Jonathan Majors



Amazon Prime

In the same year that Top Gun: Maverick achieves an Oscar nomination, another film about navy airmen crash-lands onto Amazon Prime, making barely a ripple. Whereas TGM was a complete invention, Devotion is a more serious undertaking, based around real life hero, Jesse Brown. Brown was the first African-American aviator to complete the United States Navy basic training programme and was a recipient of the Distinguished Flying Cross. What’s more, his exploits largely took place in a confrontation that has been brushed under the carpet of history – The Korean War.

As portrayed by Jonathan Majors, Brown is a man weighed down by the responsibility of being a hero to so many people of colour – a man who, on a daily basis, hurls insults at his own reflection, based on all the racist abuse he’s encountered over the years, mostly from his fellow airmen. This strange ritual is overheard by Tom Hudner (Glen Powell), newly graduated from Flight Academy and chosen to work as Brown’s ‘wingman.’ (If Powell looks familiar, it’s because he enjoyed a similar role opposite Tom Cruise in TGM.)

Hudner soon comes to value Brown’s unconventional approach to flying, and he’s witness to the man’s evident devotion to his wife, Daisy (Christina Jackson), and to their young daughter, Pam. When Daisy charges Hudner with the task of ‘being there for’ her husband, he takes the responsibility seriously.

The early stretches of the movie depict Brown and his fellow pilots training in state-of-the-art Corsair jet fighters for a war that might happen at any moment. We are witness to the men’s rivalries, their various triumphs and disasters – and theres also a sequence where, on leave in Cannes, Brown encounters Hollywood starlet, Elizabeth Taylor (Serinda Swan) and accepts her invitation to meet up at her favourite casino.

But it’s not until around the halfway mark, when the airmen are sent off for active service, that the film finally… ahem, takes flight. There are some impressive aerial battle sequences (which provide a decent test for the new projector we’ve bought for watching movies at home) and, if the film’s ending is somewhat downbeat, well, this is history. Unlike some recent ‘true stories’ we’ve witnessed, screenwriters Jake Crane and Jonathan Stewart stick rigorously to the facts. As the inevitable series of post-credit photographs attests, they have been pretty meticulous. The Elizabeth Taylor meeting? It actually happened.

Devotion is by no means a perfect film. I fail to learn enough about any of the other airmen in Brown’s crew to care much about what happens to them and, if I’m honest, all that rampant testosterone does get a little wearisome in places. What’s more, with a running time in excess of two hours, my patience is somewhat tested in the film’s meandering first half. But it’s worth sticking with for those soaring battle sequences which really do take you right into the heart of the action, and to learn about an important historical figure.

3. 5 stars

Philip Caveney

The Harder They Fall



It’s a shameful fact that many of the cinema’s most revered westerns feature less than a handful of black characters – even though history informs us that up to a quarter of the citizens forging new lives in the Old West were people of colour. So it would seem a propitious time for a cowboy film where black characters are centre stage and their white counterparts relegated to supporting roles. Directed – and co-written – by Jeymes Samuel, The Harder They Fall sets out to be a revisionist piece and to some degree it hits its targets. What a shame, then, that the main protagonists in this story are, almost without exception, a bunch of callous murderers, ready to obliterate anyone who stands in their way.

Who then are we supposed to identify with?

Nat Love (Jonathan Majors) is looking for vengeance against the man who killed his parents when he was a child and who carved a cross on his forehead with the tip of a knife. The charmer in question is Rufus Buck (Idris Elba), recently freed from prison and now seeking to recoup the $25,000 that Love’s gang took from him – money that his own followers have recently stolen from a train. But… his gang stole it first, right? So obviously it belongs to him!

Love, meanwhile, returns to his old stamping ground to reconnect with former lover, Mary Fields (Zazie Beetz), whom he hopes to marry one day, but first there’s the little matter of taking his revenge on Buck, who has returned to the all-black town of Redwood and removed the man he left in charge by pistol-whipping him and taking his place. It’s clear from the outset that Buck doesn’t plan to be a benevolent ruler, shooting a man in cold blood for having the temerity to question him about the steep taxes he’s planning to enforce. Buck is backed up by the equally malevolent Trudy Smith (Regina King) and fast draw merchant, Cherokee Bill (LaKeith Stanfield). As the two rival gangs square up to each other for a showdown, it can only end in bloodshed.

There are some elements in The Harder They Fall that I really like. The widescreen cinematography is gorgeous and the recreations of frontier towns are quite different from anything I’ve seen before. Furthermore, the decision to use contemporary reggae and township music as a soundtrack is an inspired move, lending a sense of urgency to the action. There’s also an expertly-handled climactic shoot out. All points in the film’s favour.

But every story needs characters that an audience is willing to root for and there’s a sad dearth of them here. Even US Marshal Bass Reeves (Delroy Lindo) seems to have no qualms about bending the rules when there’s money to be made. (Western scholars will doubtless recognise many of these names, because they are taken from historical characters, but there’s been no attempt to reproduce any of their actual accomplishments, which seems self-defeating.) All we learn of these people is that they’re quick on the trigger and the constant litany of shootings, beatings and stabbings becomes wearisome after a while. We’re probably supposed to identify with Nat Love, but the truth is, he’s not really all that different from his nemesis, Rufus Buck. He just shoots people with a smile on his face, while Rufus scowls.

So, while I agree this is an important release that’s come at exactly the right time, I just wish I cared more about the people who are being shot and bludgeoned to death right in front of me.

As it stands, this feels like a squandered opportunity. And that’s a real shame. Samuel is clearly a skilled filmmaker but he needs a stronger script to make this fly.

2.8 stars

Philip Caveney

Da 5 Bloods


A new Spike Lee film is generally a cause for considerable excitement. From She’s Gotta Have It, way back in 1986, to Do the Right Thing and his recent renaissance with BlackKkKLansman, Lee has always been the master of righteous indignation, a director whose beliefs are right at the forefront of his work and who never backs down from uncomfortable truths. And of course, in the time of Black Lives Matter, his voice carries extra authority.

And now here’s Da 5 Bloods, released without much trumpeting onto Netflix. It opens like a documentary, complete with vintage footage of Muhammed Ali and Malcolm X and shocking images from the war in Vietnam – indeed, the references come so thick and fast over the opening credits, it’s hard to keep up with them.

Yet, this is no documentary. The meat of the film is a story about four Vietnam veterans, who reunite to go back to their old battleground on a seemingly altruistic mission to recover the remains of their late comrade, ‘Stormin” Norman (Chadwick Boseman), buried somewhere deep in the jungle. But there’s another, less laudable reason for their return.  Concealed near his grave is a cache of American gold bullion, originally intended to pay South Vietnamese allies. The four amigos, Paul (Delroy Lindo), Otis (Clarke Peters), Eddie (Norm Lewis) and Melvin (Isiah Whitlock Jnr), see no reason why they shouldn’t collect that at the same time. After all, haven’t they paid for it in blood, sweat and tears?

At the last instant, they are joined by Paul’s son, David (Jonathan Majors), who is cut in for a share. And off they go into deep jungle, assisted by a Vietnamese guide, Vinh (Johnny Nguyen), and financed by shady French entrepreneur, Leroche (Jean Reno), in a story that openly references the likes of Apocalypse Now and, more specifically, John Huston’s classic adventure,  The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.

As ever with Lee, there’s no doubting the sincerity of his vision, and it’s clear that his anger about the way black troops were used as cannon fodder during the war is the heat that fuels this adventure – but it also has to be said that much of what goes on in deep jungle feels decidedly far-fetched and at times (dare I say it?) a crushingly predictable take on The Pardoner’s Tale. We also witness flashbacks to the foursome’s time as soldiers, where the eponymous bloods look exactly the same as they do now and Norman, young enough to be their son. Of course, this is intentional (it’s them looking back on the events) but it’s a bold move that takes a little getting used to.

Ultimately, Da 5 Bloods is neither fish nor fowl. It could either have been a powerful documentary about the exploitation of black lives at a time of war, or a gung-ho rumble- in-the-jungle adventure, mixing laughter and violence in equal measure. With typical ambition, Lee tries for both with the result that neither strand feels entirely convincing. It’s also puzzling when a director with such a breadth of experience allows an absolutely risible plot point to make it on to the screen. (You’ll know it when you see it.)

Da 5 Bloods has already been garlanded with high praise from several quarters, but for me, at least, it’s not up there with Lee’s finest work. What’s more, with a running time of two hours and thirty four minutes, there are sections here that feel more gruelling than they needed to.

3.6 stars

Philip Caveney