I'm a bit disappointed in the recent semi-rebooted gritty James Bond movies.
They're good films, and they're far better than the burgeoning silliness of the last of the old run of movies (...an invisible car? Really?). But a lot of that silliness was just misapplication of one of the hallmarks of the classic Bond movies: Gadgets.
The gadgets played a large role in making Bond films what they were, but they sort of stayed phase-locked in the Seventies. Bond might have been remote-controlling his BMW [shudder] with a Nokia or something, but the Third Doctor had a frickin' remote-controlled car in 1971. Bond didn't even have a gadget with a cutting laser on it until 1983.
If you're going to have Bond gadgets again beyond the low-key stuff in the rebooted films, you have to make them truly impressive. Not something, like an invisible car, that could have been dreamed up in 1970 as easily as 2002.
This is the secretest of secret agents going on the most important missions ever, after all. He should be kitted out with and backed up by with the very best superblack reverse-engineered-from-crashed-flying-saucers ultra-technology that can be created by the distinguished successors to Bletchley Park (and all the other people whose discoveries went into Tizard's briefcase).
Bond has been shepherded into a lift by Q, and they descend. For a rather long time.
On the way down, Q explains that MI6 and, ah, some higher-numbered agencies, rather suspect that certain developments in mechanical augmentation of human strength, for military and industrial purposes, may have fallen into the wrong hands.
And that there is no real reason for these systems to be limited to only a man-sized exoskeleton, or indeed for constructors to tolerate the weakness of a normal human body within it, if one is willing to take certain rather drastic steps to ameliorate this problem.
And that Her Majesty's Secret Services have been working on their own systems to combat this threat, but have faced certain ethical obstacles.
The lift doors open to reveal a warehouse-like space, harshly illuminated by overhead fluorescents, and dotted with computer installations, machine tools, and agglomerations of technology of unclear purpose.
The giant room is dominated, however, by a looming object in its centre. A mad profusion of cables and pipes and screens and scaffolding and catwalks surrounds, and obscures, a metallic shape about the size of a terrace house.
Q turns to Bond, and says, "For this project to succeed, 007, we needed someone with great familiarity with our most advanced systems; otherwise the training process would be impossibly difficult. There were several candidates, but owing to the... the nature of the project, none were acceptable."
"Well, not to put too fine a point on it, we needed their brain, and about six inches of spinal cord, which is rather-"
"Which is, is of course, more than we were prepared to ask any servant of the Queen to volunteer. But then-"
"What the hell are you-"
"But then, the previous Q had, well, he had a car accident. And, fortuitously..."
He waves vaguely at the huge shape in the middle of that mass of pipes and cables.
With a subsonic hum, the shape changes.
It stands up.
Many of the cables and pipes drop away, as the giant machine takes a step forward. The concrete floor trembles noticeably as its foot comes down.
The humans in Starship Troopers: Invasion look great when they've got their bulky armour on, if a little overly fluid and dancer-ish in their movements. The bugs are excellent too, and yes, so is the power armour that does eventually show up. But when the humans are socialising, they're clearly not actually human. They're simultaneously sort of... imprecise... in their movements, and too smooth. Everybody's hair flowing like a waterfall doesn't help.
This situation is not improved by the leaden voice acting, which is at times even worse than the acting in Act Of Valor. There must be something really difficult about voice acting that I cannot grasp, because it's so often strangely terrible, as if actors lose the ability to act when they're in civvies looking at a microphone, rather than playing Let's Pretend in full costume and makeup.
At least this film doesn't have big-name Hollywood stars doing the sucky voice acting. That happens very often, too, in animated movies and in video games (I'm looking at you, Liam Neeson), and I find it even weirder.
You may or may not be pleased to learn, however, that the perviness of Paul Verhoeven's original movie survives in this one. This cartoon is rated R for violence, language and nudity. The girls have armour that looks pretty much like the boys', but they're 100% Stripperiffic when not suited for battle.
And yes, there's a shower scene, and yes, the virtual camera lingers more than long enough to demonstrate that modern CGI is entirely up to the job of creating a realistic, if largely expressionless, Interchangeable Porn Girl.
There's a lot more shooting than stripping, though.
Nobody having anything to do with the previous movies had much to do with this one. Edward Neumeier and Casper Van Dien are "Executive producers", but they didn't write or act, or execute anything noticeable. Invasion was written by a guy with some... unusual... previous credits, and the production company doesn't have a fantastic résumé either. (Actually, there are two production companies, but the second one has apparently only done this film.)
Something to do with this, and the Japanese director, has given the movie a bit of an anime feel, but perhaps I'm only thinking that because of the bad acting and surprisingly frequent misspellings. (Who builds a heavily armed orbital base and misspells the word "satellite" in 40-foot-high letters on the outside of it?)
This film also contains the Worst Downgrade of a Neil Patrick Harris Character Ever. Io9 somehow got it into their heads that NPH was voicing Carl Jenkins, his character from the first film, but he isn't. Instead, the writer and a different actor conspire to bring us a stock unbalanced creepy necessary-evil scientist dude, instead of NPH's glorious leather-clad psychic alien-molester.
And, again, there is power armour, but not very much of it. The power armour is so well done, though, that I officially exclude it from my general rejection of skating mecha.
Also, you'll be better off if you don't ask why anything happens in this movie. The beginning and the end actually pretty much make sense, but in the middle, minor things like the passage of time and the location of large space vessels become highly uncertain, in the service of Drama.
The actual firefights, of which there are a lot, don't make a lot of sense either. OK, maybe you don't send huge power-armour suits to board a spaceship, because they won't fit through the doors. But if you can make FTL spacecraft, you can probably make little robot drones to send into dark places possibly filled with terrifying aliens, rather than leading with your expensively-trained grunts.
Those grunts also, on top of the space-marine genre's traditionally indefinite amount of ammunition, have the remarkable ability to fight in a staggered line, firing on full auto and waving their guns from side to side, without ever hitting each other by mistake. Perhaps they have a sort of interrupter mechanism.
There are other significant points in this film's favour, though.
In your typical action movie, for instance, the big-name star will do ridiculously heroic things that implausibly snatch victory. In this movie, the heroic soldier usually just gets hideously murdered. Or they actually achieve their goal, but it turns out to make no real difference to anything.
Which, clearly, is far from being what all Americans believe...
...but which, like certain other works, does exemplify what many of us foreigners find objectionable about the USA.
More specifically, I have a problem with many of the USA's domestic and foreign policies and actions, because they do a lot of harm to both American people and the rest of the world. These policies do not, of course, all grow out of the above-depicted conviction that the USA really is God's own country. A stronger factor is that the USA is powerful enough to do terrible things outside its borders, and the USA's government/corporate rulers are powerful enough to do terrible things inside its borders, which I'm sure any number of other countries would also do, given the chance.
The most important part of my objection, which is particularly brought to mind by that incredibly jingoistic movie, is based around the horrifying fact that an awful lot of the world's leaders - certainly not just the American ones - are clearly guilty of war crimes, most notably crimes against peace. Many of these leaders have gone on national television to boast of their war-making achievements, after previously going on TV to persuade the populace to support a new war in the time-honoured fashion.
Major war crimes, of which crimes against peace are the very worst, are the only offenses which I think actually should carry the death penalty. Preferably with those sentencing the offender to death putting their own lives on the line - if the offender turns out to have been innocent, the judge and/or jury are executed. (This'd pretty much solve the USA's own death-penalty problems, don't you think?)
Anybody who drapes a patriotic flag over war crimes is an enemy of humanity, and the higher you go in various nations' governments, the more this happens, and the less forgivably. Random yahoos who believe God sent George W. Bush are one thing; if you honestly think Saddam was responsible for 9/11 then you sadden me, but I don't think you should be punished for being ignorant and/or gullible. But people like Dick Cheney, Henry Kissinger and Robert McNamara knew exactly what they were doing.
(It has long been my opinion that we should offer John Howard lifetime imprisonment instead of execution in exchange for his testimony against Cheney and Bush. I also find it difficult to argue against just assassinating a bunch of these guys. Everybody knows they're never going to see the inside of a courtroom, and they made speeches and published books proudly declaring their guilt, so I think it's pretty cut and dried, don't you?)
Movies about tankcrews and fighter pilots and Special Forces badasses can be horrifying and entertaining, both at the same time in the very best examples. But I find it unnerving that the USA now gets in wars so interminable that books, movies and video games about those wars exist while the war's still going on. We've now given up on waiting a few years after the end of the war before turning it into entertainment products, for the sake of common human decency. Nowadays the wars are on abstractconcepts or thingseverybodylikes, and there's no particular prospect of matters improving until all of the USA's arable land blows away into the ocean and the US dollar falls to about one jiao.
On a marginally happier note, here are some more good-war-movie recommendations, all about events that happened a decorously long time ago.
Clint Eastwood's siblingfilmsFlags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima are extraordinary. The second is a brutal war movie about the Japanese soldiers trying to hold Iwo Jima in 1945; the first is about the American side of the story, with a heavy emphasis on the patriotic-bullshit factory a few American Iwo Jima heroes find themselves working in.
If you haven't heard of it, that ought to give you the idea.
Act of Valor features elite US soldiers playing themselves, and has the whole-hearted backing of the US military. Who, with their usual deftness, have once again managed to create propaganda that causes foreign viewers to cheer whenever one of the Americans in the movie gets shot.
Us foreigners aren't the target market for this film, of course. Young American men are. The purpose of Act of Valor is to get kids to enlist, and join the Warrior Brotherhood That Always Does The Right Thing No Matter The Cost and if you think that sounds hokey then you're not going to enjoy this movie's script. The stuff in between the firefights is sufficiently painful to watch that I'm glad I didn't pay to see this movie. It might justify a two-dollar rental fee.
I'd heard about this film, so I was expecting jingoistic bullshit with awesome action scenes, and that's pretty much what I got. Spoilers follow, but the plot's so formulaic that it's almost impossible to spoil. The Expendables is a plot-twisting masterpiece compared with Act of Valor.
(The Expendables also has more laughs. It is impossible not to enjoy Terry Crews' shotgun as much as he does.)
The great problem you have if you're making a movie about how US Special Forces badasses keep Americans safe from terrible people is that US Special Forces badasses almost never actually do that. They may keep other soldiers safe, and they may do nifty headline stuff like finally allegedly killing Osama Bin Laden (it's weird to me that there's so little interest from the conspiracy-theory types about how no actual public evidence that they really killed Osama was ever presented...). But guys like this can only actually directly protect civilian Americans if someone comes to America to attack those civilians.
Which hasn't happened for rather a while.
The US national-security bureaucracy and its various allied "terrorism experts" insist that there are many terrible plots that they have thwarted, and would no doubt make thrilling movies, but they can't tell us about any of them for reasons of national security. After Obama promised the "most transparent" administration in history, he has continued, and expanded, the Bush policies of classifying every document in sight and refusing Freedom Of Information requests because they're asking for "state secrets" (or giving you a document with everythingredacted, or just lying and saying the requested document doesn't exist). The reason why you can't see the document, or learn about the many serious terror plots, is as secret as the documents and plots themselves. Even documents that are already public can now be retroactively re-secret-ised, which is a bit of an own goal as it lets the public see how innocuous classified documents now often are.
So sure, maybe a great and secret war is being waged against terrorists, or evil aliens, or demonic Nazisfrom the moon; who can say? I'd feel much happier if I could think that this is a good explanation of why the only thwarted plots that're ever made public are so totally lame.
You know the ones. FBI informant or agent encourages idiots to consider terrorist attack. FBI agent or informant provides plan. FBI agent provides fake explosive. FBI arrests freshly-minted "terrorists". Meanwhile, the TSA spends a lot of money and pisses off a lot of people and catchesno terrorists at all. But they've got a big old list of people who are so dangerous they shouldn't be allowed on a plane, and also so cunning that no evidence to justify their arrest can be found; clearly, this system is for your own good, citizen!
Back in the real world, as I've written before, if you actually have a domestic terrorism problem, you damn well know about it. The USA does not have such a problem. So it's a little difficult to come up with an enemy for the brave soldiers in Act of Valor to fight.
Worse yet for the poor scriptwriters, if the bad guys actually managed to get across the US border, then deploying Special Forces badasses to kill them is illegal, unless you declare martial law. If you want to make a movie about that then the enemy has to be aliens or North Korea, aliens of course being by far the more probable.
You can get away with deploying soldiers within the borders of your non-totalitarian country if those soldiers are building sandbag walls in a flood or protecting black children from racist idiots in 1954. But just whacking dudes in the street while the police stand there slack-jawed remains, for some reason, unacceptable, even if the dudes being whacked are Muslims.
If I were writing the film I'd just set it in Ficteeonistan and have our heroes striking terrorist training camps or something, but I suppose even 18-year-old American boys must by now have noticed that people trained in such places only ever go on to kill Americans in Afghanistan and Iraq, not in Florida. So the poor Act of Valor scriptwriters had to come up with a threat that was almost at home. You know, not at home quite yet, but... heading in that direction.
So in Act of Valor, you've got these Filipino Muslim suicide bombers. (Total Muslim suicide bombings in the Philippines since 9/11, and possibly ever: One. Total Christian suicide bombings: Also one - possibly accidental. The Philippines have seen quite a lot of other bombs - generally used by Muslims against Christians - but no bomb-vests to speak of.)
Act of Valor has two main bad guys, one a cartoonishly evil hardcore Chechen jihadi and the other a wealthy, vaguely Bond-villain-ish international drug smuggler who, for no reason other than that they've known each other for a long time, is cooperating with this other guy who wants to blow up a bunch of Americans. Perhaps the drug smuggler reckons that having the US populace stuck at home terrified of going out and getting blown up will... increase demand for cocaine...?
Anyway, the drug dude decides to lie low for a while because he's discovered the CIA are after him, but he doesn't mind if his known associate goes on to become Public Enemy Number Minus Ten Million for the entire population of the USA, because how bad could that be?
Bang bang bang, blah blah blah, this soldier's wife's got a baby on the way, gee I hope he doesn't suffer a glorious and honourable death in the single most clichéd way any soldier can do that, and now the suicide bombers are going to be smuggled into the USA through tunnels created and controlled by Mexican drug smugglers. Who for some reason go along with the plan, too, because Catholic dope-dealers who want a lightly-guarded and porous US border have so much in common with Islamist terrorists who want to turn the USA into a full-blown police state.
Being charitable, one presumes the Mexicans don't know what the stuff being smuggled into the States through their tunnels is. If they did, then they'd be the ones killing all the jihadis, and the Special Forces badasses could stay at home.
The good guys go on to stop the bad guys in a series of really quite good action scenes that kind of look like a few rounds of Call of Duty 9. Along the way, various soldiers playing themselves have to read lines that would drop to the floor like lumps of lead even if Daniel Day-Lewis read them. And then the credits roll.
(The acting of the soldiers-playing-themselves really is dire. This script would always do a miserable job of establishing characters, but... is acting really that hard? They're playing themselves, not King Lear. But never mind; just fast-forward through the talking, definitely through any of the talking when they're wearing civilian clothes, and you'll miss nothing. I find that this technique also turns Revenge of the Sith into a pretty good movie.)
Act of Valor contains a strange mixture of what I presume is pretty authentic military equipment and procedures, and action-movie clichés. Explosions, for instance, tend toward the Hollywood ball-of-fire, and everybody who gets shot, except one dude at the end, dies instantly, unless they are American. And a digital SLR camera with a consumer zoom lens on it somehow takes useful pictures of people miles away, and, more importantly, makes that motor-film-wind noise when it does it, even though most of the target market of young men who want to kill people have never even touched a film camera.
There are also a lot of beepy computer noises and moving-box special effects involved with the use of drones and other high-tech cameras. And a Binocular Shot or two.
The thing that stood out most for me, though, was that nobody, goodie or baddie, ever seems to question the core of the head terrorist's plot, which is that a bunch of high-powered suicide vests blowing up in major American cities will somehow cripple the whole country.
So... you Americans are pussies compared with Englishmen, right?
Because Londoners were famously stoic even when a whole country was trying to bomb them flat every damn night. Or, for a more recent version, England didn't turn a hair when the IRA kept shooting people and blowing stuff up. But suicide-bomb the Mall of America and the Precious Moments Chapel and watch the US... economy... crash... for some reason.
But heck, maybe it would. An awful lot of Americans just sort of lost their minds on 9/11, and many still haven't come back, despite the fact that Americans have to invade countries on the other side of the world to find some more foreign terrorists with an interest in attacking them. Perhaps a bunch of suicide bombers would be just what's needed to finish off the freedom and justice that are supposed to be the USA's hallmarks.
It's a weird sort of... aggressive cowardice. The USA is now so afraid of any terrorist attack or shooting spree that anything with flashing lights on it is treated as a city-paralysing bomb, drawing a picture of a gun gets you suspended from school, and half the country will take your side if you work yourself up into a hysterical frenzy over sharing a plane with some foreigners.
I wonder if the absence of actual domestic terrorists has something to do with the USA's ongoing erosion of human rights. If you'll cut down every law in the land to get at the devil, but there's not actually a devil out there to catch, you'll keep cutting down laws, and making publically acknowledgedhitlists, and imprisoning people indefinitely without charges or trial... forever. There's no end-point.
What really blows my mind is that many of the people who're happy to trade any amount of freedom for alleged security against these un-detectable threats and abstractconcepts, and who want to add "except for Muslims" to a surprising number of laws, also say that the US firearms death toll is an acceptable trade-off for the right to bear arms.
Six Three thousand people died in the 9/11 attacks.
An easy ten thousand a year die in firearm homicides in the USA.
That's unfortunate, say firearms enthusiasts, but it's the price of that right.
And the price of not groping, X-raying and partially undressing people getting on a plane is that people will be able to get on a plane with a Swiss Army knife, or a steak knife, or even a gun. But, as has been demonstrated on the numerous occasions when the TSA have failed to prevent someone carrying a gun onto a plane, that doesn't matter at all unless that person actually decides to use the gun, which they almost certainly won't, because the USA does not actually have a domestic terrorism problem.
(Exactly how many weapons the TSA has failed to stop people carrying onto planes is of course unknown. What we do know is that nobody's hijacked any planes with them. We also know that nobody could, since the universal assumption now made of any plane hijackers is not that they just want the plane flown to Cuba, but that they intend to kill themselves and everyone else on board. It doesn't matter if they smuggle light machine guns onto the plane now; when the hijackers have to change ammo belts, the remaining half of the passengers will beat them to death with their bare hands.)
And yet, according to many of the people who say ten thousand homicides a year is just the price of firearms freedom, no imposition on people's rights in the name of the War on Terror (or Drugs) is too great. Because invisible Islamists are lurking everywhere. And you, yes YOU, could be one of the incredible badasses that are all that's standing between Us and Them!
God, listen to me rabbiting on. As a reward for making it this far, here are some movies you can watch that are sort of like this one, except good.
Jarhead; not much action, but that's actually very much the point of the film.
Generation Kill; bleak, funny, actually realistic, and featuring one Marine playing himself who can actually act.
The actual documentaryRestrepo, which has a fair bit of shootin' in it, and allows soldiers to be honest about why they're doing what they're doing, even if their answer is "fucked if I know!"
I watched Act of Valor yesterday. Today I watched The Godfather, because I'd never seen it.
The Godfather is about family, and honour, and power, and killing. So is Act of Valor, and I found the comparison instructive.
I wanted to thank you for linking to "The Magician" in one of your (fairly) recent blog posts. <oz>Bloody brilliant film, mate!</oz>
Can you recommend any other outstanding films from your sector of the hemisphere?
The Magician, for the benefit of other readers, is a low-budget mock-documentary about an Australian hit man, who's played by the actual filmmaker. Like many other Australian crime films, it is hilarious and unsettling, often simultaneously.
And yes, I do have a few suggestions, particularly in this genre.
To get the better-known ones out of the way first, there's Chopper, of course, and Two Hands. Then Dirty Deeds, with numerous Australians trapped in John Goodman's gravity well, and Gettin' Square, which is heavier on the comedy and lighter on the crime.
I also have to digress and give the short Zombie Movie a plug, because there ain't no zombie like a New Zealand zombie, and that movie can be had for free on Steam. And while we're talking antipodean zombies, Undead adds something quite unexpected to the genre.
And now, some Amazon affiliate links for the above flicks. Several of them are now discontinued, but new and used DVDs are still on offer:
(Whipping through the IMDb "recommendations" for the above titles also reminded me of The Limey, in which various Americans discover that being on the enemies list of both General Zod from Superman II and Bernadette from Priscilla is very, very bad. The Limey is nice and cheap on Amazon.)
The Magician itself is a bit hard to find in the States. You might very well be able to find it in some wretched hive of scum and villainy; I couldn't possibly comment. If you want it legally, though, it's elusive.
I invite other suggestions, particularly of low-budget quirky crime films from lesser-seen countries. Feel free to widen the net enough to include, for instance, A Dog's Breakfast, which some of us laugh at in unexpected places.