While I came to Half-Life late, Valve's 1998 masterpiece was the game that cemented my enthusiasm for games generally, and first-person shooters specifically. Replaying it almost 20 years on from its release, one aspect shines more than any other: the game's unique environments and crucial sense of place.
During the early history of the FPS, developers did not tend to prioritise settings. In classics of the form like Doom (1993), Hexen (1994) and Duke Nukem 3D (1996), settings and locations were only nominal, with little to no coherence between levels or episodes. Things began to change with id Software's Quake II (1997), in which the player progressed through numerous areas of an enemy planet, Stroggos. It was Valve and Half-Life, however, which gave the FPS its first - and perhaps best - coherent sense of place.
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.
Mario Puzo (1920 - 1999) is legendary for his novel The Godfather and the film trilogy it spawned. The American author won two Oscars for his screenplays for the first two films, and deservedly so - he not only wrote an epic saga of the American mafia but also played a vital part in helping Francis Ford Coppola adapt and expand it for the screen. Sadly, far fewer people know of the only literary expansion of the Godfather mythos written by Puzo himself - his later novel The Sicilian.
The nominations for the 2017 Oscars were unveiled today. While the 24 categories cover most creative and technical aspects of film-making, there's a conspicuous lack of recognition for stunt co-ordination, choreography, and performance.
Of course, like the domination of La La Land in this year's list, this is no surprise. The Academy's resistance to recognising the men and women who bring action to the screen is stubborn and longstanding. Stunts and action sequences have thrilled audiences almost since the dawn of cinema, but the Academy has never seen fit to reward those who make this possible, even at the risk of life and limb.
Return to Castle Wolfenstein could be called one of the most unheralded first-person shooters of its time. Developed by Gray Matter under the supervision of id Software, the game was released in November 2001 to excellent reviews - but it was ultimately overshadowed by both Medal of Honor: Allied Assault (released just two months later) and its own multiplayer spinoff, Enemy Territory.
Return to Castle Wolfenstein was both a resurrection of id's iconic Wolfenstein 3D (1992), and a thoroughly modern first-person shooter. Remarkably, the developers succeeded in both paying tribute to the "grandfather of first-person shooters" and fully absorbing the lessons from the games that followed in its wake. As a result, RTCW captures the thrill of both old school and modern shooters, and retains tremendous appeal over 15 years later.
The 2008 James Bond film Quantum of Solace is a cruelly misunderstood and underrated entry in the decades-long series. The remarkable product of a difficult production process, Marc Forster's film is a superb and bold follow-up to Martin Campbell's Casino Royale (2006), which reinvigorated 007. Part of the film's strength lies in its basis in a strong theme which informs almost every aspect of the production: revenge.
The Oscar-nominated Steven Seagal vehicle Under Siege hit screens in October 1992. A significant hit, it opened the floodgates for a wave of films which attempted to recreate the magic of John McTiernan's Die Hard, Suddenly, four years after the release of the Bruce Willis classic, every studio was putting a relatable everyman (or sometimes Steven Seagal) up against armed terrorists within a relatively confined space: a ship, a train, an airliner.
Even today, the "Die Hard scenario" remains popular and the films which attempt this approach form an intriguing subgenre. Surprisingly, though, there is one film which very successfully copied the format of Die Hard which isn't too often discussed - and that's the film's very own sequel, Renny Harlin's Die Hard 2.
Renny Harlin's 1996 film The Long Kiss Goodnight is worth taking a look at right now for a few reasons: it was released 20 years ago this year, it's a classic Christmas action film up there with Die Hard, and it's one of the underrated gems of its genre.
Shane Black was paid $4 million for his terrific script, and Harlin had hopes that his then-wife Geena Davis would become a bankable action star. However, Harlin's 1995 flop Cutthroat Island cast a long shadow, and The Long Kiss Goodnight underperformed. Although it has its vocal champions, including Priscilla Page, the film languishes in relative obscurity - but here are five reasons why it deserves a place in any action fan's heart.
Recently I've really been getting into Italian crime fiction in a big way. I began by reading Roberto Saviano's amazing and chilling non-fiction book Gomorrah, then sought out the equally superb TV series. Last night, I watched Suburra, a 2015 crime epic directed by Stefano Sollima, one of Gomorrah's three directors.
Like the TV series, Suburra is an intensely detailed and bleak account of systemic criminal corruption in Italy. As opposed to Naples, where Gomorrah takes place, Suburra is set in Rome - meaning that senior politicians, the Roman mob, and even the Pope are implicated in all the seedy events that take place. It's brilliant, harrowing stuff driven by a great script and a fine ensemble cast. It's quite labyrinthine, so I decided to create this chart showing just some of the complex relationships. You can download a PDF copy below.
Stefano Sollima is the son of Sergio Sollima (1921 - 2015), director of three of the best Italian western films ever made. Right now he's working on Soldado, the sequel to Denis Villeneuve's 2015 film Sicario, which was also a favourite of mine - it's in safe hands. Suburra is also being made into a Netflix series - so there's plenty more Italian crime goodness still to come.
Lethal Weapon may not have launche the buddy-cop genre as such - Walter Hill's 48 Hrs. (1982) was just one of its antecedents - but it definitely helped to cement and popularise this enduringly popular idea. Played by Mel Gibson and Danny Glover respectively, Martin Riggs and Roger Murtaugh are now the archetypal buddy cops. They reunited for three sequels up until 1998, were parodied in Loaded Weapon 1 (1993), and have been re-imagined and re-cast for a 2016 TV series.
Besides launching the franchise and boosting the buddy-cop subgenre, Lethal Weapon was a trendsetting film for a number of other reasons. It launched Mel Gibson's career in the US, turned Shane Black into a screenwriting superstar, and is even a milestone in the use of martial arts sequences in American action films. The film's commercial success and continued influence are clear enough, but were the product of a very specific set of ingredients combined together by veteran director Donner.