BEIRUT (2018) – Complex Thriller Driven by Strong Performances

0

BEIRUT_poster

BEIRUT (2018) is a complex thriller about a hostage negotiation in 1982 Beirut. Driven by strong performances by Jon Hamm and Rosamund Pike, the film does a lot of things well and more than makes up for its lack of supporting character development and peripheral plot.

The movie opens in 1972 Beirut with American diplomat Mason Skiles (Jon Hamm) hosting a dinner party with his wife for a group of dignitaries, including a United States Congressman, where Mason explains the current intricate political situation inside Lebanon. When Mason’s best friend Cal (Mark Pellegrino) arrives with the shocking news that the thirteen year-old boy Mason and his wife have taken into their home and consider a part of their family is the younger brother of the world’s most wanted terrorist, and the U.S. authorities want to extract the boy that very night. Mason refuses, and in the middle of his argument with Cal, gunmen open fire on the party and whisk the boy away before the U.S. agents can take him.  In the process, Mason’s wife is shot and killed.

The story picks up ten years later and finds Mason back in the U.S. working as a mediator and negotiator for local labor disputes. He has left his former life behind him, having walked away from both Beirut and his friend Cal immediately after the shooting, and he hasn’t spoken to his former friend since he left.

But all that changes when he is approached by a group of federal agents who want his help.  It seems that an American was taken hostage in Beirut, and the kidnappers demanded that Mason handle the negotiation.  Mason balks at the idea and says that the kidnappers simply pulled his name out of a hat. The agents then inform Mason that the hostage is his friend Cal.

Against his better judgement but not wanting to abandon Cal a second time, Mason returns to Beirut to negotiate the release of his best friend.

BEIRUT tells a compelling enough story and for the most part keeps its intricate tale from becoming too confusing. It’s a decent screenplay by Tony Gilroy, as one would expect as Gilroy also penned screenplays for the BOURNE movies and more recently he was one of the writers involved with ROGUE ONE: A STAR WARS STORY (2016).

BEIRUT reminded me a little bit of ARGO (2012), the Ben Affleck movie which won Best Picture in 2012. Both films share suspenseful hostage stories and international intrigue, although ARGO told the better story by far.

The story BEIRUT tells is not as memorable, nor is it as riveting since one of the weaknesses of the screenplay is the supporting characters aren’t really developed. In ARGO, the audience gets to know the hostages. In BEIRUT, very little is known about hostage Cal, and so even though the proceedings are very interesting, they don’t always resonate as well as they should on an emotional level.

The best part of BEIRUT are the performances by the two leads, Jon Hamm and Rosamund Pike. Hamm is terrific as Mason Skiles, although this smooth talking alcoholic character is clearly reminiscent of Don Draper, the character Hamm played so well on the TV series MAD MEN (2007-2015). Fans of the show might have fun imagining that this is what happened next to Mr. Draper. And while Hamm isn’t exactly out of his comfort zone here, he still delivers an enjoyable performance.

Rosamund Pike is also excellent as Sandy Crowder, one of the government operatives who helps Mason when he’s on the ground in Beirut. It’s a solid understated performance by Pike, whose character has her own reasons for wanting to extract Cal. The other dynamic I enjoyed between Mason and Sandy is that unlike most movies where the male and female leads are involved romantically, this time they are not, which I found refreshing.

I like Pike a lot and have enjoyed her recent roles in such films as HOSTILES (2017), GONE GIRL (2014), and JACK REACHER (2012) to name a few.

BEIRUT also has a strong supporting cast.  Mark Pellegrino is very good as Cal, Mason’s shadowy friend, even if the character isn’t developed all that well. For most of the film we don’t really know if Cal is a good guy or not, which hurts the story somewhat.

Dean Norris, Hank on TV’s BREAKING BAD (20080-2013) is nearly unrecognizable with a full head of hair and glasses as Donald Gaines, one of the government agents who recruits Mason. And Shea Whigham is memorable as another of these agents, Gary Ruzak.

BEIRUT was directed by Brad Anderson, who’s directed a lot of movies and TV shows, including the horror movie SESSION 9 (2001).  Anderson certainly does a good job of capturing war-ravaged Lebanon circa 1982, and the film’s location alone is enough to make this one a nail biter.

The story is certainly engrossing as we follow Mason’s efforts to find his friend Cal and navigate the negotiations needed to release him. There are some decent scenes, like when Mason first meets the group claiming to have Cal, as there is a rather unexpected execution right in the middle of it.  And the film heats up every time Mason slips away from his handlers, driving them crazy while he’s off the grid.

That being said, there really isn’t any centerpiece scene in this movie, either in artistic design or in its plot, no part of the film where it kicks into high gear and really becomes something special.

And I would imagine this one is not making a whole lot of money. I saw it with a very small audience. There were fewer than ten people in the theater.

Nonetheless, it’s a solid movie driven by two potent performances by Jon Hamm and Rosamund Pike, and it’s certainly worth a trip to the theater.

BEIRUT is also a nice reminder of the value of diplomacy and negotiation over violence, even though when all is said and done, there is certainly lots of bloodshed, which is what you would expect in 1982 Beirut.

—END—

 

Advertisements

Jackie Chan Returns in THE FOREIGNER (2017)

0

Foreigner_poster

Jackie Chan is back, and he’s taking on Pierce Brosnan in today’s thriller, THE FOREIGNER (2017).

Quan Ngoc Minh (Jackie Chan) is a quiet store owner living in London whose world is shattered when his daughter is killed in a terrorist bomb attack.  He seeks out answers, demanding to know who killed his daughter. A group identifying itself as a new faction of the IRA claims responsibility for the London blast, and so Quan’s search leads him to Liam Hennessy (Pierce Brosnan), a former officer in the IRA who’s now working for the British government.

Quan isn’t the only one demanding answers.  The British government wants them, too, and Hennessy promises to find them.  He assembles a group of his IRA contacts and puts them on notice with his suspicions that someone in their circle is part of this new faction.

When Quan shows up at Hennessy’s doorstep looking for the names of the bombers, Hennessy tells him he doesn’t know who is responsible and quickly dismisses his visitor without a second thought.  But Quan is relentless, and soon he is bombing Hennessy’s home and threatening his family unless he is given the names of the terrorists.

Hennessy’s search for the terrorists leads to some  unexpected answers, while his efforts to apprehend Quan, who is a former special forces soldier, repeatedly fail.

THE FOREIGNER tells two different stories, and as such, at times seems like two different movies.

The emotional story is Quan’s, as he vows that nothing is going to stop him from finding the people responsible for his daughter’s death.

Quan Ngoc Minh is a serious somber role for Jackie Chan, and it’s not the usual lighthearted fun action role that Chan generally plays.  Quan is an older, more reflective character who goes all in to avenge his daughter’s death. Chan doesn’t play the character as unhinged but as extremely determined and focused.  He somehow manages to keep Quan a sympathetic character throughout, even when he is blowing up Hennessy’s property. It’s an impressive performance.

But while Quan’s story is emotional, it’s also just a simple revenge tale, and as such,  is far less interesting than the more intriguing story of Hennessy’s investigation into his IRA contacts.

As Liam Hennessy, the former IRA officer who’s now in the difficult position of siding with the British government, Pierce Brosnan delivers a solid performance, showing grit, determination, and eventually despair.  That’s because the deeper Hennessy digs, the more his world unravels.

Hennessy has the double whammy of learning some unsavory things about both his IRA connections and people very close to him, while being unable to fend off Quan who is hiding in the woods outside his home and is constantly attacking him.  The scenes where Hennessy expresses frustration and disbelief that his trained security detail cannot handle Quan are some of Brosnan’s best.

Both the IRA storyline and Quan’s vengeance story are dark, grim tales, but there is a disconnect between the two that prevents this movie from really taking off.  The two stories never really come together in a satisfying way.

One reason is that they are so different.  Quan’s revenge tale is right out of an old Charles Bronson movie, while Hennessy’s investigation into the depths of the IRA is more akin to a political suspense thriller.  They don’t mesh all that well, and the biggest reason for this is the film’s climax. For Quan, there’s only one solution, and in this movie just like in those Charles Bronson movies, whether or not he achieves it is never really in question, and for Hennessy, the answers he finds have less to do with what Quan wants to know and more to do with his own past.  And so their two stories aren’t exactly on a collision course with each other.  They connect, but only long enough to send each of them on their merry ways.

If you like Jackie Chan action scenes, you won’t be disappointed. Director Martin Campbell does a nice job with them, and they were probably my favorite part of the movie.  My only beef is that there weren’t enough of them.

The Hennessy scenes are taut and intriguing.  The investigation into who is behind the bombings is compelling and hard-hitting.

Director Campbell is no stranger to action thrillers.  He’s directed two James Bond movies, GOLDENEYE (1995) the first Pierce Brosnan Bond movie, and CASINO ROYALE (2006), the first Daniel Craig Bond movie.  Both films are excellent.  Campbell also directed GREEN LANTERN (2011), which was not so excellent.

David Marconi wrote the screenplay, based on the novel “The Chinaman” by Stephen Leather.  It’s an okay screenplay.  It has believable characters and tells two compelling stories, even if they don’t mix together all that well. Marconi also wrote the screenplay for LIVE FREE OR DIE HARD (2007).

Chan and Brosnan are helped by a solid supporting cast.  Michael McElhatton from TV’s GAME OF THRONES (2012-2016) plays Hennessy’s loyal right hand man, Jim, while Dermot Crowley from TV’s LUTHER (2010-2015) plays Hugh McGrath, one of Hennessy’s IRA brothers who may have his own agenda.

Charlie Murphy plays Maggie, a woman who Hennessy is having an affair with, and Orla Brady plays his wife Mary, who has her own issues with her husband.

And Rory Fleck Byrne is very good as Hennessy’s nephew Sean, a tracker and an assassin, who Hennessy eventually employs to find and take out Quan.

But the two best performances in THE FOREIGNER belong to the two leads, Jackie Chan and Pierce Brosnan. Chan is excellent in a far more somber and serious role than he usually plays, and Brosnan is just as good as the increasingly beleaguered Hennessy whose world is under constant threat.

THE FOREIGNER is a decent thriller featuring two veteran actors. Its two separate stories don’t always gel, but the acting, directing, and writing are strong enough to make THE FOREIGNER an enjoyable action movie.

—END—

Books by Michael Arruda:

TIME FRAME,  science fiction novel by Michael Arruda.  

Ebook version:  $2.99. Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

IN THE SPOOKLIGHT, movie review collection by Michael Arruda.

InTheSpooklight_NewText

 Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com.  Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.

FOR THE LOVE OF HORROR, short story collection by Michael Arruda.  

For The Love Of Horror cover

Ebook version:  $4.99.  Available at http://www.neconebooks.com. Print version:  $18.00.  Email your order request to mjarruda33@gmail.com. Also available at Amazon.com.  

 

 

 

 

 

OUR KIND OF TRAITOR (2016) Taut Thriller Is One of Summer’s Best

0

 

our kind of traitor

OUR KIND OF TRAITOR (2016) is my kind of movie.

This thriller based on the John le Carre novel of the same name is well-acted, written, and directed and provides edge-of-your-seat excitement from beginning to end.  It’s one of the best films to come out this summer.

OUR KIND OF TRAITOR opens in Moscow with the chilling assassination of a Russian mobster and his family.  We then meet a young British college professor named Perry (Ewan McGregor) on holiday with his attorney wife Gail (Naomie Harris).  All is not well with them, as they took this holiday to help their marriage, which suffered a blow when Perry slept with one of his students.  In a restaurant, Gail receives a work-related call and she leaves Perry to dine alone.

At a neighboring table a boisterous group drinks and parties hearty.  One of these partiers, Dima (Stellan Skarsgard) invites Perry to join their table since he’s dining alone, and Perry reluctantly agrees.  Dima then invites Perry to come with him to another party, and he gives it the hard sell, to which Perry- with nothing better to do since his wife is working- agrees.

Suddenly, Dima is confiding lots of confidential information to Perry, and the next thing Perry knows, the man is handing him a flash drive which he wants Perry to hand over to the British Secret Service. It turns out that Dima is a member of the Russian Mafia who now fears for his life and his family’s lives and wants to defect.  Perry agrees.

Back in London, Perry turns over the flash drive, which captures the attention of a British intelligence officer named Hector (Damian Lewis).  The flash drive contains the names of prominent British citizens who are in cahoots with the Russian mob, and Hector has his own personal reasons for wanting to retrieve this information and more of what Dima says he has to offer.

Dima agrees to meet with Hector, but only if Perry is in on the deal.  At first, Perry wants no part of further meetings, but eventually he is covinced by Hector to go, and so he and wife Gail make the trip.

Soon, Perry and Gail find themselves embroiled in a very dangerous situation, caught in between the merciless Russian mob and the calculating secretive MI6, and rather than wanting out, they want in, as they grow closer to and fonder of Dima and his family.

OUR KIND OF TRAITOR is not receiving much hype, and so I went in to this one not expecting much, but it’s a heck of a thriller, and is one of my favorite movies of the summer so far.

Director Susanna White has made an effective thriller that caught my attention from the very first sequence, the jarring assassination scene of the Russian mobster and his wife and daughter.  From that moment on, the film had me, and it never let up.  The direction remained stylish throughout.  While the action scenes are few and far between, there are scenes of suspense throughout.

When Perry and Gail are whisked away from a party by a key member of the Russian mob and taken back to a ghetto apartment, the tension is paramount.  Likewise, the sequence when MI6 and Perry and Gail try to rescue Dima’s family is taut and thrilling.  This is the kind of movie John Frankenheimer would have directed in his heyday.  Director White does an excellent job.

The photography is also excellent as there are plenty of picturesque location shots, from Moscow, to London, to Paris, to the French Alps.  There’s a nice almost Bond-like international feel to this one.

The screenplay by Hossein Amini based on le Carre’s novel is a good one.  There’s plenty of lively dialogue, the characters are fleshed out, and the narrative flows nicely from start to finish.  Amini wrote the screenplay to DRIVE (2011), a film by director Nicolas Winding Refn [THE NEON DEMON (2016)] and starring Ryan Gosling, that I loved.  He also wrote the screenplay to SNOW WHITE AND THE HUNTSMAN (2012), a film that I did not like so much.  I think his screenplay here is even better than the one he wrote for DRIVE.

I loved the acting performances all around.

Stellan Skarsgard is fabulous as Dima, the Russian mobster who wants to defect but won’t do so until he can guarantee the safety of his family, something British Intelligence isn’t keen on doing.  They want the information first, which Dima won’t part with without that guarantee.  It’s a loud, boisterous performance by Skarsgard.  He’s a hoot to watch in the film.  Early on, he has one of the movie’s best lines as he tells McGregor’s Perry “don’t be a sourpussy” when Perry refuses to go to a party with him.  Perry quickly corrects him, “It’s sourpuss.”

Better yet, Skarsgard is able to instill a warmth to his character that makes Perry and Gail’s connection to him all the more believable.  You’re not sitting in the theater wondering why they are helping this man.  Because of Skarsgard’s performance, you know why.

Ewan McGregor is just as good as Perry, but in a more understated way.  Perry is the perfect innocenct caught in middle of all the espionage.  He could have walked off the set of an old Alfred Hitchcock movie.  McGregor is perfect in the role, in what might be my favorite performance of his yet.

He makes Perry a really interesting character.  At first, he’s not interested at all in helping Dima, but yet, as MI6 agent Hector points out, he still agreed to deliver the flash drive. Perry is a man of honor, a man of thought who will nonetheless stand up to a Russian thug for striking a woman, a man who will risk his life for another man who he hardly knows because he feels it’s the right thing to do.

And yet, later, when Perry asks Dima why he chose him, Dima answers that Perry was the only other man in the restaurant that night, a remark that provides both men with a laugh.

Rounding out the triumvirate of great performances is Damian Lewis [HOMELAND (2011-2014)] as MI6 agent Hector. Lewis is excellent here, and even with Skarsgard’s larger than life performance as Dima, Lewis’ performance as the complicated and driven British Intelligence Officer might be my favorite of the entire movie.

Lewis makes his mark in his very first scene when his no-nonsense manner dives right into a calculating and pointed questioning of Perry at the airport.  At first, we’re not quite sure what to make of Hector, as he lies to both his superiors and to those working under him, but the more we learn about him, the more we understand why he does the things he does, and as a result the more we like him.

The supporting cast is also excellent, led by Naomie Harris as Perry’s wife Gail.  She takes what could have been a throwaway role- the wife of the leading man- and makes it into something more.  At first, she’s angry with her husband for getting involved, but the more she learns about Dima and his family, the more she wants to help.

I really enjoyed Harris in the two recent Daniel Craig Bond films, SKYFALL (2012) and SPECTRE (2015) where she played Moneypenny, and in those films she certainly wasn’t the Moneypenny of old.  She’s just as good here, in a role that provides her with more depth and range.

If you like political thrillers and tales of international intrigue, you’ll love OUR KIND OF TRAITOR.

Dont’ be a sourpussy.  Go out and see this one.

—END—

BROKEN CITY (2013) Needs Some Fixing

0

Broken City posterBlu-Ray Review:  BROKEN CITY (2013)

By

Michael Arruda

 

 

There’s more that needs fixing here than just a city.

 

BROKEN CITY (2013), now available on Blu-Ray, is a thriller about an ex-cop Billy Taggart (Mark Wahlberg) who gets tangled up with an unscrupulous big city mayor Nicholas Hostetler (Russell Crowe), and as a result finds himself embroiled in political intrigue and murder. 

 

The movie opens as Taggart shoots and kills a suspected murderer and rapist, and then is found innocent of the crime because both the mayor and the Commissioner of Police Carl Fairbanks (Jeffrey Wright) suppress video evidence which would have proven Taggart’s guilt. In order to cover his political butt, Mayor Hostetler tells Taggart that the price he has to pay for his “innocence” is that he must leave the police force.

 

Seven years later, Taggart is working as a private detective.  Business is not very good, and his secretary Katy (Alona Tal) spends most her time trying to track down former clients who still owe them money.

 

Out of the blue, Mayor Hostetler contacts Taggart and offers him a job.  He tells Taggart that he suspects his wife Cathleen (Catherine Zeta-Jones) is having an affair, and he wants Taggart to prove it.  Taggart desperately needs the money, and so he takes the case.

 

Of course, being the unsavory character that he is, Mayor Hostetler has ulterior motives, and Taggart soon finds himself in way over his head.

 

BROKEN CITY is almost saved by the strong performances of its two leads, Mark Wahlberg and Russell Crowe, but is ultimately done in by a weak script that just can’t seem to hold its story of political intrigue and murder together.  The bottom line is it’s just not very believable.

 

I enjoyed Mark Wahlberg a lot as Billy Taggart.  It’s a typical role for Wahlberg, as he’s a blue collar law enforcement officer, a recovering alcoholic, and a genuine nice guy, as long as you look the other way when he takes the law into his own hands.  While I liked his performance in 2 GUNS (2013) a bit more than this one, he’s reached the point where he’s almost always enjoyable.

 

I was also impressed with Russell Crowe as Mayor Hostetler. After back to back subpar performances in THE MAN WITH THE IRON FISTS (2012) and LES MISERABLES (2012), Crowe has immediately turned things around with impressive performances in MAN OF STEEL (2013) as Superman’s father Jor-El, and in this movie.  Crowe is credible as the cut-throat mayor who’s not above committing crimes to save his political skin.  He makes a nice nasty villain in this one, and he’s deliciously icy in the role. 

 

The rest of the cast runs hot and cold. 

 

Catherine Zeta-Jones is okay as Hostetler’s wife Cathleen, in what turns out to be a thankless role.  Jeffrey Wright seems to be stuck with a permanent scowl on his face as the police commissioner Carl Fairbanks.  Wright was much more impressive and memorable as Felix Leiter in the Daniel Craig James Bond flicks CASINO ROYALE (2006) and QUANTUM OF SOLACE (2008).

 

Barry Pepper is oddly cast as Jack Valliant, the man who’s running against Hostetler in a fierce mayoral campaign.  Pepper looks more like a drug pusher than a politician.  Kyle Chandler plays Valliant’s campaign manager Paul Andrews, and Griffin Dunne is wasted in a nothing role as Sam Lancaster, a man with deep pockets who contributes to Hostetler’s campaign.

 

Only Alona Tal stands out as Taggart’s secretary Katy.  It’s a nice performance by Tal, and other than Wahlberg and Crowe, she gives the best performance in the movie.  Her Katy is a vibrant character, and I had a hard time taking my eyes off her when she was onscreen.

 

Natalie Martinez is acceptable as Taggart’s actress girlfriend Natalie Barrow, whose 16 year-old sister happened to be the victim of the rapist/murderer that Taggart killed in the film’s opening.

 

But in spite of the decent acting, BROKEN CITY gets bogged down in a story that never convinced me that it was real.  The screenplay by Brian Tucker fails to include a credible threat.  We know that Crowe’s Mayor Hostetler is a dirty politician, capable of criminal activities, but the shady deal he’s involved with, the political hot potato that he must break the law for in order to get re-elected, is hardly intriguing.  It involves some shady real estate deals that frankly not even Lex Luthor would get that excited about.

 

And then there’s the plot with Hostetler’s wife and her extramarital affair.  The mayor hires Taggart to prove that she’s sleeping with another man, and you can tell from the outset that Hostetler is not a man to be trusted, and so you suspect that he’s up to something else.  When this proves to be true, you’re hardly surprised.

 

When Taggart finally catches onto the game Hostetler is playing at his expense, he fights back and attempts to coerce the mayor into backing off, at which time Hostetler reveals his hand and shows Taggart the evidence he has against him in the murder charge from seven years earlier, in effect thwarting Taggart’s efforts.  Taggart seems genuinely surprised by this revelation.  Considering that Hostetler told Taggart at the beginning of the movie that he had this evidence in his possession, I found it difficult to believe that a street wise former cop like Taggart would have forgotten this vital piece of information.

 

BROKEN CITY was directed by Allen Hughes, who along with his brother Albert, also directed THE BOOK OF ELI (2010) starring Denzel Washington, and the Johnny Depp horror movie FROM  HELL (2001).  Both those films had a bit more bite than this one, but in terms of style, I liked BROKEN CITY more than THE BOOK OF ELI.    BROKEN CITY is a polished looking thriller, with enough dark scenes of its broken metropolis to satisfy the film noir viewer.

 

While BROKEN CITY isn’t bad, and if you like Mark Wahlberg and Russell Crowe, you could do a lot worse, at the end of the day, it’s not much more than a standard by the numbers thriller because quite simply it never goes for broke.

 

—END—