Puppet on a Chain 1971 ****

alistair macleans puppet on a chain - cinema quad movie poster (

There’s a whole lot of puppets and a whole lot of chains in Puppet on a Chain, a tight little thriller based on a novel by Alistair MacLean. MacLean was the kind of writer who, like Ian Fleming, wrote about what he knew, and when that ran out, just about managed to write about more fanciful worlds he was less familiar with. Thus, MacLean became something of a magnet for zeitgeist, and this 1971 thriller has a whiff of The French Connection and other, more reactionary drug-fuelled dramas of the time.

Puppet on a Chain’s reputation is largely based on an extended chase sequence in which speedboats navigate the canals of Amsterdam in a deadly cat and mouse game; functioning much like the car chase in Friedkin’s film, it’s a late-in-the-game show-down between the hero Paul Sherman (Sven-Bertril Taube) and his quarry Meegeren (Vladek Sheybal, from From Russia With Love and The Apple). With his pure white suit and cowboy hat, Meegeren is anything but a low-key dealer, and it’s easy to see why large crowds of gawping spectators are visible as the action unfolds. This hugely impressive stunt-show led directly to the boat chase in Live and Let Die, and a general vogue for extended action that infused both Bond and 70’s cinema.

The always impressive Dan Sharp contributed the sequence to Geoffrey Reeve’s film, and while it’s a stand-out, the location work, atmosphere and generally attitude of Puppet on a Chain are all to be commended. The view of drugs in Amsterdam is somewhat alarmist, but backed up by a rather squalid plotline, complete with children’s dolls used to smuggle heroin, and the same dolls being symbolically hung with chains as a threat.

Sure, the leads are rather anonymous, although Patrick Allen does a nice supporting turn, but that anonymity works for the film; Puppet on a Chain feels both generic and authentic, written while MacLean still had a knack for story and theme, but hadn’t yet diluted his own experience with silly and extravagant plots. Even if you’re only there for the action, Puppet on A Chain delivers genuine thrills when it comes to the big aquatic showdown.

The Hostage Tower 1980 ***


Once Upon a Time, Brits used to mock American television; absolute laugh-fests like The Hostage Tower typify everything wrong with the US tv model circa 1980. A silly idea, originally from Alistair MacLean, gets the small-screen treatment for this CBS product which feels more like a broken pilot than a feature film, and forty years later, it’s the complete randomness of the casting that makes it a must-see on streaming for slumming cineastes.

Let’s kick off with Billy Dee Williams, currently riding high as Lando in the latest Star Wars film. He was a hot name in 1980, and ideal as CW/ Clarence Whitlock, a US agent who infiltrates a terrorist organisation planning to blow up the Eifel Tower. Exciting, right? Well, yes, and perhaps ahead of it’s time in this respect, although risible bad-guy Mr Smith (2001’s Kier Dullea) has a much more preposterous Plan B scheme up his sleeve, kidnapping the president’s mother (Brief Encounter’s Celia Johnson) and holding her for ransom. Fortunately another US agent Mike Graham (step forward next guest Peter Fonda) has also infiltrated Mr Smith’s group, and his hell-bent on stopping him. This involves ground forces in the unlikely form of Douglas Fairbanks Jr and Rachel Roberts causing a distraction to that Billy Dee Williams can abseil down the Eifel Tower with Celia Johnson on his back, while a series of robot-controlled lazers attempt to pick them off. Did we mention Bond girls Maud Adams and Britt Ekland are thrown into the mix, or that the film is shot largely in Paris around the tower itself?

The Hostage Tower was directed by Claudio Guzman, whose main credits were the I Dream of Jeannie tv show, but he fails to bring the same intensity or vision to Hostage Tower. What he does do is capture the strangest cast of actors gathered together in Paris to look upwards; pretty much everyone is on the skids here. There’s an unusual emphasis on how terrorists train, although these sequences don’t match the actual tower assault, which features Williams dressed as a cartoon chef pushing a massive soup-tureen past idiotic security guards.

The Hostage Tower has never been issued on DVD, and there’s a reason for that. But having admitted that this is no-one’s finest hour, this is the ideal film to watch when you want to keep investment levels low and snark high. With roller-skating bank robbers, lazers blowing up footballs and all kinds of ridiculous heroism, it’s an open invitation to gawp at the crudity of cheap entertainment. As Noel Coward put it, Kier Dullea, Gone Tomorrow…and that just about sums up the disposable quality of this fascinating relic of tv’s past.

In The Line of Duty 2019 ***


If you like action, there’s an increasing case to be made for Signature Entertainment, a London-based company who aim to master the dark art of UK cinema distribution; they’ve got an eye for a good pick-up. The Candidate, Kursk: The Last Mission, The Captor, Night Hunter and The Courier all provided a welcome respite from superhero shenanigans in 2019, and their first release of 2020 first-foots the new decade with a pretty enjoyable package for genre fans.

In The Line of Duty is a decidedly hokey but relish-able police thriller starring Aaron Eckhart, and the premise has lots of ludicrous scope; a high-energy opening sees beat-cop Frank Penny tracking down a Perils of Pauline-inspired killer who has kidnapped the chief of police’s daughter and placed her in a water-tank which is slowly filling up while a video-camera captures the action. Fortunately, Penny has about an hour to find the girl, but unfortunately, he’s forced to kill the kidnapper; there’s echoes of British classic Tomorrow at Ten in this scenario. Another antagonist arrives in the form of the kidnapper’s brother, bent on revenge, and Penny has to fight his way out in real time to save the girl, accompanied by feisty teenage news gatherer Ava (Courtney Eaton).

‘The clock is tricking. The world is watching.’ is the tagline here, another sign that Steven C Miller’s film, like last month’s The Courier, having another crack at the ‘real time’ mother lode that action film-makers have aspired to since the failure of John Badham’s Nick of Time. Jeffrey Drysdale’s film wrestles with the usual problem; characters standing in the middle of streets discussing plot points while cars and buildings explore around them. And yet Eckhart is a compellingly intense cop, the foot-chases and car stunts have a verve that recalls genre classics like Point Break, and even the ‘now’ sub-plot about women in media doesn’t impede the slam-bang feel of the narrative. ‘This is like Call of Duty’ one character observes, and Miller’s film feels like a video-game in a good way; colourful, vigorous and satisfying.

In The Line of Duty isn’t likely to trouble Academy voters; the examination of women/millennials in the media is facile and takes up valuable time that could be spend watching Eckhart smashing heads through windscreens or watching SUVs fly fifty feet in the air. In The Line of Duty revives some old-school, tough cop fun and delivers it with some gusto; if you’re tired with men in spandex, Miller’s film signs off with some style.

Signature Entertainment presents In the Line of Duty in Cinemas and on Digital HD from 3 January 2020, or pre-order the DVD below.


The Aeronauts 2019 ***


Whatever one thinks of the pioneering role of Netflix as the great disrupter of existing cinematic release structures, it’s hard to see how other streaming services move forward from here. Tom Harper’s The Aeronauts reputedly cost $40 million dollars, with Amazon Studios picking up the tab, and it’s hard to see how releasing the film in a handful of US cinemas and then dropping it on Prime with little fanfare is going to justify that expense. The Aeronauts is a beautifully-realised tribute to a brave woman who pioneered the science of ballooning, Amelia Wren; the knowledge that Wren didn’t actually exist somewhat lets the air out of the balloon of Harper’s film.

Wren, played by Felicity Jones, is a headstrong young lady with a taste for grandiose gestures; she arrives on a carriage and dazzles a crowd with acrobatics, much to the derision of her partner-in-flight, James Glashier, played by Eddie Redmayne. In real life, Glashier was partnered for this epic flight by a man called Henry Coxwell, but presumably genuine heroism was not to the taste of Harper and writer Jack Thorne, and so The Aeronauts takes the form of a warm tribute to a feminist icon who didn’t exist. There are so many great women in history whose stories are neglected, that it seems pointless for two men to feel they have to invent one to make the feat they’ve chosen to describe relevant, but that’s not the only problem here.

As Wren and Glashier take off, she throws a dog out of the balloon, the crowd gasp, but the dog falls safely to earth in a parachute. Landing a parachute is a counter-intuitive business whereby one had to train’s one’s mind not to reach out with one’s extremities as ground-rush hits, so it seems both unlikely and cruel for Wren to do this to a dog, hitting another bum note. As the flight begins, we get a flashback structure to see how dedicated a scientist Glashier is, and that Wren has a tragic back-story involving her husband falling out of a balloon. These flashbacks contain no real advances in terms of information, but interrupts the flight in a way that robs it of claustrophobia and drama.

And yet The Aeronauts has a great look when it comes to flight, with beautiful vistas and stunning cloud formations and some genuine high-drama as Wren attempts to rescues an immobile Glashier once the cold gets to him. This involves clambering around on top of a balloon at 35,000 feat, and despite the inherent fakeness of the photography, there’s a few breath-taking moments in here. Whatever admiration Wren might deserve is quickly dismissed in a ridiculous ending in which the scientist somehow knows something about balloons that Wren doesn’t, saving them both, but opening up questions about why Wren doesn’t know something so obvious, and which could easily have saved her husband. Meanwhile Yesterday’s Himesh Patel stays on the ground, chewing his beard and wondering how he could steal the film from a couple of toothy showboats like Jones and Redmayne.

Plot-holes and narrative mistakes abound in The Aeronauts, a lovely-to-look-at mis-fire that shows that Amazon can burn money on a Netflix scale when it comes down to it. Redmayne and Jones are fine, the lighting and the scope are impressive, but the drama isn’t really there; what goes up must come down, but Netflix’s big-spending model really isn’t something for aspiring streamers to copy.

The Aeronauts will be on Amazon US from Dec 20th 2019.



The Courier 2019 ***


At something of a low-point, I decided to play various James Bond video games, one of the best of which was Blood Stone. During the final one-man commando raid on the villain’s supposedly impregnable fortress, the bad guy has a monologue over the intercom system that goes something like ‘I don’t know why you ever thought you could beat me, Mr Bond. The odds are so impossibly stacked against you. You are a fool to ever imagine that you’d have a chance against me…’ This monologue became inadvertently amusing as Bond massacres the elite forces, blows up the compound, destroys the entire place and yet still the voice on the tannoy continues disparaging our hero ‘Why don’t you just give up, Mr Bond? I don’t know why you ever thought you could beat me, the odds are so impossibly stacked against you…’

Zackary Adler’s real-time thriller The Courier is riddled with exactly this kind of unfortunate juxtaposition of cool action and by-the-yard dialogue; ‘You’re trapped …in a meat grinder!’ a stooge salivates at our intrepid heroine. After a prescient credits sequence depicting the Statue of Liberty descending into hell, The Courier is established as the title, but also the name of the central character, played by Bond girl Olga Kurylenko. She’s set up as a patsy by an elite group of terrorists who are trying to stop Nick Mursh (Amit Shah) from testifying against master criminal Ezekiel Mannings (Gary Oldman in an eye patch and quoting Joe Biden of all people). The Courier doesn’t take this lying down and rescues Mursh, only to find herself pinned down in an underground car-park. As she decimates her enemies with improbable ease, the bad guys taunt her remorselessly through the public address system, but she’s determined to save Mursh and bring Mannings to justice.

This thriller is billed as “From the producer of The Darkest Hour’ and The Courier is of interest to see exactly how Gary Oldman’s acts of career self-sabotage have reached Nicolas Cage levels within just two years of winning an Oscar. Oldman’s phoned-in performance in Hunter Killer was no fluke; on this evidence, he’ll will be doing cheap insurance adverts in a few months. Otherwise, The Courier has plenty to offer for when you want to shift your mind into neutral; Kurylenko does pretty well with her multiple fight scenes, and there’s a goofy adolescent jauntiness about this whole techno-music and motorbikes enterprise that keeps you watching.

The John Wick movies have demonstrated that genre thrillers can be elevated by careful handling; The Courier has the right cast and a reasonably novel idea, but the sheer number of clichés eventually undo it’s good intentions, in fact, it’s hard to imagine why it ever thought it had a chance against such overwhelming odds….

Highlander: The Director’s Cut 1986 ****


There’s been a reboot of Russell Mulcahy’s film in the works for a decade now; how hard can it be to revamp such an appealing property as Highlander? Five sequels, a tv show and many a rain-soaked holiday in Scotland has been inspired by this wonderfully daft bit of world-building. Highlander is a great-looking, funny and often dazzling fusion of The Terminator with sword and sorcery; if it seemed indigestible to critics in 1986, perhaps the time has come to embrace the story of Connor Macleod. Certainly, letting the John Wick’s Chad Stahelski loose on the Lionsgate property seems like a good idea, since when it comes to great Highlander movies, it would be a real shame if there could be only one.

‘I am Connor MacLeod of the Clan MacLeod. I was born in 1518 in the village of Glenfinnan on the shores of Loch Shiel. And I am immortal…’ is the line that introduces our hero, played by Christopher Lambert after Mel Gibson turned the role down. Lambert was, and still is, something of a dude’s dude; his shock-haired turn as the evasive thief in Subway built his reputation is an unpredictable but charismatic leading man. Lambert’s French accent was widely mocked, but there’s always been a close historical connection between France and Scotland via the Auld Alliance, so that mis-step could be forgiven, even if Macleod’s inability to pronounce Glenmorangie seems like a genuine gaffe.

Macleod is an Immortal, doomed to walk the earth listening to a Queen soundtrack, brooding in an awesome New York apartment, watching wrestling matches and heeding the advice of his foppish mentor, Egyptian metallurgist Ramierz (Sean Connery). A reckoning, a quickening, a happening, whatever it is, something bad is coming and it’s likely to take the form of bad boy The Kurgan, played by the perennially awesome Clancy Brown.

This European cut has some key scenes in the Highlander universe; during WWII, he rescues a little girl from a Nazi and casually machine-guns him to death with the line ‘Whatever you say, Jack, you’re the master race.’ This is a striking, irreverent and surprisingly brutal throwaway scene that opens up a potentially interesting world. If the Highlander is immortal, then he’s an old soul with a uniquely educated and evolved historical perspective, and his instant recognition of the Nazi foe is delightfully fleet and sour at the same time. More such flashbacks would be welcome, although training and soul-searching are centre-stage, this being the 80’s and all.

As with the John Wick films, the first in the series offers an imaginative springboard that the later films can only limit in terms of choices. The second Highlander film killed the idea stone dead by positioning Macleod as an alien. But Gregory Widen’s script taps into specific Scottish folklore with regards to magic and immortality, and there’s every reason to think that a reboot could boil down the existential philosophy of the Highlander films to an organic, granular level. There’s a reason why Scotland punches above its weight in terms of talent, in terms of acting, writing and ideas, and that eternal struggle finds one of it’s most entertaining manifestations in this gloriously deadpan fantasy epic.

Stateline Motel 1973 ***

Also known under the underwhelming title Motel of Fear, Maurizio Lucidi’s Stateline Motel is a rather cool little melodrama, ruined for your home viewing by this hideous print on Amazon Prime. Looking like the disregarded holiday snaps of an extremely amateur photographer, Stateline Motel is of interest primarily to connoisseurs of murk, but for those prepared to look beyond the abject, miserable presentation, there’s some narrative gold to be mined.

More recent efforts like Deadfall or Reindeer Games have a similar vibe; Stateline Motel is a Canadian-set, Italian financed melodrama the follows crooks in the aftermath of a heist gone wrong. Fabio Testi plays Floyd, jail-bird partner of Eli Wallach’s Joe, who both have blood on their hands and some priceless jewels to split after a Montreal store-raid; Joe takes the bus across the border, while Floyd takes the car. Driving like a diddy for no obvious reason, Floyd totals his car and is forced to check into the motel of the title, where Michelle (Ursula Andress) is undressing five times nightly, distracting him from his share of the loot. Floyd and Michelle inevitably get it on, but when he wakes up, the jewels are gone…

Stateline Motel is no masterpiece, but it’s actually pretty compelling in the final straight as Joe closes in and the plotlines finally intersect before a cool final twist; it’s tough, hardboiled stuff, the kind of thing that Tarantino’s best films ape effectively. Testi and Andress are fine, and Wallach is a nasty bad-guy, with another Bond- girl Barbara Bach also in a key supporting role.

With horrible dubbing, gibberish subtitles and a dismal print quality, Stateline Motel perhaps is not the ideal place for genre fans to gain a taste of the 1970’s, but there’s just enough meat on the bones to justify a watch. It’s just a pity more time and effort hasn’t gone into restoration; the cast deserve better than this.