Tomb Raider (2018)

For some reason I was very reluctant to see this film. I’m not a gamer so the franchise doesn’t mean much to me. The two versions starring Angelina Jolie are distant menories after one viewing when the came out, and the trailer made the movie look like a single long chase through the jungle and I saw that last Christmas with “Jumanji“. So imagine my surprise that this turned out to be pretty good.

Alicia Vikander has been on my radar since I first saw her in a ridiculous film “Seventh Son“, from three years ago. Since then she starred in my favorite movie of that year and won an Academy Award. None of that really suggests that she could be an action star, but this film manages to make her pretty believable in that role. One of the things the script manages to do is show that she is frequently lucky rather than invincible. The opening two scenes show her being defeated in a battle in the ring and getting creamed in a bicycle chase. She has her moments but she is also clearly not always going to come out on top. She is also an amateur in this film version. As a nascent treasurer hunter, she is really in pursuit of her father not the contents of a tomb.

I don’t mean to suggest that the story is complex or that there are not a lot of chase scenes. In fact, the plot does seem like a series of action sequences strung together. The most noticeable of which are three chase sequences that take up the first half of the film. The bicycle chase at the beginning is very clever and nicely shot and completely superfluous to the plot. A pursuit across a series of boats in the harbor of Hong Kong, does little to advance the story either. The big chase is the action scene that is so prominently featured in the trailers, and it is that jungle chase that I mentioned earlier. It has some of those Spielberg touches, that add just one more complication as you think the end is within reach. Those play out like a bit of a cliche but they still manage to work.

My main reason for wanting to see this is that it features Walton Goggins as the bad guy. We are fans of his work ever since we first came across him in “Justified”. I know that he had some success before that but we know him as Boyd Crowder. Here he is Maithias Vogel, the minion of some vast conspiracy that is attempting to control the world. I’m sure that “Trinity” will feature prominently in any successive films but her it is barely a shadow. Vogel is the villain and as a man trapped on an island, searching for what he thinks is a treasure, surrounded by slaves that he dispatches like swatting a fly, he is appropriately mad-eyed. Goggins has a good voice and speaks in an interesting rhythm when given a chance. Unfortunately here, there is rarely an opportunity. The screenwriters just stick a gun in his hand and move on to another sequence.

The National Treasure/Raiders of the Lost Ark/Mummy vibe is pretty strong. When they finally do enter the Tomb, it was sufficiently booby trapped to make the last section pretty effective. We don’t really get any sense of how Lara Croft figures out the puzzles that she solves. This was especially true of the combination that unlocked the chamber in the first place. I would think that gamers, used to having to solve these sorts of elements to make their games work, would want to have that as part of the process, but the film makers are in a hurry to get to the next piece of exposition or action.

“Tomb Raider” is a brisk two hours with enough story to make the action work, but only barely. Whether or not we get further adventures that the story clearly is setting up is a mystery that could only be discovered by Lara herself. Stay Tuned.

 

The Man From U.N.C.L.E. (2015)

I love 1960s spy stuff. James Bond was born in the sixties, Patrick Magoohan was Danger Man, Johnny Rivers killed it with his spy themed “Secret Agent Man” and Mel Brooks spoofed it with “Get Smart”. Even before I’d seen my first Bond film, I saw “The Man from U.N.C.L.E.” on television. When I heard that a movie version was planned, I was relatively pleased. I know there are people who hate the idea of a classic show being adapted for movie screens. The list of failures is long: “Lost in Space”, McHale’s Navy”, “The Flintstones”. Video bins are littered with 60s shows re-imagined as big screen entertainment. The hope is that you will get an occasional “Addams Family” or “The Fugitive”, the reality is you end up with “Sgt. Bilko”. So, which way did it go with the latest effort to rob our childhoods to feed our adult addictions?

The movie version of “The Man From U.N.C.L.E.” gets a lot of things right. It also leaves out some of the things that you treasured. In the end, it works as a stand alone concept because the only things that really remain from the show, are the concept and time period. By sticking to the time period of the original series, the Cold War years of the 1960s, the film manages to keep the tension between East and West as a background. More importantly, they get to costume the leads in stylish 60s garb. One of my favorite things about Spielberg’s “Catch Me If You Can” was the way he captured the vibe of the early 60s. I have not watched a minute of “Mad Men”, but I suspect this movie would do the set decoration and costuming on that series proud. Henry Cavill, who plays the Napoleon Solo character, is dressed in stylish suits in every scene. The fabrics are vivid and the cut flattering. Although they would look a bit old fashioned now, they would carry a lot of retro cache with them.  Armie Hammer’s Illya Kuryakin is not wearing the high turtleneck sweater that was practically a trademark of the character, but the Henley styled shirts and plain suits he does wear are perfectly appropriate. The women are the ones who get shown off to the greatest advantage with some mod evening wear from the villainess. The girl that helps the two spies out (a standard storyline from the 60s show) has some cute 60s outfits that would be snapped up in an instant by hipster thrift store shoppers.

The plot really feels like it could be taken from a lost episode of the show. An East German girl is being used by the spy network, to locate her missing father, a nuclear genius who has technology that gives it’s owners great powers. A loose band of Nazi sympathizers have the Doctor captive and are using his knowledge to gain power and build bombs. Most superhero franchises start with origin stories, and this film does the same thing. It attempts to explain how Russian and American spies, begin working together. The TV show never bothered with such background, it simply presented the covert network as a functioning entity from the beginning and then focused on the case for that week. Creating a background story for the agency is the biggest add by Guy Richie and his collaborators. The problem is that it leaves out stuff that made the original series cool, at least to us old enough to remember it. The badges, secret entrance to headquarters, briefings by Mr. Waverly, and the communication gadgets are all missing from the movie. Solo is given a backstory that makes him more Alexander Monday than James Bond. Someone decided that Ilya needed psychological problems to balance out his perfect physical capabilities. The changes work for a big screen adaption but they do distance the audience that might have been drawn in to the film by their love of the series.

Some of the things that work well in this film include the opening section where the Russian spy Illya Kuryakin is chasing after the American spy Napoleon Solo. The car chase and running gun fight are worthy stunts for an opening to a spy thriller. The banter between the two spies is also one of the things that Guy Richie brings to the movie. Anyone seeing his London based crime thrillers knows that snappy dialogue and quick exchanges are trademarks of his work. Hammer does not get quite as many of these lines as Cavill does, but he does get a lot of the physical reaction shots that make a joke pay off. Alicia Vikander is in her third film of the year with this movie. I thought she was great in both “Seventh Son” and “Ex Machina” , the later of which she should always flaunt on her resume. She does not get to do a lot of action material in this movie, but she is definitely more than just the damsel in distress. Hugh Grant is in the film but very little. if there is another in the franchise I know his role will be expanded. The split screen effect used during the storming of the island fortress was an efficient way to get through what might have been a long sequence very effectively, I could do with less shaky cam in the pursuit that follows.

One mistake that I think the film makers make is that they don’t use the original Jerry Goldsmith music effectively. Take a look at how the “Mission Impossible” series has managed to weave the iconic song into those films. They may owe half their box office take to Lalo Schiffrin. The U.N.C.L.E. theme is in the film but only as an exit instrumental rather than as a transition piece. It has been altered from a big horned, bass heavy theme into a nearly unrecognizable conga tune. The result was one of the least satisfying parts of the film. Overall, I enjoyed the film a lot, but there are things to fix to make it as much fun as it should have been. If Guy Richie and his writing partners want some advise for the sequel, they can reach me on channel D.