Friday, 28 September 2012

New(ish) Review: 'Killing Them Softly'

This used to be easy for me. Dredd was a simple film to review. They’re stuck in a building, there’s lots of slow motion, everyone’s face explodes... bam: one thousand words! Right in the butt.

But for Killing Them Softly, I may need to think a little harder.

Adapted from the 1974 novel Cogan’s Trade, director and screenwriter Andrew Dominik’s (Chopper and *deep breath* The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford) crime thriller stars Brad Pitt as Jackie Cogan, the underworld enforcer who’s called in to tie up all the loose ends left after Ray Liotta’s mob-controlled poker game is held up by two amateur criminals (Scoot McNairy and Ben Mendelsohn).

Set against the always cheery backdrop of contemporary-recession America, there’s an uncanny air of grim realism surrounding Killing Them Softly. Stylistically (and true to its literary roots), it’s reminiscent of those classic slow-burn thrillers from the 70s, a la Rolling Thunder, with a strong emphasis placed on character development and a suspenseful build-up towards an inevitably bloody climax. But at the same time, a thin vein of jet black humour can be seen running throughout the picture. Frequent news broadcasts of Barack Obama delivering sweeping, patriotic speeches about the American peoples’ unity clashes with the perpetually downtrodden nature of this on-screen world, furbishing the film with a sharp satirical edge.          

How much you enjoy Killing Them Softly will likely depend on your level of tolerance for lengthy dialogue scenes. In Tarantino-esque style, Dominik wants us to fully understand these characters, regardless of their overall importance to the plot. Take James Gandolfini’s extended cameo, for example. His grouchy mob hitman, Mickey, arrives to help Cogan with the necessary targets. These two men sit in a largely deserted bar, where we learn all about Mickey’s troubles with the law over a spot of botched geese hunting, along with bothersome marital issues and a rather obvious drinking problem. Only after all this ground has been covered do we get round to the whole assassination job crux.

Either you’ll become fully engrossed in these sequences of flowing discourse, or you’ll be waiting for Dominik to hurry up and GET ON WITH IT. I found my patience being tried on only one occasion, luckily, in a scene where the two poker game-robbing smack heads can’t keep a crucial conversation going due to the overpowering narcotics they’ve just fired into their bloodstreams. It could have been over in two minutes, but instead drags on as Mendelsohn’s layabout keeps slipping in and out of full consciousness, while McNairy repeatedly bellows the same basic questions at him until I want to kick a puppy.

Slow as this breed of pacing may be, it’s an experience that’s absolutely worth sitting through. Dominik’s careful attention to detail is exactly what will help place Killing Them Softly high up on many a cinephile’s (creepy word) ‘Top XX Films of the Year’ list. Not that there isn’t some basic bloodletting to look out for as well, though. But in keeping with the title, there’s a pleasantly understated side to the infrequent-yet-graphic violence that’s depicted here. Save for one rather angelically choreographed take-out, death just... happens here. Sudden, shocking and unpleasant: just as it would be.      

I don’t pay nearly as much attention to sound design during my reviews as I should (feels guilty, man), but in this instance I need to make a special exception. Anything audible – from the slam of a car door, to the pounding of fists against a victim’s bloodied face; and a shotgun blast that cuts through the night in terrifying fashion – is packed with a staggering amount of oomph. I was taken aback on multiple occasions and it remains to be seen whether this effect will be replicated for home video. The actual soundtrack, meanwhile, is a memorable assortment of country and blues music (Ketty Lester and Johnny Cash feature) on hand to lend Killing Them Softly a tinge of golden oldie quality.  

Ah, but I know what you’re thinking... do we get to hear the infamous ‘Ray Liotta Laugh’? Well rest easy, Ray fans, because we most certainly do. It’s been a while since Turbulence, but those manic cackles are once again unleashed upon our delicate, unsuspecting ears; and Liotta’s happy face remains just as terrifying as ever. Conal Cochran could patent it for the next wave of Silver Shamrock masks.

Funny thing: I’m almost finished and Brad Pitt has barely even been mentioned. I think it’s no secret that in addition to boasting a perfect bone structure (complemented here by a well-groomed goatee), Pitt’s also a talented thespian. Usually, anyway. The less said about Troy the better.

The tip of an already rock solid cast (almost forgot; Richard Jenkins fans are in for a treat), Pitt comfortably slips right into Jackie Cogan (who I could swear remains unnamed for the full running time, that is unless I missed a stray line of dialogue – corrections on a postcard to the usual address). Though not introduced until the first act has concluded, Cogan instantly commands our attention. He’s superficially easy going, but Pitt leaves us in no doubt over the man’s ability as a professional killer thanks to his trademark steely-eyed coolness that suddenly makes all male audience members feel obliged to hand in their man cards.

At the time of writing, Killing Them Softly is still roughly two weeks away from being released outside of the UK, Ireland and Spain; and a there’s a whole two months to go before its US debut. This staggered release schedule means it’ll be an interesting journey for the film, which has already attracted near-unanimous critical praise. Whether or not it gels quite so smoothly with audiences the world over is another story, but anyone searching for a piece of truly mature filmmaking should jump at the chance to see Dominik’s latest cinematic endeavour.

Really, it was so grown up, I had to go watch something stupid afterwards. As luck would have it, I’d recently imported Samurai Cop, which was bad on so many wonderful levels... but I needed it.

Saturday, 15 September 2012

New(ish) Review: 'DREDD 3D'

It’s strange to think how rarely an 18 rated straight-up action film is released in cinemas today. Over the past couple of decades, other genres have continued to push controversial boundaries (especially comedy, which I’m sure has just reached a kind of delirious zenith with Ted), while the sweaty days of macho yore have been largely sent straight-to-video or simply neutered for the “benefit” of a wider audience. But I can’t be the only one who’s noticed a slow resuscitation of traditional action cinema in recent years. I’m telling you, Stallone got a rather masculine ball rolling in 2008 with Rambo. Progress since then has been slow but steady... and now, based on the classic 2000 AD character, here’s the latest glimmer of hope: Dredd 3D. 

Judge Dredd (Karl Urban) patrols the decadent streets of Mega-City One – a metropolis located within post-apocalyptic America: the Cursed Earth. Something of a legend, Dredd’s latest assignment sees him evaluating the rookie Judge Anderson (Olivia Thirlby), a “mutant” gifted with psychic powers. Meanwhile, a new narcotic that drastically alters the user’s perception of time is taking the city by storm. Called Slo-Mo, it’s controlled by the ruthless drug lord Ma-Ma (Lena Headey), who operates from the top floor of Peach Trees, a 200-storey high tower block. Dredd and Anderson arrive at Peach Trees to investigate a multiple homicide, where they soon incur the wrath of Ma-Ma, who locks down the tower, trapping the two Judges inside with an army of her followers. With nowhere to go but up, Dredd takes the fight to them, exerting his power as judge, jury and executioner.      

Now, I thought Expendables 2 was old school, but Dredd is positively archaic. Alex Garland’s screenplay doesn’t mess around. This is a solid 90 minutes of back to basics ultra violence administered by a stomping protagonist ripped straight from another era of cinema. Playing the role in suitably deadpan fashion, Karl Urban demonstrates what might happen if Harry Callahan made a baby with Robocop – a frightening mental image in itself, but there you go. Once on, Dredd’s helmet never comes off... and I have never before seen a chin give the kind of performance that Urban’s grizzled jaw line pulls off. It’s... almost hypnotic in its grumpiness...

Yes, Joe Dredd is not a nice man. In fact he lets his Lawgiver do most of the talking. Utilising voice recognition, Dredd’s primary weapon packs semi and fully-automatic firing modes, armour piercing bullets, along with incendiary and high-explosive rounds for those extra messy opportunities. And all are used with invariably graphic results. It can’t be stated clearly enough: Dredd is a brutal piece of work that often reaches levels of intense sadism, especially when Slo-Mo comes into play. During an early drug bust, Dredd and Anderson breach a room filled with intoxicated thugs and promptly reduce most of them to taco meat. One bullet goes through a man’s face and his cheek EXPLODES. SLOWLY. In 3D! Not pretty at all, but this is what you’re in for. My own psychic abilities might not be fully developed, yet I can foresee more sensitive viewers walking out of this one.       

Extreme as it can (and does) become, there’s more to Dredd than billowing, ruptured flesh (I swear). Keeping me hooked was the veteran-rookie dynamic between Dredd and Anderson. It gives this otherwise mean spirited picture a heart of sorts. I was worried that Thirlby would be an anchor weighing Urban down, but instead the way her relative inexperience clashes with Dredd’s grouchy expertise make for some of the film’s absolute best moments. It’s not long before Dredd starts feeling like a futuristic cross between Die Hard and The Enforcer (you know, that Dirty Harry sequel with the hippy terrorists). And while it’s not exactly a Buddy Cop relationship, the brief moments of wry humour they do generate together is what stops an already bleak tale from becoming almost unbearably grim.

I haven’t watched Game of Thrones (sorry) or Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles (sorry!). In fact I haven’t seen much of Lena Headey at all, but after witnessing her scary turn here as Ma-Ma, I might have to rectify that. Her character is an interesting one – largely downplayed, but deeply unnerving. It’s all in the way she calmly has three insubordinate drug pushers skinned and thrown from the tower block’s top floor to a splattery death – all while they’re forced under the influence of Slo-Mo. So she means business, and makes for a suitably dangerous antagonist.   

Whatever complaints I may have don’t amount to much. Occasions arose when Slo-Mo scenes come close to bordering on the art house fluff side of style, but they were mostly kept to the first act. Elsewhere, there was one secondary antagonist whose fate came off as disappointingly abrupt, while a little voice at the back of my head began to question if the violence was a getting bit too nasty. It shut up pretty quick.

To my great surprise, I don’t even have many bad things to type about the additional dimension Dredd subjected me to. I know it’ll sadly be a headache-inducing nightmare for some, but the extra depth was used appropriately and added some flair to the more visually arresting moments, whether it’s the aforementioned exploding cheek, floating bath bubbles mixed with a cascade of water or just a massive close-up of someone’s eyelash. Fancy stuff.   

Ultimately, Dredd is just another day at the office for the almighty chinned law enforcer. The decision to focus on one isolated incident is what gives it the focus and energy it needs to rise far above its modest budget. Sequels have already been touted, depending on agreeable box office results, with early plans to explore the Cursed Earth and whatever horrors it contains, while a potential trilogy capper might bring in the undead Dark Judges and their plague of zombie terror. While that sounds great and would in all probability be great, I do hope this maybe-series doesn’t pull a Chronicles of Riddick by doing too much all at once and seemingly forget what made it work in the first place.

But say Dredd doesn’t do the necessary business and those plans are scrapped. Thanks to its purely rugged entertainment value, we’ll still have one hell of a stand-alone adaptation that, while not suited to more delicate tastes, should easily satisfy 2000 AD fans (despite the lack of drokks and greenies), action connoisseurs looking for a bloody good time (emphasis on the bloody) and anyone who wants to forget all about the Stallone original...

... which we all know is totally underrated.