Ronin (1998)

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Lady I never walk into a place I don’t know how to walk out of.  IRA woman Deirdre (Natascha McElhone) assembles a team of ex-special ops men turned mercenaries in Paris to carry out a heist on a briefcase carrying some mysterious material. They include ex-CIA agent Frank (Robert DeNiro), Larry (Skipp Sudduth) and French op Vincent (Jean Reno). They are joined by Englishman Spence (Sean Bean) and German Gregor (Stellan Skarsgaard). Each has a special gift to bring to this party. Spence immediately thinks he knows Frank from somewhere and the narrative die is cast:  as each member of the heist team begins to distrust the other, the body count mounts and this travelogue (through the south of France) speeds at an exhilarating pace with amazing car chases punctuating the stylish action around Arles and Nice. Deirdre meets secretly with fellow IRA op Seamus (Jonathan Pryce) and while she is double-crossing the team their numbers are dwindling at the hands of the Russian mob whose path they cross. Added to the mix is the ice skater Natacha Kirilova (Katharina Witt) whose showcase becomes the venue for the penultimate showdown. J. D. Zeik’s story and screenplay received a major rewrite from David Mamet under the name Richard Weisz and this super smart spy thriller benefits from shrewd juxtaposition of action with gleaming character detail. Add to that beautiful cinematography, some of the best car stunts outside of Bullitt (with Sudduth doing most of his own driving) and spot-on performances and you have a cracking genre entertainment which at the time marked a major comeback for the amazing John Frankenheimer.  The francophile was making a return to the south of France for the first time since French Connection II.  It’s great to see Michael Lonsdale as a fixer whose interest in samurai supplies the story behind the title. The final revelation is both surprising and satisfying. And the contents of that briefcase?  Well you’ve seen enough Hitchcock films to figure it out for yourself. Fantastic stuff, brilliantly directed.

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Hanover Street (1979)

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Nothing makes sense and then I’m with you and everything makes sense. Flight Lieutenant David Halloran (Harrison Ford) is standing in line for a London bus during the Blitz and plays leapfrog with a nurse (Lesley-Anne Down) and their antics mean they both miss the bus but fall in love over a cup of tea and then the street is bombed by the Germans. He wants to meet her on Thursday week – he has many bombing missions in between times – and she arrives, many hours late. They travel to the country and after several sexual assignations she finally tells him her name is Margaret. His squadron has another mission to fly but he notices an engine problem at takeoff and his colleague takes off in his place and is shot down. He is wracked with guilt. Meanwhile, it transpires that Margaret is married and her husband Paul Sellinger (Christopher Plummer) is a mild-mannered teacher training officers in intelligence and two have been captured and killed within two weeks of landing in Lyons:  there’s a double agent in the ranks. He volunteers to be dropped in France to photograph Nazi files to root out the culprit – and when he is allocated a pilot it’s Halloran and they’re the sole survivors of a firestorm. They have to don disguise to survive detection and find a hiding place on a farm. When Sellinger starts to describe his wife Halloran realises they’re in love with the same woman and she is giving them both reason to live … This has one of the great meet-cutes and it is overwhelming because it comes in the first ten minutes. Down and Ford are a fabulous looking pair and the (somewhat thin) story reminds you of the great WW2 romances, on which it was clearly modelled. The Sellingers’ home life is wonderfully exposed by their relationship with their young daughter Sarah played by cool girl Patsy Kensit and there’s some convincingly irritating banter between the bomb squad. We can see several Indiana Jones scenes in advance, played out here on German occupied territory albeit with a tad less humour. This doesn’t reach the heights it aims for but it’s beautifully made and the score by John Barry is simply epic. It makes you wonder why on earth the glorious Down hasn’t been cast more over the years. Sigh. There is however a rare appearance by the legendary comedian Max Wall as a locksmith. Written and directed by Peter Hyams.

Hotel Reserve (1944)

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Don’t just stand there – do something! The great novelist Eric Ambler was a screenwriter himself but this time round his Epitaph for a Spy was adapted by John Davenport who turns in a very tense thriller despite the obvious limitations of this studio-bound production. It’s the eve of WW2.  James Mason plays Peter Vadassy, an Austrian medical student (he’s half French!) on holiday on the Riviera. He’s arrested for photographs of a naval base near Toulon that appear to have been taken on his camera – but the police know the truth and need to root out a Nazi spy in the hotel without raising suspicions. Vadassy is keen to assert his French nationality and if he doesn’t go along with agent Julien Mitchell’s plans he might be deported to Germany and face goodness knows what. There follows a positively Christie-esque drama as Vadassy attempts to figure out which of the hotel’s suspect residents swapped cameras with him and it’s not hugely surprising when Herbert Lom tops the list. Better still, his villainous other half is played by Lucie Mannheim. If you’re wondering who the Irish-accented lovely is who has a crush on Vadassy it’s Maureen O’Hara’s sister Florrie Fitzsimons in her sole screen appearance under the name Clare Hamilton. Directed by a trio of men – Lance Comfort, Max Greene (Mutz Greenbaum) and Victor Hanbury – who turn in an atmospheric film that raises questions about Britain’s wartime relations with France which still had that government at Vichy when this was released …

Allied (2016)

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Different kinds of bad movies are bad for different reasons but we love them just the same. Sort of. Max Vatan (Brad Pitt) is the French-speaking Canadian intelligence agent parachuted into occupied Morocco on a mission during WW2.  He arrives in a bar and cosies up to his fake wife Marianne Beausejour (Marion Cotillard) who introduces him to her friends. They are all speaking French. Max and Marianne are spies and have never actually met before tonight. Before you can say Operation Desert Storm they’re having it away in a swirl of sand in their car and without even a hint of jeopardy they carry out their ostensible mission to assassinate the local Nazi chief at a lovely party. Then they fetch up in London at their wedding and while the city is bombed Marianne has their baby daughter. A year later Max is working and she’s staying at home and he’s asked to look at the evidence against his beloved – his superiors in the Special Operations Executive claim that he is sleeping with the enemy and the couple are pitted against one another as Max is forced to question everything and has to figure out if he must kill his own wife….  This starts out kinda like Casablanca. Well. That’s to say it starts in Casablanca which is not the same thing at all. But it does end in an aerodrome. The first half hour is in the realm of the ludicrous – perfect design, badly paced, poorly written and wholly unbelievable. The acting is debatable. I suppose there was some.  Marianne criticises Max’s Canadian French (I know – the worst insult I ever had in Paris was that my accent was Canadian – sheesh!). Except that it was a rainy Saturday, that was me. But it actually gets better. There’s something about dull old north London burbs that has a lingering interest and wondering how wicked Jared Harris might be in planting a seed of doubt in Max’s mind about his lovely wife – not that it lasts for long. This is a turkey that mutates into something of a hybrid spy romance melodrama. It wanted to be a classic but refined its ambitions to resemble something like Hanover Street. Oh I’m too kind. More story, less sauce, next time, you naughty boys with your Lesbian antics. Written by Steven Knight and directed by Robert Zemeckis. I know! Can you believe it? Frankly, no.

Atomic Blonde (2017)

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You can’t unfuck what’s been fucked. Women are always getting in the way. Aren’t they? Berlin 1988. The Cold War. Protesters are gathering to break down the Wall. Super spy Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) is being debriefed in an MI6 bunker back in London about an impossible mission that’s gone horribly wrong. She relates the sorry saga to her boss Eric Gray (Toby Jones) and a CIA honcho Emmett Kurzfeld (John Goodman) as their uber chief observes behind the usual glass wall. She was deployed to retrieve a dossier of double agents following the murder of their man Gascoigne.  Her meeting in Berlin with station chief David Percival (James McAvoy) is put in jeopardy by the KGB in the first sequence which has the most innovative use of stilettos since Rosa Kleb. The comparison is not for nothing. This is a rollicking non-stop who’s-working-for-what-agency action thriller with an astonishing array of gruesome encounters.  The list everyone wants ends up becoming a Hitchcockian McGuffin because the fun is in the execution (quite viscerally).  It wouldn’t be a Cold War thriller without a double cross-cross-cross complete with a twist ending.  You want it? You got it! This is a postmodern delight with tongue firmly embedded in cheek: from the amazing soundtrack (that’s an audacious thing, using Bowie’s Cat People theme over the titles!), Stalker is playing at the cinema on Alexanderplatz, to a KGB villain called Bakhtin (if you’re into cultural theory) and a neat inversion of the Basic Instinct interrogation scenario with the men defused (literally) by Lorraine’s recollection of Lesbian sex with neophyte French agent Delphine (Sofia Boutella). There’s a double agent called Merkel (ha!) and there’s even someone called Bela Balazs on the credits (film theorists will appreciate this…). The songs in some scenes are laugh out loud appropriate and the clothes … the clothes! Talk about on the money!  The action is horribly violent but balletic and believable and Theron is super-likeable in what might well be an audition for Jane Blonde. I want to be her when I grow up. Great fun. Adapted by Kurt Johnstad from the graphic novel The Coldest City by Antony Johnston and Sam Hart and directed by David (John Wick) Leitch, who knows a good action sequence and how to use it.

Keeping Up With the Joneses (2016)

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Ten years, thirty countries, nobody finds us out and we don’t last a week in the suburbs! Desperate housewife Karen Gaffney (Isla Fisher) is bored out of her mind with her kids packed off to summer camp and her meek human resources guy husband Jeff (Zach Galafianakis) off to work at MBI Electronics every day. She spends her days designing a urinal. Then a gorgeous couple moves in across the street and suddenly life in the cul de sac takes on a whiff of international intrigue when she starts spying on them  … only to find that they are undercover agents. Jon Hamm and Gal Gadot are the Joneses and they insinuate themselves into the couple’s life apparently without realising they are being followed by them in turn. When the situation is reversed the average joes find themselves at the centre of a murderous espionage plot – with some treacherous neighbours implicated in industrial theft. Jeff’s people skills and Karen’s feminine intuition come in handy when push comes to shove and there’s an explosive finale involving a villain with self-esteem issues but overall the very good premise and a wonderful cast is laid waste by something – the writing? The pacing? Shame. It coulda been a contender! Written by Michael LeSieur and directed by Greg Mottola.

The Third Man (1949)

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Western pulp writer Holly Martins (Joseph Cotten) arrives in post-WW2 Vienna at the invitation of old schoolfriend Harry Lime (Orson Welles) only to find that he is just in time for his funeral. British military intelligence in the form of Major Calloway (Trevor Howard) makes his acquaintance while Holly believes there was a third man present at Harry’s mysterious death and he finds himself falling for Harry’s lover Anna (Alida Valli). There are some films whose imagery is practically enamelled in one’s brain and this is one of them, regularly voted the greatest British film ever (despite the crucial involvement of David O. Selznick) with its unforgettable score, the shimmering rain-slicked streets, the chase through the sewers, the treacherous manchild, the funeral, the theatre, the appalling talk at the British Council, the cuckoo clock speech, the Prater … A combination of spy thriller, spiv drama, film noir, character study, western, romance, this was an unusually brilliant collaboration between director Carol Reed and writer Graham Greene, whose friend Kim Philby was a source of much of the story. And this is ultimately a film about stories and storytelling. But nothing can explain this film’s legend – not even Orson Welles’ tall tales – it must be seen to feel that tangible atmosphere, those shadows, the light at the end of the tunnel, those canted angles, that amazing sense of place. My book on its complex origins, production and afterlife in radio and TV is published today on Amazon:  https://www.amazon.co.uk/Trouble-Harry-Third-Man-ebook/dp/B072BTQN48/ref=sr_1_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1494840986&sr=8-2&keywords=elaine+lennon.

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Snowbound (1948)

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Terrifically tricksy adaptation of the Hammond Innes (remember him?!) novel The Lonely Skier.  Dennis Price (you had me at hello!) is a former soldier recruited by his WW2 CO Robert Newton (Price is an extra on his film set) to pretend to be a screenwriter at an Alpine resort where a motley assortment of characters is gathering – the most English Englishman ever, Guy Middleton, Italian comtessa Mila Parely, Marcel Dalio. Stanley Holloway and a self-announced Greek, Herbert Lom (yeah, right!).  Price is producing reports for Newton in between ski runs and it eventually transpires that they’re all in search of a horde of gold stashed during the war. There’s wads of tension, a Christie-esque scene in which Holloway laughingly disrupts a gun quarrel by dint of opening a door, a marvellous torchlit search on the mountains when Price is inevitably injured by Lom – a Nazi, obviously – and left for dead, and a conflagration for a conclusion. It’s a bit too clever by far but give me mountains, give me snow, give me gluhwein, I’m there. Wonderfully atmospheric. Adapted by Keith Campbell and David Evans directed by David MacDonald. A Gainsborough production.

Central Intelligence (2016)

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Bob (Dwayne Johnson) is the fat kid bullied at high school and Calvin(Kevin Hart) is the kid who saves what’s left of his dignity in the gym by giving him his jacket:  years later gym bunny Bob Facebooks him on the eve of their reunion and insinuates his way into Calvin’s accounting firm and gets him to look up some numbers. They’re bids on US satellites.  A knock on the door by the CIA reveals Bob is a rogue agent selling satellite codes to terrorists – allegedly. A cat and mouse chase in Massachusetts ensues with Calvin unwillingly involved as a pawn. There are a lot of bright moments mostly concerning Bob’s winning personality – he’s obsessed with Molly Ringwald and unicorns.  The big joke is all that:  the difference in size between him and the diminutive Calvin as the predictable intra-agency high jinks ensue and a dangerous transaction ultimately sorts out the real baddies. There’s buckets of charm between a few ill-chosen jokes and predictable action sequences and it’s no surprise at all to see Jason Bateman turning up as the adult bully. There’s a sweet kicker though when we meet Bob’s high school crush. You’ll have to watch it to find out! Undemanding fun. Directed by Rawson Marshall Thurber from a screenplay by Ike Barinholtz and David Stassen.

Mrs Pollifax – Spy (1971)

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A widowed retiree volunteers her services to the CIA and finds herself drugged in Mexico City and handcuffed to Darren McGavin on a plane to Albania. A different kind of gap year, perhaps. Rosalind Russell herself adapted the promising book by Dorothy Gilman (one of a series) in a production by her husband, Frederick Brisson. Instead of the fun travelogue spoof you might expect of the era, it’s a mostly dull stint in an Albanian prison (an hour…) with just a few colour shots in Mexico and an awful lot of sparse mountains. Remind me never to go to the land of Enver Hoxha or even Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, which looks like an utterly miserable substitute. Unremarkable, to say the very least. It was Russell’s last film. Directed by Leslie Martinson.