The Gift 2015 ***

Joel Edgerton’s first film as writer/director is an accomplished psychological thriller that owes some of its dramatic heft to Michael Hanke’s Hidden, but has a deliberately off-kilter momentum of its own. Rebecca Hall and Jason Bateman play Robyn and Simon, who move into a big house in LA. Their domestic bliss is short-lived; a chance meeting with an old friend of Simon Gordo (Edgerton) leads to a few unexpected visits, and leads Simon to the conclusion that Gordo is stalking him. The result is one of the more restrained entries in the Blumhouse canon, and better for it; Edgerton touches on issues about bullying , homosexuality and  repression while keeping a tight, believable narrative on track. The ending is a little hokey, but the slow-burn route to the climax is worth taking, with Bateman’s usual suave cool being blown and Edgerton relishing the chance to play a sinister and threatening stranger.

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John Wick 3: Chapter 3- Parabellum 2019 ****

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.

Cold Pursuit 2019 ***

Liam Neeson’s self-deprecating attempt to create a debate on race, violence and revenge fell on deaf ears, or rather, social media pundits keen to take offence at his confession of an irrational impulse he didn’t act upon decades ago. The debate largely shifted to personal attacks on Neeson, and completely negated any attempt to shine a light on the film he was promoting, thriller Cold Pursuit. Hans Petter Moland’s remake of his own film from 2014, In Order of Disappearance, features Neeson as Nels Coxman, a snow-plough driver who seeks revenge when a drug cartel claims the life of his son. Neeson could probably eek out the rest of his career doing straight-up Mr Majestyk-style revenge dramas, but Cold Pursuit has a rather different angle to offer, with Neeson’s character often off-screen and a wider focus on how Coxman’s actions light a fuse that causes dissent within a turf war. Cold Pursuit has more of a Fargo vibe than say, Man on Fire, with a few jokes landing flat (a less-than-timely gag about Aqua’s Barbie Girl, a groaner about Indian hotel ‘reservations’) but there’s enough icy foreboding in the violent events to create a frisson, and there’s genuine underlying excitement heading into the final scenes. If this is Neeson’s last action film, then it’s a nice way to go out; Cold Pursuit subverts the revenge genre to offer a pithy commentary on how violence never leads anywhere good, which feels like it was Neeson’s original point in the first place.

Let The Corpses Tan 2018

The opening credits of Hélène Cattet and Bruno Forzani’s epic crime-opus give the game away; crediting a 1971 book by Patrick Manchette and Jean-Pierre Bastid as inspiration, it’s clear this is a trashy crime thriller in a manner of Mario Bava’s Rabid Dogs. Always a striking presence, Elina Löwensohn plays Luce, the moll of a number of local gangsters in the sun-drenched region of Corsica. After an armoured-car heist, involving the shooting of several guards, the thieves repair back to Luce’s literal hole in the ground. The cops arrive, and after a shoot-out, a siege develops, with a fortune in gold awaiting anyone who can think their way out of the trap. Psychedelic visuals, extreme violence, more than a whiff of sexual excess; Let The Corpses Tan has it all, and even if the surfeit of style is overpowering at times, Let The Corpses Tan has a punk energy that enthrals for the most part.

The Poppy Is Also A Flower 1966 ***

Largely forgotten and hard to trace, Terence Young’s 1966 television film to promote the UN’s work is a real oddity; reuniting the director of the original James Bond films with the author Ian Fleming, who provided the outline here, The Poppy Is Also A Flower features an all-star cast in a thriller about stopping the opium epidemic from spreading. Executive produced by Euan Lloyd, best known for his gung-ho action (Who Dares Wins, The Wild Geese), Young’s film is packed with talent, with Terence Howard and EG Marshall the unlikely duo at the centre of the commotion. The ads promised blazing action, but apart from a couple of late punch-ups on a train, there’s very little to cheer, but the story is interesting; spies impregnate a consignment of opium with radioactive material, and trace it to various distribution points to nail the chain. It’s a pre-French Connection policier, also known as The Opium Connection and Danger Goes Wild; fun to watch, if only to spot guest stars like Omar Sharif, Rita Hayworth, Yul Brynner and a scene-stealing Eli Wallach.

The Killer Elite 1975 ***

Sam Peckinpah’s career peaked with The Wild Bunch; while his later films display flashes of genius, his greatest work was probably in the late 1960’s. By 1975, alcohol and drugs were catching up with him, and the opportunity to direct a studio film like The Killer Elite came with conditions. Those expecting an over-the-top bloody spectacle will be disappointed, but there’s still meat on the bones. James Caan models a terrific wardrobe of turtle-neck sweaters and suede jackets as Mike, a CIA operative who is double-crossed by his partner George (Robert Duvall). George shoots Mike in the knee, retiring his friend, but Mike goes through a long and painful rehabilitation process and eventually puts together a team to seek revenge. The same year as French Connection II, The Killer Elite switches focus to cover the long route back that a driven individual might take; Caan does well with the physicality, and Peckinpah’s downbeat word-view is a good fit for the bigger-picture plotline about CIA departmental rivalry. The Killer Elite has never looked better than in Amazon’s spanking print; the finale on the deck of the Reserve Fleet in California is crisp and clear even when the switching of allegiances isn’t.

Winter Kills 1979 *****

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William Richert’s adaptation of Richard Condon’s novel has a reputation of a lost gem; after a disastrous shoot and release in 1979, Richert managed to acquire the rights and create a director’s cut of the political thriller, and it’s this version that’s popped up on Amazon Prime. A dark fantasy on the lines of The Manchurian Candidate, Winter Kills is a fiction with a clear basis in fact; the assassination of US president John F Kennedy is never mentioned, but it’s clear that’s the subject. Jeff Bridges plays Nick, the half brother of the late President Keegan, and Nick follows a trail of breadcrumbs in the hope of finding out who wanted his bother dead. This starts with a man who has just fallen from an oil-rig, and makes a deathbed confession that leads Nick to a hidden rifle that was used to kill the president. Nick’s investigation immediately leads to a massacre, and Nick returns home for help from his billionaire father (John Huston). The production difficulties on Winter Kills would make a film in themselves (or at least the 40 minute doc Who Killed Winter Kills) with producers imprisoned for marijuana offences and even murdered, and the production shut down several times. Even by today’s standards, Winter Kills is pretty daring in its roman a clef of American politics, and there’s some great cameos from Elizabeth Taylor, Eli Wallach and Sterling Hayden as a tank-loving maverick. Huston is a bit much as Pa, but most of the elements of Winter Kills have matured over the years, making it something of a must-see movie for anyone who hasn’t heard of it.