While many people can reel off a list of their favourite Christmas movies, far fewer would be able to think of even one film they love set at New Year. It makes sense, because while Christmas is a time for staying in with movies, New Year is normally a time for going out and making dubious choices under the influence of alcohol. Clearly, these are not normal times and so I made the safe and eminently sensible choice to stay in and watch Strange Days, which is that rare thing - a notable New Year movie.
Directed by Kathryn Bigelow and released in October 1995, Strange Days is a science fiction thriller set at that most unique New Year - during the last two days of 1999, leading up to the dawn of the new millennium. While it received some good reviews, the film was a catastrophic flop on release and made just $8 million in the US against a $42 million budget, which probably knocked Bigelow off the studio’s Christmas card list. For this reason, combined with the difficulty in seeing the film until recently, Strange Days has languished in relative obscurity, a footnote to the director’s now much more successful career. However, a small cult following regards it as a minor classic - and they’re right.
In 1966, American film director Richard Brooks needed a hit. He had recently made Lord Jim, an epic adaptation of Joseph Conrad’s novel which had opened to poor reviews and a worse box-office return. His plan to get back on top surprised Hollywood insiders: he would adapt A Mule for the Marquesa, a recent Western novel by Frank O’Rourke. Released under the title The Professionals, Brooks’ new film would go on to become one of the most profitable Westerns of the 1960s, taking $9 million in the US alone.
Today, The Professionals is often overshadowed by other classic American Westerns of the 1960s, not to mention the best of the Italian Westerns that came to prominence at that time. It is sometimes described as a merely “crowd-pleasing”, or “undemanding” film - one that delivers excitement but asks little of its audience. In fact, The Professionals is more than just box-office dynamite - it’s a gripping but also thoughtful movie, with a terrific script that reflects Brooks’ ideas about life, death, loyalty, and revolution. It’s this combination of action, humour, solid craft, and big ideas that make the movie an unmissable Western.
Note: the audio version of this piece is re-written compared with the original below
In 2017, the BFI published an article about the "17 rare times when a director made five or more great films in a row". This being the BFI, their choices were mostly on the Criterion-approved, arty end: Anderson, Tarkovsky, Antonioni, and so on. For me, one name sprang immediately to mind, one much less adored in cineaste circles: Walter Hill.
Now more or less retired, Hill has had a fascinating and varied career which began in the late 1960s. As an uncredited second assistant director on Bullitt (1968), he was responsible for keeping bystanders from walking out into the street while the car chases were being shot in San Francisco. Later, he decided to focus on screenwriting, explicitly as a route to directing. By 1975 he was in the director's chair, having written a number of scripts including for Sam Peckinpah's mid-career hit The Getaway (1972).
There's a ton of memorable scenes in Brian de Palma's Scarface (1983), but one of the best sees Miami drug lord Tony Montana (Al Pacino) making his drunken, drugged exit from a fancy restaurant. "Say goodnight to the bad guy", he slurs at the shocked diners, "it's the last time you gonna see a bad guy like me, let me tell you." De Palma's lurid film of '80s excess is smarter than it is often given credit for, and this scene is one reason. It's about how we're simultaneously fascinated and repelled by "bad guys", both in real life and in the movies.
David Ayer is another director who is as fascinated by bad guys as De Palma - he has a special interest in bad guys that ostensibly should be good. Corrupt cops have featured in several of the films he has written and directed, including Training Day (2001), Dark Blue (2003) and Street Kings (2008). Of these films, Training Day is the most reputable - it earned star Denzel Washington a Best Actor Oscar, and made Ayer's name. At the other end of the spectrum, there's Sabotage (2014).
I can't help thinking that if I was Gareth Evans, I'd be a little upset with Netflix. Just one week after the streaming giant released Evans' cult-themed horror Apostle, they have put out a movie transparently based on his own Raid series. It's hard not to suspect that the timing of The Night Comes For Us is designed at least partly to capitalise on the segment of Evans' fanbase who are disappointed that he chose not to make The Raid 3 (myself included).
While Timo Tjahjanto is a capable director in his own right, with his own ideas, the similarity of The Night Comes For Us to Evans' own movies is very striking. It's not just the presence of series acting veterans Joe Taslim, Iko Uwais, Julie Estelle and Zack Lee - much of the visual style, plotting, and (limited) characterisation is very much in the same vein. While Joe Taslim is our antihero here, and Iko Uwais an antagonist with limited screen time, this is to all intents and purposes an unofficial The Raid 3.
A master of Wing Chun has soundly defeated ten Japanese karatekas, who lie broken and groaning around him. General Miura, the organiser of this bout, demands to know the victorious fighter's name. After a pause, he answers: "I am only a Chinese".
At this point in Wilson Yip's film, Ip Man truly becomes a new folk hero. Once privileged and aloof, Ip has been transformed by the Japanese occupation of his country into a selfless protector of his people. Donnie Yen's performance as Ip reflects this change even in the way that he fights: a newfound sense of political commitment and righteous anger seems to pervade every strike.
When Walter Hill made The Driver, he felt that the time was right for its spare, minimalist approach - for something "more than, or perhaps less than, an action film." In fact, it arrived too soon. It was savaged by critics and proved a financial failure. Had Hill's next project not already entered production, The Driver might have prematurely ended his career.
Like that next project - The Warriors (1979) - The Driver has become a cult favourite. What critic Kevin Thomas of the Los Angeles Times saw as a "bad imitation" of European and American noir is now recognised as an inspired extension of those movies. Far from being "ultraviolent trash", its superb car chases are electrifying even for the '70s, the golden era of the form.
John Woo's first Hollywood film was only a modest success. In 1993 Hong Kong's master of ballistic action was little-known in the west, and Hard Target didn't take off in the way it deserved to. To really make it with American audiences, Woo needed to make American movies - and that meant blowing up some helicopters.
The exploding helicopter is one of the images synonymous with action cinema in the west. By the '80s a helicopter's very purpose in an action film was to explode. On a poster or in a trailer, an exploding helicopter is almost the ultimate visual shorthand for excitement. Even on The A-Team, a show where no-one could ever die, a chopper had to be taken out from time to time - its crew inexplicably climbing unscathed from the wreckage.
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 (2017) [IMDB]
Directed by James Gunn
Starring Chris Pratt, Zoe Saldana, Dave Bautista, Kurt Russell
The team of misfits that form a comic tangent to the Marvel Cinematic Universe get a second run-out in James Gunn's Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2. While the CGI action is more numbing than exciting, this spacefaring sequel has charm and wit to spare.
By 2014, the MCU was well-established and lucrative but in danger of becoming stale. Guardians of the Galaxy felt fresh, deftly introducing a new team of eccentric heroes without the years of buildup the Avengers had required. Better yet, Starlord and his crew were shown to exist in relative isolation from the rest of Marvel's universe, offering a degree of freedom from the straitjacket of continuity.
John Wick: Chapter 2 (2017)
Directed by Chad Stahelski
Starring Keanu Reeves, Riccardo Scamarcio, Common, Ian McShane
Free up a chair at the High Table of modern action films - John Wick: Chapter 2 has arrived and it is glorious.
There's been a clear trend in action films during the last several years: the number of films that fit squarely in the genre is quite small, and mediocre efforts outnumber the accomplished ones. Once or twice a year, however, a film is produced which immediately enters the pantheon of true greats. With their directorial debut John Wick, Chad Stahelski and David Leitch did exactly this in 2014. Combining their vast action design and second-unit experience with the total commitment of star Keanu Reeves, they forged one of the most exciting American action films of the decade.
Directing alone this time, Stahelski has gone and done it again. Chapter 2 is a blistering continuation and expansion of everything that made the original so intoxicating - the unique fictional underworld, the beautiful cinematography, Reeves' performance as "the man, the myth, the legend" that is John Wick and of course the astonishing action sequences. The sequel reaches a level of intensity and accomplishment in action cinema that, in recent years, is matched only by the likes of The Raid 2 and Mad Max: Fury Road.