Without A Clue 1988 ****

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‘How are things on the sub-continent?’ is a phrase that looms large in my notes for Without A Clue, a Sherlock Holmes spoof from 1988. It’s uttered by Reginald Kincaid (Michael Caine), an actor hired by Dr Watson (Ben Kingsley) to play the role of the Baker Street detective, a fictional character of his own invention. It’s a line that evokes the casual, avuncular racism of a bygone era, and one of a number of neat touches that make Without A Clue something of a secret delight.

Without A Clue was poorly reviewed and found few takers, and yet it’s a very clever take on Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s character. Caine and Kingsley relish the challenge of flipping their characters; Holmes is dominant in public, but is cowed and bullied in private. Watson, by contrast, has to maintain a meek façade when solving crimes, but is quick to asset his intellect when the two are left alone together. And there’s a crime to be solved; stolen, or rather switched bank-plates means that the Bank of England have been accidentally issuing forgeries, while the criminals concerned have the ability to make real banknotes. Moriarty (Raiders of the Lost Ark’s Paul Freeman) is, of course, at the heart of the scandal, with Lestrade (Jeffrey Jones) less than hot on his trail.

A short but delightful scene with Norman Greenhough (Peter Cook), the real-life publisher of The Strand Magazine, establishes that Without A Clue knows it’s stuff, and it’s also nice to see such Conan Doyle ephemera like the Baker Street Irregulars make an appearance. Without a Clue didn’t offer the sex or anti-authority comedy that was fashionable in the 1980’s, but it’s a minor delight, well performed and with a fresh, charming take on beloved characters.

https://itunes.apple.com/us/movie/without-a-clue/id872645010

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The Boy Next Door 2015 ***

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Hustlers has set Jennifer Lopez back on her feet as a movie star in 2019; back in 2015, her career took something of a down-turn with this strangely undernourished domestic horror film from the Blumhouse label. The Boy Next Door took a fair chunk out of the box-office, but it’s a strange Fatal Attraction rehash that probably soured Lopez’s audience on her for a while.

She plays Clare Peterson, a classics teacher who is in an unsatisfying relationship with her husband (John Corbett) and dreams of meeting a man who can not only share her love of Homer’s The Illiad, but fix her garage door. Step forward Ryan Guzman as Noah, quite literally the boy next door, who takes an understandable shine to Clare and gifts her a ‘first edition’ of The Illiad, presumably signed by the author himself. Disappointingly, that’s about as far as Rob Cohen goes with the literature theme as Clare unwisely goes to bed with Noah, only to find herself blackmailed and then subjected to various indignities as Noah takes over her life.

This is an absurdly melodramatic film that has very little going for it but Lopez, who manages to make it watchable as a happy centre to a miserable story. Golden Raspberry nominations aside, Lopez is an iconic figure whose talents are misapplied here, but as a real movie star can, she just about papers over the gaping cracks in this risible, yet amusing pot-boiler.


Hitman Redemption 2018 ***

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Do you love the Hitman video game? Did you like Timothy Olyphant’s performance in 2007’s Hitman, or did you prefer Rupert Friend’s incarnation in the recent Hitman; Agent 47? Whatever your knowledge of the Hitman IP, you’ll be utterly bamboozled when a film called Hitman Redemption turns up on Netflix UK. Why? Because it is absolutely nothing to do with the Hitman series, and why they should be masquerading as such is anyone’s guess.

This movie was released as Asher during a US release last year, and it stars the always personable Ron Perlman as an aging hit-man who has a crisis when a job goes wrong. Whatever this film’s merits, giving the film the title of a different and far better known IP is a recipe for unsatisfied customers.

Having got all that out of the way, Hitman Redemption aka Asher is a decent little B movie that has a few points of genuine interest. Firstly, director Michael Caton-Jones is a very safe pair of hands, with a few notable successes (Memphis Belle, Scandal, Rob Roy) and an ability to get difficult films over the line (Basic Instinct 2). He uses a bluesy score here to give atmosphere to some fairly rote professional assassin shenanigans, with Asher finding his relationship with his handler (Richard Dreyfuss) under pressure. But there’s a sub-plot involving Asher’s fading abilities, and his relationship with a neighbour Sophie (Famke Janssen) that nearly turns the film on it’s head.

Viewers expecting video-game antics are going to be profoundly mystified by watching Sophie struggling to deal with her mother’s dementia and incontinence, and the contrast between her problems and Asher’s is interesting. And the mother character is played with surprising depth by Jacqueline Bisset, who makes something moving and memorable of her scenes. The action is short and not particularly distinguished, but there’s just enough meat on the bones to suggest why such a strong cast was attracted to this project.

Never Grow Old **** 2019

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We’ve seen this character in Westerns before; from Sergio Leone to Carry On Cowboy; the small-town mortician scuttles in the shadows between the buildings, following in the wake of a violent protagonist as he shoots his way to grim justice. Often played for laughs, the undertaker is usually a bit-part player; Ivan Kavanagh’s violent thriller puts him centre stage in a strong, involving story about morality and money.

A flash-forward shows Patrick Tate (Emile Hirsch) entering a church, shotgun in hand. It’s an image that hangs heavily over the rest of the film, as the story uncoils to reveal his deadly motivations. Tate lives and works in the small frontier town of Garlow, populated by right-thinking, sweet-natured religious people until Dutch Albert (John Cusack) and his gang arrive. They bring booze, and recruit child-prostitutes for a local brothel, and dish out death to those who stand in their way. For Tate, it’s a moral quandary, but also a business proposition; after all, he has a young wife (Déborah François) and hungry children to feed…

Never Grow Old has a timeless story, but also one that feels intensely relevant in 2019. Dutch Albert promises a better life, or at least a more moneyed existence, but at a high cost. Tate has the option of keeping his head down and not acknowledging where the cash is coming from, but it’s inevitable that his supping with the devil will lead him to the moral awakening of the final confrontation. Faith in capitalism is one thing, but it doesn’t allow entrepreneurs to operate in a moral vacuum. Kavanaugh’s story is suitably elliptical that it doesn’t have a specific political meaning, but all comers can take something away from the picture of a world where the good guys are hamstrung by trying to do the right thing while the bad guys run roughshod over the rules.

What makes Never Grow Old really worth switching your phone off for is the acting; Cusack has travelled some distance from his pretty-boy rom-com image, and he adds a personal best performance amongst the gallery of villains he’s played. Dutch has a touch of Daniel Day-Lewis in Gangs of New York, volatile, off-key, oozing menace behind a blank stare. He’s well-matched by Hirsch, also a teen idol who has conjured up the grit required to gravitate to bigger things; his good looks work against his character’s moral weakness, making something complex of Tate; Hirsch’s Jay Sebring in Quentin Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time …In Hollywood brought him back to public notice, but Never Grow Old shows he’s still a first-rate lead. François also deserves credit for taking a familiar character and giving her a hard, sympathetic edge as she begs her husband to recognise that the source of their good fortune is also their undoing.

Shot in Luxembourg and Ireland, Never Grow Old is a handsome, well-mounted Western in the old-tradition; it’s the kind of film that might have genre fans standing in supermarkets examining the case, wondering if this is any good; it is good, the kind of tough, thoughtful film that’s increasingly hard to find but easy to recommend.

NEVER GROW OLD is released on DVD 23rd September 2019 from Altitude Films

Night Hunter 2018 ****

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Henry Cavill is at something of a cross-roads right now; the substantially framed leading man did a great job in Mission Impossible; Fallout, and that offsets underwhelming outings as Superman and stale thrillers like The Cold Light of Day. In writer/director David Raymond’s thriller, he’s cast as Marshall, a cop in a quandary; he captures Simon (Brendan Fletcher) a paedophile who has locked up a girl at an unknown location. While a psychologist (Alexandra Daddario) attempts to get inside Simon’s head, Marshall has to balance the demands of his boss (Stanley Tucci) with the girl’s father (Ben Kingsley), who has previously used his daughter as bait to trap and castrate sex-offenders. Night Hunter’s plot has echoes of the final scenes of David Fincher’s Se7en, with the police scrambling to understand the complex machinations of a diseased mind; there are issues relating to mental health in the way that Simon is described, although a late twist changes the meaning of his behaviour. Night Hunter has a few issues of its own, with some of the scenes oddly edited and not always landing squarely. But Raymond has assembled a top-notch cast, all of who perform, with Tucci, Kinsley and particularly Daddario racking up the intensity. For Cavill, it’s a welcome change of pace to see him in a more human role that the usual supermen characters that his physique seems to inspire; he manages to ground the narrative, and helps make Night Hunter an absorbing, intense thriller.

Heat 1986 ***

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Any personal investigation into the decline and fall of Burt Reynolds would have to include Heat, a 1986 film which eared the star a cool $2 million. Reynolds had decided, perhaps a half dozen films too late, that the ‘man with a car’ trope had been overdone, and was looking for more mature roles. Both Stick and Heat demonstrate that his stardom was considerable enough to bring in a team of top talent; William Goldman adapts his own novel here, while super-producer Elliot Kastner (Where Eagles Dare, The Long Goodbye, Angel Heart) produces. The opening sequence is pretty striking with Nick Escalante (Reynolds) hitting on a woman in a bar, only to be badly beaten by her wimpy husband. It’s soon revealed that this is a set up job, and that Escalante is being paid to make the husband look good. Establishing that our central character is happy to debase himself for cash is a strange way to start, and things get odder when Nick dons a ridiculously garish pimp outfit to avenge a woman Holly (Karen Young) who has fallen foul of a local crime boss DeMarco (Neill Barry). Nick pulls soon lamentable slow-mo kung fu moves and enables Holly to humiliate DeMarco by taking a knife to his genetalia. A side-plot involves Nick working as a bodyguard/chaperone to a gauche young man (Peter McNichol), although given how sleazy the whole enterprise is, it’s hard to imagine Nick’s influence being a positive one, and the way the stories are blended at the climax is crude to say the least. Heat went through several directors, with Dick Richards allegedly quitting after Reynolds punched him in the face. Given the atrocious fight-scenes here, a punch from Reynolds wouldn’t have much impact; a scene where he karate-kicks a light-bulb out if its socket is utterly farcical. And Nick’s habit of carrying his jacking on his shoulder by one finger makes him look like a male-model. And yet…Goldman was one of the Hollywood greats, and there’s some interesting scenes, notably a long meditation on gambling that transfers well to the screen. And even the confrontations between Nick and DeMarco have some latent menace; this is a small-scale, nasty but bluntly effective crime story, quite different from Goldman’s other work, but with evidence of his unique style. With support from Howard Hesseman, Heat isn’t exactly a classic, and was probably worth remaking as Wild Card with Jason Stratham, but there are treasures amongst the ruins for fans of Goldman’s gift for character.

Carlito’s Way 1994 *****

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Perhaps it’s not as iconic as The Untouchables, but Brian De Palma’s adaptation of Edwin Torres’s book is a cracking crime drama that shows commendable restraint. Al Pacino is Carlito, who emerges from prison determined to go straight, despite his lawyer Kleinfeld (Sean Penn) being a coke-snorting shambles. Carlito starts up his own nightclub, always a good way to avoid criminal temptation, and kicks things off romantically with dancer Gail (Penelope Ann Miller). While the set pieces are memorable, including a pool-room shoot out and the epic finale in Grand Central Station, Carlito’s Way has a vice-like grasp of its central characters that never lets up, and engagement is high throughout. Reviews were rather tepid at the time, but De Palma’s thriller is a great Saturday night popcorn film, big stars, big performances, and an exciting, involving story. Pacino and Penn are both great here, giving proper perfoamnces that don’t bear the traces of excess that both men have indulged elsewhere. The story is bookended with a flash-forward to the final scene, which is a classic trope, but deflects the tension and the power; if you can find someone that hasn’t seen it, skip the opening scene and Carlito’s Way is a blast.