Liam Neeson

Widows

07/11/18

If I’d ever been asked to predict what Steve McQueen, director of 12 Years a Slave, might choose as his next project, there’s no way I’d have come up with the suggestion that a reboot of a Lynda La Plante TV series from the 1980s might be the perfect fit. But nevertheless, here it is: a big, brash, swaggering crime drama, bearing scant resemblance to the original series, other than its initial set up. For one thing, the story, adapted by McQueen and bestselling author Gillian Flynn, has been ripped from its English roots and relocated to the city of Chicago. For another, this is rather more than just a criminal potboiler  – it’s a nuanced, amoral tale that incorporates a whole bevy of dazzling twists and turns.

McQueen sets out his stall with incredible chutzpah, whizzing us through the opening sequence at an almost breathless pace. We meet Veronica (Viola Davis), loving wife of hyper-successful career criminal, Harry Rawlings (Liam Neeson). We encounter Linda (Michelle Rodriguez), rather less happily married to a gambling-addicted member of Harry’s gang; and we glimpse Alice (Elizabeth Debicki), struggling through an abusive relationship with yet another of these charmers. We also witness Harry’s attempt to steal five million dollars from rival criminal, Jamal Manning (Bryan Tyree Henry), watching agog as it all goes spectacularly tits-up, transforming Harry, the stolen money and his gang into a pile of ashes – and the three women we’ve just met into the widows of the title. And that’s just the opening ten minutes. Phew!

No sooner is the funeral out of the way than Veronica gets a visit from Jamal, who tells her, in no uncertain terms, that he wants his money back and she has just a week to get it for him. Veronica is understandably terrified. She’s not a criminal, she’s a former representative of the Teacher’s Union. How is she going to find the necessary funds? And then she discovers that locked away in his regular hideout, Harry has left detailed plans for yet another audacious robbery…

As the story stretches out, more characters enter the scenario. There’s Colin Farrell as dodgy politician Jack Mulligan, running against Jamal for re-election as a local alderman and trying to shrug free of the embrace of his racist father and political predecessor, Tom (Robert Duvall). There’s Jamal’s terrifyingly brutal henchman, Jatemme (Daniel Kaluuya), tasked with the job of retrieving the stolen money that his boss was planning to use to finance his own political ambitions. And then there’s Belle (rising star, Cynthia Erivo), Linda’s muscular babysitter who is drawn into the ensuing heist when Veronica, Linda and Alice realise they need somebody to drive a getaway vehicle.

It’s all so confidently woven together that there’s barely time to appreciate McQueen’s storytelling skills – though a scene where Mulligan and his assistant drive several blocks in a car is a particular stand-out. The two characters talk off-camera whilst the audience’s gaze remains resolutely fixed on the scenery, making us appreciate what a short drive it is from the poverty stricken community that Mulligan represents to his palatial residence, just a few blocks away.

But this is only one sequence in a film that fairly bristles with invention and one where every character – politician, priest or passing person – comes complete with a hidden agenda and where nothing can be taken at face value. The action sequences are compellingly handled, and there’s a shock reveal half way through proceedings that actually makes me gasp out loud. With so much happening, the running time of two hours and nine minutes fairly gallops by, leaving me vaguely surprised when the closing credits roll.

Okay, you might argue, let’s not get carried away. After all, at the end of the day, it’s still just a crime drama, but one thing’s for certain: if other films in the genre were as assured as this one, chances are I’d be watching a whole lot more of them.

Go see.

4.7 stars

Philip Caveney

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The Commuter

 

 

15/01/18

Since 2008’s Taken, Liam Neeson has expended much of his onscreen energy trying to sell himself as an ageing action hero. While the first film was something of a guilty pleasure, the two sequels weren’t anything like as sure-footed, but Neeson (who, I feel compelled to remind you, once starred in Schindler’s List) clearly isn’t a man to give up on an idea. In The Commuter he lends the daily trip to and from the office a whole new dimension. As the opening credits unfold, we see him taking his regular journey in all weathers and in all types of clothing. The sequence is so nicely put together, it lulls us into thinking that this will be a classier film than we’ve come to expect from Mr Neeson, of late – but, sadly, that feeling is rather short-lived.

Neeson plays Michael McCauley, former cop turned insurance salesman. Happily married to Karen (Elizabeth Montgomery), he gamely takes the train to work every day, just as he has for the last ten years. But things take a turn for the worse when he arrives at work one morning to discover that the bank has decided to let him go. What is he to do? He’s sixty years old, for goodness sake! He has two mortgages and his teenage son is planning to go to a fancy college! Over a few beers he confides in his old pal, Detective Alex Murphy (Patrick White), and then hurries off to the station to catch the train home.

Once on route, he encounters the mysterious Joanna (Vera Farmiga), who offers him a very strange way out of his current predicament. Somebody on the train doesn’t belong there, she tells him. All McCauley has to do is work out who it is, stick a miniature tracker on the guilty party and receive a massive cash payout in return, enough to solve all of his worries. At first, he’s intrigued enough to start looking for this unknown person but, as the labyrinthine plot unwinds, he begins to realise it’s going to be a lot more messy than he’d anticipated…

This, I’m afraid, is the point where the film starts to go (if you’ll forgive the pun) right off the rails. The premise is so ridiculous, so downright complicated, it’s hard to hold back hoots of disbelief. Okay, so the action sequences do generate some excitement, but a whole raft of worrying questions start to prey on the viewer’s mind. How have the villains managed to contrive such an intricate plot? How is it that not one tiny element of the plan ever lets them down? More worryingly, how does a man who has spent the last ten years selling insurance contrive to be so good at beating people up, leaping on and off trains and crawling into inaccessible places? Yes, he’s a former cop, but doesn’t that consist mostly of eating doughnuts?

As the train (and the plot) thunders relentlessly on, we are treated to needlessly extended punch-ups (a scene where Neeson belabours an unfortunate man with his own electric guitar invites whoops of derision rather than the thrills it is surely aiming for) and there’s a late ‘shock’ plot reveal that will frankly surprise precisely nobody. All this is a shame, because Neeson is an accomplished actor and he deserves better material than this. Did I mention that he was in Schindler’s List? Oh yes, I did.

Okay, fans of thick-ear movies will find things to relish here. And I’m aware of the ‘so bad it’s good’ contingent who make these films bankable. But I’m unable to suspend my disbelief enough to let this one go by. Keep an eye out for some interesting faces amidst McCauley’s fellow-passengers, though. Isn’t that Jonathan Banks (Mike Ehrmintraut of Breaking Bad)? And her with the pink hair and the sneer – surely that’s rising star Florence Pugh from Lady MacBeth?

Little wonder she looks dazed… she’s doubtless wishing she’d taken an earlier train.

3.4 stars

Philip Caveney

Silence

03/01/17

If I were ever asked to nominate somebody as ‘Greatest Living Film Director,’ Martin Scorcese would be a serious contender for the title. He has an exceptionally strong and eclectic body of work, which includes bona fide masterpieces like Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and Good Fellas –and even occasional misfires like The Last Temptation of Christ are never less than interesting. Silence is a film he’s been trying to make for something like thirty years. Based on a novel by Shusaku Endo and co-written by Scorcese with his old collaborator, Jay Cocks, it’s essentially a meditation on the power of belief – and the lengths to which people will go to in order to observe their chosen religion.

In seventeenth century Portugal, two young Jesuit priests, Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Father Garrpe (Adam Driver), set themselves a difficult mission – to travel to Japan in search of their old tutor, Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who disappeared whilst trying to convert the locals to Christianity. Rumour has come back that Ferreira has ‘apostatised’ – renounced his faith – and is now living the life of a Buddhist under the watchful gaze of his captors. The young priests refuse to believe that this can be the case and they set off on the perilous journey to Japan, knowing that from the minute they arrive they will be in grave danger. Christians are hated there and are cruelly tortured and executed in large numbers. But that’s not to say that the film is necessarily pro (or anti) Christian; indeed, questions are raised about the very nature of missionary work, and the religious zeal that prompts people to try to force others to accept their ‘truth’.

Silence is a powerful slow-burner of a film, that certainly won’t be to everyone’s taste. It takes a while to unfold an intriguing story and with a running time of two hours and forty-five minutes, it will undoubtedly test the patience of many; but there’s a great deal here to enjoy – the ravishing cinematography of Rodrigo Prieto, Dante Feretti’s costume design and a superb central performance by Andrew Garfield, clearly delivering on a role that’s a bit of a stretch from his earlier turn as Spiderman. Liam Neeson, now the go-to guy for any performance requiring gravitas, delivers his cameo role with aplomb and I particularly like Yosuke Kubozuka as the Jesuit’s guide, Kichijiro, a would-be Christian who continually betrays his chosen faith only to come scrabbling back seeking forgiveness through the act of confession.

There are also some scenes of terrible violence here; the unflinching depictions of the barbaric treatment meted out to those who refuse to renounce their faith are not for the faint-hearted. People are burned alive, crucified and drowned all in the name of religion.

As to the film’s central tenet – is there a God? – Scorcese (who himself trained as a priest before deciding to seek his absolution through celluloid) is wise enough to resist offering a definitive answer. In the end, it is left to the individual viewer to decide. But I would urge you to go and see this film. It may have taken a very long time to bring it to the screen, but in my opinion at least, it has been well worth the wait.

4.2 stars

Philip Caveney

A Walk Among The Tombstones

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21/09/15

Annoyingly, I missed this one at the cinema and it’s taken me far too long to catch up with it on the small screen. Based on a novel by Lawrence Block, it’s a dour slice of American grunge, featuring Liam Neeson as former detective and alcoholic, Matt Scudder, now plying a precarious trade as a private detective. Given Neeson’s relatively recent incarnation as everyone’s avenging Daddy of choice, it’s good to see him in a role where he actually carries a badge in order to justify his brutality, even if the badge in question is no longer valid. A pre credit sequence which shows him in his former incarnation, involved in a shootout with three bad guys, carries an entirely different accusation – that of crimes against fashion.

Now clean shaven and sans loon pants, Scudder receives a frantic phone call from drug trafficker, Kenny Kristo (Dan Stevens, demonstrating just how far he is able to depart from his Downton image when necessity calls.) Kristo’s wife has been kidnapped and despite him paying a hefty ransom, she’s been murdered anyway. Now he wants revenge and feels that Scudder is just the man for the job. Despite his reservations, Scudder undertakes the job and soon finds himself pitted against a ruthless duo of sociopaths who have enacted the same routine over and over. It’s quickly demonstrated that the bad guys are such scumbags that any retribution rained upon them will be richly deserved. A scene where Ray (David Harbour) espies his latest victim, a young girl dressed in a Little Red Riding Hood style, is the film’s most powerfully repellent set piece. Other scenes depicting the torture of the murderer’s female victims, stray very close to the line between powerful and gratuitous, so this certainly won’t be for everyone.

Written and directed by Scott Frank, AWATT is a powerful crime drama, though its stygian look can be a little dispiriting and its demonstration of the depths to which the human psyche can descend makes for grim viewing.

3.8 stars

Philip Caveney