Robert Redford is a beloved actor who deserves a rousing send-off; director David Lowrey already have Redford a warm goodbye in the charming reboot of Pete’s Dragon, but crafts a more specific farewell with The Old Man & the Gun. Based on a true story, it’s the story of a ageing, mild-mannered bank-robber named Forrest Tucker, who just keeps on returning to the well, even though the cops (in the form of Casey Affleck) are on his trail. This is one of these films that treat beating the system as a triumph of the human spirit, and Tuckers’ exploits are presenting as a near harmless pursuit. Tom Waits and Danny Glover contribute some minor portraiture as two of the gang, and Redford has a nice romantic line with Sissy Spacek. The Old Man & the Gun feels like it was deliberately constructed to remind audiences of Redford’s best work, from The Sting to Three Days of the Condor, and even though it ended up being overshadowed by Clint Eastwood’s The Mule at the Christmas box-office of 2018, it’s a fitting farewell to one of cinema’s titans.
Big-budget flops are par of the course of any cinematic season, but Sahara feels like something of a watershed moment; it might have been the franchise opener for a series of blockbusters featuring Clive Cussler’s character Dirk Pitt, played here with swashbuckling elan by Matthew McConaughey. But Breck Eisner’s film didn’t float many boats in 2015, which is a pity because it’s a fun is preposterous yarn. Presumably the books have less of the cheesy plotting here; watching Pitt rescue a damsel in distress via the World Health Organisation’s Penelope Cruz, then spar with William H Macy over rescuing Africa from toxic waster spill, there’s a sense of white-saviour overdrive that never takes a break. But Sahara’s big action set pieces, great locations, rousing score and general old-school professionalism make it a nice alternative to the computer-generated murk that followed. If it’s the comedy relief that drags it down (Steve Zahn), Sahara has weathered the years far better than much of 2005 other offerings (Stealth, V for Vendetta, XXX State of the Union, Aeon Flux)
Leigh Whannell’s work on the Saw and Insidious franchise gave him a cult appeal; with Upgrade, he proved that he can mix it with the big boys, making over $50 million Stateside on a tiny budget. Logan Marshall-Green stars as Grey Trace, who is involved in an accident with a driverless car and gets an upgrade on his body; Eron Keen (Harrison Gilbertson), an eccentric tech-billionaire, persuades Grey to test out an innovative augmented body which gives him incredible strength, and sets him on a path to revenge those who he believes caused the accident. The nature of the Upgrade of the title is fun to watch, as Grey nimbly skips from his wheelchair to literally rip thugs apart; it’s a vigilante fantasy, but it’s done with wit and verve, and the twists and turns are fun to follow. Whannell has been one to watch for a while; Upgrade in a hard-core proof of concept that indicates he’s an A-List film-maker from now on.
Keanu Reeves is to the action film what Gene Kelly was to dance; a normal looking guy who can embody the audience’s wish fulfilment while executing the kind of moves that a pro would dream of. The third outing of the John Wick franchise was never going to top the first entry, but there’s no drop off in quality as in the Taken films. Chad Stahelski’s thriller picks up with Wick set against the High Table, the assassins’ guild he previously worked for. A few new friends and foes flesh out the world, notably Anjelica Huston as a Russian ballet-school operative and Halle Berry as a trained-dog assassin. Chapter 3 fairly flies by, with amuse bouche in the form of a few dog-fu, book- fu, knife-fu and horse-fu diversions before a massive knock-down drag-out slugfest in the Hotel Continental for the climax. The sub-title means ‘prepare for war’ and the John Wick series feels as if it’s still ramping up; as long as the star keeps in shape, there’s no reason this franchise can’t go on for years, and for once, that’s no bad thing. As Reeves crashes his motorcycle onto the hotel steps and announces “I’d like to see the manager…’ it’s clear that the dead-pan grace of the John Wick films is alive and well.
As with the Terminator films, the sequel to John Wick faced a specific challenge; how to expand the universe of the first film while staying true to the stripped down ethos; John Wick barely lasts eighty minutes, and that brevity and focus is part of the appeal. Taking place a mere four days after the first film, John Wick 2 takes the franchise in a different direction, taking Wick (Keanu Reeves) over to Italy and then back to NYC with a price on his head. Wick’s gradual distancing from Winston (Ian McShane) and the establishment at the Continental Hotel provides a wider frame than the revenge theme of the original, and it’s fun to see Franco Nero as Julius, the manager of the Hotel Continental in Rome. Chad Stahelski’s film also takes time to investigate elements of the Wick mystique, including a graphic illustration of Wick’s ability to wield a pencil. The action, including a terrific car-wrecking sequence as an opener and a delirious art-gallery shoot-em-up, delivers in spades, and if the element of surprise has gone, there’s plenty for genre fans to soak up here, not least Reeves’ impeccable, graceful presence as the world’s best assassin.
Even if the central premise is straight from George Roy Hill’s The Sting, Fernando Di Leo’s Eurotrash thriller has so much else going on that it’s pointless to complain. The Italian director has oodles of style, and the fashions, wallpaper and charismatic performances do plenty to keep things fun to watch. Con artist Nick Hezard (Luc Merenda) is set up by Robert Turner (Lee J Cobb), an American gangster, as the fall guy for an insurance job. Nick doesn’t take it lying down; he engages a small army of friends and associates in an elaborate heist aimed at stealing Turner’s money and destroying his reputation. The sting itself is quite ingenious, and the locations (mostly Geneva) add a unique flavour. Merenda looks great as Nick, with a range of substantial roll-neck sweaters to boot, and most of the cast make an impression, including William Berger and Dagmar Lassander. A couple of violent scenes are at odds with the jovial atmosphere, but that’s 1976 for you; appealing to an adult audience, Nick The Sting makes light of crime, and given the woes of Italy at the time, that’s no mean feat.
The presence of genial star Maurizio Merli is always reason enough to watch a film; despite his tragically young age at time of death (49), Merli left behind a selection of ass-kicking Italian police thrillers which are always worth a watch. Working with the great Fernando Di Leo, From Corleone to Brooklyn fuses The Godfather with The Gauntlet as Berni (Merli) a tough cop from Italy escorts a key witness to NYC to testify against a mob boss. Van Johnson is the New York Lieutenant who is hoping to bring Berni in, and Biagio Pelligra is awesome as an unpredicatble stool-pigeon. Under Berni’s wing. Di Leo’s plotting is sharp, his selection of background wall-paper is as visually impeccable as always, and Merli is positivelt radiant at the film’s centre. Immaculately dressed and coiffeired, Merli merrily bitch-slapps his way through the Mafia like a dose of salts; if you’ve never seen this great leading man before, this is one special cop you have to see in action. If you’re new to the world of Poliziotteschi, then this Amazon Prime entry is an ideal introduction