in his chair for a nice relax, again before any of the prisoners are released), but this is actually sheer awfulness. It isn’t harmless fun, it’s actually pretty damn dark.
I am a big fan of Michael Mann, even many of his lesser and derided works, like Miami Vice, play well to me. He has a wonderful eye for urban and man-made landscapes and he works with his cinematographers to capture cities in a frankly stunning way. His action is often loud, frenetic, brutal, and confusing, just like real life (I imagine), and he works hard to make the steel and glass and artificial lights of our unnatural environments into a beautiful canvas on which the human drama is painted. He makes crime dramas that are at once sweeping epic tales and also intimate character studies. Blackhat falls right in my, rather niche, wheel house as a slow burning urban technological crime procedural picture, and it even touches on subject matter that intrigues me like stock market manipulation and post-9/11 surveillance culture. And yet, even though I did ultimately enjoy Blackhat there were a number of issues that I had with the film.
This is not really a review, as I say above I did actually enjoy the film (an impression you won’t get from the below). Rather this is just a collection of random things that seemed inexplicable to me as I watched this movie:
Casting Nick Hathaway – Chris Hemsworth is a huge man. The reason that this is a problem is that much of the movie is built around the premise that Hathaway is under some degree of physical threat, whether that is by being in prison or by his government handlers or the villainous agents of the blackhat. There was not a scene where this seemed to be realistic though; Hemsworth looked like he could demolish everyone else in the movie at any time, which alleviates some of the tension. And then there were scenes like the prison interview that Hemsworth played as though he was in an 80’s Stallone movie, or the Korean restaurant fight that was supposed to play as a shocking and visceral surprise (it was well shot), but instead played like a Jason Bourne movie – like Lien, the audience should have been completely surprised by the violence and capability Hathaway displayed here, but it just seemed like an action movie inevitability because we all knew Hemsworth can fight anyone on Earth and win. During the earlier gun fight with Kassar’s team it just became a waiting game until Hemsworth picked up a gun, he looked wrong without one in his hands and that was not how it should have felt in that scene (Hathaway should have been scared and nervous not eager). Like wise the final act, where I was extremely unworried about Hathaway; perhaps a less stacked actor may have made me feel more concerned. If someone like Joseph Gordon Levitt or Jake Gyllenhaal or Emily Blunt had have played this role then we could be looking at a much more successful movie – they are all believably fragile and can surprise with sudden violence and physicality.
Lien’s Agency and Emotional Freedom – So her lover, Hathaway, and her brother, Dawai, are the only ones who get to decide what Lien does and who she falls in love with? “she’s not interested” says Dawai on behalf of Lien to a potential suitor. “Fuck off” I say to Dawai.
The Wires, the CPU’s, and the CGI – Did Michael Mann just find out about computers? Or did he just get finished re-watching Sandra Bullock’s 1995 ‘cyber-classic’ The Net? Because the several ‘inside the computer’ sequences were not just overly long and mind-numbingly elaborate, they were also completely out-of-place in a contemporary thriller about cyber crime. Honestly, they feel like they are from the early 90’s. See also the Blackhat title card/logo.
ADR Much? – When there are so many scenes of incredible realism and technical brilliance in this film it utterly baffles me how the dialogue dubbing could be so bad so often. There are many moments where the characters clearly speak different lines in the scene to those that we hear, or where the dialogue is obviously edited together from multiple takes. And this goes for literally every actor in this movie, whether they are speaking Chinese or English.
Sound Design – What was going on with the general sound design in this picture? There were scenes where it sounded like people were hitting the keys on their keyboards with a hammer, it was just so off-puttingly loud. In fact the sound levels for many audio effects seemed very strange or incomplete throughout the film. It may simply have been poor audio equipment at the theatre I visited, but that doesn’t really explain why there were moments where someone’s dialogue would get REALLY LOUD in the middle of a sentence for no reason.
The Team Get Ended – Until their various deaths, the team (Barrett, Jessup, and Dawai) were easily the most interesting characters in this movie. Dawai was the initial protagonist, we followed him as he recruited two other characters and established the team with a third. He also offered a unique viewpoint on the Chinese setting for much of the movie as a Chinese official who studied extensively in America. Barrett offered conflict with the Chinese authorities, as well as with her own boss, and her backstory was just getting going. Even Jessup was able to provide an interesting viewpoint on the action as someone who wants to follow orders, but also wants to get the job done (and his respect for the murdered Hong Kong cop was nice to see). Killing them all off simultaneously so as to turn the picture into a more typical Ethan Hunt adventure feels like a tired and mean-spirited move. For me this was the biggest mistake in the movie, I wanted to see this team work together, go to Jakarta, and save the day. We deserved to see how these characters progressed through their various arcs. Compare the handling of this team to how effective Mann was at using the police and criminal teams throughout Heat, and even though he was still able to bring the conclusion of that movie down to a one on one finale, it felt like the team element was still important. I will concede that following the muder-event Hathaway and Lien do become far more interesting and the final act was quite strong, but that doesn’t stop me being disappointed by the unnecessary carnage.
Elysium? – During the post-team-massacre scene on the aeroplane I was struck by the familiarity of the soundtrack. An incredible piece from Ryan Amon’s Elysium score plays, essentially unchanged, and whilst it works very well with the scene it was quite distracting. Apparently there were some behind the scenes issues with the score and Mann used very little of what his original composer, Harry Gregson-Williams, put together. Amon and others filled out the score, which is all well and good, but it is very surprising to me to see a wholesale re-implementation of another film’s score.
The Core Plot – This I liked, a lot. Following an international team tracking a cyber criminal across the world in a thrilling but (relatively) technically realistic fashion is an appealing prospect, and one that ultimately this film does deliver on. There are tense moments and some good set pieces. The cast all put in perfectly good performances, and whilst the dialogue is often a bit flat (with some weirdly structured scenes that seem to be waiting for the delivery of a snappy one liner nobody ended up writing), it does all come together in an interesting and exciting way. But that’s just for me; I have no problem believing the vast majority of audiences will get very little out of this movie.