Death Train 1993 ***

deathThe Alistair MacLean cycle of blockbuster action/espionage movies had well and truly run its course by the time 1993’s Death Train came along, dropping this thriller into the dustiest distribution hole imaginable until the internet came along and offered salvation. The YouTube copy of Death Train under review has a cool 4 million viewers; using Netflix’s famously shonky calculator, on a $20 a ticket multiplier, that’s equal to an $80 million opening, bigger than Bad Boys for Life or any 2020 release so far. Presumably your friends, workmates and family have been sneaking off and covertly watching this engagingly hokey film without telling you. Either way, it’s time for you to take a free ride on the Death Train, also known by the equally duff title Denonator.

A tv movie with a script based on a novel based on a screenplay sounds less-than-promising; this is a vague sequel to 1980’s laughable Hostage Tower, and features UNACO, the United Nations Anti-Crime Organisation, on the trail of a stolen nuclear bomb held by terrorists on a German train. No longer played by Billy Dee Williams, CW (Clarke Peters) is left to interrogate the scientist who built the bomb for a rogue Russian General (Christopher Lee). Centre-stage are Malcolm Philpott (Patrick Stewart) and his old chum “Mike’ Graham, played by Pierce Brosnan and introduced sympathetically throwing a motorbike-race to avoid running over a bunny-rabbit.

The terrorists in David Jackson’s thriller are led by The Silence of the Lambs’ Ted Levine who plans to smash his way through to Iraq and force the Russians to invade, creating a new adversary for the US. There’s a quite exciting action scene about twenty minutes in when Graham and his team try and board the moving train; MacLean never saw a helicopter he didn’t like, and the lack of CGI leaves space for some decent stunts. The plot is kind of ridiculous, and resolves itself rather predictably; Maclean seems to have enough access to imagine a nuclear crisis, but the mechanics by which things are resolved are Boys Own stuff.

Death Train is no masterpiece, but it’s undemanding, slump-in-your-chair stuff that just about manages to entertain, mainly by casting a few well-kent faces most of which went on to bigger things, and also by dint of some decent sub-Bond second unit action. If nothing else, the Siberian locations, hopefully labelled either Kentucky, Germany or Russia, provide some mirth, as does the glimpse of LaGuardia airport in New York, which looks remarkably like an empty stretch of Eastern European airstrip. And the title on the version reviewed comes up as ‘Death Train Hollywood Action Movie Action Thriller Hollywood Cinema’, which is probably an apt description of the shenanigans contained.

When Eight Bells Toll 1971 ****

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The title is from a sea-faring term; Alistair MacLean’s adaptation of his own novel makes appropriately salty use of the author’s own experience in the navy. Filmed in and around the Scottish coastal village of Tobermory, here fictionalised as Torbay, Etienne Perier’s actioneer was intended to spark a new series to rival if not succeed the James Bond films, which were in mid Connery/Lazenby contractual free-fall when this was being made. Alas, no other film featuring Phillip Calvert (Anthony Hopkins) were made, but this gives a good flavour of what a potential franchise might have been like.

Calvert is introduced storming a hi-jacked ship; he’s a professional secret agent for the British Treasury, and clearly knows his stuff. MacLean gives Calvert plenty of animosity against his London-based superiors, notably Robert Morely as Uncle Arthur, Calvert’s handler and a man who seems more consumed with the availability of egg sandwiches than solving the mystery of the missing gold bullion. The nearby boat of shipping magnate Sir Anthony Skousas (Jack Hawkins) suggests who might be responsible, but Skouras’s wife Charlotte complicates things by getting attached to Calvert.

There’s a couple of duff-process shots, but for a film made in 1969, When Eight Bells Toll looks amazing today, with great location work in and around the Isle of Mull, terrific use of boats and Westland helicopters, and action that derives directly from the narrative, rather than feeling tacked on. The way Calvert attaches a live grenade to a rope and swing-balls it backwards into his enemies during the final confrontation is genius; without being a super-hero, he’s an ingenious, likeable hero.

When Eight Bells Toll is surprisingly modern in outlook and scope, and the presence of Hopkins, a versatile and thoughtful leading man, lends it a real sense of gravity. This is derring-do and Queen and Country stuff, but leavened with a healthy air of cynicism; enjoy a grand old action movie that still works in 2020.

 

Puppet on a Chain 1971 ****

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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.

In The Line of Duty 2019 ***

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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 Internecine Project 1974 ***

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“Who will be alive when the hands stop?’ is the shrill question asked by the poster for The Internecine Project, an unusual British thriller from 1974. It’s about a US official who is promoted to a high-ranking government post; in order to cover his tracks, he arranges for a masterful cover-up, which almost works. Ken Hughes’s film is one that requires substantial concentration, but the depiction of black ops, corrupt officials and US interference in foreign affairs is one that time has been kind to.

With a who’s who of Bristish character actors employed here, it’s a welcome touch of class to have James Coburn take the lead here as Robert Elliot, who concocts the fiendish plan to free himself of the mechanism of his success. Coburn was a renaissance man, but his charisma and dynamism is tamped down for a John le Carre lite narrative; if you enjoy watching James Coburn ticking off a to-do list on typed paper, then you’re in luck, since that’s largely what The Internecine Project is mainly comprised of. Amongst those Elliot is hoping to dispose of are Harry Andrews as a cat-loving woman-hating hit-man, Ian Hendry as a bespectacled diabetic civil servant and a prostitute.

Sex and violence are largely kept off-screen, but attitudes to woman are consistently awful. ‘Look, you’re a beautiful lady, why don’t you find something to do that fits your talents, like write a cook-book?; says Elliot to Lee Grant’s journalist, who suspects him of all kinds of corporate malfeasance. This is a sophisticated film, and yet, like 1975’s The Eiger Sanction, it catches male-female relations at something of a low. Meanwhile, Michael Jayston plays a scientist experimenting with sound as a means of murder; Hughes’ film is prescient in a number of ways, not least in the depiction of inter-departmental espionage.

The Internecine Project has fallen into some kind of disrepair, but it’s a very original film that substitutes the most complex of plotting for action, and leads to a final, downbeat twist that takes some beating. This would be well worth a remake; there’s a clever idea that gets let down by some of the period detail, but the whole concept would work well in a 2020 setting.

 

Motherless Brooklyn 2019 ****

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It’s a good twenty years since Jonathan Lethem’s novel was published; based on the public and critical reaction, writer/director Edward Norton needn’t have bothered adapting the text from prose to screen. And yet there’s plenty to enjoy in Motherless Brooklyn, which, like The Goldfinch, is far from the dud that the box office might suggest; certainly, films about urban planning are rarely big news, but although it’s 144 minutes long, Norton’s film is idiosyncratic and often engaging.

Bruce Willis gets near-top billing, but is pretty much out of the film before the credits go up. Willis plays Frank Minna, a local gangster with a penchant for rescuing children; it’s through this method that he’s a mentor to Lionel Essrog, a bright young man with Tourette’s syndrome. Essrog also has a perfect memory, and listens in on one of Minna’s meetings shortly before his father-figure is shot. Piecing together various abstract clues, Hamlet-style, Essrog starts to investigate Trump-ian property baron Moses Randolph (Alec Baldwin) and also the businessman’s brother Paul (Willem Dafoe). Randolph has designs of the New York property market, but his methods are underhand, and Essrog is quickly out of his depth…

A film like this stands and falls on its villain, and Baldwin relishes the opportunity to play Randolph with saturnine charm. Whether he’s directly responsible for the violent killings that beset Essrog isn’t exactly clear, but it is obvious that Randolph has an evolved philosophy that penalises the poor. Motherless Brooklyn has a Chinatown-lite view of city corruption, and anyone interested in New York will enjoy the various allusions gathered here, as well as some eye-opening chat about Central Park

Norton is also an actor’s director, getting good work from his cast, and he also provides a happy centre as Essrog. Playing a character with a disability isn’t a great look in 2019, and yet there’s obvious reasons why it wouldn’t be easy to cast the role. Norton does well not to play Essrog’s verbal infelicities for laughs, and pulls off something rare and unexpected by having a disabled protagonist whose disability is not central to the narrative.

Motherless Brooklyn takes a few wrong turns; the background to Essrog’s detective agency is inadequately sketched in, and Minna leaves far too early to get a sense of who he was. But there’s a clear gap between the quality of Norton’s film and the public’s appreciation of what he’s done, and Motherless Brooklyn is worth recommending to the discerning viewer.

Knives Out 2019 ****

knives-out-1200-1200-675-675-crop-000000Rian Johnson’s Knives Out is an old-fashioned whodunit that runs very much against the popular tide; such tried and tested entertainments are rarely in vogue. Exhuming Murder on the Orient Express didn’t breathe much life into the Agatha Christie stakes, and drawing rooms, insurance policies and old-school detection are hardly the ingredients for box-office success. It’s surprising, then, that despite trailers that indicate a camp-as-Clue pastiche, Knives Out is an engrossing puzzle that constitutes that rarest of commodities, a good story well told.

With no real need for spoilers, Knives Out begins with a death, and immediately tips the audience off to the guilty party. It reverses the expectations of a whodunit, and leaves us guessing where the story will go next. Of course, there’s plenty of suspects who look guilty as sin when it comes to having motives against author Harlan Thronbey (Christopher Plummer); practically his entire family have their knives out for him, providing juicy roles for stars such as Jamie Lee Curtis, Chris Evans, Michael Shannon and Don Johnson. Meanwhile Thronbey’s nurse Marta (Ana de Armas) has her own secrets to hide, and there’s knowing cameos from Frank Oz and M Emmett Walsh to keep cineastes happy. And leading the way is Benoit Blanc, a detective played by Daniel Craig with a deft comic touch. It’s not been easy finding vehicles for an actor of Craig’s charisma, but Blanc makes an ideal focal point here, playing off his Bond image with an eccentric, slightly incompetent investigator.

Knives Out brings something fresh to the genre; the artwork of antique knives in the living room of Thronbey’s house matches up nicely with the broken spirals of shattered glass on Marta’s phone. There are wheels within wheels in the convoluted narrative, and red herrings often merge with the plot-points; there a charming conceit whereby clues are deliberately obscured under the noses of the detectives, and a cheerful dog unknowingly retrieves items of potential value.

The clichés that Knives Out turns inside out have been dormant so long that younger audiences might not realise they exist; it’s hard to imagine the Joker generation being familiar with such musty enterprises as 1961’s What A Carve Up! But that’s exactly where Knives Out goes, and hopefully the fresh take on the country-house murder will spark joy in amateur detectives worldwide.