Sicario Review

I did some research before writing this review and was surprised at how little films focussed on the Mexican Drug War. It’s a conflict rarely heard about through the news, with only sporadic accounts of what is happening through documentaries such as 2015’s Cartel Land. So when reading into Sicario‘s premise, I was excited to see it due to the tough subject matter it was taking on. Let’s have a look, shall we?

Sicario (Spanish for ‘hitman’) stars Emily Blunt, Josh Brolin and Benicio Del Toro and is directed by Denis Villeneuve. The film follows FBI agent Kate Macer (Blunt) as she is drafted into a covert anti-drug squad, led by the mysterious duo of Matt Graver (Brolin) and Alejandro Gillick (Del Toro).

The famed cinematographer Roger Deakins returns to a Denis Villeneuve film after his work on 2013’s Prisoners, and works his magic yet again in Sicario. His cinematography in some of the more on edge scenes almost comes down to a maths equation, with a rhythmic montage of shots just to build up tension. The gunfights that unfold on highways, in a drug mule tunnel and then finally in a drug kingpins manor (three of my favourite scenes in the film) are marvellous and shows that he is one of the best cinematographers today.

The cast are spectacular. Emily Blunt play FBI agent Kate Macer as an empowered woman during the first half of the film, but soon she gets worn down by the constant threats and violence that is erupting around her and nearly breaks down in a couple of scenes. Josh Brolin, hot off his role in Everest plays the leader of the anti-drug squad that Macer is drafted to, his character somehow charming but cunning and dastardly at the same time. He always looks like he has something to hide but his constant interaction with Blunt is brilliant to watch. The standout of the film however has to be Benicio Del Toro as the mysterious Alejandro. Del Toro is an actor that can say so much through one small facial expression, and here it works perfectly as we can gauge Alejandro’s mood from the smallest twitch of Del Toro’s mouth.

Famed composer Johann Johannsson provides the score for the film and it is atmospheric to say the least. Johannsson uses constant reverberation and increasing volume in the score, which when twinned with Deakins’ cinematography is a moody, dark and exceptional combination.

When I came out of the cinema after watching Sicario I didn’t think it deserved all the praise that other reviewers were giving it. But after sitting on it, I think I’ve figured out why I wasn’t ecstatic when I came out of the theatre. The story is incredibly dark and violent, and even as someone who enjoys ultra violent films like The Raid 2, I had some trouble with Sicario. While most of the violence on screen is bloody, it’s the violence that happens off-screen or that is mentioned that is the most stomach churning. The very first scene in the film is Macer and her team finding over forty dead bodies stacked neatly next to each other hidden in the walls of a drug house. Macer and her team run outside to throw up and you almost want to do the same.

Sicario twist and turns, bringing up more and more depraved imagery on screen, and Villeneuve just let’s it stay there for a while, almost to a point where you have to look away. Once act three rolls around and you start to learn the meaning behind certain phrases and words that keep cropping up, or why Macer is so important to the anti-drug squad and what Del Toro’s Alejandro is really doing with them, the film evokes it’s tagline, “The deeper you go, the darker it gets.”

Sicario is a film that pulls you by your stomach through a vicious and sickening world, but once you’re on the other side it’s one of the most exhilarating experiences you’ll ever have in a movie theatre. If you can stay with it, definitely check this one out.

Score: 8/10 Almost sickening, but in the end incredible.

Killing Them Softly Review

Preface

Killing Them Softly has been on my list of films to watch. I always see it on sale but never actually buy it, saying I’ll get it next time. But eventually, I went and got it after hearing great things about it, so here’s my review.

Review

Killing Them Softly stars Brad Pitt, Richard Jenkins, James Gandolfini and Ray Liotta and is written and directed by Andrew Dominik. Based on the novel Cogan’s Trade by George V. Higgins, the film follows mob enforcer Jackie Cogan (Pitt) as he is brought into solve the economic crisis that has hit the mob world.

While the original novel is set during the mid 1970s, Killing Them Softly updates the story to late 2008, using the banking crisis and the election of Barack Obama to parallel the main story in the film. This dual narrative is played throughout radio and televisions in the world, almost giving a subtle commentary that the mobsters and racketeers at the bottom of the ladder are just as sleazy as the bankers at the top.

Despite being tied to the banking crisis, the story almost feels timeless, with the clothing styles of the characters, the cars they drive and especially with the choice of music that plays throughout the film. The music flits between decades with songs like Johnny Cash’s “When The Man Comes Around“, “Money (That’s What I Want)” by Barrett Strong and “Love Letters” by Kitty Lester, making the film a mash up of the 2000s and of the early 50s and 60s. This reuse of music ties in with how the central story is about characters doing the same things over and over again, it’s a clever way to tell us, the audience, that this is just a routine occurrence and it’s a normal day for the characters on screen.

Brad Pitt is at the top of his game as hitman Jackie Cogan, a man who observes everything, doesn’t get involved and is somehow oddly delicate about his job of murdering people. As he remarks to Richard Jenkins during the film, when tasked with killing someone, he likes to “kill them softly.” James Gandolfini and Ray Liotta are the most fascinating characters, who are so high on their own machismo and place with the male-dominated world of the mafia that when they are in turmoil they start crying and wailing, turning into scared little children. Richard Jenkins plays the role he has done in a million other films, as the older man who has stuck around for longer than he should have, but his interactions with Brad Pitt in the film make up for the rather stereotypical casting.

I counted only four women in the film (two of which aren’t on screen, and the other two aren’t on it for less than a few seconds), all of whom are described or characterised by sex or their gender. It’s a film that focuses on the male characters and how they talk to each other and how they describe the women around them, showing that these men (unlike the more romanticised gangsters of years before) should not be looked up to and are rotten to the core. They are despicable, idiotic and diseased, but that makes the film even more enjoyable to watch.

For once, I don’t have to say the film was either too long or too short. Much of my criticism with films nowadays is that directors don’t know how to pace their films, leaving it over-bloated or insubstantial. Killing Them Softly only clocks in at around 90 minutes and it’s the perfect length for the film. Every scene feels like it’s been thought out methodically and has an actual reason for belonging in the film, whether it adds a little bit of back-story to a character or adds more to the puzzle of the story. The last part of dialogue between Brad Pitt and Richard Jenkins is an excellent way to end the film by tying in the banking crisis storyline without becoming preachy, and the last line by Brad Pitt is like a bullet in the way in punches to the heart of his character and his motivation.

In conclusion, Killing Them Softly feels like it takes some of the most overused genre conventions of the gangster film but creates a completely different take on them. If you can stand the hateful characters, the explosive and bloody violence and the ever present swearing, you’ll have a blast.

Score: 10/10 One of the greatest gangster films ever created.

Hitman: Agent 47 Review

I believe I am a pretty big video game fan. Being born in the 90s I grew up with a least one console in my home during my childhood years. One of my favourite franchises is the Hitman series, a long running stealth game franchise about being…. well a hitman. Be it the games, books or even the first Hitman film starring Timothy Olyphant (which is a guilty pleasure of mine), I love the franchise and it’s protagonist, so when I heard about a reboot I was all for it.

Hitman: Agent 47 stars Rupert Friend, Hannah Ware, Zachary Quinto, Thomas Kretschmann and Ciaran Hinds and is directed by Aleksander Bach. The story follows Agent 47 (Friend) a genetically engineered clone who is out to stop an organisation known only as the Syndicate from obtaining a woman with very special skills.

As always, let’s start with the good. The best actors by far are Rupert Friend and Ciaran Hinds. I believe Friend is the best on-screen adaptation of 47, he looks the part with his shaved head and barcode tattoo, he walks and talks just like the character should and has the presence of “you-have-no-idea-who-you-just-messed-with”, which is something I felt Timothy Olyphant was lacking in his portrayal. Ciaran Hinds is also good in the film, playing a retired scientist who knows a lot more about 47s past that he’s letting on. To be honest Hinds is brilliant in basically any film he’s in. I mean, he made the second Tomb Raider film fun to watch.

The film at times looks stunning, especially when the third act rolls around and the characters head to Singapore. The camera swoops around the almost futuristic city, soaking in the beautiful architecture on display. A key scene in the third act takes place at the famous Gardens by the Bay is spectacular to look at, as well as a few shots of the amazing infinity pool at the Parkroyal at Pickering hotel. The finale, which takes place on top of a helipad, also uses the city for it’s stunning backdrop. These shots of the city at night are beautiful and it fits straight into the globetrotting story that Hitman is used to.

Now for everything else. The rest of the actors are appalling. Some, like Thomas Kretschmann just look bored with the material, others like Hannah Ware and Zachary Quinto are just hamming it up making bad dialogue sound even worse. Quinto is especially bad, giving off a wide-eyed mad dog look for most of the film. Ware is monosyllabic and her primary dialogue is just the f-bomb repeated at varying degrees of volume.

The fight scenes are also below par, feeling more like action for action’s sake. Shoddy CGI is used to make bodies crumple for long falls, barely hidden stunt doubles are used, and the camera is shaking around and cutting around ten times per second. When will directors learn that this doesn’t look good on screen? With the camera cutting every time there is an impact, the fights loses any sense of momentum and geography, to a point where during one scene I clocked out for a couple of minutes because I was so bored. The only fight scene that is worth any merit is at the end, where the film takes a leaf out of John Woo’s book by setting everything to slow-motion, giving 47 his two trademark silver pistols and letting us watch the almost balletic gunplay unfold, with some synchronised shooting finishing off the scene when a sidekick comes to help him.

Most of the film’s problems do come from the script, which feels like it’s been written by someone who was brought up solely on a diet of 80s and 90s action films starring either Schwarzenegger, Stallone or Van Damme. The writer, Skip Woods is the genius that also wrote the screenplay for films such as X-Men Origins: Wolverine, A Good Day To Die Hard and the other Hitman film. While the film does have some fun little Easter eggs for fans of the franchise with recurring characters, locations and assignments from the games, as well as a few lines of funny throwaway dialogue to liven up some dead actions set pieces, the rest was a collage of action clichés that made me shake my head in disbelief.

It shouldn’t be hard to write a story for a good Hitman film. With hundreds of pages of great storytelling from both the games and the books, Skip Woods could have created something that was fun and enjoyable, or at least competent. There are gaping plot holes throughout the film, as well as some sub-plots that go nowhere apart from a few lines. There are even a few teasers and an end credit scene that hint at a possible sequel and franchise. Even as a die-hard Hitman fan, I am very apathetic about Hitman returning to the screen.

In conclusion, Hitman: Agent 47 is not just a generic action film with dull characters and shoddy fight scenes; it’s an insult to the character of Agent 47 and the people who created him.

Score: 2/10 The first film was better.

John Wick Review

John Wick has been one of my most anticipated films of 2015. I mean, I heard about this film all the way back in mid 2014, followed its success in every other territory that it was released in, read the Guardian review of it in October 2014, and then had to wait another six months before I could finally watch it. But boy was it worth the wait.

John Wick stars Keanu Reeves as the title character, Willem Dafoe as his friend/co-worker Marcus and Michael Nyqvist (well known for the Swedish version of The Girl With Dragon Tattoo) as his ex-employer Viggo. When his pet dog is killed and vintage ’69 Mustang are stolen by a gang of Russian thugs, John Wick comes out of retirement, as he was once a revered hitman, to exact revenge.

First off, this film looks gorgeous. With rain-slicked streets, neon infused nightclubs (and subtitles) and swanky hotel suites littered throughout the entire film, credit is due to cinematographer Jonathan Sela, who captures several beautiful scenes. The nightclub in particular, which houses one of the best action scenes of the film, is awash with contrasting red and blue lighting, giving us a beautiful silhouette effect on the characters that are fighting.

Praise must be given to all actors and actresses involved, who all give standout performances. Keanu Reeves doesn’t really display much emotion (that’s unfair, I do like Keanu Reeves) but special praise must go to him for his performance of many of the stunts and fight work, which at age 50 is pretty spectacular. Willem Dafoe and Michael Nyqvist play both their roles with some beautiful overacting, and Adrianne Palicki as the possibly psychotic hitwoman Miss Perkins is fun to watch interact with Reeves. A small role for Lance Reddick as a concierge has some funny quips, but the star everyone will fall in love with is Andy, the beagle puppy. Even if you hate dogs, the first time the camera zooms in on his face, with his large brown eyes, you’ll melt.

While the story is paper-thin at best, another thing I really liked about John Wick was the world-building it did. Throughout the film Reeves makes his way to bars, clubs and hotels where he is known, and which are filled with other hitmen and women. Sometimes they’ll see each other and exchange greetings, and reminisce about previous work, and it all works without coming off as odd. Mr. and Mrs. Smith did a similar thing, what is does is flesh out the world. It almost makes me want to see a prequel/sequel, just so that we get to explore the world full of assassins again.

The fight scenes, while sometimes stunning, do occasionally focus on extreme close ups, which leads to some fight scenes being a bit unfocused. To continue with a couple of the other negatives, the first half of John Wick does seem a bit overly long, and that does mean it suffers from some pacing issues in the second half when what should be big important fight scenes are pushed quite close together.

Another problem is the score for the film. While the film has several composers, with Tyler Bates and Joel J Richard creating most of the original score (notable past work includes 300, Rise of The Argonauts, The Bourne Identity and Guardians of the Galaxy) the score here feels a bit generic, with only THINK by female duo KALEIDA being memorable. However, those few nitpicks don’t dilute the film too much into being anything short of enjoyable.

In summary, John Wick is a must for action fans or those looking to see some fantastic camera work or in camera stunts. If you like The Raid or its sequel (two of my favourite films of recent years) then I would strongly recommend John Wick.

Score: 8/10 Classy cars, sharp suits and visceral violence makes this film one to remember