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When Krzysztof Kieslowski died in 1996, cinema lost one of its true masters. From his groundbreaking early documentaries and features, throughout his magnificent [i]Dekalog[/i] and up to his celebrated [i]The Double Life of Veronique[/i] and [i]The Three Colours Trilogy[/i], this Polish filmmaker was simply on another level to his contemporaries. He developed and explored number of themes and ideas throughout his career and [i]The Three Colours Trilogy[/i] is the perfect summation of his life's work.
Three films set (predominately) in three different cities named after the three colours which adorn the French flag. [i]Blue[/i], [i]White[/i] and [i]Red[/i] loosely explore the ideas behind the French revolution(Liberty, Equality and Fraternity), but Kieslowski's main interest lies elsewhere. Kieslowski always delighted in examining the minutiae of human relationships and finding beauty in the everyday banality of life. And it's here that [i]Three Colours[/i] succeeds brilliantly.
[i]Blue[/i] stars Juliette Binoche as Julie, a composer's wife. When her husband and daughter are killed in a car crash, a crash she survives, Julie awakes in a hospital bed alone and devastated. Her first reaction is to try and take her own life but when her suicide attempt is foiled, Julie withdraws and tries to start again, as far away from her old life as possible. But finding freedom is not so easy, life keeps poking through the cracks. Figures from her past continue to seek her out and she is tortured by thoughts of her late husband's infidelity. Worst of all, however, is the prominence of her husband's music; Julie cannot escape the sounds in her head.
Kieslowski's incredible drama is a delicate and moving study of grief and loss which is anchored by Juliette Binoche's finest performance to date. She's absolutely electrifying as the grieving Julie and Kieslowski's direction focuses on tiny details - The melting sugar cube, the scraping knuckles, the reflection in Julie's eyeball - to place us firmly in her mindset. As in the subsequent films, the use of the title colour is essential to [i]Blue[/i]'s success. Aided by Slawomir Idziak's exceptional cinematography, Kieslowski infuses the colour blue with deep significance and creates some spectacular images around such everyday items as a swimming pool or chandelier, as well as the glorious flash of colour which occasionally fills the screen alongside Zbigniew Preisner's score. A film to make your heart swell and break, how on earth was Kieslowski going to follow this?
After the emotional intensity of [i]Blue[/i], Kieslowski ran the risk of his follow-up seeming rather flat or slight in comparison. [i]White[/i] is certainly a change of pace, a welcome one in fact, being a sly black comedy which tells the tale of Karol(Zbigniew Zamachowski), a Pole living in Paris who's being divorced by the beautiful Dominique(Julie Delpy) for failing to consummate their marriage. Alone and penniless, Karol leaves for Poland and, in his newly capitalist homeland, carves out a career as a successful businessman. But he still can't forgive Dominique for his humiliation and begins to plot his revenge.
This is a smart, often absurd and very funny film which daringly mixes tones and emotions while Kieslowski employs a deadpan directing style and uses images of white to reinforce his theme of equality; suggesting that equality is unattainable, people will always want to be "more equal" than others. Zamachowski gives a delightfully nuanced and subtle comic performance in the lead role while Delpy plays the calculating Dominique to perfection. At heart, [i]White[/i] remains a love story and achieves a considerable emotional force at the climax, making it just as satisfying as [i]Blue[/i] in a very different way. Kieslowski, however, still had his ace up his sleeve.
One of the single greatest films ever made and the perfect conclusion to the trilogy, [i]Red[/i] is a wonderful achievement. Irene Jacob is Valentine, a model living in Geneva who hits a dog while driving her car one night, the first of many escalating accidents in the film. She takes the dog to the address on its collar, a dark and imposing house, and finds the owner huddled over a radio, listening in on his neighbour's phone calls. The behaviour of this retired Judge(Jean-Louis Trintignant) disgusts Valentin, but she is oddly drawn to him also. Slowly, the judge lets his defences down and begins to tell her his story, a story of lost love, which has strange parallels with Valentin's own life.
Masterful in his development of mood and atmosphere, Kieslowski has created a near-flawless piece of work that resonates long after the credits roll. It's a haunting, mysterious and powerful film which explores notions of love and humanity, destiny and chance. This is also the finest example of Kieslowski's ability to make a simple colour contain infinite meanings, the colour red bleeds from every frame and at times the film seems almost radioactive. Kieslowski's film is gripping from first frame to last, where he closes the trilogy with a climax which brings together the characters from all three installments. It's an audacious move, but an extremely satisfying one, and the final shot of this magisterial trilogy is one of the finest ever committed to celluloid.
There was once talk of Kieslowski having another trilogy in the works, entitled [i]Heaven[/i], [i]Hell[/i] and [i]Purgatory[/i],( Kieslowski's original screenplay for [i]Heaven[/i] was made by Tom Tykwer in 2002), but whether or not Kieslowski ever intended to direct these films is something we'll never know. He announced his retirement from filmmaking at the Cannes premiere of [i]Red[/i] and died two years later. Maybe he had already anticipated his impending health problems and decided to quit while he was ahead. Or maybe, after creating one of the most incredible bodies of work in cinema, he felt there was simply nothing more to say.
At the time of year when the majority of films are more concerned with dazzling the eyeballs than engaging the heart, it might be the perfect moment to contemplate a film which pulls off the seemingly difficult task of doing the simple things well. Stephane Brizé's [i]Not Here to be Loved[/i] is a film which doesn't try to break any new ground or do anything out of the ordinary, and yet it remains a perfectly pleasurable way to spend 90 minutes. The story is old hat cinematically - the tale of a stuffy, middle-aged man who finds a new lease of life when he enrols in a dance class - and it's a story which has already been told twice on screen relatively recently, in Masayuki Suo?s [i]Shall we Dance[/i] and in the Richard Gere-starring remake of the same name. But [i]Not Here to be Loved[/i] works not because of the story it tells, but through the manner in which that story is told.
The man at the centre of this narrative is Jean-Claude Delsart (Patrick Chesnais), a Parisian bailiff on the wrong side of 50. He is trapped in an unsatisfying job, he lives alone since his divorce, and even small talk among his colleagues - including his own son (Cyril Couton) - at the office is an unbearable ordeal. Every weekend Jean-Claude makes the trip to his father's rest home to keep the old man (a fantastic Georges Wilson) company, but he receives little thanks for his efforts from this grumpy and petulant figure. This is a man trapped in a rut and only going downwards, but after his doctor prescribes exercise for Jean-Claude's heart he finally decides to visit the dance class across the street which he has been covertly watching from his office.
His first lesson is comically awkward, of course, but Jean-Claude does bump into the beautiful Françoise (Anne Consigny). She recognises him from the past - his mother used to be her nanny - and as the pair reminisce an affection quickly grows between them. But Françoise is taking the class in preparation for her upcoming nuptials, to terminally blocked novelist Thierry (Lionel Abelanski), and the conflicting emotions which she feels are mirrored by Jean-Claude, who must decide whether to break the habit of a lifetime and declare his feelings for his younger dance partner.
This is well-trodden ground, but the steps Brizé takes in telling this story make it feel a little fresher than you might expect. The director has a deft, easygoing style. His static camera captures the banality of Jean-Claude's everyday existence, trudging dutifully up and down stairs to issue eviction notices, and quietly absorbing the insults they inevitably hurl his way. The grey and stultifying nature of his workplace is emphasised by Brizé's straightforward compositions, and this approach allows the director to gradually free up the camera as his protagonist enters the world of dance. His film becomes somewhat bolder in tune with Jean-Claude's growing confidence, and the excellent music helps to shape the picture as it progresses.
The progression of the film's central relationship is also a delight to behold, with both of the leads being perfectly cast. Chesnais' humble, charmingly downbeat performance is a wonderfully subtle display of acting. He is minimalist yet expressive, and he charts his character's development in gradual, perfectly-judged shades. He also has a tangible chemistry with his co-star, the lovely Anne Consigny, whose open and optimistic demeanour contrasts sharply with that of Chesnais. Like Jean-Claude, Françoise is trapped by circumstance, her pushy mother and sister having completely taken over the preparations for the wedding, and the actress captures her confused emotions beautifully. When Jean-Claude and Françoise dance together, it is a chance for both to break free from the ties that bind, allowing them to let go of the worries and pressures which have made their lives so stifling.
[i]Not Here to be Loved[/i] is full of wonderful individual scenes - Jean-Claude's comical attempt to buy perfume for Françoise, his father's truculent behaviour during a game of monopoly, and a lovely sequence in which the whole class goes to watch a professional performance, although Jean-Claude can't take his eyes off Françoise sitting a few rows ahead. These scenes are perfectly handled, but Brizé's firm grip on the film's emotional register never allows the picture to build up a head of steam, resulting in a film which is affecting only up to a point. The strand of the film concerning Jean-Claude's fractious relationship with his father is exceptionally written and acted, but it never quite delivers the emotional impact we're looking for, and the way Brizé wraps up this part of the narrative feels a little too neat.
[i]Not Here to be Loved[/i] might fail to really hit the desired emotional peak right at the climax, but it still manages to leave the viewer with a warm sense of satisfaction; the satisfaction which comes from watching a simple story being told in a professional, engaging way. Stephane Brizé, in only his second feature, has skilfully delivered a film which is rich in character and detail, a film which constantly holds the viewers' attention as is details the efforts of two ordinary people trying to somehow give their lives meaning and purpose. This modest French effort isn't a great film, but it is a simple film made with a sense of maturity, intelligence and heart. Often, that's all you need.
[b]Molière [/b] A title like [i]Molière[/i] tends to come burdened with certain expectations. Think of any recent feature which has taken its subject's name as the title - [i]Capote[/i], [i]Kinsey[/i], [i]Pollock [/i]- and you'll generally find a very serious-minded picture which focuses on the facts as it tries to explore the life of a famous figure. Laurent Tirard's fanciful treatment of the great French playwright's life is nothing of the sort, though. Instead of detailing every event in Jean-Baptiste Poquelin's story in the standard manner, Tirard mostly focuses his attention on a specific period which has long been a matter of dispute among historians and biographers. At the age of 22 Molière was a struggling dramatic actor, whose loyal troupe was crippled by debts, and his financial problems ultimately landed him in jail - that much we know to be true - but there is little consensus on what happened after he was released.
This is where Tirard picks up the story. The writer/director has taken advantage of the ambiguity which surrounds the subsequent two years of Molière's life, and his mostly fictional narrative suggests that this period might have been the making of the man history remembers. Here, Molière (played by Romain Duris) is bailed out of jailed by Mr Jourdain (Fabrice Luchini), a wealthy but pitifully dim bourgeois, and he has very specific plans for the bemused actor. Jourdain needs Molière to help him write a play which will win the heart of the lovely young maiden Célimène (Ludivigne Sagnier). This little plot must be kept under wraps though, as Jourdain's suspicious wife (Laura Morante) is constantly on the prowl.
Molière soon finds himself in the middle of a farcical comedy of romantic entanglements and misunderstandings - the kind of story, in fact, that he might well have written himself. This notion, of viewing an artist's life through the prism of his own work, is a smart one, and the inevitable comparisons to [i]Shakespeare in Love[/i] are apt. Tirard and his co-screenwriter Grégoire Vigneron liberally scatter references to Molière's work throughout the picture, with many of the characters he meets seemingly being the inspiration for those who would later crop up in plays like [i]Tartuffe [/i]and [i]Les Précieuses ridicules[/i], and the film as a whole plays as a period romp, leaning towards farce in a number of areas.
There's one problem with all of this though - [i]Molière[/i] simply isn't funny enough. The film is spottily amusing, but to really work as intended everything needed to be sharper and tighter than Tirard allows it to be. The director's pacing is slack, with many scenes being allowed to drift on longer than they should be; it's as if the director is more concerned with letting us drink in the sumptuous production values (and it is a glossy package, even if the overbearing musical score is one of the year's worst) instead of allowing the film to build up the kind of fizzy momentum it desperately requires. A few of the more outlandish comic scenes are badly overplayed, slipping from farce to outright hysteria, and they showcase the awkwardness in the casting of the central character. Romain Duris has shown himself to be a fine, charismatic leading man in recent years, but based on this appearance comedy is not his forte. The actor is game, but he never looks entirely comfortable in a part which asks for a really light touch, and his performance - particularly when he impersonates a horse - is occasionally excruciating. [i]Molière[/i]'s supporting cast rallies around Duris though, with Luchini displaying some unexpected comic skills and the wonderful Laura Morante providing the film with a welcome pool of subtlety and grace.
[i]Molière[/i] sadly slips into mawkishness towards the end as well, dragging badly as the clock inches towards the two-hour mark, and the film closes on a trite, unsatisfying note. There are moments buried within this picture that might make you smile and the film is engaging more often than not, but it's a clunky, mishandled effort which stumbles when it should be light on its feet. By the end of the picture Molière has learned to set aside the serious dramas and to stay true to his natural gift - making people laugh - but it is Tirard's failure to do the same which kills any potential his unorthodox biopic might possess.
[b]The Painted Veil[/b] is one of those enormously frustrating films which is almost too well-made for its own good. This third screen adaptation of Somerset Maugham's 1925 novel is a beautifully crafted piece of cinema; the lush cinematography does justice to the film's superior location work, the evocation of China in the 1920's is rich and atmospheric, and the performances are first-class from top to bottom. But the film's elegantly crafted presentation seems to stifle the passions of this cruel and bleak tale, flattening out the story's emotional peaks and leaving us with a perfectly pleasant but disappointingly unaffecting drama.
Opening with a beautifully ornate credits sequence, [i]The Painted Veil[/i] is the story of Kitty (Naomi Watts) and Walter Fane (Edward Norton), two people trapped in a loveless marriage. Kitty was a woman heading towards spinsterhood in London, much to the despair of her parents, who married Walter in haste to avoid the shame of her sister marrying before her. The couple leave for China, where Walter works as a bacteriologist, but there is a constant awkwardness in their relationship, and Walter's habit of never speaking unless he has something to say means most of their evenings pass in uncomfortable silence. So it's little wonder that Kitty looks elsewhere for some sort of excitement in her life, and her roving eye settles on married British diplomat Charlie Townsend (Liev Schreiber), with the two beginning an affair.
This film's depiction of this affair epitomises some of [i]The Painted Veil[/i]'s deficiencies. We see Kitty and Charlie engaging in flirty banter in a theatre, and then they are suddenly in bed together, but that's all we are given, with their first sex session also being the one in which they are discovered by Walter. Too much of Ron Nyswaner's screenplay seems rushed and underdeveloped, with the characters of Walter and Kitty feeling rather hollow as a result. The social pressures which force Kitty into marrying a man she doesn't love are never keenly felt, and Walter's unrequited love is only hinted at. Our lack of real empathy with these two characters is a major factor in the film's lack of emotional wallop, although the film improves significantly when Walter unveils his plot for revenge against his straying wife.
The doctor accepts a posting to Mei-fan-tu, a small Chinese village which is in the grip of a cholera epidemic, and he insists that Kitty must travel with him, or else he'll divorce her for adultery and leave her in disgrace. They take the longest possible route to get to their destination, with Kitty overcome by exhaustion and loathing for her husband, who gives her the cold shoulder at every turn. When they arrive at this disease-ridden outpost the film is enlivened by a few supporting characters, such as Waddington (marvellously played by Toby Jones), a sweaty ex-pat who acts as the Fanes' guide to this area, and the Mother Superior (Diana Rigg) who works at a local orphanage. These characters add a little colour to the claustrophobic story of the couple's deteriorating marriage, and the film also widens its scope a little here, often to wonderful effect.
[i]The Painted Veil[/i] has been directed by John Curran, and his work he is so much more expansive than it was on his last film, the dull and self-conscious [i]We Don't Live Here Anymore[/i]. Working with cinematographer Stuart Dryburgh he exploits the film's beautiful locations superbly and gives us a very convincing recreation of a country going through a turbulent time, particularly in the film's portrayal of the almost impossible task faced by those attempting to control the epidemic. On top of all this visual splendour, Alexandre Desplat provides a truly lovely score, and there's no question that this is a pretty handsome package all round.
But [i]The Painted Veil[/i] never quite moves the viewer. We see Kitty and Walter gradually coming to view each other in a new light, but the film always seems to exist at one remove, keeping us at arm's length emotionally. The two leads work hard to inject some depth into their parts though, and Watts is particularly powerful, delivering possibly her best performance since 2001's masterpiece [i]Mulholland Drive[/i]. It's a really wonderful piece of acting, sensitive and heartfelt, succeeding in making her initially self-absorbed character at least partially sympathetic. Norton is fine too, giving a tightly-wound portrayal of a man who keeps his emotions close to his chest. It's a very restrained performance, which is all the more impressive as a result, but neither actor can really do enough to fully draw us into their story.
[i]The Painted Veil[/i]'s climax, as a result, is profoundly unmoving. Once again it feels rather rushed and not fully thought through; and it's frustrating to see this story of passion and pain, love and hate, being reduced to an elegant and tasteful piece of filmmaking which never gets the pulse racing. [i]The Painted Veil[/i] is constantly enjoyable and often very impressive, but all it really leaves the viewer with is the frustrating sensation of wanting just a little bit more.
Dan Reed's debut film [b]Straightheads[/b] also left me cold, but for very different reasons. The sheer unpleasantness of this loathsome vigilante thriller makes its 80-odd minutes a chore to sit through, and when the credits started to roll I was left with a single thought to ponder - who on earth is giving Gillian Anderson career advice? Since leaving The X-Files Anderson has given a great performance in Terrence Davies' [i]The House of Mirth[/i], and has been acclaimed for the BBC adaptation of [i]Bleak House[/i], but her big screen appearances have otherwise been restricted to small cameos here and there in various British films. Naturally, I assumed this talented and intelligent actress was simply biding her time, waiting for the right leading role to come along - but why on earth did she think [i]Straightheads[/i] was the role for her?
This brutish film features Anderson as Alice, a successful London businesswoman who is having a high-tech security system installed at her swish apartment. The man doing this particular job is Adam, a loutish cockney geezer who is naturally played by loutish cockney geezer [i]du jour[/i] Danny Dyer. Even though Alice has only just met this boorish dick, she seems inexplicably attracted to him, and she asks Adam if he would like to accompany her to a party her boss is hosting in an isolated country house.
Frankly, nothing about this unlikely coupling rings true - particularly with the complete lack of chemistry shared by the two stars - and [i]Straightheads[/i] only gets sillier from this point onwards. On the way out into the country Alice stops to bend down next to the car to uinate ("are you watching me?" she asks Adam in a supposedly seductive tone), and after spending a bit of time at the party they have sex in the grounds, with Adam assuring Alice on the journey home that this is the best night of his life - the natural cue for everything to go horribly wrong. A stray deer steps out in front of the couple's car as they navigate the dark country lanes, and when they stop to remove the stricken animal from the road they are ambushed by three local thugs who savagely beat Adam and rape Alice, before leaving them bloodied and dazed in the middle of nowhere.
Six months later, Alice and Adam are still together, although he has lost the sight in one eye and has been rendered impotent since the attack. Alice has slowly been trying to rebuild her life, but when she returns home for her father's funeral she spots one of her assailants, and she begins to plot a suitable revenge. A suitable revenge, in this case, includes Alice anally raping one of the perpetrators of the original crime with a sniper rifle while Adam takes out his eye with a kitchen knife. An eye for an eye, and an arse for an arse, is apparently the way justice works in Reed's mind.
Perhaps the most depressing thing about this indescribably depressing picture is the sight of Gillian Anderson giving her all for such risible material. She brings an edge and ambiguity to her thinly-developed role, qualities which are in stark contrast to every other aspect of this knuckleheaded film. Alongside Anderson, Danny Dyer's performance is shown up for what it is - another lame piece of non-acting from a man with zero screen presence or charisma - and the three villains of the piece (Ralph Brown, Anthony Calf and Steven Robertson) are laughably one-dimensional brutes.
But it's Reed's handling of this repugnant material which really sticks in the throat. He seems to relish the opportunity to wallow in his characters' plight; he replays Alice's rape scene a couple of times, and Adam twice seems on the verge of a rape himself. What game is the director playing here? Is he trying to make some confused point about the emasculated Adam regaining his sexual potency through violence, or is it just another slice of shallow sadism? Frankly, [i]Straightheads[/i] has nothing to say, and it's hard to see any compelling reason for its existence. It aspires to the likes of[i] Straw Dogs[/i] and [i]Irreversible[/i], but the complete lack of characterisation, subtlety or substance leaves it looking like a nasty, empty and purposeless exploitation flick, which is too long even at 80 minutes. Quite why the UK Film Council felt this film was worth National Lottery funding is beyond me; and the only bright spot one can gleam from a film like this is the hope that its leading actress might well take more care over her choices in future.
Of course Gillian Anderson isn't the first person to struggle with the transition from TV to film and she won't be the last. In fact, the British comedy duo of David Mitchell and Robert Webb have found themselves stuck at the same difficult juncture. The pair are on a roll as far as the small screen is concerned; their brilliant and innovative sitcom [i]Peep Show[/i] recently completed a triumphant fourth series, and they received a BAFTA award last week for the sketch show [i]That Mitchell and Webb Look[/i]. Consider the additional fact that they're the face of Apple commercials in the UK, and things couldn't be much brighter right now for the duo.
Perhaps they felt now was the perfect time to capitalise on their popularity with a move into the multiplexes, but the vehicle they have chosen to do so with is an irretrievable dud which proves to be an inadequate showcase for their comic talents. [b]Magicians[/b] is another chapter in the current cinematic craze for tales of magic, but Andrew O'Connor's film operates on a far more modest scale than either [i]The Illusionist[/i] or [i]The Prestige[/i]. It is the tale of Harry (Mitchell) and Karl (Webb), two magicians who, as the opening credits tell us, have been inseparable friends since they were children. They have established themselves as a successful partnership, but their bond is destroyed when Harry catches Karl and his wife in a compromising position. During their next show the still-seething Harry makes a misjudgement during the guillotine trick, and his wife's neck pays the price.
Cut to five years later. Harry and Karl haven't spoken since that awful night, and both are struggling to make a new career work. Harry, working in a department store, tries to use his tricks to sell kitchen equipment, while Karl is attempting to jump on the Derren Brown bandwagon and reinvent himself as Karl the Mind-Monger. Both of them are in the doldrums, and fate - in the shape of a magic contest with a £20,000 prize - soon brings them together again. The pair reluctantly team up to try and claim the cash, but Harry's resentment at his former friend's betrayal is still evident.
There's the potential for a decent comedy in here somewhere, I'm sure there is, but it's hard to see any sign of it under the dull-as-dishwater visuals, slack plotting and the complete dearth of humour. The lack of laughs is all the more disappointing because the film has been scripted by [i]Peep Show[/i] creators Jesse Armstrong and Sam Bain, but there screenplay contains none of the ingenious plotting or sharp dialogue which that show has been characterised by. The film's narrative moves forward on straight and predictable lines, and first-time director O'Connor composes his shots with the emphasis on banality, rarely mustering up the imagination to find anything as visually interesting as [i]Peep Show[/i]'s trademark point-of-view shots.
The film does benefit from the partnership at its centre, though. Mitchell and Webb have a natural working relationship which manages to elicit a few laughs from the dreary material, and their decision to stick quite closely to their established personas occasionally works for the picture. Mitchell's Harry is the neurotic, socially-awkward one, while Webb's Karl is the dopier, more optimistic one, but their performances only take the film so far, and the supporting cast is grievously underwritten. Peter Capaldi, Jessica Stevenson and Steve Edge all have thin, directionless characters to play, and have little chance to make an impact on the viewer.
The worst thing one can say about [i]Magicians[/i] is the fact that it feels like a relic of the 1970's, when the British film industry, such as it was, churned out a series of big-screen spin-offs from popular sitcoms like [i]On the Buses[/i], [i]Rising Damp[/i] and [i]Are You Being Served?[/i]. But these filmmakers rarely attempted to make anything resembling a real movie in their rush to capitalise on a show's popularity, and [i]Magicians[/i] stinks of the same cheapness and carelessness. Mitchell and Webb may yet have something to offer beyond the confines of the television set; but in a year when British cinema has produced the passionate and intelligent [i]This is England[/i], the low-budget thrills of [i]London to Brighton[/i], and the cinematically ambitious [i]Hot Fuzz[/i], such tired and lazily produced garbage as [i]Magicians[/i] and [i]Straightheads[/i] look like very meagre offerings indeed.
There?s a scene in [i]Lethal Weapon 4[/i] in which veteran detectives Riggs and Murtaugh are licking their wounds after a particularly bruising encounter, and they begin reciting the mantra ?I?m not to old for this shit, I?m not to old for this shit? to themselves, gradually getting louder and louder as if they?re willing themselves to believe that it?s true. I thought of Riggs and Murtaugh while watching [i]New Police Story[/i], and I imagined Jackie Chan sitting in his trailer just before every take, mumbling the words ?I?m not too old for this shit, I?m not too old for this shit?.
Jackie Chan is 52 years old, and he was pushing 50 when he made [i]New Police Story[/i]. He?s still doing the stunts that made him famous, but [i]New Police Story[/i] is notable for having far less action than you might be entitled to expect, and instead the bulk of the running time is made up of dramatic scenes which give Jackie a chance to stretch his acting muscles instead of showing his fighting skills for a change. Is this a conscious decision on the part of executive producer Chan? An acknowledgement that his days of high-kicking may soon be behind him, and an opportunity to broaden his range? Whatever the reason behind these choices, they create an imbalance which pretty much kills the movie.
And it all started so well. The film opens with a funny and well-developed hostage situation which Chan foils in some style, and then we meet the crooks who will provide our hero with such a stern test over the next two hours. They?re a bunch of extreme sport-obsessed teenagers who use their skateboarding skills and computer know-how to execute a huge bank heist, and then they hang around until the police arrive so they can have fun killing a few coppers while they?re at it. They give themselves points for each cop they shoot; they treat everything they do as if it?s just another computer game.
Chan is Officer Wing, Hong Kong?s most celebrated detective, and he takes charge of the case, appearing on TV to reassure the city that these hoodlums will be brought to justice within days. He leads a team into the gang?s headquarters - a seemingly abandoned warehouse - and this leads to the film?s first excellent set-piece. The whole building is booby-trapped, with gang leader Joe (Daniel Wu) sadistically picking off Wing?s colleagues one by one from his computerised nerve centre. Wing can only watch, bemused and horrified, as his team-mates disappear, and he eventually finds himself in the middle of a huge open room with his fellow officers hanging from the rafters - wounded but still alive. Joe forces Wing to play games for their lives, and when he fails to perform the tasks set for him he must watch as their ropes are loosened and they plummet to the floor with a sickening thud.
This is a great sequence; tense, clever and surprisingly affecting - but then the movie just deflates in front of our eyes. Wing is traumatised by his failure to protect his team, and he slips into a drunken stupor, alienating his friends, colleagues and his young girlfriend; and for about an hour the film grinds to a halt as we witness the embarrassing spectacle of Jackie Chan displaying his emotional range. He drinks, he cries, he drinks some more and then, yes, he cries a bit more too. Chan seems to be in tears every five minutes in this film, but the glaring fact of the matter is this - while there are few more entertaining sights in cinema than watching Chan flatten opponents in a blur of fists, the man simply isn?t an actor. His inept attempts to signal depth and pain here see him constantly screwing his face up in a variety of ways, none of which express recognisable human emotions (apart from indigestion, perhaps), and every gesture is overblown and melodramatic.
With [i]New Police Story[/i] often trying to favour emotions over action, Chan?s amateurish acting is a major flaw, and the film?s flimsy script doesn?t help either. The long scenes of exposition which makes up the bulk of the middle section are appallingly written, and character development (aside from Chan and his young partner Nicholas Tse) is scant. In fact some of the supporting players, such as Wing?s girlfriend, barely exist as characters at all, which causes the later scenes in which their lives are endangered to fall flat. Director Benny Chan shows little grasp of pacing or restraint, and he allows many scenes in this dire period of the film to trundle on far beyond their natural length.
Young actor Nicholas Tse does inject the film with a bit of life, though, and it?s the appearance of his character which motivates Wing to get his life back on track. Tse?s Frank Chen is a mysterious young police officer who turns up out of the blue and goes out of his way to support Wing, to re-ignite his passion for the case which defeated him a year previously, and to build bridges with his frustrated girlfriend. Wing?s fury is stoked when he finds out the criminals have turned the death of his partners into an online video game (necessitating some dire dialogue such as: ?if we can just crack this level we can find out where the next heist will take place?) and he eventually resolves to take down this crew in typical Jackie Chan style. About time too.
The final half-hour is a lot of fun. Chan and Tse partake in a terrific barroom brawl, in which the young Tse?s fighting skills almost overshadow his illustrious co-star, and the rest of the film continues in this entertaining vein. There?s some abseiling down the side of buildings, and then we come to the film?s best set-piece; a barnstorming sequence which sees an out-of-control bus cause havoc while Chan desperately tries to stay on the roof. The film then builds up to a strong finale which features lots of Lego and makes good use of the Hong Kong Convention Centre?s spectacular architecture.
But the question remains: is it worth sitting through the numerous mind-numbingly dull and amateurish scenes [i]New Police Story[/i] offers in order to enjoy those few entertaining sequences? I don?t think it is. The title might claim that this is a ?new? story, but it?s really just a watered-down version of the same Jackie Chan films we?ve seen so many times before; and those hoping that this would be a return to the form Chan showed in his earliest Hong Kong films, before he fell into a seemingly endless cycle of Hollywood buddy movies, will be sorely disappointed. While Chan doesn?t quite have the same spring and speed he once possessed, it?s still a thrill to see him jumping, kicking and falling in his own inimitable fashion; but the more sporadic nature of his action scenes here, and his over-reliance on his poor acting skills, makes one wonder what his future holds. He?s not [i]quite [/i]too old for this shit just yet, but what will he do when he is?