Spy thrillers fall into two basic categories – field and non-field. James Bond and Jason Bourne fall into the former category and are largely action thrillers, with copious amounts of running, jumping, fighting and shooting.
The other type is best represented by Harry Palmer and George Smiley, and tends to be much quieter with emphasis on talking, analysis and planning.
Anton Corbijn’s A Most Wanted Man falls firmly into the latter category, as a German Intelligence team headed by Günther Bachmann (Philip Seymour Hoffman, in the last role he completed before his tragic and untimely death) analyse, talk and plan how to neutralise terrorists in Hamburg. The film’s great strength is the detail with which it portrays the everyday work of espionage – the patience, the plethora of information that must be sifted for analysis, the clandestine meetings in public places and, above all, the relationships between spies as well as between agents and informants. Earlier in the year, I criticised Captain America: The Winter Soldier for its failure to successfully marry its conspiracy and superhero elements, the film feeling like two halves with insufficient connection. A Most Wanted Man does not have to include an action element – there are two action set pieces that are well-handled but not central to the drama – but it does a fine job of blending old-fashioned legwork and intrigue with contemporary concerns and technology. Post-9/11 espionage drama from Body of Lies to 24 is often in thraldom to the high tech gadgetry of counter-terrorism, but the computers, mobile phones and surveillance cameras of A Most Wanted Man are contextual rather than fetishized. The emphasis is upon the relationships that are key to spying – Bachmann’s team convinces as a committed but affable group of co-workers; the relationships between Bachmann and his informants, including Jamal (Mehdi Dehbi), Tommy Brue (Willem Dafoe) and Annabell Richter (Rachel McAdams) are fraught but engaging, and it is the interplay of these relationships that leads to a nerve-shredding climax based around signatures on bank transfers. To describe a film as following relationships and culminating in financial transactions sounds more like a domestic drama than a spy thriller, but A Most Wanted Man succeeds in dramatizing these seemingly banal features into a genuinely gripping, as well as grim and dour, portrayal of contemporary espionage.
I have always found the concept of ‘guilty pleasure’ rather strange, because I find guilt and pleasure to be mutually exclusive feelings. If I feel guilty, there is no pleasure, so if I start to feel guilty about something pleasurable the pleasure is removed. That’s just me, because for plenty of others the two feelings are clearly compatible. As far as films are concerned (I write about those, in case you didn’t know), I used to refer to Last Man Standing as a guilty pleasure and then realised I felt no guilt about it (nor should I). In discussions, the following films have been described as guilty pleasures:
Mega-Shark VS Giant Octopus
The Devil Wears Prada
Conan The Barbarian
Sleepless in Seattle
Legally Blonde and Legally Blonde 2
Commando (that came up a lot)
Battle: Los Angeles
A Knight’s Tale
I Spit On Your Grave
The dictionary definition of ‘guilty pleasure’ is ‘something, such as a film, television programme, or piece of music, that one enjoys despite feeling that it is NOT generally held in high regard’. Therefore, if you regard something as a guilty pleasure then there is a belief (which you may or may not share) that there is something wrong or bad about the text in question, so you feel guilty about taking pleasure in it, and furthermore this guilt can itself be pleasurable. Exactly what makes these films guilty pleasures will vary, depending on one’s perception of what they ‘should’ like or admire.
Sin City (2005) and Sin City: A Dame To Kill For (2014) (hereafter referred to jointly as Sin City), is a franchise that could be considered a guilty pleasure because of its stylish design but (apparent) lack of substance. When Sin City premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2005, critics described it as stylish but empty, and one review endorsed the second film with the caveat that ‘the stories are still about as deep as a shallow grave’. However, Sin City also highlights pleasure directly associated with its sinful characters and actions. ‘Sin’ is obviously a key element in Sin City, demonstrated both by its title (a bastardisation of its setting, Basin City) and creator Frank Miller’s emphasis upon ‘sinful’ behaviour including sex, violence, corruption, gambling, drinking, smoking, etc. All the major characters throw themselves (in some cases, literally) into ‘sinful’ situations, and the reader/viewer is invited along for the ride. The invitation is apparent in the graphic novels through constant alignment with particular ‘sinful’ anti-heroes whose internal monologues pervade the panels and gutters of the book, allowing the reader direct access to the protagonists’ views. This monologue becomes voiceover in the film adaptations, with the authority and alignment between viewer and character that this particular device creates, even though the alignment is with characters that embrace violence and vice with gleeful abandon. Glee is key, as Sin City takes pleasure in its abandonment of ‘polite’, ‘proper’ behaviour. This pleasure is apparent in the text’s excessive violence and sexuality: practically every woman appears in a state of undress (inviting obvious charges of sexism, to which I shall return); injuries are extremely gory; characters perform superhuman violent feats, such as crashing through the windscreens of moving cars, leaping off tall buildings without harm and (literally) cutting people to pieces.
Violent entertainment has been pleasurable for centuries, not simply because we are bloodthirsty but also because it is safe. Much like a rollercoaster, thrills on the screen are exhilarating but there is no risk of us suffering physical injury. But the excessive ‘sin’ of Sin City goes further, inviting not only pleasure but also something noble about in the abandonment of social niceties. Crucially, these are contemporary social niceties, the niceties of modernity and western capitalism. Although the setting, stylistics, hard-boiled dialogue and constant voiceover owe much to film noir, there are more primitive yet classical themes running through the streets of Sin City. The character Marv (Mickey Rourke) espouses a desire for violent revenge that would not be out of place in Jacobean tragedy, even if the vocabulary and syntax are distant from Shakespeare or Webster:
I’ll stare the bastard in the face as he screams to God, and I’ll laugh harder when he whimpers like a baby. And when his eyes go dead, the hell I send him to will seem like heaven after what I’ve done to him.
Marv is a recurring character across the various stories of Sin City, both on page and screen, and the narrative’s alignment with him encourages audience identification with his murderous intentions and deeds.
Similar alignment is made with Dwight McCarthy (Clive Owen), who takes significant pleasure in ‘The Big Fat Kill’ along with Gail (Rosario Dawson) and the rest of the girls (prostitutes) of Old Town, while in ‘A Dame To Kill For’ Dwight (now played by Josh Brolin) has no qualms about murdering Damien Lord (Martin Csokas) in order to save Damien’s wife Ava (Eva Green). Similarly, John Hartigan (Bruce Willis) murders several gangsters in defence of Nancy Callaghan (Jessica Alba), including Roark Jnr (Nick Stahl), the titular ‘That Yellow Bastard’. The anti-heroes of Sin City lack restraint but not honour or compassion, and their attitudes towards women reinforce this. One review describes Sin City as ‘an unreconstructed, man’s man’s world where the guys are either sickly or borderline sicko and the girls are classic noir femme fatales – – both in distress and deadly. Getting sniffy about sexism in Sin City would be like complaining about spaceships in Star Wars’. The sexism is not just (un)dressing but integral to the old-fashioned milieu of the protagonists and their fictional world – anti-heroes driven by antiquated chivalry in a world without honour. Hartigan, Dwight and Marv are knights out-of-time – Dwight pronounces Marv as being ‘born in the wrong century’ while Marv describes his quest of vengeance for Goldie’s death as ‘the bad old days’. A scene in which Marv learns that his adversary is Cardinal Roark (Rutger Hauer) features a giant statue of Roark, reminiscent of towering effigies in The Lord of the Rings (2001-03) and Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade (1989). This iconography echoes epics, as does the casting of Clive Owen, who previously starred as the eponymous knight/monarch in King Arthur (2004). This is the noble sin of Sin City – the anti-heroes are modern day knights who defy law and convention in pursuit of their own sense of what is right. Furthermore, their adversaries are far worse – child molesters, cannibals and corrupt politicians who use murder and intimidation to maintain their power. But although Sin City takes glee in this medieval nobility, it does not simply valorise it.
Dwight’s devotion to Ava in ‘A Dame To Kill For’ is foolish and ultimately misguided, but he demonstrates similar devotion when he pursues Jackie Boy (Benicio Del Toro) and his gang so as to stop them hurting anyone. As it turns out, the ladies of Old Town don’t need his help, because they are more than capable of handling a carload of drunken louts. Although Dwight proves helpful later on, the prostitutes clearly do not need male protection, which highlights the antiquated nature of the men’s attitude. Similarly, Nancy only gets into danger when Hartigan comes to save her – had he stayed in prison Roark would never have found her. In order to protect her, Hartigan ultimately kills himself, and the subsequent story features Nancy going steadily mad, disfiguring herself and risking life and limb to take revenge on Senator Roark (Powers Boothe). As fun as ‘sinful’ behaviour may be, the cost is also on display, emphasised by the gory injuries and eventual deaths of Hartigan and Marv. Nor are these deaths resisted – Hartigan describes his death for Nancy’s life as a ‘fair trade’, while at his execution Marv says ‘it’s about damn time’. While these deaths are heroic sacrifices and pyrrhic victories, the demise of the anti-heroes reinforces the sense that they are out of time and their endeavours absurd. But that is part of the fun – in an era with no place for chivalry, what is sinful is also noble, demonstrating the lack of distinction between the two. The tagline for the second film is THERE IS NO JUSTICE WITHOUT SIN, and how true this is. The ‘sinful’ activities of Frank Miller’s characters are also acts of justice, highlighting the guilty pleasure of noble sin.
Snow, more snow, blood, chortle, snow, blood, snow, snow, chortle, blood, bang, bang, bang, blood, snow, chortle. That is a summary of In Order of Disappearance, Hans Petter Moland’s pitch black comedy about bereaved father Nils (Stellan Skarsgård), who takes on organised crime in Oslo in revenge for his son’s death. The setting and dark humour are reminiscent of the Coen Brothers’ Fargo, as events spiral out of control and Nils’ quest for vengeance provokes a full scale gang war. The balance between laughs and thrills is not always maintained, as the increasing number of deaths (all presented with title cards and appropriate religious symbols) spills into absurdity. But Skarsgård remains a likeable presence throughout, his downtrodden everyman maintaining a bewildered yet dogged determination.
Lucy dramatises the title of a film from earlier this year that also featured Morgan Freeman explaining pseudo-science – Transcendence. Lucy has already been more commercially successful than Wally Pfister’s film (over $270 million at the time of writing as opposed to $103 million for Transcendence’s entire theatrical run), and Luc Besson’s film could easily have been called Transcendence while Pfister’s could have been called Singularity (which might also work as a title for the forthcoming Interstellar, but I digress). Lucy is effectively a superhero film, the digital sequences that display the effect of a mysterious blue powder on the titular protagonist (Scarlett Johansson) are reminiscent of scenes in Blade (1998), Spider-Man (2002), Hulk (2003) and Daredevil (2003). But rather than emphasising spectacular action (which does appear but in a subordinate role), Lucy’s focus is on higher states of consciousness, increased intelligence and alternative perceptions of reality. The character Lucy transcends the film’s starting point for humanity and the film builds steadily towards transcendence with a focus upon heightened experience. Besson does not always strike the right balance between his (completely fictional) science and the spectacle of elevated experience, but Johansson is an engaging and reliable presence who carries the film for its brief running time.
The Keeper of Lost Causes is part police procedural and part psycho-thriller. The division between the two is also the division between the crime and the detectives. While it would reductive to compare any crime film from Scandinavia to The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo, The Keeper of Lost Causes shares screenwriter Nikolaj Arcel with the earlier film so similarities are not coincidental. Both films involve investigations of cold cases, both feature imprisonment and long held grudges, as well as chilling portrayals of inhumanity. But whereas Stieg Larsson’s Millennium trilogy featured unconventional protagonists, Jussi Adler-Olsen’s novel (the first in his Department Q series) uses the trusty (and perhaps clichéd) device of two mismatched cops, one an experienced but disgraced loose cannon, Carl Mørck (Nikolaj Lie Kaas, who bears a striking resemblance to Dominic West), the other an eager rookie very much in love with the job, Assad (Fares Fares). The different races of Carl and Assad adds to their mismatch, and an interesting feature of the film is its willingness to include institutionalised racism – Carl at first mistrusts his new partner who has only been assigned menial tasks in the police department, implicitly because of his race. Racism remains an issue that Assad must deal with and Carl’s willingness to work past his own prejudice allows for the characters and their relationship to develop.
This relationship as well as the investigation is handled in a down-to-earth, gritty manner, although DOP Eric Kress still finds beauty in the locations. Director Mikkel Nørgaard only partially succeeds in marrying the realism of the police investigation with the clichés of the genre as well as the perversity of the crime, and there is perhaps too much information made available to the viewer that the cops do not have, which removes much sense of mystery. However, the film is at its best in generating empathy for the suffering of the kidnap victim, Merete Lynggaard (Sonja Richter), whose ghastly situation is presented in a palatable and compelling way. Pleasingly, the film eschews a sexual dimension for her plight, not linking it to her gender but making it a twisted case of revenge. Equal opportunities psychos are in short supply so it is refreshing to see one who does not simply hate on women. This empathetic presentation helps to mitigate the film’s flaws, resulting in a grim and enthralling thriller that keeps its feet on the ground and its face in depravity.