October 13, 2017
By Andrew Wyatt

East Beats West

2017 / UK, China, USA / Dir. by Martin Campbell / Opens in wide release on October 13, 2017

The Foreigner is a broken film, but it is broken in such an oddly narrow way that it still manages be entertaining, and even mildly invigorating within the limits of its generic formulae. The film’s fundamental flaw is that it is, in fact, two films. These features have been wedged together and then obliged to intermittently and awkwardly interact. The Foreigner’s incongruent pieces hail from related but distinct subgenres: the high-tech counter-terrorism thriller and the grim, ultra-violent revenge actioner. Perhaps there is a way to resolve these two aspects into a single, seamless story, but The Foreigner rather decisively fails to achieve such a feat of unification.

Directed by action veteran Martin Campbell (GoldenEye, The Mask of Zorro, Casino Royale), the film was adapted by David Marconi from British author Stephen Leather’s 1992 page-turner The Chinaman. Straightaway, that name change signals the film’s carelessness. Bowdlerizing the novel’s racially offensive title in favor the neutral ‘Foreigner’ makes perfect sense commercially, but the alteration just ends up seeming incoherent. The titular character is Ngoc Minh Quan (Jackie Chan), whose background is left somewhat murky, but seems to be an ethnically Chinese ex-soldier-of-fortune from Vietnam. Formerly allied with the RVN and Americans during the Vietnam War—picking up some Navy SEAL training along the way from the latter—he immigrated to England after the Fall of Saigon, became a naturalized British citizen, and opened a Chinese restaurant. That was four decades ago, so Quan is actually not a foreigner in the context of this London- and Belfast-based thriller. What's more, the title adjustment evidently hasn't filtered down to the screenplay’s dialog, as the heedless white characters consistently refer to him as a ‘Chinaman.’

Quan’s wife and two of his daughters were slain by Thai pirates during the family's escape from Vietnam, and he is accordingly devoted to his remaining and youngest daughter, Fan (Katie Leung), now a university student. Unfortunately, poor Fan doesn’t even make it to the opening credits: She is killed by a terrorist’s bomb, set off in a bustling shopping district, while Quan is occupied parking their car. This shattering loss sends Quan off on a dead-eyed mission of vengeance. He searches ploddingly but relentlessly for the bombers, who, in a message to the press, refer to themselves as ‘The Authentic IRA’. Quan suspects that North Ireland Sinn Féin MP Liam Hennessy (Pierce Brosnan) knows something about the plot. With good reason: The silver-haired, bespectacled politician was once an IRA freedom fighter himself. Arrogant and tightly-wound, Hennessy behaves suspiciously, but in internal meetings with fellow reformed terrorists, he seems authentically livid, demanding that they uncover and stamp out the renegade faction.

This is where Marconi’s script and Campbell’s direction go awry, as The Foreigner struggles to tell two stories simultaneously. On the one hand, it’s an engaging, surprisingly labyrinthine ensemble piece about the British effort to track down the terrorists prior to the next bomb attack—as well as Hennessy’s furious, desperate attempts to root out the radical moles within the (officially) disarmed IRA. On the other hand, the film is a bloody revenge story about Quan’s personal crusade to kill the bombers, a plan that mainly entails methodically terrorizing Hennessey until the minister gives him the names of the perpetrators. Quan does this by exploding his own homemade bombs—precisely and non-lethally, the film assures the viewer—at Hennessey’s office and country house. And also by beating the ever-loving crap out of the politician’s small army bodyguards.

What The Foreigner represents, then, is a clumsy amalgam. It's a stark post-Troubles drama in the vein of Five Minutes of Heaven, presented in the slick vernacular of a 21st-century British television thriller. It's also a Jackie Chan variation on the ‘rampage of revenge’ feature wherein a fifty- or sixty-something slumbering lion is roused to become a lethal badass. (As always, Taken is the reference point for this subgenre, and Liam Neeson its patron saint.) These two modes co-exist gawkily in Campbell’s film, not so much tonally dissonant as narratively at odds with one another. The Foreigner plainly wants the viewer to root for Quan in several capacities: as the grieving parent to the victim of a violent terrorist act; as an ex-warrior who's suffered the loss of everything he loves; as the overlooked and underestimated older Asian man living in the West; and as a hard-working citizen who is fed up with the sluggish pace of British justice. However, the film spends far too little time with its ostensible hero, instead preferring to simmer in the byzantine politics and espionage of the IRA plot. The viewer is consequently left with two half-baked films rather than one complete feature.

The truly frustrating dimension to this ugly fusion is that both of The Foreigner’s stories are, if not great, at least decent enough to deserve more than half a movie. Even though Chan is the face of the film’s marketing campaign, Campbell oddly gives the actor the smaller serving of attention, at least in terms of story and screen time. (There is a middle passage in the film where Quan disappears for so long that some viewers may forget about him entirely.) At 63, Chan is still astonishingly fast and lithe, but he has unquestionably reached a point in his career where he can no longer pull off the elite level of nimble kung fu choreography and jaw-dropping acrobatic stunts that were once his bread and butter. However,The Foreigner doesn’t demand bleeding-edge physical feats from him, nor is it a showcase for Chan the slapstick goofball. Quan is a broken shell of a man who has nothing left to lose, and to that end Chan portrays him as a defeated, slump-shouldered zombie, only snapping out of his daze in those moments when vengeance or survival demands that he become a viper.

While his fight scenes are paradoxically somewhat flavorless compared to the the film’s political and counter-terrorism segments, Chan brings an almost affectless menace to his character that is unsettling in part because it looks so uncanny on him. (The habitually grinning actor almost never smiles here.) For the role of Quan, he assumes an old man’s reserved demeanor and pained weariness, an explicit subversion of the actor’s established movie star image. This is The Hustler of Jackie Chan Movies, in that a normally voluble comic performer assumes a comparatively quiet, steady stance for a dramatic role.

Quan’s bleak tale of vengeance is atypical but sturdy enough, as Jackie Chan action features go. The problem is that it’s only about 40% of The Foreigner. The rest of the film consists of a Britain-spanning story of military and political intrigue, centered primarily on Hennessy as the ambitious career politician with uncertain loyalties. This portion of the film is likewise sturdy enough as thrillers go, and sufficiently unusual in its specifics to be a stimulating take on a familiar premise. The plot is sprawling and complex: It’s essentially a British intelligence procedural steeped to a surprising degree in the particulars of Northern Ireland’s history and politics. (The preservation of the Good Friday Agreement and the status of the IRA’s old weapons dumps are significant plot elements.) 

Granted, there’s nothing in The Foreigner’s IRA story hasn’t been done before: the mole inside the organization; the radical splinter group; the personal and political betrayals; the bomb plot that relies on a civilian dupe; even an appropriately vile Lady Macbeth character. It’s all presented with a touch more Hollywood garishness than something like Eye in the Sky, or any given John le Carré adaptation. The plot is convoluted, and the screenplay doesn’t trust the audience’s intelligence enough to take a restrained, more realistic approach. Accordingly, this is one of those films where the characters are always explaining their situations and motivations, and at length. Still, the dark, twisty story is reliably entertaining, with solid performances across the board, even in dismally archetypical roles. Hennessy is the focus of both the political turmoil and the film’s narrative attention, and the self-assured Brosnan plays him as a priggish, barking realist. However, his performance has enough slippery ambiguity and frank pathos that the viewer never quite knows what to make of Hennessy, at least until all the tumblers click into place in the final act.

The Foreigner never remotely resolves Quan’s and Hennessy’s stories in a way that makes sense, at least dramatically. The two men meet early in the film, Quan is given the brush-off, and thereafter the monomanical restauranteur-turned-Rambo dogs the minister’s steps, essentially threatening him with death unless he gives up his IRA buddies. For his part, Hennessy pursues his own internal investigation, excoriating his fellow ex-Provos and employing his Iraq veteran nephew as a manhunter and a go-between with MI5. The film keeps flitting between the myriad tentacles of the IRA plot, checking in with British counter-terrorism analysts, a disillusioned journalist, and the radical bombers themselves, before inevitably snapping back to Quan. It’s not apparent where Campbell wants the viewer’s attention and sympathies to be focused. The film’s climatic showdown—in which Quan and MI5 independently close in on the terrorists’ safehouse—is emblematic of The Foreigner’s dramatic dysfunction. Quan is the bruised and battered underdog (and Chan is the feature’s star), but the filmmakers expend so much effort on the counter-terrorism plot, it's actually sort of a letdown when Quan derails MI5’s plans with his one-man rampage. That’s an inexcusable blunder in a revenge story that should end with single-minded, cathartic release.

This conflict aside, The Foreigner is durable if unremarkable entertainment. For the fight scenes, Campbell relies on the same kind of classical, straightforward action that served him so well in Casino Royale, bestowing Daniel Craig’s inaugural Bond film with a dose of palate-cleansing brutishness. There are no instantly iconic shots or stunts in The Foreigner, but it’s nonetheless a showcase for solid, commendably coherent action of the messy, hard-boiled variety. It’s no John Wick, or even Atomic Blonde, but it gets the job done. However, the right-wing bent to the film’s political ethos, which at times borders on the viciously authoritarian, lends all the cinematic violence an ugly aftertaste. Unexpectedly, it’s not Quan’s Death Wish vigilantism that most disturbs, but Campbell’s matter-of-fact normalization of limitless surveillance, 24-style ‘ticking clock’ torture, and outright summary execution.

Rating: C+

 

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt

October 12, 2017
By Andrew Wyatt

I Will Not Equivocate. I Will Not Excuse.

2017 / USA / Dir. by Reginald Hudlin / Opens in wide release on October 13, 2017

Thurgood Marshall is the sort of American legal and political titan who practically demands a biopic, but it was probably inevitable that said biopic would turn out to be such a dispiritingly middlebrow affair. The film that director Reginald Hudlin (House Party, Boomerang, The Ladies Man) delivers has exactly the sort of prosaic narrative one expects of a hagiographic historical drama, complete with a steady flow of snappy lines intended to elicit cheers, jeers, and tongue-clucks. The film is handsome and admittedly rousing in spots, but also dismally familiar, and presented with an annoying slathering of winking hindsight.

The good news is that father and son screenwriters Michael and Jacob Koskoff resisted the urge to pen a sweeping, cradle-to-grave story of Marshall’s life, the preferred tack for countless substandard biopics. Instead, they take a page from Jackie and zero in on a specific historical moment, and a lesser-known one at that. In 1940, the 32-year-old Marshall (Chadwick Boseman) has recently founded the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, and is crisscrossing the nation to assist in the defense of innocent African-Americans indicted primarily because of their race. In Greenwich, Connecticut, meanwhile, an incendiary sexual assault case is unfolding. Black chauffeur Joseph Spell (Sterling K. Brown) is about to go on trial for the rape and attempted murder of his employer, Eleanor Strubing (Kate Hudson), a wealthy white woman. The case is exactly the sort of live-wire legal railroading that Marshall specializes in tackling. It’s also the sort that prompts NAACP donors to open their checkbooks, as Marshall’s superior Walter White (Roger Guenveur Smith) pointedly reminds the lawyer.

The deck is stacked against Spell in every conceivable way. Marshall’s co-counsel and local connection is Sam Friedman (Josh Gad), a risk-averse white civil attorney with minimal criminal experience. What’s more, the stone-faced Judge Foster (James Cromwell) denies Marshall—who is not a member of the Connecticut bar—a courtesy waiver. This prevents him from even speaking in court and obliges the easily-flustered Friedman to act as lead counsel during the trial. The credibility gap is yawning: Strubing and her husband are the picture of WASP refinement, while Spell is a dishonorably discharged bigamist with a criminal record. The judge and prosecutor are family friends, the jury is entirely white, and Marshall and Friedman are facing down centuries of racist myths and sexual fears, vis-à-vis black men and white women.

What Marshall serves up is not a wide-ranging fictionalized biography but a relatively narrow courtroom drama, and an absorbing one at that. There aren't many genuine shocks uncovered during the trial; unsurprisingly, both Spell and Strubing are lying, albeit for very different reasons. However, only viewers with deep knowledge of the civil rights movement’s legal history are likely to know the outcome of the real-world case, and Hudlin maintains sufficient dramatic ambiguity that the verdict feels as though it could go either way. Only the high production values distinguish Marshall’s story from those of any number of television legal dramas—call it Law & Order: Special Victims Unit 1940—but it’s a polished and diverting example of the form, regardless.

The film’s villains are smug, cartoonishly vile racists, ensuring that the audience has a suitable target for its boos and hisses, although in the case of prosecutor Lorin Willis (Dan Stevens), the historical reality is apparently not far from the mark. The film's writers can’t resist peppering the script with prophetic lines of dialog that capitalize on 21st-century viewers’ knowledge of Marshall’s trajectory, and that of the civil right movement generally. In this, Marshall unfailingly and distractingly feels like a 2017 film about 1940, and that anachronistic disconnect ultimately crushes any prospect of historical verisimilitude or organically emergent pathos.

Lamentably, the film’s most compelling courtroom sequences tend to pass by far too quickly. One conspicuous example is a jury selection scene, which neatly showcases Marshall’s keen ability to read people, as well as his understanding of the messy nuances of human motivation. Hudlin and the writers offer some hints as to the complexities of WWII-era African-American society—one agreeably prickly scene depicts Marshall verbally sparring over politics with luminaries like Langston Hughes—but such contextual shading is generally given short shrift. The screenplay also unfortunately portrays Marshall and Friedman as relying on some discomfiting victim-blaming defense strategies. The knowledge that Strubing is a racist liar only partly mitigates the rumble of misogyny built into the film’s courtroom fireworks. It's not the slut-shaming that distresses, but the fact that it goes completley unacknowledged.

The alleged colorism involved in Boseman’s casting has been tackled elsewhere, but whatever his physical aptness for the role of a young Thurgood Marshall, the actor’s presence is essential to keeping the film afloat. As in the James Brown biopic Get on Up, Boseman’s charisma is unfailingly the saving grace of Marshall’s more lifeless and stilted scenes. As Marshall, he delivers every line with a righteous electric pop that announces, “I’m smarter than you,” to enemies and allies alike, but always in a way that comes off as smoothly factual rather than snotty. This unfortunately registers as Boseman giving a performance, as opposed to inhabiting a role, but it’s still damn entertaining to watch. Gad is a close contender in the film’s MVP race, rather strikingly rising to the occasion, particularly when he plays off Boseman. The Book of Mormon star delivers what is easily his most appealing dramatic performance to date, ably depicting Friedman’s slow U-turn from faint-hearted whiner to relentless legal pugilist.

This points to Marshall’s fundamental narrative failure: As a story about Thurgood Marshall, the film is rather bafflingly inert. The future Supreme Court justice doesn’t have any character arc to speak of. He leaves the film much as he enters it, with the same focused hunger for racial justice, the same forward-thinking strut, and the same impatience for anyone who lags behind. All the character development in the film belongs to Friedman, and while the nebbishy attorney’s story makes for a gratifying arc—especially in the eyes of white liberal viewers—his name isn’t the title of the damn film. This gives the whole affair the exasperating whiff of a bait-and-switch, as though Hudlin and the screenwriters were fearful of giving their hero any dramatically relevant flaws. Accordingly, they’ve elevated Friedman to the level of de facto co-protagonist, and unintentionally rendered him as a more human and interesting figure than Marshall. It’s a vexing sort of storytelling timidity, and Marshall the man certainly deserves better.

Rating: C+

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt

October 6, 2017
By Andrew Wyatt

Memories. You're Talking About Memories.

2017 / UK, USA, Canada / Dir. by Denis Villeneuve / Opens in wide release on October 6, 2017

Director Ridley Scott’s 1982 feature Blade Runner is the kind of epochal genre film whose stylistic influence is so enormous, it can be difficult to accurately assess the feature’s merits and flaws in isolation. Blade Runner changed science fiction forever, in a way that even Scott’s Alien didn’t quite manage in 1979. The latter film is a masterpiece, and H.R. Giger’s nightmarish creature designs were instantly seared into the cultural consciousness, but Alien was essentially an old-fashioned monster movie in gritty New Hollywood clothing. Blade Runner was something else, something ferociously fresh. It's thoughtful, enigmatic, poetic, radical. It borrows from the conventions of film noir, but then disappears down a dystopian rabbit hole of suffocating megacities, unrestrained corporatism, and manufactured people. Like Metropolis or The Road Warrior, it only seems clichéd because it’s where those cinematic clichés were born. (Or ‘incepted,' to be precise.)

The historical heft of the original film undoubtedly weighed on the creative minds behind Blade Runner 2049, a sequel that unfolds 30 years later in the same grim, alternate future of bio-engineered replicants and off-world colonies. Those minds include French-Canadian director Denis Villeneuve (Prisoners, Sicario, Arrival) and writers Hampton Francher and Michael Green, the former a returning co-scripter from the original Blade Runner. Scott himself also returns, this time as an executive producer. The filmmakers seemed to appreciate that a sequel is almost always less revolutionary than its forebear, and to that end they have focused on creating a work that retains the original film’s other laudable qualities. Blade Runner 2049 is as pensive and mysterious as its namesake, and also visually and aurally dazzling in a way that counter-balances its necessarily diminished novelty. It is, to be frank, the best that cinephiles could have hoped for in a 35-years-later Blade Runner sequel.

Villeneuve and the distributors have practically pleaded with critics to keep most aspects of 2049’s plot under wraps. So be it. Suffice to say that the story concerns another ‘blade runner’ employed by the Los Angeles Police Department. He is known simply as K (Ryan Gosling), and like his fellows he is tasked with hunting down rogue replicants and ‘retiring’ them by force. By 2049, this diminishing group of fugitives mostly consists of later models created by the now-defunct Tyrell Corporation, which after the events depicted in the first film rather unwisely developed replicants with indefinite lifespans.

In the process of retiring a particularly dangerous ‘skin-job’ who is living as a farmer (Dave Bautista), K makes a strange discovery. In fine noir tradition, pulling at this thread starts to unravel a far-reaching conspiracy of civic and corporate corruption. K eventually follows the trail back to Deckard (Harrison Ford), the blade runner who in 2019 faced down four ruthless, desperate Tyrell units—and in the process, fell for a replicant himself. The only thing missing from K’s story is the femme fatale: He has a special lady already, in the form of consumer hologram and surrogate wife Joi (Ana de Armas), while frosty villainess Luv (Sylvia Hoeks) is all killer instinct and no sultry slink. 

To say more of the plot would diminish the pleasure of experiencing the film firsthand, but it’s not truly concern for spoilers that compels that restraint. Truthfully, any reasonably canny science fiction fan will be able to guess almost every plot beat in Blade Runner 2049 before it unfolds. Time and again, the viewer knows exactly what is going to happen—what lies hidden in the ashes of an ancient furnace, whose face will emerge out of the shadows as echoing footfalls approach, what a spiteful villain will do to a cherished possesion. Yet Villeneuve draws these moments out into scenes ripe with quivering expectation. This is not truly a film of narrative twists, but of moods, vistas, and philosophical conundrums. The viewer is advised to simply settle in and let it wash over them.

The new film boasts some marvelously composed action sequences, most of them consistent with the hard-boiled tone of the original Blade Runner: scrabbling bare-knuckle brawls, grisly knife fights, cat-and-mouse shootouts. There are rare bursts of more spectacular science fiction violence, such as a barrage of missiles raining down from a sub-orbital drone, but these explosive moments end just as quickly as they begin. Viewers expecting a re-imagining of Blade Runner as a bombastic 2010s sci-fi action film will be disappointed. Villeneuve’s film is 2 hours and 43 minutes long, and it fills that epic running time not with exhausting sound and fury, but with melancholy contemplation. It meditates on faces, landscapes, and emotions.

Blade Runner 2049 gapes at the noxious orange wasteland that is Las Vegas, where eerie, colossal statues deftly but vividly evoke Shelley’s “Ozymandias.” It inspects snowflakes as they melt on a battered hand, in a moment that recalls Steve McQueen’s film of righteous self-annihilation, Hunger. (Pointedly, a character at one point speaks to K about humankind’s facility for martyrdom.) Midway through the film, K’s digital ‘wife’ Joi hires a prostitute to physically gratify him while she holographically mimes the woman’s movements. It's a bittersweet attempt to capture something like domestic sexual intimacy. Another kind of film would have given this scene fleeting attention, or cut it altogether. Villeneuve luxuriates in it, and asks that the viewer does as well, soaking up all its tremulous passion and unbearable sadness while also ruminating on its disquieting thematic implications.

This is not a feature that rushes excitably from one spectacle to the next. It’s a film of wonders, to be sure, but it lingers on its wonders, obliging the viewer to absorb and react to each of them. It might be the most brazenly languid film ever made for north of $150 million, which is arguably a kind of radicalism all its own. Fancher and Green’s screenplay begins with the striking world conjured by Scott’s film, and then stretches its concepts and characters in new, speculative directions, posing questions that feel like credible but knotty extensions of those raised in the original. It’s stylish, engrossing, and thrilling, but it never feels like a film that’s tripping over itself to appeal to the widest possible audience, or even to prod at the nostalgia centers of the original Blade Runner’s devotees. Viewers can simply take or leave 2049, in all its doleful, ponderous, mesmerizing glory. In the present age of sprawling cinematic universes and misbegotten franchises, there’s something wonderful about such cerebral unconcern from a massive sequel to a beloved science fiction film. 

Villeneuve has only made one stone-cold masterpiece—the surreal, little-seen thriller Enemy—but all his English-language films exhibit a formal virtuosity that blends an auteur’s daring with the uncanny self-assurance of a natural big-budget filmmaker. Blade Runner 2049 is no exception, and paired with last year’s Arrival, the film makes a persuasive case for the director as the leading purveyor of Hollywood science fiction as a Cinema of Ideas. However, while Villeneuve’s stamp is discernable, the film is an exemplar of the marvelous results that emerge when everyone involved is working at the top of their game. The masterminds on the crew include: legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins, his images flawless as usual (Christ, give the man an Oscar, already); production designer Dennis Gassner, carrying the now-retro-futurist vision of the original film forward three decades; and composers Benjamin Wallfisch and Hans Zimmer, building splendidly on Vangelis’ iconic 1982 score.

Ford plays Deckard as a wily, cantankerous codger who has no regrets, but carries a mother lode of heartache. He does well enough, and even delivers couple of glorious line readings, but his presence in the film is primarily about establishing a living connection to the original Blade Runner. (Edward James Olmos in a cameo and a couple of other faces also contribute in this respect.) Cuban actress Armas is the film’s real discovery, in a challenging role that requires her to convey genuine affection and longing underneath the veneer of a pre-programmed girlfriend experience. However, there’s no point in mincing words: Blade Runner 2049 belongs to Gosling, who is as good as he’s ever been here. He portrays K as a man who is obliged to endure successive gut-punches of emotional agony, while also doing his best to keep moving forward with only a few telltale tears, trembles, and grimaces. In this, K doesn't always succeed; often, he seems nearly paralyzed by his doubts and suspicions, in the same way that most people would freeze in the face of lethal physical danger. Gosling’s damp, searching eyes—slightly asymmetric, one never following the other quite perfectly—are vital here, conveying the sense of someone who is roiling with questions, but hasn’t decided if he wants to know the answers or not.

Like its forerunner, Blade Runner 2049 is a film that is ordained to be dissected and disassembled, in the hope that its apparent ambiguities might be resolved. Just as Scott did, Villeneuve scatters signs and omens across his meticulously composed frames, like lucid signposts in a dreamscape. There are wisps of fairy tales and monster stories everyhwere: Frankenstein, Peter and the Wolf, and Pinocchio are all alluded too, sometimes subtly, sometimes blatantly. However, it would be a mistake to regard the film as a puzzle box to be unlocked. The original Blade Runner’s most obsessive admirers have spent 35 years poring over its every detail, to no avail. The 1982 film defiantly resists any attempt to wrest cut-and-dried answers about the central noir mystery plot from its mad, grimy clutches. Blade Runner 2049 is much the same; it will mock code-breakers and case-crackers.

Outside of potent atmospherics and the nitty-gritty of world-building, the 1982 film’s primary interest was philosophical. Like Scott’s original, but unlike, say, Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin—another masterful sci-fi film, but one that wrestles with more abstract, existential questions—Blade Runner 2049’s preoccupations are intimately entangled with humankind’s relationship to technology. Villeneuve and his collaborators apprehend how the future’s miracles heighten time-worn philosophical dilemmas, turning airy theorizing into uncanny vexation and horror. What does it mean to be human? In what sense are memories ‘real’? What is the distinction between natural and not-natural? The harsh irony of Blade Runner 2049 is that it is ultimately a far more elegant and affecting exploration of themes Scott himself has attempted to plumb in recent years with Prometheus and Alien: Covenant. Villeneuve’s film is welcome proof that returning to and expanding on a cherished story can still produce invigorating cinema that lives up to the ambition and artistry of the original.

Rating: A-

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt

October 6, 2017
By Andrew Wyatt

Survivor Types

2017 / USA / Dir. by Hany Abu-Assad / Opens in wide release on October 6, 2017

Whether entirely fictional or inspired by true events, tales of people enduring extraordinary circumstances and coming out alive are generally viewed as fertile soil for filmmaking. All on its own, however, the simple fact of survival isn’t inherently compelling, except perhaps as a morsel of strange-but-true trivia. A narrative filmmaker is normally obliged to offer something more substantial than a litany of harrowing and providential events, even if that something is only spectacle (e.g, Alfonso Cuarón’s breathless Gravity).

The fundamental defect of Palestinian-Dutch director Hany Abu-Assad’s romantic alpine survival tale The Mountain Between Us is that it doesn’t present much of anything, interest-wise, that couldn’t be gleaned from a 500-word Wikipedia summary of the feature’s plot. It’s as if the filmmakers hoped that bringing together a pair of beautiful, talented actors for a stark (and sexually tense) two-hander amidst the snow, crags, and mountain lions would magically create a compelling film. It doesn’t. While there’s nothing that’s outright awful about Mountain, it’s just sort of there, a handsome lump of frozen peril and middlebrow melodrama that doesn’t bother to justify its own existence.

Based on the 2011 novel of the same name by Christian author Charles Martin, the film opens as its twin protagonists run afoul of cancellations and overbooked flights at an Idaho airport. Alex Martin (Kate Winslet) is a conflict zone photojournalist who is hurrying home for her wedding. Dr. Ben Bass (Idris Elba) is a neurosurgeon with a 10-year-old patient awaiting a life-saving operation. Alex overhears that Ben is, like her, stranded for at least another day, and proposes that they split the cost of a private charter flight. Their pilot Walter (Beau Bridges) assures them that his little twin-engine aircraft will outrun the incoming blizzard, but it’s not weather that proves to be the real threat. Walter suffers a stroke while flying over the Uinta Mountains in Utah, and the plane subsequently crashes high in the snowbound peaks.

Miraculously, Ben is battered but not seriously wounded, and somehow Walter’s nameless dog comes through the ordeal unscathed. The unfortunate pilot is killed in the crash, however, and Alex suffers a gruesome leg injury that could have been fatal without Ben’s swift medical intervention. When she eventually regains consciousness, the doctor apprises her of their dire situation. They have all the fresh drinking water that they can melt, but only a few incidental snacks to subsist on, and a rather flimsy shelter in the form of the plane’s broken fuselage. Walter had been operating the aircraft under visual flight rules (VFR) and did not file a flight plan even for rescue purposes, diminishing the likelihood that any search effort will be able to locate them. Ben’s cell phone has no reception, the plane’s emergency beacon has been destroyed, and there is nothing but trackless, virgin mountain wilderness for miles in every direction.

Most of The Mountain Between Us is concerned with the story of how Alex and Ben survive on the mountaintop and eventually make the long, grueling journey back to civilization. Of all the hazards that the pair face, exposure proves to be the most insidiously lethal, and Alex eventually resolves that she would prefer to perish hobbling her way down the mountain than freezing to death while sitting in one spot. The film gives substantial attention to the raw, physical ordeals of deep snow, sheer cliffs, hungry predators, and so forth, but it would be inaccurate to describe Mountain as an action-thriller. Abu-Assad is plainly as interested in the character drama of Alex and Ben’s relationship as he is crafting any kind of harsh-minded disaster procedural. Predictably, their rapport with one another cycles through surges of reassurance, frustration, squabbling, and eventually—surprise, surprise—romantic attraction.

This slight preference for character over action set-pieces might have reaped considerably richer dividends in a film that was more invested in its protagonists, not to mention attentive to the nuances of their relationship. However, Mountain has such a slack, inch-deep interest in Ben and Alex, it’s hard to take its gestures of supposed poignancy and profundity seriously. Both characters possess big, anxious personalities, but it’s never clearly established why they repeatedly end up quarreling—or screwing, for that matter. Both Winslet and Elba visibly struggle with J. Mills Goodloe and Chris Weitz’ flimsy, occasionally ridiculous screenplay, which too often relies on assertion and circular reasoning. Alex and Ben wind up falling for each other because Winslet and Elba are attractive movie stars playing the lead roles in a romantic story, rather than because anything in the screenplay justifies that emergent desire. The actors are left performing all the heavy lifting, and while they each manage to sketch a reasonably credible character out of meager materials (he more so than she), the tenor of their interactions unfailingly feels inorganic.

This is a shame, since the back third of Mountain’s running time makes it apparent that Abu-Assad and the writers have some intriguing thematic concerns that were unfortunately given short shrift. The film’s lengthy epilogue ruminates on disquieting questions about the role of trauma in human relationships, and specifically about whether the apparent potency of a disaster-forged bond is illusory. These extended, months-later passages are a bit narratively aimless, but they paradoxically end up emerging as the most intellectually and emotionally resonant segment of the film. Winslet and Elba are at their most striking in Mountain’s last 15 minutes, when their characters bounce off each other awkwardly, their brief, intense connection having uncannily atrophied with time and distance. This sort of closely-observed human drama is vastly more interesting than watching the actors sob, scream, and shiver on a mountain.

Through most of the actual wilderness ordeal, the film is mired in the feeble drama of vague logistical bickering, predictable revelations, and tiresome logic-vs-instinct dichotomies. The tendency to indulge these latter conflicts is especially aggravating. It’s brainlessly reductive, but the film doesn’t even have the courage to present it forthrightly, preferring to sparingly dribble in mush-headed lines about listening to the heart instead of the head. Elba in particular seems annoyed that he’s forced to mutter this kind of drippy Hallmark dialog. (At least Interstellar had the courtesy to retroactively give its sappy sentiments some plot-centered heft. Here there's no payoff.)

Cinematographer Mandy Walker’s diamond-clear NatGeo photography of the icy mountain vistas is suitably lovely, with the Rockies that straddle Alberta and British Columbia standing in for the less-imposing Uintas. However, it’s also glumly uninspired. Walker and Abu-Assad lean heavily on the natural beauty of the landscape, shot in a crisply straightforward manner, for virtually all of their feature’s visual interest. This is neatly emblematic of The Mountain Between Us’ broader deficiencies. There are no daring, invigorating, or memorable images in this film, just postcard-worthy pictures of pretty actors placed in pretty (albeit deadly) scenery.

Rating: C-

Tags: Reviews Andrew Wyatt