At the Movies

Michael Wood

A spectre is haunting the action film these days. It’s not violence. There is nothing spectral about the ubiquitous crashes and bangs, the insistent maiming and killing of persons, the wholesale destruction of posh cars and real estate. The spectre is sorrow. From Batman to James Bond, every hero is grieving, stricken by a loss from which he can’t recover, whether of parents, mistress, wife or daughter. He – it’s always a he, the women in these movies just get to be decorous or evil, much better options – is all twisted inside, and that’s why he . . . er . . . devotes himself to the service of virtue. Come to think of it, the violence and the sorrow are not unconnected. The more the hero is grieving, the more freely, morally even, he can stir up whatever mayhem he likes.

There are variations, of course, and question marks. Daniel Craig as Bond in Quantum of Solace is so tough he looks as if he doesn’t know how to grieve. After all, this is the man who in Casino Royale, when asked if he wanted his martini shaken or stirred, said: ‘Do I look like I give a damn?’ When Clark Gable said he didn’t give a damn, we knew he really cared. So perhaps a fatally wounded heart beats after all in Craig’s iron chest. Or is it possible the grieving is all in the plot, carrying over the story of the dead loved woman from film to film? This doubt is precisely Craig’s gift to the series. There is no way of knowing what is going on behind his insistence that nothing is going on.

It’s possible too to do something about your grief, at least for the duration of a movie. You can rescue your lost daughter, even though psychologically you will remain as bereft as you were before. In Pierre Morel’s Taken, starring Liam Neeson, which opened in the UK last autumn but has just appeared in the US, the virtuous man gets to go on a real rampage. Apart from torturing criminals and leaving them to die, our hero shoots a man’s innocent wife in the leg just to get the man’s attention. He certainly has her attention. ‘Only a flesh wound,’ Neeson says. He knows what he’s doing, and we’d do the same, wouldn’t we, if we were trying to rescue our stolen daughter from a bunch of Albanian hoodlums running a sex-slave traffic racket? Well, first we’d have to think of it, and be armed, and know how to hit a target without looking. Neeson is ex-CIA, and now calls up all his old skills and his (presumed) former ruthlessness. His teenage daughter, encouraged by her feckless liberal mother, has taken off for Europe, ostensibly to check out the Louvre, but really to follow a U2 tour. As Anthony Lane says, she is picked up so quickly by the bad guys that her parents might just as well have FedExed her to them.

Neeson can redeem any movie, and he doesn’t fail here, but it is a close call, for two reasons: because the plot often feels like an excuse for the violence his character inflicts so efficiently on others; and because underneath the thriller lurks another genre, the one that is skulking in Quantum of Solace too: the Hollywood weepie. Neeson has retired from the Agency to be near his daughter, who lives with her remarried mother. At the beginning of the film, we see him at a birthday party, out of touch with what the girl wants, unable to compete in gifts with the rich stepfather. When she’s snatched, he’s needed. But when she’s saved, he’s just a hanger-on again. The movie tries, perhaps ironically, to resolve this problem by having him introduce his daughter to a pop singer, who may help the girl to the stardom she’s always wanted. I’m sure she’ll be grateful for a whole minute or two.

At a time when hard thrillers have soft hearts, or feel the need at least to pay tribute to such hearts, it’s a pleasure to see two films that have no truck with such soppiness, one of them because it’s nothing but a thriller, the other because it borrows the mode of romantic comedy without leaving the thriller behind. It’s no accident that both films cultivate stylish looks, in their actors and in their cinematography. They are both about looks, the world of appearances and who controls them. As it happens, both films star Clive Owen, an actor quite deft at suggesting that behind the surface there is more surface.

Tom Tykwer’s The International is full of great glass buildings, and everyone drives an Audi. The buildings and cars themselves tell an old-fashioned story of international banking, sleek, evil, rootless and scheming, and the first half of the film keeps pace with them. A man dies on the street, apparently for no reason. He was an Interpol agent, we learn, on the trail of the sinister activities of the International Bank of Business and Credit, which specialises in creating the sort of large-scale turmoil in which their dubious clients can sell arms. Later we learn the man was killed by a poison transmitted by a passer-by. Meanwhile, Owen, another Interpol officer, and very angry about the way the whole world except himself and Naomi Watts, of the New York District Attorney’s office, has sold out to the system, discovers what seems to be a crack in the conspiracy, an inconsistent piece of testimony by a bank executive. By the time he manages to brandish his irrefutable proof, the cover-up has taken place. That’s the problem with looking at first drafts of police reports, a high-level police official smoothly says: there are often inaccuracies that have to be corrected. This is good paranoid stuff, and it’s enjoyable to watch Owen and Watts chase the bad guys from city to city, from Milan to New York to Istanbul. They get their men in the end, or rather Owen does, having chivalrously kept Watts out of the ugly stuff, but another evil bank will have its day tomorrow, at least in this kind of movie. The problem with the film, in spite of its good looks and initial cleverness, is that it just runs out of ideas, both visual and narrative. A grand shoot-out in the Guggenheim Museum in New York, with its white winding galleries circling an empty centre, is the sort of thing that would occur to any director. Only a director who had run out of other possibilities would hang on to the idea for more than a minute, though, and Tykwer hangs on to it for ever. After this lamentable scene the movie never finds its way back to any suspense or coherence, and the finale on the rooftops of Istanbul looks as if has been rescued from an archive of prize clichés.

I can’t tell the story of Tony Gilroy’s Duplicity both because I don’t want to spoil your fun – there are many fine twists to the plot, and the ending of the film takes ingenuity to a new level – and because it would hurt my head to try. There are flashbacks after flashbacks, and the more carefully dated they are, the more pleasurably lost we get. When characters in the film repeat themselves (repeatedly), we don’t know whether they are kidding, forgetting who they are, or up to something else entirely. The look of the film is not unlike that of The International – skyscrapers shot from low angles, images of the dense built environment of corporate New York – but Gilroy adds slow motion and split screens, lots of discreet Latino music, and the feel is quite different. Where Tykwer was after the glitter of conspiracy, what we might call the façade of darkness, Gilroy sees crazy comedy. In The International, there are weapons and countries and politics and death. In Duplicity there is just a battle between two American companies. We don’t even know what they sell, although it seems to be cosmetics. We only know that each is an empire, and that the emperors, Tom Wilkinson and Paul Giamatti, think of little except doing each other in. Enter Clive Owen and Julia Roberts – well, they enter several times, given the complicated time frames of the movie. He is ex-MI6, she is ex-CIA, and now they work for the imperial companies – to be precise, for the same imperial company, since he is a spy for one and she is pretending to be a spy for the other. They are also, and more importantly, spying for themselves, since their idea is that they are clever enough to take both companies for a ride. But have they gone into business for themselves as a couple, or each for each, separately? Not even they know. Once in a while they engage in bits of dialogue about how much they wish they had not become such expert cheaters, such perfect professionals of distrust, and they are half-sincere, because they really like each other. Only half, though, because they are deeply in love with their own cynical wisdom, and afraid of letting it go. Julia Roberts is more convincing in this role than Clive Owen, and the whole caper really needs actors like Cary Grant and Rosalind Russell, and generally people who talk faster. But both Roberts and Owen are likeable, and Gilroy’s nifty direction provides some of the pace they can’t supply.

The attraction of the film, as it is of the first half of The International, is that it reminds us of what talented people can do with the idea that nothing is what it seems – you can play it dark or light and in many intervening shades – and confirms that in the movies it’s always more fun to think about shifting appearances than about static and sentimental depths.