No time to die

Daniel Craig’s much delayed swan song as the world’s most famous spy concludes in spectacular style, proving once again that when it comes to being James Bond, nobody does it better.

Bond has always tailored himself in the cultural clothing of the time and now he’s refit for the #MeToo era, and his latest mission sees him not only saving the world but also being held to account for his litany of misogyny going back to the first Bond film, 1962’s Dr. No.

And the most powerful asset of this globetrotting action thriller is Craig’s willingness to the essay 007’s psychological pain, a bravura performance from a script which leans purposely on aspects of Greek tragedy.

Classical allusions include a scientific project called Herakles, a henchman nicknamed Cyclops, and Ralph Fiennes’ ‘M’ suffering an enormous bout of hubris. Meanwhile the traditional pre-title sequence plays as a prologue setting out the key characters as well as the more standard 007 action set-piece. And later we’re treated to a 21st century spin on a gouging of the eyes.

These elements are no cheap grab for cultural gravitas, but are embedded in the script’s DNA. Nor are allusions to myth and legend new to Bond, feel free to read about Skyfall placing Bond on a pedestal next to King Arthur, here.

Bond suffers emotional and physical punishment which leaves him bruised, bloodied and bereft. And the closer Bond gets to happiness the more his suffering and the dramatic stakes increase. It’s a dilemma which illuminates the dark heart of Bond.

Since Judi Dench’s ‘M’ called Pierce Brosnan’s Bond ‘a misogynist dinosaur’ in 1995’s Goldeneye, the franchise filmmakers have grappled with the sexism of Bond the man, and the franchise. However No Time To Die sees a reset of values, and Bond is made to suffer a series of humblings at the hands of a pair of high-achieving younger female agents.

British star Lashana Lynch and Cuban-Spanish actress Ana de Armas excel as play agents of MI6 and the CIA respectively, they’re equally as ruthless and skilled as Bond, and each essay a very different brand of humour. Plus the former answers the question, could we have a non-white and/or female 007, with a resounding yes.

This is all welcome but I wasn’t expecting for Bond to apologise and then attempt to atone for a lifetime of sexist behaviour. This would be a jaw-dropping move in any popcorn blockbuster, never mind the 007 franchise. Don’t assume this means Bond has gone ‘soft’. When the need arises he remains an absolute cold-blooded assassin.

With Rami Malek’s terrorist mastermind called Lyutsifer Safin plotting biological warfare, this leads to a not-so-subtle allusion to the dangers of Bond’s life of promiscuity. This is a long way from 1987’s The Living Daylights which arrived in during the AIDS epidemic, where the response of Timothy Dalton’s Bond was to keep the number of his sexual partners below three.

Having Bond confront the effect of his long-standing toxic relationship with women is presumably intended to wipe clean Bond’s ledger, a necessary step in the characters reinvention if he wants to successfully navigate the changing cultural landscape.

Billie Eilish’s haunting Grammy-winning title song sets the tone for this emotional smackdown, and the pre-title sequence offers a nod to Dr. No, before updating the long-since retired silhouettes of dancing naked women, with images of a fallen Britannia.

Craig carries us through this process with an extraordinary feat of acting, unlike anything we’ve seen in this franchise before. Having once rashly promised to ‘slash my wrists’ rather than play Bond again, the actor seems energised by the prospect of putting Bond to bed.

He strains every considerable muscle to deliver a performance which is not only hugely physically demanding for a man of our age, but dramatically impressive, wryly funny, and profoundly emotional. Craig gives it all he’s got left in the tank, and absolutely smashes it among the enormous explosions, high-speed chases and ferocious fights.

The car chases have a tremendous bone-shaking authenticity, and the four – spot them – different variations of Bond’s Aston Martin car, will have petrolheads purring with avaricious delight. Plus we have a return to the gadgets that Ben Whishaw’s ‘Q’ once dismissed.

Shot through with all the gun-toting glamour you’d expect, we see 007 gunning for Safin who operates from a secret lair worthy of the great Bond villains. Frankly we’ve been long overdue a proper Bond villain threatening death to millions of people, and the return to world-saving stakes are something of a relief.

Craig was cast as 007 in response to the Jason Bourne series. And having seen off that box office threat, the producers have turned their attention to Bond’s current box office adversaries, Tom Cruise’s Mission Impossible movies.

Similar to Cruise’s agent Hunt, Bond is now the leader of a diverse if undeniably posh and British team, with Naomie Harris, Whishaw, and Fiennes reprising their roles as Moneypenny, ‘Q’ and ‘M’, and they provide plenty of humour as Bond’s surrogate family.

Legacy and family are the key themes of this mission, not least with the return of Christoph Waltz as 007’s foster brother and arch-enemy, Blofeld.

Boy, this film does not disappoint. At an extravagant 163 minutes it’s the longest Bond film yet, and uses it’s running time to bring Craig’s five film 007 tenure to a satisfying climax, and comes extremely close to allowing him to depart on an all time high.

The end credits conclude withe familiar promise James Bond will return, and with Craig leaving the series in the rudest of health I can’t wait to see the face of the future.

5/5 stars

@ChrisHunneysett

HONEST THIEF

Cert 15 Stars 3

Liam Neeson is back in action mode in this watchable action thriller which is smart enough to plays to his increasingly dour and weary strengths while never suggesting he’s going to be breaking sweat or any new ground.

The scarcely believable set up sees the big Irish actor star as ‘The In and Out Bandit’, a former marine turned bank robber, a gentleman thief who of course who never hurts anyone and is in it for the thrills not the cash.

However when he falls in love his guilty conscience insists he turn himself in and serve his time before settling down, but he’s double-crossed by two FBI agents and soon he’s on the run with his not best-pleased girlfriend, Annie.

Best known from TV’s Grey’s Anatomy, Kate Walsh is bright presence, while Jai Courtney is always been better when playing the villain and is on agreeably nasty macho form as a corrupt Federal agent.

There are car chases and shoot-outs and Neeson growls down the phone in a manner familiar from his Taken franchise, but at 68 it may be time to retire the tough guy act.

SAVAGE

Cert 18 Stars 4

Violence, prejudice, loyalty and rivalry feature heavily in this powerful Kiwi biker drama which features enjoyable camaraderie between horrifying scenes of drugs, prostitution and child abuse.

Australian actor Jake Ryan is immense as the brooding and volatile gang enforcer known as Damage, who’s torn between his biological family and his surrogate family, a biker gang called The Savages, a conflict which threatens his lifelong friendship with gang president, Moses.

With alarming facial tattoos, Ryan is a real life Taekwondo black belt and brings an all too believable ferocity to the brutality while also essaying a moving portrayal of the wounded integrity and inner turmoil of a man weary of being feared,

Strong in detail and sense of place, ambitious in its scope yet intimate in mood, writer and director Sam Kelly spreads his narrative over 30 years and coaxes lovely performances from the child actors as younger versions of the characters.

Inspired by the true stories of New Zealand’s criminal underworld, this a little explored aspect of New Zealand society, far more often associated in cinema with the lovable and genteel Hobbits.

MARA

Cert 15 Stars 2

There’s no need to stay up late for this plodding scare-free supernatural horror plagued by a demon who kills people in their sleep, and is based on the eyebrow raising premise over 40% of world’s population suffer from sleep paralysis, two thirds of whom describe being attacked by a demonic entity.

As the investigating criminal psychologist, former Bond girl Olga Kurylenko delivers a well-judged physical performance, but it’s not enough to compensate for the clunky predictable dialogue she’s saddled with, from a script which is so devoid of imagination and energy it could put Freddy Krueger to sleep.

UNHINGED

Cert 15 Stars 4

Russell Crowe rampages back into cinemas in this brutal road rage thriller which courts controversy by offering sympathy for his maniac character who drives the action.

The Oscar winning star of Gladiator is one of my favourite actors and he delivers a double-barrelled performance as Tom, a regular guy who’s suffering a breakdown of the nervous variety, and who begins a campaign of terror against a fellow motorist who impatiently beeps at Tom on the morning school run and refuses to apologise when Tom asks her to.

This sly attempt at victim-blaming by the script is an attempt to lure us into a moral trap by encouraging us to sympathise with Tom, a self-pitying brute and the manifestation of the frothing anger of a certain type of disenfranchised middle-aged blue collar bloke.

The relatively unknown actress Caren Pistorius is equally great as the single mother subject to Tom’s violent fury and she’s given a brilliantly funny killer line which will probably define her career.

And the moral waters are further muddied by her realistic flaws such using her phone while she drives, meanwhile Tom uses smartphone tech to target her family and friends en route to kidnap, arson and some serious vehicle damage.

With a career-long appetite for meaty roles which allow him to chew the scenery, Crowe now appears to be twice the man he used to be, and his enormous bulk provides a Terminator-like imperviousness during Tom’s remorseless pursuit.

Tom’s such a relentless and magnificent monster this almost qualifies as a horror film, and it can be parked alongside Michael Douglas’s 1993 classic Falling Down for its mix of topical social commentary and terrific popcorn thrills.

Unhinged was a great re-introduction to cinema on my first trip since lockdown and as part of a safe and socially distanced audience it was brilliant to once again experience the unique excitement of watching films on the big screen.

 

THE FANATIC

Cert 18 Stars 1

In the wake of the tragic death of John Travolta’ wife Kelly Preston it seems desperately cruel to pan his latest film, but this thriller where he plays an obsessed fan who kidnaps his favourite actor, is sadly hide-behind-the-sofa terrible in every aspect.

It’s misconceived on an epic level by writer and director Fred Durst, better known as frontman of Florida rap-rock band Limp Bizkit.

This isn’t the worst performance I’ve seen of Travolta’s in the last couple of years, and I firmly believe and hope he still has at least one more glorious comeback left in him

GHOSTS OF WAR

Cert 15 Stars 3

Scares and shoot-outs are well-balanced in this Second World War haunted house horror influenced by the work of lauded sci-fi writer Robert A. Heinlein and his speculative ideas of future military technology.

Brenton Thwaites plays the fresh-faced leader of a five-strong squad who’s pleased to be ordered to defend a deserted French chateau, and it’s only after a fierce battle with a passing German platoon events become weird, beginning with their field radio seemingly picking up signals from beyond the grave.

Sadly old-school special effects slowly give way to glossy CGI, and fans of Hollywood’s forgotten man Billy Zane, will be disappointed at his lack of screen time.

The script speaks to humanity’s ageless appetite for warfare and though it flags up the idea the Second World War represents a moral high ground in comparison all subsequent wars are found wanting, it fails to give itself adequate time to explore it.

But for the most part this offers pretty effective entrainment, with the main actors putting in a shift among the bloody and sometimes brutal action which is choreographed in a shoot ’em up video game stylee.

 

ARKANSAS

Cert 15 Stars 3

Vince Vaughn once again demonstrates he’s so much better when not trying to be funny in this meandering hard boiled modern day thriller based on the novel by John Brandon, which digs deep into the American dream and comes out covered in nihilism, filth and death.

With a brawny menacing charm Vaughn plays a mysterious and ruthless gangster called ‘Frog’ who’s based in rural Arkansas, where the crime is more disorganised rather than otherwise.

He becomes involved with a pair of non-too clever low level drug dealers who are struggling to dispose of a couple of cadavers and events spiral out of control.

The dimwitted duo are played by Liam Hemsworth and Clark Duke, the latter miscasting himself in his directorial debut as the overly confident and talkative ‘brains’ of the operation.

Although Duke struggles with meshing the comic moments and the violence, he succeeds in obtaining some entertaining performances from his cast which includes Michael Kenneth Williams, Vivica A. Fox and John Malkovich as a far from clean cop.

BURDEN

Cert 15 Stars 3

Racism, rednecks and repentance are the key ingredients in this earnest drama based on a true story from South Carolina in 1996.

Garrett Hedlund is unrecognisable from his biggest role in sci-fi action Tron: Legacy, and stars as violent bigot Mike Burden who falls for Judy, an impoverished single mother, who awakens in him a desire for a better life away from the Klan.

This is much to the disgust of his mentor at the local  Ku Klux Klan, who’s played with avuncular intimidation by Brit actor Tom Wilkinson.

Geordie actress Andrea Riseborough is a magnetic presence full of integrity and conviction as Judy, easily overshadowing her scowling, mumbling co-star.

One time Oscar winner Forest Whitaker brings dignified conviction to his impassioned and softly spoken role as Reverend David Kennedy who preaches peaceful protest as he attempts to save a sinner.

Although there’s no shying away from hatred and brutality, and scenes of assault are necessarily upsetting, as a drama Burden treads a well worn path, is a tad over-sentimental and doesn’t reach the Oscar-worthy levels of redemption it aims for.

BLACK WATER: ABYSS

Cert 15 Stars 4

Cinemas reopen with a big bite of adventure as a killer crocodile goes on the rampage in this brisk, tense and claustrophobic action thriller which delivers a torrent of terror and no-nonsense popcorn thrills.

Featuring everything I find most terrifying in nature such as small spaces, deep water, hungry predators and angry Australian women, it sees five attractive young holiday-makers explore a remote cavern under the wild forests of Northern Australia.

But a tropical storm cause the cave system to flood and traps them beside a subterranean lake with a rising water level, and they realise they must play chicken with a croc if they want to survive.

Four of the cast have served time on Aussie TV in either Neighbours and Home and Away, and top billed Jessica McNamee featured in Jason Statham’s giant shark thriller, The Meg, and as well as experience of underwater on screen peril she brings a fierce determination.

All of the actors put in a shift forced to spend most of the time in the dark, wet and cold, and dealing with a pregnancy subplot which is pure soap opera, and that’s ok as this is a movie where the fun is all about guessing who gets eaten next.

‘Don’t splash’ is about the best of their limited survival knowledge, and they kindly make jokes about Paul Hogan’s Crocodile Dundee, so I don’t have to.

Director Andrew Traucki was responsible for 2007’s Black Water which also featured a vicious croc, and also 2010’s killer shark flick The Reef, so he’s definitely on solid ground when filming in the water.

Making a virtue of his lean concept Traucki keeps up a decent rate of knots and sensibly keeps the croc at a menacing distance or up close and very personal, and this is a good fit with last year’s croc shocker Crawl, or 2016 shark thriller, The Shallows.

With preview screenings tomorrow {Saturday} it’s on release from next Friday.