Thursday, 17 November 2016

Jack Reacher – Never Go Back

Tom Cruise has been an action star ever since the 90s at the very least. As such, he had something of a dip in his career in the 2000’s, probably mostly for personal reasons, but also because the action film in general has been in something of a crisis over the last decade. Today, things are looking up again and in no small part due to Cruise’s partnerships with Doug Liman and Christopher McQuarrie, with whom he has consistently delivered strong action fare ranging from the first “Jack Reacher” to “Mission Impossible 6: Rogue Nation”. They are so good together, over the next years, we can expect another four collaborations to hit our screens. The sequel to “Jack Reacher”, sadly, doesn’t see McQuarrie return to either direct or write, and it shows.

“Never Go Back” sees Reacher reconnecting with his past as he goes back to Washington D.C. and on the way, strikes up a tentative relationship with Major Turner, who is now doing his old job, over the phone. Things get complicated when he arrives and finds Major Turner in custody for espionage. As he is trying to investigate, he also meets a young teenager who might be his daughter. Director Edward Zwick has worked with Cruise before on “The Last Samurai”, but the partnership is not nearly as fruitful as the ones described above. That is not to say that “Never Go Back” is completely without merit, it’s certainly an entertaining movie for the most part, but it falls short on so many counts, it’s infuriating. But before we get to that, some praise.

The action is handled quite well. It’s mostly hand-to-hand combat, which is shot well, especially when Reacher and Cobie Smulders’ Major Turner have to work together. Reacher, Turner and the sinister operative that is on their heels are all very capable, and especially Smulders proves that between this and Maria Hill in the Avengers franchise, she can absolutely sell an action scene. The violence is also not softened up too much, so when people get hit, the audience feels it.

The setting and the conflict it represents for Reacher is also very intriguing, but here the film falls flat because it tries to do too much for one film. In the original film, we met Jack Reacher, an intriguing character, who presents an interesting spin on the original conception of John Rambo, the veteran who found that upon returning from war, he didn’t fit in with society anymore. So, Reacher steps out of it completely. He is a vagabond who isn’t tied down by anything or anyone. The second intriguing aspect is that Reacher didn’t just finish his tour of duty, he left the army by his own volition, and we don’t know exactly why.

 The film wants to challenge Reacher on every aspect of this at the same time. Not only does Reacher start the film flirting with Major Turner, a possibly lasting human connection, who is also working in his former job as an MP, a connection to his days with the army, it also gives him a possible daughter in Samantha, not just a possible connection, but an obligation, which he clearly feels. I found myself plotting out how these questions could better be confronted over the course of two sequels, rather than one. The short version: The daughter must go.

This would also free up some screen-time for Patrick Heusinger to develop the antagonist a bit more and Aldis Hodge, who plays Captain Espin, an MP who holds a grudge against Reacher from his days in the military. Every single supporting character in this film presents a great opportunity to interrogate Reacher’s character further, but none of them does so in any significant way. This is most annoying when Major Turner doesn’t push back against him. Turner should have been a version of Reacher who stayed in the military and wants to go back (something Reacher can never do, as the title reminds us). However, one of the first conversations they have in person has her explicitly stating her sympathy with his point of view, and the script never brings her back from that.

Major Turner is also the awkward centre of an attempt to deliver on the obvious desire for stronger female characters in action cinema. We have seen so many great ones in the last few years, two of those opposite Tom Cruise in “Edge of Tomorrow” and “Rogue Nation”. However, “Never Go Back” stumbles by giving her an awkward speech about the sexism she has encountered in her career, only to be steamrolled by Reacher within seconds. It’s especially infuriating because for a lot of it, the film is on the right path. Turner is capable, layered and while there is a romantic streak to her relationship with Reacher, she is not defined by it. Regrettably, the script doesn’t manage to keep the focus on those aspects and in the end, this turns out to be just one more aspect where the writer put the foundation for greatness into place and then chose to build somewhere else.

Ultimately, “Never Go Back” still works as an entertaining two hours at the cinema, but even in a relatively weak year for cinema, this still falls through the cracks. I was excited for it, but we have seen so much better in the last few years.

Saturday, 5 November 2016

Doctor Strange

Director Scott Derrickson claimed during the promotion for the latest entry to the Marvel Cinematic Universe that he had put things on screen that had never been seen like that before. It’s a bold claim to make, especially since we have at least seen traces of what was to come in “Matrix” and “Inception”. Unquestionably though, “Doctor Strange” is a visual spectacle that is up there with the most inventive that the silver screen has had to offer in the last decades. But does the rest of the film hold up as well?

Benedict Cumberbatch plays Doctor Stephen Strange, the arrogant surgeon, whose stellar career ends abruptly when a car accident leaves him with nerve damage in his hands. Robbed of the tools of his trade, he begins a journey to find healing which leads him to Kamar-Taj, refuge of the Ancient One, played by Tilda Swinton. Here, he aims to learn the magic arts to heal himself and reclaim his old life, but he is pulled into the fight against Mads Mikkelsen’s Kaecilius, a zealot who poses a threat to earth against which the Avengers are helpless.

The cast is stellar. When Benedict Cumberbatch was cast, I was at the height of Cumber-fatigue, annoyed by his over-exposure and a completely undeserved Academy Award nomination for “The Imitation Game” (God how I hate that film…), but I’ve had time to calm down and he does a great job (as he has always done, I would never dispute his talent). In the opening minutes, he tracks Strange’s descent into a dark place. With the possible exception of Tony Starks paranoia from “Iron Man 3” onwards, it’s probably the darkest any of Marvel’s heroes has gotten, and Cumberbatch does it in twenty minutes of screen time. In terms of establishing his character, the first twenty minutes of “Doctor Strange” are amazing. It seeds aspects of his character visually that pay off later when we do not need dialogue to stress the meaning of certain aspects of his character, but more on that later. From there on, his arc becomes one of letting go of his selfish nature, on which the film continually challenges him, constantly questioning his motivations. It is an amazingly rewarding performance to watch and Cumberbatch gives Strange a degree of depth that arguably some of Marvel’s heroes have not reached after several films (A certain Asgardian warrior comes to mind, as much as I love him).

The most brilliant piece of casting however is Tilda Swinton as the Ancient One. When her casting was announced, well-meaning but misguided forces on the internet were screaming white-washing, just as they did when it turned out that the MCU’s Mandarin was not a moustache-twirling Chinese man. What they failed to realize was that both the Mandarin and the Ancient One are characters rooted in stereotypical and reductive depictions of oriental “others” that we should either avoid or challenge. There is a pragmatic argument for this, which is that Marvel doesn’t want to offend one of its biggest markets, China, which is why the Ancient One, economically, could never have been Nepalese, as he is in the comics. However, throughout the MCU, there is also a growing effort to include more diversity which is not economically motivated.

The Casting of Tilda Swinton not only sidesteps that; it also gives the role to an incredible actress. She takes the challenge of the role, which is not only rooted in racial, but also narrative, stereotypes, and complicates it. The film dedicates almost as much time to Strange learning from her as it spends on him questioning her authority and teachings, and it encourages that. To say too much here would be considered a spoiler. Suffice it to say, Swinton takes the Sorceress Supreme and takes her to new and interesting places.

Mads Mikkelsen’s Kaecilius has been dismissed by many as the usual case of a Marvel villain who is functional but barely more than that. While in general I can’t completely disprove this, I would still argue that he is above average in the MCU and with a few minor tweaks would legitimately count as a great villain. As it is, he fits in perfectly with the philosophy of the film and asks exactly the right questions. He is a man who stood in the same place as Strange does now and took a different turn, which always makes for an intriguing antagonist and Mads Mikkelsen has a hypnotic charm whenever he is on screen. What holds him back the most is that during Strange’s magical education, certain rules are not stated clearly enough, which robs some of Kaecilius transgressions against those rules of impact. A slightly different edit of this film might have seen a much more threatening Kaecilius.

Rachel McAdams and Chiwetel Ejiofor shine in the smaller supporting roles. The task of a supporting character is to provide contrast to the main character so the audience can learn something new about them. Early in the film, McAdams does great work in filling in the past her character Christine Palmer shares with Strange. She plays brilliantly against Cumberbatch and his amazingly quick characterization of Strange in the beginning of the film is only possible because he can act off McAdams. Sadly, her character then vanishes from the film for large sections, but when she comes back, it’s extremely entertaining to watch her have the weirdest day of her life. Still, I hope that she gets more to do in the inevitable sequel, especially since she would be great as the audience surrogate who has no idea of magic.

At about the same time McAdams moves out of the spotlight, Ejiofor enters. He plays Baron Mordo, a student of the Ancient One, and soon a friend and teacher to Strange. His sincerity and strictness provide great contrast to Cumberbatch’s questioning of rules and practices. Once again, the script manages to provide great depth with very little dialogue. The relationship Mordo and Strange share is fascinating and bound to become only more so in future instalments.

In general, I loved the writing in this film. Apart from one ill-judged reference to the wider MCU towards the end, it is excellent and full of subtleties that only begin to shine upon re-watching the film. There is a particularly brilliant dialogue between Doctor Strange and the Ancient One in their astral forms, which achieves intricate developments for both characters at the same time. The movie also resists the temptation to over-explain. It keeps the magic vague enough to stay intriguing, while at the same time explaining enough to not be too confusing. The only time I would have wished for a bit more explicit explanation relates to one of Kaecilius acts of magic and has already been mentioned above.

Finally, it’s time to talk at length about the visuals of this film. Steve Ditko’s psychedelic style that has been a staple of Doctor Strange in the comics since his creation leaps from the page in this adaptation. Whether Strange is tumbling through different dimensions, Kaecilius is folding reality in on itself or the sorcerers are simply conjuring up weapons to fight each other, the visuals are breath-taking. Derrickson embraces the soft circular lines and kaleidoscopic imagery that characterizes the comics and lets these define the visual language of his film, even when magic is not involved.

And to be honest, this maybe even impressed me more than the big visual spectacle. The MCU films have always been competently directed, but often visually speaking quite conservative, possibly a result of Marvel often hiring TV directors who are used to working within a framework set by others and not deviating too much from the established style. Derrickson however approaches “Doctor Strange” by setting up clear visual motifs for the things that are important to his characters. We focus early on Strange’s hands, the way he uses them to do his job as a neurosurgeon. This not only prepares us to feel his loss after the accident without expending dialogue until it is needed, it also paves the way for the intricate gestures involved in performing magic later.

The other major theme is time. From the beginning, time is presented as something important to Strange, something he is always acutely aware of, be it the year a record came out or the time he has until a patient suffers irreversible nerve damage. He has a whole drawer dedicated to his expensive watches, neatly spinning, tying in that circular motif I mentioned above. While the focus on his hands pays off almost immediately, his relationship to time is more of a slow burn, but it becomes increasingly important as the film goes on.

However, time is also where I would place one of the few flaws of the film. The film is paced very tightly, it never gets boring, but in the effort to keep the film moving, some opportunities may have been squandered. During the time we spend with Strange, a few more scenes with Kaecilius would not have hurt the film and increased his impact. Also, for a film that is so obsessed with time, the actual amount of time that goes by is not communicated very clearly. It should be at least one or two years, and nothing contradicts that, but it’s also not made explicit, the only reference being a vague “after all this time” from McAdams when Strange re-enters her life. It would have been great to feel that time a bit more, especially as it gives opportunity to elaborate on looming danger of Kaecilius, who could strike at any time. Because when he strikes, it happens fast and unrelentingly. An opportunity to build more tension was lost here. Apart from this, the film has been criticized for not always landing its jokes. I did not have that experience, as the audiences I saw the film with responded well to the humour, which is a great mixture of dialogue and visual jokes. Finally, the film boasts two post credits scenes, but for the first time, I would actually recommend leaving after the first one, since I believe that the second one overreaches in its foreshadowing of future events and makes a leap with one of the characters that might best be experienced as part of the sequel, especially for people who are not acquainted with the source material.

Overall, I’m amazed by how much I loved this film. It was always going to be a visual spectacle, and Marvel always guarantees a certain level of quality. However, the filmmaking on display here goes above and beyond that. Marvel is setting up the future of their Universe beyond the big throw-down with Thanos in Infinity War and Doctor Strange might just prove to be the linchpin for that in the same way Tony Stark has been so far. Benedict Cumberbatch certainly seems up for it and I hope that Marvel invite Derrickson back to play with their toys as well.